/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Malazan Empire

Orb Sceptre Throne

Ian Esslemont


Ian C Esslemont

Orb Sceptre Throne

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

PROLOGUE

Did we not look out together upon the dark waters of the lake

And behold there the constellations

Of both hemispheres at once?

Love Songs of the Cinnamon Wastes

That day of discovery began as any other. He arose before the dawn and saw to his toilet, aware that the toothless hag he kept as camp cook was already up, boiling water for the morning tea and mealy porridge. He checked in on the tent of the two guards that he’d hired simply because he thought he ought to have someone around to watch the camp. Both men were asleep; that didn’t strike him as proper guard procedure, but it was the Twins’ own luck he’d found anyone willing to work at all for the poor wages he could offer.

‘Tea’s on,’ he said, and let the flap fall closed.

He kicked awake his two assistants, who lay in the sands next to the dead campfire. These were sullen youths whom he paid a few copper slivers a month to see to the lifting and hauling. Like the ancient, they were of the older tribal stock out of the surrounding steppes, the Gadrobi; no citified Daru would waste his time out here in the old burial hills south of the great metropolis of Darujhistan. None but he, Ebbin, who alone among all the Learned Brethren of the Philosophical Society (of whom he was charter member) remained convinced that there yet lurked far more to be found among these pot-hunted and pit-riddled vaults and tombs.

Sipping the weak tea, he studied the brightening sky: clear; the wind: anaemic at best. Good weather for another day’s exploration. He waved the youths away from the fire where they huddled warming their skinny shanks, then pointed to the distant scaffolding. The two guards drank their tea and continued their interminable arguing. Ebbin knew that at the end of the day he’d come back to camp to find them still gnawing on the same old bones from the first day he’d hired them. He supposed it took all kinds.

The lads dragged themselves down the hill to station themselves next to a wide barrel winch. Ebbin knelt at the stone-lipped well, opened the old bronze padlock, pulled free the iron chains, and heaved aside the leaves of the wood cover. What was revealed appeared nothing more than one of the many ancient wells that dotted this region, once a Gadrobi settlement.

But what might he find down at the bottom of this otherwise unremarkable well? Oh, but what he could find! Beginning some generations ago, a relative warming and drying period in the region’s weather had resulted in a drain on the local water reserves and a subsequent fall in the waterline. A lowering of nearly a man’s full height. And what has lain submerged, hidden, for thousands of years may be revealed! The subtlest of arcane hints and annotated asides in obscure sources had led him step by incremental step to this series of wells. As yet, all had proved unremarkable. Dead ends year after year in his research.

But perhaps this one. Perhaps this time all my work … vindicated!

He swung his legs out over the darkness, ran a hand over the lip’s curved inner surface. Not for the first time did he marvel at these ancient artisans; the chiselled stone so smooth! The opening as near to a perfect circle as he could discern. How inferior and shabby contemporary construction now, with its eye to mere cost rather than the regal course of posterity!

He yanked down the board seat and wrapped an arm round its rope. After checking his bag of equipment, the lantern, oil, hammer, chisel and such, he waved a curt command to the youths. The winch screeched shrill and piercing as they let out slack and Ebbin swung out over the void.

The descent was eerily silent but for the occasional jangling of the bells attached to the rope — his means of announcing his intent to ascend, and calling the worthless youths back to the well from the shade to which they would always slink off during the heat of the day. He jerked the rope for a pause while he lit his lantern. This accomplished, he signalled for a continued slow playing out of the rope.

It was during these murky silent descents, as if he were submerging himself, that doubts most vividly assailed him. What if the evidence were here, yet hidden from his eyes? He brought the lantern closer to his face while he studied the passing stones for any sign of structural elements. As before, he saw no hint of variation among the slime and dried algae scum.

Failure again. And yet this one had seemed to fit the clues perfectly

Below, the surface of the water glimmered like night. Ebbin moved to shift the lantern to reach for the rope, but his fingers brushed the burning hot bronze and he yelped, dropping the light. It fell for an instant then was snuffed out. A distant splash reached him. He sat in the dark cursing his clumsiness and sucking his fingers.

Then weak shimmerings wavered before his vision. He squinted, dismissed the phenomenon as the stars one can see before one’s eyes in the night. But the lustrous flickerings persisted. His eyes widened in the utter dark. Might these not be the remnants of Warren magics? Wards, and seals, and such?

And does not their very presence confirm the correlative supposition that follows?

Ebbin gaped, fingers forgotten. His grimed sweaty skin prickled with the sensation of … discovery.

Yet could these not be admonitions against meddling? Was it not whispered that it was from these very burial fields that the ancient Tyrant Raest returned (if indeed he had that night not so long ago, which was dismissed by many, and remains an incident completely undreamed of to most)?

He squeezed his hands to warm them in the cool of the well and made an effort to thrust aside such atavistic shrinking from shadows. Superstition! He was a scholar! He had no time for such mummery. True, the Warrens and their manipulation were real, but the efficacious power itself was not evil, not consciously malevolent. It was merely a natural force to be reckoned with, such as weight, or the life-essence.

Ebbin steadied himself in the cold damp dark and tentatively, almost reverently, reached out. His fingertips brushed cool eroded stone. He felt about for a sign of any opening and something brushed his fingertips — a curved edge. Luminescence flared then, limpid and fitful, and it seemed to him now that he must be mistaken, for no tunnel could exist in the depths of this thoroughly explored well: it was only the deceptive irregularities in the stone that had fooled him. He should abandon this wasted effort and signal the lads to pull him up.

Then his feet in their worn goatskin shoes suddenly plunged into frigid water and the shock made him flinch, almost tipping him from his narrow perch. He frantically signalled a halt.

The grip he kept on the lip of the curved wall steadied him. And it seemed to him that the tunnel had always been here, undiscovered and patient, as if awaiting him. He wiped a sleeve across his clammy face, swallowed his relief. He sat for a time immobile. His breath echoed in the enclosed space, harsh and quick.

I may have done it! Found what all others said did not even exist! Here may be the tomb of the greatest, and last, of the Tyrant Kings of Darujhistan.

And I can’t see a damned thing. He shook the rope to signal retrieval. Please, gods, please … let there be another lantern somewhere in camp!

But there was no other lantern. After overturning all his equipment, his tent and that of his guards, Ebbin was reduced to having himself lowered clutching a single soft tallow candle. All through the descent he shielded the meagre flame as one might a precious gem. Just before his feet once more touched the frigid water he shook the rope to order a halt.

In the cool dead air he held out the candle. Hadn’t it been here? Was he mistaken?

He squinted at the curved wall of eroded ancient stones, shifted the candle from side to side. Gods, please! What a discovery this would be! Then it was there. Not a sealed smooth barrier of bricks and mortar raised across a tunnel but a dark jagged hole of pushed-in stones.

Ebbin’s heart broke.

Failure. Looted. Like all the rest. He was not the first. For a time he sat, hunched, wax dribbling down his fingers. Then, sighing, he roused himself to reach out. Leaning perilously far he just managed to clutch a stone and pull himself over. He raised the candle. A tunnel. Smooth-sided. And something ahead. Rubble?

Intrigued, he shifted his weight even further to lean upon the smashed opening. It was slow going, as he had to hold the candle upraised in one hand the entire time, but eventually, awkwardly, he slid forward into the tunnel and left the sling seat twisting behind. He edged onward through the dusty cobwebbed chute, candle held out before him.

It was a rockfall. A barrier of dirt and debris. How old? He glanced back to the hammered opening and his heart soared anew. Did they get no further? Could what lay beyond as yet remain … inviolate?

Perhaps. He would have to find out. He studied the packed dirt and rock with an assessor’s eye. Looks like this will call for some old-fashioned digging after all. He began pushing himself backwards.

This could take some time.

In the surf of a shimmering sea of light a man struggled to push a creature four times his size free of the heaving waves. The liquid tore and ate at the creature like acid. Steam frothed and sizzled, bubbling over its sides. Inhuman screams of agony and rage sounded. It flailed its limbs in terror, delivering desperate rock-shattering blows deflected from the man only by flashes of argent power. The brilliant waves crashed over them both as the man knelt, struggling to roll the creature.

Between waves he urged, ‘Crawl! Crawl! You can do it!’

‘I burn!’ it shrieked, raging and crying.

Crawl!

‘I die …’

No!

From rocks up the beach came running and limping a motley collection of mismatched creatures. They dashed into the surf, shrieking and gasping as the liquid burst into smoke around them. Their flesh sloughed off in strips, eaten by the acid light. ‘No! Get back!’ the man bellowed, terrified. Together, all pulling and tugging, they heaved the giant figure on to the black sand beach. A number of the smaller ones sank from sight beneath the frothing waves and the man searched frantically, blindly feeling about. He dragged out two tiny smoking figures then fell, exhausted, on to the sands.

The huge creature snarled in an effort to gain its bird-like clawed feet. Its flesh was melted to the bone in places. Clear ichor ran from its wounds as it lurched to the man who lay gasping and knelt next to him.

‘Why …?’

The man rose to his elbows. The luminescent water ran from him leaving no wounds. His long black hair lay plastered to his skull. ‘You were cast out through no fault of your own. Cast out to dissolve into nothingness. That is not right. Not right.’

The creature’s glowing furnace eyes blinked its wonder. ‘You are unhurt. Immune … you are … Eleint?’

‘No. I am just a man.’

A grunt of disbelief from the giant. ‘You are more than that. I am Korus, High Born of Aral Gamelon. What is your name?’

The man lowered his gaze. ‘I do not know it. It is lost to me. I was given a new one: Thenaj.’

Korus settled back upon his thick haunches, examined one clawed scarred hand where his armoured flesh had been scoured away entirely. Pale tendons shifted, exposed to the air. ‘Well, Thenaj. Such as I am, I am yours.’

Angered, the man waved aside the offer. ‘No. You are your own now. Free of all compellings. Free of all the summonings and abuse of exploiters of the Warrens, damn them all to dissolution! Free to do as you please.’

The huge demon cocked his armoured head. His golden eyes shifted, taking in the desolate shore of black sands. ‘Then I shall remain.’

Thenaj nodded his gratitude. ‘Good. Then help me with the little ones — their courage is greater than their wisdom.’

In the estate district of Darujhistan a tall, hook-nosed man returned to long-delayed work of drawing a new map of the city copied from an older version, one that bore upon it an obscuring rust-red stain. He worked bent over, face close to the vellum, the quill scratching patiently.

‘The city ever renews itself, Master Baruk?’ observed someone close to his elbow.

The High Alchemist jumped, his forearm striking a crystal inkpot and overturning it. An impenetrable black wash marched across the map. Baruk turned slowly to stare down at the squat rotund figure beside him, a figure so short as to barely see over the high table.

‘Oh dear. Kruppe is most apologetic. If something should happen — as it cannot help but do — such will be looked back upon as a most portentous omen.’

Baruk cleaned the quill on a scrap of rag. ‘It was only an accident.’ He dropped the quill into its holder. ‘And in any case, how did you … I doubled all the wards.’

Watery, bulging frog-like eyes blinked innocently back up at him. Baruk’s shoulders slumped. ‘We both know what is threatening. There have been warnings enough. Death’s death, for the love of all the gods. The green banner of the night sky. The shattering and rebirth of the moon. The breaking of Dragnipur …’ He waved a hand. ‘Choose any you wish.’

‘As it is the proclivity of all to do.’ The fat man sighed contentedly as he settled into a plush chair. ‘In the ease of hindsight … or is that behindsight?’ The bulging eyes seemed to cross and the man held a white silk handkerchief to his face. ‘Gods wipe such a sight!’

From his high stool Baruk studied the man. He pressed steepled fingers to his chin, his gaze sharpening. ‘I fear you will not fare as well this time.’

A demon waddled up to sit at Kruppe’s slippered feet — a figure even more squat and obese than he. It struck Baruk that had Chillbais possessed a tail, it would most certainly be wagging. From one voluminous sleeve, rather dirty and threadbare, it must be said, came a stoppered sample jar. Baruk’s gaze sharpened even further as he recognized the jar. Kruppe uncorked it and fished out the sample, which itself was a fish, a small white one. This he held out over Chillbais, who snapped up the offering. Kruppe petted the demon’s knobbled bald head.

‘That was a rare blind albino cave fish from the deserts of the Jhag Odhan, Kruppe.’

‘And tasty too. I highly recommend them. On toast.’

‘And to what, other than the raiding of my sample shelves and the bribing and suborning of my servants, do I owe this visit? I am reminded of your earlier call not so long ago, and I am not reassured.’

The fat man sniffed the jar’s milky fluid, wrinkled his nose, and set it aside. ‘Kruppe wonders now, in the presentsight, as it were — or is it is? — what pedestrian activities or seemingly innocuous events will, in the hindsight of the future, be seen to be foreshadowings of the grievous event which may, or may not, come to pass, and which, by the forewarning, may thusly be headed off.’ He set his pale hands under his chin and beamed up at Baruk, who blinked, frowning.

‘Such as?’

A fluttering of the oversized handkerchief. ‘Oh, who is to say? The subject is quite picked over. Perhaps if one dug deeper, though — who knows what might be uncovered? Things long hidden from the bright glare of the sun heaving up gasping and blinking unseeing orbs, yet somehow managing to be preserved, perhaps for all foreverness, thereby outlasting even you and me?’

Baruk turned the quill in its carved soapstone holder. ‘Now you are making me damned uncomfortable, Kruppe. The circle remains broken,’ and he inclined his head, ‘thanks to … whoever. Its hoped-for eternity of perfection was smashed. And all my time and resources are spent in ensuring that it remains so … yet the perturbations of these powerful events of late …’ He rubbed his brows and his back hunched, betraying an uncharacteristic infirmity and exhaustion.

For an instant the little man’s brows pinched in concern, unnoticed. Then he puffed out his chest — though to nowhere near the protrusion of the straining lower buttons of his waistcoat.

‘Do not despair, my High Alchemicalness. The Eel has eyes like a hawk! And had it any limbs, why, they would be the thews of a panther! No pale wriggling albino cave fish is the Eel! Er … that is … unlike said fish, no pickling jar could ever be quick enough to capture it!’

All through the alleys of the bourse of the dancing girls, beneath its multicoloured awnings and drifting fumes of burning prayer sticks, the gossip of the day was fixed upon the unprecedented arrival of a bright new star among the constellation of its most talented practitioners.

The heart of the bourse was the narrow Way of Sighs, a length of shadowed alley not incidentally overlooked by the open window alcoves of the dancers’ quarters. Here in the cool of the twilight the girls often gathered in their window seats to take in the pleasant night air, observe dusk prayers, and to receive the admiration of suitors lingering below. This eve the courtiers and young bravos talked among themselves, comparing rapturous descriptions of the new dancer’s goddess-like grace and classical beauty; while, above, tortoiseshell combs yanked rather savagely through midnight manes of hair.

She had appeared out of nowhere, this diminutive captivating sprite whose confidence so far surpassed her apparent age. No school could boast of having trained her, though many wished they had. A secretive rise of her painted lips and a flash of her green-tinged sloe-eyes easily deflected even the subtlest of questioning and left would-be interrogators speechless. Schooling at home by her mother, herself once a very famous dancer, was all she had admitted so far.

Then the romance began. How the alleyways resounded, the awnings fluttered, with twice the usual wistful sighs of admiration! The dedicated, brilliant dancer (no doubt of the lowest of family origins) and the awkward son of a noble house (and that house in poverty and decline). Why, it was like the stories of old! Jeshin Lim, the bookish, unpromising son of the once great Lim family, cousin to councilman Shardan, himself cut off so tragically, madly in love with a dancing girl of no family and no connections. What other explanation could there be but pure unadorned love?

In their window nooks some clenched perfectly manicured nails to palms and muttered through pearl teeth of bewitchment.

Then the unlikeliest of strokes. The cousin vaulted to a seat on the Council! All nod sagely at the obvious tonic to a man of the love and devotion of a gifted woman. And the path to said Council seat no doubt paved by the freely given gold bangles and anklets from those very shapely limbs!

Yet inevitably must come the tragic and tearful end. All know the conclusion to such star-crossed affairs. Lim, having achieved the vaunted rank of councilman, is far too prominent for such a low entanglement.

And so, in the cooling breezes of the window nooks, brushes now slid smoothly through long black hair, and kohl-lined eyes were languid and satisfied in the certain knowledge of such pending devastation.

Now he came, this very eve, drawn in a hired carriage to the apartment houses near the dancers’ quarters where so many girls were similarly kept at the expense of their, shall we say, patrons.

Lim’s carriage pulled up at the private entrance and he stepped down wrapped in a dark hooded cloak. He held a delicate gold mask pressed to his face, obscuring his features. The guard bowed respectfully, eyes averted, and pulled the sliding bolt. The councilman slipped within.

He came to one specific door along the second-floor hall and knocked four quick raps: their agreed secret code. Yet the door did not open; no smooth naked arms entwined him. The gold mask edged right and left, then a hand rose to try the latch, and found it unlocked. He stepped within, pushed the door shut behind. ‘My love?’

No answer from the cluttered darkened room. Layered carpets covered the floor in heaps, cushions lay about draped in abandoned gossamer clothes. He edged forward tentatively. ‘My dear?’

He found her at the window — no open seated alcove here: bars sealed these small openings. She was peering out to where the blue-tinted night flames of the city seemed to battle the green-tinged night sky above.

‘I am sorry, my dear …’ he began.

She turned, arms crossed over her small high breasts. For a moment her eyes seemed to flash with a green light akin to that of the night sky. ‘And who is this who comes intruding upon my privacy?’

Jeshin stared, confused, then lowered the mask and examined it wryly. He pushed back the hood, revealing his long black hair, his narrow scholar’s face. He tapped a finger to the gold mask. ‘You see? Even now I come as you request. Though why this facade of anonymity when everyone seems to know of … well.’ He tossed the mask aside.

‘You should not have come,’ she said, hugging herself even tighter, as if struggling to keep something in.

Jeshin turned away, pacing. ‘Yes, yes. Now that I am a councillor. Even now you shame me in your concern for my reputation.’ He spun upon her. ‘Yet perhaps there is a way. I no longer need the blessings of my family …’

Slipping forward, she silenced him with a finger to his lips. ‘No.’ She spoke soothingly, as if to a child. ‘I’ll not have you weakened in any way. Your opponents will use it against you. Paint you an impetuous fool. You must not be compromised.’ And she peered up at him, her gaze almost furtive. ‘Your great vision for the city, remember?’

He squeezed her to him. ‘But without you?’

Dancer that she was, she somehow easily eluded his grasp to put her back to him. ‘We … both … must make sacrifices,’ she said, facing the window once more.

He shook his head in awed admiration. ‘Your determination is a lesson to me.’

She turned, finger at her chin. ‘Yet there is one last thing I can do for you, my Jeshin, my noble councillor.’

He waved the suggestion aside, still shaking his head. ‘You have done enough — too much. Your advice, the things you knew … As they say: all secrets are revealed beneath the feet of the dancer.’

Her henna-lined lips drew up, pleased. ‘That is a very old saying. And very true. No, one last word that has come to me. There is an extraordinarily wealthy man in the city who shares your vision of a strong Darujhistan that commands the respect it deserves.’ Her lips drew down, dismissive. ‘True, he is a northerner, from Cat. But he should support you. His name is Humble. Humble Measure.’

Jeshin frowned. ‘The ironmonger?’

‘He is more than that. Trust in me.’

The young councillor held out his hands as if in surrender. ‘If you say so, dearest. I shall contact him.’

‘Excellent. With his resources your ascent will be assured.’

Jeshin stared, almost awestruck. ‘I do not deserve you, my love.’

Smiling once more, she pressed a palm to his chest and gently urged him down to a heap of cushions. ‘You shall, my love. You shall.’

Standing above him she struck the opening pose of Burn Awakening, one leg raised, toe just brushing the floor, one hand lifted to her face as if warding off the harsh glare of a primeval dawn. From this pose she flowed into the first four devotional motions, one to each corner of the world, bowing, hands raised in supplication, palms inward.

Then she danced.

Staring, mesmerized, his pulse racing, Jeshin could only moan, ‘Oh, Taya … Taya …’

The retreat had been established in the coastal mountains south of Mengal generations ago. Some named it a monastery, others a school. Those who entered did so in the understanding of a voluntary abandonment of the world, with all its diversions and deluding ambitions.

Why the legendary Traveller, slayer of Anomander Rake, the very son of Darkness and Lord of Moon’s Spawn, would come here was a mystery to Esten Rul. If he had defeated the most feared and powerful Ascendant once active in the world he would not be squatting in some dusty monastery full of mumbling priests and acolytes.

And that was not what he planned on doing after he in turn defeated this Traveller.

Even now, assured by numerous independent sources, he could not quite believe that this squalid mountain-hugging collection of huts and open-air temples was the retreat of the great swordsman. Entering the main sand courtyard he paused, eyed the passing robed priests on their unhurried ways. None even cast him a single glance. This was not the sort of treatment to which Esten Rul, master duellist and swordsman of three continents, was accustomed. These shaven-headed wretches obviously did not possess the wit to understand that the man who stood before them was acknowledged a master on Quon Tali and Falar. And that he had taken the measure of the current crop of talents here in Genabackis and frankly thought them rather second-rate.

One oldster was dutifully sweeping up the leaves that littered the courtyard and this one he approached.

‘You. Old man. Where can I find the one who goes by the name Traveller?’

In what was obviously a deliberate insult the fellow had the effrontery to continue sweeping. Esten stamped his foot down on the bundled straw of the broom. ‘I am talking to you, grandfather.’

The man peered up at him, very dark, not a local, his scalp freshly shaven, the face scarred and graven in lines of care. Yet the eyes: utterly without fear, deep midnight blue like ocean depths.

The weight of that gaze made Esten look away, uncomfortable. So, not a servant after all. A broken-down veteran perhaps, shattered by battle. ‘You know of him?’

‘The one those here call Master? Yes.’

Esten grunted. So, their master, was he? Of course. What else could such a man be? ‘Where is he? Which of these pathetic huts?’ The old man looked him up and down. Esten saw his eyes casting over the quillons of his sheathed rapier.

‘You would challenge him?’

‘No, I’m here delivering flowers from Black Coral. Of course I’m here to challenge him, you senile fool!’

The old man closed his eyes as if pained; lowered his head. ‘Go back to Darujhistan. The one called Traveller has … retired … from all swordplay.’ He returned to his sweeping.

Esten barely restrained himself from cuffing the insolent fool. He set his hand instead on the grip of his sword. ‘Do not try me. I am not used to such treatment. Take me to Traveller or I will find someone else who will — at sword-point.’

The old man stilled. He turned to face him: the eyes had narrowed now, and darkened even more. ‘Is that the way of it? Very well. I will take you to Traveller, but before I do you must demonstrate your worthiness.’

Esten gaped at the man. ‘What? Demonstrate my … worthiness?’ He peered about in disbelief. A crowd of the robed monks, or priests, or whatever they were, had gathered silent and watchful. Esten Rul was not a man to be spooked but he found their quiet regard a touch unnerving. He returned his attention to the old sweeper, gave a vague gesture of invitation with one gloved hand. ‘And pray tell how do I do that?’

‘By defeating the least of us.’

Esten bit down on his impatience and took a slow calming breath. ‘And … that would be?’

A sad slow shrug from the man. ‘Well … that would be me.’

‘You.’

‘Yes. I’m very new here.’

‘You …’ He stepped away as if the fellow were a lunatic. ‘But you’re just cleaning the court!’

A rueful nod. ‘Yes. And I’ve yet to get it right. It’s the wind, you know. No matter how careful you are the wind just comes tumbling through and all your plans and care are for naught.’

Esten snorted his disgust and turned away. He raised his hands to his mouth to bellow: ‘Traveller! Can you hear me? Are you hiding here? Come out and face me!’

‘Defeat me and they will bring you to him.’

Having turned full circle Esten faced the man again. ‘Really … just like that?’

‘Yes. Just like that. It is an ancient practice. One remembered and honoured here.’

Esten opened his hands as if in a gesture of futility. ‘Well … if I must … You do have a weapon?’

The old man merely shrugged his regretful apology once more and raised his broom.

From the gates to the monastery an acolyte watched the foreign duellist walking down the zigzag mountain trail. The swordsman’s hands were clasped behind his back and his head was lowered as if he had just been given a great deal to think about. The acolyte bowed to the man at the gate where he leaned on his broom, the wood of the haft nicked and gouged.

‘Will he return, Master?’ the acolyte asked.

‘I keep telling you lot not to call me that,’ sighed the man who had given up the name Traveller. He shrugged. ‘Let’s hope not. He’s been offered a lesson. We can only hope it will be heeded.’ He shifted his grip on the broom. ‘But … life is nothing more than a series of lessons and few learn enough of them.’ He looked to the courtyard and winced. ‘Gods — you turn away for one moment and everything goes to the Abyss. I’m going to have to start all over again …’

‘As we all should, Master.’

For an instant a small smile graced the man’s pain-ravaged face, then the mouth eased back into its habitual slash of a grimace. ‘Well said. Yes. As we all should. Every day. With every breath.’

In the nameless outskirts of the shanty town rambling westward of Darujhistan, an old woman squatted in front of her shack and carved a stick beneath a night sky dominated by the slashing lurid green banner of the Scimitar. Her hair was a wild bush about her head tied with lengths of string, ribbon, beads, and twists of leather. Her bare feet where they poked out beneath her layered skirts were as dark as the earth the toes gripped. She droned to herself in a language no one understood.

An old woman living alone in a decrepit hut was nothing unusual for the shanty town, peopled as it was by the poorest, most broken-down of the lowest class of tannery workers, sewer cleaners and garbage haulers of Darujhistan. Every second shack seemed occupied by an old widow or grandmother, the menfolk dying off early as they do everywhere — the men claiming this proves they do all the hard work, and the women knowing it’s because men aren’t tough enough to endure being old.

And so this woman had lived in her squalid hut for as long as anyone could remember and none remarked upon it, except for all the surrounding old widows and grandmothers who amongst themselves knew her as ‘that crazy old woman’.

Squatting in the mud before her hut she brought the thin stick she was carving close to eyes clouded by milky cataracts and studied the intricate tracery of curve and line that ran end to end. She crooned to herself, ‘Almost, now. Almost.’ Then she glanced fearfully, and rather blindly, to the starry night sky and its intruding alien banner, muttering, ‘Almost now. Almost.’

The stick went into a sack at her side. From a smaller bag she drew a pipe and a pinch of a sticky dark substance like gum that she rolled into a ball then pressed into the pipe. She lit the pipe with a twig from a low fire, drew the smoke in deep and held it down in her lungs for a long time before leaning her head back and letting the great plume blow skyward.

She blinked her watering eyes. ‘Almost, now. Almost.’

BOOK I

Orb

CHAPTER I

The problem with paths is that once you have chosen one, You cannot choose the others.

Attributed to Gothos’ Folly

On the south coast of Genabackis the former fishing village of Hurly was a mess. Nearly two years before, its original inhabitants had drowned without warning in tidal waves that inundated it when the last fragments of the titanic floating mountain named Moon’s Spawn crashed into the Rivan Sea. Then, when the flood waters receded, like a swarm of flies a motley army of treasure-hunters had descended upon its corpse. And soon after that came a worse plague: the thieves, conmen and other swindlers who preyed upon all.

Representatives of the Southern Confederation of Free Cities were the first to arrive at the scene of devastation. Wreckers and pirates from way back, they salvaged everything they could, namely the surviving boats of the region, and established a concession out to the newly born isles. A few months later transport fees and tariffs were settled upon and four separate armed challenges to their monopoly had been successfully put down.

Now, after more than a year of trade, the Southern Confederation had firmly established itself as the sole agent for the islands, which they named, with characteristic directness, the Spawns.

Jallin, nicknamed the Jumper for his habit of ambushing from the rear, had to admit that the good times in Hurly were officially over. He and all the other hustlers and scavengers could feel the pinch of lean times. The one-time flood of fortune-hunters had thinned to a trickle of ragged men and women no better off than those who’d already clawed out a spot in the festering town.

Jallin the Jumper knew this well. He’d seen the cycle play itself out in town after town up north, where the Malazan wars had fuelled the rabid, cannibalistic economics of scarcity and demand. He sensed that here the frenzy of fortunes won overnight and even more quickly lost would never reach the pitch it had seasons ago. And it was ending before he’d made his big strike. Just as it had at Pale, Kurl and Callows. Only this time he wouldn’t let that happen. Couldn’t. Because Hurly was the end of the road. As far south as all these losers and dregs could slide. Everyone’s last chance.

So he paid close attention when yet another new arrival came tramping down the town’s muddy main track. The newcomer was a wiry ragged veteran, a foreigner by his ruddy hair and ginger moustache — a Malazan. He wore army-standard sandals and cloak, and carried battered leather panniers over one shoulder. That the man was a veteran didn’t worry Jallin; almost all the loser fortune-hunters who came down that road had once marched in any number of armies up north — and usually deserted from every damned one. To him they were pathetic in their willingness to get maimed or killed for the promise of a handful of coin or a scratch of land.

This one appeared to have fared even worse than most. A single shortsword hung at his side, but other than that all he carried was the panniers slung over a shoulder and kept tightly gripped in one scarred and sun-browned hand. Those wide bags interested Jallin. What, he wondered, would an old soldier, cashiered or deserted, think vital enough to drag with him all the way down here to the Spawns?

The veteran stopped where so many of the other hopeful Spawn-looters had halted: where the cart-track ended at the strand of slate-black gravel that sloped down to the Rivan Sea. Here, the observant among them usually noticed two important things: that the Spawn Isles were those distant faint dots far out to sea, and that there wasn’t a single boat in sight.

These discoveries often left even the hardiest and most resilient feeling lost, and so here was where Jallin preferred to approach his targets. As he came alongside, the fellow was still squinting out to sea, and so he murmured: ‘There they are, hey? Pay-dirt.’

The old guy grunted something, eyed the wreckage-strewn gravel beach. ‘I’m lookin’ for a boat.’

Jallin smiled. ‘Isn’t everyone here, friend? And it just so happens I know a man who might have room for one more on his.’

That got a look. He could tell from the man’s blunt gaze that he’d seen a lot. Most veterans had an odd hard stare that Jallin couldn’t quite understand — he himself not having ever been stupid enough to set foot on a battlefield. It could make a man think twice about giving them trouble. But despite this he’d gone ahead and robbed, cheated, rolled, and even murdered some. All from behind, or from a position of trust, of course. Which was why he considered their toughness and fighting skills irrelevant. After all, peacetime was a very different sort of war.

‘How much?’ the fellow asked. He relaxed his grip to shade his eyes against the western sun. Whatever was in those bags, it looked heavy. Jallin wet his lips then gave his friendliest chuckle.

‘How much? Oh, it’ll cost. I won’t insult you by pretending I can get you some kinda special deal or some such shit. It’ll cost. That we got to negotiate, right?’

Another neutral grunt. Jallin pointed back up the track to where it cut between slapped-up inns, stores and taprooms. ‘The Island Inn maybe, hey? What d’you say? You look like you could use a drink.’

The fellow turned, squinted up the track, even chewed at an edge of his moustache. After one last lingering stare out to sea, his tensed shoulders fell and he sighed. ‘Yeah. Could use a drink.’

Jallin showed the way. He kept up a constant distracting chatter about all the adventurers he knew who’d struck it rich out at the Spawns — which in truth was no one. None who had ever returned, that is. All the while he was thinking: we’ll settle a price for tonight, not too low, not too high. Nothing to arouse suspicion. Then down at the beach he’d introduce him to his ‘friend’. All the razor-sharp pointed length of it. His misericord — the weapon he used to put old soldiers where they belonged: out of their misery.

The Island Inn was unique among Hurly’s new buildings in that it possessed stone walls. It occupied all that remained of a temple to Poliel, goddess of disease, pestilence and plague. It seemed the old population of Hurly had been particularly anxious to appease her. Perhaps it had to do with all the neighbouring marshes. The new owner of the structure, Akien Threw, liked to joke that they would’ve been far better off appeasing the cult of Elder Dark, of which the Moon’s Spawn had been a holy artefact.

As Jallin entered, guiding the old soldier to a table in the rear, he caught Akien’s eye. All the town’s touts and hustlers had an understanding with the man: a meal and a floor to flop on in exchange for heading clients his way. Plus a percentage of any take, of course.

Two tall tankards of beer arrived almost the instant they rested their arms on the tabletop of silvery-grey driftwood slats. The veteran’s eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down. ‘What’s this?’

In the relative darkness of the inn Jallin was struck by the scars that lined the fellow’s face and how his mangy ginger hair, grey in places, grew patchily on one side as if over burns. But he’d seen old soldiers before and almost all carried scars. They all parted with what little coin they’d gathered over the years as easily as anyone, and more swiftly than most. ‘So what’s your name then, friend?’

After a time the man growled, ‘Red. Red Dog.’

Jallin raised a brow at that but said nothing: he didn’t give a damn what the fellow’s name was. ‘Well, Red, this is Elingarth ale. The good stuff.’ He touched a finger to the side of his nose. ‘The owner’s a friend of mine.’

‘I’ll bet he is,’ the soldier muttered darkly. But he lifted the tankard and took a long pull. Jallin noted the nest of white scar ridges up and down the man’s forearm. He decided he’d be a touch worried if the fellow wasn’t obviously so far past his prime. He also noted how the fellow kept a tight grip on the panniers on his lap.

The veteran wiped his mouth and grimaced his distaste. ‘I doubt that’s from Elingarth.’

Jallin gave an easy shrug. ‘I wouldn’t know. Another?’

‘Abyss, no.’

‘Sure. It’s early yet.’

In keeping with the diminishing flow of treasure-hunters, the inn’s common room was deserted. A pair of guards, no more than old-hand hustlers like Jallin, sat by the door. Two men sat hunched almost head to head at a table nearby, both staring sullenly out into the day’s last slanting yellow rays. One elegantly dressed young man, a scion of some aristocratic family or other, commanded another table. He was with three others, all of whom Jallin knew as local thugs and would-be guides, like himself.

The young man leaned back suddenly and announced: ‘Then there’s no sense heading out. It’s too late by far. The place has been picked clean by now.’

The old soldier, Red, turned to watch him.

One of the local guides said something to which the nobleman answered, dismissively, ‘Well, who’s come back recently? Has anyone?’

Another of the companions offered, ‘If I found anything out there I sure as death wouldn’t come back here.’ They all had a good laugh at that, except the noble youth.

Jallin leaned forward, murmured, ‘That’s all just sour talk. He’s afraid to head out.’

‘So,’ the veteran drawled, ‘where are all the ships?’

Two more tankards arrived care of a shuffling serving boy. ‘Anchored off shore. Launches put in at dawn and you buy your berth. But,’ he added, lowering his voice, ‘it’s possible to slip out past them at night. For a fee.’

The soldier nodded his understanding. ‘At dawn, when the boats put in. Why doesn’t everyone just rush ’em?’

‘Southern Free Cities Confederation soldiers, my friend. They got things wrapped up.’

‘So what’s to stop others from showing up with their own boats?’

Jallin laughed. ‘Oh, they’ve tried. They’ve tried. But these Confederation boys are pirates and wreckers like none other. Sank the lot of them.’

‘But a warship maybe? Malazan?’

Jallin drained his tankard. ‘Yeah. A couple months back. A Malazan warship bulled its way through. Ain’t been seen since.’ He grinned toothily. ‘Maybe they all got done in.’

The old soldier took a long pull from his tankard. ‘Just like the guy said. No one’s come back. Is that right?’

Jallin did his best to laugh good-naturedly. ‘What? You want someone else to get out with a boatload of loot? Listen, the main isle is damned huge. It takes a lot of time to search through all that. You don’t just arrive and trip over some kinda chest of gold.’ He pretended to take a deep sip of his second tankard, unconcerned, but damned the loudmouth, whoever he was. Anyway, all that mattered was that the old guy accompany him down to the shore to meet his ‘friend’. He would meet him all right.

The veteran sucked his teeth then brushed at his moustache. ‘Right. Well, that’s about all I need to hear. Thanks for the drink.’ He stood, draped the bags over one shoulder.

Jallin stood with him. ‘But I could get you out tonight. My friend-’

‘Would bash me over the head,’ the soldier finished.

Jallin caught Akien’s eye, spread his hands. ‘Fine. You don’t want my help? To Hood with you.’

From the bar, Akien nodded to his two guards, who stood and blocked the door. The soldier pulled up short. He glanced to the big bull-like owner who was crossing the floor, tapping a truncheon in one hand. ‘What’s the problem?’ the old guy asked.

‘The problem, sir, is of the bill.’

Jallin had kept his distance, waiting for his chance, and the veteran motioned directly to him. ‘This one here. He’ll pay.’

Akien stopped before his guards, which put Jallin directly to the soldier’s rear. Jallin curled his fingers around his belt, close to the worn grips of his daggers. ‘No,’ Akien said, slow and stubborn, like the bull he resembled. ‘It is plain to me that you ordered the drinks, sir.’

The old soldier bit back any further argument; everyone knew he hadn’t ordered the drinks but the claim had to be made for the sake of appearances. It was the dance of the clip joint — free to enter, but damned expensive to leave. ‘All right,’ he growled, resigned. ‘How much is it then?’

Akien raised his brows, figuring. ‘Four tankards of Elingarth ale, sir? That would be two Darujhistani gold councils.’

An awed whistle sounded through the inn. Everyone looked to the young nobleman. He had an arm hooked over the rear of his chair, leaning back. ‘That, good innkeeper, is a ruinous price.’

Akien hunched his fat rounded shoulders, glowering. ‘Cartage.’

The nobleman eyed the veteran, cocked a brow.

The soldier grasped a nearby chair to support himself. ‘I don’t have that kind of money!’

Jallin touched his shoulder to indicate the bags. Akien nodded. ‘Then your bags, sir, in payment.’

The soldier’s other hand went to the pannier. ‘No.’

The two guards started forward, their truncheons ready. At that instant the soldier exploded into action: the chair flew into one guard while a boot hammered into the second. The veteran’s speed surprised Jallin but he knew he was faster. Akien’s bulk in the doorway caused the man to ease his rush and Jallin had him.

A voice barked: ‘Your rear!’ and the veteran twisted aside. Jallin’s razor-honed friend missed the artery in a shallow slice. Then a blur at the edge of Jallin’s vision smacked his head backwards and he fell. The last he heard was Akien’s bellow of pain and outrage as the soldier dealt with him.

‘The Moranth attache awaits you, Ambassador.’

Ambassador Aragan of the Imperial Malazan delegation in Darujhistan held his head and groaned over his steaming infusion of koru nut. ‘Burn’s mercy, man. Can’t it wait?’

His aide, Captain Dreshen Harad ’Ul, a younger son of one of the noble houses of Unta, stood spear-straight, his maroon and black Imperial dress uniform enviably crisp. ‘The attache is most insistent.’

Aragan tossed back the thimble of black liquid and winced. Gods, I should never have tried to keep up with those visiting Barghast. They just don’t know when to quit. He blinked gritty eyes at Dreshen, picked up a knife and oven-roasted flatbread. ‘Invite him to breakfast, then.’

His aide saluted.

He spread Rhivi honey on the bread. Haven’t even found my footing yet and I’m supposed to negotiate with the Moranth? What do they expect in Unta — bouncing me all over? Damned cock-up is what it is. I’ll probably never even meet this new damned Emperor Mallick what’s-his-face.

The Moranth attache was shown into Aragan’s chambers, the outer of which he chose to use as a meeting room and office. He liked the view from the terrace overlooking the estate’s rear gardens. The attache was a Red veteran. His blood-hued chitinous armour bore a skein of scars and gouges from combat. Aragan rose, dabbed at his mouth. ‘Commander Torn.’

The attache bowed stiffly. ‘Ambassador.’

Aragan sat, gesturing to the chair opposite. ‘To what do I owe the honour?’

The attache declined the invitation with a small wave of a gauntleted hand. He straightened and clasped those armoured gauntlets behind his back. ‘We of the Moranth delegation request a favour from our old allies.’

Aragan’s brows rose. Oho! Old allies is it now? When did this come about? They’ve been denying troop requests for the last year. ‘Yes?’

It was hard to tell with the man’s full helm and body-hugging armour, but the attache appeared uncomfortable. He paced to the threshold of the double doors that opened on to the terrace, his back to Aragan. ‘We request that you press the Council into interdicting the burial grounds to the south of the city.’

Aragan choked on his mouthful of toasted flatbread. The aide rushed forward to pour a glass of watered wine, which Aragan gulped down. ‘Gods, man!’ he gasped. ‘You do not ask much!’ He cleared his throat. ‘I suggest you press them yourself.’

‘We have been. For months. They will not listen to us. There is a … history … between us.’

Aragan raised the small cup to his aide, who nodded and exited. He edged his chair round to face the attache’s stiff back. ‘So, what is it? Why the burial grounds?’

‘There are those among us-’ The attache stopped himself, shook his helmed head. ‘No, that will not do.’ He turned, took a long bracing breath. ‘You name our colours clans, so we understand. Yet “guilds” would really be a more accurate description. In any case, among us those you name the Silvers you could think of as closest to your mages. Though they are more like mystics, in truth.’

Aragan could only stare. This was more than he’d ever heard from all the Moranth he’d ever spoken to before. There were scholars in Unta who could establish careers on the information he’d just been afforded on these ferociously secretive people.

Attache Torn crossed his arms. ‘For some time disquiet has spread among the Silver. They are anxious regarding the burial grounds — and the things that many believe they hold.’

Captain Dreshen returned with a tiny cup of koru-nut infusion. Aragan took it, then signed for privacy. ‘Torn, those ruins extend for leagues across the Dwelling Plain. An area larger than the city itself! Do you have any idea how many troops it would take …’

‘I’m told to point out your garrisons and the majority of the Fifth in the north. Elements of Onearm’s Host in the south-’

Aragan threw his hands in the air. ‘Hold on!’ Grimacing in pain, he gulped down his infusion. ‘I can’t bring that many troops so close to the city! Think about it. It would be seen as tantamount to a Malazan putsch! An act of war.’ He waved it aside. ‘No. Out of the question.’

Torn dropped his arms, the keratin plates grinding. ‘I thought not.’ He almost sighed. ‘However, my superiors commanded that the request be made. So be it. I ask, then, that you at least gather your most skilled mages and task them to delve into any activities out on the burial grounds.’

Aragan frowned, considering. ‘I can probably do that, yes. But think of it. What your Silvers are sensing is probably just the disturbances in the Warrens from what happened here … Anomander Rake’s sword broken, so they say. Hood cultists claiming he was here and died himself — if you can credit that. My cadre mages are still groaning from those shocks.’

‘Be that as it may … will you indulge me in this?’

‘Of course, Torn. Of course. As a favour to you.’

The Moranth inclined his helmed head in thanks. ‘Very good. Please pass on any intelligence. Until then, Ambassador.’

Aragan crossed to the door. ‘Attache.’

Once the Moranth had gone, Aragan waved in Captain Dreshen and returned to his breakfast. He ate staring out of the open twinned doors of the terrace. When he’d finished he sat back, sipping his watered wine. He raised his gaze to his aide. ‘Pass word down south to Fist … who is it down there?’

‘Steppen.’

‘Yes, Steppen. Tell her to send up all the troops she can spare. And who’s Central Command, the Free Cities garrisons?’

‘That would be Fist K’ess, in Pale.’

‘Right. He should be able to knock together at least a few companies. They can rendezvous to the west, somewhere south of Dhavran.’

Dreshen merely cocked a brow. ‘And when there are questions …?’

‘Just a training exercise, Captain. Nothing more. The usual hurry up and wait.’

‘I understand. Very good, Ambassador.’ He turned to go.

Aragan gulped down the last of his watered wine. ‘And who do we have in the city we can rely on to do some quiet work for us, off the books?’

A smile crept up Captain Dreshen’s lips. ‘We keep a list, Ambassador.’

She was getting used to the strangeness of this bizarre realm so far from the world she knew. And she wondered whether that was a bad sign. Her companion, Leoman of the Flails, had named it the ‘Shores of Creation’.

Firstly, there was the dawn — if such a term could be applied. It seemed to emerge from beneath the sea of molten light. It began as a brightening in one direction, call that the east if you must, though any magnet and needle brought here probably would not know what to do. The glimmering sea of energy seemed to give up some of its shine and this bright wash, or wave, swelled over the dome of the starry sky, obscuring it in a kind of daylight that, in its turn, faded back into starry night.

Of their route of entry, the Chaos Whorl, she could find only the faintest bruising against the horizon in one direction, and that fading like the last traces of twilight. Perhaps the army of Tiste Liosan with Jayashul and her brother, L’oric, had overcome the magus who sustained that gap, or tear, in creation.

Or perhaps he’d simply fled. Who knew? Not she. Not trapped here in this eternal neverplace. Which was just as well, since yet again she’d failed. Even with the help of her witch aunt Agayla and the Enchantress, the Queen of Dreams herself, she’d failed. And now it was over, everything, over and done. No more striving. No more seeking. No more self-recrimination — what was the point?

It was, she decided, in one way deliciously liberating.

She laid her head on Leoman’s bare arm. Was it then desperation that finally drove them together? Or mere loneliness? They were, after all, the only man and woman in all creation. And this man: one of the Malazan Empire’s deadliest enemies. He had been bodyguard to the rebel leader Sha’ik. Then he’d commanded the Seven Cities Army of the Apocalypse and delivered to the Empire one of its bloodiest maulings at the city of Y’Ghatan.

Yet no ogre. Harsh, yes. Calculating, and a survivor. In the end not too unlike her.

His breathing pattern changed and she knew he was awake. He sat up, ran his gaze down her naked flank and thigh and smiled from beneath his long moustache. ‘Good morning to you.’

Gods, how she ached to tell him to get rid of that moustache! ‘If it is a morning.’

Grunting, he crossed his legs and set his arms on his knees. ‘We can only assume.’

‘So, what now? Do we build a hut from driftwood? Weave hats from leaves and raise a brood of savages?’

‘There is no driftwood,’ he said absently, eyes narrowed to the south.

She sifted a hand through the fine black sand they lay upon. ‘I’d always wondered how those old creation of the race myths ran. Populating the land was one thing, but what about the second generation? I suppose if you’re all for polygamy and incest in the first place it wouldn’t strike you as a problem …’

She glanced up: his narrowed gaze was steady on the distance. ‘Burn take it! You’re not ignoring me already, are you?’

His mouth quirked. ‘Not yet.’ He raised his chin to the south. ‘Our friend is gone.’

She rolled over, scanned the sky over the shore. Gone indeed, their titanic neighbour. A being so immense it seemed as if he could hug the entire floating mountain of the Moon’s Spawn within the span of his arms. Now there was no sign of him. And she hadn’t heard a thing.

She sprang to her feet, began dressing. ‘Why didn’t you say something, dammit!’

He peered up at her, still smiling. ‘I didn’t want to interrupt. You don’t like it when I interrupt you.’

She threw her weapon belt over a shoulder. ‘Very funny. C’mon.’

He pulled on the silk shorts he wore beneath his felt trousers — for the itching, he’d explained. ‘Something tells me there’s no hurry, Kiska. If there’s any place to abandon haste, this is it.’

She continued arming herself. ‘Your problem is you’re lazy. You’d be happy just to lie here all day.’

‘And make love to you? Certainly.’

Leoman! You can turn off the charm, yes?’

He pulled his stained quilted gambeson over his head, yanked it down. ‘With you, Kiska? No charm. It’s the moustache — the moustache gets them every time.’

‘Gods deliver me!’ Kiska headed off down the beach. If he only knew.

Three rocky headlands later Kiska stood peering down on yet another long scimitar arc of black beach. The clatter of jagged volcanic rocks announced Leoman’s approach. He sat with a heavy sigh, adjusted the leather wrapping over his trouser legs. ‘He’d have a hard time hiding, Kiska.’

She bit back a snarl of disgust. ‘Don’t you want to find out what’s here?’

An uninterested wave: ‘There’s nothing here.’

She eyed the broad smooth expanse of the beach, noted something there, something tall. ‘Over there.’

Closer, she saw now why she’d missed it. The same dull black as the sands, he was. Now about her height, since he was sitting. As they approached, feet shushing through the sands, he stood, towering to twice that. He reminded her of a crude sculpture of a person carved from that fine-grained black stone, basalt. His hands were broad fingerless shovels, his head a worn stone between boulder-like shoulders. He was identical in every detail to the mountain-sized titan they’d watched these last weeks digging in the sea of light, apparently building up the shoreline. Leoman stepped up next to her, hands near his morningstars, but those weapons still sensibly strapped to his sides. ‘Greetings,’ she called, her voice dry and weak. Gods, how does one address an entity such as this?

Stone grated as it cocked its head aside as if listening.

‘My name is Kiska, and this is Leoman.’ She waited for an answer. The entity merely regarded them — or so she imagined, as now she could see that it had no eyes, no mouth, no features at all that could be named a face. ‘Do you understand-’

She flinched as a voice spoke within her mind: ‘Do you hear me? For I hear you.’ The wonder in Leoman’s widened eyes made it clear that he had heard as well. ‘Yes. I — we — can hear you.’

Good. I am pleased. Welcome, strangers! You are most welcome. For ages none have visited. I have been alone. Now even more come! I am gladdened. ’

At that she could not suppress an eager glance to Leoman. More! It said more! His answering gaze held warning and caution. She brushed them aside: if this thing wanted to kill them there was little they could do about it. She took a steadying breath. ‘And your name? What should we call you?’

No name such as I understand your term. I carry what you would call a title. I am Maker.’

She stared, speechless. All the gods above and below. Maker. The Creator? No. It did not say Creator. It said Maker. Muttering distracted her: Leoman murmuring beneath his breath. She almost laughed aloud. The Seven Cities invocation of the gods! Cynical Leoman thrown back on to his roots! Yet the prayer seemed mouthed more in wonder than devotion.

She tried to speak, couldn’t force words past her dry throat. Her knees felt watery and she stepped back, blinking. Leoman’s hand at her shoulder steadied her. ‘There are others, you say?’ she managed to force out. ‘More of us?’

One other like you. One other not.’

‘I see …’ I think. ‘May we meet them? Are they here?’

One is.’ An arm as thick and blocky as a stalactite gestured further down the beach. ‘This way.’ Maker turned, stepping, and when the slab-like foot landed the sands beneath Kiska’s feet shuddered and rocks cracked and tumbled down the surrounding headlands.

Now we hear him? Perhaps he has made himself somehow different in order to communicate. Walking alongside, she saw no one else on the sweep of the black sands. Yet some object did lie ahead. A flat polished flag of stone, deep blood-red veined with black. Garnet, perhaps. And on the slab what appeared no more than a wind-gathered pile of trash: a fistful of twigs and leaves. Kiska gasped and ran ahead.

Their guide.

She knelt at the stone. Maker towered over her, his featureless domed head bent to peer downwards. Leoman came walking up behind, his hands tucked into his wide weapon belt.

‘Is it … dead?’ she asked.

For this creature, a curious distinction. What essence animated it before was not its own. And now, though that vital essence might have fled, an even greater potentiality yet remains within.’

‘It was with us.’

I thought as much. You arrived soon after.’

Kiska swept the remains into its small leather bag. Struggling to keep her voice steady, she asked, ‘And the other? The one like us?’

The other is gendered as this one,’ Maker said, indicating Leoman. ‘He came to me out of the Vitr.’

She blinked up at him. ‘The Vitr?’

Maker’s blunt head turned to the restless surging sea of light. ‘The Vitr. That from which all creation comes.’

‘All … creation? Everything?’

All that exists. All distils out of the Vitr. And all returns to dissolution. You, I. All life essence. All sentience.’

Kiska felt her brows rising higher and higher. ‘All? Everything? All races? Surely not the dragons … the Tiste … or the Jaghut.’

Maker’s shovel hands clenched into fists with a grinding and crackling of rock. The sands at his wide feet hissed and glowed, sintering into black obsidian glass. The beach shuddered and a great landslide of rocks echoed among the distant headlands. Kiska found herself on the ground, and rolled away from the searing heat surrounding Maker.

Speak not to me of the meddling Jaghut!

The juddering of the ground faded away. She had covered her face to shield it from the radiance and now her leather sleeve came away red and wet. She coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood. Leoman was dabbing at his nose. ‘My apologies, Maker,’ she managed, coughing more.

The entity had raised his fists before his blank stone face and seemed to regard them as if astonished. The hands ground open. ‘No — it is I who must apologize. I am sorry. My anger … they have done me a great wound.’ The arms fell to hang loose at his sides. ‘As to those you name dragons, the Eleint. I myself have assisted beings who emerged fully formed from the Vitr. Some took that form. I do not know whether they were the first of their kind, or if others came into existence elsewhere. As to the Tiste … the Andii emerged from eternal night, true, yet what of the vital essence which animates? I believe the underlying energy which moves all originates here, in the Vitr. And for that some would name it the First Light.’

Kiska regarded the great shifting sea, awed. First Light? Yet who was to say otherwise? Could this ‘sea’ be nothing less than a great reservoir or source of energy — power, puissance, call it what you would. It was theology, or philosophy, all far beyond her. She returned her attention to Maker. ‘And this other? The one like us?’

I aided him in his emergence from the Vitr …’

Kiska laughed, and winced at the note of hysteria. ‘Then I assure you, Maker, he is nothing like us.’

He is. He is formed as you, and mortal.’

‘Mortal? His name? Does he have a name?’

Maker shifted, glass crackling, and started a slow lumbering walk down the beach. Kiska moved alongside. ‘Understand, little one, those who have experienced the Vitr first hand emerge as if freshly born. Newly formed, or re-formed. His mind carries nothing of his prior existence. And he has proved a great help in my work and a balm to my loneliness. I named him Then-aj-Ehliel, Gift of Creation.’

‘Your … work?’ Leoman asked from where he trailed behind.

Stone grated as the great domed head turned to Leoman. ‘Why, the bolstering and maintenance of the edge of existence, of course, against the constant erosion of the Vitr.’

Kiska found that she’d stopped walking. Her hands covered her face, where they brushed dried flakes of blood. The ground seemed to waver drunkenly and there was a roaring in her ears. Gods below! This was … this was … impossible! What was she doing here? What could she possibly …

Hands supported her: Leoman. ‘Kiska. You are all right?’

She laughed again. All right! ‘Did you hear that? What Maker said.’

‘Yes. Maintaining the shores. I understand.’

Yet the desert nomad sounded unimpressed. Queen of Dreams! Was there nothing that could ruffle this man’s reserve? She brushed away the rest of the dried blood, straightened.

‘Kiska,’ Leoman began gently, ‘the odds that this one could be …’

She pulled away. ‘Yes, yes.’

Maker raised an arm to gesture down the coast. ‘Follow the shore on further. He is there, helping in my work.’

She bowed. ‘Our thanks, Maker. We are in your debt.’

Not at all. It is I who am indebted. It is good to see others. Good to speak to others.’

Bowing again, Kiska headed off. As she walked, the sands pulling at her boots, she made every effort to keep her legs from wobbling and gasps of suppressed tears from bursting forth. This was impossible. She had wandered too far. The urgent unanswerable needs that drove her on now seemed … gods, she could hardly even recall them! Oponn’s jest! Even if she found the man she no longer had anything to say to him. No compelling case to make for his return. She had nothing to offer save … herself. And now … now she was no longer so certain of that either.

It took nearly a month of digging. Ebbin worked entirely alone. He trusted no one else with the secret of his discovery; and, in truth, the youths and his two hired guards were quite content to spend their days lazing in the shade while he sweated underground. The dirt and stones he loosened from the blockage he pushed behind him to dump straight down to the water below.

With more funds from his backer he’d bought supplies, including two new lanterns. One lit his work now as he succeeded in clearing a narrow gap through the rockfall to peer beyond. To his enormous relief the tunnel continued onward. Ebbin wiped a grimed sleeve across his face, picked up the lantern, and wriggled ahead. He clawed his way through the dirt, then raised the light within the half-choked narrow confines. The flame burned as straight as a knife-blade. No air movement at all. He peered up the pipe-like length of the tunnel. Ruled straight, perfectly circular. Angling upwards as well. And no vermin, no detritus, no cobwebs. It was strange that the fall should have been so localized, but he shrugged off his concerns and began shuffling forward on his elbows and knees.

The tunnel debouched on to a circular chamber that in the poor light appeared smoothly domed. Shattered stone littered the floor. He stepped in carefully over the sharp shards. As his vision adapted to the gloom, openings emerged from the dark: smaller side chambers, all broken open, circled the circumference of the main tomb.

Beaten after all! Cheated! Yet how could someone have preceded him? Not one word in the records hinted at such a tomb! He wiped the cold sweat from his face. Damn them! The looting was most likely done almost immediately after completion. Cousins of workers, or sharp-eyed locals spying upon the construction. He kicked through the wreckage. Something lay uneven under his feet. He knelt, cupped the lamp-flame.

A skull stared back up at him. He flinched; then, recovering, brushed aside more of the pulverized stone. More. A row … no, a circular band of human skulls set almost flush with the floor. And more bands. Ring upon nested ring of them. Rising, he closed upon a large shadowy object ahead.

At the centre, a mystifying sculpture-like construction: twin arches intersecting to create four triangular openings. Within, resting upon an onyx plinth, a cloaked corpse. And upon that corpse, glittering amber in the lamplight, a hammered mask of gold, plain, embossed with a face. And the mouth sculpted into the faintest of smiles like an aggravating, knowing smirk of superior knowledge.

Ebbin almost stepped in to reach for that exquisite object, but something stopped him. Some instinct. And perhaps he was mistaken, but was that a ghostly, whispered, not for you … so faint he might have imagined it there in the dead silence so far underground? He pulled back his hand. Odd … these chambers looted, yet this crowning prize untouched. Why so?

He backed away, raised his lantern to the outer walls. All of the smaller side niches broken open, their plinths empty. No, not all. One remained, its sealing door unscathed. He crossed to it. The door consisted of a single carved granite slab, unmarked, without any sigil. No hint of who, or what, lay within.

He tapped the solid rock. An aristocrat of the legendary Imperial Age? He eyed the central dais-like installation.

Or loyal retainer thereof.

He ran his hands over the cold polished slab. He did not have the chisels to cut through this. And there was no way he was going to let his cretin assistants down here. No — to do this properly would take tools and resources currently beyond his reach.

He’ll have to see his backer. And with this breakthrough the man will have to grant him further monies. He’s bankrolled him this far, after all. Remarkable foresight and vision this businessman from One Eye Cat has shown. Even if others murmur against the man and spread ugly rumours of criminal interests. He of the odd northern name: Humble Measure.

As he returned to the tunnel an instinct, or irking detail, made him pause. Something about those sub-chambers. He counted them: twelve. Why always this mystical number? The legends? The old folk tales of the twelve fiends? Mere mythology handed down from ancient practices? Or a homage from the builders? He shook his head. Too tenuous as yet.

Perhaps an answer would be forthcoming.

Word had spread across Genabackis that the great Warlord of the north had for a time established a camp in the hills east of Darujhistan, the city that had taken his friend and sometime enemy, Anomander, Lord of Moon’s Spawn and Son of Darkness. Emissaries from across the north, the Free Cities and the Rhivi Plains came and went from his tent. They came asking for adjudication of land rights issues or title inheritances, and to settle territorial disputes. The great hulking beast of a man spent his days and evenings sitting cross-legged on layered carpets, drinking interminable cups of tea while city representatives and tribal elders argued and complained.

One such night, when the issue of Sogena’s unfair taxation regime had degenerated into reminiscing of the old days before the arrival of the hated Malazans, Brood arose and went from the tent. Jiwan, son of one of the Warlord’s trusted old staff of Rhivi, and now making a name for himself within the great man’s council, took it upon himself to follow and intrude upon the Ascendant’s solitude.

He found him standing alone in the night, staring west where the blue glow of the hated city softened the night. And perhaps the great man stared even further, beyond the city, to the barrow raised by his own hands in honour of his friend.

Jiwan thought of the rumours circulating that the tomb was actually empty. After all, how could any darkness contain the one known as the Son of Mother Dark herself? But he neither knew nor cared about the truth of that. He did know that only fear of this man kept war from flaring in the north once again. A peace that held the Rhivi’s place upon the plains. The peace of the Warlord.

A peace that may now be slipping. He cleared his throat to announce his presence. ‘You are troubled, lord?’

The man swung his heavy beast-like gaze to him, then away, to the distant glow. ‘I allowed myself the luxury of thinking it was all over, Jiwan. Yet they rest uneasy. In the south. The Great Barrow of the Redeemer. And the Lesser, his Guardian. And this one of my friend. There is a tension. A stirring. I feel it.’ He voice softened almost into silence. ‘I was fooling myself. Nothing is ever finished.’

‘The sword is shattered, is it not?’

‘Yes, it is shattered.’

‘And the Lord of Moon’s Spawn is gone.’

‘Yes, he is gone.’

Jiwan was uncertain. ‘You fear, then, the Malazans shall be emboldened?’

The Warlord glanced at him, surprise showing on his blunt, brutal features. ‘The Malazans? No, not them. With Rake gone … It is his absence that troubles me.’

Jiwan bowed, taking his leave. He knew it was right and proper that the Warlord should mourn his friend, but he, Jiwan, must think first of his people. An enemy was encamped on their borders to the north and the south, an enemy that was solid and real, not the haunted dreams of some troubled old man. The damnable Malazans. Who else would be emboldened by the fall of Anomander? They might seize this opportunity. But he was reluctant to speak of it yet. Loyalty and gratitude to the Warlord still swayed too many hearts among the elders. This too he understood. For he was not of stone; he felt it as well. Yet times move on — one must not remain a captive of the past.

He came to a decision. Changing direction, he headed instead to the corral. He would send word to the north for more warriors to gather. They must be ready should the Warlord call upon them … or not.

The nights in Darujhistan were far more hushed now than he could ever remember. Muted. One could perhaps even call the unaccustomed mood sombre. Ill-fitting airs for the city of blue-flame, of passions, or, as that toad friend of his named it, the city of dreams.

For his part Rallick hoped the mood was not one of tensed expectation.

It was past the sixth hour of night by the Wardens’ bells. He stood at an unremarkable intersection in the Gadrobi district. Unremarkable but for one very remarkable thing: here, Hood, self-appointed godhead of death, met his end. Followed shortly thereafter by his destroyer, Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn.

Events dire enough to shake the confidence of anyone.

No second-or third-storey lights shone in any window facing this crossroads. All forsook it. Patrons refused to enter the shops facing the site, and so the surrounding blocks progressively became abandoned. For who would live overlooking such an ill-omened locale? Weeds now poked up through cobbles. Doors gaped open, the empty shop-houses looted. In the heart of the most crowded and largest metropolis of the continent lay this blot of abandonment and death.

The thought caused Rallick to shift uneasily. Dead heart.

Yet not completely lifeless; another figure came walking up, boots kicking through the litter, his hands tucked beneath his dark cloak. Rallick inclined his chin in greeting. ‘Krute.’

‘Rallick.’

‘Survived the guild bloodletting, I see. I’m pleased.’

A soft grunt. ‘Too few of us old-timers did. Gadrobi’s my parish now. Shows you one way to get promoted.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘Thanks.’ The man peered about. The wrinkles framing his small eyes tightened. ‘But … I gotta wonder … who’s really in charge?’

Familiar cold fingers brushed Rallick’s neck. ‘Vorcan’s not interested, Krute,’ he said, his voice flat. ‘As the guild now knows, she has a seat on the Council.’

‘That talking shop? Sounds like a front to me.’

‘She’s moved on. As have I.’

The man gave an exaggerated nod. ‘Oh, so you say. So you say.’ He laughed, more like a grunt. ‘There’re some in the guild who say you have moved on — body and soul. Those who hold to the Rallick Nom cult.’ He laughed again, as if at the stupidity of people. ‘And yet … got something to show you.’ He edged his head aside. ‘This way.’

After a measured glance all round, Rallick followed. To his ears his boots crackling on the gravel and debris of neglect sounded startlingly loud.

They crossed to the poorest, lowest-lying quarter, bordering on the Marsh district. Here the most squalid of what could hardly be called businesses occupied rotting row-houses and shacks. Rag-and-bone shops, pawnshops, manure collectors, small family tanneries. In the soggy alley of an open sewer lay two bodies.

Krute invited him to examine them. ‘What do you think?’

An eye on the assassin, who backed up a reassuring distance, Rallick bent over the first. ‘Professional work. Straight thrust through the back to the heart. Complete surprise — no twisting or turning in the wound.’ He pushed over the second, hesitated, then studied the neck. ‘First-rate cut. Thin razor blade. Straight side to side. Right-handed, with a slight upward angle — attacker was shorter than victim.’

An angry grunt from Krute. ‘I missed that.’

Rallick straightened. ‘What’s your point?’

‘What brings two ex-Warden guards down here to this shit-hole street, Rallick? You recognized them, didn’t you?’

‘I recognized them.’

‘But you didn’t say …’

A thin shrug from Rallick. ‘You’re inside now, Krute.’

‘Dammit, man! I’m doing you a fucking favour! Everyone’s accounted for! Everyone!’ He pulled savagely on his stubbled chin. ‘Who could pad up on two veteran guards, take ’em both without a peep? Without even a struggle? It’s a short list, Rallick. And your name’s on it … along with hers.’

‘Like I said already, Krute. What’s your point?’

The man let out a long tight breath, almost like a growl. ‘Always gotta be the hard way with you, hey, Rallick? Well, okay. Here’s my point — Vorcan’s short.’

Rallick let his head fall as if studying the rank gutter, was quiet for a time, then began backing off. ‘My advice to your superior is stay away. She’s out of your class.’

He’d exited the alley, now ripening with something far beyond garbage, when a trick of the acoustics brought Krute’s ghostly voice: ‘Yours too, Rallick. Yours too.’

*

Impatient banging brought the new waitress, Jess, lumbering to the doors of the Phoenix Inn. She unlatched the lock to peer out, blinking and wincing, into the glaring morning light. A tall dark figure brushed round her, imperious.

‘Not open, sir,’ she said, surprised, still blinking. Then, eyeing the retreating back, she relaxed. ‘Oh.’ And she shuffled to the kitchen to wake up Chud.

Rallick peered down at the fat man sprawled in his chair, head slung back, snoring. Amazement warred with disgust. Crushed pastries littered the table along with empty bottles, smears of exotic mustards and pate. The rotund figure snored, mouth slack. Rallick had a good view of the bristles of his unshaven bulging neck and the ridiculous vanity of the scruffy braided rat-tail beard. He gave a table leg a light kick.

The man snorted, jerking. Pudgy hands patted vested stomach, the ruffles of the silk shirt. The head rolled forward, lips smacking. Beady eyes found Rallick, widened. ‘Aaii! Thought grim graven friend new apparition of death come for modest Kruppe. Most discomfiting and shocking wakening. Kruppe has not yet seen to his toilet.’

‘Don’t let me stop you.’

‘Friend Rallick is always so civilized.’ A large stained handkerchief appeared in one hand, brushed flakes of pastry from the man’s wide midriff. Then he wound a fold of the cloth round one finger and dabbed daintily at the corners of his mouth. ‘Done!’ He sighed contentedly and slipped his hands into the black silk sash that circled his crimson waistcoat. ‘Now Kruppe can only respond in kind.’ He raised his chin: ‘Dearest Jess … We die of famishment! Bring biscuits, tea, Elingarth blood sausages and honeyed bacon, flatbreads and Moranth cloudberry syrup.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Not sure how she’ll fit in, you know.’

Jess’s voice bellowed from the kitchen. ‘Chud says we ain’t got none o’ that crap!’

‘She’ll serve just fine, I think,’ Rallick murmured under his breath.

The squat man’s brows wrinkled, pained. ‘Oh dear. I must have been dreaming …’ A quick shrug. ‘Oh well. Biscuits and tea, then. Oh! And a crust of burnt toast for my friend here.’

Rallick could hear his clenched teeth grinding. ‘Kruppe, I just-’

A raised hand forestalled him. ‘Explain not, old friend! No need for explanations … please sit!’ Growling, Rallick pulled a chair out with his heel, eased down and leaned back, hands on his thighs. ‘Kruppe understands. Why, it is on everyone’s sighing lips these days, dear friend. The city’s two most deadly killers tamed by love’s soothing embrace!’

Rallick’s front chair legs struck the floor with a bang. ‘What?’

‘Do not worry! Kruppe’s feelings shall recover.’ He peeled a sliver of wrinkled dried fruit from the table, sniffed it, then popped it into his mouth. ‘Sustenance, Jess! We are positively expiring here!’ He shook his head, sighed dreamily. ‘It is an old story, yes, friend? Love is found and old friends are forgotten. Kruppe does not wonder why you have been neglectful of us these last months. The two of you haunt the rooftops in flighty trysts, no doubt. Like bats in love.’

‘Kruppe …’ Rallick ground out.

‘Soon a brood of baby killers to follow. I see it now. Knives in the crib and garrottes in the playpen.’

Kruppe!

The fat man lifted his eyes to blink innocently up at Rallick. ‘Yes?’

‘I just want to know if Cro- Cutter is in town.’

‘Kruppe wonders …’ Something strangled the man’s voice and he choked. Pudgy fingers fished in his mouth, emerging with the mangled stringy sliver of fruit, which he then carefully smeared back on to the table. ‘Jess! One need not cross the Cinnamon Wastes for tea!’

The big woman emerged from the kitchen, tray in hand. Her white linen shirt had been hastily laced, revealing a great deal of flesh. She glared at Kruppe, thumped the tray down, nodded to Rallick. ‘Good to see you, sir.’

‘Jess. How’s Meese doing these days?’

‘She comes round most evenings.’

‘You manage?’

She pushed back her hair, waved to the empty tables. ‘I’m worked off my feet.’

Rallick also eyed the empty common room. He frowned as if struck by a new thought. The woman walked back to the kitchen doors, her hips rolling like ships at sea. Rallick cleared his throat. ‘Just who does own this place anyway, Kruppe?’

‘Friend Rallick was asking after young Cutter …’

Rallick slid his gaze back. ‘Yes?’

Kruppe peered into the depths of the teapot. ‘Kruppe wonders why.’

Snarling, Rallick stood, pushing back his chair. ‘Is he here or not?’

Lifting a knife and a biscuit, the little man peered up with a steady gaze. ‘Kruppe assures friend Rallick that equally loved young vagabond is most assuredly not in our fair city.’ He raised the biscuit. ‘Crumpet?’

Rallick’s chest, which had been clenched in one coiled breath since the inspection of certain wounds hours earlier, eased in a long exhalation, and he nodded, ‘Good … good.’

Kruppe’s eyes had narrowed in their pockets of fat. ‘Again — Kruppe wonders why.’

But Rallick had turned away. ‘Doesn’t matter.’ He called to the kitchen. ‘Jess.’

Kruppe threw his arms wide. ‘But breakfast has only just arrived!’

Rallick pushed open the door in a bright wash of sunlight and walked out, the door swinging closed behind.

Shrugging, the fat man scooped up a smear of jam. ‘And to think Kruppe named impatient friend civilized. Kruppe was egregiously in error!’

In the harsh morning light Scholar Ebbin trudged up the muddy unpaved street of the pure-gatherers in the Gadrobi district. A dusty leather bag pulled at one shoulder and he wore a wide-brimmed hat yanked down firmly on his head. He stopped at a shuttered storefront of age-gnawed wood on worn stone foundations, banged on the solid door and waited. Across the street, between the cart traffic and crowds of market-goers, he noted the blue uniform of the Wardens. The sight was a surprise to him; while crime was endemic in this district, attention from the Wardens was rare. They had a wagon with them and appeared to be moving something.

The door vibrated as bars and locks were removed. It grated in its jambs to open a sliver. Darkness lay within. ‘Ah,’ a thin voice breathed, ‘it is you, good scholar. Enter.’

Ebbin edged in sideways and the door ground shut. In the relative dark he was blind for the moment but he could make out a hunched dark figure securing bars and bolts again. ‘You are ever mindful of thieves, Aman. Yet … rather a barrier to commerce, I would imagine.’

‘Darujhistan has fallen very far, good scholar,’ the bent man answered in his breathless voice. ‘Very far indeed. It is not like the old days of peace and strict adherence to the laws of its rulers. As for commerce … I service a select few who know where to find me, yes?’ He chuckled drily.

The unease that his visits here always engendered within Ebbin was not relieved by these comments. He thought of how his own whispered and circumspect enquiries into the subtleties of wardings, Warren-anchored barriers and the avoidance thereof led him step by step and source by source to this one man and his seemingly unpatronized shop. Yet to maintain appearances he answered genially enough, ‘Of course, Aman. Very select,’ and he laughed modestly as well.

Aman ushered him into the shop proper, one foot dragging in his crippled walk, back twisted from some accident of birth. His hands too were crippled — malformed and bent as if having been caught within some mangling instrument. He shuffled behind his counter where a raised platform allowed him to peer over it, looming like some sort of gangly bird of prey.

Ebbin’s vision was now adjusting to the permanent gloom in the shop, and he gently set his satchel on the counter.

‘You have something for me?’ Aman asked, cocking a brow already higher than its fellow.

‘Yes.’ He untied the leather strapping, eased out a wrapped object. ‘From the lowest I’ve gone so far.’

Setting the package between them, Ebbin carefully parted the thick felt outer wrappings then a sheer inner layer of silk to reveal what appeared to be nothing more than a fragment of eggshell, albeit one from an egg of impossibly huge dimensions. Aman bent forward even further, his canted nose almost touching the object. Seeing him up close Ebbin was struck by the deformed shape of his knobbly skull beneath its patchy pelt of filmy grey hair. Perhaps sensing his attention, Aman pulled away.

‘A magnificent specimen, good scholar. Beautiful.’ The shopkeeper lit a lamp from a wall-sconced lantern, set it on the counter. ‘May I?’ Ebbin gestured an invitation. For all his bent root-like fingers, the man lifted the fragment smoothly, held it before the flame. Ebbin crouched to peer: the flame was visible as a blurred glow through the fragment, which was astonishing enough, but the entire piece had somehow taken up the light and now glowed, warm, soft and luminous, like the dawn in miniature.

Aman sighed, almost nostalgically it seemed. ‘I invite you to imagine, if you would, good scholar, entire structures of such stone, carved and polished to near pure translucency, glowing with the cold blue flames of the city. A magnificent sight it must have been, yes?’

‘Yes. Darujhistan in the great Imperial Age of the Tyrants. At least, so it has been conjectured.’

The bulbous eyes moved to his, blinked. ‘Of course.’

‘Is it treated?’

Aman returned the piece to its cloths and began rewrapping it. ‘We shall see. It will have to be tested. Should it prove a fragment from a container utilized in certain, ah … esoteric … rituals from that age, then it may be resold for a great deal to those eager to reuse it for their own … well … similar research.’

Ebbin cleared his throat, uncomfortable. ‘I see.’

Aman tucked the package under the countertop. ‘And how may I help you, good scholar?’

‘I’ve come to a chamber. One still sealed.’

The shopkeeper’s fingers, which had been tapping the counter like spiders, stilled. ‘In truth?’ he breathed in wonder. ‘Sealed as yet? Astonishing. You must take care, good scholar. The traps these ancients set upon their interred …’ He shook his misshapen head. ‘Deadly.’

‘Of course, Aman. I know the risks. I am no amateur.’

‘Of course,’ the shopkeeper echoed, smiling to reveal a mouthful of misaligned teeth. ‘The barrier?’

Ebbin cleared his throat once more. ‘Stone. A flat slab. Unmarked in any way.’

‘Unmarked, you say? No sigils of any sort? Not even the faintest of inscriptions?’

Ebbin frowned, impatient. ‘I know my work. I’ve been excavating for decades.’

Aman raised his hands. ‘No disrespect intended, good scholar. Please. It is just very … unusual.’

An uncomfortable shivering took Ebbin then and he rubbed his chest, nodding his agreement. ‘Yes. It is … unusual.’

‘An unimportant personage, perhaps. A minor court retainer.’

Ebbin thought of the figure laid out on its onyx bier at the chamber’s centre. The beaten gold mask with its eerie mocking smile, and the bands of skulls encircling the plinth. Nested circlets of death. He nodded, shivering. ‘Yes. My impression exactly.’

Aman appeared to be studying him somehow, his gaze weighing. Then the man quickly turned away to his shelves. ‘I may have just the tools for you, good scholar. Moranth alchemicals … acids, perhaps? Or chisels. Not your everyday sort of tool, no, not at all. Hardened iron, alloyed with that Malazan mineral otataral. If you give me a few days I will have them for you.’

‘You have nothing like that here?’

A dry laugh from the man. ‘Oh my goodness, no. That mineral would have a most deleterious effect upon … upon my wares.’

Ebbin could only agree. ‘If you say so, sir. A few days then. I have to consult with my backer in any case.’

‘Excellent, excellent.’ And he bobbed his head, his knotted fingers tapping incessantly on the counter.

~

Once every bolt had been shut and every bar replaced, Aman shuffled back into his shop. Here he found a beautiful young woman, her long black hair braided and coiled atop her head, awaiting him. His mouth tightened into a sour pucker. ‘Your intrusion into my affairs is most ill-advised. Most unwelcome.’

The girl merely cocked a shapely hip to lean against the counter where she turned the wrapped package in slow circles. ‘Why are we relying on this cretin?’

‘We? There is no we. You are deluded. Your uninvited meddling will complicate matters most stressfully.’

‘They were watching the shop, Aman.’

The man hobbled back up on to his platform behind the counter. ‘Watching the shop? Of course they were watching the shop. They are always watching the shop! These agents of my one-time allies have proved most persistent. But because I remain within, and am circumspect … they have been none the wiser.’ He gently touched his fingertips to the wood countertop. ‘Needless to say, said circumspection has now been shattered …’

‘They are dead, Aman.’

The shopkeeper started to speak, caught himself, rubbed his hands over the countertop as if stroking it. He began again, slowly, ‘Yes. However, the one who hired them now knows he, or she, is close to something. Best to have maintained the aura of mystery.’

The girl’s pale thin shoulders lifted in an unconcerned shrug. She began unwrapping the package. ‘Then I will kill whoever that person is.’

‘Ah yes. Speaking of mysteries. No one knows the identity of the circle-breaker. Many poseurs have surfaced pretending to the title, but no one knows for certain. It may have even been one of my old allies — even your mother.’

The girl’s coquettish gaze hardened. ‘Never mention her to me, Aman.’ She peered up from half-lidded eyes. ‘Anyone, you say? But not you, of course.’

Aman shook a bent finger. ‘You are learning.’

She made a face, then indicated the carved fragment. ‘Is this thing really as valuable as you say?’

He raised it between them, his gaze holding her eyes. ‘Ahh … beautiful, yes? Slender, striking. A magnificent specimen. On the outside. But within, flawed. Worthless. A piece of useless trash.’ He crushed it in his hand.

The girl flinched away as if slapped, bumping something in the dark. Her full lips tightened to a pale slash and a molten light blazed within her eyes. The man studied her quite calmly, his head cocked, fingertips lightly touching together. The golden light faded from her eyes as she stood quivering in suppressed rage. She drew a snarling breath and raised her chin in defiance. ‘You are quite finished, I hope?’

He bowed. ‘Quite.’

‘And what is this monstrosity?’ she demanded, waving at the tall figure she’d struck.

Aman raised the lamp, revealing an armoured statue. The light reflected green and blue from an inlay of semi-precious stones. ‘Magnificent, is it not? From distant Jacuruku. One of their stone soldiers.’

She peered closer in an almost professional evaluation. ‘An automaton?’

‘Not … quite.’ He set the lamp on the counter. ‘In any case, m’lady, since you have returned, I suggest you make yourself useful and shadow our friend. Nothing untoward must happen to him. Be ready to intervene. He is close, Taya. Very close.’

‘Why him? Why don’t you go down?’

The man did nothing to hide the condescension in his answering chuckle. ‘My dear. You are most diverting. The countless protections, wards and conditions imposed by my erstwhile allies are most exacting. Almost without openings. Only those who do not seek may pass. They must be innocent of bloodshed, possess no lust for personal gain … the conditions go on and on. Mammotlian contrived them. And so, since Mammotlian, a scholar, built the tomb, perhaps only a fellow like-minded spirit may possess the instincts to follow. If you see my reasoning.’

‘And should he fail — like all the others?’

A crooked shrug from the man. ‘Well, they’re nearly out of floor space down there, aren’t they?’

Her eyes constricted to slits and she tilted her head, unsure of his meaning.

On the street of the whitesmiths in the Gadrobi district, Barathol Mekhar inspected his latest consignment of iron ore. It was of unusually good quality. There was a useful variation of softness and brittleness within the clumps. He closed the box and went to the forge, held a hand over the bed of coals. Still needed more time. He left the shop to cross a small open court to the rear of his row-house. Dusting his hands, he climbed the narrow stairs to his rooms above. Dawn was just brightening the sky outside the shuttered windows. For a time he stood next to the bed where his wife Scillara still slept. Then he went to the other side of the bed to the tiny crib fashioned by his own hands. Kneeling, he studied the infant within, curled and plump.

Never had he imagined such a treasure would be his. It seemed too defenceless for the world. Too tenuous. Its fragility terrified him. He feared even to touch it with his coarse blackened hands. He did however gently ease one into the crib to let the child’s quick hot breath warm those fingers.

Smiling, he rose to see Scillara watching him. ‘Not run off yet, I see,’ she said, stretching.

‘Not yet.’

‘Not even with a squalling brat and a fat wife?’

‘I guess I must have done something terrible in a prior life.’

‘Musta been pretty damned awful.’ She looked about as if searching for something. ‘Gods, I miss my pipe.’

‘You’ll live.’

She pointed to the door. ‘Throw me my gown. Don’t you have work to do? Money to earn? Enough to hire a cook. I’m getting sick of your burnt offerings.’

‘You could try lending a hand, you know.’

She laughed. ‘You don’t want to eat my cooking.’

‘I’ll be out back then.’ He threw the gown. ‘Could use some tea.’

‘We all could.’

On the way down the stairs he looked forward to another day standing at the forge where he could look over to the courtyard and see Scillara sitting on rugs laid out on the ground there, nursing little Chaur.

Life, it seemed to him, was better than he’d ever hoped it could be.

CHAPTER II

Turn not thine hand against thy father; for it is sacrilege

Inscription upon stone fragment

Dwelling Plains

The challenge began as these things always do: with a look. A glance held a heartbeat too long. In this case lingering across the beaten dirt of the practice grounds at the centre of Cant, the marble halls of the Seguleh.

Jan, in the act of turning away to call for a slave, noted the glance, and stopped. Those of the ruling Jistarii family lineage out exercising that morning also instinctively sensed the tension. The crowd parted and Jan found himself staring across the emptied sparring fields and wrestling circles to Enoc, the newly installed Third. He watched while the young aristocrat’s friends and closest supporters within the rankings crossed to stand at his side. Without needing to turn his head Jan knew his own friends had come to his. He held out his wooden practice sword. It was taken from his hand.

‘Give him your back,’ Palla, the Sixth, hissed from behind. ‘How dare he! This is not the place.’

Jan answered calmly: ‘Does not our young Third claim that daring is just what is lacking these days among our ranks?’ A snarl of clenched rage answered that. Jan allowed himself a slight raise of his chin to indicate the seats of the amphitheatre across the way. ‘Look … the judges of the challenge assembled already.’

‘They are all of his family!’ Palla exclaimed. ‘This is the work of his scheming uncle, that fat Olag.’

Jan’s sword appeared, offered hilt-first from behind. He took it and began securing the sheath to his sash. Across the field Enoc’s coterie of supporters, ambitious young-bloods mostly, did the same for him. Someone handed Jan a gourd of water and he sipped. His gaze did not leave Enoc’s mask: a pale oval marred only by two black slashes, one down each cheek.

So, a year already, is it? He was surprised. Time seemed to pass ever more quickly as he became older. Not that he intended to get older — it was merely the byproduct of his extended wait for someone to manage to defeat him. Enoc obviously thought his chance had come. And he had to acknowledge that the daring youth seemed to have chosen his moment quite well: Enoc himself was yet fresh, merely having stretched and warmed up, while he had just completed a very gruelling series of sparring matches and was even now still sweating with exertion. It would appear that this cunning new Third had the advantage.

But Jan was where he wanted to be. His blood was hot and flowing fast. His limbs glowed with heat and felt strong. Practice did not drain him as it seemed to so many others. Rather, it enlivened him. Yet … a challenge during exercise … a time when by tradition all members of the Jistarii aristocracy were welcome to mix freely, practising and training. This was very bad form. An assembly of impartial judges wouldn’t even countenance it.

Yet there was no question he must answer. It was his duty. He was Second.

He set the tips of his fingers on the two-handed grip of his longsword and walked out to the middle of the amphitheatre sands. Over the years he had lost count of the many Thirds who had come and gone beneath him. The ranks of the Agatii, the top thousand, were like a geyser in this manner — ever throwing up new challengers. And this one was an impatient example of a notoriously impatient ranking. Long ago it was always said that Second was the worst ranking to attain. Ever Second, never First. But with the death of the last ancient to achieve First, it was Third that was now so regarded. The itchiest ranking; the briefest rung … in one manner or another. And this one seems to think me tired. Very well. Let him do so. Let him challenge now, so very early. So very … precipitately. So be it. I can only do my part and accept.

Enoc strode out to meet him. The other Jistarii backed away, leaving the field clear, while slaves removed equipment. The wind was calm, and the sun was far enough overhead not to be an issue. Jan waited, head cocked. When the Third was close enough to allow private conversation, he offered the ritual exchange: ‘I give you this last chance to reconsider. Form has been obeyed. No shame would accrue.’

The gaze was scornful behind the white mask with its two black lines. ‘Waiting is not for me, Second. I do not plan to cling to my perch — as you have.’

Jan’s breath caught momentarily. ‘You covet the First?’

‘It is time. If you will not lead, then stand aside for one who will.’

So that is what they are whispering in the dormitories … How they have all forgotten. One does not claim First. It cannot be taken. It can only be given. And I — even I — was not judged worthy. Anger beckoned now, and with a supreme effort he allowed it to flow past. No. There must be no emotion. No thought. This one thinks too much — it slows him. One must not think. One must simply act. And he, Jan, had always been so very fast to act.

Pushing with his thumb, he eased the blade a fraction from its sheath. ‘Very well, Third.’ He inhaled, and exhaling whispered the ritual words: ‘I accept.’

Their blades met crashing and grating even as the last syllable left Jan’s mouth. Jan deflected several attacks, noting subconsciously how the lad relied too much on strength as a bolster to a form not yet quite at ease with itself. He knew instinctively he had the better of him, and that any of the rankers above the Tenth would see this as well. But the judges. They would not be convinced. Something much more irrefutable would be needed.

The poor lad. In stacking the assembly his uncle has left me with no alternative. And now this one will pay the price.

Still he delayed, parrying and circling. Among the highest rankings, actually being sloppy enough to spill blood was considered very poor form. The best victories were those achieved without such crudity.

The storm of the Third’s unrelenting aggression washed over him in a constant ringing of tempered, hardened steel. Yet he remained calm — an eye of tranquillity surrounded by a blurred singing razor’s edge. That storm had first been one of blustering overbearing power. But now it carried within it a discord of confusion, even recognition.

And a coiling frantic desperation.

Jan chose to act. Best to end the testing now, lest he acquire a reputation for cruelty. In the midst of their entwined dance of thrust, feint and counter, Jan’s blade extended a fraction of a finger’s breadth further as his shift inwards allowed Enoc’s own movement to close their distance more than intended and the tip of his blade licked the inside of the right elbow, severing tendon.

Enoc’s right arm fell limp, the longsword swinging loose. The lad froze, chest rising and falling in an all too open display of exertion. His fevered gaze through his mask was one of disbelief now crashing into horror.

The lad was crippled. Oh, it would heal, and in time he would probably regain use of the arm. But with that wound he would be hard pressed even to maintain a position within the Agatii. He would retain the right to carry a blade, of course. But there would be no more challenges for him.

Jan considered a whispered apology now while they held this fragile intimate moment between challengers, but the youth would probably take it as an insult. And so he said nothing.

That delicate moment, the onlookers’ breath caught in aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of a single cut perfectly executed in power, timing, accuracy and form, passed.

And the gathered Jistarii all bowed to their Second.

Later that evening Jan sat cross-legged at dinner with his closest friends among the ranked: Palla, the Sixth, and Lo, Eighth these many years, but recently, with the reported death of Blacksword, under consideration for promotion to the long empty rank of Seventh. With them also was an old friend of his youth, Beru, one of the Thirtieth.

‘Will Gall reclaim the Third?’ Jan asked Palla.

She laughed, and, ducking her head, lifted her mask to take a pinched morsel of rice and meats. ‘He will. And with gratitude to be back on his old rung again.’

‘Gratitude? I did not act as I did for his benefit.’

She bowed, all formal, but her voice held humour: ‘Gratitude for reminding everyone why he has remained Third for so long.’

Jan motioned gently to close the subject. He turned to Lo, seeing the seven lines of soot that radiated from the eye holes of his friend’s mask. ‘And what of you? Will you take the Seventh?’

Lo bowed stiffly from the waist. ‘If commanded. But I do not seek it. It is … distasteful … to step up in this manner.’

From Beru’s tense pose Jan could tell he had something to say. ‘And you, Beru?’

The man bowed, and kept his gaze averted. ‘With respect, Second. There is talk of this swordsman, whoever he may be, who slew Blacksword, the Lord of the Moon’s Scion. Some say he must be regarded as the new Seventh. Some suggest a challenge.’

Jan had been reaching for a pinch of meat, but stilled. ‘You know I am against such … adventurism. I opposed the expedition of punishment against the Pannions. What did that gain us? Mok’s skills wasted against rabble and unworthy amateurs.’

His three companions ate in silence for a time, for all knew Jan’s feelings regarding Mok, his elder brother, who volunteered to silence those disrespectful Pannions. And who returned … changed. Broken.

It fell to Palla to speak, the one who shared the greatest claim to intimacy with him, as the lovers they had been. Until both had climbed too high in the rankings and the tensions of the challenge intervened. ‘And yet,’ she began, cautiously, ‘you supported Oru’s venture.’

Jan made a deliberate effort to soften his tone. ‘Oru claimed to have had a vision. Who am I to dispute that? I allowed him to call for any who would voluntarily accompany him.’

‘And twenty answered! Our greatest expedition ever mounted.’

‘True.’ And for the greatest goal of all. For only to him, as Second, did Oru reveal the truth of his vision … the belief that somehow, in some manner, he would regain the honour of the Seguleh stolen from them so long ago. A mad, desperate hope. But one he could not oppose.

His gaze fell on Lo, face turned away as he raised his mask to drink. Perhaps he should allow the challenge. Any man who could defeat Blacksword … if he could better Lo then he could have the rank.

A gentle tap at the door broke into Jan’s thoughts. He nodded for Beru to answer. On his knees, one hand on the grip of his sword, Beru cracked open the door and spoke in low tones to whoever was without. After a short exchange he opened it.

It was an old man, an unmasked honoured Jistarii who had chosen the path of priest. The man shuffled in on his knees and bowed, touching his brow to the bare hardwood floor. ‘My lord. You are requested at the temple. There is … something for you to see.’

Jan inclined his mask fractionally. ‘Very well. I will attend.’ The priest bowed again. He shuffled backwards on his knees and stepped out of the low threshold without turning his back upon them. Jan took a sip of tea to cleanse his mouth.

Palla bowed in a request to speak.

‘Yes?’

‘May we accompany you?’

‘If you wish.’

The main temple of Cant was a large open-sided building of columns and arches. It was constructed entirely of white marble veined with black. Lit torches hissed in the evening wind, casting shadows among the eerily pallid white stone columns, floor and ceiling. The High Priest, Sengen, awaited them. He wore the plain tunic and trousers of rough cloth that were the customary clothing of the Seguleh. He was clean shaven, as most Seguleh males of the Jistarii tended to be, and his long grey hair was oiled and pulled back tightly in a braid. He bowed to Jan.

‘Sengen,’ Jan acknowledged, thereby granting him permission to speak.

‘Only the Second may accompany me,’ the old man commanded, stepping forward.

Palla and Lo stiffened, exchanged outraged glances. Jan raised a hand for patience. ‘That is your right here within the temple.’

Sengen bowed again, beckoning Jan forward.

He led him to the very rear. To the altarpiece: a single pillar of unearthly translucent white stone, waist-high, its top empty. Sengen regarded the pillar reverently, his hands crossed over his chest. Jan stared at him, puzzled by his odd behaviour. Then his gaze moved to the pillar, and he started forward, amazed. Beads of moisture ran down the white stone, and a thin vapour, as of a morning mist, drifted from it.

‘It sweats, Second,’ the High Priest breathed, awed. ‘The stone sweats.’

‘What does this mean?’

Eyes fixed on the pale stone, Sengen answered, ‘It means that what we have been awaiting all this time may come. Our purpose.’

Shaken, Jan stepped away. Yet the pillar was empty … was this right? How could this happen?

‘It is your duty to make ready,’ Sengen said sharply.

Jan nodded. Turning, he caught his reflection on a nearby polished shield. A pale white mask distinguished by a single blood-red smear across the brow. A mark put there by the last First, so long ago. ‘Yes,’ he answered, his voice thick. ‘I shall.’

His three friends waited on the steps of the temple. Coming to them Jan stood silent for some time while they shifted, uncomfortable, gazes averted. ‘Lo,’ he said at last. ‘I give you permission to seek out this Seventh. We may have need of him.’

‘Need?’ Lo echoed, glancing up in startlement, then quickly away.

‘You may take one other with you. Who would that be?’

Lo gestured. ‘Beru here, if he would.’

‘No. I would have him remain. Choose another.’

Lo bowed. ‘As you command.’

‘What is it?’ Palla asked, inclining her head. ‘You are … troubled.’

Jan regarded her. For a moment he allowed himself the pleasure of taking in her lithe limbs, her tall proud bearing, and wished she had not pursued the Path of the Challenge. But that was selfish of him; she deserved her rank. ‘Gather the Agatii, Sixth. We must make ready. The altarstone has awakened.’

The three glanced to the temple, their eyes behind their masks widening in awe. ‘We thought that just a legend,’ Palla breathed.

‘Before he passed, the First imparted to me a portion of what was handed down to him. It is no legend. Now go, Palla. Tell the first half of the Agatii to gather here.’

Palla jerked a swift bow and dashed down the steps. Jan turned to the Eighth. ‘A vessel will be placed at your disposal.’

Lo bowed and backed away down the stairs. Watching him go, Beru spoke, wonder in his voice. ‘And what can this lowly Thirtieth do to help?’

‘I would have you remain among the ranks, Beru. Listen to the talk in the dormitories. A difficult time may be coming. We will all be tested. Let us hope we are not judged … unworthy.’

‘I understand, Second.’ Jan did not answer, and, sensing that his friend wished to be alone now, Beru bowed and departed.

Jan stood for some time in the chill air of the evening. He looked out across the paved white stone Plaza of Gathering to the houses and the mountains of this, their adopted homeland. That adoption was itself no secret. They knew they’d come from elsewhere; all their old stories told of a great march, an exile, although none named their mythical place of origin. That was another truth the First had confirmed: their homeland was to the north. And he had named it.

Precious little more guidance had the ancient yielded, though. When pressed for more the old man had simply peered up at him from where he lay and shaken his head. ‘It is best you do not know these things,’ he had said. ‘It is best for all.’

Ignorance? How could ignorance be best? Jan’s instincts railed against such a claim. Yet he was raised and trained to obey, and so he had submitted. He was Second. It was his duty. Perhaps it was the old man’s tone that had convinced him. Those words had carried in them a crushing grief, a terrible weight of truth that Jan feared he might not be able to endure.

‘You smell that?’ Picker asked. She looked up from where she sat with her feet on a table in the nearly empty common room of K’rul’s bar, chair pushed back, cleaning her nails with a dagger.

Blend, chin in hand at the bar counter, cocked a brow to Duiker in his customary seat. ‘That a comment?’

Picker wrinkled her nose. ‘No — not you. Somethin’ even worse … Somethin’ I ain’t smelt since …’ The chair banged down and she cursed. ‘That hair-shirted puke is back in town!’

Blend straightened, peered around. ‘No …’ She lunged for the door. ‘Get the back!’

The door opened before Blend reached it. She tried to push it shut on a man with a shock of unkempt salt-and-pepper hair and a weather-darkened grizzled face, wearing a long ragged hair shirt. He managed to squeeze in as she slammed it shut. ‘Good to see you too, Blend,’ he commented, scowling.

Blend flinched away, covering her nose and mouth. ‘Spindle. What in Hood’s dead arse are you doing here?’

Picker ran in from the rear: ‘Back’s locked. There’s no way he can- Oh. Damn.’

A toothy smile from the man. ‘Just like old times.’ He ambled over to sit at Duiker’s table, nodded to the grey-bearded man. ‘Historian. Been a while.’

The old man’s mouth crooked up just a touch. ‘Nothing seems to keep you Bridgeburners down.’

‘Shit floats,’ Picker muttered from the bar on the far side of the room.

‘So how ’bout a drink then?’ Spindle called loudly. ‘’Less you’re just too damned busy with all your customers an’ all.’

‘We’re out,’ Blend said. ‘Have to try somewhere else. Don’t let us stop you.’

Spindle turned in his chair. ‘Out? What kind of bar has no alcohol?’

‘A very grim one,’ Duiker offered so low no one seemed to hear.

‘Hunh.’ The man pulled on his ragged shirt at its neck as if it were uncomfortable, or too tight. ‘Well, I think maybe I can help you out with that.’

Picker and Blend exchanged sceptical glances and said in unison, ‘Oh?’

‘Sure. Got some work kicked my way. You know, paid work for coin. For drink and food. And to pay the rent.’ Spindle studied Blend more closely. ‘Who do you pay rent to here anyway?’

The women shifted their stances, squinting at the walls. ‘Why us?’ Blend asked suddenly and Picker nodded.

‘They just want people they can count on to keep their damned mouths shut.’

‘People have given up on the assassins’ guild, have they?’ Picker commented.

‘If there’s any of them left …’ Blend added, aside.

Spindle rolled his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Not that kinda work!’

‘What in Fener’s prang is it then?’ Blend demanded.

Sitting back, booted feet straight out before him, the veteran clasped his hands over his belt. He smiled lopsidedly in what Picker imagined to be an effort at ingratiation, but which looked more like the leer of a dirty old man. ‘Right up your alley, Blend. Plain ol’ low-profile reconnaissance. Observe and report. Nothin’ more.’

‘How much?’ Picker asked.

‘A gold council per day.’

Blend whistled. ‘Who’s worth that much? Not you, that’s for damned sure.’

Spindle lost his smile. ‘They’re payin’ a lot to make sure the job gets done.’

‘Who’s paying?’ Duiker suddenly asked in a low hoarse voice. ‘Who’s the principal?’

All three regarded the old historian, amazed.

‘Damned straight!’ Blend said.

‘Yeah,’ Picker said. ‘Could be a trap. Fake contract to draw us out.’

Spindle dismissed that with a wave. ‘Ach! You’re soundin’ too much like Antsy.’ He peered around. ‘Where is that lunatic anyway?’

Blend leaned back to set her elbows on the bar. ‘Went south. Said he was … ah, antsy.’ She scowled. ‘Stop changing the subject! Who’s payin’?’

Spindle just waved again. ‘Never you mind. I know. And I know we can trust ’em.’

‘Them?’ Picker said, arching a brow. ‘Who’re them?’

Spindle threw his hands up. ‘All right, all right! Trusting as Jags, you lot are. Okay!’ He leaned forward and tapped the side of his gashed and battered nose. ‘You could say it’s our old employers.’

If Picker had had something in her hands she would’ve thrown it at the man. ‘You great idjit! We’re deserters!’

He produced that knowing smirk once more. ‘Exactly. That makes us free agents, right?’

‘It makes political sense,’ Duiker said, and he brushed a hand across the tabletop. ‘Aragan can’t have the Council accuse him of meddling, or spying.’

Spindle’s brows rose. ‘Aragan? That old dog’s here?’

Blend and Picker both swore aloud. ‘Spindle!’ Blend managed, swallowing more curses. ‘You brick-headed ox! He’s the Oponn-cursed ambassador! You said you knew who you were working for!’

Spindle’s face reddened and he stood, heaving back his chair. ‘Well he hardly stopped me on the damned street, did he!’

The old historian eyed the three veterans glaring each other down across the room. He raised a hand. ‘I’ll mind the shop.’

All three blinked and eased out tensed breaths. Picker gave a curt nod. ‘Okay then.’

‘Where?’ Blend asked.

Spindle was frowning down at the historian. ‘South of the city. The burial fields. People want to know what’s goin’ on there.’

‘Everyone says that’s all tapped out,’ Picker said.

‘The past never goes away — we carry it with us,’ Duiker murmured, as if quoting.

Brows crimped, Spindle scratched a scab on his nose. ‘Yeah. Like the man says.’

Blend was behind the bar. She pulled out a set of scabbarded long-knives wrapped in a belt. ‘We should head out tonight. Before the Ridge Town gate closes.’

A wide sideways grin climbed up Spindle’s mouth. ‘Spot their campfires, hey?’

‘Just like old times.’

They walked the desolate shore of black sands, over coarse volcanic headlands, and along the restless glowing waves of the Sea of Vitr. Beach after beach stretched out in arcs of pulverized glass-like sands.

As they walked one such beach Leoman cleared his throat and motioned to their rear. ‘Do you think he really is what he claims?’

Kiska shrugged her impatience. ‘I don’t even know what it is it claims to be.’

Leoman nodded to that. ‘True enough. Not for the likes of us, perhaps.’ He stretched, easing the muscles of his shoulders and back.

How like a cat, Kiska thought again. With his damned moustache — like whiskers!

‘I had a friend once,’ he said, after a time of walking in silence, ‘who was good at ignoring or putting such questions out of his mind. He simply refused to dwell upon what was out of his control. I always admired that quality in him.’

‘And what came of this admirably reasonable fellow?’ she asked, squinting aside.

The man smiled, brushing his moustache with a finger and thumb. ‘He went off to slay a god.’

Kiska looked to the sky. Oh, Burn deliver me! ‘Are your companions always so extravagant?’

He eyed her sidelong. The edge of his mouth crooked up. ‘Strangely enough, yes.’

Kiska had stridden on ahead to where an eroded cliff blocked the way. They would have to climb.

At the top Kiska could see far out over the empty sea of shimmering, shifting light. Nothing marred it. Behind, the shadowy figure of Maker had re-joined the sky. The entity had returned to what Kiska mused must be an infinite labour. Was it some kind of curse? Or a thankless calling nobly pursued?

She turned her attention to the next curve of beach and her breath caught.

Leoman found her like that, sitting on her haunches, staring, and drew breath to ask what was the matter, but she raised her chin to the beach ahead. He looked, and grunted a curse.

An immense skeletal corpse lay sprawled across the beach. Half its length narrowed down to the glimmering surf, where it disappeared, eaten away by the Vitr.

The corpse of a dragon.

They approached side by side. Leoman clutched his morningstars and Kiska her stave — though she knew neither would help them should the beast prove some sort of undead creature. But no sentience animated the dark sockets of its eyes. The flesh of its great snout, itself of greater length than she or Leoman, was desiccated, curled back from the dark openings of its nostrils. Yellowed curved teeth, an alchemist’s hoard, grinned back at them.

Who had this Eleint been in life? Had it been known to humans? Or was this the extent of its life … this one brief titanic struggle to escape the Vitr? The idea made her very sad.

Leoman cleared his throat but said nothing. She nodded, swallowing. As they walked away his hand found hers but she pulled it free. She covered her reaction by walking impatiently ahead to where the beach ended at a tumble of the loose porous volcanic rocks.

After a time, Leoman called after her: ‘There’s no hurry, lass.’

She hung her head, pausing on the uneven rocks jutting out into the glowing waves of the Vitr. She glanced back to the man; he was coming along slowly, taking great care with his footing.

‘We don’t know for certain-’

‘Yes, yes! I know. Now hurry up.’

He came up beside her and offered a wink. ‘Wouldn’t do to get yourself killed this close, would it?’

‘This close to what?’

He brushed his moustache. ‘Well, to an answer. One way or t’other.’

‘Leoman,’ she began, slowly, as she hopped from rock to rock, ‘promise me one thing, won’t you? Should I fall into the Vitr and get myself burned to ashes.’

‘And what is that, lass?’

‘That you’ll shave off that idiotic moustache.’ She jumped down on to the black sands of the next long stretch of beach. ‘And stop calling me “lass”.’

He thumped down next to her, ran a finger along the moustache, grinning. ‘I’ll have you know the ladies always love it when I-’

‘I don’t want to know!’ she cut in. ‘Thank you.’

‘So you keep sayin’. But I promise you you’ll-’

Kiska had snapped up a hand. She knelt and he joined her.

Tracks in the sands. Unlike any spoor she’d ever seen, but tracks all the same. When they’d yet to see any at all. Some kind of shuffling awkward walk. She pointed to cliffs inland that the beach climbed towards. Leoman nodded. He freed his morningstars to hold them in his hands, the chains gripped to the hafts. Kiska levelled her stave.

They kept to the edge of the rocky headland, slipping inland, keeping an eye on where the beach ended at the cliffs. She saw the dark mouths of a number of caves. She looked at Leoman, pointed. He nodded. Reaching the cliff, she dodged ahead from cover to cover. Behind, a strangled snarl sounded Leoman’s objection. The first opening was narrow and she slipped within, stave held for thrusting. The cramped space was empty. But packed sand floored it, and depressions showed where people, or things, might have sat or lain. A population? Here? Of what nature? A sound raised the hairs on the back of her neck. A high-pitched keening. Leoman’s morningstars, which he could raise to a blurred speed greater than any she had ever seen or heard tell of.

She leapt out of the cave to see the man facing off a crowd of malformed creatures. Daemons, summoned monstrosities, all somehow warped or wounded. They grasped with mangled clawed hands. The faces of some were no more than drooling smears. Most raised limbs far too crippled to be any danger. Leoman held them off, his back to the cave mouth.

‘What do you want?’ she yelled. ‘Speak! Can you understand me?’

Then the ground shook. Kiska tottered, righted herself and peered up. A gigantic creature had joined the crowd. It appeared to have jumped down from the cliff. It straightened to a height greater than that of a Thelomen. Great splayed clawed feet, like those of a bird of prey, dug into the sands. Its broad torso was armoured like that of a river lizard. It brushed aside its smaller kin with wide, blackened, taloned hands. A huge shaggy mane of coarse hair surrounded red blazing eyes and a mouth of misaligned dagger-like teeth.

She sent one quick glance to Leoman, who nodded, and they both leapt backwards into the cave. In the narrow chute of the entrance she took the forefront; there was no room for morningstars.

A shadow occluded the opening. A deep voice of stones grinding rumbled, ‘Who are you, and what do you wish here?’

‘Who are you to attack us!’

‘We did not attack you — you trespass! This is our home.’

‘We didn’t know you lived here …’

‘So. Even when you knew you were the strangers here, you assume we are the interlopers. How very typically human of you.’

Kiska looked at Leoman, who rolled his eyes. A lecture on manners was the last thing she expected. ‘So … this is a misunderstanding? We can come out?’

‘No. Stay within. We do not want your kind here.’

What? Now who is being unfriendly?’

‘You have proved yourselves hostile. We must protect ourselves. Stay within. We will discuss your fate.’

‘Let us out!’ Kiska stood still, listening, but no one answered. She edged forward a little and saw a solid wall of the deformed creatures blocking the exit. She slumped back inside against a wall, slid down to the sand.

Leoman eased himself down next to her. He glanced about the narrow cave. ‘Damned familiar, yes?’

Arms draped over her knees, she only grunted her agreement.

‘We could fight our way out,’ he mused.

‘That would only confirm their judgement, wouldn’t it?’

‘I suppose so. I wonder how much time we will have …’

She cocked a brow. ‘Oh?’

‘Because we might as well spend it profitably …’

Leoman! Can’t you keep your mind off that for one minute?’

He shrugged expansively. ‘You need to learn to relax when you have no control over a situation. There is nothing you can do, yes? Now I will rub your back.’

She snorted, but fought a rising grin. ‘Leoman … you can rub my back if you promise me one thing …’

Early in the morning Scholar Ebbin approached the main gates of the Eldra Iron Mongers in the west end of Darujhistan. Under the bored eyes of the door guards he waited as wagons and carts came and went, all stopped and inspected by tablet-wielding clerks, their contents counted, itemized and graded. Ebbin stood waiting. Smoke from the foundries belched overhead. A steady rain of soot added to the layers already blackening the helmets, shoulders and faces of the guards.

After waiting what seemed like half the morning — the guards staring ox-like at him the entire time — Ebbin thrust himself forward into the path of one of these soot-smeared scurrying clerks. ‘I’m here to see the master,’ he blurted out.

Sniggering laughs all around from the youthful clerks. ‘Hear that, Ollie?’ the addressed one said, and he turned his back on Ebbin to examine a wagonload of crates. ‘Here to see the master.’

The fellow Ebbin presumed to be Ollie answered with a mocking laugh. ‘I’ll just summon him then, shall I?’

More laughter answered that. Ebbin pulled a scroll from his shoulder bag. ‘He gave me this.’

The nearest clerk simply continued his tally. Finishing, he swung an exasperated glare to Ebbin. ‘What’s this then? You’d better not be wasting my time.’ He snatched the scroll from Ebbin’s hand and yanked it open, scanned it. He paused, returned to the top to go through it again, more slowly. After finishing the entire letter he raised his eyes to Ebbin; a kind of guarded resentment now filled them. ‘Follow me,’ said.

With the clerk leading, Ebbin wound his way across the busy yards of the ironworks. They crossed rails guiding wooden cars pulled by soot-blackened sickly mules, past great hangars where smoke billowed and sparks showered like glowing rain. They reached a building that looked to have once been a handsome estate house, but now stood almost entirely black beneath countless years of soot. Dead, or nearly dead, vines clung to its facade, some still bearing leaves thick with ash.

Just within the main doors they met some sort of reception secretary, or higher-ranked clerk. ‘Yes?’ the pale fellow asked without so much as glancing up. In answer Ebbin’s guide shoved the letter in front of him. The receptionist’s lips compressed and he took the now soot-smeared vellum between a forefinger and thumb as if it were a dead animal. He gave it a cursory glance, even in the act of tossing it away, then stopped suddenly and slowly flattened it before him. After reading the letter he said, ‘You may go.’ It was not clear to Ebbin whom the man meant. But the young clerk immediately turned on his heel and left without a word. The man blinked up at Ebbin. ‘Follow me.’

The receptionist led him up a wide set of ornate stairs of polished stone. Soot layered the balustrade and the steps were black with ground-in dirt and ash. The man knocked at a set of narrow double doors then pushed them open. Here in a slim but very high-roofed room waited another cadaverous fellow just like this one. The receptionist set the vellum sheet on the man’s desk then returned to the doors. He bowed to Ebbin and made a curt gesture that was somewhat like an invitation to enter. Ebbin did so; the man shut the doors behind him.

The secretary glanced at the letter as he continued writing. The scratching of the quill was quite loud in the upright crypt-like room. ‘You are lucky,’ he said without glancing up. ‘The master is rarely in. If you wait here I will announce you.’

Ebbin hardly trusted himself to speak. A breathless ‘Certainly’ was all he could manage.

The man set down his quill and blotted the document before him, then pushed back his chair. He knocked on the door beside the desk, then went through and quickly shut it behind him. Ebbin waited, rubbing his fingers nervously over the sweat-stained leather strap of his shoulder bag.

The door opened and the secretary brusquely waved him forward. Smiling and nodding, Ebbin edged in past the fellow, who closed the door so quickly he almost caught Ebbin’s fingers. The room within was quite large — it might have originally been a main bedroom, or private salon. Tables cluttered it, each burdened by great heaps of documents and folders. Maps covered the dark-grimed walls. Ebbin recognized schematic drawings of mineworks and street maps of Darujhistan, some very old indeed. One map on a far wall appeared remarkably ancient and he was about to head for it when someone spoke from where light shafted in from a bank of dirty windows. ‘Scholar Ebbin! Over here, if you please.’

‘Master Measure,’ he replied, squinting and bowing. ‘Good of you to see me.’

The master of Eldra Iron Mongers, rumoured to be the richest man in all Darujhistan, stood at one of the tables, his back to a window, studying a folder. He was rather short, going to fat. His northern background was evident in his black curly hair, now thin and greying. Ebbin recognized the folder in the man’s hands as his original project proposal.

‘So,’ the master announced, ‘you are here to request further funding, I take it?’

Ebbin’s throat was as dry as the dust swirling in the light shafts that crossed the room. His heart was hammering, perhaps reverberating with the pounding of the forges. ‘Yes, sir,’ he gasped weakly.

‘This would be your …’ he sorted through the papers, ‘third extension.’

‘Yes … sir.’

‘And what do you have to show for my investment?’

Ebbin struggled with the clasp of his shoulder bag. ‘Yes, of course. I have some shards that hint at decorative styles mentioned in the earliest accounts …’ He halted as the master curtly waved a hand.

‘No, no. I’m not interested in your knickknacks, or your odds and bobs. What have you found?’

Ebbin let go of his shoulder bag. Gods, dare I say it? What if I am laughed out of this office? Well, no more funding regardless … He took a deep breath. ‘I believe I have discovered a vault that may contain proof of the Darujhistan Imperial Age.’

Humble Measure dipped his head in thought, pursed his lips. He started out from behind the table. ‘A brave claim, scholar. Isn’t it orthodoxy that such an age is mere myth? Whimsical wish fulfilment of those yearning for some sort of past greatness?’

The master had walked to the centre of the room. Looking back at Ebbin, he added, ‘As the honoured members of the Philosophical Society point out: surely there would be evidence?’

‘Unless it was expunged with the last of the Tyrant Kings.’

The ironmonger crossed to a table bearing great heaps of papers, yellowed maps and dust-covered volumes. He picked something up and turned it in his hands, a card of some sort. He spoke while peering down at it. ‘One and the same, then? Scholar? The Tyrants and the city’s place as the true power of these lands?’

Ebbin nodded, said, ‘I believe so, yes. Back then.’

‘And what gives you reason to believe you may be close to such proof?’

‘The artistic style of the decor. The architecture of the burial chamber itself. Associated artefacts above from the earliest years of the Free Cities period. All evidence points to this conclusion.’

‘I see. And this vault?’

‘It looks undisturbed.’

‘And … just the one?’

Ebbin’s brows rose in surprise and appreciation at the astuteness of the query. ‘Why, no. One of twelve, in fact.’ And the thirteenth? The central figure? What of him? Shall you mention him? And the floor of skulls? No! Mere excesses of funerary devotional offerings, nothing more. He drew a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped his face and the palms of his hands. He felt almost faint with thirst. The slanting yellow rays cut at his eyes.

‘Twelve,’ the master repeated. ‘Such a weighty, ill-omened number for Darujhistan. The twelve tormenting daemons come to take children away.’

Ebbin shrugged. ‘Obviously some ritual significance of the number goes back even to the time of the Tyrants. Those old wives’ tales of the twelve fiends merely reveal how far we’ve fallen from the truth of the past.’

The Cat native glanced sharply back at him then, over a shoulder. ‘Indeed, scholar. Indeed.’ He returned to studying the card. ‘You shall have your funding. I will provide labourers, draught animals, cartage. And, because what you find may be valuable, armed guards as well.’

Ebbin now frowned his confusion. ‘Master Measure, there is no need for such measures — ah, that is, for such expenditures. Such a large party would only attract the attention of all the thieves and pot-hunters on the plain.’

‘Thus the armed guards, good scholar. Now, I own a warehouse close to the Cuttertown gate. My guards will know it. You will bring whatever you find there.’

‘But, sir. Really, it would be best if I made the arrangements-’ The ironmonger had raised a hand, silencing him.

‘I will protect my investment, scholar. That is all. Wait without.’

Over the years Scholar Ebbin had not begged and scraped for monies from this man, and many others like him, without learning when to argue and when to obey. And so, in an effort to salvage some modicum of dignity, he bowed and left.

Alone, the ironmonger Humble Measure returned to studying the card. It was an ancient artefact of the divinatory Dragons Deck. The single surviving example from an arcana of an age long gone. He held it up to the light and there, caught in the slanting afternoon rays, it blazed pearly white, revealing an image of one of the three major cards of power, rulership and authority … the Orb.

*

There is a steep gorge amid the hills east of Darujhistan that all the locals know to avoid. To some it is the lair of a giant. To those who have travelled, or spent time talking to those who have, it is merely home to a displaced Thelomen, or Toblakai, of the north.

Here he had lurked for nearly a year. And though several people had complained to the tribal authorities, no one had organized a war band to drive him out. Perhaps it was because while sullen, and an obvious foreigner, the giant had not actually killed anyone as yet. And the woman who was sometimes with him did eventually pay for the animals he took. And he did seem gruffly affectionate towards the two children with him. Or perhaps it was because he was a giant with a stone blade that looked taller than most men.

In any case, word spread, and the gorge came to be avoided, and developed an evil reputation as the haunt of whatever anyone wished to ascribe to it. The local tribes became comfortable with having someone conveniently nearby to blame every time a goat went missing or a pot of milk soured. A few unexplained pregnancies were even hung upon him — charges the foreign woman with him laughed off with irritating scorn. As she also did their subsequent angry threats to skin the creature.

In time, some locals claimed that in the dim light of the re-formed moon they had seen him crouched high on the hillside, glaring to the west, where one could just make out the blue flames of Darujhistan glowing on the very horizon.

Had he been cast out of that pit of sinfulness? Or escaped the dungeon of one of the twelve evil magi who clan elders claimed secretly ruled that nest of wickedness? Did he plot revenge? If so, perhaps he deserved their tolerance; for the destruction of that blot of iniquity was ever the goal of the clan elders — when they weren’t visiting its brothels, at least.

And so an accord of a sort was established between the clans of the Gadrobi hills and their foreign visitor. The elders hoped that flame and sword was what the giant held in his heart for Darujhistan, while the war band fighters were secretly relieved not to have to face his stone blade.

As for the creature himself, who could say what lay within his heart of stone? Had he been thrown out of the city as an irredeemable troublemaker and breaker of the peace? Or had he turned his back on that degenerate cesspool of vice and nobly taken up station in the hills, far from its corrupting influence? Who could say? Perhaps, as some elders darkly muttered, it merely depended upon which side of the walls one squatted.

*

In the estate district of Darujhistan a grey-haired but still hale-looking man walked through an ornamental garden, but he hardly saw the heavy blossoms, or registered their thick cloying scents. His hands were clasped behind his back and his path was wandering. He was a bard who went by the name of Fisher, and he was wrestling with a particularly thorny problem.

He was struggling with his growing impatience and lack of respect for his current lover. In the past such a falling away of allure would have proved no complication. All it took was a tender chaste kiss, a last lingering look, and he was on his way.

No, the problem was that his current lover was Lady Envy. And Envy did not take rejection well. He paused in his pacing, wincing in memory of their last parting. At least he had gotten away alive.

A woman’s voice rose in the distance, cursing, and Fisher ran for the white pavilion that graced the middle of the gardens. Here he found Envy sitting cross-legged before a low table of polished imported wood. A scattering of cards lay on the thick rich grain and Envy was cursing a streak of invective that would make a dock porter blush.

‘An unhappy future?’ he asked in mock innocence, then winced again.

‘This is nothing for you to joke about,’ Envy answered, imitating his tone. Thankfully she did not look up to catch his pained features.

He made an effort to pull his expression into one of serious concern. ‘What is it?’

She held up a card. ‘This bastard.’

The Orb. He frowned. ‘Yes?’

She eyed him aslant. A smile that hinted at oh so many secrets raised one edge of her lips. ‘You have no idea, do you?’

Fisher struggled to hide all signs of his exasperation. Keeping his voice light, he asked, ‘Perhaps you would be so kind as to inform me?’

Envy tapped the card to her lips — lips that she had taken to painting a pale blue after the current fashion. She lowered her green eyes. ‘No. I think not. This could be … diverting.’

Fisher lurched to a sideboard to pour himself a crystal flute of wine. ‘A drink, m’lady?’ he asked, ever courtly.

‘No. Nor should you, I think. I note you are drinking more lately. You should stop. I find it … unflattering.’

He turned from the sideboard, leaned back against it and downed the entire glass in one long pull. He crossed his arms. ‘Really?’

Lady Envy pursed her sky-blue lips and began shuffling the Deck of Dragons. ‘Dearest Fisher,’ she said after a time, ‘you are a talented man … but still just a man. These are matters far beyond you.’

He carefully set the delicate flute on the table. ‘Well, then. Perhaps I should ask around.’

Already into a new casting, Envy was quiet for some time. A vexed frown creased her powdered white brow and she bit her lip. She had paused at the final card, which when turned would be the centre of her field. ‘Ask around?’ she echoed, distracted. She laughed throatily. ‘Oh yes. Do so. If you enjoy playing the facade of usefulness.’

Instead of the anger that ought to have answered such a dismissal, Fisher felt only sadness; an ache for what briefly had been, and for the fading promise of what might have been. He bowed to Envy. ‘I shall go and play then.’

She did not answer as he walked away.

~

Envy sat alone for a long time, unmoving, hand poised over the card that would lock the swirling pattern of futures before her. Orb high, of course. Card of authority and rulership. And Obelisk near. Past and future conflating. But what of her? What of Envy?

Shadows crept across the faces of the cards. The sky darkened. At long last Envy steeled herself sufficiently to slide the card from the top of its fellows and hold it over the centre position.

She turned it and immediately let go as if burnt. Her hands flew to her throat. She gasped, unable to speak. A great inhuman gurgling yell exploded from her and a burst of power erupted, blowing off the top of the pavilion. Out of the billowing flames stalked Envy. She walked stiff-legged up a garden path, her rich robes scorched and smouldering. Heavy flower blossoms beamed and nodded at her. Snarling, she batted one into a flurry of crimson petals.

A rain of cards came fluttering down around the estate district that afternoon. Aristocratic couples out for a promenade watched, puzzled, as blackened rectangles flitted down on the roads. Servants pocketed many, recognizing the gold and silver paints and the exquisite, though ruined, quality of production. A tutor hired to knock some sense into the spoiled scions of one noble family saw a card lying on a back servants’ way, and bent to pick it up. Having some touch of access to the Mockra Warren, he immediately dropped the thing as accursed.

The focal card, the axis of the casting, fell into the deep shadows next to a hothouse, where it lay half-burnt on the cool wet earth. It bore on its face the barely discernible remnants of a hooded dark figure, crowned in jet night.

The King of High House Dark.

*

The guard walked his rounds of Despot’s Barbican as he did every evening. In the dusk the clamour of Darujhistan, the calls of the street merchants and the braying of draught animals, was dying down, although it was still too early for the grey-faces to start on their silent rounds from gas jet to gas jet, lighting the blue flames that would pierce the night.

Arfan expanded his chest, taking in a good breath of the cool air wafting in from the lake. It was a good sinecure, this post. If certain parties wanted an eye kept on these dusty ruined monuments to the city’s past, then so be it. This retired city Warden was happy to offer his services. There was nothing here to tempt any thief. The hilltop was abandoned. Not like Hinter’s Tower. Those ruins gave him chills. Everyone was right to think that place haunted. But not here. The tumbled weed-dotted white stone foundations were silent. On the darkest of nights he could even sometimes see the distant glow of the blue flames flickering through parts of the white stone walls. It was actually rather pretty.

This evening the weather was unusually chill. He hugged himself, shuddering. Very unseasonal. He paced his rounds, stamping his sandalled feet to warm them. In the twilight, over the hilltop ruins, the air seemed to shimmer. Stopping, he rested his spear against the base of a broken wall to rub his hands together. The air seemed to be full of vapour, as after a summer’s rain. Yet it hadn’t rained in days. He retrieved the spear, then yelped and dropped it. The wood haft was as chill as ice.

Tatters of clouds now flew overhead, sending a confusing riot of shadows over the hill and the city beyond. He squinted in the shifting glow of starlight, seeing something. He wanted to flee but also knew it was his duty to remain, and so he crouched, advancing behind the cover of a ruined curving wall. Up close he saw how condensation beaded the wall, running in drops down the smooth flesh-like stone.

A sudden wind blew up, lifting a storm of dust and litter. Arfan shielded his eyes; it was like one of those sudden dust-devils that arise in the summer’s heat. He peered up, eyes slit, and in the shifting shadows and blowing dust he thought he saw something … a ghostly image, a watery shimmering mirage: it was as if he stood next to an immense structure. A building, a palace, tall and ornate, which overlooked the city there on the next mound, Majesty Hill. All overtopped by what appeared to be an immense dome.

Then a stronger gust of air and the ghost-image wavered, shredding, to waft away into tatters that disappeared like mist. And he ran … well, jogged really, as fast as he could, puffing and gasping, down the hill to bring word to his contact, an agent of the one who styled himself ‘circle-breaker’.

Nearby in the old city estate district, among the ruins of Hinter’s Tower Hill, the arched entrance to said ruined tower glowed with a ghostly presence. The image of a tall man in torn clothes. His eyes were nothing more than dark empty sockets yet they stared, narrowed, towards Majesty Hill. He mouthed one short word. Only someone within a hand’s breath would have heard his cursed, ‘Damn.’

His empty gaze edged slant-wise to where a fat winged demon lay snoring among the stones, a half-eaten fish in each thorny claw. The ghost raised a gossamer hand to his chin and tapped a finger to his lips.

Antsy jerked awake to surf rustling over smoothed shingle, the cawing of seabirds, and a poke in the ribs. He lay among tall rocks just up from the shore of the Rivan Sea. Two kids, a boy and a girl, peered down at him. The boy held a stick.

‘See,’ the boy announced, triumphant, ‘he is alive!’

‘G’away,’ Antsy croaked, and he coughed up a mouthful of phlegm and spat aside. His clothes stuck to him, chilled and wet with dew, and he shuddered. Too damned old for this bivouacking crap.

‘You want food? I got fish — one crescent each!’

He probed the crusted bloodied cloth he’d pressed to the side of his neck. That had been one damned thin and sharp blade. He wondered whether he’d ever see the young nobleman again. He certainly owed him one.

‘Where you from? Darujhistan? You heading out to the Spawns?’

‘Why’s your hair red?’ the girl asked.

‘’Cause I’m half demon.’

That quietened them. He decided to try to stand. First he leaned on the knuckles of one hand. Then he got to his knees. Next, he brought up a foot and pushed up to lever himself erect. His ankles, fingers and wrists all burned with the morning joint-fire. Too damned old.

The girl said in a sing-song voice: ‘If you’re heading out you’re gonna be too late.’

He was scratching the bristles of his chin. ‘What?’

‘They’re already linin’ up.’

Shit … ah, pardon my Malazan.’ He headed for the beach.

The kids trailed him. ‘I have vinegared water too. You sure you don’t want any fish?’

A crowd had gathered on the far end of the curving strand. Launches rested there, pulled up from the surf. He angled that way while chewing on a slice of smoked meat taken from one pannier bag.

‘I got a map of the Spawns too,’ the lad said, jumping up in front of him.

Antsy eyed the boy in complete disbelief. ‘Thanks, kid, but I can’t read.’

The boy shrugged. ‘That’s okay. The map’s still good.’

Antsy barked a laugh. Had he any coin to spare he might’ve purchased the rag as reward for the lad’s salesmanship.

Confederation soldiers guarded the boats. A table stood aslant on the gravel beach. The crowd consisted of men and women apparently waiting their turn to pay the transport fee. Most, Antsy figured, couldn’t and were just hanging around. He decided to join the spectators for a while to get a feel for how things worked.

Here, a simple picket of soldiers was barrier enough to keep everyone back. An armed man, he reflected, might be able to fight his way to the boats, but then what? It took at least ten people to handle such huge launches. An armed party then. Ten to twenty to take the boat and oar it out through the surf. But again, then what? Free Cities Confederation ships waited beyond the bay. Your own ship then. But that had been tried. Four private armies had apparently made the attempt — and failed. Only a Malazan warship had forced its way through, and none had seen it since.

A party of five pushed through the crowd of onlookers. They were well accoutred in cloth-wrapped helmets, banded iron armour. They carried longswords, crossbows, and large bags and satchels presumably containing supplies. Four carried large round shields, their fronts covered in canvas slips. The leader wore a long grey tabard over his mail coat. He had a commanding presence, with a great beak of a nose, broken, and a mane of wild blond hair that whipped in the wind.

‘You’re going?’ someone said to Antsy.

He looked over, then up. A dark-skinned young woman stood at his side, slim, and a good two hands taller than he. She wore a dirty cloak over layered shirts and skirting that might have once been fashionable but were now shredded and grimed. Her thick black hair hung in kinked curls, unwashed and matted. Her dark eyes were bruised from hunger and lack of sleep.

‘What’s the price?’ he asked. The girl stiffened and her dark eyes flashed in shocked anger until Antsy raised his chin to indicate the table and the fee-collector.

She relaxed, almost blushing. ‘Oh. I thought … never mind. About fifty gold councils a head.’

Antsy gaped. ‘That’s … that’s pure theft! How can they ask that much?’

She indicated the party. ‘Because they get it.’

A price appeared to have been agreed as the fee-collector gestured to the guards. The party of five was allowed to pass.

‘Mercenaries from the southern archipelago,’ the girl sneered.

‘You’re from Darujhistan?’

The sneer disappeared and she hunched self-consciously. ‘No. The north.’

Her manner struck him as very young and very sheltered. A rich kid out of her element. ‘And you don’t have the price …’

She gave a wry grin. ‘You’ve wangled the truth out of me.’

‘You came down on your own?’

‘Yes.’

‘To find your fortune?’

She hesitated. ‘Sort of. You see, I’m a student of ancient languages. I speak Tiste Andii. And I read the script.’

‘Bullshit,’ was Antsy’s gut reaction.

The girl grimaced and tucked long strands of the greasy hair behind an ear. ‘That’s what everyone says.’

The mix of naivete and worldly adolescent disgust touched something in him. He wondered how on earth she’d lasted this long among such a lawless bunch. ‘Listen. What’s your name?’

‘Orchid.’

‘Orchid? That’s your name?’

Another grimace. ‘Yeah. Not my idea. Yours?’

‘Red.’

‘Must be a common name where you’re from.’

Antsy just grunted, chewed on the end of his moustache. The man behind the table shouted, ‘Anyone else? Anyone else for today’s party?’

No one answered. It occurred to Antsy that the girl might have just made a joke. Gathered at one launch, the day’s complement of treasure-seekers consisted of the party of five plus four other individuals. The Confederation soldiers began packing up.

‘Another day’s waiting,’ Orchid sighed.

‘I’m gonna have a chat with that fellow taking the coin.’

Orchid’s hand closed on his wrist. ‘Take me with you, please. If you go.’

He gently twisted his arm to free it. He failed. ‘I don’t know.’ He stared at her hand. She followed his gaze and pulled her hand away.

‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I have to go. I don’t know why. I just know.’

He stood rubbing his wrist: damn, but the tall gal had a strong grip. How old was he getting? ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Thank you.’

The pickets let him through. The two guards at the table merely cradled their crossbows and watched while he stood waiting for the clerk to deign to notice him. Eventually, the man looked up.

‘Yes?’

‘The price per head is about fifty gold Darujhistani councils?’

The man sighed, started packing his scales and record books. ‘Yes. And?’

‘What would you give me for this?’

The man didn’t stop packing while Antsy placed a leather-wrapped object on the table. It was about the size and shape of a flattened melon. The man gave another vexed sigh. ‘No bartering. No trades. I’m not a merchant. I don’t want your silverware or your chickens.’

Antsy ignored him. He pulled back a portion of the quilted padding and the man couldn’t help but look. He paled, jerked away, then covered his reaction by closing an iron-bound chest behind the table.

‘How do I know whether that’s real?’ he asked after a time.

‘You saw the seal,’ Antsy growled.

Disassembling the scales the man said, ‘Yes … but seals can be counterfeited. Replicas can be made. I’m sorry.’

‘It’s real enough to pulverize everyone on this Hood-damned beach.’

His back to Antsy, the man paused in his packing. ‘That may be so. But then you wouldn’t get out to the Spawns, would you?’ And he turned to study him over his shoulder with a cool stare.

Antsy decided that maybe there were good reasons why these Free Cities Confederation boys had managed to keep hold of the isles. He gave a sigh of his own and eased the object back into the pannier.

‘I suggest,’ said the man, ‘that you sell that to Rhenet Henel.’

‘Who’s this Rhenet?’

‘Why, the governor of Hurly and all the Spawns, of course.’

Antsy just rolled his eyes.

Orchid caught up with him at the cart track. ‘Turned you down, hey?’

‘Yeah. He didn’t like the look of my chickens.’

She frowned, prettily, he thought, then let the comment pass. ‘So, where to now?’

He stopped, faced her. ‘Listen, kid. I can’t get you out to the Spawns. I can’t even get myself out. There’s nothing I can do for you.’

She bit at her lip. ‘Well, maybe there’s something I can do for you?’

He had to take a long breath to safely navigate that minefield. Gods, girl! How naive can anyone be? He cleared his throat. ‘Yeah. I suppose there is. You wouldn’t know where I could get a decent meal round here, would you?’

She took him a few leagues down the shore to what appeared to be nothing more than a camp of refugees squatting among the driftwood of dying overturned trees. ‘Welcome to New Hurly,’ she said, waving an arm to encompass the ramshackle huts and tents.

‘New Hurly? What’s wrong with the old one?’

‘This is the real Hurly,’ she explained, waving to kids and oldsters nearby. She was obviously well known here. Antsy spotted his two would-be guides among a horde of running children. ‘This is what’s left of the original inhabitants.’

‘Here? Why not in town?’

‘Driven out by those vulture hustler scum.’ She sat on a driftwood log before the smouldering remains of a cook-fire and invited him to join her. ‘They have no money so they’d just get in the way, right?’ Her tone was scathing.

He grunted his understanding. He’d seen it before: these natural disasters were not so different from war. An old woman ducked out of a nearby wattle-and-daub hut and Orchid signed to her. She grinned toothlessly and returned to the hut. A moment later she emerged carrying two wooden bowls which she filled from a cauldron hanging over the fire. It was some kind of fish stew. He blew on it.

While they ate the old woman squatted before them, grinning and nodding. He studied the girl. Skin the hue of polished ironwood, slim, hands unblemished and smooth. Educated. A pampered upbringing in some large urban centre. Tutors, fine clothes. All this spoke of a great deal of money yet here she was sitting on a log pushing boiled fish into her mouth with her fingers.

‘Good, yes? Good?’ the old woman urged.

‘Yeah, sure,’ he said, uncomfortable under her manic stare. ‘Good. Thanks.’

She grinned lopsidedly then took the bowls and returned to the hut.

Orchid watched her go, her gaze sad. ‘Lost her husband, three married children and eight grandchildren in the flood. Never recovered.’

Antsy grunted again, this time in sympathy. He’d seen a lot of that too. He cleared his throat. ‘So, what do I owe …’

‘Nothing. You owe nothing. I healed one of her last remaining grandchildren. Had an infection and fever.’

‘You’re a healer?’ That put a whole new perspective on things.

She shrugged. ‘A little training and reading. All mundane. I just kept the wound drained, threw together a poultice of some herbs and moss and such.’

He eyed her anew. All this made her a great deal more valuable. Why hadn’t she marketed her skills? Hood, they could use her in Hurly. Then he realized: she chose not to offer her services there.

The old woman ducked out of the hut carrying a small water bucket. She offered Orchid a dipper and the girl drank. Antsy had a mouthful as well — it was clean, mostly. ‘Orchid,’ he began, awkwardly, ‘you’ve hitched yourself to a broken cart. I’m going nowhere fast right now.’

‘You’ll get out there.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I have an intuition,’ she said, completely without any hint of embarrassment or reserve. ‘A feeling. I know you will go.’

He just raised a brow. Crazies. Why do I always get the crazy ones?

‘So,’ she said, breaking the silence. ‘What’s your next move?’

He studied the blasted tumbled landscape. ‘Where can I find the governor of this fair land?’

The governor, it happened, occupied a fort under construction up the shore in the opposite direction. Fort Hurly. Walking to it they crossed an eerie post-flood landscape of dead uprooted trees flattened like grass where stiff seaweed hung from the bare limbs. Skeletal carcasses wrapped in dried flesh lay tangled in the wreckage. Flies were a torment. They quickly became muddied up to their thighs. Orchid’s layered skirts hung like wet sails.

Antsy knew they had been followed since leaving Hurly. The fellow wore a dirty brown cloak and made no secret of tagging along at a discreet distance. Antsy had the troubling sensation of being dispassionately studied. Finally, as they clambered over an enormous pile of fallen tree trunks, he decided he’d had enough of the game. He pushed Orchid down behind cover at the natural fortress’s peak, whispered, ‘Quiet,’ and moved off.

From his panniers, waist and leggings, he drew together the components of his Malazan-issued heavy crossbow. Since he’d spent years field-stripping and reassembling the weapon, he did not have to look at his hands while crouched behind cover, keeping watch. Orchid remained quiet and didn’t move and because of this he felt better about possibly taking her with him — should he ever manage to get out.

The man came into view at the base of the heaped logs. He paused as if sensing something. Antsy grinned: a canny devil. He shouted down, ‘What do you want?’

The fellow appeared to be considering the climb.

‘Don’t move! We can have us a little chat just like this.’

‘Talk is what I wish.’ The voice was soft and low yet carried easily over the distance. The tone bothered Antsy: much too assured given the situation. He stood up, the crossbow levelled.

‘All right. Talk.’

The man peered up, his hood shadowing his face. ‘That object you showed the fee-collector. I’d like to examine it. I may want to purchase it.’

‘Not for sale.’

‘How about fifty Darujhistani gold councils?’

Antsy raised his gaze from sighting down the stock, considered. ‘I don’t trade with someone who hides his face.’

‘Sorry,’ the man answered, amused. ‘Force of habit.’ He threw back his hood. His face was scrawny and thin, like a cat’s. A small trimmed beard sat on his chin like a smudge of dirt and his black hair hung in thick oiled curls.

A Hood-damned fop. Antsy didn’t like him already. He raised the weapon to rest it on a hip. ‘All right. Back away. I’m coming down.’

Gloved hands out from his sides, the man backed away. Closer, Antsy was struck by the fellow’s wiry leanness, his knife-like slash of a mouth. A cruel mouth, he decided. And small eyes that seemed to glitter like polished obsidian stones.

The fellow pointed to the crossbow. ‘No need for that.’

‘That’s my call and I’ve decided to keep it.’ Raising his voice, he shouted, ‘Orchid! Bring down my bags. Bring them here.’ She carried the bags down and laid them next to him. ‘Careful now, take out the wrapped package there. Set it between us — gently.’

A sideways smile on the man’s mouth seemed to be calling attention to how silly all this was. ‘You’re a careful man, soldier. I want you to know I respect that.’

Antsy didn’t bother answering. Orchid had stopped rummaging and now peered up at him, uncertain. ‘The largest one,’ he told her.

Nodding, she drew out a wrapped packet, set it between them, then backed away. The man knelt, unwrapped and studied the dark green oblong. Without looking up he asked, ‘You are trained in its use, I presume?’

‘Aye.’

The man straightened. ‘Then I would like to hire you for my expedition to the Spawns.’

Orchid’s breath caught.

‘And how many are there on this expedition of yours?’ Antsy asked.

The man smiled again. ‘Two, now.’

‘Three.’

The smile fell away. The man edged his head aside. ‘Three?’

‘The girl here. She’s a trained healer and claims she can read the Andii scribblings.’

‘Really? Read the language? Hardly possible. Let me see you, girl.’

Orchid raised her chin, a touch nervously.

‘You say you can read the Tiste Andii script?’

She nodded.

‘Answer carefully, girl. If I find that you’ve lied, then I’ll leave you out there to die. Do I make myself clear?’

Orchid nodded again, barely. ‘Yes.’

From his demeanour Antsy knew the man would do just that. And so, rather belatedly, he hoped the girl wasn’t overstating her skills.

They returned to Hurly. Antsy made sure the fellow walked ahead all the way. He led them to another of the many inns and taverns that dotted the boom town: the Half Oar. They took a table and the man excused himself to go to his room above.

As soon as he’d left the table Orchid whispered, fierce, ‘I don’t trust him at all.’

Antsy chuckled. ‘Damned good that you don’t.’

‘He’s a killer.’

‘Probably. But is he an honest killer?’

‘How can you joke like that? He makes me shiver.’

Antsy pulled his hands through his tangled hair. ‘Look, you want to get out to the Spawns and he’s willing to take us. One thing you can be sure of — there’ll be a lot more like him out there already. And I get the feeling it’s better he’s with us than against us.’

They ordered tea and shortly after that the man returned. The cloak was gone, revealing a vest of multicoloured patches over a black, billowy-sleeved silk shirt. The black matched his hair, beard and eyes. ‘So,’ Antsy asked, ‘what’s your name?’

‘You can call me Malakai. Yours?’

‘Red.’

Malakai smiled thinly. ‘And the girl is Orchid, I understand,’ he said, his eyes not leaving Antsy’s. ‘An interesting name.’

A serving boy offered vinegared water to drink, then a mid-day meal of roasted waterfowl. They tore the carcasses apart with their hands. ‘We’ll leave on tomorrow’s boat,’ Malakai said. ‘You, Red, will be my guard. And you, Orchid … well, just look imperious.’ The girl seemed to shrink under his gaze. ‘Speak and read the language, do you?’

She straightened her shoulders. ‘Yes.’

‘How came you by this rare gift?’

The girl visibly braced herself, pushed back her unruly mane of hair. She seemed to be taking his questions as some sort of test administered before fifty gold councils were thrown away. ‘I was raised in a temple monastery dedicated to the cult of Elder Night. Kurald Galain, in the ancient tongue. The nuns and priests taught me the language, the rituals and the script.’

‘And are you a talent in that Warren?’

The girl deflated. She shook her head, ‘No. That is … sometimes I feel as if something’s there. But no, I could never summon the Warren.’

Malakai frowned his exaggerated disappointment and Antsy squirmed, uncomfortable with the enjoyment the fellow took in baiting the girl. The man set his chin in his hands. ‘Tell me, then, what you know of the history of Moon’s Spawn.’

Orchid nodded, took a drink of water. Her gaze lost its focus and she spoke slowly, as if parsing some text visible only to her. ‘No one really knows the origins of what we call Moon’s Spawn. It emerged from Elder Night, but what was it before then? Some argue it is the remnant of a K’Chain Che’Malle artefact that ventured into Kurald Galain and was taken by the Andii. Perhaps. Others suggest it was found abandoned and empty deep within the greatest depths of Utter Night. In either case, Anomander Rake brought it into this realm together with a legion of his race, the Tiste Andii, who followed him as he was the son of their sole deity, Mother Dark.’

Antsy gaped his amazement. He’d heard all kinds of legends and tales touching upon these ancient events, but this girl spoke them as if they were the literal truth!

She resumed after another sip. ‘For ages the Spawn floated over the continents, roving everywhere. We know this to be true as it figures in almost every mythology in every land. During these ages its inhabitants rarely involved themselves in human, or Jaghut, or K’Chain affairs. All that changed however with the rise of the Malazan Empire and its ruler, Kellanved. For some reason the Emperor gained Anomander’s enmity. Some suggest a failed assault upon the Spawn by Dancer and Kellanved.’

She shrugged, clearing her throat. ‘In any case, Anomander opposed Malazan expansion here in Genabackis. From that fell out the engagements up north, the siege of Pale, the Spawn’s fracturing and fall, and all the unleashing of Elemental Night at Black Coral.’

Listening to this litany a memory suddenly possessed Antsy: staring up at the dark underside of that suspended mountain while Pale burned below, a city aflame. Then, the ground shuddering, his ears deafened, as all the old Emperor’s High Mages summoned their might against its master …

He shivered, blinking and wiping his eyes.

Neither Malakai nor Orchid seemed to have noticed. The man was nodding, his gaze distant as if in meditation. ‘He would’ve won, I think, had not the Pale Hand thaumaturges betrayed him and gone over to the Malazans.’

‘You wanted him to win?’ said Orchid, outraged.

Malakai continued nodding. ‘Oh, yes.’

‘You’d support the inhuman over the human?’

The man’s smile was a knife blade. ‘I admired his style.’

Antsy cleared his throat. ‘So, tomorrow. Supplies? Equipage?’

Malakai leaned back, swung his lizard gaze to him. ‘In my room. I have rope, oil, lamps, dried food. We need only purchase water.’

‘And crossbow bolts. I’ll need more of them.’

Malakai shook his head. ‘I think you’ll find that more than enough of them have already been taken out to the island. Those and other things.’ His dark gaze fixed on the gouged tabletop. ‘There’s probably continual warfare on the isle. We may be attacked the moment we land. For our food, our supplies. The ruins have been a lawless hunting ground for over a year. The stronger parties have probably carved out claims, territory. There might even be a form of taxation for passage. Very probably slavery. I’ve heard that no one has returned for over two months now. It may be that newcomers are simply killed out of hand as useless mouths to feed.’

Orchid stared, plainly shaken by this calm assessment.

‘And you were prepared to step into the teeth of that alone?’ Antsy said.

The man smiled as if relishing the prospect. ‘Of course. Weren’t you, too?’

Antsy took a drink to wet his throat. ‘Well … I suppose so.’ Truth was, he hadn’t really given much thought to what might be awaiting him on the islands. All his plans had been fixed on just getting out there. After that, well, he imagined he’d see which way the wind was blowing. Stupid, maybe. But he had his shaved knuckles in the hole and rare skills to offer. Besides, things might not be as bleak as this morbid fellow would have it.

‘Friends of yours, Red?’ Malakai whispered into the silence.

Startled, Antsy looked up from his scarred knuckles. Three men now crowded the table. His friend from last night, Jallin, and two toughs. The Jumper sported a large purple bruise on his temple where Antsy had knouted him. Antsy rolled his eyes. ‘For the love of Burn, lad! What is it now?’

Jallin carried a truncheon tight in both white-knuckled hands. His lips drew back from his small sharp teeth. ‘Three councils is what it is now.’

‘Three?’

‘Interest.’

‘What’s this about?’ Orchid asked.

Jallin’s eyes, sunken and bloodshot, flicked to her. His lips twisted into a leer. ‘Seen you around. Finally broke down and sold the last thing you got left, hey?’

Antsy cut off Orchid’s shout. ‘Call it a day, lad. Don’t push this one.’

The youth’s laugh of contempt was fevered. Antsy wondered when he’d last had a meal. Jallin glanced at his companions. ‘Hear that? The man arrives yesterday and all of a sudden he’s the governor. Well, I’ll tell you, old man — you hand over them bags and we’re even and no one gets hurt.’

‘That I cannot allow,’ said Malakai.

Jallin jerked a glance down to the man as if seeing him for the first time. He gave a twitched shrug of dismissal. ‘Stay out of this if you know what’s good for you.’

Malakai’s slash of a mouth spread in a big wide smile. Antsy noted that Jallin’s companions were nowhere near as confident as he. One licked his lips nervously while the other eyed Malakai with open unease.

Malakai raised his gloved hands, palm down. He turned them over and suddenly both held throwing knives. He turned them over again and the knives disappeared. He did this over and over again, faster and faster, the blades seeming almost to flicker in and out of existence. The two thugs stared, fascinated, almost hypnotized by the demonstration. For his part, Antsy wondered whether what he was watching was the product of Warren manipulation or pure skill.

Finally, jarring everyone, a blade slammed into the table before each of the two hired toughs. Both flinched back, and then, sharing a quick glance, continued their retreat, leaving Jallin standing absolutely still, his mouth working. All eyes shifted to the youth, whose chest heaved as if winded. ‘Damn you to Hood’s paths. I swear I’ll have your head!’ He threw the truncheon, which Antsy deflected with a raised forearm. Then he marched out after his companions.

Orchid clearly wanted to ask what all that had been about, but instead her gaze swung to Malakai and Antsy watched her begin to wonder just who this was she’d entered into service with. As for himself, he now understood why the man was willing to venture out to the Spawns alone: there were probably damned few out there who could trouble him. The fellow struck him as a cross between his old army companions Quick Ben and Kalam. He wondered who he was and what he wanted out there. And just what he had sold himself into for fifty gold councils.

Malakai simply returned to studying the tabletop as if he’d already forgotten the incident and was unaware of their quiet regard.

CHAPTER III

In ancient times a Seguleh came shipwrecked to the shores near Nathilog. The local ruler, thinking to impress upon him the strength and power of his city state, took the warrior upon a tour of the ringed-round cyclopean walls, the thick towers, and the deep donjons that was the fortress of Nathilog of that age. When the long detailed demonstration was finished the ruler turned to the man, saying, ‘There! Now you may return to your home and convince your fellows of our impregnability and might!’

The Seguleh replied: ‘I have but one question.’

‘Yes?’ the ruler invited.

‘Why do you live in a prison?’

Histories of Genabackis, Sulerem of Mengal

As was his habit, scholar Ebbin Rose early and was the first to have tea. He found that the old hag was three times as sullen as before now that she had to cook for three times the men. One of Humble’s new guards was also up, pacing over the beaten dusty ground of the Dwelling Plain, a cloak wrapped tightly about him. The two guards Ebbin had hired weeks ago lay snoring next to the smouldering remains of a bonfire. He sighed.

Still, somehow he’d felt safer with just those two incompetents watching camp. Captain — and he doubted the man really was a captain — Drin had made it very clear that he worked for Humble Measure, just as did he, Ebbin. This uncomfortable truth rankled as he’d always thought of himself as a free hand, more independent iconoclast than employee.

Also, from time to time he’d seen the guards watching inwards towards camp as much as outwards towards any potential thieves or marauders. Sometimes Ebbin felt more like a prisoner than a client. Shrugging, he tossed away the rest of his tea and went to collect his equipment and to wake the two Gadrobi youths.

At the well, he unlocked the cover and shoved it aside. Captain Drin was there with his four men. Ebbin’s two guards had also tagged along uninvited. Ebbin almost laughed. Seven guards! For what? A few potsherds. A handful of votive funerary offerings. Nothing of any true monetary worth. Some silver perhaps, but little gold. It was the artistic style and the subject matter that would be explosive. Potential proof of an erased, or systematically suppressed, Darujhistani Imperial Age.

The captain peered down into the dark pit. He motioned to his men. ‘Strap your gear.’

Ebbin eyed the man while he secured his helmet and tied his shield to his back. ‘Ah … Captain. Only I need go down.’

‘No longer.’

An almost speechless panic gripped Ebbin. He wiped his sweaty hands on his thighs. ‘It’s dangerous — the rope. The youths are not strong enough …’

The captain yanked on the rope, grunted his satisfaction. He pointed to Ebbin’s guards. ‘You two — you can man the winch.’

Ebbin’s panic turned to a sudden possessive anger. He stepped up before the hired sword. ‘My find, Captain,’ he said, low and firm. ‘There’s no need for you or your men. You’ll only get in the way. You’ll unknowingly damage or trample precious artefacts. You would be interfering in a delicate excavation.’

A lazy smile crooked up behind the man’s beard. He touched a finger to the point of a long iron chisel protruding from Ebbin’s shoulder bag. ‘Delicate. Right.’ The man was peering down with oddly veiled eyes, as if he were not really seeing him at all. ‘It’s settled, scholar. Humble Measure’s orders. We come along to oversee his interests. Whatever you find — it’s his.’ He motioned to the sling seat. ‘Now, if you please … you first.’

Down in the tunnel opening Ebbin crouched, lit lantern in hand, awaiting the captain. His dread was now like a caged rabid animal racing round and round his skull. What of … it? The figure? What if they … disturbed it? Yet what if they did? Gold held no fascination for him. Humble Measure was welcome to all the loot he wanted. Why should this alarm him?

Yet it did. He felt an unreasoning dread of that supine waiting figure. So exposed, so … inviting. He wanted to cringe from it in terror.

When the captain arrived Ebbin helped him find his footing in the tunnel, then backed up a little to make room for the others. Drin had picked two of his men to accompany him, leaving two at the well-top — along with Ebbin’s men, of course.

‘Captain,’ he said, whispering in the dark, ‘there’s a figure in the tomb … I don’t want you or your men touching it … disturbing it. Do I have your word?’

The man squinted at him, his face wrinkling up in scepticism. ‘What d’you mean?’

‘A body, lying on a plinth. It’s not to be disturbed.’

‘Whatever you say, scholar.’

Somehow Ebbin was not reassured.

When the next two had entered the tunnel, Drin motioned for Ebbin to go on. Lantern raised high before him, the scholar edged his way forward on hand and knees. Once within the large round burial chamber the three guards stood stock still for a long time, hands on strapped sword hilts, their eyes bright and big in the gloom. Eventually their gazes found the figure lying exactly as before, at the very centre of the chamber, within the arches that resembled two large rings carved of stone. The beaten gold mask gleamed in the lantern light. The graven smile seemed to welcome them. Their gazes rarely left the figure as Ebbin led them to the remaining sealed side-niche. He set down his shoulder bag, began getting out his tools.

‘Since your men are here, Captain,’ he said, ‘I could use some help.’

Peering back over his shoulder at the figure, Drin grunted his agreement. He motioned to one of his men. Ebbin handed the guard one of the special alloy chisels supplied by Aman. ‘If you’ll hold this steady …’ He showed the man where he wanted the chisel on the door slab, then raised the hammer he’d carried down the tunnel.

While Ebbin carefully tapped, the captain stood behind, watching. ‘Twelve,’ Drin mused, sounding much more subdued now in the dark confines of the tomb. ‘Like the stories my old grandpa used to tell. The Twelve Fiends …’ He shook his head in remembrance. ‘“Be good”, the old guy used to warn, “or they’ll come steal ya away.”’

‘This one’s still sealed,’ Ebbin said, and he blew on the scarring now visible on the face of the slab.

‘Aye. The others all looted. But not this one … nor him,’ and he jerked a thumb to the chamber’s centre. ‘Like they was interrupted, maybe.’

Ebbin swept at the face of the slab with a fine horsehair brush. It looked as if a crack was developing. ‘Perhaps they meant to return to finish the job — but never made it back.’

‘Maybe.’ The captain sounded unconvinced.

A desperate urge to hurry was on Ebbin, yet at the same time he was painfully aware that this was his one chance, his gods’ sent opportunity to salvage his reputation. To make a name for himself and overturn many past insults. And so he took his time despite the guard’s wandering attention and the heat that gathered in the confines of the tomb sending drops of sweat down his nose and neck, and making his hands slick.

Boredom had driven the captain and the second guard from his side. They poked through the other chambers only to report them all empty, as Ebbin knew.

A crack now ran horizontally across the slab, close to the top. He planned to take off the upper section, then reach behind to pull or strike the rest outward, thereby avoiding damaging any artefacts which might lie near the entrance. He grunted his frustration as a few shards fell within. The guard with him could not suppress a flinching retreat as the seal was broken. ‘It’s okay,’ Ebbin murmured. He raised the lantern to peer within, but couldn’t make out anything defining. The niche appeared no different from the eleven others. ‘Could you …’ He mimicked a yank on the remaining section of stone slab.

The guard reluctantly put down the chisel. Behind, the captain came from where he’d been leaning against one of the stone arches, staring at the figure on its black onyx plinth.

‘Go ahead,’ Drin said to his man. The fellow took hold and pulled. The stone ground and scraped. The man tried again, jerking, pushing against the wall with one booted foot. He grunted, cursing, but the slab would not budge.

‘Let me.’ Drin pushed the man aside and took hold, tensing. Ebbin was impressed by the breadth of his bunched shoulders, his thick roped forearms. The man snarled, his breath hissing from him as he pulled. A crack shot through the slab like the strike of a slingstone. Dust billowed from the seal round its edges, then it juddered outwards to fall crashing to their feet.

Studying the fallen rock, Ebbin suddenly recognized the pattern. All the other niches shared it. All their doors had been pulled outwards to fall into the chamber. Pulled out … or pushed. Sudden renewed panic clenched his throat. He could not swallow; his heart seemed to be bashing against his ribs. He raised the lantern to reveal something lying on the plinth within. A corpse.

It was nothing like the figure behind them. This thing was quite obviously dead. And not human. It was massive, its bones far thicker and more robust than those of any human. Its desiccated fingers ended in bear-like yellowed talons, as did the toes of its naked feet.

‘Demon,’ Captain Drin breathed.

Ebbin stepped within for a closer look. He was confused. This was not what he’d expected. Not at all. Where was the artwork? The funerary offerings?

Something caught his eye: a cold white gleam shone from deep within the cadaver’s hollow chest cavity. Ebbin bent closer. It was a pale stone bearing the oily shimmer of the insides of shells. Perhaps it was a pearl itself. Ebbin reached for it.

‘Find something?’ the captain warned, his voice suddenly tense.

Startled, Ebbin snatched his hand away, glanced over. ‘I’m sorry …?’

Drin was reaching out one hand while his other held his drawn weapon. ‘No, scholar. It’s me that’s sorry. Measure’s orders, y’see …’

A yell of warning from behind snapped the man’s attention round. He gaped, cried ‘Shit!’ and ran.

Ebbin ducked from the niche to see the two guards struggling with the figure from the plinth beneath the spans of the arches. The two mouthed yells and screams yet no sound reached Ebbin. The captain was running for them.

Ebbin shouted, but too late. The captain swung a great two-handed blow that hammered home, yet appeared to have no effect on the cloaked and masked figure, which had lashed out and caught one of the guards. While Ebbin watched, petrified, it gripped the man’s neck with one hand and with the other pulled the gold mask from its own face. Ebbin glimpsed a ruin of sinew and rotted flesh over bone, and stood rooted to the ground in horror as the fiend ignored the increasingly frenzied attacks of Drin and the other guard and slowly, inexorably, pressed the mask to its victim’s face.

The guard fell to his knees, pulling frantically at the mask, but he was unable to move it. Transfixed, Ebbin watched as the cloaked figure disappeared in a great swirling cloud of dust and the dark cloak fell empty to the floor.

The captain and remaining guard now beat at some sort of invisible barrier beneath the intersecting arches. They screamed unheard commands at Ebbin, who could only shake his head in mute appalled terror while behind the two men the corpse of their fellow climbed to his feet. The gold mask shimmered brightly in the lantern light, its mysterious graven smile now horrifying in its promise. Ebbin pointed, his other hand covering his mouth.

The two men turned. It seemed to Ebbin they both leapt in shock, dismay and terror as they realized what awaited each in turn. The captain swung a huge two-handed blow at his ex-guard’s neck but the corpse took it on an arm. Though the strike slashed along the bone, flensing that arm, no blood flowed, and the revenant was not slowed.

The captain danced away out of reach. The remaining guard punched at whatever barrier it was that held him captive. Falling to his knees he held out his arms to Ebbin, pleading, begging, as if this were somehow all the scholar’s doing. From behind, his dead companion wrapped an arm round his neck, and tearing the mask from his head — in the process pulling away the flesh, which brought up Ebbin’s gorge in a gasping heave of vomit — clamped the mask over the other’s face.

When Ebbin looked up, wiping his mouth, coughing, only two figures remained within the arches. The captain and his last guard. Drin was retreating round and round the onyx plinth, always giving ground before the slow relentless advance of the masked fiend.

Ebbin could only sit and watch, fascinated, helpless. As time passed he decided that there must have been good reasons why this man Drin was a captain. How long had he held out? How many hours caught there in the confines of his inescapable prison, avoiding his unkillable foe? He himself would not have lasted more than the first minute. Yet for what seemed half a day this man had ducked and flinched aside, postponing his end. Occasionally he would dash in to aim a blow at his enemy’s neck, perhaps in the hope that decapitation would end the curse. But Drin faced something extraordinary — blades damaged it, but it seemed that none could bring it down. No blow could dismember it, or slow it.

Finally, after hours of that macabre dance around the raised plinth, Captain Drin turned his strained, sweat-sheathed face to Ebbin. He mouthed something, perhaps ‘Remember me’. Ebbin wasn’t sure. And though no soldier, he roused himself to salute the man.

The captain nodded in bleak acknowledgement and then, throwing aside his sword, launched himself upon the creature. Legs clamped around the revenant’s waist, he clasped both hands on the mask and worked to yank it free. Ebbin’s heart leapt in admiration: Yes! If he can dislodge the mask before it is set upon his face! Perhaps then this curse will somehow be broken

Though a bear of a man, Drin was no match for the fiend. One by one, his fingers were prised from their grip on the gold, and the fiend took hold of the mask himself.

Ebbin looked away. Gods! Was there no escape for anyone? Was this to be his end as well?

After waiting a time, his limbs twitching in dread, he could not help but glance up.

All was as it had been before under the arches. A figure lay upon the black stone plinth, dark cloak wrapped tight, gold mask covering its face. But Ebbin knew that Captain Drin, or at least his body, now bore that mask. As for the others, all the countless others who preceded him, well, there was plenty of dust on the floor of the chamber.

The scholar staggered to his feet, gathered up his shoulder bag. There was nothing here. This whole tomb was just one gruesome trap. A trap for those foolish enough to come digging up the past. Everything he had ever hoped for was now shattered. He stumbled for the exit. On the way he froze and his gorge rose again in a wrenching dry heave.

Set in the stone floor of the chamber lay three fresh skulls. The bare bone of two still gleamed wet with gore.

*

After the guards descended, Scorch and Leff peered down into the darkness of the well for a time before wandering over to the shade of a lean-to to return to teaching the two Gadrobi youths how to play troughs. The boys didn’t seem able to grasp the basic arithmetic; or perhaps the problem was their own disagreements over the rules. Humble’s two guards sat down to lean against the stone lip of the well.

Leff tucked an arm under his head, sighed, ‘If only we were still with Her Ladyship, hey? Too bad …’

Scorch threw the carved knuckle dice so hard they bounced from the board to disappear into the dirt. The two youths hunted for them. ‘What was that?’ he answered, his voice low.

‘What was what?’

‘Was that an impercation? ’Cause it sounded like maybe you was makin’ an impercation!’

Leff pushed himself up on his elbows, rolled his eyes. ‘Gettin’ all huffy won’t change the facts, Scorch.’

Facts? And just what facts might those be?’

‘That it was you that lost us the job with Lady Varada.’

‘I did not-’ Scorch threw up his arms. ‘Tor explained it. The lady didn’t want so many guards no more. So who gets the axe? Why, us outside guards, right? Plain and simple. That hierarchy thing, right?’

Leff waved that aside. ‘Didn’t you see through all that bullcrap? I did. Tor was just coverin’ up the truth. Sparin’ our feelings.’

His shoulders falling, Scorch frowned, uncertain. ‘Really? Then … what was he really sayin’?’

‘That it was you lost us the job.’

Scorch threw himself aside to sit facing the opposite direction.

Towards noon the old hag came limping up to the lean-to. She shooed the youths away, gabbling in Gadrobi, then turned on Scorch and Leff. ‘You two, get out!’ she spat. ‘You go! Bad things come. I see in the sands. In smoke!’

Scorch and Leff shared a knowing look. ‘Better stay off that fermented goat’s milk,’ Leff said. ‘That kefir can sneak up on ya.’

The old woman waved an angry dismissal. ‘Die then … Daru dogs!’ And she scuttled off.

Leff stretched out, yawning. ‘Keep a watch, Scorch,’ he said, and closed his eyes.

Around mid-afternoon Leff awoke to the screeching of the winch. The guards were raising it. He and Scorch wandered over. It was the scholar, Ebbin. Scorch leaned over to help him out, then lurched as the man seemed to fall into his arms. Leff helped to yank him over the lip of the well and set him down in the dirt where he lay panting, his face gleaming pale as milk.

‘Where’s the captain?’ one of the guards asked.

‘Water,’ Ebbin gasped, and Leff helped him to sit up while Scorch went to fetch a skin. The scholar took a long drink, then splashed his face and pulled out a cloth to wipe it dry. ‘Down below,’ he breathed, hoarse. ‘A trap. They were taken.’

‘Taken?’ the guard echoed.

Ebbin nodded. He appeared on the verge of tears.

‘Show us,’ the guard said.

Ebbin gaped up at him. ‘What?’

The guard stepped back and drew his longsword. Scorch and Leff eyed one another, set their hands on the grips of their shortswords. Ebbin struggled to his feet. ‘Show you?’ He laughed. Rather unnervingly, Leff thought. ‘You have no idea-’

The second guard raised a cocked crossbow. ‘You show us, old man. Or die now.’

Ebbin looked from one to the other, pressed his hands to his face and moaned from behind his fingers: ‘Gods forgive me …’ Then he brushed Scorch’s hand from his weapon. ‘You wish to see?’ he asked the guard. ‘Truly see?’

The man gestured to the well with his longsword. ‘You first.’

‘If you must.’ Ebbin looked at Scorch and Leff. ‘You two. Lower us.’

Leff scratched his cheek, bemused. ‘Well — if you say so, scholar.’

‘Those are my orders.’ He swung his feet up over the stone lip of the well, began readying the sling seat.

‘We come back up first,’ the guard warned.

Ebbin gave a long slow nod. ‘Yes. You first.’

It seemed to Leff that no sooner had the second guard descended than the rope shook with a signal to be raised. He and Scorch rewound the barrel winch to bring it back up and were surprised to see that the occupant of the sling seat was Ebbin. Scorch helped him out.

‘And the guards, sir?’ Leff asked. ‘They saw?’

The scholar was sickly pale and panting once again. He drew a cloth and wiped at his sweaty face. He nodded. ‘Oh yes. They found out what happened to their captain.’

‘So …’ Scorch began, ‘we wait for ’em?’

‘No. They won’t be coming back up.’ Ebbin held his brow, looking faint.

‘You all right, sir?’ Leff asked.

‘No. I … I don’t feel well. I need to get back to Darujhistan.’ He nodded with sudden vigour. ‘Yes. That’s right. I must go to Darujhistan.’

‘We’ll pack up the camp then,’ Leff said.

‘No! You two wait here. Guard the camp. Wait for me. Yes?’

Leff frowned, doubtful. ‘Well … if you say so.’

Ebbin took his forearm. ‘Excellent. Thank you.’ He paused, blinking, then glanced about as if confused. ‘Now, you’ll close up here, yes? You won’t go down?’

Scorch and Leff eyed one another: the man’s mad! ‘No, sir. You don’t have to worry about that. We ain’t goin’ down there.’

‘Good! Good. I knew I could trust you. Now, I must go.’

‘Go? Now?’ Leff raised a brow. ‘Night’s comin’, sir. We really shouldn’t let you go all alone. Can’t you wait till tomorrow?’

Ebbin jerked as if stung. ‘No! I must go! It is important … I feel it.’

Scorch and Leff exchanged looks. Scorch inclined his head, indicating that Leff should accompany the scholar. Leff flinched, offended, and pointed back. Scorch gestured angrily that Leff should go. Leff’s hand went to his sword grip and he glared his defiance.

‘Uncle!’ a voice called from the gathering dusk and both guards spun, hands at weapons.

A slim girl was suddenly quite close. She wore loose white robes that rippled in the weak evening wind. Her feet were bare. Rings glinted gold on her toes.

Ebbin stared at the girl in utter incomprehension. ‘Uncle?’

‘Yes,’ she answered, smiling. She took the man’s arm, leaning against him. ‘May I call you that? I feel there is some sort of connection between us, yes? You feel it too?’

Scorch cleared his throat. ‘Ah, miss? You lost?’

She ignored him so completely it was as if he hadn’t spoken. She whispered something into Ebbin’s ear and the scholar’s brows rose. ‘Really? From him?’

She nodded eagerly. ‘Oh yes! And he is ever so keen to hear what you have found.’

Ebbin passed a hand over his eyes. ‘Gods! What I have found! Yes. Of course.’ He turned to Scorch and Leff and rubbed his eyes, squinting, as if trying to focus on them. ‘Ah, you two. I will go with this girl here. You two stay.’

The guards shared another look. ‘I think,’ Scorch began respectfully, ‘you should both come back to camp with-’ He stopped because the girl had flicked out an arm and a knife blade appeared in her hand. Its razor tip hovered a finger’s width from his throat.

‘You have seen and heard enough,’ she said.

‘No!’ Ebbin shouted, rousing himself. ‘Ignore them. They have no idea …’

The girl’s kohl-ringed eyes, now touched by a deep smouldering crimson, slid to the scholar. The arm flexed and the blade disappeared. She bowed her head. ‘As you command, Uncle.’

But Ebbin had staggered off. ‘Darujhistan,’ he was muttering. ‘There’s something …’

The girl remained a moment, eyeing the two men. A smile played about her full lips as she enjoyed their extreme discomfort. Then she winked and blew a kiss at each, and sauntered off after Ebbin.

Leff let go a long tensed breath.

‘Gods below,’ Scorch murmured.

‘Reminds me of the Mistress.’

Scorch cocked his head. ‘Yeah. Don’t she just. Now what?’

‘Now?’ Leff kicked at the lid of the well. ‘Now I’d say we’re out of work again.’

Shit.’

*

Lying flat on the crest of one of the low rises of the Dwelling Plain, Picker watched the white-robed girl escort the old man north. If they kept going in that direction they’d make the trader road to Raven Town, then on to Darujhistan. A long hike, but if they didn’t stop at an inn they’d make Darujhistan near dawn.

A noise from the dark behind her announced Spindle’s presence and she slid backwards down behind the rise.

‘See that?’ Spindle hissed from the dark.

‘Yeah,’ she answered drily. ‘I was watchin’.’ Struck by a thought she raised her chin to the north, asking, ‘What does your mum say about that girl?’

Spindle reflexively rubbed his shirt. ‘My mum tells me to watch out for girls like that.’

Picker grunted her agreement. ‘Well … she was right.’

‘’Course she’s right! She’s a witch!’

Picker paid no attention to the tense in that statement since the man’s shirt was woven from his mother’s hair, and that shirt was the main reason he was still alive.

‘Now what?’

‘Now?’ Picker gave a slow shrug in the dark. ‘Maybe we should eyeball that well.’

‘Hunh. Well, I ain’t goin’ down.’

She raised a hand as if to slap him. ‘’Course no one’s goin’ down! Six go down. One comes up! They ain’t payin’ us enough for that!’

‘Where’s Blend anyway?’

‘She’s around. C’mon. Let’s see if those two guards are gone yet.’

~

Blend joined them at the well. She just appeared out of the dark, as was her way. Picker examined the wooden lid and the lock. ‘All back like nothin’ happened.’

‘Mark it,’ Blend said. ‘We may have to describe its location.’

Picker used a rock to scrape the side — a mark that would only mean something to a Malazan marine.

Spindle had been standing motionless as if listening, and now he raised a hand for silence. He pointed frantically to the well. Picker stilled, listening. A blow from down below. Falling stones, rubble. A muted splash. Another strike, like a punch. Closer. She raised her stunned gaze to Spindle, who was now backing away, a hand pressed to his chest over his shirt. Picker signed a retreat and scrambled for cover.

Moments later some sort of blast sent the wooden lid erupting into the night sky, where it turned over and over, hung for a moment, then fell with a crash.

A figure climbed from the well. He wore a long dark cloak and a mask. The mask caught the moonlight and for an instant it glowed like a moon in miniature. Then the man turned away to walk off north, calmly and regally, as if out for a stroll in his own pleasure garden.

‘Did you see that?’ Picker breathed. She eyed Spindle behind their pile of stones. ‘What does your mum say about him?’

‘I think she would’ve shat herself.’

‘Well, I nearly did.’

Spindle drew his crossbow from beneath his cloak. ‘I say we give him lots of room.’

Picker nodded. ‘Oh yeah. Plenty.’

*

It was all very confusing for Ebbin. He knew that he had to get back to Darujhistan — though why, he didn’t really know. It was some sort of instinct, or overwhelming certainty. Then a girl appeared in the middle of the plain and claimed to have been sent by Aman. Even more strangely, somehow he recognized her, though he was sure he’d never seen her before in his life.

Then they set out on a damnably trying walk. His legs ached beyond anything he’d ever experienced. The soles of his feet felt as if they’d been hammered all over by truncheons. And he was having hallucinations. Sometimes it seemed as if the entire Dwelling Plain was one huge urban conglomeration of square flat-roofed mud buildings all jammed together. Smoke from countless hearth fires rose into the night sky while he and Taya walked the giant city’s narrow crooked ways.

Of course, Ebbin realized … the Dwelling Plain!

Far ahead, glimpsed through the narrow gaps in the tall mud walls, there sometimes reared some sort of domed edifice like a monument, or immense temple. Its pallid stone glowed with a pale blue luminescence that seemed somehow familiar. At other times the great urban sprawl lay smashed in flaming ruins all around, the victim of some sort of titanic upheaval.

When they entered Raven Town he was desperate for a rest, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to demand that they stop. And the girl, Taya, was pushing him along like some sort of draught animal and constantly shooting quick looks behind. It seemed as if she was actually frightened of something.

Could it be … him? No, that would be too terrible to imagine. Too awful.

And there, on the main street through town, within sight of the closed city gate, who should stand waiting wrapped in a shabby cloak but Aman himself? Ebbin stared — he’d never seen the man stick his head outside his shop, let alone leave it.

Aman waved Taya onward then wrapped one crooked arm round Ebbin as if supporting him. Ebbin tried to tell him what he’d seen, all the horrors, but somehow he couldn’t force the words past his throat. Aman started force-marching him along in his own slow crablike limp. Ebbin glared ferociously at him as if he could somehow send his thoughts to him but the man just patted his arm. ‘There, there, good friend. It’ll all be over soon enough.’

What would be over? This nightmare of a night? Or far more than that? Ebbin dreaded the answer. As they closed on the gates the great iron-bound leaves improbably swung open to greet them, and there was Taya. She waved them in.

Aman frog-marched him onward. Like Taya, he too was glancing behind, squinting with one eye, then the other. What was back there? Ebbin tried to look but the shopkeeper forced him on. They passed through mostly empty streets. In one of the market squares the early-morning vendors were busy setting up their stalls and arranging their goods. Ebbin and Aman marched through with no one paying them any particular attention. Taya was still with them. Sometimes she shadowed them closely and Ebbin caught sight of her glowing white robes. At other times she was nowhere to be seen.

They reached the main east-west thoroughfare that ran alongside the Second Tier Wall. Aman hugged Ebbin closely, as if afraid he would run off, but the scholar was too confused to muster any sort of resolution. At times he didn’t recognize any of the streets they walked. Tall white-stone buildings faced the roads, great estates, their facades richly decorated with scrollwork. Fanciful miniature creatures, some winged, peeped out amid the scrolls and stone forests.

And Ebbin recognized the style. It was the fabled Darujhistani Imperial baroque.

But perhaps this was all nothing more than his own deluded wish fulfilment. He wondered, terrified, whether the horrific events in the mausoleum had finally driven him over the edge. Perhaps he was mad. His peers, the scholars and researchers of the Philosophical Society, had already dismissed him as such.

He remembered a chilling definition of insanity he’d read in some wry old commentator’s compendium: when you think everyone around you is mad, that’s when you should start to suspect it’s actually you.

They reached the ruined old gates to the estate district and here another figure awaited them. This one appeared to be no more than a dark shadow, a tall man in tattered clothes, a ghost. Ebbin flinched away but Aman marched him right up to the wavering, translucent shade.

Taya, now with them, curtsied to the ghost. ‘Uncle,’ she murmured.

Aman bowed mockingly. ‘Well met, Hinter.’

The shade arched a brow in lofty disparagement. ‘Aman. We’d thought you dead.’

The hunched shopkeeper waved to indicate his bent body. ‘Who could have survived, yes?’

‘Indeed.’

‘All is in readiness?’ Aman enquired.

‘All is ready,’ the shade responded tartly, ‘since I am left with no alternative. He comes?’

Aman shook Ebbin by his shoulders. ‘Oh yes. He comes. Always a way, scholar. There is always a way. If it is nearly impossible to break in — then perhaps one must reverse one’s thinking, yes? I am sorry, scholar. But no one has ever escaped him.’

The shade turned away. ‘Not true,’ it murmured. ‘One did.’

Aman sniffed and rubbed his lopsided face. ‘Him. I never did believe that.’

*

Spindle and Picker followed the masked man up the Raven Town trader road, all the way into town. It was eerie the way no one was about. Dogs ran before it. Early-morning merchants and farmers turned sharply to take side streets, or quickly entered shops and buildings lining the way. The man had the entire road to himself. Picker passed men and women crouched in the dirt beside it, hands covering their faces, shuddering. Picker yanked a hand away from the face of one old farmer only to provoke gabbled terror and tears.

The fellow strode majestically along right up to and through the open Raven Town gate. A city gate that should not be open. Picker signed to Spindle to check out the west gatehouse, then slipped into the east. Blend, she knew, would keep tabs on their friend. Inside she found the guards dead, thrust through with swift professional cuts. Their young little sprite? Or another? An organization? Their guild friends?

She exited to see Spindle, who signed that on his side all were dead. She answered in kind. Together they trotted on after Blend. They found early risers in the streets but all were silent, all turned to face the walls. Picker pulled one burly labourer round only to find him weeping, his eyes screwed shut.

At the spice-sellers’ square they found the morning market already set up in a maze of carts, mats laid out and stalls unfolded, but utterly silent and still. People crouched, hiding their faces, or lay on their sides as if asleep. Picker swallowed to wet her throat, tightened her sweaty grip on her long-knife. Then Spindle touched her shoulder and pointed up to the paling clear night sky.

‘Would ya look at that.’

*

Ambassador Aragan awoke with a start and a curse. He flailed about, searching for a weapon.

‘It’s all right, sir!’ a familiar voice yelped, alarmed. ‘It’s me sir!’

Aragan sat up, blinking in the dark. ‘Burn’s teats, man! What hour is it?’

‘Just dawn, sir.’

‘This better be good, Captain.’

‘Yes, sir. It’s the Moranth mission, sir. They’re fleeing the city.’

Aragan gaped at the captain, then shut his mouth. ‘What?’ He threw himself from his bed, searched the floor. Captain Dreshen held out his dressing gown.

‘This way, sir.’

Dreshen led him to what had originally been a front guest bedroom but was now an office of trade relations. Here night staff crowded the windows looking over the city. Aragan pushed his way through to the front. The pre-dawn was a paling violet in the east, the brightest stars still blazing above. His heart sinking, Aragan saw the obscene green streak over the setting, mottled moon. He made a sign against evil, though he knew the gesture was meaningless. After all, every escaped cow and dead chicken was blamed on the damned thing, so there was no way of knowing what influence, if any, it might be exerting on anyone’s life.

Movement caught his eye. Winking, glimmering, flashing high over the city. Quorl wings — a flight of the giant dragonfly-like creatures taking their Moranth masters west, to the Mountains of Mist, which some called Cloud Forest. Aragan was reminded of the Free Cities campaign to the north and similar night flights and drops over Pale and Cat.

Even as he watched, another wing took flight, heaving up from rooftops around the quarters of the Moranth embassy. The quorls turned through the air, wings scintillating like jewels in the pre-dawn light, and arced to the west. Aragan watched them go, feeling both terrified and exhilarated. He pushed away from the window, faced his aide. ‘Rouse the garrison, Captain. Order full alert.’

The aide saluted. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘And fetch my armour.’

*

Picker ducked reflexively as quorls swooped overhead, sending stalls toppling and garments and powdered spice flying.

‘Dammit to dead Hood!’ Spindle swore. ‘Is it a drop?’

Picker covered her eyes from the stinging spice. ‘No. A pick-up. They’re runnin’.’

‘Fanderay … maybe we should too.’

‘Not yet. We’ve been hired to recon. So-’ She broke off as a whistle sounded. ‘That’s Blend. This way, c’mon.’

They halted at the corner of a wide boulevard. Blend stepped out of shadows to meet them. ‘You lose him?’ Picker asked.

‘Hood, no. Walkin’ right up aside the Second Tier Wall, plain as day. Headed for the estate district.’

‘You see them quorls?’ Spindle asked.

Blend eyed him as if he were demented. ‘You two hang back. I’ll tag along.’

Picker nodded. ‘Right.’

Spindle handed over a satchel. ‘Take this … insurance.’

She held the bag away from herself. ‘This what I think it is?’

‘Yeah.’

She shot him a dark look. ‘Been holding out on us?’

‘No more than anyone else.’

‘That’s not an answer,’ Blend growled.

‘I know.’

*

An old woman was shouting herself hoarse in the narrow crooked paths through the Maiten shanty town west of Darujhistan: ‘Pretty birdies! Pretty birdies! Look all at the pretties!’ In the twilight before dawn the garbage-sorters, beggars and labourers groaned and pressed their thread-thin blankets to their heads.

‘For the love of Burn, shut up!’ one fellow bellowed.

The women, already up preparing the meals for the day, fanned their cook-fires and watched the old woman pointing to the lightening sky as she staggered up and down the alleys. They looked at one another and shook their heads. There she went again. That crazy old woman — proving all the cliches their men kept mouthing about old women who lived in the most rundown huts at the edges of towns. Someone should let her know what an embarrassment she was.

And where did she come by all that smoke, anyway?

‘Almost now! Almost!’ the old woman shouted. Then she fell to her knees in the mud and streams of excrement and loudly retched up the contents of her stomach.

The women pursed their lips. Gods, the menfolk would never let them live this one down! Someone ought to guide her to the lake and set her on a long walk up a short pier.

Problem was — the women knew she really was a witch.

*

The fat demon, who was about the size of a medium breed of dog, sat dozing amid the tumbled broken rock of the ancient ruins. Grunting, it coughed, then choked in earnest, flailing. Clawed fingers thrust their way into his mouth, seeking, then withdrew holding a long pale fishbone.

The demon sighed its relief, adjusted its buttocks on the rocks and cast a cursory glance to the stone arch opposite. It froze.

Oh no. Nononononono. Not again!

It launched itself into the air. Its tiny wings struggled to gain purchase, failed. It bounced tumbling downhill, gained momentum, succeeded in lifting its dragging feet from the weeds and took off slowly and heavily across the city like an obscene bumblebee.

Once more it had that word for its master. That most unwelcome word.

*

She’d been irritable of late. Distracted. Short-tempered. If Rallick were the type of man to be dismissive of women he might’ve characterized her as catty. Not that he would dare intimate such a thing to Vorcan Radok, once mistress of Darujhistan’s assassins. And so it was some time before he finally worked up the determination to mention the topic of the professional killings in the Gadrobi district. He alluded to it over dinner. Her gaze in response had been withering. She sipped her wine.

‘And you think I’m responsible? Taken work on the side?’

‘I don’t know who did it,’ he responded, honestly enough.

But that had been enough to break the spell between them. She retired alone and he sat up late into the night in turn damning her as an unreasonable prickly woman and damning himself for allowing anything to come between them. When he finally lay down she was asleep — or pretending to be.

She’d been sleeping poorly lately. Tonight she tossed and turned, even murmured in a language he’d never heard before. So he was not surprised when she rose naked and padded across to the open terrace doors to stare into the blue radiance that glowed over Darujhistan. He came up behind her, set his hands on her shoulders. ‘What is it?’

‘Something …’ she breathed, head cocked as if listening to the night.

‘Should I-’ She lifted a hand for silence. He stilled, trusting her instincts.

Then, astonishingly, the skin beneath his fingers flashed almost unbearably hot. For an instant it was as if he held the spiny, gnarled back of a boar, or a bull bhederin, and Vorcan flinched backwards, brushing him aside like a child. ‘No!’ she ground out. ‘How could …’

She went to the bed, began throwing on clothes.

‘What is it?’

Dressed, she stopped before him. Something new was in her dark eyes. Something that stole his breath, for real fear swam in those deep pools. ‘Leave the estate now,’ she told him. ‘Do not return. Do not try to contact me. Go.’

‘Tell me what it is. I’ll-’

‘No! You will do nothing.’ She pressed a smooth dry palm to the side of his face. ‘Promise me, Rallick. No matter what happens, what comes, you will not act. No contracts, no … attempts.’ She rose on her toes to brush her dry hot lips to his. ‘Please,’ she whispered.

He nodded, swallowing. ‘If you insist.’

She backed away from him into the darker gloom of the bed-chamber, those dark eyes holding his. He dressed quietly while listening to the night, trying to hear what she might’ve heard. But he detected nothing — as far as he could tell it was merely an unusually still and quiet night.

Downstairs, Vorcan’s one servant, the butler-cum-castellan Studlock, who never seemed to be off duty, let him out. Rallick listened to the many locks being ratcheted back into place behind him, then set out into the night.

*

In the tallest tower of his grounds, Baruk stood looking out over the estate district of Darujhistan. For a moment he looked not upon the night-sleeping buildings as they lay now but upon another city, one of a profusion of towers much like his, all aglow with a flickering ghostly blue illumination. And amidst all the towers, rearing far more immense, a great dome encompassing Majesty Hill. Then he passed a shaking hand before his eyes and glanced aside, down to where a shivering, whimpering Chillbais crouched, terrified, but not quite so terrified as to not be chewing on a loaf of old bread.

‘Was he waiting?’ Baruk mused. ‘Waiting for Anomander to be gone?’ He drew his hand down his chin. ‘I wonder.’ He went to the door, turned as a final thought struck him. ‘You are free to go, Chillbais. Your service is done.’ He pulled the door shut behind him.

Fat loaf of bread jammed in his mouth, the demon peered about the empty room. Free? Free to go where? Free to do what? Oh dear, oh dear. Free perhaps to be enslaved by something far worse? No, no, no. Not I.

Chillbais waddled to a clothes chest, struggled up over the side to tumble in, then pulled the top closed.

*

Aman dragged Ebbin to the ruins atop Despot’s Barbican. Here, he turned to face the way they’d come, a fist tight on Ebbin’s shirt.

‘Why are you doing this?’ Ebbin asked in a plaintive whisper.

Aman slapped him. ‘Quiet. Your turn will come.’

‘He is near,’ the shade of Hinter said.

Aman tilted his crooked head in order to look skywards. ‘The moon is not right,’ he warned.

‘Soon,’ answered the shade.

Taya ran up. Her gossamer silks blew behind her like white flames. ‘He is here.’

Aman pushed Ebbin to his knees, then lowered himself on to one knee. He shook Ebbin, snarling, ‘Bow your head, slave.’

Ebbin could not have kept his head erect if he tried; something was hammering him down. Some unbearable pressure like the hand of a giant was squashing him as if he were an insect. A whimper slipped from him as he glimpsed the dirty bottom edge of a dark cloak before him.

‘Father,’ Aman murmured. ‘We remain your faithful servants.’

Ebbin whimpered, shaking. This was not for him. Such scenes were not to be witnessed by such as he. The pressure — the iron hand grinding him into the dirt — eased, and he caught his breath.

Aman straightened, yanked him up. ‘Stand now.’

He complied, but would not raise his gaze beyond the mud-spattered edge of the cloak. So, now it was his turn. A hand would clasp his arm or shoulder and the mask would be pressed to his face. He would be blind behind it, unable to breathe. He would die choking. And then … and then … what? What was this thing before him? Would he then become … it?

Some force compelled Ebbin’s gaze upwards. His eyes climbed to the oval gold mask, now a glowing circle of reflected light. The mysterious mocking smile engraved there was sly now, as if he and it shared some hidden knowledge unguessed at even by those surrounding them.

The cloaked figure raised a hand, gesturing, and Aman bowed again. ‘Yes. Spread out. Guard all approaches. Let none interfere.’

Ebbin was left alone with the creature. What had they named it? Father? In truth? Perhaps the title was merely honorific. Now would it do it? Take him? His knees lost their strength and he fell to the ground. Gods! Why this agonizing delay? Won’t it just end things?

Standing above him the creature held out its right hand, pointed to Ebbin’s. Mystified, Ebbin looked at his own right hand. It was fisted, the knuckles white with pressure. When did … His breath caught. He remembered the tomb. He remembered reaching …

Oh no. Please, no

Something was in his fist. It was hard and round. Ebbin’s heart lurched, skipping and tripping, refusing to beat.

Oh no. Oh no, no. Please no.

He held out his hand. It was oddly numb, as if it were someone else’s. He unclenched his fingers and there on his palm rested the gleaming white pearl from the last niche of the sepulchre. Moonlight shone from it like molten silver.

Please! I beg of you … do not make me do what I think you will demand. Please! Spare me!

The creature raised its head to the night sky, and for an instant Ebbin had the dizzying sense that the moon was no longer in the sky but on the mask before him.

A pale circle. A pearl … of course! It was so obvious. He would have to warn everyone! He-

The creature raised a hand above that smiling uplifted mouth. The fingers were pinched together as if holding some delicacy, a grape or a sweet, then opened there above the mouth. The moon lowered to regard him. Its enigmatic smile was now one of triumph.

Oh no.

*

At Lady Varada’s estate its two remaining guards, Madrun and Lazan Door, were engaged in their timeless ritual of tossing dice against a wall when one bone die refused to stop spinning. Both watched it, wonder-struck, as it turned and turned before them.

Then screaming erupted from the estate. They ran for the main hall. Here they found the castellan, Studlock, in his layered cloths as if wrapped in rags, blocking the way down to the rooms below. The continuous howling was not just one of fear. It sounded as if a woman was having her hands and feet sawn off.

Studlock raised open hands. ‘M’lady gave commands not to be disturbed.’

The two guards peered in past the castellan. ‘Would you listen!’ said Madrun. ‘Someone’s got her.’

‘Not at all,’ soothed Studlock. ‘M’lady is experiencing an illness. Nothing more. You may characterize it as something like withdrawal. I will prepare suitable medicines this moment — if I have your word not to go below! M’lady values her privacy.’

Madrun and Lazan winced at a particularly terrifying scream. ‘But …’

Studlock shook a crooked finger. ‘Your devotion is commendable, I assure you. However, all is in hand. Oil of d’bayang, I believe, is called for. And alcohol. A great deal of alcohol.’ The castellan shuddered within his strips of cloth. ‘Though how anyone could consume such poison is beyond me.’

Lazan stroked his face and jerked as if surprised when his fingers touched his flesh. He tapped his partner on the shoulder and the two reluctantly withdrew.

Behind them the tormented howling continued throughout the night.

*

In the deepest donjon beneath his estate High Alchemist Baruk knelt before a large diagram cut into the stone floor and inscribed in poured bronze, silver and iron. In one hand he held out a smoking taper with which he drew symbols in the air, while with the other he flicked drops of blood from a cut across the meat of his thumb.

In mid-ceremony the locked, warded and sealed iron-bound door to the chamber crashed open and a gust of wind blew out the taper and brushed aside the intricate forest of symbols lingering in the air.

Baruk’s shoulders fell. ‘Blast.’

He lunged for the middle of the concentric rings of wards but something seemed to yank on his feet and he fell short. His arms, which crossed the rings of engraved metal, burst into flames. The robes fell to ash, revealing black armoured limbs twisted in sinew. His hands glowed, smoking, becoming toughened claws. The yanking continued. He scrabbled at the stone floor, gouging the rock and the metal bands.

No!

He flew backwards, stopped only by his clawed hands grasping the stone door jamb. He hung there, snarling, while the stone fractured and ground beneath his amber talons. The stones exploded in an eruption of dust and shards and he was whipped away up the hall to disappear.

*

Rallick entered the Phoenix Inn to find the common room uncharacteristically subdued. The crowd was quiet, the talk a low murmur, tense and guarded. He nodded to Scurve, the barkeeper, as he crossed to the back. Here Kruppe sat at his usual table. A dusty dark bottle stood before him, unopened. Rallick pulled up a chair and sat, noted the two glasses.

‘What are you celebrating?’

The fat man roused himself, blinking as if returning from some trance. ‘I? Celebrating? Neither. I invite you to join me in giving witness. We shall drink to the inevitable. The unavoidable. The relentless turning of the celestial globes in which all that was before shall be again. As it must.’ He took up the bottle and began picking at its seal.

‘What are you going on about?’

Tongue pressed firmly between his teeth, Kruppe answered, ‘Nothing. And everything. Chance versus inevitability. How those two war. Their eternal battle is what we call our lives, my friend! Which shall win? We shall see … as we saw before.’

For a time Rallick watched his friend wrestling with the bottle, then, sighing his impatience, snatched it from him and began picking with his knife at the tar-like substance hardened around the neck. ‘What drink is this?’ he asked. ‘I’ve not seen the like. Is it foreign? Malazan?’

‘No. No foreign distillation is that. It is sadly entirely of our own making. And very sour it is too. It was set aside long ago for just this foreseen occasion.’

‘And the occasion?’ Rallick managed to remove the last of the old wax.

Kruppe reached for the bottle but Rallick jammed his blade into the cork and twisted. The fat man winced, yanking back his hand. He studied his fingertips as if burned. ‘Nothing important,’ he murmured. ‘Everything is connected to everything else. Nothing is of more significance than any other thing.’

Twisting and twisting, Rallick drew out the cork. He handed back the bottle. Kruppe took it, gingerly.

‘So we’re celebrating nothing?’ Rallick said, arching a brow.

Kruppe raised the bottle. ‘You are most correct. This is nothing to celebrate.’ He tilted the bottle to pour. Nothing appeared. He tilted the bottle even further. Still nothing emerged. He held the bottle upside down over the glass, shook it, and not one drop fell. Rallick took it from him and held it up to one eye. He handed it back.

‘Empty. Empty as death’s mercy. What kind of joke is this, Kruppe?’

Kruppe frowned at the bottle. ‘An entirely surprising one, I assure you, dear friend.’

Rallick raised a hand to Jess. ‘If you’re too tight-fisted to spring for a bottle you just have to say so, Kruppe. No need for cheap conjuror’s tricks.’

The squat man suddenly grinned like a cherub, his cheeks bunching. He raised a finger. ‘Ahh! Now I have the way of it. The bottle was not empty at all!’

Rallick grimaced his incomprehension. ‘What?’

‘No. Not at all, dear friend. What you must consider, my dear Rallick, was that perhaps it was never full to begin with!’

Rallick just signalled all the more impatiently for Jess.

*

In the slums west of Maiten the old woman sat slouched in the dirt before her shack and inhaled savagely on a clay pipe. The embers blazed, threatening to ignite the tangled nest of hair that hung down over her face. She sucked again, gasping, her face reddening, and held the smoke far down in her lungs, her eyes watering, before releasing the cloud in a fit of coughing. She wiped her wet lips with a dirty sleeve and staggered uncertainly to her feet.

‘Now is the time,’ she murmured to no one. ‘Now it is.’ She reached for the open doorway to her shack, tottering. She managed to hook a hand on either side of the ramshackle wattle-and-daub edge to heave herself inside, then fell, fighting down vomit.

She felt about in the dirt until one hand found a bag, which she clutched to herself and curled around, sometimes giggling and sometimes weeping. The weeping became a sad song crooned hoarsely in a language none around her understood. She lay cradling the bag for some time.

*

Atop Despot’s Barbican, Aman, Taya and the shade of Hinter made their way through the maze of ruined foundations to return to their master’s side. Aman fell to his knees in obeisance, saying, ‘Yes, Father?’

Hinter bowed, as did Taya. Her eyes shone with wild exhilaration as she peered up at the masked figure. She noted the body of the scholar lying nearby and kicked it. The man grunted, stirring. ‘This one lives?’ she asked aloud.

The masked creature gestured. Aman grunted his understanding. ‘He will speak the Father’s will.’

The girl sneered. ‘This one? Him? He is nothing.’

‘Exactly,’ Hinter said. ‘A slave. He will never be a threat.’

‘And speaking of slaves!’ Aman suddenly crowed, peering down the hill.

Among the ruins some thing was clawing its way to them. Blackened, smoking, it made its agonized crippled slither all the way up to the mud-smeared edge of the masked creature’s cloak. There it lay, face pressed to the dirt. Aman cackled his enjoyment of the sight. Hinter merely shook his head. Taya’s face lit up with avid glee. She knelt to prod the sizzling body, raw and crimson where cracks revealed deeper flesh. ‘Is this … her?’

‘No,’ said Hinter. ‘It is Barukanal.’

The grin inverted to a pout. She searched the hillside. ‘No others?’

‘They appear to have eluded the Call,’ Hinter mused, thoughtful. ‘For the moment.’

Taya straightened from the smoking body. ‘What is to become of him then?’

‘He is to be punished,’ came a new voice and the three turned to regard Scholar Ebbin, who was now sitting up, a hand over his stomach, the other over his mouth, horrified shock on his face.

After a moment of silence, the city eerily still beneath them, Taya cleared her throat. ‘So,’ she asked Aman, ‘is that it? Is it done?’

‘It has merely begun,’ Hinter said. And he pointed an ethereal arm to the sky.

Taya looked up and her face lit with child-like pleasure. ‘Ohhh … Beautiful!’

*

At first Jan thought he dreamt. A voice was calling him. Distant at first, it seemed faint, gentle even. He saw his old master, the last First, sitting cross-legged before him. On his face was not the pale oval mask of all other Seguleh, painted or not. Instead he wore coarse wood, unpolished and gouged, worn to remind its bearer of the imperfection and shame of his people.

As always, the dark sharp eyes behind the mask studied and weighed him. Then, alarmingly, the mask tilted downwards as if in apology. I am so sorry, the wiry old man seemed to say.

Then the image exploded into smoke and a far more distant figure now stood in the darkness, cloaked, tall and commanding. Upon his face was not the child’s crude wooden mask, but a beaten golden oval that shone cold and bright, like the moon. And in his dream Jan bowed to the mask.

Yet it was not the bended knee and lowered head of devotion freely given to his old master. In his dream Jan was sickened to find that he had no choice.

He awoke, his body shivering in a cold sweat. A light tap at his door sounded again. He reached out and drew on his mask. Rising, he picked up the sword that lay next to his bedding and crossed to the door. A servant was waiting, head lowered.

‘Yes?’

‘The Third and Fourth await without, sir. And … others.’

‘Thank you.’

Jan slid the door shut and threw on a shirt, trousers and sash. He went to the front. There in the night, their servants holding torches aloft, waited his fellows of the Ten, the ruling Eldrii. They bowed.

‘You felt it?’ Jan asked.

Six masks inclined their assent.

Jan answered their bow. ‘We are called, my friends. As was promised us so long ago. Ready the ships.’

And they bowed once more.

CHAPTER IV

And he who knew many conflicts

spoke these words:

Where have the swordsmen gone?

Where is the gold giver?

Where are the feasts of the hall?

Alas for the bright dome!

Alas for the fallen splendour!

Now that time has passed away,

dark buried in night,

as if it had never been!

Where lay the servants,

wound round with wards?

Brought low by warriors

and their cruel spears.

Now storms beat

at rocky cliffs,

the bones of the earth

harbingers of storm.

All is strife and trouble

in earthly kingdoms.

Here men are fleeting.

Here honour is fleeting.

All the foundation of the world

turns to waste!

Song of the Exiles, Cant

Antsy spent the night on the common room dirt floor. Malakai paid for that and a room for Orchid. Money, it seemed, wasn’t an issue for the man. She woke him up in the morning bleary-eyed and hung over; he’d brooded far too long into the night over far too many earthenware bottles of cheap Confederation beer. That the ale went on to Malakai’s bill made the drinking all the easier, and his funk all the greater. His friend Jallin made no reappearance and Antsy decided that maybe he’d seen the last of that skinny thief.

Malakai brought down six fat skins of sweet water, two bulging panniers and a coil of braided jute rope, and piled the lot beside Antsy and Orchid. Antsy took the majority of the waterskins, the rope, and one pannier to balance his own. He wondered resentfully whether the man had taken them on merely to serve as porters. Malakai wore his thick dirty cloak once more, but now, in his black waist sash and on two shoulder baldrics, he carried as many knives as you could collect from shaking down an entire bourse of Darujhistani toughs. Each was shoved into a tight leather sheath so it wouldn’t fall out or rattle. The man caught Antsy eyeing the hardware and smiled, waving a leather-gloved hand. ‘For show,’ he said.

Orchid took the second pannier. She too was unable to look away from all the pig-stickers. Malakai led the way, and though Antsy listened he didn’t hear the faintest rattle or tap. The man still moved as silently as a shade. Antsy shivered, reminded of certain assassin-types he’d served beside over the years; then he shrugged and thumped along behind: better with him than against him. Leaving the inn he winced as the bright morning glare stabbed his eyes.

The day’s fee-collecting had already begun. They entered the crowd, but unlike yesterday, when Antsy had had to push his way through the press, it parted before them as if everyone sensed that something was up. The faces he passed betrayed hostility, curiosity, resentment, and even smug smiles as if some knew what waited out at the Spawns — and it wasn’t pretty.

Malakai handled the transaction. Antsy experienced a moment of light-headed avarice when the man tipped a stream of cut rubies on to the tabletop. Whatever this man was after out at the Spawns, riches could not be it. He probably already possessed enough to purchase a title in Darujhistan. Free Cities Confederation troops escorted them to the launch.

‘So you made it safe and sound, I see,’ a voice greeted Antsy when he jumped up and swung his legs into the tall boat. Malakai, already within, turned to the voice, his eyes narrowing dangerously. There, ensconced at the stern, sat the young Darujhistani nobleman from the Island Inn who’d probably saved Antsy’s neck.

Antsy touched Malakai’s arm. ‘It’s okay. I met him here.’ Malakai just turned away to occupy the prow.

Antsy leaned over the side to help Orchid up. She tried to clasp his hand but he avoided that to show her the wrist grip. He hauled but barely raised her; the girl was surprisingly heavy. Must be her damned height.

‘Wait,’ said the young sword who had moved next to him. He jumped over the side and knelt before Orchid. ‘You may stand on me, m’lady.’

Orchid stared at his bent back as if it were some sort of cruel trick — that he would tumble her into the surf or move aside at the last instant. ‘Go ahead, lass,’ Antsy growled. ‘Give the damned fool your boot.’

She planted one muddy shoe on his back and, steadied by Antsy, swung the other over the side. Looking rather embarrassed, she sat down among their equipment. Antsy helped the nobleman back up. ‘Thanks,’ he told him. ‘And thanks again.’

‘Yes. Thank you,’ Orchid added, her flushed face turned aside.

‘It was nothing,’ and the young man bowed.

‘Anyone else!’ a guard bellowed from the beach. ‘Anyone else for today?’

‘So, what’s your name?’ Antsy asked.

The lad bowed again, brushed back his long brown hair. ‘Corien. Corien Lim. Honoured, sir.’

Antsy cocked a brow. ‘Honoured? What in the Abyss for?’ He touched his neck. ‘It’s me who’s grateful.’

The lad smiled. ‘Honoured to meet a veteran. I am a great admirer of your, ah, military organization.’

Antsy lost his ease and frowned, glancing about. ‘Yeah. Well. Keep that under your damned hat.’

The youth laughed. ‘It is quite obvious to everyone, sir, I assure you.’

Confederation guards began pushing the launch out. Antsy steadied himself. ‘Sir? I ain’t no Hood-damned officer.’

‘Your name, then. If you would?’

‘Red.’

Corien’s gaze rose to his hair. ‘Admirable alias.’ Grinning, he bowed to Orchid and returned to the stern.

Antsy sat amid the coiled rope and piled panniers. ‘Thanks for all your help,’ he muttered aside to Malakai. But the man continued to ignore everyone, his gaze on the horizon and the black dots of the distant Spawns.

Glancing back, Antsy watched the crowd diminishing on the beach. He caught eyes glaring daggers at him. It was Jallin sending doom and destruction upon his head by way of the evil eye. The youth drew a finger across his neck in a universal gesture. Antsy simply turned aside: he was on his way while the thief was stuck in Hurly. And that, he decided, must lie at the root of the youth’s fanatical hatred.

The crossing took most of the day. First, the twelve guards rowed them out to a waiting double-masted Confederation coaster. Here they were offered smoked meats and kegs of water at outrageous prices. They declined. The sails were raised and they headed south, crossways to the prevailing easterlies.

Antsy watched Corien strike up conversations with the sailors. Easy charm, that one had. Boundless confidence that seemed to flow into anyone he addressed. Had to watch out for that. Confidence got you killed. Better to be careful. Better to be … suspicious.

He settled into the deepest shade he could find on the coaster’s deck. He unwrapped his grinding stone, spat on it, and set to work on the edges of his long-knives. He knew they thought he was crazy, all his buddies in the army. They sure looked at him askance whenever he gave his opinion. But he was also just as sure he’d long ago come to the deepest truest secret about how to stay alive … and it was one most people either didn’t want to know, or couldn’t face up to.

The truth is that the goal of existence is to kill you.

Once you grasped that essential truth it was pretty much everything you needed to know in a nutshell right there. He’d learned that the hard way, growing up working Walk’s fishing fleet and then in the army. Of course, the world always won in the end. The only real question was just how long you could hold out against all the infinite weapons and tools and stratagems at its disposal. The only way he’d succeeded so far was in always expecting the worst.

‘Look at him,’ Orchid snorted from where she leaned against the ship’s railing. ‘The peacock fool. Can’t he see they’re just stringing him along — laughing at him?’

Antsy turned an eye on Corien, still joking with the sailors. ‘Maybe. Where’s our employer?’

She peered round the deck. ‘Don’t know. He sort of disappeared the moment we got on board.’

‘Good.’

She pulled her wind-tossed long hair from her face, peered down at him, puzzled. ‘Why?’

He let out a long breath, brushed a thumb across the long-knife’s edge. Good enough for hack ’n’ slash work. ‘’Cause who’s to say these Confederation boys are gonna deliver us to the Spawns?’ Now the girl looked completely thrown. Poor lass … not fit for the world, you are.

‘Whatever do you mean?’

He shrugged. ‘No one’s come back, right? So who’s to say they don’t just dump us over the side?’

‘But — that would be murder!’

He winced. ‘Keep your voice down, lass. And yeah — it would. But these boys are pirates and wreckers for generations. Nothing new for them.’

‘No. I don’t believe it.’

Like always. Denial of the discomfiting truth. He hugged his pannier to his lap. ‘Yeah. Well. Let’s just hope so.’

The Spawns grew to the south. They became a collection of jagged black-rock islands. The only signs of life were wheeling cawing seabirds and faint tendrils of smoke rising here and there amid the peaks. They didn’t look all that big, only the main island, which at sea level looked as wide as a mountain. From there it climbed steep and saw-edged into a series of knife-like crags. He wondered why it hadn’t sunk lower. Could it have landed on shoals? Surely the Rivan Sea wasn’t so shallow this far out. It also struck him that the entire mammoth structure listed to one side. Antsy canted his head as he followed the angle down to where the waves crashed in a distant white surf at the waterline. Burn preserve him! Was it floating?

At last a reef-like collection of black rocks reared ahead, sharp-edged and spotted with bird-droppings. The sea hissed and the muted roar of surf reached Antsy. At a yell from the mainmast the anchor was dropped. Men ran for the sails, taking them in. Their bare feet thumped over the deck timbers. Some readied the ship’s boat, a flat-bottomed punt.

Malakai appeared at Antsy’s side. ‘We’ll disembark now.’

‘Aye.’

The punt was lowered into the rough waters and four sailors climbed down to handle it. Their equipment was lowered by rope. Antsy climbed down first then called for Orchid. She was lowered in a sling that he helped guide from below. Next came Malakai. Last, Corien swung down on one of the punt’s ropes. The sailors pushed off using long polished poles. Everyone crouched as low as possible as the tiny punt yawed alarmingly.

Poling from rock to rock the sailors made good time. Soon the ship was lost to sight behind a maze of stone shards that varied from man-height to ship-size. The farther they penetrated into the eerie reef the smoother the water became until it was as if they were crossing a land-locked lagoon.

‘Look there,’ Orchid cried, pointing.

To one side a pointed stone shard resembling an immense fang reared at an angle from the waters. Its contours troubled Antsy until he recognized its features: a circular staircase cut from the very rock spiralled upwards, ending at empty air. The sight brought home the outrageousness, the impertinence, of their intentions. Orchid sobered, losing her excited grin, and she rubbed her arms as if chilled. Even the sailors grew quiet. They peered everywhere at once and Antsy didn’t think it was from the difficulty of the passage. Only Malakai and, surprisingly, Corien appeared unaffected by the atmosphere of alien grandeur.

Every little sound echoed into distorted noise: the harsh cawing of the seabirds, the crack of the poles against rock, unseen falling stones, and the constant slap of the waves. From beneath the water, Antsy caught the glint of the day’s dying light glimmering from sunken metal, possibly even silver or gold. Multicoloured fish darted, nibbling at algae and seaweed.

Orchid began humming a slow dirge-like tune. The humming became words that she whispered to the passing shattered basaltic rock.

Mother Dark he forswore,

Death’s own blade he bore.

Dragon’s blood courses his veins,

Immortal,

He walks till end of Light:

Anomander,

Night’s own fickle Knight.

Everyone turned to her. Even the sailors stopped poling. Blinking as if returning from a long daydream she blushed furiously, her dark features flushing, and she lowered her head. ‘From an epic poem composed during the Holy City period of the Seven Cities region,’ she said.

Corien cleared his throat. ‘Thank you. Very appropriate.’

The sailors eyed one another but none commented. They returned to their poling, following a route known only to them. The main island reared over them now, rising sheer from the surf as a cliff. The sailors started edging the punt round it. Between the shards, off to one side, Antsy spotted an anchored ship rocking in the waves. It was long and low-slung in the water, single-masted. A war galley. Shields hung all along its side just above the oar-ports. In the dying light it was hard to tell, but the shields appeared somehow decorated. Then it was gone in the maze of rocks. Antsy turned away shaking his head; it was almost as if he’d imagined it.

The punt yawed dangerously now, threatening to capsize. The waves batted it like the toy it was. A number of times it was almost swamped as the surf threatened to suck it against the rocks of the cliff. A darker shadow, the mouth of a cave some way above the waterline, came into view round the curve ahead and as they drew near Antsy spotted a rope ladder hanging from it into the surf. The sailors poled the boat to just beneath. ‘Get your gear,’ one yelled over the crash of the waves.

‘Get closer!’ Antsy demanded, but started gathering the equipment. Corien grabbed one set of waterskins and Antsy silently thanked him.

‘Now, go!’ a sailor shouted.

‘Wait just a damned minute!’

When the punt dipped in the surf Malakai suddenly leapt to land on a tiny stone ledge. He trailed the rope behind him. Antsy pressed it into Orchid’s hands. ‘Hold on.’

‘I can’t swim!’

‘Then hold on, dammit!’

The poles cracked against the rocks as the sailors desperately fended the boat from the cliff. Orchid yelled something lost in the crash of waves and jumped for the end of the rope ladder. The punt nearly tipped over. She disappeared into the foaming blue-black waves. Malakai hauled on the rope. Antsy remembered the girl’s amazingly strong grip. She appeared again, thrown up by the surf, driven against the rock wall, to which she clung. Malakai began making his way to her, dragging the rope ladder with him.

Corien took the punt’s side next. While the man timed his jump Antsy belted the two panniers he had been carrying to himself. ‘How do we get off the damned island?’ he yelled to the nearest sailor.

The man waved him away. ‘Go, damn you!’

Antsy pointed to the cave. ‘Is this where we get off, too?’

Corien leapt and hit the side, where he hung by both hands. He clambered up the uneven cliff face.

‘Jump or we take you back with us!’ a sailor barked, and swung his pole at Antsy.

All right — we’ll have to do this the hard way then. Antsy drew a dirk and yanked the nearest sailor down into the bottom of the boat. All four screamed insults. The punt bounced like a cork. Antsy shoved two fingers’ length of the dirk blade into the man’s side. The sailor jerked, then held himself utterly still. The other three were too busy holding the punt off from the cliff to come to his aid. ‘You know!’ Antsy yelled. ‘What’s the story on getting out?’

‘Let me go or we’re all dead!’

‘Answer!’

‘All right! Hood’s grin, man!’

Then the bottom of the punt launched up into Antsy, clouting him in the mouth, and there was a shout of warning, a snapping of wood, and the water sucked him down into its cold embrace. The sailor he still had by the belt kicked at him; the two panniers of equipment dragged him down like stone weights. He cut the straps of one, hoping it was the right choice. A wall of black stone veined with bubbles flew at him. The collision knocked out his remaining breath and he gulped in a mouthful of water. He scrabbled for a grip over the slimy rock. He knew he was drowning and it outraged him that there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. It wasn’t goddamned fair.

It seemed that the world, with all its infinite traps, had finally caught up with him.

He came to coughing and vomiting up seawater. Someone held him upright in chest-high surging waves: Malakai. The man was shouting something: ‘Did you lose it! Where is it?’

Still dry-heaving, Antsy dug at the remaining pannier; it was his. He grinned his relief to Malakai, who grunted, nodding. The man also had a grip on the rope ladder and he swung Antsy to it. ‘Damned fool.’

At the back of the cave was a flight of ascending steps cut into the rock, barely as wide as his shoulders. It was pitch black but for the light from the cave mouth. Antsy felt his way on all fours. Seawater dripped from him on to the stairs, which were cold beneath his hands, and as slippery as polished marble. He kept almost falling until he realized that the stairs tilted crazily to one side. He smelled something, an old familiar smell — it came from something smeared over the stairs, and because it had been some time it took him a moment to recognize the tang of dried blood.

‘Almost at the top,’ came Orchid’s voice from above.

Hands took his shoulders and she led him to a wall. He leaned against it, grateful. She seemed to be having no trouble in the absolute black. ‘Corien?’

‘Gone ahead.’

‘How far?’ from Malakai, sharp.

‘Not far,’ came Corien’s voice.

Antsy couldn’t take it any longer: ‘I can’t see a goddamned blasted thing!’

Silence, the muted roar of the surf. ‘Anyone else?’ asked Malakai.

‘I’ve always had excellent night vision,’ said Orchid.

‘Before I came I visited an alchemist. He gave me an unguent,’ Corien said.

‘Can you give some to Red?’

‘Ah. Sorry. There’s really only enough for one.’

Antsy felt his way along the wall to the top of the stairs. He squinted down; there, dull grey, a glimmering.

‘Don’t we have any light?’ Orchid asked.

‘Yes,’ Malakai answered, reluctantly. ‘But I’d rather not announce our presence by shining it everywhere.’

‘Well, you should’ve thought of that when you hired us.’

Corien chuckled his appreciation of the point.

A long silence followed that. Antsy peered about the black, which seemed to him no longer absolute. His vision was adjusting; he could make out blobs of greater and lesser darkness, catch hints of movement. Someone slid down one wall to a sitting position. ‘We’ll wait,’ said Malakai. ‘We’re wet and it’s night. We’ll have more light in the morning.’

Everyone sat. Equipment banged to the floor. ‘What was that about, Red?’ Corien asked. ‘There on the boat?’

Antsy debated not bothering to answer but decided that since they were all stuck together he might as well make the effort. ‘I wanted some information so I put a knife to one of them. We capsized.’

Corien laughed a loud barracks-room bray. ‘Remind me not to withhold information from you in the future.’

Antsy allowed himself a sour half-smile. He hugged his pannier to his chest. He was soaked, cold, and his mouth hurt like the devil. This was not going the way he’d imagined. Then he laughed, thinking of something: ‘I’m sure as Hood not keeping watch tonight.’

Orchid and Corien chuckled.

‘I will. Everyone get some sleep,’ growled Malakai.

No one spoke again that night.

Kiska had no idea how long they sat imprisoned in their cliff-face cave. Or even that such concepts as days or hours mattered here at what now truly seemed to be the ‘Shores of Creation’. Leoman practised with his morningstars at the widest point of the cave-fissure. Kiska had her chance to practise close work with the stave. She tested herself until her arms burned then threw herself down to sleep.

But sleep would not come. Instead, her thoughts wandered to one of her last assignments within the Claw. One of a team pursuing indigenous leaders in Seven Cities. Assassination, disruption of nativist movements, the seeding of spies and provocateurs. Ugly work. Murder, torture, extortion, blackmail. That was where she fell away from the Claw. Not out of squeamishness, or adherence to any sort of misplaced moral philosophy — if they weren’t doing it to others then others’d be doing it to them, after all — no, it was purely professional disgust. The politicking within the Claw. The careerist lies and backstabbing. The toadying and outright favouritism in promotions. At first it only disgusted her and she kept her distance.

But then it happened to her.

It had been a routine operation. The target was an entrenched anti-occupation movement gaining strength around Aren. She’d been second in command of the Hand assigned the clean-up. They were lucky to have two locally recruited agents: Seven Cities natives who favoured the Malazan mission of suppressing the wasteful feuding, the opening up of the culture to the wider world.

These two were tasked with infiltrating the movement.

During this time the Hand waited and watched. Buildings were noted. Members were marked. The Hand held off until word was passed of a major meet or gathering. The night was set. Kiska’s Hand was positioned; the sign was given; they moved.

They stepped right into an ambush.

Somehow, these Seven Cities patriots had gotten word of the attack. A number proved to be hardened veterans from the first war of invasion. When it all was over the small dank cellar was a bloodbath. Only she and the Hand commander remained standing.

On searching the side rooms she found their agents. Both had been monstrously tortured. Mauled and carved almost beyond recognition as human. Bound and hanging like meat. Unbelievably, one still lived. Though eyeless, his stomach eviscerated, the innards dangling in loops, he mouthed that the insurgents had been tipped off. That he’d overheard their boasting of a source within the Claw itself.

Both Kiska and Lotte, the Hand commander, immediately knew who it probably was. The man was Lotte’s rival for promotion to the regional directorate. Kiska was all for murdering him that night. Right then and there with the blood still wet on their boots and gloves. But Lotte demurred. He was willing to grant his rival this round. The operation would be reported as botched, a black mark on his record, and the other fellow would get the directorship.

But with Kiska’s help he vowed to see to it that the man’s tenure would be one long series of failures and setbacks in the region. He would be removed. And then, Lotte proposed, he himself and Kiska could potentially rule the Seven Cities holdings from behind the scenes. In the dark of the cellar, the stink of blood and bile a miasma in the air, the dead a carpet round their feet, and Lotte’s gaze bright upon her weighing, guarded, Kiska thought it prudent to agree.

But her faith in the virtue of her calling had been shaken — no, more than shaken … it had been stabbed through the heart. Lost among the self-promotion and careerist manoeuvring within the order was any concern or responsibility to their larger mission serving the Empire. It seemed that the entire Malazan goal of subduing the Seven Cities region could go down in flames so long as one Claw operative managed to sabotage his rivals. And also dead were two infinitely valuable local agents, loyal and dedicated to the Malazan cause. Betrayed for a cheap leg-up in one bureaucrat’s career. Kiska was sickened beyond disgust by the utter short-sighted selfishness of it.

Shortly after that she abandoned the Claw and fled to the service of High Mage Tayschrenn. There they dared not touch her, and there she remained until that day: the day that saw not only the Empress’s fall, but Tayschrenn’s disappearance. The fall of the Empire’s greatest High Mage to this Yathengar, a Seven Cities priest-mage, crazed with revenge for the occupation of his lands and the insults to his city gods. To destroy his enemy the man had actually summoned raw Chaos to drive a hole in creation itself. And the two had been sucked within.

So now she sought him. Across all the face of creation, it seemed, she sought her master. Again she scoured among her feelings for the reasons for such pursuit. The most uncomfortable suspicion was of course that she longed for his attention, his embrace as a man. She studied that urge as ruthlessly as possible to come to the conclusion: no. She no longer dreamt of such a liaison — the stuff of some syrupy courtly romance. When she’d been younger she’d allowed herself the illusion. But no longer. Perhaps some scholar would argue she sought him as the father figure she’d never truly known as a child. Perhaps. What she thought far more germane was that she considered him possibly the only one left who could enforce some sort of standard of behaviour, or moral direction, upon the Empire. If that were at all possible.

All very high-sounding in purpose and aspiration.

But the suspicion pricked her: perhaps the truth was far less noble. Perhaps she was here because she was afraid the Claw would eventually come for her. The organization was famous for never forgetting. But no, all that was so long ago and far away. They had much bigger things to concern themselves with. And she had leverage. She knew things about the Empire. Things no one wanted whispered.

Yet was that not another good reason to see you gone?

She opened her eyes to the familiar narrow cave. Something was different. She heard whispering, a murmuring out beyond the cave mouth. Leoman lay asleep, his breath even, the pulse at his neck steady. Thinking of Seven Cities: this man had served in the resistance against Malazan occupation alongside Yathengar, or at least in sympathy with him. And in that region he had delivered a heart-thrust to the Empire with the conflagration at Y’Ghatan.

The dizzying idea came to her that in her actions she was somehow aiding him in some hidden goals against the Empire. Perhaps she should take the opportunity now to slay him in his sleep, or regret it later. Yet she knew she could not bring herself to commit murder. She was no cold-blooded killer, though trained in such techniques.

She rose and glided soundlessly to the opening.

It was unguarded. The lumpish beings who had barricaded them in had moved off. They were whispering — well, croaking, belching and lisping — among themselves. It was the gloomy dusk of night. Alien stars glimmered overhead. It occurred to her that if she wished she could make up new constellations among them. The Stave and the Morningstar perhaps.

The lumpy guards squealed and burbled as they caught sight of her, and they came limping up to surround her. It seemed to her that she could smack them to pieces with her staff, but she felt pity for them. Pity and sadness. She couldn’t bring herself to strike any one of them.

At least not yet.

One of the malformed creatures edged up closer before her; it struck her that they were even more wary of her than she of them.

‘You are understanding of me?’ it asked.

‘Yes. Yes, I am.’

‘We are decided to allow you to go. You go if you wish. Imprisonment is hurtful. We are many victims of cruel imprisonment. We would not impress it upon any other. We are not like you.’

Kiska thought it rather convenient of them to allow her to leave after she’d already escaped. But she let that pass. Instead she asked, ‘Like me?’

‘Yes. Like you. Those who summon us, imprison us, use us cruelly, send us melt among the Vitr. Those like you.’

Kiska understood. Human mages. Summoners. Theurgical researchers. Her breath caught as she realized: like Tayschrenn.

Steps behind her and Leoman emerged. ‘Labour problems?’ he asked.

‘They are lowering the blockade.’

The Seven Cities native nodded sagely. ‘Sieges are a test of patience.’

Kiska didn’t say that she thought these things could easily outwait them if it came to that. She addressed them: ‘I am looking for the one known as Thenaj. Do you know where he is?’

A flurry of hissing and burbling among the dun-brown creatures answered her. Their spokesman pointed the longer of its blunt limbs. ‘It is as feared. You are come to take him away. You mustn’t! The Great One is much pleased by him. He was very sad all alone for so long.’

‘The Great One. You mean Maker?’

‘Names are dangerous things. To us he is the Great One.’

‘I understand.’ She set her hands on her hips. ‘May we go then?’

‘We will not close the way … but we will not help either.’

Kiska sighed. ‘Fine.’ She waved Leoman forward. ‘Let’s go.’

They walked in silence for a time. The malformed creatures were left behind at their caves. Leoman, she noted, paced warily, hands on his weapons. ‘You’re nervous?’ she asked.

‘I’m wondering how the big one will take this.’

‘Sounds like he was outvoted.’

‘Ah, voting. Such a political arrangement is fine on paper, or among philosophers. But it tends to break apart upon the rocks of application.’

Kiska cocked a brow. A revolutionary political philosopher? ‘Oh? How so?’

‘Inequity. Disparities in power. For some unknown reason our big friend chooses to play along with the delusion of egalitarianism. But believe me, when the wishes of the powerful are thwarted they will set aside any communal agreements and pursue their own plans regardless. Because they can.’

‘You sound bitter.’

‘No. Not bitter. Realistic.’ He waved a gloved hand. ‘Oh, because no one likes to think of themselves as a despot they will cloak their actions in high-sounding rhetoric. Announce that he — or she — sees the situation more clearly. That everyone will thank them in the end. That it is for the better. And so on.’

She eyed him where he walked next to her, hands on the hafts of his weapons, his gaze somewhere else. The Sea of Vitr glimmered ahead. Lazy waves came hissing up the black scoured strand. ‘You sure you’re not bitter?’

Beneath his moustache the man’s lips curled up in a rueful smile. ‘The curse of an unflinching eye.’ He froze. ‘And here comes the test.’

Kiska glanced over and tensed. It was the big demon hurrying up to them on its broad ungainly bird’s feet. It stopped a short distance off, glowered down at them. ‘You are out,’ it growled after a time.

Kiska decided to forgo any sarcastic response. She levelled her stave before her. ‘Yes.’

It looked over them to the cliff face. ‘I disapprove. But it is their decision.’ It held out an amber-taloned hand and clenched it as if crushing them within. ‘If you hurt anyone you will answer to me.’ And it stalked off.

Kiska caught Leoman’s bemused gaze. ‘And what do you say to that?’

He stroked his moustache, frowning thoughtfully. ‘I would say this place seems to have rules of its own.’

She could not argue with that.

CHAPTER V

What is the Deck of Dragons

But where one bends to look

For reflections

Of all things unseen?

Verse attributed to the Seer of Callows

Spindle could not sleep after he and Blend and Picker dragged themselves back to K’rul’s bar. It was dawn in any case, and his nerves were shot. They’d witnessed something they shouldn’t have; they all knew it. No one said a thing all the way back from the base of Majesty Hill — which wasn’t very far in any case, as K’rul’s old temple stood on its own hill in the estate district.

Blend and Picker thumped up the stairs to their room. Spindle slouched into a booth. The common room was empty. The historian was upstairs asleep. After dozing for a short time, Spindle was driven by a full bladder to shamble out of the rear kitchen exit. Facing the yard, looking out over the chicken coop, the woodpile and the pigsty, he untied his trousers and relieved himself in the chill air.

In mid-stream he gaped, jerked, traced a warm stream down his leg, then stumbled back inside, struggling with his trousers.

‘Picker! Blend! Burn’s own tits, would you come and look at this!’

‘Shut up!’ came the muffled response.

‘No, really! This is amazin’! You gotta see this.’

Shambled footsteps sounded from above. Picker’s voice called down: ‘If it’s just you findin’ your little soldier then I’m gonna be real mad.’

‘Ha, ha! No. I’m fucking serious here.’

‘All right, all right.’ Picker appeared, tucking in her shirt and tying her trousers, boots clumping. ‘What is it?’

‘Out back. Take a look.’

‘What? Has Moon’s Spawn returned?’

‘Somethin’ like that.’

Picker sobered, eyed the man, doubtful. She hiked up her trousers and headed to the kitchen. Spindle followed.

At the open doorway Picker stopped, peered right, then left. Behind, Spindle hopped from foot to foot, brushing at his wet pants. ‘Do you see it? Do ya?’

‘What? The amazin’ chickens? They dancin’? Singin’?’

‘No! Not …’ He squeezed his way round her, stared squinting into the distance. ‘But there was …’ He turned back to the big woman, hunched his shoulders. ‘There was this huge dome-like thing there. Over the hilltop …’

Picker just shook her head in a slow heavy dismissal. She rubbed her arm where scars marked a ring round the flesh, eyed the distance once more. Then she pushed him aside, muttering, ‘Fuckin’ moron. Can’t believe I’m beginnin’ to miss Antsy.’

Spindle was left alone in the chill air. He turned back to the view across the hills of the estate district, snorted to himself.

‘What did it look like?’ someone asked from behind.

He spun, jumping. It was Duiker, the old historian. He nodded a greeting. ‘It was pale. Kinda see-through. Big. Like the moon. It looked like the moon.’

The historian frowned thoughtfully behind his thick grey beard. His gaze fixed on Spindle. ‘You lot been gone days. What happened?’

‘I’ll tell you over some hot mulled wine.’

‘We don’t have any.’

Spindle cast another pinched glance over the hilltops. ‘Then I’m gonna go get some.’

*

Torvald Nom awoke to a cat’s claws sinking into his chest. He jerked upright with a gasp, heard something ricochet off the shelves under the open window, then sat tensed, limbs trembling with startled awareness.

‘What is it?’ Tiserra murmured, still mostly asleep.

‘For a moment I thought you’d thrown yourself upon me and sunk your nails into my chest in an ecstasy of passion, dear. But it was the cat.’

‘That’s nice,’ she murmured into her pillow.

Torvald sighed, peered about the shadowed room. ‘Well. I’m awake now. Might as well head out.’

‘Hmph.’

‘Don’t trouble yourself. Don’t bustle about with tea and bread and such for your working man.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Never mind.’ Torvald got up.

Passing through the streets on his walk to the estate district it struck him that the city was very quiet this morning. He felt that sense of suspended expectation, the atmosphere that some described as ‘holding one’s breath’. And he had had the strangest dreams just before awakening so very painfully. He did hear one noise that was very out of place indeed. He recognized it only because of his travels so far from this city of his birth. For it was a sound utterly unfamiliar to Darujhistan: the ordered stamp of marching soldiery. He hurried to where the marching echoed, the Second Tier Way.

He joined a press of Darujhistani citizenry turned out to watch this once in a lifetime sight. The tall cross-piece hanging banner preceding the column declared their allegiance: the white sceptre on a field of black, the sceptre much like an orb clasped in an upright three-toed predatory bird’s foot. The naked clawed grip of the Malazan Empire.

Elite heavy infantry. Campaign stripes marked them as veterans of every engagement on these, to them, foreign Genabackan lands. They carried broad rectangular shields blackened and edged in burgundy. Shortswords swung belted high at their sides. Crossbows and javelins rode strapped to their backs. The Malazan delegation honour guard, some two hundred strong. Withdrawing?

‘What’s going on?’ he asked one fellow in the crowd.

‘The Empire’s invading!’ the man bellowed, half drunk.

Torvald grimaced at his bad luck. ‘They’re headed in the wrong direction,’ he pointed out.

‘Ha ha!’ the drunk yelled. ‘We beat them! Good riddance, y’damned foreigners!’

Torvald walked away just in case the appropriately feared Malazan mailed fist should make itself felt. The rear of the column came marching up. Mounted officers rode just before a train of wagons and carts and strings of spare mounts. Torvald noted that he did not see the bald and rather fat figure of the ambassador among the officers. He hurried on to bring the news to his employer, the head of his family house and thus councilwoman, Lady Varada.

Madrun let him into the compound. ‘Captain,’ the man said, bowing. Torvald always listened carefully to this welcome but so far he’d yet to detect even the slightest tinge of insincerity. More than ever he regretted the absence of his old partners, Scorch and Leff, who used to guard these doors.

At least then he wasn’t the obvious weak link in the estate’s personnel.

The castellan Studlock met him at the open front doors of the house. ‘I have orders from the mistress,’ he lisped as Torvald hurried past.

‘Yes?’

‘The mistress is … ill,’ Studlock murmured. ‘Yes. That is it. Quite ill.’

Torvald sniffed the air. ‘What is that I smell? Is something burning?’

‘Just my preparations. The singeing of rare leaves. An infusion gone wrong.’ The strange man crept up close; the tatters and strips of gauzy cloth he wrapped himself in dragged long behind. Torvald flinched away. ‘You appear tired, malnourished,’ Studlock went on. ‘Are you having trouble in your sexual performance? Perhaps a mineral poultice to rebalance your animus?’

‘Rebalance my what? Ah, no. Thank you.’

‘A pity.’

‘Ill, you say? Where is she?’

‘The mistress is … indisposed.’

‘Indisposed …’

‘Yes. Quite. She did, however, leave detailed instructions regarding you.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes. None other.’

‘I see. And these instructions?’

The man edged closer, his watery green eyes narrowed upon Torvald. ‘There is a worrisome choleric tinge to you. Have you evacuated lately?’

‘Evacu what?’

‘Evacuated. Discharged your bodily wastes.’

‘Ah! Yes.’

‘And your bowels? How are they?’

‘Sacrosanct, thank you.’

‘Regretful. How am I to continue my practice?’

Torvald was surprised. ‘You’re a physicker?’

The man blinked his confusion. ‘No.’

Torvald regarded the unnerving hunched figure for a time, cleared his throat. ‘So … these instructions?’

‘Yes. You are now head of House Nom. Congratulations.’ The castellan shuffled away.

Torvald stood motionless in the receiving hall for a long time. Then he stormed up the stairs for his employer’s office. He was in the process of ransacking her desk when he looked up to see the gauzy apparition of Studlock before him once again.

‘There must be some mistake.’

‘None, I assure you.’

‘What of Bellam?’

‘Young Bellam remains an eventual heir.’

‘But … it can’t be official. There has to be paperwork. Certificates and such.’

The castellan drew a scroll from within the folds of cloth at his chest. ‘I have them here. Sealed and authenticated.’

Torvald slumped down into the chair. That had been his last hope. He straightened, his brows rising. ‘Aha! I appoint another. Someone else. Anyone else.’

‘Rallick Nom will support m’lady’s choice. So then will the majority of the House.’

Torvald slumped once more. Damn him! He would, too — if only to avoid being appointed himself!

He set his elbows on the desk, cupped his head in his hands. ‘But this is terrible … Tiserra will kill me! One day I leave for work and when I come home it’s hello dear your husband has a seat on the Council! Rather a shock.’

The castellan cocked his head. ‘Will she not be pleased?’

‘You don’t know her.’

‘You are correct. I do not. Are introductions in order? Some tea? My special brew …’

Torvald threw up his hands. ‘No! No, no, thank you. That’s quite all right.’

Studlock’s shoulders fell. ‘That is regrettable. Who will I test it on?’

Torvald frowned. ‘So, now what? What do I do?’

‘You should register your appointment with the clerk of the Council, I imagine.’

‘Ah. Thank you. How very … practical.’

The castellan bowed. ‘My only wish is to serve.’

Torvald had never been to Majesty Hill; indeed, had never dreamed he’d have cause. The Wardens at the lowest gate stopped him to inspect his paperwork. Before him rose the stairs that switched back and forth up the flank of the hill, lined all the way by monuments, family shrines, plaques commemorating victories — real and invented — and other grandiose pronouncements meant to impress the reader with the virtue and generosity of their sponsors. All no more than base self-aggrandizement, Torvald reflected, once you boiled it all down.

He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on the worn heels of his old boots. Perhaps such an attitude was precisely what was not welcome on yon prestigious hilltop.

A clerk bowed as he handed back the scrolled paperwork. ‘Welcome, sir. My apologies for the delay. We do not see many councillors here at the gate.’

‘No? You do not? Just what do you see, then?’

‘Petitioners mostly. Appellants and other claimants summoned, or hoping, to address the assembly. And minor functionaries, of course.’

‘Ah. I see.’ Torvald wondered, vaguely, whether he’d just been insulted in some very sophisticated indirect fashion. Considering where he was headed, he decided that he’d better get used to it. ‘So, just where do the Council members enter?’

The man bowed — unctuously, it seemed to Torvald. ‘These days most take the carriageway from the south.’

‘Ah, well. Perhaps many would benefit from coming in this way occasionally, don’t you think?’

‘Oh, beyond a doubt, sir,’ the man agreed smoothly, his face straight.

Good at his job, this one, Torvald reflected. This gate must be where most of the squeezing of petitioners takes place. A coveted post. He bowed a farewell. ‘I’d best be going then.’

‘A sound decision, sir.’

Torvald walked away, wincing. Damn, drubbed by a bureaucrat. It’s going to be a long day.

Eventually, after rather a boring walk up an unnecessarily long set of stairs, he entered what appeared to be a main reception hall lined by many doors. It was … deserted. Is the place closed? Yet someone was here: noise reached him, a muted roaring as of many voices shouting. But where was it coming from?

A door slammed and a robed clerk appeared, sheaf of papers in hand, reading as he scuttled quickly across the hall.

Torvald cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me — could you tell me …’

The man disappeared into another side door. Torvald lowered his arm. A gods-damned rabbit warren. He poked his head into that door to see another hall, also lined by doors, albeit far less ornate. It occurred to him that a rather large old friend of his would know exactly what to do to a place like this. The sound of another door opening pulled him away. Another functionary was walking the hall. He planted himself before her.

The plump woman nearly ran into him before halting to blink up confusedly. ‘Yes?’

He wordlessly offered his paperwork. She examined it, then bowed. ‘Welcome, House Nom. I shall see to it that these are registered with the proper offices. You are no doubt come for the assembling of the emergency steering committee.’

It was now his turn to blink his confusion. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘This way. If you would, sir.’

Torvald followed the woman down the long hall, round a series of turns, to a tall set of double doors. Two city Wardens barred the entrance. From behind the doors came a riotous roaring such as Torvald imagined must prevail before the gates to Hood’s old realm.

The guards’ hands went to their shortswords. ‘This is a closed emergency session,’ pronounced one in what sounded like a carefully rehearsed line.

The woman bowed her agreement. ‘And Councillor Nom is here to participate.’

The guard’s brow furrowed. He licked his lips while he appeared to be frantically digging through options. The brows unfurled and he smiled, reciting, ‘Chambers are closed.’

‘Open those doors!’ a bull-roar echoed from behind Torvald, who spun.

A great bhederin of a fellow was hurrying up, unshaven, finery askew, a hand to his forehead, grimacing in pain. The clerk bowed. ‘Councillor Coll.’

Torvald stared despite himself. Great gods, the Councillor Coll? The man was a legend in the city.

The councillor cocked a bloodshot eye at Torvald. The clerk murmured, ‘Councillor Coll, may I introduce Councillor Nom, newly invested.’

The bleary, watering eyes widened. ‘Indeed … may I ask after the mesmerizing Lady Varada, whom I have seen only from a distance, across the assembly?’

The stale bite of cheap Daru spirits wafted from the man and Torvald struggled not to change his expression. ‘Ah … her health precludes her participation … I am come in her stead.’

‘My regrets to your family, Nom. And may she soon recover.’

Torvald frantically cast about for something equally well-mannered and sophisticated. ‘Ah, our thanks.’ Wonderful! Off to a dazzling start, you are.

But Councillor Coll’s attention had shifted to the closed doors and the guards. ‘You’re still here?’ he demanded.

‘Of course you may enter, Councillor. But this other …’

Coll snatched up the sheaf of papers held by the clerk: Torvald’s documents. He waved the flapping pages, complete with wax seals and coloured ribbons, before the faces of the guards. ‘You see these certificates? This man is as qualified to sit as I!’

The guards eyed the sheaf, all in the tiniest spidery penmanship, the way those manning a wooden palisade might dread the approach of a siege onager. Resistance collapsed and they stood aside.

The clerk pushed open the twin leaves. And as they passed within, it occurred to Torvald that an impenetrable bureaucracy was in truth more powerful than any sword.

They stood high in a semicircular amphitheatre of seats. The view reminded Torvald of a depiction of one corner of Hood’s realm: an immense prison for kings and despots, all arguing over who was in charge, when in truth none of the dead outside cared what went on within its tall walls.

The floor of the amphitheatre was crowded with the cream of the city aristocracy. All were standing talking at once, many red-faced, some waving their exasperation. Occasionally thrown papers fluttered over the crowd, or some particularly loud yell penetrated the din, but mostly it was an unintelligible gabbling of voices.

‘Welcome to Council,’ the clerk said, shouting to be heard though she stood right next to him.

‘How very inspiring,’ he answered, to himself of course, as none could have possibly heard, or cared to hear, for that matter.

The woman backed out, pulled the doors closed. Councillor Coll took his arm and hurried him down the stairs. ‘My thanks,’ Torvald offered.

‘You can thank me by swearing to give me your first vote.’

Such a vow struck Torvald as extremely dangerous, but he also knew that honour would dictate that he had no choice. Best to pretend that such was the case, then.

A loud, exceptionally sharp knocking sounded which Torvald identified as coming from a slim man standing on the raised speaker’s platform, banging a stone on the lectern.

‘Order!’ he bellowed in a surprisingly commanding voice. ‘Order!

The clamour slowly diminished and the councillors stood silent, leaving only a single old fellow waving his arms and shouting, ‘I tell you, everything would go so smoothly if only everyone would just do as I say!’

‘Hear, hear!’ someone shouted in answer and they all burst into applause.

The old fellow peered about myopically then hurriedly turned away, red-faced.

‘The floor recognizes Councillor Lim,’ a clerk announced into the silence.

It now occurred to Torvald that crowding about the central lectern were only some fifty or so members of the Council, yet the amphitheatre held seats for hundreds. ‘Where is everyone?’ he whispered to Coll.

‘It’s a damned trick,’ Coll answered, low and fierce. ‘There is a little-known emergency steering committee that can be called to meet in case of fires and such. Just those close enough to participate. Quorum is thirty. Thankfully I was nearby … sleeping in my chambers.’

Passed out, you mean. So, an emergency sub-committee of Council. But to decide what?

At the lectern, Lim stood tall and pole-thin, his dark expensive silk shirt and trousers accentuating his figure. He raised his arms for silence.

So, Lim, is it? Torvald believed he’d heard that Shardan Lim was dead.

‘Thank you,’ the fellow began. ‘My fellow councillors, fair Darujhistan has weathered astounding events of late. Many of you, myself included, no doubt wish that history would be so good as to pass us by for once, allow us our well-earned peace to quietly tend our fields and watch our children play …’

Torvald snorted: the man looked as peaceful and compassionate as a viper. Coll chuckled. Torvald glanced over to see him offer a wink. ‘What’s going on?’

In answer, the man gestured to the front. ‘Let us hear from Lim.’

‘That’s not Shardan Lim, is it?’

‘Ah. You are new. No, this is Jeshin Lim. His cousin.’

Torvald grunted. He’d never heard of a Jeshin Lim. But then, he’d probably never heard of most of the men and women in the hall. The young man had been talking all the while, offering some long-winded soothing introduction to the course of action he wished to suggest. In time, the meat of the speech arrived: ‘… and so it is clear that this abrupt, unannounced flight by all the Moranth present within the city, combined with the equally sudden withdrawal of their allies, the Imperial Malazan elements staining our fair city, can amount to only one thing: the first stage in a pre-planned, coordinated initiation of hostilities against the freedom and independence of Darujhistan!’

The hall erupted into chaotic noise once more. Most cheered, calling out their support of the claim. Only a few shouted their dismissal.

Torvald and Coll remained silent. Torvald leaned to Coll. ‘Why is he saying everything twice?’

‘Ah. An older style of rhetoric. Something of a traditionalist, our Jeshin. New to assembly, he is. But there’s a great deal of money backing him.’

Closer to the man, Torvald noted that while Coll was impressively large, it had all gone to fat. And though a strong miasma of Daru spirits surrounded him, he did not appear to be drunk.

‘And what do you propose?’ an old man’s sarcastic voice cut through the shouting.

The raucous arguing died down as everyone waited for Lim’s answer.

Coll gestured aside, indicating the speaker: an aged fellow, thin and straight, his hair a grey hedging round his skull. ‘Councillor D’Arle.’

‘Will you marshal the troops?’ the old man continued scathingly. ‘Assemble the navy? But wait … we have none! And the Malazans know this! If they wanted to occupy us they would have done so long ago.’

Councillor Lim was shaking his head. ‘With all respect to House D’Arle, that is not so. The truth is that the Malazans have tried to annex us to their Empire but that said efforts have to this time failed, or been defeated by circumstance, or the intervention of diversionary challenges — such as the Pannions to the south. Now, however, with said threat crushed, and Moon’s Spawn also eliminated from the field — now it appears clear that the Malazans see that it is time to bring our fair city to heel.’

‘You do have a proposal,’ Councillor D’Arle demanded, ‘lurking somewhere within all that puff and wind?’

‘I like this fellow,’ Torvald whispered to Coll.

A taut smile from Coll. ‘Sad family history there.’

Showing surprising patience, Councillor Lim inclined his head in assent. ‘I do. I propose that this emergency assembly of the Council now vote upon the investiture of the ancient position created precisely for such rare crises. I am speaking, of course, of the temporary and limited post of Legate of Council.’

Coll’s meaty hand closed painfully on Torvald’s shoulder. ‘The bastard!’ he hissed, giving out a cloud of stale alcohol. ‘You can’t do that!’ he bellowed into the hall.

Lim’s thin brows rose. ‘I see that we are fortunate in this time of threat to have Councillor Coll with us. You have a proposal for the floor, do you?’

‘Only that the office of Legate was abolished centuries ago because of its abuses!’

‘Hear, hear!’ called Councillor D’Arle.

‘And short-sighted and mistaken that was too,’ Lim answered. ‘For how else can the city respond quickly and authoritatively to sudden emergencies?’

A cheer went up from the gathered councillors. Coll slowly shook his head. ‘A stacked deck, as they say,’ he murmured to Torvald.

‘We will now vote upon the reinvestment of the position of temporary Legate of Council,’ called out the clerk. ‘All in favour raise hands.’

Almost all raised their hands. Coll and Torvald did not.

‘Proposal carried,’ announced the clerk.

A great cheer answered that pronouncement. The councillors congratulated one another, slapping backs and shaking hands. The celebration seemed premature to Torvald as they had yet to actually do anything.

Councillor D’Arle pushed his way forward. ‘And I suppose you would tender your name for this post?’ The man’s voice was icy with scorn.

Lim bowed. ‘Yes. Since Councillor D’Arle has been good enough to mention it.’

The old councillor’s jaws snapped shut.

‘Seconded!’ another councillor shouted.

It occurred to Torvald that the man with him was probably the only councillor who could boast of any direct military training or experience and that time was running out. He shouted, ‘I nominate Councillor Coll!’

‘What in Oponn’s name are you doing?’ Coll ground through clenched teeth.

Silence answered the shout. Councillor Lim squinted down at Torvald. A look of distaste clenched his pale fleshless face. ‘And you are …?’

‘Nom, Torvald Nom.’

Councillor,’ Coll hissed.

‘Councillor! Ah, Nom.’

Lim inclined his head in greeting. ‘I see. Welcome, then, to House Nom, so long absent from these proceedings. We have a nomination on the floor. Does anyone second?’

Silence, then a young woman’s voice called out, ‘I second.’

Torvald sat to find Coll glaring at him. ‘I don’t know whether to thank you or call you out,’ the man growled.

‘Don’t you think you should be Legate?’

‘If reason and logic ruled the world no one would be Legate. But it doesn’t rule. Power and influence does. And I have neither. I am sorry to say that you have made yourself some enemies this day, my friend.’

‘Well, we’re off to a good start then. Who was that who seconded?’

‘Councillor Redda Orr. Most say she is too young to sit on the Council, but she has a sharp political mind and grew up in these halls.’

‘Friend of yours?’

‘No. She just hates House Lim. Blames them for her father’s death.’

‘Ah.’ Rather belatedly it occurred to Torvald that he had just leapt into a kind of gladiatorial free-for-all without knowing any of the rules or the players. But then, why should he change the habits of a lifetime? He’d always run a very fast and loose game. Never mind the poor record scattered in his wake — he was alive, wasn’t he? There were many others who couldn’t boast as much.

‘Very good,’ announced the clerk. ‘We will now vote upon the nomination of Councillor Lim to the position of temporary Legate of Council. All in favour?’

Almost all hands rose. The clerk did a quick count. ‘We have a majority of forty-two votes. Nomination carried.’

This time a stunned silence answered the announcement, as if those gathered could not believe that they’d actually succeeded. Then an enormous cheer arose, councillors laughing, reaching up to clasp Lim’s hands, hugging one another.

‘I wonder just how much all this cost,’ Coll murmured into the clamour. ‘A family fortune, I imagine.’

Speaking of money, it occurred to Torvald that he still had to break the news to Tis. Perhaps he should visit the bourse of the flower-sellers before heading home. And on the subject of costly items, just how huge was his new income from this prestigious post?

‘Excuse me for being so ill-mannered, friend Coll … but what is the pay for sitting on this assembly?’

The big man frowned. His thick greying brows bunched down over his eyes, almost obscuring them. ‘Pay? There’s no pay associated with a seat on the Council. It’s a service. One’s civic duty. However,’ and here the man strove to keep his face straight, ‘monies do flow to members … in direct relation to their power and influence upon the Council …’

Torvald slumped into a nearby seat. In other words, his earnings would amount to the impressive sum of zero. Perhaps for the immediate future it would be better if he avoided returning home altogether …

*

Impatient banging brought Jess lumbering once more to the doors of the Phoenix Inn. She unlatched the lock to peer out into the glaring morning light. A tall dark figure brushed in past her, imperious.

‘Not — oh, it’s you,’ she said, blinking. She shuffled to the kitchen to wake Chud.

Rallick crossed to the rear table, which stood covered in clumps of old wax, stained by spills of red Rhivi wine. Empty wine bottles crowded it, and crumbs lay scattered like the wreckage of war.

Jess came shuffling up to offer a glass of steaming tea. Rallick took it. ‘Thank you.’ He blew on the small tumbler, then sipped. ‘So … where is he?’

Jess cocked a brow at the man — a man rumoured to be the lover of Vorcan, once head of the city’s guild of assassins. And thus to her a man commanding a great deal of physical … tension. She kept her eyes on him. ‘Where’s who?’

‘The toad … self-proclaimed Eel. The fat man.’

She swept an arm to the table. ‘Why, he’s right-’ She stared, gaping. ‘Fanderay’s tits! He’s not here! He’s buggered off! Where’s he got to?’ A hand closed over her mouth. ‘Oh, Burn’s mercy … who’s gonna cover his tab? Have you seen the size of his tab?’

Rallick handed over the glass. ‘No. And I don’t care to, thank you.’ He headed for the door.

‘Where are you going?’

Without stopping Rallick answered, ‘Looks like maybe it’s up to me to settle accounts, Jess. I seem to be the only one around here willing to do it.’

Of all the men and women she’d seen in the Phoenix Inn it had always appeared to Jess that Rallick was the one who could close any debt. But this was a damnably huge one.

*

Rallick pushed open the ornamental wrought-iron gate that allowed entrance to the grounds of the alchemist Baruk’s modest estate. He walked the curving flagged path past subdued plantings of flowering shrubs. A small fountain tinkled spray from the mouth of an amphora held at a boy’s stone shoulder. Leaves cluttered the surface of the pond, as did something else: a piece of litter, or wind-tossed garbage. Rallick’s long face drew down, accentuating the deep lines framing his mouth.

Baruk’s grounds were always immaculate.

He pulled on a pair of leather gloves and extracted the litter from the sodden leaves. A card. A card from an expensive custom-made Dragons Deck. Soaked now, and flame-scorched. Turning it over, he grunted. A card of rulership: Crown. He dropped it back into the glimmering water.

The front door was unlocked. He lifted the latch and pushed it open. Inside lay destruction. Shards of ceramic urns and expensive glassware littered the carpet of the entranceway. Paintings had been thrown down; furniture overturned.

Rallick crouched to his haunches just outside the threshold. He drew pieces of wood and metal from his pockets and waist until he’d assembled a medium-sized crossbow, its metal parts blued. The sort of weapon that would immediately have you arrested should anyone catch sight of it.

He loaded it, then cocked it by slipping a foot into its stirrup and straightening. Then he crossed his arms, cradling the weapon across his chest. He called out, ‘Roald? Hello? Anyone?’

No answer. He heard the wind brushing through nearby boughs; a carriage made its noisy metal-tyred way down one of the alleys bordering the estate. In the light of the sun he studied the weave of the carpet lining the entranceway.

Smooth well-worn slippers. The foot narrow, gracile. Yet the impression very heavy. Female. Slim but hefty? Entering then leaving. Trod over some shards as she left. Agent of the vandalism? No other recent traffic … except … the ghostliest of hints. A brushing across the rich weft as of broad, splayed moccasined feet slipping side to side, never lifting, entering and exiting also. And before the woman arrived, as her tracks obscure these others. An interesting puzzle.

He rose, edged inwards. Over the years he’d done occasional work for Baruk; non-assassination jobs, gathering intelligence, trailing people, collecting rare objects, and such like. As had Kruppe, Murillio, and sometimes Coll. Indeed, it was this very work that had thrown the lot of them together. Four as unlikely associates as one might imagine. In any case, he knew enough to be very wary of crossing this particular threshold.

But others had entered already, to no ill effects he could discern. He peered into the nearest room opening off the foyer. Some sort of waiting room. Complete carnage and wanton devastation. Everything broken, thrown to the floor. Vandalism. Plain juvenile vindictiveness.

He moved on. Up the narrow tower stairs he found chambers similarly ruined. So far he couldn’t tell if the intruder had come deliberately searching for something and was venting her frustration upon failing to discover it, or whether such destruction, or insult, had been the prime purpose of the visitation from the start.

He glanced into what appeared to have been some sort of workroom. Delicate glass fragments of globes covered the bare stone floor, as did the tattered remains of torn books and scrolls. Workbenches had been swept clear of their clutter, which now lay in tangled heaps on the floor.

His foot crushed a glass shard and a chest flew open across the room. Rallick’s crossbow snapped out, seeming to point of its own accord, only to fall again — a squat toad-like familiar, or demon, was peeping out, its amber eyes huge with fear. ‘Gone!’ it croaked. ‘Out! Oh my!’

Rallick frowned, his mouth drawing down even further. ‘Who? Who’s out?’

‘Hinter gone! Out. Oh my!’

Hinter? As in the old ghost story Hinter of Hinter’s Tower?

‘Where’s Baruk?’

‘Gone! Oh my!’

‘And the place ransacked,’ Rallick muttered, more to himself.

‘Not all,’ and the demon’s clawed hand flew to cover its mouth.

With a jerk of the crossbow, Rallick motioned the creature from the chest.

The demon led him down the narrow circular staircase, which continued on past ground level, passing floor after floor of quarters, storerooms, and workrooms. Rallick had had no idea the place was so extensive. It seemed so small from the outside. The creature stopped at what appeared to be the lowest floor. Rallick lit a wall-mounted lantern and raised it to peer around. The room was bare, almost completely empty. Nothing to vandalize here. Old inscriptions covered the floor in ever-narrowing circles. Old metal-working tools lined the walls: tongs, hammers, a small portable forge, twinned anvils. The demon waddled to a heavy metal chest against one wall, only to recoil as if struck.

‘Oh no!’ it gibbered. ‘Out! Out!’ It slapped its bald head with its tiny undersized clawed hands and hopped from foot to foot.

‘What’s out?’

‘Scary big man squash us with hammer for this! Oh no!’

Hammer?

Rallick crossed to the chest. It was constructed of thick metal plates. A lock at its front hung open. He pulled on the lid, failed to budge it. He set down the crossbow, clasped a hand at either side of the lid and lifted. It grated, edging upwards. He strained, gasping, managed to lever it up to clang back against the stone wall. It was a full hand’s thickness of dull metal.

‘A lot of lead,’ he muttered.

‘Not lead!’ the creature answered. ‘Magic-killing metal!’

Rallick flinched from the chest. Otataral! An entire box of the metal? Beru fend! Why, an ounce of this would bring a man a fortune!

Within, a length of white silk lined the bottom, empty.

The demon was blubbering, hands at its head. ‘Scary big man mustn’t know! He will flatten us all!’

Something lay scattered on the dusty stones of the floor next to the chest. Rallick bent to study the mess. Crumbs? And next to that, a ring-stain — as of a wine glass? He pressed a finger to the crumbs, touched it to his tongue. Pastry crumbs?

He straightened, asked almost absently, ‘What was in the chest?’

The demon’s hands were now squeezing its own neck. ‘The master’s most awful terrible possessions of all!’ it choked, throttling itself. ‘Flakes. Slivers. Little scary slivers.’

‘Slivers of what?’

The creature’s already red face now glowed bright carmine. Its amber eyes bulged. ‘Slivers of death!’ it gurgled in a seeming last gasp, and fell, fat stomach heaving.

Rallick regarded the empty otataral chest. Slivers of death?

Went, Filless and Scarlon, the three cadre mages assigned to Ambassador Aragan’s contingent of the Fifth, were busy in the embassy cellar sorting through files for destruction. None noticed the presence of the slim young girl until she cleared her throat. Then all three looked up from the folders and string-bound sheaves of orders and logistical summaries to stare, dumbfounded, at what appeared to be a dancing girl in loose white robes with silver bracelets rattling on her wrists.

‘Are you lost, child?’ Filless demanded, first to recover her wits.

‘You three do constitute the last full Imperial mage cadre in this theatre, do you not?’ the girl enquired, and she smiled, demurely.

The three exchanged wondering glances. ‘You are a guest of the ambassador …?’ Scarlon offered, tentatively.

The pale girl drew up her long mane of black hair, knotted it through itself. ‘No. I am the last thing you will ever see.’

All three dived for cover, summoning their Warrens; none lived long enough to channel them. Filless died last, and hardest, as she was not only a mage of Denul but the last Claw of the contingent as well.

It was half a day before the mess was discovered.

Ambassador Aragan kicked through the wreckage of singed papers, destroyed tables, blood and gore-smeared folders cluttering the cellar. His aide, Dreshen, stood at a distance, as did the hastily assembled bodyguard of marines.

The ambassador was in a filthy mood.

‘No one heard a thing? Not a damned thing?’ he demanded, turning on them.

‘No, sir,’ Dreshen answered, wincing.

‘Someone enters the estate, happens to find all three of our cadre mages together in the same room, and kills them all without so much as a peep?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And of course the only ones who could be counted on to sense anything happen to be the very three lying here!’

‘Yes, sir.’

Dreshen swallowed to settle his stomach as the ambassador squatted on his haunches next to the ravaged body of Filless: the woman’s face had been torn as if by jagged blades and her midriff had been slashed open, her looped entrails spilt out over her lap. Aragan stared down moodily at the corpse, drew a hand across the woman’s staring eyes to shut them. Dreshen felt his knees going weak at the sight of all the ropy blue and pink viscera.

Aragan used some of the scattered papers to wipe the blood from his hands. He stood, and started to pace again. ‘An act of war, Captain. An Osserc-damned act of war.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘In the Academy this is what you’d call a “pre-emptive strike”.’

‘Sir?’

‘We’re effectively cut off now, aren’t we, Captain?’

‘Ah. Yes, sir.’

‘Communications neatly severed. No cadre mages to contact Unta. No access to the Imperial Warren.’ Aragan turned. ‘There must be some talents among the rankers, surely?’

‘Minor only, sir. None trained in cadre protocols.’

The ambassador stood still, apparently thinking. He had that wide-legged stance of big men, when in fact most of his size was a broad circle around his middle. He pulled on his lower lip, his mouth drawn down in a moue of angry disgust. ‘An act of war …’ he mused. ‘Someone’s made their opening moves against us and we don’t even know who we’re facing yet! We are too far behind.’ He pointed to Dreshen. ‘What about Fist K’ess? He must have cadre.’

Dreshen nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes … but none to spare, I’m sure. There’s still fighting in the north.’

Aragan grunted, accepting this. ‘And Fist Steppen?’

His aide cocked his head. ‘I don’t believe there are any active cadre in the south.’

Aragan looked to the low ceiling. Ye gods! That the Empire of Nightchill, Tattersail and Tayschrenn should be reduced to this! It would be laughable if it weren’t so damned tragic! Very well. If it’s to be war … then war it shall be.

He crossed to the stairs. His bodyguard parted to make way for him. He stopped before his aide. ‘Get the box, Captain.’

Dreshen frowned, uncertain. ‘The box, sir?’

‘Yes. The box.’

Dreshen’s pale thin brows rose. ‘Ah! The box. Yes, sir. Here?’

The ambassador peered about the cellar, shook his head. ‘No. Upstairs.’

Aragan waited in his office, hands clasped behind his back. Eventually Captain Dreshen entered, followed by two marines carrying a small battered travel trunk which they thumped down heavily on a table. Aragan motioned the marines out. He reached for the buckles securing the leather straps around the iron box but hesitated at the last moment and looked to Dreshen. ‘Well, let’s just hope I’m allowed to open this.’

The captain offered a strained smile. ‘Of course, sir.’

Aragan undid the buckles, opened the latches, and swung up the lid. Within lay a long thin object wrapped in oiled leathers. Captain Dreshen studied the item, mystified. The truth was, he had no idea what was in the box — other than that the cadre mages all considered it the most important artefact the Fifth Army possessed.

Aragan pulled off the oiled wrap and Dreshen caught his breath, stepping back. Burn, Oponn and Fanderay protect him. No. It couldn’t be

His mouth drawn wide in satisfaction, Aragan hefted the thing in one hand. It was about the length of a long-knife. One end was a blade, the other sculpted into a three-toed bird’s foot grasping a frosted orb of glass or crystal.

An Imperial Sceptre.

Aragan slammed the artefact blade-first into the table. The gleaming point bit deep into the wood and the sceptre stood upright, at a slight angle. Aragan set his fists to the table on either side, studied the orb. Despite his awe, Dreshen edged forward as well.

Aragan cleared his throat. ‘This is Ambassador Aragan in Darujhistan. I do not know whether anyone is listening, or if this message will reach anyone, but I must report that all the remaining mage cadre of the Fifth have been murdered. Assassinated. Cadre Filless may have also reported that our allies, the Moranth, have fled the city — terrified, as far as I can see. Something is stirring here in the city and it has moved against us. This is our only remaining communication channel to command. If Unta values Darujhistan then some sort of help must be sent. That is all.’

The ambassador pushed himself from the table, stood with arms crossed regarding the sceptre. Dreshen watched as well, though for what he had no idea.

After a protracted silence during which nothing apparently changed in the state of the sceptre, Dreshen coughed into a fist. ‘How long,’ he began, ‘until …’

‘Until we know? Until they answer — or if anyone’s going to answer at all?’ Aragan shrugged his round shoulders. ‘Who knows.’ He peered round the room. ‘Until then I want this room sealed and guarded. Yes, Captain?’

‘Yes, sir.’

They shut and sealed all the doors, locking the last one behind them. While Aragan waited Captain Dreshen went to find two marines to post on the door.

Behind, in the gloom of the office, the only light was the glow through the slats of the folding terrace doors, now barred from within. And it may have been a trick of that uncertain light, but deep within the depths of the orb, a glimmering awakened and the clouds, like a storm of snow, began to churn.

When Spindle finally started awake, fully clothed on his cot, he lay back and held his head, groaning. No more Barghast mead. Never again. Even warm, as he’d had it with Duiker. Though come to think of it, the historian had drunk little more than one tumbler from the jug.

Holding his head very still for fear that it might fall off, he carefully edged his way down the stairs to the common room. By the light streaming in through the temple-bar’s few windows he saw that it was late afternoon. Damned well slept most of the day — a bad sign. Discipline’s goin’ by the wayside.

Now that the bar was wet once more a few of the regulars had returned to sit by themselves among the tables and booths. Irredeemable souses all, they spent the day expertly maintaining a steady state of numbness bordering on unconsciousness. Watching them, Spindle sometimes worried that that was where he was headed. Somehow, though, the abstract dread was not enough to stop him from getting hammered whenever possible.

He was surprised to see some tall well-dressed fellow sitting with the historian, and slowly eased himself down into a chair at the table. The two older men shared a knowing, amused glance.

‘Care for another to chase that one away?’ Duiker asked.

Spindle showed his teeth. ‘Evil bastard.’

The historian — a dour grim man at the best of times — offered a death’s-head grin. He motioned to his companion, ‘Fisher, Spindle.’

The bard nodded his greeting, his face held tight — Spindle recognized this as the politest possible reaction he could get to his hair shirt, which he never washed. He was surprised that this was the fellow Picker and Blend had spoken of: he had thought he’d be more imposing, more … mysterious. And they said he didn’t come round much any more. Taken up with a witch, or some such thing. He turned to the historian. ‘Remind me to never buy mead again.’

‘I’ve heard that before,’ Duiker answered.

Spindle blew out a breath, rubbed his face. ‘Damned strange night last night.’ He tried to get the attention of Picker behind the bar.

‘They have been strange, lately,’ Fisher affirmed, his gaze distant.

‘Last night?’ Duiker asked, a grey brow arching. ‘You mean two nights ago, don’t you?’

Spindle stared, amazed. Damn, but time flies when you finally have coin in your pocket!

‘Spindle, why don’t you tell Fisher here what you thought you saw two nights ago.’

Spindle waved to Picker, who looked right through him. ‘Does a man have to get his own tea and a bite around here?’ he murmured absently. Then he stiffened and half started up from the table, only to groan and sink back down again, holding his head. ‘Beru take it!’

The historian lost his amused half-smile and studied him, uncertain. ‘What is it?’

Ye gods! Two days and I haven’t reported in! What was that woman’s name? Fells? Fillish? Damn! The saboteur’s bloodshot eyes darted right and left and his face took on a pale greenish hue. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Think I’ll get me some soup.’ He nodded a curt goodbye and ran.

After Spindle had darted out of the bar Duiker said to Fisher, ‘There goes one of the last remaining Bridgeburner cadre mages. Or rather, a mage who thinks he’s a saboteur.’

Fisher touched a long thin finger to his nose and nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes, there was a certain air about him.’

The papers in Humble Measure’s hands did not so much as quiver when the double doors to his office were kicked open and his secretary was pushed in before an armed and armoured knot of the city watch. His brows, however, did climb his pale forehead as he peered up from the accounts. ‘And to what do I owe this interruption?’ he asked from across the darkened room.

‘They wouldn’t-’ the secretary began only to be hushed by a wave from a man accompanying the guards. This fellow wore plain, rather cheap dark woollen robes.

‘The business of the ruling Council of Darujhistan does not wait for appointments, nor sit patiently for the pleasure of a mere merchant.’

Measure nodded to himself, setting the papers down on the cluttered desk before him. ‘Ah, yes. Council business. Pray tell, what business could the Council have with this mere merchant?’

The young man produced a sealed scroll from his robes. ‘By order of the ruling Council of Darujhistan, as countenanced by its newly elected City Legate, this business is seized as property of said Council as a strategic resource vital to the defence of the city.’ He swallowed as if out of breath, or awed by the significance of what he had just blurted out.

Humble Measure cocked one brow. ‘Indeed?’

‘It is of course your prerogative to dispute the Council’s decision. You are free to appeal the judgement with the relevant subcommittee-’

‘I am not disputing the Legate’s decision,’ Humble said calmly.

The young man continued: ‘All petitions must be reviewed before any hearing …’ He blinked, faltering. ‘Not disputing?’ he repeated as if uncomprehending.

Humble waved to dismiss the very possibility.

‘Not — that is — there will be no appeal?’

‘None. I’ve been expecting this, truth be told.’

The young clerk of the Council wet his lips then cleared his throat into a fist. ‘Very well. You are free to remain, of course, in a purely supervisory role, as the entire production capacity of these facilities is to be immediately given over to the manufacture-’

‘Of arms and armour,’ said Humble.

The clerk frowned at the scroll in his hands. ‘No … to the manufacture of construction materiel. Namely chain, bars, quarrying implements and such.’

Humble Measure stared at the fellow as if he hadn’t spoken, then said, very softly, ‘What was that? Construction materiel?’

‘Yes. And half your labour force is to be transferred to the salvage works at-’

The clerk broke off as Humble stalked round the desk to snatch the papers from his hand. The Watch guards pressed forward, wary. Humble read through the official pronouncement, and looked up to blink wonderingly. ‘This was not our — that is, I will take this up with the Legate.’

The clerk found himself on familiar ground and this emboldened him to gently take back the nested scrolls. ‘You are of course free to register for an appointment with the city court.’ He waited for a response, but the burly merchant seemed to ignore him as he returned to his position behind his formidable desk. ‘Official copies of this notification will remain on file with the court.’

The merchant waved him away. His job completed in any case, the clerk found no difficulty in bowing and withdrawing. He was relieved: he would now have time to stop at a street stall for steamed dumplings.

Humble Measure sat for some time staring off at the empty darkness of his shadowed office. His secretary watched from the shattered doors, not certain whether he should withdraw or not. Then the man let go a long hissed breath as if releasing something held deep within, something held for a very long time indeed. His hands were fists on the desk before him.

The secretary bowed, tentatively, ‘Your orders, sir?’

‘Cancel today’s schedule, Mister Shiff. I am … planning.’

‘Perhaps I should request an appointment with the office of the Legate, sir?’

‘No. No need for that, Mister Shiff.’

‘You do not desire an appointment?’

‘Oh, he’ll see me,’ said Humble. ‘You can be assured of that. He will see me.’

Out on the Dwelling Plain the wind snapped the tattered edges of the awning Scorch and Leff huddled beneath for protection against the glaring sun. In all directions scarves of dust and sand blew about the low, desiccated hills. Leff raised the earthenware jug he was holding to his cracked lips.

‘Ain’t no more water,’ Scorch said, watching him. ‘Ran out day b’fore yesterday.’ He blinked his eyes sleepily. ‘I think.’

Leff looked at the jug as if just noticing it. ‘Oh — right. F’got again.’ He heaved a tired sigh and set down the jug in the sand next to him, though he retained a firm grip at its neck. ‘You know,’ he mumbled, forcing himself to swallow, ‘I don’t think they’re comin’ back.’

‘Who’s not comin’ back? The lads? That Gadrobi hag?’

‘Naw. Not them. They stole everything they could carry, didn’t they? Naw … I mean what’s-his-name. The chubby guy. Our employer.’

‘Not comin’ back?’ Scorch repeated, his face revealing his customary astonishment. ‘But he ain’t paid us!’

Leff’s long face paled in surprise. ‘Whaddya mean he ain’t paid us? Y’r supposed to take care of all that paperwork an’ such.’

Scorch shook his head in vigorous denial until he blinked, dizzy, and nearly toppled over. ‘That’s your side of the partnership.’

‘No. I clearly remember-’ Leff stopped because he discovered he’d once more raised the jug to his mouth. He let it fall. ‘Damn. Well, I guess we gotta find him.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Right. Find him.’ Then a sly look came to his bleary eyes and he touched a finger to the side of his nose. ‘But … come to think of it, he didn’t really fire us neither, did he?’

Scorch’s expression held its usual utter lack of comprehension. He slowly blinked again. ‘Hunh?’

‘I mean every day that passes he has to pay us for, right?’

Scorch drew breath to speak, stopped himself. His eyes widened and his lips formed a silent O of understanding. He eyed Leff, who nodded.

They started chuckling. Then they started laughing. They guffawed and slapped their thighs for a long time before they quietened down.

A shepherd minding his flock across the hills nearby heard the wind-borne crazy laughter of evil spirits and hurried his charges on with swift strikes of his staff. The fat gourds of water slung over his shoulders sloshed and rubbed his back raw.

He swore to the Mother Goddess he would never try this short cut through the hills again.

Ephren was by trade a fisherman in a nameless village on the coast where the Mengal mountains sweep down to the shores of the Meningalle Ocean. He was inspecting the caulking of his skiff which he had drawn up on the strand when six long vessels eased silently into the bay. He was curious, but not alarmed, since pirates and raiders were hardly known on this coast. While he watched, the vessels stepped their masts and sweeps ran out to drive them, with surprising speed, to shore.

As they drew closer he saw that the vessels’ lines were unlike those of any he knew: very long and low open galleys, their sides lined by rows of shields. These were not from Mengal, Oach, or distant Genabaris. Nor were they the fat carracks of the distant south, Callows, and the far-off Confederacy beyond.

When the shields resolved into oval painted masks Ephren’s skin shivered as if he had seen a shade and his heart lurched, almost failing. Once before he’d seen a similar vessel. He’d been trading in the south and such a ship had been drawn up on the shore for repairs. Its crew had been the talk of Callows; everyone stared though none had dared approach.

Seguleh, they’d whispered. Disarm yourself to approach — wait for one to address you then speak only to him or her.

And there had been some trading; the strangers’ amphorae of rare oils for food, sweet water, and timber. No one was wounded or killed. Indeed, the Seguleh had seemed just as curious as their hosts, wandering the markets and walking the fish wharves, if extraordinarily prideful and utterly aloof.

Others further up the shore were pointing now; word of the vessels’ arrival was spreading. Ephren studied the hammer and awl in his hands, then set them down and walked — never run! — to the hamlet to warn everyone.

All six longships were drawn up side by side. Ephren made certain everyone in the settlement was unarmed and warned them to just go about their normal business. But of course none did. Everyone gathered on the edge of the small curve of beach the Seguleh had landed upon.

There were more of them than he’d ever heard tell of. Down in Callows there’d been some four, together with a regular crew of hired Confederacy sailors — many of the latter outlawed men and women with blood-prices on their heads and nowhere else to turn. Here, all hands and crew were masked Seguleh; hundreds of them. It was an army. An invading army of Seguleh. Ephren almost fainted at the thought. Hoary Sea-Father! Who could withstand such a force? Why had they come? Was it in response to these other invaders — the foreign Malazans from across the sea? Perhaps that was the answer; the legendary Seguleh ire, finally provoked.

In any case they ignored Ephren and his family and neighbours. And instead of trading, or setting up camp to overnight, out came the amphorae of rare oils, which to Ephren’s astonishment and growing dread they upended over their vessels, splashing the contents all over the open holds and over the sides.

A single torch was lit. One of their number silently held it aloft. From a distance this one’s mask was very pale. He, or she, touched it to the nearest of the vessels and the yellow flames leapt quickly from one to the next. A great cloud of black smoke arose and billowed out to sea. The gathered Seguleh stood as still as statues, and as silent, watching.

Then, just as silently, they set out, two abreast, running inland. They took the track Ephren, his neighbours and their parents and grandparents before them had tramped up into the Mengal range, onward to Rushing River pass, then even further, twisting downslope towards the dusty Dwelling Plain far below.

The last to go was the one who had set flame to the vessels. After the last of his brethren had jogged off he remained, motionless, torch still in hand. Finally he dropped the blackened stick and walked up the beach to come within an arm’s length of Ephren. And as he passed, his walk so fluid and graceful, Ephren saw that a single smear of fading red alone marred the man’s otherwise pristine pale oval mask. He knew enough lore of the Seguleh to know what that should indicate. But still he could not believe it. It was unheard of. Unimaginable. And if in fact it was true — then perhaps this was not an invasion as he had thought.

It was, perhaps, in truth more … a migration.

CHAPTER VI

They who go out into the world see the wonders wrought by the gods,

And return humbled

Wisdom of the Ancients, Kreshen Reel, compiler

Antsy dreamt of the northern campaigns. he was back in Black Dog Woods. He lay flat in the cold mud and snow as auroras and concatenations of ferocious war-magics flickered and danced overhead. Mist clung about the trees like cobwebs. His squad was hunched down around him, toothy grins gleaming through the camouflaging muck. Downslope, along a track of churned mud and ice, a column of Free Cities infantry filed past. He gave a ready hand-sign. He timed his move then leapt up, aimed, and fired his crossbow. A hail of bolts lanced down from either side of the road. The column became a churning mass of screaming men.

The contingent’s leader ignored the missiles. Wearing armour of blackened plates over mail, and a helm beaten to resemble a boar’s head, the man charged the slope. Behind him soldiers scattered, struggling in the rime and iced mud. The commander was headed straight for him. Antsy threw aside his crossbow, knowing it was useless as every bolt rebounded from the man’s virtued armour. The Sogena City officer swept up a blade that resembled a cold blue shard of ice. No choice now but to pull a Hedge. Antsy threw a Moranth munition point-blank at the man’s iron-armoured chest.

His world shattered into white light as a giant’s fist slapped him backwards. He lay staring up at snow drifting over him like ash. He felt nothing, just a vague lightness. Faces crowded into his vision. Unending thunder reverberated in his ears.

‘Sarge? Antsy? You alive, man?’

He swallowed hot blood mixed with bile. Countless gashes stung his face, and his chest was cold with wet blood. He grabbed one trooper, a woman, and tried to raise himself. ‘Did I get the bugger?’

‘Yeah, Sarge. You drove him off good.’

Something was stabbing at his arm. Antsy snatched the hand, twisted it, and got a girl’s surprised squeak. He looked up, blinking, into darkness. A weak bronze light was shining up the stairwell of the Spawn, and in its glow he saw Orchid glaring at him. ‘Sorry.’ He released her hand.

‘Your neck bled in the night. Did you reopen it on the rocks?’

‘Something like that. Where’re Malakai, Corien?’

‘Malakai went further in, exploring. Corien went down to the water. Now take off that armour. I have dressings and a balm.’

He pulled at the laces of his hauberk — more of a jack, really, what some might call a brigandine. Mail over layers of leather toughened by bone and antler banding glued between them. Beneath this he wore a quilted aketon padded with hessian, and under that a linen shirt. When he pulled the shirt over his head Orchid let out a hiss — he presumed at all the scars of old wounds and the crusted blood from his dash against the rocks.

‘Corien told me you were a professional soldier. I’ve never met one before. What’s this?’

She was pointing to the tattoo on his shoulder of an arch in front of a field of flames. He thought about lying, then decided it really didn’t matter any more. ‘That’s my old unit. The Bridgeburners. All gone now.’

‘Disbanded?’

‘Dead.’

‘Oh.’ She lowered her gaze. ‘Is that why it’s glowing and the flames are moving?’

‘Glowing?’ He raised his arm to study it. ‘It ain’t glowing.’

The girl was frowning, but she shrugged. ‘I thought it was.’ She handed him a wet cloth. ‘Clean yourself up. I guess that makes you my enemy,’ she added, musing, watching him wipe away the blood.

‘Oh? You from the north?’

She glanced away, biting at her lip. ‘Sort of. Anyway, you sacked the Free Cities.’

‘Sacked ain’t the word. Most capitulated.’

She took back the cloth, began cleaning the wound on his neck, rather savagely. ‘Who wouldn’t in the face of your Claw assassins? Your awful Moranth munitions?’

He winced. ‘Careful there, girl.’

‘You use them, don’t you? Bridgeburners? Siegeworkers, sappers, saboteurs?’

‘Yeah. That’s right.’

She pushed herself away. ‘It’s not deep, and it’s clean now.’ She dug into her shoulder bag then suddenly looked up. ‘Those are the things in your pannier bags, yes? The things Malakai wants?’

‘That’s right.’

‘You would have used them against Darujhistan, wouldn’t you? Razed the city?’

‘I suppose so. If it came to a siege.’

She threw a leather pouch at him. ‘Put that on the wound. You Malazans are nothing more than an army of invading murderers and bullies. Barbarians.’

Antsy saluted. ‘Yes, ma’am.’

They sat at opposite ends of the tilted chamber in silence the rest of the time. Antsy pulled on his shirts and hauberk then set to oiling his weapons and tools. Orchid wrapped herself in Malakai’s cloak, which was dry; the man must have thrown it off before diving into the water. Digging through the equipment Antsy found a lamp: a simple bowl with a wick. Utterly useless. And without a light he was useless. What a way to pull together a cache for his retirement.

Oh well, he’d probably just have died of boredom anyway.

Corien returned first. He climbed the stairs carrying an armload of flotsam: broken boards, lengths of rope, pieces of broken furniture cut from some dark wood. He dropped the lot in the lowest corner of the chamber then brushed at his brocaded finery.

‘What’s all this?’ Orchid demanded.

He bowed. ‘Well, we are wet and the air in here is chill. That calls for a fire.’

‘That won’t burn. Half of it is wet.’

He looked to Antsy. ‘Would you care to do the honours?’

‘Certainly.’ Antsy crab-walked across the canted floor. He dug in the equipment for a skin of oil, from which he poured one precious stream over the refuse before pulling out his flint and iron.

‘Uh-oh,’ said Orchid, and she clambered to the opposite side.

All it took was a few strikes at the driest length of old rope and the hairs began to sizzle. Blue and yellow flames enveloped the pile. ‘Excellent,’ said Corien. ‘Now, Orchid, you first.’

‘Me first what?’

‘Your clothes. We ought to dry your clothes. You have that big cloak to wrap yourself in.’

She snorted. ‘Tell you what — you two wander up the hallway to take a look while I dry my clothes.’

Corien bowed again. ‘Your wisdom is as unassailable as your beauty.’

She scowled at the courtly praise as if suspecting she was being mocked.

Antsy pushed Corien up the tunnel.

A cloud of sooty black smoke climbed with them. They shared a worried glance in the uncertain light of the fire before a leading edge of the cloud caught an updraught and the smoke was sucked deeper into the complex. Antsy eased out a tensed breath.

Corien led the way. Round the first corner it became almost instantly dark. Even for Antsy, trained and experienced sapper that he was, comfortable in any mine, it was unnervingly close and black. Like feeling your way through ink. He resisted the urge to call for Corien. The lad was just ahead, he could hear him: the scrape of the bronze end-cap of his sheath, his slightly tensed breathing, his gloved hands brushing the stone walls as they advanced like blind fish through the murk.

Beneath Antsy’s fingers the cut and polished stone walls were as smooth as glazed ceramic. He kept stumbling as the passage not only tilted upwards but canted a good twenty degrees. The walls slid by slick and cool under his fingertips. He glanced back and could just make out a slight lightening of the absolute black — a hint of the fire far behind. ‘How far on does this go?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Can’t you see? I thought you had that unguent thing.’

He believed he glimpsed a bright grin in the gloom. ‘I do. I just haven’t used it yet.’

‘So we’re both blind as bats?’

‘Looks like it.’

‘This is useless — not to mention damned dangerous. We should stop here.’

‘I agree.’

Antsy slid down one wall. Examining the dark, it appeared that an intersection lay just ahead. Corien was a shadowy shape on his right. He pulled out a scrap of dried meat and chewed for a time. He felt as disheartened as he could ever remember. And for him, a career paranoiac, that was saying something. ‘So … this is it. The Spawn.’ He spoke in a low whisper. The darkness seemed to demand it. He wondered where Malakai had gone off to. He speculated, briefly, that the man had simply abandoned them all as useless baggage. But probably not yet. Not before getting his fifty gold councils’ worth.

‘Indeed. The Moon’s Spawn,’ Corien echoed after a time.

‘So … why’d you come then? No insult intended, but you look like you got money.’

‘No offence taken. Yes, the Lim family’s been prominent in Darujhistan for generations. We practically own a seat on the Council. But money? No. Over the years my uncles have bankrupted us. They’ve pursued all sorts of reckless plans and political alliances. I think they’re taking the family in the wrong direction.’ He sighed in the dark. ‘But … if I’m to have any influence I must have some sort of leverage …’

‘So … the Spawn.’

‘Quite.’

‘I understand. Well, good luck.’

‘Thank you. And you? The same?’

Antsy shrugged, then realized neither of them could see a thing. His personal reason for coming here to the Spawn was just that, personal. So he fell back on the obvious and cleared his throat. ‘Pretty much. I never expected to get old. Didn’t think I’d live long enough. Hood’s grasp, none of my friends have. Anyway, a man starts to think about his final years. Retiring from soldiering. I need a nest-egg, as they say. Buy some land, or an inn. Find a wife and have kids and be a cranky burden to them. And-’ He stopped himself as he seemed to sense something close, watching them, though he could see nothing in the dense murk of shadows.

‘Hear that?’ he whispered. He listened and after a moment’s concentration began to hear the background noises of the Spawn. Groaning seemed to be emerging from the very stone — the conflicting strains and forces of tons of rock held somehow in suspension, as if waiting, poised, ready to drop at any instant. Antsy suddenly felt very small. A roach in a quarry and the rocks are falling.

Or was it his sense of not being alone: that this darkness was no ordinary lack of light? After all, the Spawn had been an artefact holy to Elemental Night. He’d heard stories that Mother Dark herself lingered on in all such shrines. He cleared his throat, whispered, ‘You don’t think there’re any spooks ’n’ such, do you? Here in the dark?’

‘Well, now that you mention it, Red … of all the places I can imagine being overrun by your spooks ’n’ such, this would have to be it.’

Antsy shot the young man a glance and saw his teeth grinning bright in the gloom. ‘Burn dammit, man! You really had me going there.’

‘I agree with our fancy friend,’ said another voice from the dark.

Corien flinched upright, his long duelling blade coming free in a swift fluid hiss. Antsy’s hand went to his pannier. He squinted into the murk; the voice had been Malakai’s but the hall seemed utterly empty. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t see, it was that the hall felt vacant. ‘Malakai?’

Then he saw it against one wall: an oval pale smear that was Malakai’s face, seemingly floating over nothing, so dark was his garb. Eyes that were no more than black holes in the oval shifted to glance up the hall.

‘What’s this?’

‘We’re all wet and cold,’ Corien offered. ‘I thought that called for a fire.’

‘The girl?’

‘Presently availing herself of it to dry her clothes.’

The face grimaced, perhaps at the delay. ‘Fine. I’ll continue to reconnoitre.’

‘What have you found so far?’ Antsy asked.

Malakai answered slowly, as if resenting having to share anything at all. ‘This area has been emptied of everything. All valuables, all possessions. Even every scrap of furniture. Fuel for fires, I imagine.’

‘Any lanterns? Lamps?’

The ghost of a smile touched and went from the pale lips. ‘What need would the Children of the Night have for those?’ Then he was gone in the dark, utterly without a sound.

Snarling, Antsy fell back against the wall. ‘Hood on a pointy spike! No lamps at all? Nothing? What am I supposed to do?’

‘There are other people here. They’ll have lanterns and such.’

Antsy eyed the youth, who was grinning his encouragement. He shrugged. ‘Yeah. I suppose so.’

They sat for a time in silence, Antsy’s vision gradually adapting to the dark. He caught Corien waving after Malakai. ‘Your employer seems one to prefer working alone.’

‘Yeah. I get that feeling too.’

‘Then, may I ask … why did he hire the two of you?’

Antsy cleared his throat while he considered what to say. ‘Well, me he hired as a guard. An’ Orchid, she’s a trained healer and says she can read the Andii scribbles.’

After a time Corien said, ‘If she really can read the language then I can see how she would be valuable. And you are this fellow’s guard? In truth, he strikes me as the sort one should guard against.’ And he chuckled at his witticism.

Not wanting to dig himself in any more, Antsy added nothing. Corien, ever polite, refrained from further questions. They sat in silence. As the time passed, Antsy became aware of more sounds surrounding him. He could hear the waves of the Rivan Sea shuddering up through the rock like a resting giant’s heartbeat. Other noises intruded: the fire crackling and popping, and faintly, once or twice, what sounded like voices from far away, further into the maze of halls and rooms ahead.

He heard Orchid coming up the hall long before she called, tentatively, ‘Hello?’

‘Yes?’ Corien answered.

She walked up to them with the ease of one completely unhindered by the dark. ‘All done. Or good enough, anyway. Help yourselves. The embers are hot.’

Antsy let out a thoughtful breath. ‘I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna dry my footgear. You should too, Corien. We could be facing a lot of walking, and believe me, there’s nothin’ worse than blisters and sore feet on a march.’

‘Very well. I bow to your superior experience.’

Antsy wasn’t sure how to respond to that; he didn’t detect any hint of sarcasm. The lad seemed to be one of those rare ones who could actually take advice without resentment or sullenness. Maybe he wouldn’t be such a burden after all.

They dried what gear they could while the embers lasted. Corien re-oiled his weapons. Watching, Antsy thought him too liberal with his oil: it was damnably expensive stuff, but the lad could probably afford it.

‘So where is Malakai?’ Orchid asked.

‘Reconnoitring,’ Corien answered.

The girl made a face in the dimming orange glow. ‘I hope he never comes back.’

‘Our chances are better with him,’ Antsy said.

‘Very true,’ Corien added. ‘Red and I are blind in the dark.’

‘I thought you had some sort of preparation.’

‘That is true. However, it is only good for a short time.’

‘So you lied to Malakai?’

‘Not at all. He didn’t ask how long it would be effective.’

She let out a frustrated growl. ‘So this is it? You two come all this way just to sit and wait for Malakai to hold your hands?’

‘Hey now!’ Antsy protested. ‘Just a minute there, girl.’

‘Well? What are you going to do about it?’

Antsy took a long breath, thinking. ‘You can see fine?’

‘Yes. Never better. My vision seems even stronger than before.’

He nodded, then remembered Corien might not see. ‘Okay. We’ll pack up, then.’

They shared out the waterskins, the panniers of food, and the equipment. Antsy wondered where in the Abyss Malakai had gotten to but there was nothing he could do about the man’s absence. And anyway, there was nothing the man could do about his blindness either.

Leaning close, Corien murmured, ‘Very strong-willed, our lass.’

Antsy merely grunted his assent. Tongue like a whip dipped in tar and sand. The girl’s jibe had gotten under his skin. Were they malingering here on the doorstep because they were afraid to venture in? He’d always pulled his weight; he was proud of that. He might not be crazy brave, but neither did he ever shirk. Was he losing his edge?

They felt their way up the hall. Antsy had Corien leading, sword drawn, himself next, and Orchid bringing up the rear. As they walked, awkward and slow over the tilted floors, he assembled his crossbow. That at least he could do blind.

At an intersection of four halls he whispered for a halt. ‘All right,’ he said to Orchid. ‘Which way? What do you think?’

‘Let’s ask Malakai,’ she said.

‘Okay … just where in the Abyss is he?’

‘Right over there.’ She must’ve pointed but he couldn’t catch the motion. ‘I see you skulking in that doorway, Malakai. Enjoying yourself?’

Silence. Not a brush of sleeve or scuff of booted heel. Then Antsy flinched as directly in front of him he heard the man say, ‘Well done, Orchid. I’d thought you the least of the party. But perhaps you and I could manage things on our own. These two don’t seem to be of much use.’

‘What of Red’s munitions?’

‘There’s much less structural damage than I’d feared. Perhaps they won’t be needed.’

Antsy had had enough of them talking as if he wasn’t standing right there and he cleared his throat. ‘Listen, if there’s no light then I will turn round and leave. There’s no point in me going on.’

Silence. Malakai murmured, ‘Leave? It seems plain there’s no going back.’ He sounded as if he was enjoying giving this news far too much.

‘What do you mean? I’ll just wait for another boat.’

‘I overheard they drop people off at different places each time.’

Antsy wanted to punch the bastard. He squinted so hard stars burst before his light-starved eyes. ‘But a pick-up? There must be a pick-up!’

‘Yes. A place called the Gap of Gold, apparently. Just where that is I have no idea.’ From the man’s tone Antsy could imagine him arching a brow there in the darkness. ‘We’ll just have to poke around …’

Antsy managed to bite back his yelled opinion of that. He almost exploded, so great was the wash of rage and frustration that coursed through him. No wonder no one had returned in so long! This island was a death trap — and he’d walked right in like a lamb! You damned fool. You should’ve known better than this.

He realized that the others were talking and that he had no idea what they’d been discussing. ‘What’s that?’

‘Some way ahead,’ Malakai said. ‘People. I spotted them earlier. They have a few lights burning.’

That was all Antsy needed to hear. ‘Why didn’t you say so? Let’s go!’

‘I’ll go first,’ Malakai cautioned. ‘Give the crossbow to Orchid.’

‘She can’t use it. She’d put one in your back.’

‘At least she’d have a better view of her target than you would. What do you say, Orchid? Will you take it?’

‘Yes,’ she agreed, reluctantly, her voice sour with distaste. ‘I suppose so.’

Antsy held out the weapon, felt her take it.

‘Okay. Red, Corien, you two are in the middle. Orchid will follow, guiding you.’

Antsy growled.

They advanced in that order for some time. Orchid would whisper what was ahead, giving directions. Antsy trailed his left hand along a wall, his shortsword out. Malakai led them on through hallway after hallway, round corners, past open portals that gaped as blind emptiness to Antsy’s questing fingers. It seemed to him that the air was steadily getting warmer. And he was completely lost. Then a familiar stink offended his nose. To Antsy it was like a veteran’s homecoming: the pungent miasma of an old encampment. Smoke, the stale stink of long unwashed bodies, vile latrines. He heard snatches of exchanged words, echoes of footsteps, wood being broken and chopped.

Ahead, his light-deprived eyes beheld what seemed like a golden sunset far overhead. He stopped, squinted his disbelief. The apparition resolved itself into light reflecting off a high domed ceiling. Silver paint or perhaps actual gems dotted stars and wisps across the dome in constellations completely unfamiliar to him. The night sky of true Night? Something for philosophers to get into fistfights over.

Orchid whispered, ‘Malakai’s at some kind of low wall or balcony ahead. He’s signalling for you … wants you to crawl over.’

‘Straight ahead?’

‘Yes.’

Grunting, Antsy sheathed his shortsword and got down to crawl along the cool polished stone floor until his hand hit a wall.

‘To your right,’ Malakai hissed. Antsy shuffled along until he touched the man.

‘Okay. Take a look.’

He felt up to the lip of the wall and peered over. At first he saw nothing; the glare from what was only feeble lamplight blinded him. Then, slowly, he began to make out details. He was looking down about three or four storeys on to a city, or village, cut from solid rock. Light shone from a small huddle of buildings near its centre. People walked about, in and out of the light’s glare. Muted conversations sounded. A woman’s harsh laugh broke the relative quiet. He’d seen eight people so far.

‘What do you think?’ Malakai asked.

‘There’s a lot of them.’

‘At least twenty.’

‘Damn. Too many.’

‘I agree.’

‘There might be a watch up here somewhere.’

‘On the other side right now.’

‘Hunh. Time’s running out then. What do you have in mind?’

‘Parley for information.’

‘I agree. Who?’

‘You and Corien. I’ll shadow. Orchid stays out of sight.’

Antsy ran a thumbnail over his lips. ‘Okay. Rally to here?’

‘Might as well.’

Antsy waved for Corien and Orchid to come up.

It was a village sculpted from stone in every detail. Antsy and Corien descended a street of shallow stairs that ran between high walls cut with windows, doors, and even planters. All now was wreckage, tilted and uneven. Litter covered the street; fallen sheets of stone choked some alleys. Jagged cracks ran up the walls. And everywhere lay the remnants of water damage; they breathed in the stink of mouldering and mud. The stairs opened on to the main concourse of the houses the people occupied; they’d obviously just found the place and moved in.

Antsy felt naked. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been without his munitions. He’d hated leaving them behind, but Malakai had been right: no sense in risking these people getting their hands on any. He carried only a dirk; Corien his parrying gauche. They advanced side by side down the middle of the street, careful to step over rubbish, broken possessions and scatterings of excrement. The population seemed to just squat wherever they wanted. Up ahead four men stood within the light of a single flickering lantern. Since Antsy and Corien stood in the dark the men could not see them — so much for having a light with you on guard.

‘Hello,’ he called.

Three of the men yelped, diving for cover. A woman screamed and was roundly cursed. Only one man remained standing in the light. ‘Yes?’ he called, squinting. ‘Who’s there?’

‘Newcomers.’

‘Ah! Welcome, welcome. Please, come right up to the light and let’s have a look at you. You gave us quite a start there.’

‘We’ll stay back here for now, if you don’t mind.’

The man held up his empty hands. ‘Fine, fine. Whatever you wish. We, you say? How many are you?’

‘My friend and I. We speak for a larger party. We’d like some information.’

The man motioned towards the houses as though beckoning his companions. ‘Come on, come on! No sense hiding. It’s not hospitable.’ He turned back to Antsy and Corien, bowing and holding out his open empty hands. ‘Sorry, but we’re a harmless lot, I assure you. My name is Panar. We’re just poor stranded folk, like yourself.’

‘Stranded?’ Antsy echoed. Something churned sourly in his gut at the word.

The man nodded eagerly. ‘Oh, yes.’ He raised his arms to gesture all about. ‘This is it. All there is. The Spawn. Utterly emptied. Looted long ago. The Confederation sailors might as well have knocked us all over the heads and pitched us into the drink.’

Antsy gaped at the man. ‘What?’ And a voice sneered in his mind: Fucking knew it! Too good to be true. He tottered a step backwards.

Corien steadied him with a hand at his back. ‘I don’t believe it,’ the lad whispered.

‘Believe it,’ Panar answered. ‘The Twins have had their last jest with us. All the gold, all the artwork, whatever. All gone. Looted already. Come, come! Relax. There’s nothing here for anyone to fight over.’

Corien leaned close to Antsy. ‘This smells as bad as a brothel.’

‘Yeah.’ Antsy raised his voice: ‘What about the Gap of Gold?’

Panar’s brows furrowed. He rubbed his chin. ‘The gap of what? What’s that?’

‘Bullshit,’ Antsy muttered. He noted that none of the men from the fire had reappeared. Nor any others, for that matter. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

Corien began edging backwards. ‘Yes. Let’s.’

‘There’s no other way forward!’ Panar shouted. ‘This is it. The end of the road … for you.’

A screaming horde erupted from the surrounding doorways and engulfed them. Antsy went down like a ship beneath a human wave. He was trampled, bitten, punched and scratched. Broken-nailed fingers clawed at his eyes, his mouth, pulled at his moustache. Hands fought to slide a rope over his head. The stench choked him more than the slick greasy hands at his neck. Somehow he managed to get his dirk free and swung it, clearing away the hands from his eyes and mouth. He pushed his feet beneath him and stood up, slashing viciously, raising pained howls from both men and women. He reached out blindly to find a wall, put his back to it. They screamed and shrieked at him, inhuman, insane. It was as savage a close-quarter knife work as any he’d faced in all the tunnel-clearing he’d done. He slid along the wall searching for an opening, slashing and jabbing, ringed round by glaring eyes and dirty grasping hands.

His questing left hand found a gaping doorway and he slid into it, able now to face his attackers without having to defend his flanks at the same time. His face, arms and legs stung from cuts and slashes. His leggings hung torn.

A shout sounded from the dark and the mad frenzied faces backed away, disappearing into the ink of utter night. Antsy stood panting, his heart hammering, squinting into the gloom. ‘Corien!’ he bellowed.

‘Here!’ came a distant answering call.

‘Here! Here! Dear!’ other voices tittered from the dark, mocking and laughing. Antsy himself was frankly surprised to hear the youth’s response; he hadn’t thought the dandy could’ve withstood such a savage onslaught.

‘You’re trapped,’ Panar said from somewhere nearby in the murk. ‘Maybe you are with others. Maybe not. But I wonder … just where are they?’

Antsy said nothing. He’d been wondering that too. Earlier Malakai had hinted at his and Orchid’s going it alone. Now the two had all the supplies — and his munitions as well! And Malakai had neatly manoeuvred him and Corien down here. Had he and Orchid simply sauntered off leaving them to keep these people busy?

But he was being unfair to the girl. Surely she wouldn’t go along with that. And the munitions were useless without him to set them. Still … where were they?

‘The way I see it you have only one choice,’ Panar continued from the cover of the gloom, ‘give up now. You can’t guard yourself for ever. Eventually you’ll weaken. Or go down in some desperate rush into the dark. But where would you rush to? Believe me, there’s no escape. Best just to give up now.’

Noises sounded from the street and dim light blossomed. Antsy peered out — a lantern had been lit. Rocks clattered from the walls around him and he flinched back. Where in the Abyss was Malakai? ‘Hey, Corien,’ he shouted, ‘what do you say we link up and kill the lot of these rats?’

‘Gladly! I got two, I believe.’

Two. Out of how damned many? Too many. Had Malakai written them off?

Then the light went out. Shouts of alarm and fear all around. Feet slapped the stone floor, running. A woman asked from the night, her voice tremulous, ‘Is it the fiend?’ Someone cursed her to shut up. It seemed to Antsy that these people were uncommonly scared of the dark. He started to wonder if perhaps he should be too.

Was it Malakai? Antsy considered a rush to the far side of the street — Corien sounded as if he was there.

‘Red?’ Malakai’s disembodied voice spoke from just outside his doorway.

‘Yes?’

‘Cross the street then go four doors to the right.’

‘Aye.’

No answer. The man was gone — Antsy wasn’t even sure he’d been there at all: just a voice in the dark. He dashed out into the street. Part of the way across he tripped over a body and fell, knocking something hot that clattered off across the stone street. Cursing, he chased after it, only to bash his head against a wall. He knelt, squeezing his head in his hands, biting his lip. Someone ran by in the absolute black; Antsy had no idea who it might’ve been. Panicked shouting sounded all around.

Feeling about blindly Antsy found what he’d sought and burned his hand in the process: the snuffed lantern. With its handle in one hand and his shortsword in the other, he felt his way down the wall. Feet thumped and scuffed in the dark. Someone was crying far off in one of the houses. He reached what he thought was the fourth doorway. ‘Corien?’ he whispered.

‘Here.’

Antsy recognized the voice. He slipped in, covered the doorway behind him. ‘Malakai speak to you?’

‘Yes. And-’

‘I’m here,’ Orchid cut in from the blackness.

‘What’s the plan?’

‘I’ll lead you out,’ Orchid said. ‘Malakai said he’ll keep them busy.’

‘Okay, but listen. Malakai seems to know his business, I admit, but these people scattered like chickens. He’s not that good. One of them mentioned some thing … a fiend.’

‘I don’t know anything about that,’ Orchid snapped. ‘We just have to get out of here. Take these.’

The panniers hit Antsy in the chest. He arranged them over his shoulders. Orchid pushed out past him. Someone else, Corien, bumped him and squeezed his arm. ‘How’d you fare?’ the lad asked.

‘Okay. Scrapes. You?’

‘Just between us … I took a bad one. Someone stuck me. I rubbed in something I purchased. We’ll see.’

Hurry,’ Orchid hissed.

She led them each by the arm through the narrow canted streets. Light now shone from a few high windows. Everything was quiet, hushed. Antsy imaged everyone huddled in their rooms, waiting. What was out there in the dark? What were they afraid of? The dark itself?

‘These are quarters for servants, guards, and others of lesser status,’ Orchid whispered as she yanked them along. ‘Mostly abandoned for centuries. The Moon’s population was always low. The Andii have few children.’

Antsy wondered whether she spoke to distract herself from the fear that surely must be writhing in her guts. They twisted and turned up the narrow tilting stone streets. Antsy was completely lost. Then Orchid slowed, hesitated, came to a halt. ‘Where are we going?’ Antsy asked.

‘I don’t know,’ she hissed, low. ‘Just away from there for now. I thought …’

‘What?’

‘I thought I saw something. A dark shape.’

Antsy barked a near-hysterical laugh. ‘Dark? Isn’t it all dark?’

‘No. Not at all. I can’t explain it. I can see well enough. Textures, shapes, even shadows. But that one seemed … deep.’

‘Deep,’ Antsy echoed, uncomprehending. ‘Where is it?’

‘Gone now.’

Totally blind, Antsy felt as if he was about to be jumped at any instant. He gripped the still-warm lantern as if he could squeeze comfort from it. ‘Well, where will you meet Malakai?’

‘Nowhere. Anywhere. He said he’ll find us.’

‘Then let’s just get into cover. A small room. Defensible.’

‘Yes,’ Corien said in support, his voice tight with pain.

‘Well … okay.’

A shriek tore through the blackness then, echoing, trailing off into hoarse gurgling. A chorus of terrified screams and sobbing erupted in response as the locals broke into a gibbering panic.

‘I don’t think that’s Malakai’s doing,’ Corien said.

‘No …’ Antsy agreed. He sheathed the shortsword and took a tight grip of his pannier.

Orchid rushed them into a room. Antsy wanted to light the lantern so badly he could taste the oil and smell the smoke. But he set it aside; the light would only bring their pursuers like flies. They waited, he and Corien covering the open doorless portal. No further screams lifted the hair on his neck, though he did hear distant voices raised in argument.

Then, down the street, the scuff of footsteps. ‘Company,’ he hissed, crouching, drawing his shortsword.

‘Red?’ came Malakai’s voice, whispering.

A nasty suspicion born of years of warfare among the deceptions of magery made Antsy ask, ‘Red who?’

‘Red … whose name that isn’t.’

Antsy grunted his assent, backed away from the portal.

Orchid gasped as Malakai came shuffling noisily into the room.

Antsy and Corien demanded together: ‘What? What is it?’

‘Company,’ Malakai said, the familiar acid humour in his voice. ‘Your friend Panar. And Red, I like that counter-sign. Speaks of a sneaky turn of mind. I like it. We’ll adopt it.’

‘Fine,’ Antsy answered, impatient. ‘But what’s the idea dragging this guy off? Now they’ll come after us.’

‘No, they won’t. They’re too busy fighting over who’s in charge now. Isn’t that so, Panar?’

A pause, cloth tearing, then Panar’s voice, rather blurry and slurred: ‘They’ll ransom me.’

‘No, they won’t. You’re dead and buried to them.’

‘They’ll ransom me with information. Just go back and ask.’

Malakai laughed quietly at that. ‘You’ll give us all the information we need.’

‘I won’t talk.’

‘Then,’ Malakai whispered, ‘I’ll have to do … this.’

From behind a hand or a balled cloth erupted a gurgled muted scream of agony. Feet kicked against the stone floor.

Orchid gagged. ‘Gods, no! Stop him! Stop him, Red!’

Then silence and heavy breathing. Antsy imagined Orchid covering her eyes. Malakai’s voice came low and cold — as when they’d met and he’d warned her he might leave her to die: ‘If you don’t like it, Orchid, then I suggest you step outside.’

‘Red?’ she hissed. ‘Do something! You aren’t going to let him torture this poor man, are you?’

Antsy fumbled for words. ‘I’m sorry … I’ve questioned men myself. Has to be done.’

‘Oh, you’ve questioned men, have you? Her voice dripped scorn from the darkness. ‘Barbarian!’

She had his sympathy. He’d lived his entire adult life in the military and he’d long ago been hardened to brutality. But men — and women — like Malakai left him squeamish.

‘What do you say now, Panar?’ Malakai asked. ‘Tell us what we want. After all, what does it matter? We’re all dead anyway, yes?’

Silence in the room’s darkness. Then a groan, someone shifting. ‘Fine. Yes. What do you want?’

‘Let’s start at the beginning,’ Malakai said conversationally. ‘Who are you?’

‘Panar Legothen, of March.’

Antsy grunted at that: March was one of the so-called Confederation of Free Cities.

‘How did you get out here?’

A laugh full of self-mockery. ‘You won’t believe me, but I was one of the first. I came out in my own boat.’

‘And?’

Silence, followed by a long wistful sigh. ‘What a sight it was then. A glittering mess. Everywhere you looked, pearls, moonstones, tiger-eye, sapphires, gold and silver. Silver everything! You could scoop it up by the armload.’

Antsy stopped himself from barking at the man to go on. Where was it all? What happened? He wanted to take the fellow by the shirt and shake him, but Malakai was obviously just letting him talk himself out.

‘There were others, of course. Sometimes I fought — most times I just ran. Where could I keep it all, though? We all had too much to carry, so we started to strike bargains, band together. Stake out territories. This here, this town — Pearl Town, we call it — is just a little place. The bottom of things. Where I’ve ended up.’

‘What happened?’ Orchid prompted gently.

Another groan from the dark. ‘Me and a few partners, we’d cleaned out our stake. When we saw more dangerous fortune-hunters arriving we knew things would be goin’ downhill fast. So we made for the Gap. But we’d waited just a touch too long. Got greedy. I caught that particular fever when I arrived. I think if I’d just picked up the first thing I found … a beautiful statuette in silver, such a sweet piece … if I’d just climbed back down to my boat and left right then and there I’d be a rich and happy man right now.’

‘But?’ Orchid prompted again after a long silence.

Stirring, the man roused himself. ‘Well … first we met the Malazans. They controlled about a third of the isle then. We bribed our way past them. Then a band of other looters jumped us. I guess they waited there for fools like us to go to all the effort to bring the riches to them. I got away with a bare fraction and reached the Gap.’

‘What is it?’ Malakai demanded.

‘It’s just what it says — an exit. A big series of terraces open to the outside. I guess the Andii used them to view the night sky or some such thing. The water comes right up to them now. They pull their boats up there, take their cut then take you out. Least, that’s what everyone said happens …’

‘But … that’s not what happened,’ Corien said.

‘No. That’s not what happened.’ The man’s voice thickened, almost choking. ‘I handed over all my best pieces, the cream of the riches — and do you know what they said?’

‘It wasn’t enough,’ Malakai said.

‘That’s right. It wasn’t enough. I threw them everything I had, even my weapons. They still claimed I was short of the payment for passage.’ The man sounded as if he was on the verge of tears. ‘You’ve all probably figured it out, haven’t you? But only then did I realize what was going on. Up until that moment I truly believed they would take their cut and let me go. God of the Oceans, what a fool I was.’

‘They just sent you back to collect more,’ Malakai said.

‘Yes. This is their gold mine and they need the labour. They said they’d keep what I’d brought as a down payment on my exit fee. Ha! That’s a joke. I had nothing left, just the shirt I’m wearing. I simply wandered off and ended up here.’

That mailed fist of rage brought stars to Antsy’s vision once more. Trapped! Fucking knew it! A joke? Oh yes, because all Oponn’s jests are bad news!

Orchid was saying, ‘How do you survive down here?’

‘Oh, we scrape together enough to buy food and water from the Confederation crews. At astounding prices, of course. Water is truly worth its weight in gold.’

‘We want up,’ Malakai cut in. ‘Which way do we go?’

‘There are stairs … it’s the only way. It’s-’

A second scream exploded in the night, making Antsy flinch and raising an answering cry from Orchid. It wailed, rising in terror and agony until it cracked as if the throat carrying it had been torn out.

In the long silence following that terrifying sound Malakai asked mildly, ‘And what was that?’

‘Ah. That. The Spawn is an ancient place, you know. Full of inhuman spirits and sorcery. Some claim it’s a curse on all of us. Humans aren’t welcome here. Myself, I believe it to be an escaped demon. Every few days it comes to feed. I was rather hoping it would show up here.’

‘That’s enough,’ Malakai said. ‘Let’s get going.’

‘And … what of me?’

‘You we leave behind. Congratulations. Maybe you’ll be the last off this rock.’

‘But — as I told you — there’s nothing left.’ The man sounded genuinely puzzled. ‘What could you possibly be looking for?’

A long awkward silence followed that seemingly simple question. Antsy wasn’t looking for anything beyond someone to pay him handsomely for his skills. And to look into rumours he’d heard about this place. Corien wanted riches and the influence they could bring. Malakai similarly so, he imagined. He had no idea what Orchid wanted.

Malakai spoke into the silence: ‘Myself, I’m searching for the gardens of the moon.’

Antsy blinked in the night. There was no such thing; it was just poetic — wasn’t it? But Orchid’s gasp of recognition told him she knew something of it. As for Panar, he started laughing. He laughed on and on and would not stop. It seemed the man was laughing not so much at Malakai’s gallows jest as at them, and himself, and at the entire absurd fate they’d all so deftly manoeuvred themselves into through greed, and ambition, and short-sightedness — all the classic character flaws that lead men and women to their self-inflicted dooms.

And he kept on laughing even after Malakai threw him aside.

Nathilog had been among the first of the settlements of northwestern Genabackis to fall to the Malazans. It had been a notorious pirate haven before that, ruled by might of fist under a series of self-styled barons. Now, after decades of Malazan occupation, its aristocracy was thoroughly Talianized. Trade across the top of the Meningalle Ocean was heavy as the raw resources and riches of a continent passed across to the Imperial homeland, and troops and war materiel returned.

Agull’en, the Malazan governor, resided in the rebuilt hall of rulership once occupied by his robber baron antecedents. It was here at the end of his daily reception that a mage suddenly appeared in the hall. His picked bodyguard of twenty Barghast surged forward to interpose themselves between him and the interloper. His own mage, a Rhivi shaman, stared frozen at the apparition, clearly stunned.

Remind me to fire the useless sot, Agull’en snarled to himself, then turned his attention to the mage. Tall, regal-looking with his long hair pushed back over his skull. A greying goatee. Plain brown woollen robes, though a wealth of rings on the fingers. The man’s face was badly lined — red and blistered with livid scars as if he had recently been severely wounded, or lashed.

The governor steeled himself and hardened his voice: ‘What is the meaning of this? Who has sent you?’

The man bowed low, hand at goatee. ‘Greetings, Agull’en, governor of north-west Genabackis. I am come with salutations from my master, the newly installed Legate of Darujhistan.’

Agull’en frowned, puzzled. ‘Legate? Darujhistan has a Legate?’

‘Newly installed.’

‘I see.’ Agull’en peered around, thinking. His mage, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. Had the man fled? Damn him! He’d see him flogged! Then the instincts that had guided his path these many years over so many rivals and up so many rungs asserted themselves and his lips eased into a knowing, rather condescending smile. ‘You wish to renegotiate trade agreements. Very well. A trade delegation may be sent.’

‘No, Governor. My master does not wish to renegotiate details of trade.’

‘No? Treaties then? This “Legate” must speak with the Malazan ambassador there in Darujhistan regarding any treaties.’

‘Be assured that my master will deal with the ambassador when his time comes. No, I am come as the mouthpiece of the one who is the rightful spokesman for all Genabackis. And he demands, my good governor, that you swear allegiance to him.’

Agull’en sat forward in his chair. ‘I’m sorry? Swear allegiance to this Legate of Darujhistan?’ He laughed his utter disbelief. ‘Are you mad? Is he mad?’

The mage bowed once more. ‘No, sir. I assure you he is not.’

‘And what if I refuse this demand? What will this self-styled Legate do should I decline his invitation? You may be an accomplished practitioner in your field, mage. But I offer a lesson in stark politics for your consideration. Malazans have thousands of troops. Darujhistan has none.’

‘If you do not swear, then we will find someone who will,’ the mage answered simply.

Agull’en’s face darkened as his rage climbed beyond his control. He waved his guards forward. ‘Flay this bastard!’

The guards did not live long enough to draw weapons. And the hall of rulership at Nathilog was once more in need of rebuilding.

Similar scenes played themselves out across the north of the continent from one ex-free city to the next: Cajale, Genalle, and Tulips. Last of all was a visitation within the temporary wood hall of mayorship in Pale. The mayor was dining with guests when an apparition wavered into view before the long table. The guests started up in panic, raising eating daggers. Guards were called. The ghostly figure of a tall man opened his hands in greeting. ‘I would speak to the Lord Mayor,’ he called.

Guards came scrambling in, crossbows raised. A portly bearded man raised his arms, bellowing, ‘Hold!’ The guards halted, taking aim. ‘Who are you and what do you wish?’ the man demanded of the apparition.

The figure bowed. ‘Lord Mayor of Pale. I am come as the mouth of the newly installed Legate of Darujhistan.’

The mayor frowned behind his beard, clearly astonished. He glanced aside to another guest, a balding dark man in a black leather jerkin. ‘Is that so? A Legate in Darujhistan?’

‘Yes. Newly installed. As such, he claims his traditional position as spokesman for all Genabackis. And in such capacity he demands your allegiance.’

The mayor’s tangled brows climbed his forehead. ‘Indeed. My allegiance in … what, may I ask?’

‘In Darujhistan’s enlightened guidance and protection.’

‘Ah. How … appealing.’ The mayor shot another glance aside to the balding dark fellow who had sat forward, chin in fists, eyes narrowed to slits. The Lord Mayor wiped a cloth across his brow and cleared his throat. Then a thought seemed to strike him and his thick brows drew down together. ‘All Genabackis, you say? What of Black Coral? Does this claim of suzerainty extend over the Tiste Andii?’

The shade’s haggard features twisted in distaste. ‘Black Coral is no longer part of Genabackis.’

‘Ah. I see. How … unfortunate.’ The Lord Mayor drew breath, raising his chin. ‘We in Pale wish His Excellency to know that we consider it an honour to be so invited. We convey our salutations, and beg time to give this offer the serious consideration it demands.’ The man sat heavily, gulping in breath, his face flushed.

The apparition straightened; it did not bother to disguise its disapproval. ‘Consider carefully, then. You have two days.’ It disappeared. The Lord Mayor and his guests sat in stunned silence. The dark balding man pushed back his chair and stood, revealing the sceptre inscribed on the left of his chest.

‘You are leaving us, Fist K’ess?’

The Fist wiped his hands on a cloth and threw it to the table. His gaze remained exactly where the casting had once stood. ‘My apologies, Lord Mayor,’ he grated. ‘Duty calls me away.’

‘We understand.’

The Fist stalked from the hall, followed by two officers, male and female.

A woman beside the mayor whispered, fierce: ‘Who is this Legate? Who is he to challenge the Empire?’

The mayor raised a hand for silence. ‘We will wait and see.’

‘And if two days pass and we are none the wiser?’

The mayor shrugged. ‘Then we will agree.’

‘And the Malazans?’

‘We will tell them we agreed only to buy time.’

Another guest smiled his approval. ‘Which is true — time to discover which of them is the stronger.’

The mayor picked up his crystal wine glass, studied the muddy red liquid. ‘Of course.’

Outside the hall, Fist K’ess turned to the male officer with him. ‘Cancel all furloughs, restrict the troops to garrison. Have we no one capable of raising the Imperial Warren?’

‘None.’

The Fist pulled savagely at his chin. ‘What a gods-awful state of affairs. Going to the dogs, we are. Go!’

The man saluted, ran off.

The Fist started walking again, striking a stiff marching pace. The other officer, the woman, hurried after him. ‘Might I remind you we are at half strength, Fist,’ she said. ‘Half went south at Ambassador Aragan’s request. Now we know why.’

‘Yes, yes. Your point?’

‘We are under strength. In case of an uprising I suggest we withdraw.’

The Fist halted. Next to him lay a stretch of buildings still in ruins from the siege of years ago. Squatters now occupied it, living in huts of wood and straw among the fallen stone walls. ‘Withdraw?’ he repeated, outraged. ‘Withdraw to where?’

‘West. The mountains.’

He rubbed his chin. ‘Throw ourselves on the mercy of the Moranth, you mean? Aye, there’s some merit there. I’ll keep it in mind. Until then, no. Too much Malazan blood was spilled taking this city. We’ll not withdraw.’ He started off again, his pace swift.

Captain Fal-ej, of the Seven Cities, struggled to keep up.

K’ess barked at her: ‘Send our swiftest rider south, Captain. I want to know from that fat-arse Aragan what in the name of fallen Hood is going on!’

Captain Fal-ej saluted and ran off.

K’ess massaged his unshaven throat. He spat aside. ‘What a gods-damned time to choose to quit drinking. Just when things were getting quiet …’ He shook his head and hurried on.

As was his habit of late, the Warlord spent time in the evening in silent solitary vigil overlooking the valley leading west to the glow of Darujhistan. Yet perhaps his gaze passed over the city, even beyond, to the barrow of Anomander Rake, once Lord of Moon’s Spawn. This evening was dark and close. Thick clouds massed from the north, over Lake Azur and the Tahlyn Mountains beyond.

Something troubled the Warlord; this everyone spoke of, though none knew what it was. The castings of the shamans hinted at blood and violence to come. Word of war against the Malazan invaders swept like wildfire across the wide plains — though the elders themselves had not raised the White Spear. All this might have been part of the weight the Warlord carried. For though he was so named, some now whispered that he was too old, too grief-stricken, and perhaps his time had passed.

He may or may not have been aware of these whispers within the assembly as he stood his solitary evening vigils out upon the hillside. Some said that in truth it was his distaste for it all that drove him from the tents to begin with.

In either case, late into one such evening the Warlord suddenly knew he was no longer alone. He glanced about to see standing a short distance off a man he’d thought his friend. A single glimpse, however, was enough to convince him that that was no longer the case. He shifted his weight to face the man, slid a hand over the grip of the hammer at his side. ‘Greetings, Baruk. What brings you from the city?’

The man certainly was Baruk, but not the Baruk the Warlord knew, with that avid hungry light in his fever-bright eyes, the fresh scars that traced a map of pain across his face. ‘The one you called Baruk is gone. Burned away in the cleansing flames of truth. I am Barukanal, restored and reborn.’

Gossamer flames of power burned like auroras at the man’s hands, where forests of rings now gleamed gold. Caladan’s grip tightened upon his hammer. ‘Truth? Which truth would that be?’

‘The truth of power. One I know you are intimately familiar with. The truth that power will always be used. The question only being by whom.’

‘Then you know enough not to tempt me.’

A gleeful mockery of a smile twitched the man’s mouth. ‘I recall enough to know that to be an empty threat, Warlord.’

In answer Caladan’s lips pulled back over his prominent canines. ‘Then you presume too much. If the … presence … I sense makes any effort to reach beyond Darujhistan, I will not hesitate to remove the city from the face of the continent.’

The one he once knew as Baruk gave a sham frown of sorrow. Backing away, he gestured to the west. ‘More deaths, Warlord? How many more must die …?’ The figure dissipated into the night, leaving Brood to pull his clenched hand from the hammer and massage its stiff knuckles. He let out an animal growl and headed back up the hill to the distant lit tents. Baruk taken, he mused. That one will be a dangerous opponent. Yet he wondered at the constant stream of tears that had glistened on the man’s scarred cheeks. And the eyes — that feyness could just as easily have been torment and horror trapped within.

Before he reached the tent the flap was pushed aside and a Rhivi elder hurried out. ‘The shamans bring amazing news from the north, Warlord.’

Something in Caladan’s expression caused the elder to flinch aside. ‘Why am I not surprised?’ Brood rumbled as he stalked past.

It was the most difficult act he had ever had to force himself to commit. Every step deliberate, stiff, reluctant, he approached the squat, ominous house that stood alone in the woods of Coll’s estate. Every beat of Rallick’s pounding heart screamed at him to flee. For not so long ago, when the Jaghut Tyrant Raest returned to the city only to be entombed here in this Azath construct, so too was he. And perhaps the house would not give him up a second time.

But he did not flee. He understood necessity. He alone in this city seemed to understand that there were things that simply had to be done. Reaching the door he paused, hand outstretched. Someone had been digging in the yard. A trail of dirt led across the grounds. He knelt to study the spoor. Two sets of tracks. One in rotted leather sandals. The other naked bony feet. Very bony, and very definitely inhuman in shape. Shedding dirt as they came.

While he crouched there before the door it opened and Rallick found himself staring up at the grim, emaciated figure of the ancient Jaghut Tyrant Raest, prisoner to the house, and now its … guardian? Or perhaps more accurately its interpreter or spokesman. Or doorman.

‘Not even if you beg,’ the Jag breathed, his inflection completely dead.

Rallick straightened. ‘May I speak to you?’

The unsettling vertical-pupils of the eyes rose to encompass the night sky over the estate district; narrowed. ‘We already have a boarder. I am not taking in more. No matter how awful it will get.’

A shiver ran its fingers down Rallick’s spine. He clenched and unclenched his sweaty hands. ‘That is the last thing I would want.’

The Jag shuffled out of the doorway back up the hall. ‘That is what they all say — then there’s no getting rid of them.’

Rallick forced himself up the hall. Behind, the door swung shut, enclosing him in almost utter gloom. On one side, in a narrow corridor a large man lay blocking the way, snoring loudly and wetly. Raest passed this strange apparition without comment and Rallick was forced to follow. Murky light shone ahead; a sort of limpid greenish underwater glow cast down as if from a skylight. Here he found the Jag seated at a table and across from him sat another creature — an Imass. Or at least so Rallick assumed. He was no expert. Half-rotted flesh over bones and those bones stained dark. Battered armour of leather, furs and bone plates. And over all clumps of dried dirt. The entity held wooden slats in ravaged hands of bone and ligament. It raised its empty sockets to regard Rallick for a moment then returned its gaze to the slats in its hands.

In that brief regard a cold wind had brushed Rallick’s face. He heard it moaning, carrying the call of large animals far in the distance. He shivered again.

The Jag, Raest, took up his own slats.

Cards, he realized. They were playing cards. Now. With so much hanging over the city.

On the table between them sat the corpse of a cat.

Rallick cleared his throat. ‘What is going on?’

‘I am up ten thousand gold bars,’ Raest breathed. ‘My friend here is having trouble with the changes in the rules.’

The Imass’s voice came as a low creaking of dry sinew: ‘I am better at mechanisms.’

‘No,’ Rallick insisted. ‘The city. What’s going on outside?’

‘The neighbourhood is fast deteriorating. I am considering a move.’

‘A move? You can move?’

The Tyrant turned his ravaged features to study him wordlessly for a time.

Rallick swallowed. Ah. I see.

The Jag laid down one wooden card from his hand.

The Imass edged its blunt skeletal chin forward to study the card then sat back to return to the contemplation of its own. Rallick also leaned to squint at the face; he saw nothing more than a crudely scratched image he couldn’t make out.

‘No,’ the Jag continued, ‘I’ve put too much work into the place.’ Rallick eyed the walls of rotting wood, the hanging roots, the dust sifting down through the cascading starlight. ‘Besides, Fluffy here would be devastated.’

Fluffy? Please be referring to the cat — my sanity won’t survive otherwise.

‘Can you give me any hint of what is to come?’

‘I serve the House now. Only it. However, I can tell you what sort of game we are playing.’

Game?

From his mangled leathery hand the Imass slowly slid a wooden card on to the table.

Raest leaned forward to study the image scratched upon its face. He sat back, shaking his head. ‘No — not her. She’s out of the game. For now.’ He brushed the card aside. The ligaments of the Imass’s neck creaked as it followed the card to the far edge of the table. It growled.

Rallick found he was holding his breath. ‘What sort of game … is it?’ he asked, hardly able to speak.

‘It’s a game of bluff. Bluff on both sides. Remember that, servant of Hood.’

‘Hood is gone.’

‘The paths remain.’

‘I see.’

‘Do you? It would be astounding if you did.’

Rallick clenched his lips. I can’t settle my aim here. He turned his attention to the Imass. Those are not his leg bones. He looked away. ‘Is there anything more you can tell me?’

The Jag remained immobile, his slashed and battered face a mask, long grey hair like iron shavings hanging to his shoulders. ‘I can tell you that you are distracting me from the game. Go away.’

Rallick decided that he should not wait to be told twice. He edged back out of the room, not turning away from the oddly mismatched, yet so utterly matched, couple.

He reached the closed door.

Now for the hardest part of all.

But the door did open.

When someone entered his office, Legate Jeshin Lim’s first thought was that a councillor had requested an unscheduled meeting and his staff had ushered him or her through. He was surprised, therefore, upon peering up from composing his next speech to see the merchant Humble Measure standing before him.

He stifled the urge to leap from his chair. Burn’s mercy! Who allowed the man in! Someone will lose their position over this. He transformed his twitch of mouth into a rigid, if rather strained, welcoming smile. Well … one can hardly complain. This man’s money allowed me entrance to this office … why not the man himself?

He stood, smiling, and came round the desk. ‘Humble Measure! This is a surprise!’ He motioned to a chair. ‘Please, sit. May I offer you some tea?’

The big man sat stiffly and ponderously. ‘None, Legate … thank you.’

How odd to see him outside the offices at his works. He looks … diminished. Jeshin poured himself a tiny thimbleful of tea and retreated once more behind his desk. ‘What can I do for you, old friend?’

‘First,’ the man ground out, ‘congratulations upon the renewal of the ancient honoured position, Legate.’

Lim waved such formalities aside. ‘It is our victory, Humble. Our shared vision led to this. We achieved it together.’

Humble inclined his head in acknowledgement. ‘The Legate is too generous. Yet I wonder, then, why, with this victory in your grasp, you have not gone on to move Darujhistan towards the position of pre-eminence we once agreed it deserves?’

Jeshin frowned, cocking his head. The tea sat forgotten before him. ‘How so?’

‘Legate — Darujhistan must have an arsenal. Arms, armour, siege engines. The materiel of war-’ He stopped himself, because the Legate had raised a hand to speak.

Back to this old argument. Should’ve anticipated it. The man’s a fanatic. ‘Humble … your point is well taken. Arms and armour are needed, yes. Yet look at what we have accomplished! We are in accord on so much. Darujhistan shall be set once more on a course of pre-eminence. We only differ in this one small matter — you believe that putting weapons and armour on every citizen will accomplish this, while I believe the city’s defences must first be addressed. The walls, Humble-’

The merchant interrupted. ‘Darujhistan has walls, Legate.’

Jeshin waved this aside. ‘Hardly worth the name. Playgrounds for the city’s children. Neglected and pillaged for centuries. They must be rebuilt, strengthened.’

‘It’s not the walls of Darujhistan that must be strengthened, Legate … it is the will.’

Jeshin stilled, hands pressed to the cool marble surface of his desk. ‘The discussion is closed, Humble. I thank you for your concern. I know I can count on your cooperation in our efforts to bring prestige and influence to our city.’ And he stood, smiling once more. He motioned to the door.

Humble Measure levered his bulk from the chair. He glowered from under his thick brows. Without a word he turned and lumbered to the door.

Jeshin watched him go, stiff smile still fixed on his lips. A guard. Guards, today. Unbribable guards. Am I not the damned Legate of this ridiculous city?

Humble’s closed carriage rocked as he settled his weight within. He sat hunched forward, elbows on knees, as if examining someone seated opposite. The carriage started its twisting way down Majesty Hill. The man’s heavy-lidded eyes were narrowed, almost closed, as he lolled back and forth. Indeed, another passenger might have thought him asleep.

But he was far from asleep. Like the ponderous presses of his foundry his mind was slowly working, inexorably turning, and with crushing irresistible weight. And the conclusion he reached was that he did not sacrifice so much to put a Legate in charge of this city in order that the holder of the position could cower behind walls.

Fortunately, however, ways exist to resolve this temporary hindrance.

The Mengal mountains ran as a backbone along the west coast of the Genabackan continent. They were for the most part a dangerous unsettled wilderness. A trader mud track twisted along the skirts of their inland eastward slope, unkept, swept away in places by erosion, crossed by fallen trees. Mule trains, two-wheeled carts and backpacks were the only way to make the trip. And even then in places the track was practically impassable. Far quicker and easier to ship any goods, livestock or people up and down the coast by water. But there were always those for whom the up-front expense of such cargo space or berths was unaffordable. For these petty traders, tinkers, travelling smiths, would-be homesteaders, or plain adventurers off to find a new horizon there would always be the mud track through the tall evergreen forest, their breath pluming in the cold wet mist cascading down the slopes, and their own rag-swathed feet and bent, burdened backs.

And so, too, there were always those who preyed upon them.

Yusek’s people were out of the east, Bastion way. During the Troubles they’d packed up and headed west. By the time they crossed the Dwelling Plain the way of life had become habit and they just kept on moving. Eventually Yusek raised her head and looked around and realized that all her family’s starving and slogging hadn’t gotten them anywhere worth going. So she packed up everything useful and did the only thing she knew how to do: she moved on.

She’d fallen in with Orbern’s crew, or rather they’d taken everything she had and given her the choice to join them or starve in the cold. She being young and new, they’d tried using her, of course, but she’d grown up defending herself and had discovered early on that she didn’t mind the shedding of blood half as much as those around her. So they made her a scout, or a runner, or whatever you damned well wanted to call it, on account of the fact that she could walk all their fat drunken arses into the ground. And they had no armour worth the name to give her anyway.

Orbern claimed to be from Darujhistan. From one of the city’s noble families. Kept going on about being cheated of his position, unappreciated, or driven out by idiots, or some such. Not that anyone gave a damn. Fancied himself ‘Lord of the western mountains’. Even had a horse, a sickly lonely-looking thing that he insisted on riding through the dense brush. Stupidest spectacle Yusek had ever seen.

Noble-born or not, Orbern ran things because at least he had some kind of claim to an education. Knew how to build. He’d had them put up a palisade across the gorge they occupied. Raised log cabins that didn’t leak. Even got a crude sort of forge up and running for their metalworking needs. It used a big ol’ flat stone as an anvil.

And because of all this the man’s rule was tolerated, even if he was a pompous ass.

Today Yusek was ‘scouting’. Which consisted of crouching under the cover of a tall evergreen watching the rain misting down the mountainside. The Mengal mountains were tall enough to gather clouds to themselves, but here they were not tall enough to completely shadow the leeward slopes, and deep valleys cut through to the coast. As a result, a portion of the mist always reached inland — not that any ever touched the Dwelling Plain.

She was keeping an eye on the trader track where it came winding up from the south. And this day, sure enough with the damned cold rain and all, there came two figures tramping through the mud, stepping over the trunks of fallen trees, pushing through the channels of run-off that charged across the path.

Damned fools. Out in this weather. Now she had to get soaked too!

She went down to meet them.

They were a couple of the sorriest travellers she’d ever seen. Carried no goods or packs as far as she could make out; they wore big loose hooded cloaks pulled close against the rain. At least they were armed, as she could see the polished bronze heels of sheaths hanging down beneath their cloaks.

As she stepped out on to the track they stopped and exchanged looks with each other from under their deep hoods. ‘Where you headed?’ she asked.

One stepped forward. ‘North,’ he said in a strange accent.

‘I’m with a settlement just-’

‘Do you know of a monastery here in these mountains?’ the fellow demanded, cutting her off.

‘A what? Monastery? No. Like I said, I’m with-’

But the two had walked right past her. She watched them go, dumbfounded. What in the name of Mowri

She caught up with them. ‘Listen. There’s a settlement near here. Orbern-town.’ Stupid damned name. Orbern-town! Damned ass. Ha! Ass-town!

The two stopped. Even this close Yusek couldn’t see into the deep hoods. One spoke again, the same one as before — the other had yet to say anything at all. ‘There are people there who would know these mountains well?’ he asked.

Yusek wiped the cold mist from her face, shrugged. ‘Yeah. Sure. You bet.’

‘Very well. You may lead us there.’

She snorted, waved for them to follow. Listen to that! ‘You may lead us there …’ Who do these two think they are?

Yusek wouldn’t have denied she’d grown up in the middle of nowhere and knew next to nothing, but even she would’ve run off when the sharpened logs of the palisade hove into view. She especially would’ve panicked when the heavy log door was pushed shut behind them and the great cross-piece was set into place and all the hairy unwashed mountain men of Orbern’s crew came shambling out to see what was up.

But not these two. They followed her right in, meek as lambs to the axe. Some people, she reflected, didn’t have the sense to be allowed to live.

She led them straight up to the main log ‘Hall’ as Orbern called it, pushed open the door. The two followed her in. A bunch of the crew pushed in behind.

Orbern was eating; he spent a lot of time doing that, hanging around the table. Yusek guessed this was his way of playing ‘Lord of the Manor’. He looked up as if surprised, set down his knife and wiped his hands on the layered robes he wore to demonstrate his ‘Office’. He had a great head of straggly hair and beard that Yusek figured he cultivated, again as part of his image as some kind of great master of the wilderness, like those of the ex-free cities of the north.

‘And who do we have here?’ he asked, all arch and loud.

‘Travellers, sir,’ she answered, addressing him as he kept telling them to.

Orbern pulled on his beard, nodding. ‘Excellent! Greetings, sirs! Welcome to Orbern-town — such as it is at this time. Admittedly no Mengal yet. But we are growing. Soon we hope to become a regular waystop on the trader road. What may we do for you? Beds for the night, perhaps?’

Some of the boys behind the travellers chuckled at that. The two didn’t even turn round.

‘Do you know of a monastery in these mountains, north of here?’

Orbern made a great show of stroking his beard and studying the cross-beams above. ‘A monastery, you say? Are you on a devotional pilgrimage? Are they expecting you?’

‘If none here knows it then we will move on.’

A lot more of the men laughed at that. Yusek couldn’t hide her disbelief. How dense can you be?

Orbern merely raised a hand for silence. ‘There’s no hurry. Perhaps we do know of such a place. Perhaps-’

‘Do you know?’ the traveller asked, interrupting.

Orbern was thrown for a moment but recovered smoothly. ‘I? No. But for a contribution to Orbern-town’s-’

‘Then who?’

Orbern glared from beneath his tangled brows. Yusek laughed, and none too gently. Now this was funny … this was a good show. ‘A contribution to Orbern-town’s future will gain you our good will,’ Orbern ground out, sounding far from friendly.

As if by way of answer, the spokesman of the two pushed back his heavy hood.

Yusek heard gasps of hissed breaths. Almost as one the crowd of outlaws and murderers, hunted men all, flinched several steps backwards, clearing a circle round the two. She stared surprised: the man wore a mask, a painted oval, all complex swirls and bands. Oddest thing, she thought. Then she glanced to Orbern.

The man was frozen, eyes huge. He appeared to be struggling to take a breath to speak but failing. Yusek made a disgusted face. What’s this? So the fellow’s wearing a mask? So what?

No one moved or spoke; it was as if all were too terrified. A few like Yusek were peering about, confused; mostly men from the north. Since no one was saying anything she stepped forward, hands on the knives at her belt. ‘Hand over everything you have,’ she demanded.

A strangled high-pitched laugh burst from Orbern. He waved his hands frantically. ‘Don’t listen to her!’ he spluttered, almost squeaking. ‘You are free to go, of course!’

‘What’s this?’ called out Waynar, a great hairy fellow from the north who claimed Barghast blood. He uncrossed his thick arms and stepped forward. ‘Free to go?’

‘Would you shut up!’ Orbern snarled at him, then offered the two guests a nervous laugh.

‘You ain’t our king or anything,’ Waynar countered. He loomed up so close to the visitors that his out-thrust chin almost touched the masked forehead of the much shorter and slighter of the two. ‘Who in Hood’re you? An’ why’re you wearin’ that stupid mask?’

Damned straight! Yusek added silently. ’Bout time someone took charge. Looks like Orbern might be on the outs.

The spokesman tilted his head to peer past Waynar’s shaggy bulk. ‘Is this one in defiance of your orders?’

Orbern’s shoulders fell. He clasped his head in his hands and let out a long shuddering breath. ‘I am very sorry, Waynar,’ he said. ‘But … yes. He is.’

The spokesman shrugged. Or appeared to shrug. Something happened. Yusek wasn’t sure; she didn’t quite catch it. His cloak moved, anyway. Waynar’s eyes bulged. His mouth opened but nothing came out. Then a great torrent of blood and fluids came gushing down from the man’s waist, down over his legs, splattering amid falling wet glistening coils and viscera. The man almost split in half.

Yusek screamed, jumping backwards. Even the strangers stepped away from the spreading pool of gore.

Some went for their swords but others in the crowd stopped them, grabbing their arms. Orbern threw up his hands for calm. ‘Do not move!’ he called. To the travellers he offered a small bow of his head. ‘There will be no further challenges. Your demonstration is most … pointed. North of here you will find a handful of small settlements, homesteads and such. And I have heard rumours of a temple of some sort.’

‘Who knows this region best?’ the spokesman asked, his voice still mild and uninflected.

Orbern’s brows drew down once more. ‘Well, Yusek here has covered most of the slopes.’

Yusek tore her gaze from the pile of viscera and saw that the spokesman stranger was now regarding her through his painted mask. His eyes were hazel brown.

‘What?’ she snapped.

‘You will guide us.’

‘Sure as the bony finger of the Taker, I will not.’

The spokesman turned away. ‘It is decided. We require food and water.’

Orbern exhaled his relief. ‘Shel-ken, find them some supplies.’

‘No! It is not decided!’ Yusek snarled. She glared at Orbern. ‘I won’t go with these murderers!’

‘Is this one also defying the hierarchy?’ the spokesman asked of Orbern.

Yusek backed up until her shoulder blades pressed against a wall. Orbern eyed her, one brow arched as if to ask: well?

All eyes swung to her. A few of Orbern’s men licked their lips as if eager to see her sliced from throat to crotch. ‘No,’ she said.

Yusek confronted Orbern after the two visitors had left the hall to wait outside. ‘What are you doing?’ she demanded while he watched, pulling on one fat lip, as the mess that had been Waynar was hauled away. Fresh sawdust was thrown over the stained dirt floor. He returned to picking at the greasy bird carcass. ‘Well?’

His tired gaze flicked to her. ‘You’re hardly really a member of this little community of ours, are you, Yusek? You take every excuse to range over the slopes for days on end. It’s as if you’ve just been waiting for an excuse to cut and run anyway.’

She couldn’t find it in herself to deny any of what he said. ‘But with these two murderers? You saw what they did to Waynar! You just want to get me killed.’

Orbern pushed aside the bones. ‘Yusek …’ He rubbed his brow, sighing. ‘Firstly, dear, Waynar asked for it. He challenged the Seguleh. So, lesson number one — do not challenge them! Now, secondly, contrary to what we all just saw, in their company you will be the safest you’ve been in years.’ He sat back, opening his hands. ‘Thirdly, almost everyone here is a murderer — since when has that been a problem for you? And lastly, frankly, it has been a royal pain in the arse keeping everyone off your arse this last year.’

‘If they can’t control themselves that’s their problem, not mine. They can go hump animals.’

‘Oh, don’t fool yourself — some do. Or each other. In any case, I agree, yes. Why women get blamed for men’s callousness and lack of respect for others is beyond me. But it becomes your problem when it’s you they’re attacking. Yes?’

‘I’ll kill anyone who tries that. They know that.’

‘So I’m down yet another man.’

‘It’s not my damn fault they’re arseholes!’

He pulled savagely on his beard. ‘Yusek! The reason they’ve been driven out of all other towns and villages and families — any community of cooperative people — is because they are murderous, selfish, short-sighted, impulsive, cruel arseholes!’ He pointed to the door. ‘I’m doing you a favour.’

She didn’t move. ‘I can take care of myself.’

‘The fact that you’re still alive proves that, Yusek. But the odds are stacking up. Eventually, you’ll disappear and Ezzen, or Dullet, will have a self-satisfied smirk on his face for a few days … and that would be the end of it.’

Yusek lowered her chin. ‘I’m not asking you to do me any favours.’ She hated how sullen that sounded, but it was the truth.

Orbern sighed again. ‘I know. But I am anyway. Osserc knows why. Must be my civilized conscience.’

She went to pack the rest of her meagre belongings. Queen’s throw! I may as well just ditch ’em. She spotted Short-tall, out of the south, and raised her chin to him. ‘So who are these Segulath anyway?’

‘It’s Seguleh,’ he corrected her, then drew a slashing line across the air. ‘Swords, sweetmeat. Walking swords is what they are. Watch yourself or they’ll do you as they did Waynar.’

She gave him a face, threw her tied bedroll over her shoulder.

She found them waiting in the muddy garbage-strewn grounds that Orbern called the ‘Marshalling field’. A pack of gathered stores sat with them.

The spokesman indicated it. ‘Carry this.’

‘I ain’t no one’s pack mule.’

‘None the less.’

‘No. You can fucking carry it.’

Something whipped past her face — a silvery blur. Her bedroll fell from her shoulder into the mud, its rope tie cut. The man straightened, his cloak falling back into place.

Yusek stared. How in the name of Togg did he do that? She raised her gaze to the painted mask and the eyes behind: these studied her, narrowed, as if gauging her reaction. It was not the swaggering superior look she was used to from all those who’d bested her in the past.

She spat to one side — ‘Fine!’ — yanked up the pack, which was damned heavy, adjusted it on her back. ‘You do have a name …?’

The spokesman motioned for her to walk with him. The silent partner followed, hood still raised. As they approached the palisade door she spotted fat Orbern up on the catwalk. He waved for the solid log cross-piece to be pulled aside and the door pushed open. They exited into the woods with almost the entire crew of Orbern-town at the palisade watching them go.

‘My name is Sall,’ the spokesman said. Now, in the silence of the woods, he sounded rather young.

Yusek jerked a thumb to the other. ‘And him?’

Sall was silent for a time, perhaps searching for the right words. ‘In the rankings of the Seguleh I am of the Three Hundredth-’

‘Three hundredth what?’ she cut in.

Again, he was silent for a while. The rain had let up and now the streams of run-off trickled across the track. Heavy drops pattered amid the woods. The morning’s mist was gone with the rain.

‘The Three Hundredth I refer to means among the Seguleh fighters,’ Sall said, his tone now quite icy. It seemed he wasn’t used to being interrupted.

She eyed him sidelong. He’d raised his hood again. ‘So … you mean that you’re among the top three hundred fighters of all you Seguleh?’

‘Among all those who choose to pursue the rankings, yes. Not all need do so.’

Among the three hundred best fighters of these Seguleh? Damn! She jerked her thumb to the other. ‘And him?’

‘Yusek’ — he spoke much more quietly now — ‘I can give you his name … but it will be of no use to you. You might address him but he will never speak to you. He is Lo. And he is Eighth.’

Eighth? Like in eighth best of all of ’em? Burn’s embrace! And they’re out here in the middle of nowhere? ‘What’re you two doing here?’

‘As I said, we are looking for a monastery that is supposed to be somewhere here in these mountains.’

Yusek snorted. Damned foolishness. Here she was guiding a couple of fanatics off to some temple so they could bow to some dusty piece of bone, or a sacred statue on a wall, or have a senile old man wave his hand over their heads. What a fucking waste of her time!

She decided to ditch them right away.

She simply didn’t stop walking. So far that tactic had never failed her. She’d lost everyone she’d ever walked away from. As the day progressed, sure enough they fell back just as everyone always did. Once they were far enough behind on the trail she shucked the pack from her shoulders, took the best of the dried staples and a skin of water, and just kept right on going without looking back. In fact, she decided to run.

She made for an overhang she knew of, a kind of unofficial way-station along the trail. It was much further than an average day’s travel but she’d push on into the night.

For all the rest of the day, into the long twilight of evening, until the light failed entirely and she couldn’t make out the track ahead, she saw no more sign of them. The combined light of the mottled moon and the ill-omened green night sky visitor allowed her to find the narrow path up the rocks to the overhang and here she crouched down on her hams, in the dirt and rotting leaves, and chewed on a strip of dried venison. Her legs were trembling and numb, her chest aflame, but she’d made it. And she was rid of them. She was rid of them all! Fat Orbern, leering Ezzen, slow-witted Henst with his clumsy paws. She’d done it again! Shaken the useless dust from her heels. Just like her ma and pa that day in the worst stretch of the Dwelling Plain when it was them or her and damned if it was gonna be her!

I’ll head for Mengal just as I’ve always wanted. Make a name for myself there. Must be plenty of opportunities for a girl like me … I’ll be-

She stiffened, listening. Rocks were falling down on the trail. She slowly straightened, a hand going to the fighting knife at her hip, her heart thudding.

The hooded and cloaked figure of Sall climbed up into the overhang. He brushed dirt from himself. He dropped the pack to the dry dust and leaves. She lowered her hand. I don’t fucking believe it!

‘A fair first day’s travel, Yusek.’ The hood rose as he peered about. ‘I approve. You may rest. I will take first watch.’

Lo joined them, rising as silently as a ghost from the murk. He crossed to the rear of the overhang and sat without a word.

‘Who are you people …?’ she breathed, awed despite herself.

‘We are the Seguleh, Yusek. And all these lands will soon come to know us again.’

Spindle sat on a stone bench in the Circle of Faiths. It was a paved plaza in the Daru district that through the years, building by building and yard by yard, had been invaded then annexed by the worshippers of foreign, emerging, or even discredited religions. A sort of unofficial bazaar to any god, spirit or ascendant you’d care to name. Tall prayer sticks burned next to him as votive offerings to some obscure northern deity, possibly Barghast ancestor spirits. He waved the thick smoke from his face. Across the plaza a tiny stone building looking unnervingly like a sepulchre housed a priest of the new cult of the Shattered God. The man sat gabbling on to all who passed but was rather hard to understand, speaking as he was through broken teeth and a swollen jaw from the many beatings the local toughs meted out. Spindle had to hand it to the fellow, though. The man was undeterred. He even seemed to relish the extra challenge to his devotion and perseverance.

Some people just want to be persecuted … it proves they’re right.

But then, he knew all about persecution. He and his ma together had watched the world succeed in its persecution of his father, uncles, brothers, aunts, sisters and uncounted cousins. ‘Ain’t gonna lose you, little ’un,’ she’d always told him. She repeated it yet again when word came of the loss of his last brother, fallen overboard in rough seas off the coast of Delanss. ‘That’s my sworn vow, that is.’ And he’d looked up from where he sat next to her chair to watch her brushing her hair — hair so long it would drag along the ground behind her should she ever let it down. ‘Hold you in my arms, I will. Bind you up in protection. Keep you safe. Your mama’s gonna keep you safe. You’ll see.’

He rubbed his shirt over his chest. She was close now. He could feel her next to him the way he could when trouble was coming.

Been three days and no contact yet from any of the cadre mages. Should’ve been contact by now. Ain’t right.

‘You look like a brother,’ someone addressed him in Daru.

Spindle shaded his eyes to blink up at a young swell-sword all done up in mock Malazan officer gear complete with torcs and Quonstyle longsword. On his silk surcoat the lad bore the sword symbol of the cult of Dessembrae. ‘Whazzat? Brother?’

‘One of the initiate. The Elite. Recognized by Dessembrae.’

‘What in Osserc’s smothering warmth are you going on about?’

The young man’s ingratiating smile slipped into a stung haughtiness as he looked Spindle up and down. ‘My apology. Clearly I am mistaken. Obviously you do not possess the requisite dignity.’

Spindle hawked up a mouthful of phlegm and spat. ‘Dignity, my arse. If he saw you now he wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry.’

‘So those found unworthy may grumble.’

Spindle considered rousing himself to teach the pup a lesson, but he was feeling at ease on the bench and decided not to let the ignorant fool ruin his day. He waved the lad away. ‘Take your rubbish elsewhere.’

The aristocratic youth actually tossed his head as he walked off. Spindle snorted at the absurdity of it all, then realized he was no longer alone on the bench. He eyed the fellow sidelong: tall and rangy, wrapped in an old travelling cloak. Long black wavy hair. Looked Talian in profile.

‘If that lad knew he was talking to a Bridgeburner he’d have pissed himself,’ the man said.

Spindle cursed under his breath. ‘Took your own damned time, didn’t you?’ He rubbed his hand over his chest, listening for guidance, heard nothing. This man was no mage. ‘Who are you anyway? Where’s Filless?’

‘Filless is no longer with us. Someone’s made a sport of hunting Imperial mages and Claws.’ He turned to address him directly. ‘If I were you I’d keep my head down.’

‘Hunh. That’s me. Question still stands. Who’re you?’

‘I’m with the Imperial delegation.’

Spindle snorted again. ‘Military intelligence. Shoulda known.’

‘We learned long ago not to depend entirely on the Claw.’

‘Hood’s cautionary finger to that, my friend.’

‘So — your report?’

‘Some kinda spook’s entered the city. Drug his arse outta the burial grounds to the south. Wasn’t alone neither. Has servants. And they ain’t entirely human, if you know what I mean.’

The intelligence officer let out a faint whistle, fingers tapping on his lap. ‘And the Moranth flee … Damned scary, that.’

‘As did we. You lot marched out.’

‘Just a training exercise,’ the fellow answered, as if it was un-important. ‘I want you to try to track him, or it, down.’

Spindle gave him his best glare. The feller tells me to keep my head down, then he has the nerve … He spat again. ‘Not me. Just a bystander, remember?’

The young officer murmured, ‘Might I remind you the punishment for desertion is still death?’

Stretching out his legs, Spindle took out a handful of nuts he’d purchased from a street vendor, began cracking them and tossed them one by one into his mouth. ‘Amateurish bluff, lad. I’m the last asset you got left in this whole Queen-damned city.’

The officer studied his tapping fingers for a time. ‘I wouldn’t count on that. When the Fifth came to this continent an Imperial Sceptre was sent with High Fist Dujek. It’s with us now. Here in the city. And it’s awakened.’

Spindle missed his mouth with a thrown nut. Gods all around. A line straight to Unta. Anything could be sent through. An army of Claws. A High Mage. He cleared his throat, shrugging. ‘Well, then, you don’t need me.’

The young intelligence officer pursed his lips eloquently. ‘Until then — we’ll just have to put up with you.’

Damned Empire! Never lets you go. Always drags you back in. Sons a bitches.

Then he squeezed the nuts in his sweaty hand. Oh no. Picker’s gonna kill me!

Stooped and shuffling, Aman picked his way through his wrecked shop. Taya followed in his wake. Her steps were dainty and soundless against his noisy dragging of his boots through the broken wares.

She wrinkled her nose at the churned-up dust. ‘Revenge?’ she asked. ‘A warning?’

Aman picked up a relatively whole glass urn, turned it in an errant ray of sunlight that penetrated the shutters he kept locked. ‘No, my dear. Neither.’ He dropped the urn to smash to pieces alongside its fellows. ‘Irrelevant. All too irrelevant.’

Taya studied his gnarled profile. She blew a hair from her face. ‘Then why are we here?’

‘Tone, dear. Watch your tone. Petulant. It is not becoming.’

She raised her full painted lips in a smirk that was almost a leer. ‘Depends upon what you’re looking for.’

After a moment Aman tilted his head to acknowledge the point. ‘True. It has served you in the past. But things are changing now. And you must change as well.’

She snorted her opinion of that. ‘Nothing has changed! Still we skulk in the shadows.’ Her gaze slid sideways to Aman. ‘Perhaps you’re too used to living like rats?’

He was examining the glittering jade-encrusted statue, running his mangled hands over its strange crusted armour of stone. ‘You are wasting your breath, young one. Too long among those who can so easily be stung. Whereas I possess no vanity to be plucked like a thin rich robe. No fragile self-image so readily chipped or shattered.’ He regarded her, his gaze weighing. ‘No. The die is cast … as they say. We merely wait while the ripples spread outward — if I may be permitted to tweak my metaphors. We must wait for we are yet vulnerable, yes? But soon … soon we shall be unassailable. Never you doubt, child.’ He clasped his hands together under his uneven chin as if praying. ‘So. What happened here?’

She shrugged her thin bare shoulders. ‘Someone broke in and ransacked the place. Probably offended by your housekeeping.’

Aman touched his fingertips to his mouth. His mismatched eyes, one brown, the other a sickly yellow, seemed to peer in two directions. ‘No. That is not what happened at all. Observe.’ He indicated the floor next to the statue. Taya looked: near where it stood the floorboards clearly showed the dark outline, free of dust, of its carved stone armoured boots.

‘It moved,’ she breathed.

Aman smiled lopsidedly — the only way he could. ‘Yes.’

‘So … it’s alive?’

He patted the statue’s chest. ‘No. It is not. Makes it even more formidable, truth be told. No, this is what happened. Someone entered undetected, bypassing all my considerable wards, spirit guardians, and Warren-keyed traps. An accomplishment all by itself. He was in the process of examining the premises when the one guardian he did not anticipate acted.’

‘And the mess?’

‘The clumsy efforts of my foreign friend to corner the pest … who, with breathtaking insolence, continued his search even while being chased.’ He shook his misshapen head, awed. ‘Such effrontery! It will be his downfall.’

Taya raised an expressive, elegant brow. ‘Whose downfall?’

Aman tugged at something clasped in one stone fist. He pulled again, grunting. Cloth tore. He raised a dirty shred of material: a stained handkerchief. ‘An old friend. Slipped greasily away … yet again.’

CHAPTER VII

The scholar and traveller Sulerem of Mengal writes in his journals of a distant land to the south where every man and woman is as a sovereign unto themselves. It is a wasteland where in over a hundred years not even one fallen tree has been moved.

Letters of the Philosophical Society, Darujhistan

Kiska had long lost track of how many leagues of shoreline she and Leoman had walked when, eventually, as she knew he would, the man cleared his throat in a way that told her he had something to say — something she would no doubt not want to hear.

She stopped on the stretch of black sand, the sun-bright surf brushing up the strand, and turned to regard him. He stood some paces back. His hands were at his weapon belt; his long pale robes hung grimed and ragged at their bottom edge over his chain coat. He was growing a beard to match his moustache and his hair hung long and unkempt from beneath his peaked helmet.

She knew she must present no prettier a picture. She waved for him to speak. ‘What is it?’

He gave an uneasy shrug, not meeting her eyes. ‘This is useless, Kiska. If he wanted to be found he’d have come to us long ago.’

‘We don’t know that …’

‘Stands to reason.’

‘And I suppose you have some brilliant alternative?’

‘I suggest we strike inland. Perhaps we’ll find something. A way …’ He tailed off, seeing Kiska’s change of expression. She was no longer looking at him, but above and beyond. He turned round. A moment later he cursed softly. She came up to stand next to him. ‘It’s closing,’ he said.

‘Yes. Definitely smaller.’

The dark smear in the slate-grey sky that was the Whorl had faded to a fraction of the size it had once been.

‘Looks like the Liosan have put an end to it.’

‘I suppose so. Two offspring of Osserc ought to be enough.’

He studied her, his gaze oddly gentle. ‘That could be our way out closing before us.’

She turned away to keep walking. ‘All the more reason to track him down.’

‘Kiska,’ he called, a touch irritated. ‘We could be walking in the wrong direction.’

‘Go ahead! I’m not keeping you! I’m sure all the ladies are missing your moustache.’

She walked on in silence. Part of her wondered whether he’d answer, or whether he was following along at a distance. She refused to glance behind.

Then his voice came, shouting from far off: ‘What if I told you I could find him?’

She stopped, let out a long angry breath. Ye gods! Was this all just some sort of game to the fellow? She turned round, eyed him. He was standing as before, hands still at his belt, rocking back and forth on the heels of his boots. Shaking her head, she retraced her tracks back up the stretch of beach and planted herself before him, hands on hips.

‘This better be good.’

His brown eyes held the usual glint of amusement. He brushed at his now enormous untrimmed moustache, so very pleased with himself. Like the damned cat that has the mouse.

‘You seem to have a soft spot for these local unfortunates, don’t you?’

She flinched away, eyeing him warily. ‘I’ll not let you harm any of them.’

The man looked positively pained — or made a great show of it. ‘Never. What do you think I am?’

A murderous self-interested callous prick? Yet didn’t there seem to be something more to the man? He did appear to have a surprising gentleness. A kind of unpredictable fey compassion. His problem is that he hides it too well. ‘Your point?’

A nod. ‘My point is that your pity for them seems to have blinded you to how they could be of use in your … well, quest.’

She felt distaste hardening her mouth. ‘And that is?’

He sighed, opening his hands. ‘Think, Kiska. There is some kind of connection there. All we need do is keep an eye on them. And eventually …’ He gave an evocative shrug.

She felt a fool. Yes. Stands to reason. Simple. Elegant. Why didn’t I think of it? Because it was passive. She much preferred action. Yet Leoman was hardly the retiring type. Perhaps it was because he must have grown up hunting and thought like a hunter, whereas she had not. For her, just sitting and waiting for something to happen, well, it grated against all her instincts.

Yet she had to agree. And so she allowed a curt nod and headed back up the curve of shoreline. Leoman followed at a discreet distance. Perhaps to spare her his supercilious smirk and self-satisfied grooming of his moustache.

Barathol was slow to answer the loud persistent knocking at his door. It had a suspiciously arrogant and officious sound to it. Finally opening up, he found that he’d been right. A clerk faced him, a great sheaf of scrolls tucked under one arm and another in his hand. Behind him stood three Wardens of the city watch, and behind them stood a wrinkled pinch-faced woman he recognized as a representative of the city blacksmiths’ guild.

He crossed his thick arms, peered down at the clerk. ‘Yes?’

‘Are you …’ the young man consulted the scroll he was holding, ‘the smith known as Barathol Mekhar, a registered foreigner?’

‘I’m not foreign where I was born.’

The clerk blinked up at him. His brows wrinkled as he considered the point. Then he shrugged. ‘Well, Barathol, as a tradesman and a resident you are hereby conscripted to the city’s construction efforts.’

‘I’m not a mason.’

‘Metalworking is also required,’ the woman observed from the rear.

Barathol jerked a thumb to her. ‘Then why isn’t she conscripted?’

‘Members of the blacksmiths’ guild in good standing are exempt,’ the woman replied, prim and flushed with triumph.

Barathol nodded. ‘I see.’

‘I’ll give you a good exempting,’ Scillara spat from behind Barathol and tried to push past him. He threw an arm across the doorway.

‘Is it paid service?’ he asked.

The clerk allowed the thick paper of the scroll to snap back into a cylinder. ‘It will count as taxation.’

Barathol had yet to pay any tax whatsoever on any of his income but decided that perhaps it would be best not to raise the point at this time. ‘Starting when?’

‘The morrow. Report to the site foreman in the morning.’ The man hurried off, clearly relieved to be done. The woman threw Barathol a haughty glare then hastened in his wake. The three Wardens ambled off, hands tucked into belts. Barathol closed the door.

‘How can you go along with that?’ Scillara demanded.

Barathol peered around the small apartment, which was barely furnished at all. The only domestic touches were those he’d added: a cloth at the table, utensils he’d made. ‘Have to,’ he murmured. ‘No choice.’

‘No choice,’ she echoed, disappointed. ‘No choice. I thought I’d picked one with a spine.’

He flinched, but eased his shoulders. ‘They would arrest me. You’d be on the street.’

She sniffed, dismissing that. ‘I’ve been there before. I’ll do it again.’

‘Not with the little ’un. Not with him. I’ll not see that happen.’

Scillara gave a great rolling of her eyes. ‘Gods! Back to that. Martyr for the children.’ She waved him off and headed up the stairs. Barathol watched her go.

Only thing worth martyring for, I’d say.

‘You a friend o’ that rat?’

Rallick looked up from his usual seat in the Phoenix Inn. He blinked, widening his gaze at the astounding apparitions before him. Two men, twins it seemed, embalmed in dust. Clothes ragged and torn. Dirt-pasted faces cadaver hollow. Hair all standing wind-tossed and hardened in grime. ‘What rat might that be?’ he asked, though he sat at the man’s table.

Each pulled out a chair and sat, stiffly. One coughed into a fist and managed, croaking, ‘While we hash that out how ’bout standing two thirsty men a drink?’

Rallick signed to Scurve for a round.

The two let out long exhalations as if cool cloths had just been pressed to their brows.

‘And who are you?’ Rallick asked.

‘Leff.’

‘Scorch.’

Ah. In the flesh. He leaned back, nodding. ‘I see. What can I do for you?’

‘We’re at the rat’s table but we don’t see no hide nor tail,’ said the one who gave his name as Leff.

‘And for the immediate future let’s keep it to rat — shall we?’

‘Oh?’ said the other, Scorch, his expression puzzled. Or at least so it looked beneath all the pancaking of dust and grit and untrimmed beard. ‘Why’zat?’

Subtlety, Rallick decided, would be lost upon these two and so he allowed himself an exaggerated frown and lift of his shoulders. ‘Well … let’s just say that everyone’s name is on a list somewhere …’

The two stiffened, their gazes flying to one another. One touched a dirty finger to his nose; the other touched a finger just beneath his left eye. Both gave Rallick broad winks.

‘From your lips to the gods’ ears, friend,’ said Leff.

The drinks arrived care of Jess: two tall stoneware tankards of weak beer. The two men stared at them as if they were miraculous visitations from the gods. Each reached out shaking dusty hands to wrap them round a tankard. Each lowered his mouth as if unequal to the task of raising the vessel. Each sniffed in a great lungful then sighed, dreamily. They took first sips by sucking in the top film then coughed, convulsing and gagging. When the fits had subsided they returned to the tankards to rest their noses just above them once more.

All this Rallick watched wordlessly, his face a mask. And so it is for men. What we lust after almost kills us yet we always return for more … we never learn.

Rallick waited while the two addressed the tankards. It took some time. The surrounding tables changed over during the wait. Rallick overheard talk of Lim, this new Legate, and of vague building plans. Right now operations were beginning at the mole to recover stone blocks dumped into the harbour. Finally, after much sighing and swallowing, the two wiped their mouths, leaving great smears of wet dirt across their faces.

Leff pointed to Scorch’s face and laughed. Scorch pointed to his and he scowled. Left cleared his throat and spat on to the straw and sawdust scattered across the floor. ‘We’re lookin’ for a man,’ he told Rallick.

‘I’m happy for you.’

Both frowned and canted their heads as if thinking they’d misheard him.

Rallick sighed and waved his comment aside. ‘What’s that got to do with the rat?’

‘We’ve done work together. Him ’n’ us. Might be a percentage in it all for him. If you know what I mean.’ And he touched a finger under his eye once more.

‘I’m listening.’

‘This feller owes us a lot o’ money-’

‘And countin’!’ Scorch interjected. ‘And countin’!’

Leff nodded his profound, rather drunken agreement. ‘And counting too. A scholar. Ain’t been seen for a long time — so his landlady says. Overdue on rent too.’

‘Maybe he’s skipped.’

Scorch shook his head, unsteadily. ‘Naw. All his books ’n’ old broken pieces ’n’ such is still there. He’d never leave them behind.’

‘All right. So, when did you last see him?’

‘Ah. Well …’ The two blinked at one another, their heads sinking lower and lower. ‘We’d rather not say at this juncture of time … kinda confuse the issue … if you know what I mean.’

‘Fair enough.’ Rallick eyed the two slumping in their chairs. Full tankards on empty stomachs. They’ll be under the table in moments. ‘There’re rooms upstairs, you know. You can maybe use a rest.’

Leff gave a vague wave as he tottered to his feet. ‘Naw. You tell that rat. We’re lookin’ for the scholar.’

Scorch banged into the neighbouring table, righted himself. ‘Look out for that dancing girl, though! That minx. Got a temper like a she-devil. Wouldn’t even give us a kiss.’

Rallick watched them go. I’ll no doubt see them in the gutter later tonight. And dancing girls? Where’d that come from?

Kenth, out of Saltoan, had graduated quickly to full Claw membership. He’d always heard the old-timers grumble that the winnowing of the ranks that had been going on for a while now had also thinned their quality. He was determined to prove them wrong. He was of Golana’s clan and they had been given the biggest contract of recent times, one guaranteed to restore the reputation of the guild in Darujhistan.

The target was Jeshin Lim, the new self-styled Legate.

The Hand moved in as soon as the coming dawn allowed enough light. The Lim estate was well known to the guild. And this Lim was inexcusably negligent in not hiring more guards now that he was Legate.

Kenth’s particular talent was climbing and so he was assigned to help secure the second-storey rooms while the main party assaulted the Legate’s chambers. Their watchers had reported that the man was not taking any particular extra precautions such as sleeping in different rooms, or even securing his doors and windows.

Kenth and his brothers and sisters stole across the estate grounds, dark shadows slipping from cover to cover. No challenges arose from roving guards; no dogs barked or attacked; no Warren-laid traps or alarms burst forth with claps of thunder or blazing lights.

It seemed to Kenth that this city’s ruling class had forgotten their fear of the guild. Tonight, he decided, would restore that ancient and time-tested balance of power.

The estate’s ancient brick and stone wall was simplicity itself to scale. He found a small window terrace and popped the thin wood shutters sealing it. Within, the false dawn’s glow through the shutters revealed the room to be made up as a child’s nursery. It was empty. From here he gained the second-storey main hall. He went from room to room finding all unsecured, and all empty. It seemed that their watchers’ report was accurate: the Legate had sent all the Lim family members to another of their many residences scattered about the city and surrounding countryside.

Presumably, one would think, for their safety.

Yet at the same time all to the guild’s convenience.

Having secured the east wing of the rambling building, Kenth signed to his opposite number covering the west wing, then padded to his assigned post guarding the narrow servants’ stairs. Here he waited, tensed, fingertips on the top stair feeling for the slight vibrations of footsteps below, his ears pricked for the telltale creak of old dry wood. He waited, and waited.

And still his superior did not show to sign the all-clear.

A pink and amber dawn brightened perceptibly in the east-facing rooms.

Should he check in? But, gods, abandoning his assigned post! He would be lucky to be kept on as message-runner! Not to mention whipped to a bloody pulp. Still … so much time!

Dread and the insect-crawling passage of minutes won out and Kenth padded off to check on his opposite number across the main stairs. He leaned out to glance across the broad balustraded marble expanse. And the woman was not there!

Something lay in a dark heap at the top of the stairs.

He darted out, knelt, blades ready. It was Hyanth, dead. No sign of a wound. Magery! No doubts now — time to report.

He ran for the main chambers. The tall twin door leaves were open. He slid in, a hand raised in the alarm sign, only to halt, stunned. Everyone was dead. That is, the entire assault team lay sprawled as corpses. And on the bed, sheer sheet rising and falling, in calm sleep, the Legate.

Kenth did not even hesitate then. He went for the target, blades out.

Before he reached the big four-poster something slammed into his back, sending him tumbling forward to hit the base of the wall. He peered up dazed at a slim lithe figure wrapped in black cloth. The figure stepped over him to open the shutters of a nearby window, then grasped his shoulders and, with astounding strength, levered him out and held him there. He scrabbled frantically for handholds.

She whispered close to his cheek, ‘Take this message to your superiors, good soldier,’ and released him.

Kenth half fell, half scrambled, from stone to stone, snapping latticework and grasping at vines, and crashed to the ground. He lay groaning, his vision flashing with blazing lights. Fortunately, he’d managed to avoid landing on his back.

Report, he told himself — or thought he did. Report!

He lurched to his feet, muffling a cry of pain. Then he staggered, hunched, arms wrapped around his torso, across the grounds to the rallying point.

*

Rallick sat in his room in an old tenement building of the Gadrobi district. He sipped the morning’s first cup of tea while considering all that he’d learned — or, rather, what little he’d learned.

Baruk missing. Vorcan secreting herself away. Both reputed members of this half-mythic T’orrud Cabal. And in the Council an old forbidden title renewed.

A power struggle. It all adds up to a power struggle. Yet with whom? This upstart Legate?

And Vorcan’s words: No matter what happens, you will not act.

Then there’s what Raest said. Bluff. It’s a game of bluff. And what is bluff but lies, deception, misdirection?

And who does that remind him of?

He stilled, hands wrapped around the warm cup. He cocked his head, listening; the building was silent. Not in all the years he’d kept this room was the building ever silent. He stood, pushing back the chair, hands loose at his sides.

‘Who’s there?’

The door swung open revealing the empty hall beyond. Someone spoke, and Rallick recognized the voice of Krute of Talient. ‘It’s all come clear now, Rallick.’

‘What’s clear, Krute?’

‘No longer in the guild, you said … aye, I’ll give you that. But it’s all in the open now. No need to play the innocent.’

‘What are you talking about, Krute?’

‘She’s backing the Legate, ain’t she? And maybe you are too. We lost six of our best this night. But one made it out. What he brought with him made everything clear. I’m sorry you chose to go your own way on this, my friend.’

Something came sliding in along the floor. A blade: blued, slim, needle-tipped, good for close-in fighting and balanced for throwing. An exquisite weapon exactly like those commissioned by only one person he knew.

The old floor creaked in the hall: a number of men on both sides of the door. Rallick considered the window and the sheer three-storey drop.

Damn. Done in by my own precautions.

He raced through a number of other options, none particularly promising. Then he noticed a smell. A strong sewer stink.

‘Gas leak, lads!’ Krute shouted from the hall. ‘Damn you, Rallick! A trap! Make for the roof.’

Rallick remained frozen, hands close to the heavy curved knives beneath his loose shirt. The floorboards of the hall creaked and popped, then were silent. He edged towards the door, leaned to peer out. It was empty.

Gas? None can afford gas here.

He returned to his room, froze again. Something was on the table that had not been there before. A small leaf-wrapped object. He pulled open the greasy package to reveal a rolled crepe. A breakfast crepe with a delicate nibble taken from one end, as if the purchaser couldn’t bear to part with the treat without a taste and hoped no one would notice.

Lies, deception and misdirection.

So be it.

*

‘So you are saying that your timely arrival scared them off? Is that what you’re saying?’ Lim eyed the two estate guards, both retired members of the city watch, standing uncomfortable, and extremely nervous, before him. Somehow he was not convinced. He pulled his dressing gown tighter about himself. ‘And the mess outside?’

‘Ah! Well, in their haste to flee — one appears to have fallen.’

‘Is that so? A clumsy assassin. It’s standards that appear to have fallen.’

The guards shared embarrassed glances. One swallowed while the other clasped and reclasped a hand on the shortsword at his side.

Sighing his disgust, Lim turned away. He faced the small desk he kept in his room for correspondence and composing his memoirs. He picked up a slim gold mask among the mementos there and turned it in his hands. ‘I suppose I should hire more guards.’

‘We strongly recommend it, sir.’

He turned, favoured the two with an arched brow. ‘Well … do so. Take your leave. Hire as many as you deem appropriate.’

They snapped salutes. ‘Yes, sir. Right away, sir.’

Incompetents. It’s a miracle I’m alive. Someone had taken out a contract on me and I slept right through it. And frankly, who it is I suspect is no mystery. The Abyss has no fury like a patron scorned, as they may say. I’ll have to respond. Hit him where it hurts. In the moneybelt.

Lim crossed the room to dress, then paused, confused. Hadn’t there been a rug here? The servants appear to be taking great liberties with the furnishings. They ought to let me know when they take things away to be cleaned.

Torvald Nom and Tiserra eyed one another across the table of their house. Her gaze was a steady unswerving pressure while he shot furtive skittish glances her way between long perusals of the various ceramic bowls, jars and cups arrayed about the room. A breakfast meal of tea, honey and flatbreads lay untouched between them.

‘I’m not moving,’ Tiserra said.

‘No one has mentioned such a thing.’

‘Well … I’m not.’

‘As you say.’

She sipped her tea. Torvald shifted in his seat. ‘Did you say something?’ she demanded.

‘No — nothing at all.’

‘I suppose you’ll be receiving all sorts of petitions to intervene in this or that. Ladies throwing themselves at you, bosoms heaving, panting how they’ll do anything to have your support.’

‘No bosoms heaved my way yet, dear.’

Tiserra glared. Torvald cleared his throat, reached for a flatbread.

‘And I’ll attend none of those damned fancy parties, or gala fetes.’

Torvald withdrew his hand. ‘Perish the thought.’

‘Won’t have those harridans whispering behind their hands about the cut of my dress or the state of my hair.’

‘Who would do such a thing?’

‘Won’t have it.’

‘Quite.’

‘I like it here!’

‘Absolutely.’

She raised the cup to her mouth, set it down untouched. ‘So we’re agreed, then.’

‘Yes.’

‘All right then.’ She shifted in her seat, tore a flatbread. ‘Good.’ She nibbled at the bread. ‘So … what has this Legate proposed?’

‘Nothing too shocking yet. Various construction and maintenance projects. All long overdue, really.’ He spread honey on a flatbread.

‘And how much does the position pay?’

The rolled flatbread paused before it reached his mouth. Damn.

In his private room in the Malazan garrison at Pale, Fist K’ess was woken by shouts of alarm and banging. He leapt up from his piled furs and blankets already gripping the sheathed shortsword he always slept with and thumped barefoot to unlatch the heavy wood door. Captain Fal-ej stood waiting there, fully armed and armoured, torch in hand.

‘What is it, Captain?’ he demanded.

The Seven Cities officer took in her Fist standing in the open doorway and quickly looked away. ‘Fire, sir. Kitchens and barracks.’

‘Kitchens and barracks?’

A weary nod. ‘They abut each other.’

‘Who in the name of Togg built …’

The captain raised a forestalling hand. ‘Be that as it may — perhaps the Fist should get dressed.’

K’ess frowned, then remembered that he was naked. ‘Well … if you think it would help.’ He gave the captain a courtly nod and slammed the door shut. Facing the adzed wooden slats Captain Fal-ej let out a silent breath of awe and headed down the hall on weak knees. By the great stallions of Ugarat. This puts the man into a different perspective.

Fist K’ess caught up with Fal-ej where the captain stood shouting commands to a bucket-brigade vainly tossing water on the burgeoning flames consuming the barracks. Studying the conflagration, a hand raised to shield his face from the heat, the Fist shouted: ‘Never mind! It’s a loss! Just try to stop it from spreading.’

Fal-ej saluted. ‘Yes, sir.’ She jogged off, shouting more commands.

After the captain had reorganized the soldiers K’ess waved her to him. ‘Anyone hurt?’

‘No, sir.’

A roar as the roof collapsed silenced any further talk and drove everyone back a step, coughing and covering their faces. Fist K’ess wiped a smear of some sort of air-borne grease from his face — the larders up in smoke.

‘What happened?’ he asked. ‘An accident?’ He asked but he didn’t believe it: the fire had spread far too swiftly. The shake of her head confirmed his suspicions. Sabotage, act of rebellion, call it what you will. They never wanted us here.

And now this new Legate down in Darujhistan to goad them on.

He waved the captain further back to talk. ‘Any suspects?’

She’d pulled off her helmet and now ran a hand through her matted dark hair. K’ess noted how her features seemed to glow — a combination of sweat from the heat and the grease of the smoke. He realized she had a strange look in her eyes even as he studied them.

She glanced away, clearing her throat. ‘One of the kitchen staff, probably. Or one of the local servants.’

‘You have them?’

‘A few. They all claim innocence, of course. What do you want done with them? We could … send a message.’

‘I very much doubt that the one who set this hung about to get caught.’

‘I agree, Fist.’

‘So … let them know what we could do with them should we be so inclined. Then let them go.’

Her thick black brows rose. ‘Let them … go?’

‘Yes. We’re soldiers, not executioners, or some sort of police. It’s subjugation that requires brutality, and I’m not willing to stoop to that yet. Do you understand, Captain?’

The woman’s face hardened as if struck. ‘I am from Seven Cities, Fist.’

K’ess cursed himself for his obvious misstep but kept his expression blank. He inclined his head in acknowledgement. ‘My apologies — then you more than understand.’

A lieutenant arrived, rescuing the Fist from his discomfort. ‘A mob at the gates, sir. Blocking the exit.’

‘Armed?’

‘Haphazardly so. Though there may be veterans mixed in among ’em.’

K’ess turned to Fal-ej. ‘My apologies again, Captain. You were correct. Perhaps we should have withdrawn earlier. It seems we’re always underestimating Pale.’ He motioned to the lieutenant. ‘Have the entire command salvage what they can then form up before the gates. We’re evacuating.’

The lieutenant saluted. ‘Aye, sir.’ He ran off, bellowing.

‘North, sir?’ Fal-ej asked.

They flinched at another thundering reverberation accompanied by curtains of sparks from the collapsing barracks. Did we have any Moranth munitions stored there? Well, I understand they aren’t flammable anyway.

Their few horses, pulled from the stalls, began screaming their terror as the flames drew nearer the mustering square. ‘No, Captain. South. We’ll catch up with the Twenty-second.’

‘Aye. And the gates?’

‘I understand they’re designed to be unhinged, if need be.’

The Captain’s full lips drew up in a feral grin of anticipation. ‘I’ll see to it.’

‘Very good.’ K’ess saluted. Fal-ej jogged for the gates. He wiped his sweat-slick face. Now to toss everything from my office into these damned flames.

A short time later, mounting amid the column, K’ess slapped his gauntlets against his cape to put out drifting sparks. Then he nodded to the bannerman, who dipped the black, grey and silver standard of the Fifth. At the gates Fal-ej oversaw the saboteurs who struck the hinges. At her wave, K’ess motioned that the banner be pointed forward and the entire garrison charged into the broad timber doors. For an instant the gates wavered, creaking, then shouts of alarm from beyond signalled their leaning outwards.

K’ess drew his longsword, bellowing, ‘Onward, Fifth!’

The entire column leaned forward, shields to backs, pressing. The gates groaned, gave, toppled. Screams sounded beyond. The broad timber leaves crashed down — but they did not lie flat — far from it, in truth. The front ranks stepped up on to the planks, ignoring the cries beneath. The garrison marched out, stamping over a good portion of the crushed mob while the rest fled. Even halfway back in the column, when K’ess urged his mount up on to the planking the flattened gate still settled slightly.

Watching from across the square, the Lord Mayor stared in utter horror at the slaughter done by the Malazans in one murderous gesture. He turned to the shadowy figure next to him. ‘This is unspeakable! What have we done?’

‘We?’ intoned the shade of Hinter. ‘As yet I have done nothing. This is all your doing, Lord Mayor.’

The man’s plump hands clasped the furred robes at his neck as if he were strangling himself. ‘What?’ he spluttered. ‘But you assured me …’

The shade made a gesture as if to remove dust from one translucent sleeve. ‘All I assured you was that you would be rid of the Malazans. And behold — am I not good to my word?’

‘But … these deaths!’

‘Not nearly so many as when they arrived, I understand.’

That comment, so calmly delivered, touched something in the Lord Mayor and he clenched his fists around the rich material. ‘You will fare no better! Darujhistan has no more army than we!’

The tall shade’s regard seemed to radiate an almost godlike disinterest. ‘We shall see. In any case, I suppose we do owe you our thanks for sending them off. Therefore — you are now on your own.’ The shimmering figure bowed mockingly, murmuring, ‘Better luck to come.’

The Lord Mayor’s eyes bulged. ‘You are … leaving? But what of the Rhivi raiders? Barghast war bands? The Moranth? You said you would protect us!’ The mayor, nearly breathless, ceased his objections when he saw he was alone; the shade had faded from view. He glanced, terrified, at the shadows surrounding him in the empty night, then quickly scuttled away.

*

The Malazans had not entirely abandoned southern Genabackis. After the crushing of the Pannion Seer Dujek embarked with the battered remnants of his Host for some distant continent, while Captain Paran collected his remaining columns and also departed. Not all elements withdrew, however. A small portion consisting mainly of the last under-strength legion of the Second Army was left behind. Its mandate, straight from Dujek, was to maintain order while the surviving inhabitants of the region rebuilt their lives, their cities, and their defences. Command of this garrison fell to a veteran who had risen through the logistics and supply side of campaigning. Her name was Argell Steppen and she was awarded the honorary rank of Fist.

What she was entrusted with some thought no honour. Many soldiers muttered that these last fragments of the Second, Fifth and Sixth armies were shattered, if not irrevocably broken. Whether the blunt-talking, short, and some thought rather unattractive woman agreed with this estimation she never said. What she did do was order a general withdrawal from the festering wrecks that were the one-time urban centres of the south — Bastion, Capustan and others — to a hillock near the headwaters of the River Eryn, close by the verges of the Cinnamon Wastes. And here she ordered a fortress built. Most of her command thought her mad to be constructing a redoubt in the middle of nowhere so far from the coast.

Then the raids began.

Bendan, son of Hurule, had grown up among the huts, open sewers and garbage heaps of the Gadrobi slums west of Darujhistan. Being a young lad kicking about the alleys with no income or any likelihood of it, he naturally joined together with other youths of his background to form a brotherhood for mutual support and protection. And for the generation of gainful profit. An organization that the city Wardens and ruling Council of Darujhistan denounced as a gang.

After a successful run of thefts, beatings and a few murders, the ire of the wealthier class of merchants was finally roused and the Wardens were spurred to corner Bendan and his fellows in the abandoned two-storey house they used as their base. By this time he had acquired a nickname, the Butcher, of which he was extremely proud, but which stood him in no stead against the armour and shortswords of the Wardens.

He escaped the encirclement, unlike most of the brothers and sisters of his gang, the last remaining friends of or ties to his youth. Hunted, with nowhere to turn, he naturally sought out the final option available for someone without any attachments to his homeland: enlistment among the invading Malazans.

He watched now, under the cover of night, from the crest of a shoreward dune on the coast just north of Coral, close to Maurik, while four ships stole quietly up on to the strand. He glanced to his right, down the line of his fellow squad-members, anxious for the signal. Eventually, the sergeant, a giant of a man with skin so black Bendan had thought it paint, gave the sign.

As one the squad slithered down the rear of the crest then jogged for the narrow streambed the raiders had been using. Here, under cover of the scraggy brittle brush, they readied crossbows and javelins. Somewhere in the dark across the steep-sided cut waited the 33rd. Once his squad, the 23rd, opened fire and engaged the raiders, they’d charge in from the rear. Meanwhile, the 4th was perhaps even now coming up the shore, ready to cut off retreat to the ships.

‘Like herding sheep,’ the corporal, Little, had told him, winking. ‘Just keep them from breaking out.’

‘More like wolves,’ the oldest of the squad had warned, a hairy and very dirty fellow in tattered leathers everyone called Bone. ‘These Confederation boys are pirates and slavers. Been raiding this coast for generations. Think it’s their gods-given right. This’ll be right sharp.’

‘I’m not afraid of no fight,’ he’d said.

‘Right, Butcher,’ Bone had answered.

He’d given that name when asked. And surprisingly, they used it. Only when they said it they used the same tone they used for arse, or idiot. And somehow there was no way he could call them on it. So he’d shrunk back, glowering, determined to show them what fighting was all about. After all, it was the one thing he’d had to do every day of his life, and since he wasn’t dead yet he was obviously good at it.

‘Let none escape,’ had been bald Sergeant Hektar’s last rumbled instruction. ‘This is our warning stroke. Our last chance before we go.’

Before they left. Marching out! Bendan had seen everyone’s reaction to that stunning news. Crazy as one of them Tenescowri! Abandoning the fortress before it’s even finished. Who was this ambassador to order them out? Couldn’t Steppen have just sent ten or twenty for that marionette to inspect?

Everyone in his squad was disgusted at this typical army stupidity. All except Bone, who’d muttered through a mouthful of the leaves he chewed, ‘The ways of officers is a mystery to regular people.’

Bendan thought it an improvement — he was damned sick of hammering rocks and humping dirt. He’d take a bit of marching over that backbreaking work any time.

Now, it seemed, was their last chance for any real action and everyone was eager to make it count. Beneath them, tracing the bed of the dry cut, came the Confederacy raiders jogging along to their target, another defenceless farming hamlet. He struggled with his crossbow in the disorienting light of the silvery bright reborn moon, and the greenish glow of the swelling arc of light in the sky that some named the Sword of God — though just which god varied.

The mechanism of the crossbow defeated him once again. He couldn’t seem to master the damned foreign thing. He set it down and readied one of the wicked barbed javelins he’d brought against just such a possibility. And just in time as well, as the whistled signal came to fire.

Everyone straightened, letting loose. Crossbows thumped, soldiers shouted, tossing javelins. Bendan hurled his, then, without waiting to see whether he’d struck anyone or not, he started down the slope readying his shortsword and shield. What he glimpsed below worried him. Instead of the milling chaos he’d been told to expect the line of warriors had simply knelt behind large shields, taken the initial barrage, and even now was counter-charging up through the rock and brush.

And damn his dead and gone ancestors but there were a lot of them.

No more time to think as his headlong run brought him smack into the first of the raiders. He shield-bashed the man and knocked him backwards off his feet. That shock absorbed almost all his inertia and now he traded blows with two others. His squad was ridiculously outnumbered. Bendan released all the ferocity he’d learned in life or death fights before he’d even grown hair on his chin. He gave himself into the blazing rage completely, whirling, screaming, attacking without let-up. Raiders backpedalled before him, overborne. Blades struck his hauberk of leather hardened with mail and iron lozenges but he ignored the blows in a determination to carry on until dead. Only this complete abandon had seen him walk away from all his fights — bloodied and punished, but upright.

Then in what seemed like an instant all that stood before him wore the black of Malaz and he lowered his arm, weaving, sucking in great ragged breaths, near to vomiting. The other squad had pushed through from the other side. The column of raiders had broken and men were running for their ships. Bendan and his squad mates left them for the others.

Someone offered him a skin of water and he sucked in a small mouthful and splashed one spray over his face. The blows he’d taken were agony and he knew he’d be hardly able to move tomorrow but he’d been lucky: none was serious enough to take him down.

Sergeant Hektar came by and cuffed his shoulder. ‘Damn, Butcher,’ he rumbled. ‘I can see we’re gonna have to rein you in some.’

Nearby Bone had a cloth pressed to his blood-smeared face, still grinning. ‘Lookin’ forward to a full day’s march tomorrow, lad?’ He laughed.

Bendan waved that off.

‘What about these wounded, Hek?’ someone called.

The massive Dal Hon ran a hand over his gleaming nut-brown scalp. ‘These are slavers … give them a taste of it. We sell them.’

‘Can’t do that,’ Bone shouted from where he was rifling the bodies, one-handed. ‘Empire don’t sell slaves.’

‘Indentureship is so much better, is it?’ the Dal Hon muttered, and shrugged. ‘So we give them away to the Coral merchants.’

Bone’s answering laugh was genuine, but it wasn’t pleasant.

Later that night as he was walking back to camp it occurred to Bendan that when Hektar had called him ‘Butcher’ he hadn’t used that tone. The sergeant had seemed to mean it. He felt grateful, but also a little embarrassed. Because for the entire fight he’d been so terrified he’d pissed himself.

Awareness came to Ebbin in brief disconnected instants. Like startling flashes of lightning in an otherwise terrifying pitch-black landscape of lashing, spinning winds. Each illuminated an instant tableau frozen in stark contrast of light and shadow: he huddled among the bones of a hilltop sepulchre, its stone door shattered; he was chiselling layers of barnacles and sea-growths from a stone revealing it white and pure as mountain snow; he was being kicked aside by Aman while the girl Taya danced frenziedly before a cloaked figure with the face of the sun; his hands held before his face cracked and bloodied, sleeves in tatters.

At other times, the worst times, he was called to writhe in abject terror before that cloaked figure. During these times, lost in the eternal storm that now raged in his mind, the being’s face shone silver like the moon. At other times he raged insane against this monster, shook his fists, swore himself hoarse.

All his tormentor ever gave in return was lofty mocking amusement. As if not only his life and ambitions were meaningless, puerile, but the hopes, struggles and dreams of everyone in the city and beyond were nothing more than puffery and self-important vacuousness. This god-like overview of the entire sweep of human civilization on the continent sent Ebbin once more into the eternal raging storm within his mind.

Yet the stones are important. He is worried about the stones. Will there be enough to complete the base?

At other times they shook him from his tortured nightmare trance to perform tasks for them. The girl — though hardly a girl, Taya — always accompanied him. He helped oversee the salvaging of these very stone blocks being taken from the city mole. He hired craftsmen, answered queries. In short, he was the human face before the operations these fiends wished to complete.

And all the while he was powerless to speak of any of it. He tried — gods, how he fought to utter a word of objection or defiance! But the moment he contemplated such rebellion his mouth and throat constricted as if throttled. Not even his hands would cooperate to scrawl a plea for help. And so, like a prisoner within his own skull, he could only watch and speculate.

Whatever these fiends planned, it reached back all the way to their internment. A resurrection of their rule as one of the legendary Tyrants. Yet why the elaborate charade? Why wait to declare their return? Why the mask? Ebbin was frustrated beyond measure by the mystery. He felt that he had almost all the pieces, yet arranging a meaningful pattern defied him.

One strange moment seemed to almost shock him out of his fugue. He was working in the tent on the salvage site near the shore at the base of Majesty Hill when someone stopped before his table and spoke to him. He looked up from the wage lists, blinking, to see a dark muscled fellow with a wide mane of black hair peering down at him; startling honest concern creased the man’s features. ‘Yes …?’

‘Are you sure you are all right?’ the fellow asked.

Something squeezed Ebbin’s chest painfully — and it was no outside coercion from the masked fiend. He fought to find his voice. ‘Yes … yes. Thank you.’ Emboldened, he took another breath.

‘Your name …?’

‘Barathol Mekhar.’

Ebbin searched his mental lists, found the man. Foreigner, skilled, unregistered blacksmith. Something in that sketch moved him to lurch forward, saying, ‘You have to-’ Then came the clenching fist at his throat. He struggled to continue, even to breathe.

The man’s puzzled concern returned. ‘Yes?’

Then Taya was there at his side to wrap an arm about his shoulders, and squeeze, painfully. ‘My uncle has a lot on his mind,’ she explained sweetly. ‘He is ashamed. He gambled, you see. And he lost. He lost everything.’ She squeezed him again, digging in the nails of a hand. ‘Isn’t that so, Uncle?’

Ebbin could only nod his sunken head.

‘Well,’ the man said, his voice gruff but gentle, ‘I understand. I was just saying that I could set up a smithing station here for your needs. Sharpening tools, forging items.’

‘Yes,’ Taya said. ‘That would be excellent. Thank you. I believe we will have need of that.’

After one last warning clasp she watched while the man moved off, then she left Ebbin to pick up his stylus and return to his record-keeping.

Antsy and Corien led the way out of Pearl Town, as Panar had named it. Malakai immediately slipped away without a word. Ashamed to be seen with the likes of us, Antsy grumbled to himself. Progress was slow, as they elected to travel with no light at all. Orchid murmured directions from close behind. Despite the girl’s descriptions of the way ahead Antsy kept crashing into walls in the pitch black. And Corien limped, unsteady, grunting his pain, his breathing wet and laboured.

‘I see them,’ Orchid announced after they’d walked a maze of narrow streets. ‘Stairs, ahead.’

Antsy let out a snort of disgust. Just great — climbing blasted stairs in the dark!

‘They’re very broad. Open on the right. They climb a cliff up and up … Great Mother — so high!’

In the dark Antsy rolled his eyes. Wonderful. Absolute night all around and a drop-off. Couldn’t get any better. ‘Malakai?’

‘No sign.’

Gettin’ too casual, he is. Antsy’s right foot banged up against the riser of the first stair and he tumbled forward on to them. He dropped his sword and scraped a shin, cursing. The blade clanged from the stone steps like anvils falling in the dark.

‘Sorry, Red,’ Orchid offered, sounding embarrassed.

Antsy just cursed under his breath. Corien almost fell over him as he felt his way forward in the black ink. Fucking band of travelling harlequins, we are. Just missing the floppy hats.

Orchid grasped his arm to help him up and he almost yanked it free.

‘Keep tight to the left,’ she suggested. ‘Single file … I guess.’

‘I’ll go first,’ Antsy said. Then he froze, his lips clenching tight. ‘Orchid — where’s my Hood-damned sword?’

‘Oh! Sorry.’ She pressed it to his hand. He snapped it up, grated a sullen, ‘Thanks.’

Can’t even find my own damned sword! Useless! Completely useless!

Up they went, sliding along the smooth left wall. The staircase was quite broad, with shallow risers only a hand’s breadth or so in height. Luckily the natural list of the Spawn tilted forward and to the left. If it had leaned the other way he didn’t think they could have managed. A gathering warm breeze dried the sweat on the nape of his neck and pressed against his back as the air pushed in around him, rushing up this access. Just warm air rising? Or something more … worrisome? He couldn’t be sure.

‘Feel that wind?’ Corien asked from the dark.

‘So pleasant for a change,’ Orchid answered.

Antsy said nothing.

Finally, Orchid ordered a stop. ‘Something’s ahead. Doors. Broken doors. Stone. Very thick. Looks like we can get through, though.’ Antsy grunted his understanding. ‘Careful now. Slow.’

Antsy and Corien felt their way over shards of shattered rock, ducked under leaning eaves of larger fragments. The Darujhistani swordsman was stumbling more and more and Antsy found himself helping him constantly now. He whispered, ‘How’re you doing?’

‘Not so well, I’m afraid. Feeling weak.’

Antsy touched the back of a hand to the lad’s forehead: hot and slick with sweat. Maybe an infection. That blade or sharpened stick couldn’t have been too clean. ‘We have to stop,’ he said, louder.

‘Corien?’ Orchid asked. ‘It’s bad?’

‘My apologies. Not what I had in mind.’

‘Why didn’t you say so?’ she demanded, outraged. ‘I asked earlier!’

‘We couldn’t very well have stayed there,’ he said, tired and patient, ‘could we?’

‘There are rooms ahead,’ came Malakai’s voice from far to the fore.

Despite himself Antsy flinched at the sudden announcement from the dark. Hate it when he does that! ‘What’ve you been doing!’ he yelled back angrily.

‘Scouting,’ came the answer, much closer now. ‘Orchid, the hall goes on straight then there are multiple rooms to either side. Take one. We need to rest anyway.’

Antsy started forward, still helping Corien. ‘Any sign of the Malazans?’

‘No. None. No sign of anyone at all.’

‘Perhaps we should’ve brought that fellow Panar with us,’ Orchid said.

Antsy snorted. ‘What could he do for us?’

‘He knows his way around the Spawn. He could direct us.’

‘Almost all of what he told us was lies,’ Malakai said, dismissive.

‘How do you know?’

‘His story’s full of holes. How did he get away from the attacks he described? I wager he betrayed his comrades. Sold them out to save his skin.’

‘You don’t know that,’ said Orchid, outraged. ‘You weren’t there. Why assume that?’

‘Because of his other lies.’

‘What do you mean his other lies?’ she demanded, her voice getting even louder. ‘Stop making empty accusations. Either you know or you don’t.’

‘Leave it be,’ Antsy murmured. ‘I agree with him.’

‘No! I will not be shut up by this man’s airs and knowing hints.’

‘Very well,’ Malakai answered, sounding grimly pleased. ‘These poor starving men and women you seem to feel such sympathy for. These scrapings of the would-be treasure-hunters who came scrambling for easy riches. They can’t buy food and water from any Confederation boats. They’ve nothing left to sell. They didn’t even have the weapons left to stab our two friends. Now, there’s only one thing left down here to eat — which is why they attacked us in the first place, and why they didn’t pursue us afterwards. We killed or badly wounded a number of them, and — for the time being at least — they have enough to eat.’

Orchid’s breath caught in the dark. ‘No,’ she said, her voice strangled. ‘I don’t believe you.’

Malakai didn’t answer; he didn’t need to.

Antsy remembered those snarling rat-like faces, the bared teeth, the frenzied glistening eyes, and thought he’d vomit right then. Instead, he took a bracing deep breath of the sea-tinged air. ‘So this is not the way?’ he asked, dizzy.

The way?’ Malakai answered. ‘It’s a way — at least that. And that’s what I want. We’ll reconnoitre after a rest.’

Antsy grunted his agreement and he and Corien continued shambling up the hall.

They took turns keeping watch, or in Antsy’s case listening very hard indeed. And the titanic fragment of Moon’s Spawn spoke to him. A saboteur, he understood the deep groans that came shuddering up through the stone beneath his thighs and hands. The sharp distant poppings of snaps and cracks. He’d spent a lot of time underground. It reminded him of something … something from his youth. But for the life of him he couldn’t quite place it just then.

Even Malakai stayed with them to lie down and to stand a watch. It seemed he wasn’t the sort to pretend he needed less sleep than anyone else.

In the ‘morning’, when Malakai woke everyone, Orchid came to Antsy and set a hand on his arm to crouch down next to him. ‘Corien’s getting worse,’ she whispered. ‘I’ve done everything I can, but that weapon, whatever it was, must’ve been filthy.’

‘How bad-’

‘I can still walk,’ Corien interrupted loudly. ‘The quiet and dark, you know. Sharpens the hearing.’

‘You’ll have to walk on your own,’ Malakai said flatly.

‘Your concern is a soothing balm,’ the youth replied.

Antsy smiled in the dark: he would’ve just told Malakai to go fuck himself.

‘Red, you lead then,’ Malakai said, ignoring the sarcasm. ‘Corien … walk with Orchid.’

‘And you?’ Orchid demanded. ‘Wandering off gods know where? You should stay with us in case there’s trouble.’

‘If there’s trouble I’ll be more use as a hidden asset.’

Orchid just snorted at that. Antsy imagined her throwing up her hands in the dark.

As they readied, Antsy asked Orchid over and held out his pannier. ‘You’re sure?’ she said, surprised.

‘Yeah — no use in a fight. An’ I’ll need both hands. Corien? The use of your sword perhaps?’

‘Yes, Red.’ There came the unmistakable sound of polished iron brushing wood as the blade cleared the mouth of the sheath. ‘Orchid?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Fumblings as Corien handed Orchid the weapon. ‘Ach!’

‘What?’ from both Antsy and Corien.

‘Cut my hand on the edge.’

‘Don’t hold it by the blade!’ Corien exclaimed. ‘Both edges are razor sharp.’

‘So I see,’ she answered, scathing. ‘Here.’

The grip was pressed to Antsy, who took it and readied his own sword in his left hand. ‘Okay. Which way?’

‘To the right.’

Antsy edged to the right. He held the blades before him, off slightly to each side. Occasionally a tip grated against a wall and he would adjust his direction. Behind, Corien grunted his effort. His boots slid heavily over the smooth stone floor and every breath was tight with pain. Antsy knew Orchid was doing her best to help him along.

After a time turning corners and crossing large chambers — meeting places, or assemblies, Orchid thought them — she sent them climbing up against the Spawn’s slant to what she said was a large building front across a broad open court. ‘Do you even know where you’re going?’ Antsy finally complained.

‘Malakai is there, waiting,’ she said; then, rather impatiently, ‘I’ve been keeping us to the main ways, you know!’

Antsy now said aloud what had been bothering him for some time: ‘Then where is everyone? The place is deserted! Where’re these Malazans? Where’s anyone?’

‘How in the name of-’ She stopped herself. ‘How should I know?’

Antsy just grumbled. Again it seemed the constant straining to see in the utter dark was giving him hallucinations. Lights blossomed before his eyes. Shapes of deepest blue seemed to waver in his vision like ghosts. He silently fumed against it all. What a fool I was for throwing myself into this. A bad start before a worse end! I’m gonna die in the dark like a blasted worm.

‘You made it,’ Malakai said blandly from the dark. Antsy pulled up sharply. The observation was neither a compliment nor a complaint. ‘This looks to be some sort of large complex. We should take a look.’

‘I’m not so sure we should go in there,’ Orchid said, sounding worried.

‘Not for you to say. Corien, perhaps you can sit down inside, in any case.’

The lad managed a tight, ‘Certainly. That would be … most welcome.’

‘We are agreed then.’

‘Which way?’ Antsy rasped, his throat dry — already they were getting low on water.

‘There are stairs up,’ Orchid said.

He slid his foot ahead until he bumped up against the first, then he carefully felt his way up until Orchid told him he was on the last. ‘This is a very wide doorway, tall too,’ she murmured. ‘Open double doors. Inside is a kind of arcade with many side openings and corridors.’

Shit. This could take for ever. ‘Look, Malakai,’ he grumbled, ‘it would help if we knew what we were looking for … Malakai …?’

‘He’s gone.’

Osserc-damned useless whore’s son! That’s fucking well it! He pulled off his rolled blanket and began rummaging through it.

‘What are you doing?’ Orchid asked.

‘I’m getting the lantern.’

‘Malakai said-’

‘Malakai can dick himself with his own-’ Antsy bit off his words, cleared his throat. ‘Sorry, lass. Malakai isn’t here, is he?’

He set the lantern on the stone floor, pulled out his set of flints and tinder and began striking. The sparks startled him at first, so huge and bright were they. Light deprivation — seen it before in the mines. Have to shield the lantern. In moments he had the tinder glowing: that alone seemed light enough. He took up a pinch of the lint and shavings and held them to the wick and blew. Once the wick caught he blew again, steadily, pinched out the tinder and shoved it away back into its box, which he snapped shut.

The lantern’s flame blossomed to life and he had to turn his face away, so harsh was the golden light. Blinking, squinting against the pain the light struck in his eyes, he could eventually see and what he saw took his breath away.

Everything was black, yes, but not plain or grim. The walls, the columns of the carved stone arcades, all writhed with intricate carving. Stone vines climbed the walls, delicate stone leaves seemed to wave before his eyes. Bowers of trees, all carved from the glittering finely grained black stone, arched over a second-storey walkway above.

Then he saw the smooth polished floor and he frowned. Dust covered it, but so too did a litter of broken pots and scattered furniture. No looting here. Why?

In the light, Corien shuffled over to a side alcove of carved benches and sat down, hissing his pain. Antsy set the lantern on the bench next to him. The lad squinted his puzzlement. His face gleamed sickly pale, sheathed in sweat. ‘You keep the light,’ Antsy told him. ‘I’ll have a poke around.’ Corien drew breath to object but Antsy held out his sword, pommel first. Offering a tired smile, Corien took it. ‘Look after Orchid here while I’m gone.’

Orchid had the sense not to object to that bit of chauvinism.

Shortsword out, Antsy picked his way through the litter. It was a large main entrance hall, or gathering chamber. Halls opened off it all around. Stairs led down and up from it on both the right and the left. The stairs were intricately carved, the balusters with vines and blossoms. His light-starved eyes made out much more in the weak light than he knew he could’ve normally; as on a night of a full moon or a fresh snow. In places the floor bore carved designs like grille-work or lattices bearing foliage.

Far off across the chamber the lantern glowed like a star. Next to it Orchid paced restlessly. Antsy found an overturned chest or travel box, its contents of cloth spilled across the floor. He kicked through the dark rich robes. Damn me if I don’t know what’s valuable or not! A Togg-damned waste of time this is.

Something about the nearby stairs caught his attention and he crossed to them. The dust was disturbed here. Not by tracks, but brushed aside, as if disturbed by a wind or the dragging of a wide cloth. He decided to follow as far the light extended. The stairs brought him to a floor just beneath the main one. Here light streamed down through the carvings in the floor above, casting illuminated scenes of bowers of trees across another smooth floor. An intended effect, Antsy wondered? Did lamps or such like burning above cast the same shadows when this place was occupied? He walked out on to the floor.

An object gleamed in the light streaming down. A stick of some kind. Antsy walked up and crouched over it. A bone. A leg bone. A human tibia. And not clean, either. Tangles of ligaments and dried meat still clung to its ends.

He straightened, swallowed the bile churning sickly in his stomach. A dense glow now shone from the far end of the chamber. Fascinated, unable to turn away, he edged closer until the light was sufficient to reveal a carpet of similar remains choking the far side. The shadows of alien blossoms streamed down upon a mass of human carcasses. Many still wore their helmets. Their feet remained in boots. The meat of calf and thigh was gone, as were the viscera from empty gutted chests and abdomens. Ribcages gaped like open mouths hanging with desiccated strips of flesh and meat. Antsy had seen similar remains after battles where scavengers had picked over the dead, taking the choice bits and leaving the rest.

He choked back a yell of alarm and ran for the stairs.

Not looted. Avoided! Everyone else knows better! And Panar sent us here! To our damned deaths.

He came pelting back to Orchid and Corien, who stared, tensing in alarm. ‘What is it?’ Orchid demanded, rising.

‘We have to get out of here — now!’

‘What-’

‘That — thing — everyone was scared of below. I think this is its lair. We have to go.’ He snatched up the lantern, took Corien by the arm. ‘Come on.’

He chivvied them back up the hall to the doors. Here Orchid suddenly let out a cry and froze. Antsy let go of Corien, drew his shortsword. He squinted, seeing nothing. ‘What?’

Hand at mouth, the girl stammered, ‘The door.’

Antsy peered at the doorway anew. What of it? Dark, yes, but … Dark. The light did not penetrate. Something was blocking the entrance, something utterly black like a curtain of night. ‘What is it?’

But Orchid could not speak. She merely jerked her head side to side, appalled, eyes huge.

Shit. Antsy hefted his shortsword. Somehow he didn’t think it would do him much good. And munitions? Probably not them either. He looked to Corien; that finely curled hair now hung down sweat-plastered. The lad met his eye and nodded, hand tightening on his swordgrip.

‘It is a creature of Elder Night,’ said Malakai, stepping out from an alcove next to them. ‘Call it what you will. A daemon, or a fiend. Night animate. No doubt to it we are the invaders, the monsters.’

‘Spare me your sophistry,’ Antsy grated. ‘What can you do against it?’

‘I?’ The man cocked a brow. ‘Nothing. We are trapped. It would seem Panar has the last laugh after all.’

Antsy almost threw his shortsword at the man. ‘Fine,’ he snarled. ‘Everyone back! I’ll try my munitions.’

‘Red …’ Corien warned, touching his arm.

Antsy spun: Orchid had advanced upon the creature.

Shit! ‘Orchid!’

The girl ignored him, or couldn’t hear. One hand was at her throat, the other reaching out as if entreating. She spoke, and Antsy started, for now she uttered another language. One completely unfamiliar to him. Sing-song, it was. Not unpleasant to his ears.

She spoke at length, pausing from time to time as if awaiting an answer. Antsy, Corien and Malakai waited, silent, scarcely breathing.

Despite his anticipation Antsy jerked when a reply came at last. Words murmured from the night, deep and resonating, as if enunciated by all the immeasurable dark surrounding them. Orchid shuddered as if burned — Antsy wondered if she was even more surprised to hear an answer than they. Her breath caught and she looked aside, head bowed as if searching for something, grasping after memories.

Come onDo it, girl. You can do it

She nodded then, her gaze distant, and returned her attention to the doorway in front of her. Both hands went to her neck, as if she would throttle herself, and she spoke slowly, haltingly, for some time. The speech ended in a gasp, Orchid wrung out, breathless.

Silence followed. The barrier across the doorway seemed to waver in the lantern light like a wall of hanging velvet. The thing spoke again, a brief response, and Orchid launched into some sort of recitation. Antsy squeezed the grip of his shortsword, his hand wet with sweat. A biting cold now filled the hall. His breath plumed before him.

She finished again with a gasp as if barely able to squeeze out the words. In the silence that followed, Antsy wiped the ice from his hands then examined his fingers: blue and numb with cold. An answer rolled out of the dark: a speech in slow measured tones, a chant almost. The coal-black curtain wavered, then disappeared or slipped away like a shadow exposed to light.

A hissed exhalation escaped Orchid and she would have toppled but for Antsy rushing forward to steady her. He guided her to a bench. Her skirts rattled ice-stiff and rimed with hoar frost. Her skin was burning cold to the touch. Corien sat beside her, holding the lantern close.

‘Malakai …’ Antsy said, gesturing to the entrance.

After a moment the man answered from beyond, ‘It’s gone.’

A distant shout sounded from the darkened halls beyond: a frenzied cry of frustration and rage, and Antsy barked a laugh. ‘So much for Panar’s vengeance. I’m tempted to slit his throat.’

‘No!’ said Orchid, struggling up. Antsy helped her stand. ‘Let’s just go.’

‘And just which way do we go?’ Malakai asked, appearing from the dark.

‘Any way,’ she answered, annoyed. ‘Right. Left. It doesn’t matter. Just find a way up.’

‘Why?’

‘Because what you seek is in the upper levels.’

Malakai froze, astonished. His eyes widened with new appreciation, and he gave a bow of his head — though shallow and tinged by irony. ‘Very well. I will be back shortly.’

Orchid turned to Corien where he slouched on the bench, a hand pressed to his side. She knelt before him. Gently, she set her own hand over his and he hissed at the touch. She spoke again in that same eerie tongue that raised the hairs on the small of Antsy’s neck. It sounded like an invocation or recitation.

A great sigh escaped from Corien and the man would have fallen forward if Antsy hadn’t steadied him. Antsy let him slide down on the bench, unconscious.

‘What was that!’ he demanded, far more harshly than he’d intended. Fear. I’m hearing fear in my voice.

Orchid held her hands out before her, studying them. She stood, wiped the wet condensation from her face. ‘Strange, isn’t it?’ she said dreamily. ‘To be told stories all your life, to read them, study them, then suddenly discover it’s all true …’

Antsy was looking at a line of empty pedestals. Someone had set a rusted helmet on one. It looked just like a decapitated head. ‘Yeah. Life’s full o’ twists and turns,’ he breathed, uneasy.

She sat, folded her graceful dark hands primly on her lap. Like a priestess, Antsy thought. She looks like some kinda damned ancient priestess with her thick mane of tousled black hair, tattered skirts, and torn lace. Who was she?

He cleared his throat. ‘So … what happened there?’

Her gaze was tired, half-lidded, directed at the entrance. ‘I’m not sure myself. It surprised me, answering like that. Probably was just as amazed as I was to hear the old tongue.’

‘Yeah. The old tongue. Imagine that. And?’

An exhausted lift and fall of the shoulders. ‘I invoked the Rite of Passage as recorded by Hul’ Alanen-Teth, a Jaghut who claimed to have travelled the Paths of Eternal Night. The guardian honoured the formula.’

Beside her Corien stirred groggily. Antsy nodded to her, accepting her words. ‘Well, thanks for saving our lives.’

A wry smile twisted her lips. Head lowered, she peered up at him. ‘I did not save your life, Red. You it called … “Honoured Guest”.’

He frowned at her. ‘What …?’

Corien sat up. He held his head, touched his side. His brows rose. ‘The pain is gone.’

Orchid nodded. ‘Good. That was an Andii invocation of healing. You will be weak for a time, but you should mend.’ She stood. ‘Now, if you will excuse me. I … I want to be alone for a time.’

As she passed, Antsy touched the cloth of her sleeve. He tried to catch her gaze but she would not meet his eyes. ‘And what did it call you …?’

She flinched away. ‘Not now.’

Antsy eased himself down next to Corien. They exchanged wondering glances. Antsy blew out a breath. ‘Well … what d’you know.’

The lad gave a long thoughtful nod.

When Malakai returned he found them still sitting side by side. He cocked a brow. ‘What’s this? Why aren’t we moving?’

‘Orchid’s resting,’ Antsy said, smiling up at him.

‘And what are you so pleased about?’

Antsy tucked his hands up under his arms. ‘Oh, I’m always in a better mood when the squad has its cadre mage.’

The man wrinkled his dark brows, uncertain what to make of that. But Antsy just smiled. It seemed to him that everything had changed. As in battle. Things had reversed themselves as they can in any close engagement. There’d been no announcement, no horns blowing to signal it. Everyone involved just knew it, sensed it. The energy had shifted. Earlier, the party had been Malakai’s. Now, it was Orchid’s. And he and Corien? Well, they were her guards now.

BOOK II

Sceptre

CHAPTER VIII

Madrun and Lazan Door -

From distant lands they hail.

One day Door did announce:

’Tis time my hair to cut.

Yet no shear would tear

No blade would part

No scissor snick nor sever

And so it grew -

this bounteous mane.

Wenches plotted

Knives were sharpened

Yet no helm nor hat could tame

These wilful, prideful curls.

When last Door heard

His hair had fled

Fighting pirates off far Elingarth!

attributed to Fisher

In the morning Brood pushed aside the heavy cloth flap of his tent to find the Rhivi warriors in the process of breaking camp. He frowned then, feeling a chill premonition, and crossed to where one of the Elders stood wrapped in a blanket warming himself at a fire. It was one of the more amiable of them, Tserig, called the Toothless. The Warlord inclined his head in greeting. ‘Word from the north?’

Looking unhappy, the old man gave a shallow bow. ‘Yes, Great One. A rider came in the night. The Malazans are in disarray. They have been driven from Pale and are retreating to the southwest.’ He shrugged, apologetic. ‘The circle of war leaders decided to act.’

Without consulting me. ‘I see. Since when did the Rhivi chase after war?’

The old man seemed to consider one answer but clamped his lips tight against it. He adjusted the folds of the horse blanket, indicated the embers dying before him. ‘War is like a grass fire, Great One, is it not? Once sparked it cannot be controlled. It will burn and burn until it has consumed everything it can reach.’

‘Its fuel is blood, Tserig.’

A gloomy nod of agreement. ‘I know, Ancient One. I was against it. But I am old — and toothless.’

Brood smiled his appreciation. ‘And so your reward is to be the one who has to break the news that my, ah, leadership is no longer required.’

The old man offered another half-bow. ‘I am sorry, Warlord … perhaps they merely did not wish to disturb you in your mourning.’

‘That’s putting about as pretty a face on it as anyone can manage.’ He eyed the embers for a time, rubbed a forefinger along his jaw. Tserig, he noted, was cringing away and Brood realized the old man must think he was scowling his displeasure at him, so he turned to face the west.

‘What will you do now, Great One?’ the old man ventured after a time.

Around them the last of the burdened asses, carts, travois and herded bhederin made their way north, following the track through the Gadrobi hills. Riders bowed to Brood as they passed, or saluted, raising spears and loosing their war calls. ‘If the Mhybe was still with us, or Silverfox, none of this would be happening …’ he murmured, but distractedly, his thoughts elsewhere.

‘I agree, Warlord. But they are gone from us. The Mhybe was given her great reward. And Silverfox has departed. Gone to another land, some say.’ Like Brood, the old man did not mention the other who was gone from them as well.

The Warlord cleared his throat, profoundly uncomfortable. How to broach this without insulting this man, his people, and all they have sacrificed these last years?

‘Would you share the morning tea with me, Warlord?’ Tserig said suddenly, his gaze oddly gentle, as if he were addressing a youth rather than someone incalculably older than he.

‘Yes. Thank you, Tserig. I would welcome that.’

The old man motioned aside to an attendant, who hurried to ready the tall bronze pot and the tiny thimble-sized cups, and the two stood in silence waiting for the leaves to steep. Both watched the ragged columns of the Rhivi snaking their way north through a cut in the hills. Behind them Tserig’s servants struck his tent.

‘You’ll make much better time now with the herds returned to the north,’ Brood observed.

‘Yes. Mostly it is those fearful of the Malazans, or anxious to prove themselves as warriors, who have remained. Is it any wonder then that they should have found their excuse? And Jiwan had at his service a most convincing weapon.’

‘And what is that?’

‘An earnest belief in his cause.’

Brood found himself again appreciating the old man. He allowed himself a grin.

A servant handed each a tiny bronze cup then poured tea in long hissing streams from the slim pot. Tserig raised his cup to the Warlord. ‘To wise counsel.’

‘Wise counsel.’

The old man smacked his lips, sucking in the tea. ‘I ask then, again. What will you do?’

Brood grimaced his awkwardness. He looked off to the west. ‘I’ve become convinced that we shouldn’t confront these Malazans any longer. It will be a disaster for the Rhivi, in the long run.’

Distaste wrinkled Tserig’s pursed lips. ‘Yet they hem us in on all sides. Trespass across our lands. Kill all the animals they find. They are like a plague. Are we to abandon our way of life?’

‘Tserig,’ Brood’s voice was low and hoarse with emotion, ‘that will happen anyway. It is inevitable. Question is, then, how best to mitigate the damage of it all? The answer is ugly and brutal, but it is plain … You get better terms in a peace treaty than you get when you’re conquered — which is to say, no terms whatsoever.’

That stung the old man’s pride and he straightened, offended. ‘You question our spirit!’

The Warlord raised a placating hand. ‘No. Never that. I am not talking about the brief season of war … I am talking about the generations that follow.’

Tserig’s gaze sank to the fire. His face was pained as if he were studying such a future within the dying embers. ‘Treaties,’ he finally spat. ‘Never honoured by the powerful. I place no faith in such agreements.’

‘They will be honoured,’ Brood grated, ‘if I witness them.’

Tserig’s greying brows rose as he considered this, then he bowed his head almost in salute. ‘I accept your plan, Warlord, as the best course for my people. How then do we proceed?’

Brood, who had been eyeing the west before, raised his chin to the distant horizon, the brown hills, and Lake Azur beyond. ‘Have you ever been on a boat, Tserig?’

The old man shuddered. ‘Ancient hearth-goddess, no. My feet have never left touch with our Mother.’

The Warlord’s beast-like eyes swung to him, held steady.

Tserig hunched beneath the weight of that gaze, gummed his lips. ‘Please … Great One. Have mercy on an old man.’

In Darujhistan’s guild hall of guards, sentinels, wardens and gate-men, Captain Soen of the Legate’s bodyguard looked these two most recent applicants up and down and didn’t bother hiding his disgust. Clothes no better than rags, dirt-smeared faces, cracked sandals. Not even a scrap of armour or a weapon showing anywhere. Must have pawned the lot to buy booze. And must be alive with fleas. Trake’s tail, I’m here to hire guards — not beggars.

‘Names?’ he demanded, and grimaced as a wafting hint of their stink reached him.

‘Scorch, sir,’ said one.

‘Leff.’

‘You’re in the lists, I assume?’

The two appeared to pale where they stood before him. They exchanged terrified glances. ‘Ah, beggin’ yer pardon,’ said the one who had given his name as Scorch, ‘but did you say list, sir?’

Soen rolled his eyes. ‘Gods, man. Yes. The lists. The record of all certified members in good standing with the guild in the city!’ At their expressions of complete blankness the captain leaned forward to explain, more slowly, ‘Your references.’

The one named Leff made a great show of understanding, nodding vigorously. ‘Oh sure, Cap’n, sir. O’ course.’

His friend goggled what resembled complete surprise. Un-convinced, but required to be thorough, Soen walked over to the record keeper where he sat in the rear of the hall. ‘Scorch and Leff,’ he said.

The clerk immediately began scrolling through a long rolled sheet, winding the document down and down. ‘Now there’s a list,’ one of these new applicants murmured to his companion.

After searching for a time the clerk appeared to have found his place, for he stopped and began to read. His brows shot up and he went back to the beginning once again. His brows continued to rise, almost touching his slicked-flat hair. He looked up, amazement plain on his face. ‘Their references are impeccable!’

Soen, who had leaned his elbows on the counter, flinched straight. ‘What?’

‘These two are in excellent standing.’

‘Let me see that.’ He reached for the scroll.

The clerk backed away, hugging the roll to his chest. ‘This is proprietary information, I’ll have you know! Try that again and you’ll be blacklisted.’

Soen turned on the two applicants, who stood shifting from foot to foot like eunuchs in a brothel. Gods. Guild rules are that I have to hire them now. Damn their stranglehold. He marched up to them, as close as their stink would allow. ‘Okay. Your references are in order. Fine.’ He held up a finger. ‘But before I see you tomorrow you’d better be cleaned up and fit for duty — or I’ll have some ex-Urdomen I know scrub you all over with rayskin brushes. How would you like that?’

The one who had given his name as Scorch raised a hand.

‘Yes? What?’

‘Ah … does this mean we’re hired, Captain, sir?’

Does this …’ Soen dragged a hand down his face, took a deep breath to calm himself. ‘Yes,’ he hissed, ‘you’re hired. Report to the Legate’s manor tomorrow.’ He eyed them up and down once more. ‘Mind you,’ and he raised a warning finger, ‘you two report to the servants’ gate — is that understood?’

Scorch nodded vigorously. ‘Oh yes, sir. Understood.’ He saluted multiple times.

Soen waved a dismissal and stalked off, muttering. Elder gods, look away! How standards have fallen from the old days. Damned embarrassing it is. Still, these two could free up a couple of good men I could use elsewhere

Once the Captain was gone Leff cuffed Scorch. ‘There! Y’see? Wasn’t so hard, was it?’

‘I thought I said we should try here.’

Leff appeared not to have heard. ‘Let’s go.’

‘Where?’

Leff made a great show of looking to the sky. ‘Well, you heard the Captain! It’s as obvious as Moon’s Spawn in full-on daylight, o’ course.’

‘What is?’

‘Where we have t’go!’

‘An’ that’s …’

‘To the lake, man!’

Scorch’s permanent scowl of uncertainty deepened into stunned incomprehension. ‘The lake?’

Leff sighed his impatience. ‘Yes! Can’t you hear? The man told us to get cleaned up. So it’s a wash in the lake for us.’ He stomped out.

Scorch was slow to follow. He scratched the thick grime caking one cheek, muttering, bemused, ‘People do that? They wash? In the lake …?’

Yusek guided her two charges north up the slopes of the coastal Mengal range. She was aware that these peaks were also known as the Mountains of Rain and she mused, bitterly, that they were damned well living up to that title. This wide pass in particular led all the way to the coast. Her leathers were rotting off her; the skin of her toes was peeling off like bark; and she had a constant racking cough, spitting up great wads of thick green catarrh.

She took out her frustrations on the two Seguleh. Their silence and impenetrable calm only sharpened her tongue. Think they’re so damned superior. Nothing more than smug arseholes is what they are!