/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: The First Law

Last Argument of Kings

Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings “Last Argument of Kings.” —Inscribed on his cannons by Louis XIV The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him — but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy: it’s time for the Bloody-Nine to come home. With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. As his days with a sword are far behind him, it’s fortunate that he’s deadly with his remaining weapons: blackmail, threats, and torture. Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is too painful an undertaking, and turned his back on soldering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too — and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it. The King of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt, and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is about to fall across the heart of the Union. Only the First of the Magi can save the world — but there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, than to break the First Law… “Abercrombie has written the finest epic fantasy trilogy in recent memory. He’s one writer no one should miss.” —Junot Diaz, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Last Argument of Kings

Joe Abercrombie

The First Law: Book Three

For the Four Readers

You know who you are


“Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”

Paul Gauguin

The Poison Trade

Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. He stretched his twisted neck out to one side and then to the other, hearing the familiar clicks, feeling the familiar cords of pain stretching out through the tangled muscles between his shoulder-blades. Why do I do it, when it always hurts me? Why must we test the pain? Tongue the ulcer, rub the blister, pick the scab?

“Well?” he snapped.

The marble bust at the foot of the stairs offered only its silent contempt. And I get more than enough of that already. Glokta shuffled away, his useless foot scraping over the tiles behind him, the tapping of his cane echoing amongst the mouldings on the faraway ceiling.

When it came to the great noblemen on the Open Council, Lord Ingelstad, the owner of this oversized hall, was an undersized man indeed. The head of a family whose fortunes had declined with the passing years, whose wealth and influence had shrivelled to almost nothing. And the more shrivelled the man, the more swollen his pretensions must become. Why do they never realise? Small things only seem smaller in large spaces.

Somewhere in the shadows a clock vomited up a few sluggish chimes. Good and late already. The more shrivelled the man, the longer the wait on his pleasure. But I can be patient, when I must. I have no dazzling banquets, no ecstatic crowds, no beautiful women waiting breathlessly for my arrival, after all. Not any more. The Gurkish saw to that, in the darkness beneath the Emperor’s prisons. He pressed his tongue into his empty gums and grunted as he shifted his leg, needles from it shooting up his back and making his eyelid flicker. I can be patient. The one good thing about every step being an ordeal. You soon learn how to tread carefully.

The door beside him opened sharply and Glokta snapped his head round, doing his best to hide a grimace as his neck bones crunched. Lord Ingelstad stood in the doorway: a big, fatherly man with a ruddy complexion. He offered up a friendly smile as he beckoned Glokta into the room. Quite as though this were a social call, and a welcome one at that.

“I must apologise for keeping you waiting, Superior. I have had so many visitors since I arrived in Adua, my head is in quite a spin!” Let us hope it doesn’t spin right off. “So very many visitors!” Visitors with offers, no doubt. Offers for your vote. Offers for your help in choosing our next king. But my offer, I think, you will find painful to refuse. “Will you take wine, Superior?”

“No, my Lord, thank you.” Glokta hobbled painfully over the threshold. “I will not stay long. I, too, have a great deal of business to attend to.” Elections don’t rig themselves, you know.

“Of course, of course. Please be seated.” Ingelstad dropped happily into one of his chairs and gestured to another. It took Glokta a moment to get settled, lowering himself carefully, then shifting his hips until he discovered a position in which his back did not give him constant pain. “And what did you wish to discuss with me?”

“I have come on behalf of Arch Lector Sult. I hope you will not be offended if I am blunt, but his Eminence wants your vote.”

The nobleman’s heavy features twisted in feigned puzzlement. Very badly feigned, as it goes. “I am not sure that I understand. My vote on what issue?”

Glokta wiped some wet from beneath his leaking eye. Must we engage in such undignified dancing? You have not the build for it, and I have not the legs. “On the issue of who will next occupy the throne, Lord Ingelstad.”

“Ah. That.” Yes, that. Idiot. “Superior Glokta, I hope I will not disappoint you, or his Eminence, a man for whom I have nothing but the highest respect,” and he bowed his head with an exaggerated show of humility, “when I say that I could not, in all good conscience, allow myself to be influenced in any one direction. I feel that I, and all the members of the Open Council, have been given a sacred trust. I am duty bound to vote for the man who seems to me to be the very finest candidate, from the many excellent men available.” And he assumed a grin of the greatest self-satisfaction.

A fine speech. A village dunce might have even believed it. How often have I heard it, or its like, the past few weeks? Traditionally, the bargaining would come next. The discussion of how much, exactly, a sacred trust is worth. How much silver outweighs a good conscience. How much gold cuts through the bindings of duty. But I am not in a bargaining mood today.

Glokta raised his eyebrows very high, “I must congratulate you on a noble stand, Lord Ingelstad. If everyone had your character we would be living in a better world. A noble stand indeed… especially when you have so much to lose. No less than everything, I suppose.” He winced as he took his cane in one hand and rocked himself painfully forward towards the edge of the chair. “But I see you will not be swayed, and so I take my leave—”

“What can you refer to, Superior?” The nobleman’s unease was written plainly across his plump face.

“Why, Lord Ingelstad, to your corrupt business dealings.”

The ruddy cheeks had lost much of their glow. “There must be some mistake.”

“Oh no, I assure you.” Glokta slid the papers of confession from the inside pocket of his coat. “You are mentioned often in the confessions of senior Mercers, you see? Very often.” And he held the crackling pages out so they both could see them. “Here you are referred to as—and not my choice of words, you understand—an ‘accomplice’. Here as the ‘prime beneficiary’ of a most unsavoury smuggling operation. And here, you will note—and I almost blush to mention it— your name and the word ‘treason’ appear in close proximity.”

Ingelstad sagged back into his chair and set his glass rattling down on the table beside him, a quantity of wine sloshing out onto the polished wood. Oh, we really should wipe that up. It could leave an awful stain, and some stains are impossible to remove.

“His Eminence,” continued Glokta, “counting you as a friend, was able to keep your name out of the initial enquiries, for everybody’s sake. He understands that you were merely trying to reverse the failing fortunes of your family, and is not without sympathy. If you were to disappoint him in this business of votes, however, his sympathy would be quickly exhausted. Do you take my meaning?” I feel that I have made it abundantly clear.

“I do,” croaked Ingelstad.

“And the bonds of duty? Do they feel any looser, now?”

The nobleman swallowed, the flush quite vanished from his face. “I am eager to assist his Eminence in any way possible, of course, but… the thing is—” What now? A desperate offer? A despairing bribe? An appeal to my conscience, even? “A representative of High Justice Marovia came to me yesterday. A man called Harlen Morrow. He made very similar representations… and not dissimilar threats.” Glokta frowned. Did he now? Marovia, and his little worm. Always just one step ahead, or just one step behind. But never far away. A shrill note crept into Ingelstad’s voice. “What am I to do? I cannot support you both! I will leave Adua, Superior, and never return! I will… I will abstain from voting—”

“You’ll do no such fucking thing!” hissed Glokta. “You’ll vote the way I tell you and Marovia be damned!” More prodding? Distasteful, but so be it. Are my hands not filthy to the elbow? Rummaging through another sewer or two will scarcely make the difference. He let his voice soften to an oily purr. “I observed your daughters in the park, yesterday.” The nobleman’s face lost its last vestige of colour. “Three young innocents on the very cusp of womanhood, dressed all in the height of fashion, and each one lovelier than the last. The youngest would be… fifteen?”

“Thirteen,” croaked Ingelstad.

“Ah.” And Glokta let his lips curl back to display his toothless smile. “She blooms early. They have never before visited Adua, am I correct?”

“They have not,” he nearly whispered.

“I thought not. Their excitement and delight as they toured the gardens of the Agriont were perfectly charming. I swear, they must have caught the eye of every eligible suitor in the capital.” He allowed his smile slowly to fade. “It would break my heart, Lord Ingelstad, to see three such delicate creatures snatched suddenly away to one of Angland’s harshest penal institutions. Places where beauty, and breeding, and a gentle disposition, attract an entirely different and far less enjoyable kind of attention.” Glokta gave a carefully orchestrated shudder of dismay as he leaned slowly forward to whisper. “I would not wish that life on a dog. And all on account of the indiscretions of a father who had the means of reparation well within his grasp.”

“But my daughters, they were not involved—”

“We are electing a new king! Everyone is involved!” Harsh, perhaps. But harsh times demand harsh actions. Glokta struggled to his feet, hand wobbling on his cane with the effort. “I will tell his Eminence that he can count on your vote.”

Ingelstad collapsed, suddenly and completely. Like a stabbed wineskin. His shoulders sagged, his face hung loose with horror and hopelessness. “But the High Justice…” he whispered. “Have you no pity?”

Glokta could only shrug. “I did have. As a boy I was soft-hearted beyond the point of foolishness. I swear, I would cry at a fly caught in a spider’s web.” He grimaced at a brutal spasm through his leg as he turned for the door. “Constant pain has cured me of that.”

It was an intimate little gathering. But the company hardly inspires warmth. Superior Goyle glared at Glokta from across the huge, round table in the huge, round office, his beady eyes staring from his bony face. And not with tender feelings, I rather think.

The attention of his Eminence the Arch Lector, the head of his Majesty’s Inquisition, was fixed elsewhere. Pinned to the curving wall, taking up perhaps half of the entire chamber, were three hundred and twenty sheets of paper. One for every great heart on our noble Open Council. They crackled gently in the breeze from the great windows. Fluttering little papers for fluttering little votes. Each one was marked with a name. Lord this, Lord that, Lord someone of wherever. Big men and little men. Men whose opinions, on the whole, no one cared a damn for until Prince Raynault fell out of his bed and into his grave.

Many of the pages had a blob of coloured wax on their corner. Some had two, or even three. Allegiances. Which way will they vote? Blue for Lord Brock, red for Lord Isher, black for Marovia, white for Sult, and so on. All subject to change, of course, depending which way the wind blows them. Below were written lines of small, dense script. Too small for Glokta to read from where he was sitting, but he knew what they said. Wife was once a whore. Partial to young men. Drinks too much for his good. Murdered a servant in a rage. Gambling debts he cannot cover. Secrets. Rumours. Lies. The tools of this noble trade. Three hundred and twenty names, and just as many sordid little stories, each one to be picked at, and dug out, and jabbed our way. Politics. Truly, the work of the righteous.

So why do I do this? Why?

The Arch Lector had more pressing concerns. “Brock still leads,” he murmured in a dour drone, staring at the shifting papers with his white gloved hands clasped behind his back. “He has some fifty votes, more or less certain.” As certain as we can be in these uncertain times. “Isher is not far behind, with forty or more to his name. Skald has made some recent gains, as far as we can tell. An unexpectedly ruthless man. He has the Starikland delegation more or less in his hand, which gives him thirty votes, perhaps, and Barezin about the same. They are the four main contenders, as things stand.”

But who knows? Perhaps the King will live another year, and by the time it comes to a vote we’ll all have killed each other. Glokta had to stifle a grin at the thought. The Lords’ Round heaped with richly-dressed corpses, every great nobleman in the Union and all twelve members of the Closed Council. Each stabbed in the back by the man beside. The ugly truth of government…

“Did you speak to Heugen?” snapped Sult.

Goyle tossed his balding head and sneered at Glokta with seething annoyance. “Lord Heugen is still struggling under the delusion that he could be our next king, though he cannot certainly control more than a dozen chairs. He barely had time to hear our offer he was so busy scrabbling to coax out more votes. Perhaps in a week, or two, he will see reason. Then he might be encouraged to lean our way, but I wouldn’t bet on it. More likely he’ll throw in his lot with Isher. The two of them have always been close, I understand.”

“Good for them,” hissed Sult. “What about Ingelstad?”

Glokta stirred in his seat. “I presented him with your ultimatum in very blunt terms, your Eminence.”

“Then we can count on his vote?”

How to put this? “I could not say so with absolute certainty. High Justice Marovia was able to make threats almost identical to our own, through his man Harlen Morrow.”

“Morrow? Isn’t he some lickspittle of Hoffs?”

“It would seem he has moved up in the world.” Or down, depending on how you look at it.

“He could be taken care of.” Goyle wore a most unsavoury expression. “Quite easily—”

“No!” snapped Sult. “Why is it, Goyle, that no sooner does a problem appear than you want to kill it! We must tread carefully for now, and show ourselves to be reasonable men, open to negotiation.” He strode to the window, the bright sunlight glittering purple through the great stone on his ring of office. “Meanwhile the business of actually running the country is ignored. Taxes go uncollected. Crimes go unpunished. This bastard they call the Tanner, this demagogue, this traitor, speaks in public at village fairs, urging open rebellion! Daily now, peasants leave their farms and turn to banditry, perpetrating untold theft and damage. Chaos spreads, and we have not the resources to stamp it out. There are only two regiments of the King’s Own left in Adua, scarcely enough to maintain order in the city. Who knows if one of our noble Lords will tire of waiting and decide to try and seize the crown prematurely? I would not put it past them!”

“Will the army return from the North soon?” asked Goyle.

“Unlikely. That oaf Marshal Burr has spent three months squatting outside Dunbrec, and given Bethod ample time to regroup beyond the Whiteflow. Who knows when he’ll finally get the job done, if ever!” Months spent destroying our own fortress. It almost makes one wish we’d put less effort into building the place.

“Twenty-five votes.” The Arch Lector scowled at the crackling papers. “Twenty-five, and Marovia has eighteen? We’re scarcely making progress! For every vote we gain we lose one somewhere else!”

Goyle leaned forwards in his chair. “Perhaps, your Eminence, the time has come to call again on our friend at the University—”

The Arch Lector hissed furiously, and Goyle snapped his mouth shut. Glokta looked out the great window, pretending that he had heard nothing out of the ordinary. The six crumbling spires of the University dominated the view. But what help could anyone possibly find there? Amongst the decay, and the dust, from those old idiots of Adepti?

Sult did not give him long to consider it. “I will speak to Heugen myself.” And he jabbed one of the papers with a finger. “Goyle, write to Lord Governor Meed and try to elicit his support. Glokta, arrange an interview with Lord Wetterlant. He has yet to declare himself one way or the other. Get out there, the pair of you.” Sult turned from his sheets full of secrets and fixed on Glokta with his hard blue eyes. “Get out there and get… me… votes!”

Being Chief

“Cold night!” shouted the Dogman. “Thought it was meant to be summer!”

The three of ’em looked up. The nearest was an old man with grey hair and a face looked like it had seen some weather. Just past him was a younger man, missing his left arm above the elbow. The third was no more’n a boy, stood down the end of the quay and frowning out at the dark sea.

Dogman faked a nasty limp as he walked over, dragging one leg behind him and wincing like he was in pain. He shuffled under the lamp, dangling on its high pole with the warning bell beside it, and held up the jar so they could all see.

The old man grinned, and leaned his spear against the wall. “Always cold, down by the water.” He came up, rubbing his hands together. “Just as well we got you to keep us warm, eh?”

“Aye. Good luck all round.” Dogman pulled out the stopper and let it dangle, lifted one of the mugs and poured out a slosh.

“No need to be shy, eh, lad?”

“I guess there ain’t at that.” Dogman sloshed out some more. The man with one arm had to set his spear down when he got handed his mug. The boy came up last, and looked Dogman over, wary.

The old one nudged him with an elbow. “You sure your mother’d care for you drinking, boy?”

“Who cares what she’d say?” he growled, trying to make his high voice sound gruff.

Dogman handed him a mug. “You’re old enough to hold a spear, you’re old enough to hold a cup, I reckon.”

“I’m old enough!” he snapped, snatching it out o’ Dogman’s hand, but he shuddered when he drank from it. Dogman remembered his first drink, feeling mighty sick and wondering what all the fuss was about, and he smiled to himself. The boy thought he was being laughed at, most likely. “Who are you anyway?”

The old boy tutted. “Don’t mind him. He’s still young enough to think that rudeness wins respect.”

“ ’S alright,” said Dogman, pouring himself a mug then setting the jar down on the stones, taking time to think out what to say, make sure he didn’t make no mistakes. “My name’s Cregg.” He’d known a man called Cregg once, got killed in a scrap up in the hills. Dogman hadn’t liked him much, and he’d no idea why that name came to mind, but one was about as good as another right then, he reckoned. He slapped his thigh. “Got poked in the leg up at Dunbrec and it ain’t healed right. Can’t march no more. Reckon my days at holding a line are over, so my chief sent me down here, to watch the water with you lot.” He looked out at the sea, flapping and sparkling under the moon like a thing alive. “Can’t say I’m too sorry about it, though. Being honest, I had a skin full o’ fighting.” That last bit was no lie, at least.

“Know how you feel,” said One-Arm, waving his stump in Dogman’s face. “How’re things up there?”

“Alright. Union are still sat outside their own walls, trying everything to get in, and we’re on the other side o’ the river, waiting for ’em. Been that way for weeks.”

“I heard some boys have gone over to the Union. I heard old Threetrees was up there, got killed in that battle.”

“He was a great man, Rudd Threetrees,” said the old boy, “great man.”

“Aye.” Dogman nodded. “That he was.”

“Heard the Dogman took his place, though,” said One-Arm.

“That a fact?”

“So I heard. Mean bastard, that. Huge big lad. They call him Dogman ’cause he bit some woman’s teats off one time.”

Dogman blinked. “Do they now? Well, I never saw him.”

“I heard the Bloody-Nine was up there,” whispered the boy, eyes big like he was talking about a ghost.

The other two snorted at him. “The Bloody-Nine’s dead, boy, and good riddance to that evil fucker.” One-Arm shuddered. “Damn it but you get some fool notions!”

“Just what I heard, is all.”

The old boy swilled down some more grog and smacked his lips. “Don’t much matter who’s where. Union’ll most likely get bored once they’ve got their fort back. Get bored and go home, across the sea, and everything back to normal. None of ’em will be coming down here to Uffrith, anyway.”

“No,” said One-Arm happily. “They’ll not be coming here.”

“Then why we out here watching for ’em?” whined the boy.

The old man rolled his eyes, like he’d heard it ten times before and always made the same answer. “ ’Cause that’s the task we been given, lad.”

“And once you got a task, you best do it right.” Dogman remembered Logen telling him the same thing, and Threetrees too. Both gone now, and back in the mud, but it was still as true as it ever was. “Even if it’s a dull task, or a dangerous, or a dark one. Even if it’s a task you’d rather not do.” Damn it, but he needed to piss. Always did, at a time like this.

“True enough,” said the old man, smiling down into his mug. “Things’ve got to get done.”

“That they do. Shame, though. You seem a nice enough set o’ lads.” And the Dogman reached behind his back, just like he was scratching his arse.

“Shame?” The boy looked puzzled. “How d’you mean a—”

That was when Dow came up behind him and cut his neck open.

Same moment, almost, Grim’s dirty hand clamped down on One-Arm’s mouth and the bloody point of a blade slid out the gap in his cloak. Dogman jumped forward and gave the old man three quick stabs in the ribs. He wheezed, and stumbled, eyes wide, mug still hanging from his hand, groggy drool spilling out his open mouth. Then he fell down.

The boy crawled a little way. He had one hand to his neck, trying to keep the blood in, the other reaching out towards the pole the warning bell was hung on. He had some bones, the Dogman reckoned, to be thinking of the bell with a slit throat, but he didn’t drag himself more’n a stride before Dow stomped down hard on the back of his neck and squashed him flat.

Dogman winced as he heard the boy’s neck bones crunch. He hadn’t deserved to die like that, most likely. But that’s what war is. A lot of folk getting killed that don’t deserve it. The job had needed doing, and they’d done it, and were all three still alive. About as much as he could’ve hoped for from a piece of work like that, but somehow it still left a sour taste on him. He’d never found it easy, but it was harder than ever, now he was chief. Strange, how it’s that much easier to kill folk when you’ve got someone telling you to do it. Hard business, killing. Harder than you’d think.

Unless your name’s Black Dow, of course. That bastard would kill a man as easy as he’d take a piss. That was what made him so damn good at it. Dogman watched him bend down, strip the cloak from One-Arm’s limp body and pull it round his own shoulders, then roll the corpse off into the sea, careless as dumping rubbish.

“You got two arms,” said Grim, already with the old man’s cloak on.

Dow looked down at himself. “What’re you saying exactly? I ain’t cutting my arm off to make for a better disguise, y’idiot!”

“He means keep it out o’ sight.” Dogman watched Dow wipe out a mug with a dirty finger, pour himself a slug and knock it back. “How can you drink at a time like this?” he asked, pulling the boy’s bloody cloak off his corpse.

Dow shrugged as he poured himself another. “Shame to waste it. And like you said. Cold night.” He broke a nasty grin. “Damn it, but you can talk, Dogman. Name’s Cregg.” He took a couple of limping steps. “Stabbed in me arse up at Dunbrec! Where d’you get it from?” He slapped Grim’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Fucking lovely, eh? They got a word for it, don’t they? What’s that word, now?”

“Plausible,” said Grim.

Dow’s eyes lit up. “Plausible. That’s what y’are, Dogman. You’re one plausible bastard. I swear, you could’ve told ’em you was Skarling Hoodless his own self and they’d have believed it. Don’t know how you can keep a straight face!”

Dogman didn’t feel too much like laughing. He didn’t like looking at them two corpses, still laid out on the stones. Kept worrying that the boy’d get cold without his cloak. Damn fool thing to think about, given he was lying in a pool of his own blood a stride across.

“Never mind about that,” he grunted. “Dump these two here and get over by the gate. Don’t know when there’ll be others coming.”

“Right y’are, chief, right y’are, whatever you say.” Dow heaved the two of them off into the water, then he unhooked the clapper from inside the bell and tossed that into the sea for good measure.

“Shame,” said Grim.

“What is?”

“Waste of a bell.”

Dow blinked at him. “Waste of a bell, I swear! You got yourself a lot to say all of a sudden, and you know what? I think I liked you better before. Waste of a bell? You lost your mind, boy?”

Grim shrugged. “Southerners might want one, when they get here.”

“They can fucking take a dive for the clapper then, can’t they!” And Dow snatched up One-Arm’s spear and strode over to the open gate, one hand stuffed inside his stolen cloak, grumbling to himself. “Waste of a bell… by the fucking dead…”

The Dogman stretched up on his toes and unhooked the lamp, held it up, facing the sea, then he lifted one side of his cloak to cover it, brought it down again. Lifted it up, brought it down. One more time and he hooked it flickering back on the pole. Seemed a tiny little flame right then, to warm all their hopes at. A tiny little flame, to be seen all the way out there on the water, but the only one they had.

He was waiting all the time for the whole business to go wrong, for the clamour to go up in the town, for five dozen Carls to come pouring out that open gate and give the three o’ them the killing they deserved. He was bursting to piss, thinking about it. But they didn’t come. No sound but the empty bell creaking on its pole, the cold waves slapping on stone and wood. It was just the way they’d planned it.

The first boat came gliding out the darkness, Shivers grinning in the prow. A score of Carls were pressed into the boat behind him, working the oars real careful, white faces tensed up, teeth gritted with the effort of keeping quiet. Still, every click and clank of wood and metal set the Dogman’s nerves to jumping.

Shivers and his boys hung some sacks of straw over the side as they brought the boat in close, stopping the wood scraping on the stones, all thought out the week before. They tossed up ropes and Dogman and Grim caught ’em, dragged the boat up tight and tied it off. Dogman looked over at Dow, leaning still and easy against the wall by the gate, and he shook his head gently, to say no one was moving in the town. Then Shivers was up the steps, smooth and quiet, squatting down in the darkness.

“Nice work, chief,” he whispered, smiling right across his face. “Nice and neat.”

“There’ll be time to slap each others’ backs later. Get the rest o’ them boats tied off.”

“Right y’are.” There were more boats coming now, more Carls, more sacks of straw. Shivers’ boys pulled them in, started dragging men up onto the quay. All kinds of men who’d come over the last few weeks. Men who didn’t care for Bethod’s new way of doing things. Soon there was a good crowd of ’em down by the water. So many Dogman could hardly believe they weren’t seen.

They formed up into groups, just the way they’d planned, each one with their own chief and their own task. A couple of the lads knew Uffrith and they’d made a plan of the place in the dirt, the way Threetrees used to. Dogman had every one of ’em learn it. He grinned when he thought of how much Black Dow had carped about that, but it was worth it now. He squatted by the gate, and they came past, one dark and silent group at a time.

Tul was first up, a dozen Carls behind him. “Alright, Thunderhead,” said Dogman, “you got the main gate.”

“Aye,” nodded Tul.

“Biggest task o’ the lot, so try and get it done quiet.”

“Quiet, you got it.”

“Luck then, Tul.”

“Won’t need it.” And the giant hurried off into the dark streets with his crew behind.

“Red Hat, you got the tower by the well and the walls beside.”

“That I have.”

“Shivers, you and your boys are keeping a watch on the town square.”

“Like the owl watches, chief.”

And so on, past they went, through the gate and into the dark streets, making no more noise than the wind off the sea and the waves on the dock, Dogman giving each crew their task and slapping ’em off on their way. Black Dow came up last, and a hard-looking set of men he had behind him.

“Dow, you got the headman’s hall. Stack it up with some wood, like we said, but don’t set fire to it, you hear? Don’t kill anyone you don’t have to. Not yet.”

“Not yet, fair enough.”

“And Dow.” He turned back. “Don’t go bothering any womenfolk either.”

“What do you think I am?” he asked, teeth gleaming in the darkness, “Some kind of an animal?”

And that was it done. There was just him and Grim, and a few others to watch the water. “Uh,” said Grim, nodding his head slowly. That was high praise indeed from him.

Dogman pointed over at the pole. “Get us that bell, would you?” he said. “Might have a use for it after all.”

By the dead, but it made a sound. Dogman had to half close his eyes, his whole arm trembling as he whacked at the bell with the handle of his knife. He didn’t feel too comfortable in amongst all those buildings, squashed in by walls and fences. He hadn’t spent much time in towns in his life, and what he had spent he hadn’t much enjoyed. Either burning things and causing mischief after a siege, or lying around in Bethod’s prisons, waiting to be killed.

He blinked round at the jumble of slate roofs, the walls of old grey stone, black wood, dirty grey render, all greasy with the thin rain. Seemed a strange way to live, sleeping in a box, waking all your days in the exact same spot. The idea alone made him restless, as though that bell hadn’t got him twitchy enough already. He cleared his throat and set it down on the cobbles beside him. Then he stood there waiting, one hand on the hilt of his sword in a way that he hoped meant business.

Some flapping footfalls came from down a street and a little girl ran out into the square. Her jaw dropped open when she saw them standing there, a dozen men all bearded and armed, Tul Duru in their midst. Probably she never saw a man half so big. She turned around sharp to run the other way, almost slipping over on the slick cobbles. Then she saw Dow sitting on a pile of wood just behind her, leaning back easy against the wall, his drawn sword on his knees, and she froze stone still.

“That’s alright, girl,” growled Dow. “You can stay where y’are.”

There were more of ’em coming now, hurrying down into the square from all around, all getting that same shocked look when they saw Dogman and his lads stood waiting. Women and boys, mostly, and a couple of old men. Dragged out o’ their beds by the bell and still half asleep, eyes red and faces puffy, clothes tangled, armed with whatever was to hand. A boy with a butcher’s cleaver. An old man all stooped over with a sword looked even older than he was. A girl at the front with a pitch fork and a lot of messy dark hair, had a look on her face reminded Dogman of Shari. Hard and thoughtful, the way she used to look at him before they started lying together. Dogman frowned down at her dirty bare feet, hoping that he wouldn’t have to kill her.

Getting ’em good and scared would be the best way to get things done quick and easy. So Dogman tried to talk like someone to be feared, rather than someone who was shitting himself. Like Logen might’ve talked. Or maybe that was more fear than was needful. Like Threetrees, then. Tough but fair, wanting what was best for everyone.

“The headman among you?” he growled.

“I’m him,” croaked the old man with the sword, his face all slack with shock at finding a score of well-armed strangers standing in the middle of his town square. “Brass is my name. Who the hell might you be?”

“I’m the Dogman, and this here is Harding Grim, and the big lad is Tul Duru Thunderhead.” Some eyes went wide, some folk muttered to each other. Seemed they’d heard the names before. “We’re here with five hundred Carls and last night we took your city off you.” A few gasps and squeals at that. It was closer to two hundred, but there was no point telling ’em so. They might’ve got the notion that fighting was a good idea and he’d no wish to end up stabbing a woman, or getting stabbed by one either. “There’s plenty more of us, round about, and your guards are all trussed up, those we didn’t have to kill. Some o’ my boys, and you ought to know I’m talking of Black Dow—”

“That’s me.” Dow flashed his nasty grin, and a few folk shuffled fearfully away from him like they’d been told hell itself was sat there.

“…Well, they were for putting the torch straight to your houses and getting some killing done. Do things like we used to with the Bloody-Nine in charge, you take my meaning?” Some child in amongst the rest started to cry a bit, a wet kind of snuffling. The boy stared round him, cleaver wobbling in his hand, the dark-haired girl blinked and clung on tighter to her pitch-fork. They got the gist, alright. “But I thought I’d give you a fair chance to give up, being as the town’s full with womenfolk and children and all the rest. My score’s with Bethod, not with you people. The Union want to use this place as a port, bring in men and supplies and whatever. They’ll be here inside an hour, in their ships. A lot of ’em. It’s happening with or without your say so. I guess my point is we can do this the bloody way, if that’s the way you want it. The dead know we’ve had the practice. Or you can give up your weapons, if you’ve got ’em, and we can all get along, nice and… what’s the word for it?”

“Civilised,” said Grim.

“Aye. Civilised. What d’you say?”

The old man fingered his sword, looking like he’d rather have leant on it than swung it, and he stared up at the walls, where a few of the Carls were looking down, and his shoulders slumped. “Looks like you got us cold. The Dogman, eh? I always heard you was a clever bastard. No one much left here to fight you, anyway. Bethod took every man could hold a spear and a shield at once.” He looked round at the sorry crowd behind him. “Will you leave the women be?”

“We’ll leave ’em be.”

“Those that want to be left be,” said Dow, leering at the girl with the pitch-fork.

“We’ll leave ’em be,” growled Dogman, giving him a hard look. “I’ll see to it.”

“Well then,” wheezed the old man, shuffling up and wincing as he knelt and dropped his rusty blade at Dogman’s feet. “You’re a better man than Bethod, far as I’m concerned. I suppose I ought to be thanking you for your mercy, if you keep your word.”

“Uh.” Dogman didn’t feel too merciful. He doubted the old boy he’d killed on the dock would be thanking him, or the one-armed man stabbed through from behind, or the lad with the cut throat who’d had his whole life stolen.

One by one the rest of the crowd came forward, and one by one the weapons, if you could call ’em that, got dropped in a heap. A pile of old rusty tools and junk. The boy came up last and let his cleaver clatter down with the rest, gave a scared look at Black Dow, then hurried back to the others and clung to the dark-haired girl’s hand.

They stood there, in a wide-eyed huddle, and Dogman could almost smell their fear. They were waiting for Dow and his Carls to set to hacking ’em down where they stood. They were waiting to get herded in a house and locked in and the place set fire to. Dogman had seen all that before. So he didn’t blame ’em one bit as they all crowded together like sheep pressed up in a field in winter. He’d have done the same.

“Alright!” he barked. “That’s it! Back to your houses, or whatever. Union’ll be here before midday, and it’d be better if the streets were empty.”

They blinked at Dogman, and at Tul, and at Black Dow, and at each other. They swallowed and trembled, and muttered their thanks to the dead. They broke up, slowly, and spread out, and went off their own ways. Alive, to everyone’s great relief.

“Nicely done, chief,” said Tul in Dogman’s ear. “Threetrees himself couldn’t have done it no better.”

Dow sidled up from the other side. “About the women, though, if you’re asking my opinion—”

“I’m not,” said Dogman.

“Have you seen my son?” There was one woman who wasn’t going home. She was coming up from one man to another, half-tears in her eyes and her face all wild from worry. The Dogman put his head down and looked the other way. “My son, he was on guard, down by the water! You seen him?” She tugged at Dogman’s coat, her voice cracked and wet-sounding. “Please, where’s my son?”

“You think I know where everyone’s at?” he snapped in her weepy face. He strode away like he had a load of important stuff to do, and all the while he was thinking—you’re a coward, Dogman, you’re a bastard bloody coward. Some hero, pulling a neat trick on a bunch of women, and children, and old men.

It ain’t easy, being chief.

This Noble Business

The great moat had been drained early in the siege, leaving behind a wide ditch full of black mud. At the far end of the bridge across it four soldiers worked by a cart, dragging corpses to the bank and rolling them flopping down to the bottom. The corpses of the last defenders, gashed and burned, spattered with blood and dirt. Wild men, from past the River Crinna far to the east, tangle-haired and bearded. Their limp bodies seemed pitifully withered after three months sealed up behind the walls of Dunbrec, pitifully starved. Scarcely human. It was hard for West to take much joy in the victory over such sorry creatures as these.

“Seems a shame,” muttered Jalenhorm, “after they fought so bravely. To end like that.”

West watched another ragged corpse slither down the bank and into the tangled heap of muddy limbs. “This is how most sieges end. Especially for the brave. They’ll be buried down there in the muck, then the moat will be flooded again. The waters of the Whiteflow will surge over them, and their bravery, or lack of it, will have meant nothing.”

The fortress of Dunbrec loomed over the two officers as they crossed the bridge, black outlines of walls and towers like great, stark holes in the heavy white sky. A few ragged birds circled above. A couple more croaked from the scarred battlements.

It had taken General Kroy’s men a month to make this same journey, bloodily repulsed time and again, and to finally break through the heavy doors under a steady rain of arrows, stones, and boiling water. Another week of claustrophobic slaughter to force the dozen strides down the tunnel beyond, to burst through the second gate with axe and fire and finally seize control of the outer wall. Every advantage had lain with the defenders. The place had been most carefully designed to ensure that it was so.

And once they had made it through the gatehouse, their problems were only just beginning. The inner wall was twice the height and thickness of the outer, dominating its walkways at every point. There had been no shelter from missiles from the six monstrous towers.

To conquer that second wall Kroy’s men had tried every strategy in the manual of siege. They had worked with pick and crowbar, but the masonry was five strides thick at the base. They had made an effort at a mine but the ground was waterlogged outside the fortress and solid Angland rock beneath. They had bombarded the place with catapults, but scarcely scratched the mighty bastions. They had come with scaling ladders, again and again, in waves and in parties, by surprise at night or brazenly in the day, and in the darkness and the light the straggling lines of Union wounded had shuffled away from their failed attempts, the dead dragged solemnly behind. They had finally tried reasoning with the wild defenders, through the medium of a Northern translator, and the unfortunate man had been pelted with night soil.

It had been pure fortune, in the end. After studying the movements of the guards, one enterprising sergeant had tried his luck with a grapple under cover of night. He had climbed up and a dozen other brave men had followed him. They took the defenders by surprise, killed several of them and seized the gatehouse. The whole effort took ten minutes and cost one Union life. It was a fitting irony, to West’s mind, that having tried every roundabout method and been bloodily repulsed, the Union army had finally entered the inner fortress by its open front gate.

A soldier was bent over near that archway now, being noisily sick onto the stained flagstones. West passed him with some foreboding, the sound of his clicking boot heels echoing around the long tunnel, and emerged into the wide courtyard at the centre of the fortress. It was a regular hexagon, echoing the shape of the inner and outer walls, all part of the perfectly symmetrical design. West doubted that the architects would have approved, however, of the state in which the Northmen had left the place.

A long wooden building at one side of the yard, perhaps a stables, had caught fire in the attack and was now reduced to a mass of charred beams, the embers still glowing. Those clearing away the mess had too much work outside the walls, and the ground was still scattered with fallen weapons and tangled corpses. The Union dead had been stretched out in rows near one corner and covered up with blankets. The Northmen lay in every attitude, on their faces or on their backs, curled up or stretched out where they fell. Beneath the bodies the stone flags were deeply scored, and not just with the random damage of a three-month siege. A great circle had been chiselled from the rock, and other circles within it, strange marks and symbols laid out in an intricate design. West did not care for its look in the least. Worse still, he was becoming aware of a repulsive stench to the place, more pungent even than the tang of burned wood.

“What ever is that smell?” muttered Jalenhorm, putting one hand over his mouth.

A sergeant nearby overheard him. “Seems that our Northern friends chose to decorate the place.” He pointed up above their heads, and West followed the gauntleted finger with his eyes.

They were so decayed that it took him a moment to realise he was looking at the remains of men. They had been nailed, spread-eagled, to the inside walls of each of the towers, high above the lean-to buildings round the courtyard. Rotting offal hung down from their bellies, crawling with flies. Cut with the Bloody Cross, as the Northmen would say. Tattered shreds of brightly-coloured Union uniforms were still vaguely visible, fluttering in the breeze among the masses of putrefying flesh.

Clearly they had been hanging there some time. Since before the siege began, certainly. Perhaps since the fortress first fell to the Northmen. Corpses of the original defenders, nailed there, rotting, for all those months. Three appeared to be without their heads. The companion pieces, perhaps, to those three gifts that had been sent to Marshal Burr all that time ago. West found himself wondering, pointlessly, whether any of them had been alive when they were nailed up. Spit rushed into his mouth, the sound of flies buzzing seeming suddenly, sickeningly loud.

Jalenhorm had gone pale as a ghost. He did not say anything. He did not have to. “What happened here?” muttered West through his gritted teeth, as much to himself as anything.

“Well, sir, we think they were hoping to get help.” The sergeant grinned at him, clearly possessed of a very strong stomach. “Help from some unfriendly gods, we’ve been guessing. Seems that no one was listening down below though, eh?”

West frowned at the ragged markings on the ground. “Get rid of them! Tear up the flags and replace them if you have to.” His eyes strayed to the decaying cadavers above, and he felt his stomach give a painful squeeze. “And offer a ten-mark bounty to the man with guts enough to climb up there and cut those corpses down.”

“Ten marks, sir? Bring me over that ladder!”

West turned and strode out through the open gates of the fortress of Dunbrec, holding his breath and hoping like hell that he never had occasion to visit the place again. He knew that he would be back, though. If only in his dreams.

Briefings with Poulder and Kroy were more than enough to sicken the healthiest of men, and Lord Marshal Burr was by no means in that category. The commander of His Majesty’s armies in Angland was as pitifully shrunken as the defenders of Dunbrec had been, his simple uniform hanging loose around him while his pale skin seemed stretched too tight over the bones. In a dozen short weeks he had aged as many years. His hand shook, his lip trembled, he could not stand for long, and could not ride at all. From time to time he would grimace and shiver as though he was racked by unseen pangs. West hardly knew how he was able to carry on, but carry on he did, fourteen hours a day and more. He attended to his duties with all his old diligence. Only now they seemed to eat him up, piece by piece.

Burr frowned grimly up at the great map of the border region, his hands resting on his belly. The Whiteflow was a winding blue line down the middle, Dunbrec a black hexagon marked in swirly script. On its left, the Union. On its right, the North. “So,” he croaked, then coughed and cleared his throat, “The fortress is back in our hands.”

General Kroy gave a stiff nod. “It is.”

“Finally,” observed Poulder under his breath. The two generals still appeared to regard Bethod and his Northmen as a minor distraction from the real enemy; each other.

Kroy bristled, his staff muttering around him like a flock of angry crows. “Dunbrec was designed by the Union’s foremost military architects, and no expense was spared in its construction! Capturing it has been no mean task!”

“Of course, of course,” growled Burr, doing his best to mount a diversion. “Damned difficult place to take. Do we have any notion of how the Northmen managed it?”

“None survived to tell us what trickery they employed, sir. They fought, without exception, to the death. The last few barricaded themselves in the stables and set fire to the structure.”

Burr glanced at West, and slowly shook his head. “How can one understand such an enemy? What is the condition of the fortress now?”

“The moat was drained, the outer gatehouse partly destroyed, considerable damage done to the inner wall. The defenders tore down some buildings for wood to burn and stones to throw and left the rest in…” Kroy worked his lips as though struggling to find the words. “A very poor condition. Repairs will take some weeks.”

“Huh.” Burr rubbed unhappily at his stomach. “The Closed Council are anxious that we cross the Whiteflow into the North as soon as possible, and take the fight to the enemy. Positive news for the restless populace, and so on.”

“The capture of Uffrith,” leaped in Poulder, with a grin of towering smugness, “has left our position far stronger. We have gained at a stroke one of the best ports in the North, perfectly situated to supply our forces as we push into enemy territory. Before, everything had to come the length of Angland by cart, over bad roads in bad weather. Now we can bring in supplies and reinforcements by ship and almost straight to the front! And the whole thing managed without a single casualty!”

West was not about to allow him to steal the credit for that.

“Absolutely,” he droned in an emotionless monotone. “Our northern allies have once again proved invaluable.”

Poulder’s red-jacketed staff frowned and grumbled. “They played a part,” the General was forced to admit.

“Their leader, the Dogman, came to us with the original plan, executed it himself using his own men, and delivered the town to you, its gates open and its people compliant. That was my understanding.”

Poulder frowned angrily across at Kroy, who was now allowing himself the very thinnest of smiles. “My men are in possession of the city and are already building up a stockpile of supplies! We have outflanked the enemy and forced him to fall back towards Carleon! That, Colonel West, is surely the issue here, and not precisely who did what!”

“Indeed!” cut in Burr, waving one big hand. “You have both done great services for your country. But we must now look forward to future successes. General Kroy, arrange for work parties to be left behind to complete the repairs to Dunbrec, and a regiment of levies to man the defences. With a commander that knows his business, please. It would be embarrassing, to say the least, if we were to lose the fortress for a second time.”

“There will be no mistake,” snarled Kroy at Poulder, “you can depend on it.”

“The rest of the army can cross the Whiteflow and form up on the far bank. Then we can begin to press east and northward, towards Carleon, using the harbour at Uffrith to bring in our supplies. We have driven the enemy out of Angland. Now we must press forward and grind Bethod to his knees.” And the Marshal twisted a heavy fist into his palm by way of demonstration.

“My division will be across the river by tomorrow evening,” hissed Poulder at Kroy, “and in good order!”

Burr grimaced. “We must move carefully, whatever the Closed Council say. The last time a Union army crossed the Whiteflow was when King Casamir invaded the North. I need hardly remind you that he was forced to withdraw in some disarray. Bethod has caught us out before, and will only grow stronger as he falls back into his own territory. We must work together. This is not a competition, gentlemen.”

The two generals immediately competed with each other to be the one to agree most. West gave a long sigh, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

The New Man

“And so we return.” Bayaz frowned towards the city: a bright, white crescent spread out around the glittering bay. Slowly but decisively it came closer, reaching out and wrapping Jezal in its welcoming embrace. The features grew distinct, green parks peeping out between the houses, white spires thrusting up from the mass of buildings. He could see the towering walls of the Agriont, sunlight glinting from burnished domes above. The House of the Maker loomed high over all, but even that forbidding mass now seemed, somehow, to speak of warmth and safety.

He was home. He had survived. It felt like a hundred years since he had stood at the stern of a not dissimilar ship, miserable and forlorn, watching Adua slide sadly away into the distance. Over the surging water, the snapping sailcloth, the cries of the seabirds, he began to distinguish the distant rumble of the city. It sounded like the most wonderful music he had ever heard. He closed his eyes and dragged the air in hard through his nostrils. The rotten salt tang of the bay was sweet as honey on his tongue.

“One takes it you enjoyed the trip, then, Captain?” asked Bayaz, with heavy irony.

Jezal could only grin. “I’m enjoying the end of it.”

“No need to be downhearted,” offered Brother Longfoot. “Sometimes a difficult journey does not deliver its full benefit until long after one returns. The trials are brief, but the wisdom gained lasts a lifetime!”

“Huh.” The First of the Magi curled his lip. “Travel brings wisdom only to the wise. It renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever. Master Ninefingers! Are you determined to return to the North?”

Logen took a brief break from frowning at the water. “I’ve got no reason to stay.” He glanced sideways at Ferro, and she glared back.

“Why look at me?”

Logen shook his head. “Do you know what? I’ve no fucking idea.” If there had been anything vaguely resembling a romance between them, it appeared now to have collapsed irreparably into a sullen dislike.

“Well,” said Bayaz, raising his brows, “if you are decided.” He held his hand out to the Northman and Jezal watched them shake. “Give Bethod a kick from me, once you have him under your boot.”

“That I will, unless he gets me under his.”

“Never easy, kicking upwards. My thanks for your help, and for your manners. Perhaps you will be my guest again, one day, at the library. We will look out at the lake, and laugh about our high adventures in the west of the World.”

“I’ll hope for it.” But Logen hardly looked as if there was much laughter in him, or much hope either. He looked like a man who had run out of choices.

In silence Jezal watched as the ropes were thrown down to the quay and made fast, the long gangplank squealed out to the shore and scraped onto the stones. Bayaz called out to his apprentice. “Master Quai! Time for us to disembark!” And the pale young man followed his master down from the ship without a backward glance, Brother Longfoot behind them.

“Good luck, then,” said Jezal, offering his hand to Logen.

“And to you.” The Northman grinned, ignored the hand and folded him in a tight and unpleasant-smelling embrace. They stayed there for a somewhat touching, somewhat embarrassing moment, then Ninefingers clapped him on the back and let him go.

“Perhaps I’ll see you, up there in the North.” Jezal’s voice was just the slightest bit cracked, in spite of all his efforts. “If they send me…”

“Maybe, but… I think I’ll hope not. Like I said, if I was you I’d find a good woman and leave the killing to those with less sense.”

“Like you?”

“Aye. Like me.” He looked over at Ferro. “So that’s it then, eh, Ferro?”

“Uh.” She shrugged her scrawny shoulders, and strode off down the gangplank.

Logen’s face twitched at that. “Right,” he muttered at her back. “Nice knowing you.” He waggled the stump of his missing finger at Jezal. “Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s got a touch with the women.”



“Right.” Jezal was finding actually leaving strangely difficult. They had been almost constant companions for the last six months. To begin with he had felt nothing but contempt for the man, but now that it came to it, it was like leaving a much-respected older brother. Far worse, in fact, for Jezal had never thought too highly of his actual brothers. So he dithered on the deck, and Logen grinned at him as though he guessed just what he was thinking.

“Don’t worry. I’ll try to get along without you.”

Jezal managed half a smile. “Just try to remember what I told you, if you get in another fight.”

“I’d say, unfortunately, that’s pretty much a certainty.”

Then there was really nothing Jezal could do but turn away and clatter down to the shore, pretending that something had blown into his eye on the way. It seemed a long walk to the busy quay, to stand next to Bayaz and Quai, Longfoot and Ferro.

“Master Ninefingers can look after himself, I daresay,” said the First of the Magi.

“Oh, yes indeed,” chuckled Longfoot, “few better!”

Jezal took a last look back over his shoulder as they headed off into the city. Logen raised one hand to him from the rail of the ship, and then the corner of a warehouse came between them, and he was gone. Ferro loitered for a moment, frowning back towards the sea, her fists clenched and a muscle working on the side of her head. Then she turned and saw Jezal watching her.

“What are you looking at?” And she pushed past him and followed the others, into the swarming streets of Adua.

The city was just as Jezal remembered it, and yet everything was different. The buildings seemed to have shrunk and huddled in meanly together. Even the wide Middleway, the great central artery of the city, felt horribly squashed after the huge open spaces of the Old Empire, the awe-inspiring vistas of ruined Aulcus. The sky had been higher, out there on the great plain. Here everything was reduced, and, to make matters worse, had an unpleasant smell he had never before noticed. He went with his nose wrinkled, dodging between the buffeting flow of passers-by with bad grace.

It was the people that were strangest of all. It had been months since Jezal had seen more than ten at one time. Now there were suddenly thousands pressed in all around him, furiously intent on their own doings. Soft, and scrubbed, and decked out in gaudy colours, as freakish to him now as circus performers. Fashions had moved on while he was away facing death in the barren west of the World. Hats were worn at a different angle, sleeves had swollen to a wider cut, shirt collars had shrivelled to a length that would have been thought preposterously short a year before. Jezal snorted to himself. It seemed bizarre that such nonsense could ever have interested him, and he watched a group of perfumed dandies strutting past with the highest contempt.

Their group dwindled as they passed on through the city. First Longfoot made his effusive farewells with much pressing of hands, talk of honours and privileges, and promises of reunion that Jezal suspected, and indeed rather hoped, were insincere. Near the great market square of the Four Corners, Quai was dispatched on some errand or other with all his habitual sullen silence. That left only the First of the Magi as a companion, with Ferro slouching angrily along behind.

Being honest, Jezal would not have minded had the group dwindled considerably further. Ninefingers might have proved himself a staunch companion, but the rest of the dysfunctional family would hardly have been among Jezal’s chosen dinner guests. He had long ago given up any hope that Ferro’s armour of scowls would crack to reveal a caring soul within. But at least her abysmal temper was predictable. Bayaz, if anything, was an even more unnerving companion: one half grand-fatherly good humour, the other half who knew what? Whenever the old man opened his mouth Jezal flinched in anticipation of some ugly surprise.

But he chatted pleasantly enough for the time being. “Might I ask what your plans are now, Captain Luthar?”

“Well, I suppose I will be sent to Angland, to fight against the Northmen.”

“I imagine so. Although we never know what turns fate may take.”

Jezal did not much care for the sound of that. “And you? Will you be going back to…” He realised he had not the slightest idea of where the Magus had appeared from in the first place.

“Not quite yet. I will remain in Adua for the moment. Great things are afoot, my boy, great things. Perhaps I will stay to see how they turn out.”

“Move, bitch!” came a yell from the side of the road.

Three members of the city watch had gathered round a dirty-faced girl in a tattered dress. One was leaning down over her with a stick clenched in his fist, shouting in her face while she cringed back. An unhappy-seeming press had gathered to watch, workmen and labourers mostly, scarcely cleaner than the beggar herself.

“Why don’t you let her be?” one grumbled.

One of the watchmen took a warning step at them, raising his stick, while his friend seized hold of the beggar by her shoulder, kicking over a cup in the road, sending a few coins tinkling into the gutter.

“That seems excessive,” said Jezal under his breath.

“Well.” Bayaz watched down his nose. “These sort of things happen all the time. Are you telling me you’ve never seen a beggar moved along before?”

Jezal had, of course, often, and never raised an eyebrow. Beggars could not simply be left to clutter up the streets, after all. And yet for some reason the process was making him uncomfortable. The unfortunate waif kicked and cried, and the guardsman dragged her another stride on her back with entirely unnecessary violence, clearly enjoying himself. It was not so much the act itself that Jezal objected to, as that they would do it in front of him without a thought for his feelings. It rendered him somehow complicit.

“That is a disgrace,” he hissed through gritted teeth.

Bayaz shrugged. “If it bothers you that much, why not do something about it?”

The watchman chose that moment to seize the girl by her scruffy hair and give her a sharp blow with his stick, and she squealed and fell, her arms over her head. Jezal felt his face twist. In a moment he had shoved through the crowd and dealt the man a resounding boot to his backside, sending him sprawling in the gutter. One of his companions came forward with his stick out, but stumbled back a moment later. Jezal realised he had his steels drawn, the polished blades glinting in the shadows beside the building.

The audience gasped and edged back. Jezal blinked. He had not intended the business to go anything like this far. Damn Bayaz and his idiotic advice. But there was nothing for it now but to carry it through. He assumed his most fearless and arrogant expression.

“One step further and I’ll stick you like the swine you are.” He looked from one of the watchmen to the other. “Well? Do any of you care to test me?” He earnestly hoped that none of them did, but he need not have worried. They were predictably cowardly in the face of determined resistance, and loitered just out of range of his steels.

“No one deals with the watch like that. We’ll find you, you can depend on—”

“Finding me will present no difficulty. My name is Captain Luthar, of the King’s Own. I am resident in the Agriont. You cannot miss it. It is the fortress that dominates the city!” And he jabbed up the street with his long steel, making one of the watchmen stumble away in fear. “I will receive you at your convenience and you can explain to my patron, Lord Marshal Varuz, your disgraceful behaviour towards this woman, a citizen of the Union guilty of no greater crime than being poor!”

A ludicrously overblown speech, of course. Jezal found himself almost flushing with embarrassment at that last part. He had always despised poor people, and he was far from sure his opinions had fundamentally changed, but he got carried away halfway through and had no choice but to finish with a flourish.

Still, his words had their effect on the city watch. The three men backed away, for some reason grinning as if the whole business had gone just as they planned, leaving Jezal to the unwanted approval of the crowd.

“Well done, lad!”

“Good thing someone’s got some guts.”

“What did he say his name was?”

“Captain Luthar!” roared Bayaz suddenly, causing Jezal to jerk round halfway through sheathing his steels. “Captain Jezal dan Luthar, the winner of last year’s Contest, just now returned from his adventures in the west! Luthar, the name!”

“Luthar, did he say?”

“The one who won the Contest?”

“That’s him! I saw him beat Gorst!”

The whole crowd were staring, wide-eyed and respectful. One of them reached out, as though to touch the hem of his coat, and Jezal stumbled backwards, almost tripping over the beggar-girl who had been the cause of the whole fiasco.

“Thank you,” she gushed, in an ugly commoner’s accent rendered still less appealing by her bloody mouth. “Oh, thank you, sir.”

“It was nothing.” Jezal edged away, deeply uncomfortable. She was extremely dirty, at close quarters, and he had no wish to contract an illness. The attention of the group as a whole was, in fact, anything but pleasant. He continued to shuffle backwards while they watched him, all smiles and admiring mutterings.

Ferro was frowning at him as they moved away from the Four Corners. “Is there something?” he snapped.

She shrugged. “You’re not as much of a coward as you were.”

“My thanks for that epic praise.” He rounded on Bayaz. “What the hell was that?”

“That was you carrying out a charitable act, my boy, and I was proud to see it. It would seem my lessons have not been entirely wasted on you.”

“I meant,” growled Jezal, who felt himself to have gained less than nothing from Bayaz’ constant lecturing, “what were you about, proclaiming my name to all and sundry? The story will now spread all over town!”

“I had not considered that.” The Magus gave a faint smile. “I simply felt that you deserved the credit for your noble actions. Helping those less fortunate, the aid of a lady in distress, protecting the weak and so forth. Admirable, truly.”

“But—” muttered Jezal, unsure whether he was being taken for a fool.

“Here our paths diverge, my young friend.”

“Oh. They do?”

“Where are you going?” snapped Ferro suspiciously.

“I have a few matters to attend to,” said the Magus, “and you will be coming with me.”

“Why would I do that?” She appeared to be in a worse mood even than usual since they left the docks, which was no mean achievement.

Bayaz’ eyes rolled to the sky. “Because you lack the social graces necessary to function for longer than five minutes on your own in such a place as this. Why else? You will be going back to the Agriont, I assume?” he asked Jezal.

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

“Well, then. I would like to thank you, Captain Luthar, for the part you played in that little adventure of ours.”

“How dare you, you magical arsehole? The entire business was a colossal, painful, disfiguring waste of my time, and a failure to boot.” But what Jezal really said was, “Of course, yes.” He took the old man’s hand, preparing to give it a limp shake. “It has been an honour.”

Bayaz’ grip was shockingly firm. “That is good to hear.” Jezal found himself drawn very close to the old man’s face, staring into his glittering green eyes at unnervingly close quarters. “We may have the need to collaborate again.”

Jezal blinked. Collaborate really was an ugly choice of word. “Well then… er… perhaps I will… see you later?” Never would have been preferable, in his opinion.

But Bayaz only grinned as he let go of Jezal’s buzzing fingers. “Oh, I feel sure we shall meet again.”

The sun shone pleasantly through the branches of the aromatic cedar, casting a dappled shade on the ground beneath, just as it used to. A pleasant breeze fluttered through the courtyard and the birds twittered in the branches of the trees, just as they always had. The old buildings of the barracks had not changed, crowding in, coated with rustling ivy on all sides of the narrow courtyard. But there the similarity to Jezal’s happy memories ended. A dusting of moss had crept up the legs of the chairs, the surface of the table had acquired a thick crust of bird droppings, the grass had gone undipped for weeks on end and seed-heads thrashed at Jezal’s calves as he wandered past.

The players themselves were long gone. He watched the shadows shifting on the grey wood, remembering the sound of their laughter, the taste of smoke and strong spirits, the feel of the cards in his hand. Here Jalenhorm had sat, playing at being tough and manly. Here Kaspa had laughed at jokes at his own expense. Here West had leaned back and shaken his head with resigned disapproval. Here Brint had shuffled nervously at his hand, hoping for big wins that never came.

And here had been Jezal’s place. He dragged the chair out from the clutching grass, sat down in it with one boot up on the table and rocked it onto its rear legs. It seemed hard to believe, now, that he had sat here, watching and scheming, thinking about how best to make his friends seem small. He told himself he would never have engaged in any such foolishness now. No more than a couple of hands, anyway.

If he had thought that a thorough wash, a careful shave, a plucking of bristles and a long-winded arranging of hair would make him feel at home, he was disappointed. The familiar routines left him feeling like a stranger in his own dusty rooms. It was hard to become excited over the shining of the boots and buttons, or the arrangement of the gold braid just so.

When he finally stood before the mirror, where long ago he had whiled away so many delightful hours, he found his reflection decidedly unnerving. A lean and weather-worn adventurer stared bright-eyed from the Visserine glass, his sandy beard doing little to disguise the ugly scar down his bent jaw. His old uniforms were all unpleasantly tight, scratchily starched, chokingly constricted round the collar. He no longer felt like he belonged in them to any degree. He no longer felt like a soldier.

He scarcely even knew who he should report to, after all this time away. Every officer he was aware of, more or less, was with the army in Angland. He supposed he could have sought out Lord Marshal Varuz, had he really wanted to, but the fact was he had learned enough about danger now to not want to rush at it. He would do his duty, if he was asked. But it would have to find him first.

In the meantime, he had other business to attend to. The very thought made him terrified and thrilled at once, and he pushed a finger inside his collar and tugged at it in an effort to relieve the pressure in his throat. It did not work. Still, as Logen Ninefingers had been so very fond of saying: it was better to do it, than to live with the fear of it. He picked up his dress sword, but after a minute of staring at the absurd brass scrollwork on the hilt, he tossed it on the floor and kicked it under his bed. Look less than you are, Logen would have said. He retrieved his travel-worn long steel and slid it through the clasp on his belt, took a deep breath, and walked to the door.

There was nothing intimidating about the street. It was a quiet part of town, far off from chattering commerce and rumbling industry. In the next road a knife sharpener was throatily proclaiming his trade. Under the eaves of the modest houses a pigeon coo-cooed halfheartedly. Somewhere nearby the sound of clopping hooves and crackling carriage-wheels rose and faded. Otherwise all was quiet.

He had already walked past the house once in each direction, and dared not do so again for fear that Ardee would see him through a window, recognise him, and wonder what the hell he was up to. So he made circuits of the upper part of the street, practising what he would say when she appeared at the door.

“I am returned.” No, no, too high-blown. “Hello, how are you?” No, too casual. “It’s me, Luthar.” Too stiff. “Ardee… I’ve missed you.” Too needy. He saw a man frowning at him from an upstairs window, and he coughed and made off quickly towards the house, murmuring to himself over and over. “Better to do it, better to do it, better to do it…”

His fist pounded against the wood. He stood and waited, heart thumping in his teeth. The latch clicked and Jezal put on his most ingratiating smile. The door opened and a short, round-faced and highly unattractive girl stared at him from the doorway. There could be no doubt, however things had changed, that she was not Ardee. “Yes?”

“Er…” A servant. How could he have been such a fool as to think Ardee would open her own front door? She was a commoner, not a beggar. He cleared his throat. “I am returned… I mean to say… does Ardee West live here?”

“She does.” The maid opened the door far enough for Jezal to step through into the dim hallway. “Who shall I say is calling?”

“Captain Luthar.”

Her head snapped round as though it had an invisible string attached to it and he had given it a sudden jerk. “Captain… Jezal dan Luthar?”

“Yes,” he muttered, mystified. Could Ardee have been discussing him with the help?

“Oh… oh, if you wait…” The maid pointed to a doorway and hurried off, eyes wide, quite as if the Emperor of Gurkhul had come calling.

The dim living room gave the impression of having been decorated by someone with too much money, too little taste, and not nearly enough space for their ambitions. There were several garishly upholstered chairs, an over-sized and over-decorated cabinet, and a monumental canvas on one wall which, had it been any bigger, would have required the room to be knocked through into the neighbouring house. Two dusty shafts of light came in through the gaps in the curtains, gleaming on the highly polished, if slightly wonky, surface of an antique table. Each piece might have passed muster on its own, but crowded together the effect was quite suffocating. Still, Jezal told himself as he frowned round at it all, he had come for Ardee, not for her furniture.

It was ridiculous. His knees were weak, his mouth was dry, his head was spinning, and with every moment that passed it got worse. He had not felt this scared in Aulcus, with a crowd of screaming Shanka bearing down on him. He took a nervous circuit of the room, fists clenching and unclenching. He peered out into the quiet street. He leaned over a chair to examine the massive painting. A muscular-seeming king lounged in an outsize crown while fur-trimmed lords bowed and scraped around his feet. Harod the Great, Jezal guessed, but the recognition brought him little joy. Bayaz’ favourite and most tiresome topic of conversation had been the achievements of that man. Harod the Great could be pickled in vinegar for all Jezal cared. Harod the Great could go—

“Well, well, well…”

She stood in the doorway, bright light from the hall beyond glowing in her dark hair and down the edges of her white dress, her head on one side and the faintest ghost of a smile on her shadowy face. She seemed hardly to have changed. So often in life, moments that are long anticipated turn out to be profound disappointments. Seeing Ardee again, after all that time apart, was undoubtedly an exception. All his carefully prepared conversation evaporated in that one instant, leaving him as empty-headed as he had been when he first laid eyes on her.

“You’re alive, then,” she murmured.

“Yes… er… just about.” He managed half an awkward smile. “Did you think I was dead?”

“I hoped you were.” That wiped the grin off his face with sharp effect. “When I didn’t get so much as a letter. But really I thought you’d just forgotten about me.”

Jezal winced. “I’m sorry I didn’t write. Very sorry. I wanted to…” She swung the door shut and leaned against it with her hands behind her, frowning at him all the while. “There wasn’t a day I didn’t want to. But I was called for, and never had the chance to tell anyone, not even my family. I was… I was far away, in the west.”

“I know you were. The whole city is buzzing with it, and if I’ve heard, it must be common knowledge indeed.”

“You’ve heard?”

Ardee jerked her head towards the hall. “I had it from the maid.”

“From the maid?” How the hell could anyone in Adua have heard anything about his misadventures, let alone Ardee West’s maid? He was assailed with sudden unpleasing images. Crowds of servants giggling at the thought of him lying around crying over his broken face. Everyone who was anyone gossiping about what a fool he must have looked being fed with a spoon by a scarred brute of a Northman. He felt himself blushing to the tips of his ears. “What did she say?”

“Oh, you know.” She wandered absently into the room. “That you scaled the walls at the siege of Darmium, was it? Opened the gates to the Emperor’s men and so on.”

“What?” He was even more baffled than before. “Darmium? I mean to say… who told her…”

She came closer, and closer, and he grew more and more flustered until he stammered to a stop. Closer yet, and she was looking slightly upwards into his face with her lips parted. So close that he was sure she was going to take him in her arms and kiss him. So close that he leaned forward slightly in anticipation, half-closing his eyes, his lips tingling… Then she passed him, her hair nearly flicking in his face, and went on to the cabinet, opening it and taking out a decanter, leaving him behind, marooned on the carpet.

In gormless silence he watched her fill two glasses and offer one out, wine slopping and trickling stickily down the side. “You’ve changed.” Jezal felt a sudden surge of shame and his hand jerked up to cover his scarred jaw on an instinct. “I don’t mean that. Not just that, anyway. Everything. You’re different, somehow.”

“I…” The effect she had on him was, if anything, stronger now than it used to be. Then there had not been all the weight of expectation, all the long day-dreaming and anticipation out in the wilderness. “I’ve missed you.” He said it without thinking, then found himself flushing and had to try and change the subject. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“He’s been writing every week.” She threw her head back and drained her glass, started to fill it again. “Ever since I found out he was still alive, anyway.”


“I thought he was dead, for a month or more. He only just escaped from the battle.”

“There was a battle?” squeaked Jezal, just before remembering there was a war on. Of course there had been battles. He brought his voice back under control. “What battle?”

“The one where Prince Ladisla was killed.”

“Ladisla’s dead?” he squealed, voice shooting up into a girlish register again. The few times he had seen the Crown Prince the man had seemed so self-absorbed as to be indestructible. It was hard to believe he could simply be stabbed with a sword, or shot with an arrow, and die, like anyone else, but there it was.

“And then his brother was murdered—”

“Raynault? Murdered?”

“In his bed in the palace. When the king dies, they’ll choose a new one by a vote in Open Council.”

“A vote?” His voice rose so high at that he almost felt some sick at the back of his throat.

She was already filling her glass again. “Uthman’s emissary was hanged for the murder, despite most likely being innocent, and so the war with the Gurkish is dragging on—”

“We’re at war with the Gurkish as well?”

“Dagoska fell at the start of the year.”

“Dagoska… fell?” Jezal emptied his glass in one long swallow and stared at the carpet, trying to fit it all into his head. He should not have been surprised, of course, that things had moved on while he was away, but he had hardly expected the world to turn upside down. War with the Gurkish, battles in the North, votes to choose a new king?

“You need another?” asked Ardee, tilting the decanter in her hand.

“I think I’d better.” Great events, of course, just as Bayaz had said. He watched her pour, frowning down intently, almost angrily, as the wine gurgled out. He saw a little scar on her top lip that he had never noticed before, and he felt a sudden compulsion to touch it, and push his fingers in her hair, and hold her against him. Great events, but it all seemed of small importance compared to what happened now, in this room. Who knew? The course of his life might turn on the next few moments, if he could find the right words, and make himself say them.

“I really did miss you,” he managed. A miserable effort which she dismissed with a bitter snort.

“Don’t be a fool.”

He caught her hand, making her look him in the eye. “I’ve been a fool all my life. Not now. There were times, out there on the plain, the only thing that kept me alive was the thought that… that I might be with you again. Every day I wanted to see you…” She did nothing but frown back at him, entirely unmoved. Her failure to melt into his arms was highly frustrating, after all he had been through. “Ardee, please, I didn’t come here to argue.”

She scowled at the floor as she threw down another glass. “I don’t know why you did come here.”

“Because I love you, and I want never to be separated from you again! Please, tell me that you will be my wife!” He almost said it, but at the last moment he saw her scornful sneer, and he stopped himself. He had entirely forgotten how difficult she could be. “I came here to say that I’m sorry. I let you down, I know. I came as soon as I could, but I see that you’re not in the mood. I’ll come back later.”

He brushed past her and made for the door but Ardee got there first, twisted the key in the lock and snatched it out. “You leave me all alone here, without so much as a letter, then when you come back you want to leave without even a kiss?” She took a lurching step at him and Jezal found himself backing off.

“Ardee, you’re drunk.”

She flicked her head with annoyance. “I’m always drunk. Didn’t you say you missed me?”

“But,” he muttered, starting for some reason to feel slightly scared, “I thought—”

“There’s your problem, you see? Thinking. You’re no good at it.” She herded him back against the edge of the table, and he got his sword so badly tangled up with his legs he had to put a hand down to stop himself falling.

“Haven’t I been waiting?” she whispered, and her breath on his face was hot and sour-sweet with wine. “Just like you asked me?” Her mouth brushed gently against his, and the tip of her tongue slipped out and lapped against his lips, and she made soft gurgling sounds in her throat and pressed herself up against him. He felt her hand slide down onto his groin, rubbing at him gently through his trousers.

The feeling was pleasant, of course, and caused an instant stiffening. Pleasant in the extreme, but more than slightly worrying. He looked nervously towards the door. “What about the servants?” he croaked.

“If they don’t like it they can find another fucking job, can’t they? They weren’t my idea.”

“Then whose—ah!”

She twisted her fingers in his hair and dragged his head painfully round so she was speaking right into his face. “Forget about them! You came here for me, didn’t you?”

“Yes… yes, of course!”

“Say it, then!” Her hand pressed up hard against his trousers, almost painful, but not quite.

“Ah… I came for you.”

“Well? Here I am.” And her fingers fumbled with his belt and dragged it open. “No need to be shy now.”

He tried to catch her wrist. “Ardee, wait—” Her other hand caught him a stinging slap right across the face and knocked his head sideways, hard enough to make his ears ring.

“I’ve been sitting here for six months doing nothing,” she hissed in his face, words slightly slurred. “Do you know how bored I’ve been? And now you’re telling me to wait? Fuck yourself!” She dug roughly into his trousers and dragged his prick out, rubbing at him with one hand, squeezing at his face with the other while he closed his eyes and gasped shallow breaths into her mouth, nothing in his mind but her fingers.

Her teeth nipped at his lip, almost painful, and then harder. “Ah,” he grunted. “Ah!” She was decidedly biting him. Biting with a will, as though his lip were a piece of gristle to be chewed through. He tried to pull away but the table was at his back and she had him fast. The pain was almost as great as the shock, and then, as the biting went on, considerably greater.

“Aargh!” He grabbed hold of her wrist with one hand and twisted it behind her back, yanked her arm and shoved her down onto the table. He heard her gasp as her face cracked hard against the polished wood.

He stood over her, frozen with dismay, his mouth salty with blood. He could see one dark eye through Ardee’s tangled hair, expressionless, watching him over her twisted shoulder. The hair moved round her mouth as she breathed, fast. He let go of her wrist, suddenly, saw her arm move, the marks left by his fingers angry pink on her skin. Her hand slid down and took hold of a fistful of her dress and pulled it up, took another fistful and pulled it up, until her skirts were all tangled around her waist and her bare, pale arse was slicking up at him.

Well. He might have been a new man, but he was still a man.

With each thrust her head tapped against the plaster, and his skin slapped against the backs of her thighs, and his trousers sagged further and further down his legs until his sword-hilt was scraping against the carpet. With each thrust the table made an outraged creaking, louder and louder every time, as though they were fucking over the back of some disapproving old man. With each thrust she made a grunt, and he made a gasp, not of pleasure or pain in particular, but a necessary moving of air in response to vigorous exercise. It was all over with merciful swiftness.

So often in life, moments that are long anticipated prove to be a profound disappointment. This was undoubtedly one of those occasions. When he had spent all those interminable hours out on the plain, saddle-sore and in fear of his life, dreaming of seeing Ardee again, a quick and violent coupling on the table in her tasteless living-room had not been quite what he’d had in mind. When they were done he pushed his wilting prick back inside his trousers, guilty, and ashamed, and miserable in the extreme. The sound of his belt-buckle clinking made him want to smash his face against the wall.

She got up, and let her skirts drop, and smoothed them down, her face to the floor. He reached for her shoulder. “Ardee—” She shook him angrily off, and walked away. She tossed something on the floor behind her and it rattled on the carpet. The key to the door.

“You can go.”

“I can what?”

“Go! You got what you wanted, didn’t you?”

He licked disbelieving at his bloody lip. “You think this is what I wanted?” Nothing but silence. “I love you.”

She gave a kind of cough, as if she was about to be sick, and she slowly shook her head. “Why?”

He wasn’t sure he knew. He wasn’t sure what he meant, or how he felt any more. He wanted to start again, but he didn’t know how. The whole thing was an inexplicable nightmare from which he hoped soon to wake. “What do you mean, why?”

She bent over, fists clenched, and screamed at him. “I’m fucking nothing! Everyone who knows me hates me! My own father hated me! My own brother!” Her voice cracked, and her face screwed up, and her mouth spat with anger and misery. “Everything I touch I ruin! I’m nothing but shit! Why can’t you see it?” And she put her hands over her face, and turned her back on him, and her shoulders shook.

He blinked at her, his own lip trembling. The old Jezal dan Luthar would most likely have made a quick grab for that key, sprinted from the room and off down the street, never to come back, and counted himself lucky to have got away so easily. The new one thought about it.

He thought about it hard. But he had more character than that. Or so he told himself.

“I love you.” The words tasted like lies in his bloody mouth, but he had gone far too far now to turn back. “I still love you.” He crossed the room, and though she tried to push him off he put his arms around her. “Nothing’s changed.” He pushed his fingers into her hair, and held her head against his chest while she cried softly, sobbing snot down the front of his garish uniform.

“Nothing’s changed,” he whispered. But of course it had.

Feeding Time

They did not sit so close that it was obvious they were together. Two men who, in the course of their daily business, happen to have placed their arses on the same piece of wood. It was early morning, and although the sun cast a stinging glare in Glokta’s eyes and lent the dewy grass, the rustling trees, the shifting water in the park a golden glow, there was still a treacherous nip to the air. Lord Wetterlant was evidently an early riser. But then so am I. Nothing encourages a man to leave his bed like being kept awake all night by searing cramps.

His Lordship reached into a paper bag, drew out a pinch of bread dust between thumb and forefinger, and tossed it at his feet. A mob of self-important ducks had already gathered, and now they fussed at each other furiously in their efforts to get at the crumbs while the old nobleman watched them, his lined face a slack and emotionless mask.

“I am under no illusions, Superior,” he droned, almost without moving his lips and without looking up at all. “I am not a big enough man to compete in this contest, even should I wish to. But I am big enough to get something from it. I intend to get what I can.” Straight to business, then, for once. No need to talk about the weather, or how the children are, or the relative merits of different-coloured ducks.

“There is no shame in that.”

“I do not think so. I have a family to feed, and it grows by the year. I strongly advise against too many children.” Hah, That shouldn’t be a problem. “And then I keep dogs, and they must be fed also, and have great appetites.” Wetterlant gave a long, wheezing sigh, and tossed the birds another pinch of bread. “The higher you rise, Superior, the more dependents cry at you for scraps; that is a sad fact.”

“You carry a large responsibility, my Lord.” Glokta grimaced at a spasm in his leg, and cautiously stretched it out until he felt his knee click. “How large, might I ask?”

“I have my own vote, of course, and control the votes of three other chairs on the Open Council. Families tied to my own by bonds of land, of friendship, of marriage, and of long tradition.” Such bonds may prove insubstantial in times such as these.

“You are certain of those three?”

Wetterlant turned his cold eyes on Glokta. “I am no fool, Superior. I keep my dogs well chained. I am certain of them. As certain as we can be of anything, in these uncertain times.” He tossed more crumbs into the grass and the ducks quacked, and pecked, and beat at each other with their wings.

“Four votes in total, then.” No mean share of the great pie.

“Four votes in total.”

Glokta cleared his throat, checked quickly that there was no one within earshot. A girl with a tragic face stared listlessly into the water just down the path. Two dishevelled officers of the King’s Own sat on a bench as far away on the other side, holding forth to each other loudly about who had been drunker the night before. Might the tragic girl be listening for Lord Brock? Might the two officers report to High Justice Marovia? I see agents everywhere, and it is just as well. There are agents everywhere. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “His Eminence would be willing to offer fifteen thousand marks for each vote.”

“I see.” Wetterlant’s hooded eyes did not so much as twitch. “So little meat would scarcely satisfy my dogs. It would leave nothing for my own table. I should tell you that Lord Barezin, in a highly roundabout manner, already offered me eighteen thousand a vote, as well as an excellent stretch of land that borders my own estates. Deer hunting woods. Are you a hunting man, Superior?”

“I was.” Glokta tapped his ruined leg. “But not for some time.”

“Ah. My commiserations. I have always loved the sport. But then Lord Brock came to visit me.” How charming for you both. “He was good enough to make an offer of twenty thousand, and a very suitable match of his youngest daughter for my eldest son.”

“You accepted?”

“I told him it was too early to accept anything.”

“I am sure his Eminence could stretch to twenty-one, but that would have to be—”

“High Justice Marovia’s man already offered me twenty-five.”

“Harlen Morrow?” hissed Glokta through his remaining teeth.

Lord Wetterlant raised an eyebrow. “I believe that was the name.”

“I regret that I can only match that offer at present. I will inform his Eminence of your position.” His delight, I am sure, will know no bounds.

“I look forward to hearing from you, Superior.” Wetterlant turned back to his ducks and permitted them a few more crumbs, a vague smile hovering round his lips as he watched them tussle with each other.

Glokta hobbled painfully up to the ordinary house in the unexceptional street, something resembling a smile on his face. A moment free of the suffocating company of the great and the good. A moment in which I do not have to lie, or cheat, or watch for a knife in my back. Perhaps I’ll even find a room that doesn’t still stink of Harlen Morrow. That would be a refreshing—

The door opened sharply even as he raised his fist to knock, and he was left staring into the grinning face of a man wearing the uniform of an officer in the King’s Own. It was so unexpected that Glokta did not recognise him at first. Then he felt a surge of dismay.

“Why, Captain Luthar. What a surprise.” And a thoroughly unpleasant one.

He was considerably changed. Where once he had been boyish and smooth, he had acquired a somewhat angular, even a weather-beaten look. Where once he had carried his chin with an arrogant lift, he now had an almost apologetic tilt to his face. He had grown a beard too, perhaps in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise a vicious-looking scar through his lip and down his jaw. Though it has far from rendered him ugly, alas.

“Inquisitor Glokta… er…”


“Really?” Luthar blinked at him for a moment. “Well… in that case…” The easy smile reappeared, and Glokta was surprised to find himself being shaken warmly by the hand. “Congratulations. I would love to chat but duty calls. I haven’t long in the city, you see. Off to the North, and so on.”

“Of course.” Glokta frowned after him as he stepped jauntily off up the street, with just the one furtive glance over his shoulder as he rounded the corner. Leaving only the question of why he was here in the first place. Glokta hobbled through the open door and shut it quietly behind him. Although honestly, a young man leaving a young woman’s house in the early morning? One scarcely requires his Majesty’s Inquisition to solve that particular mystery. Did I not leave more than my share of residences in the early hours, after all? Pretending to hope that I wasn’t observed, but really rather hoping that I was? He passed through the doorway into the living room. Or was that a different man?

Ardee West stood with her back to him, and he heard the sound of wine trickling into a glass. “Did you forget something?” she asked over her shoulder, voice soft and playful. Not a tone I often get to hear women use. Horror, disgust, and the slightest touch of pity are more common. There was a clinking as she put the bottle away. “Or did you decide you really couldn’t live without another—” She had a crooked smile on her face as she turned, but it slid off suddenly when she saw who was standing there.

Glokta snorted. “Don’t worry, I get that reaction from everyone. Even myself, every morning, when I look into the mirror.” If I can even manage to stand up in front of the damn thing.

“It’s not like that, and you know it. I just wasn’t expecting you to wander in.”

“We’ve all had quite the shock this morning, then. You’ll never guess who I passed in your hallway.”

She froze for just a moment, then tossed her head dismissively and slurped wine from her glass. “Aren’t you going to give me a clue?”

“Alright, I will.” Glokta winced as he lowered himself into a chair, stretching his aching leg out in front of him. “A young officer in the King’s Own, no doubt with a scintillating future ahead of him.” Though we can all hope otherwise.

Ardee glared at him over the rim. “There are so many officers in the King’s Own I can scarcely tell one from another.”

“Really? This one won last year’s Contest, I believe.”

“I hardly remember who was in the final. Every year is like the last, don’t you find?”

“True. Since I competed it’s been straight downhill. But I thought you might remember this particular fellow. Looked as if someone might have hit him in the face since we last met. Quite hard, I would say.” Though not half as hard as I’d have liked.

“You’re angry with me,” she said, but without the appearance of the slightest concern.

“I’d say disappointed. But what would you expect? I thought you were cleverer than this.”

“Cleverness is no guarantee of sensible behaviour. My father used to say so all the time.” She finished her wine with a practised flick of her head. “Don’t worry. I can look after myself.”

“No you can’t. You’ve made that abundantly clear. You realise what will happen if people find out? You’ll be shunned.”

“What would be the difference?” she sneered at him. “Perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn I get few invitations to the palace now. I barely even qualify as an embarrassment. No one speaks to me.” Apart from me, of course, but I’m hardly the type of company young women hope for. “No one cares a shit what I do. If they find out it will be no worse than they expect from a slattern like me. Damn commoners, no more self-control than animals, don’t you know. Anyway, didn’t you tell me I could fuck who I pleased?”

“I also told you the less fucking the better.”

“And I suppose that’s what you told all your conquests, is it?”

Glokta grimaced. Not exactly. I coaxed and I pleaded, I threatened and I bullied. Your beauty has wounded me, wounded me in the heart! I am wretched, I will die without you! Have you no pity? Do you not love me? I did everything short of display the instruments, then when I got what I wanted I tossed them aside and went merrily on to the next with never a backward glance.

“Hah!” snorted Ardee, as though she guessed what he was thinking. “Sand dan Glokta, giving lectures on the benefits of chastity? Please! How many women did you ruin before the Gurkish ruined you? You were notorious!”

A muscle began to tremble in his neck, and he worked his shoulder round until he felt it soften. She makes a fair point. Perhaps a soft word with the gentleman in question will do the trick. A soft word, or a hard night with Practical Frost. “Your bed, your business, I suppose, as they say in Styria. How does the great Captain Luthar come to be among the civilians in any case? Doesn’t he have Northmen to rout? Who will save Angland, while he’s here?”

“He wasn’t in Angland.”

“No?” Father find him a nice, out of the way spot, did he?

“He’s been in the Old Empire, or some such. Across the sea to the west and far away.” She sighed as though she had heard a great deal about it and was now thoroughly bored of the subject.

“Old Empire? What the hell was he up to out there?”

“Why don’t you ask him? Some journey. He talked a lot about a Northman. Ninefingers, or something.”

Glokta’s head jerked up. “Ninefingers?”

“Mmm. Him and some old bald man.”

A flurry of twitches ran down Glokta’s face. “Bayaz.” Ardee shrugged and swigged from her glass again, already developing a slight drunken clumsiness to her movements. Bayaz. All we need, with an election coming, is that old liar sticking his hairless head in. “Is he here, now, in the city?”

“How should I know?” grumbled Ardee. “Nobody tells me anything.”

So Much in Common

Ferro stalked round the room, and scowled. She poured her scorn out into the sweet-smelling air, onto the rustling hangings, over the great windows and the high balcony beyond them. She sneered at the dark pictures of fat pale kings, at the shining furniture scattered about the wide floor. She hated this place, with its soft beds and its soft people. She infinitely preferred the dust and thirst of the Badlands of Kanta. Life there was hard, and hot, and brief.

But at least it was honest.

This Union, and this city of Adua in particular, and this fortress of the Agriont especially, were all packed to bursting with lies. She felt them on her skin, like an oily stain she could not rub off. And Bayaz was sunk in the very midst of it. He had tricked her into following him across the world for nothing. They had found no ancient weapon to use against the Gurkish. Now he smiled, and laughed, and whispered secrets with old men. Men who came in sweating from the heat outside, and left sweating even more.

She would never have admitted it to anyone else. She despised having to admit it to herself. She missed Ninefingers. Though she had never been able to show it, it had been a reassurance, having someone she could halfway trust.

Now she had to look over her own shoulder.

All she had for company was the apprentice, and he was worse than nothing. He sat and watched her in silence, his book ignored on the table beside him. Watching and smiling without joy, as though he knew something she should have guessed. As though he thought her a fool for not seeing it. That only made her angrier than ever. So she prowled round the room, frowning at everything, her fists clenched and her jaw locked light.

“You should go back to the South, Ferro.”

She stopped in her tracks, and scowled at Quai. He was right, of course. Nothing would have pleased her more than to leave these Godless pinks behind forever and fight the Gurkish with weapons she understood. Tear vengeance from them with her teeth, if she had to. He was right, but that changed nothing. Ferro had never been much for taking advice. “What do you know about what I should do, scrawny pink fool?”

“More than you think.” He did not take his slow eyes away from her for a moment. “We are much alike, you and I. You may not see it, and yet we are. So much in common.” Ferro frowned. She did not know what the sickly idiot meant by that, but she did not like the sound of it. “Bayaz will bring you nothing you need. He cannot be trusted. I found out too late, but you still have time. You should find another master.”

“I have no master,” she snapped at him. “I am free.”

One corner of Quai’s pale lips twitched up. “Neither of us will ever be free. Go. There is nothing for you here.”

“Why do you stay, then?”

“For vengeance.”

Ferro frowned deeper. “Vengeance for what?”

The apprentice leaned forward, his bright eyes fixed on hers. The door creaked open and he snapped his mouth shut, sat back and looked out of the window. Just as if he had never meant to speak.

Damn apprentice with his damn riddles. Ferro turned her scowl towards the door.

Bayaz came slowly through into the room, a teacup held carefully level in one hand. He did not so much as look in Ferro’s direction as he swept past and out the open door onto the balcony. Damn Magus. She stalked after, narrowing her eyes at the glare. They were high up, and the Agriont was spread out before them, as it had been when she and Ninefingers climbed over the rooftops, long ago. Groups of idle pinks lazed on the shining grass below, just as they had done before Ferro left for the Old Empire. And yet not everything was the same.

Everywhere in the city, now, there was a kind of fear. She could see it in each soft, pale face. In their every word and gesture. A breathless expectation, like the air before the storm breaks. Like a field of dry grass, ready to burst into flame at the slightest spark. She did not know what they were waiting for, and she did not care.

But she had heard a lot of talk about votes.

The First of the Magi watched her as she stepped through the door, the bright sun shining on the side of his bald head. “Tea, Ferro?”

Ferro hated tea, and Bayaz knew it. Tea was what the Gurkish drank when they had treachery in mind. She remembered the soldiers drinking it while she struggled in the dust. She remembered the slavers drinking it while they talked prices. She remembered Uthman drinking it while he chuckled at her rage and her helplessness. Now Bayaz drank it, little cup held daintily between his thick thumb and forefinger, and he smiled.

Ferro ground her teeth. “I am done here, pink. You promised me vengeance and have given me nothing. I am going back to the South.”

“Indeed? We would be sorry to lose you. But Gurkhul and the Union are at war. There are no ships sailing to Kanta at present. There may not be for some time to come.”

“Then how will I get there?”

“You have made it abundantly clear that you are not my responsibility. I have put a roof over your head and you show scant gratitude. If you wish to leave, you can make your own arrangements. My brother Yulwei should return to us shortly. Perhaps he will be prepared to take you under his wing.”

“Not good enough.” Bayaz glared at her. A fearsome look, perhaps, but Ferro was not Longfoot, or Luthar, or Quai. She had no master, and would never have another. “Not good enough, I said!”

“Why is it that you insist on testing the limits of my patience? It is not without an end, you know.”

“Neither is mine.”

Bayaz snorted. “Yours scarcely even has a beginning, as Master Ninefingers could no doubt testify. I do declare, Ferro, you have all the charm of a goat, and a mean-tempered goat at that.” He stuck his lips out, tipped up his cup and sucked delicately from the rim. Only with a mighty effort was Ferro able to stop herself from slapping it out of his hand, and butting the bald bastard in the face into the bargain. “But if fighting the Gurkish is still what you have in mind—”


“Then I am sure that I can still find a use for your talents. Something that does not require a sense of humour. My purposes with regard to the Gurkish are unchanged. The struggle must continue, albeit with other weapons.” His eyes slid sideways, towards the great tower that loomed up over the fortress.

Ferro knew little about beauty and cared still less, but that building was a beautiful thing to her mind. There was no softness, no indulgence in that mountain of naked stone. There was a brutal honesty in its shape. A merciless precision in its sharp, black angles. Something about it fascinated her.

“What is that place?” she asked.

Bayaz narrowed his eyes at her. “The House of the Maker.”

“What is inside?”

“None of your business.”

Ferro almost spat with annoyance. “You lived there. You served Kanedias. You helped the Maker with his works. You told us all this, out on the plains. So tell me, what is inside?”

“You have a sharp memory, Ferro, but you forget one thing. We did not find the Seed. I do not need you. I do not need, in particular, to answer your endless questions any longer. Imagine my dismay.” He sucked primly at his tea again, raising his brows and peering out at the lazy pinks in the park.

Ferro forced a smile onto her own face. Or as close as she could get to a smile. She bared her teeth, at least. She remembered well enough what the bitter old woman Cawneil had said, and how much it had annoyed him. She would do the same. “The Maker. You tried to steal his secrets. You tried to steal his daughter. Tolomei was her name. Her father threw her from the roof. In return for her betrayal, in opening his gates to you. Am I wrong?”

Bayaz angrily flicked the last drops from his cup over the balcony. Ferro watched them glitter in the bright sun, tumbling downwards. “Yes, Ferro, the Maker threw his daughter from the roof. It would seem that we are both unlucky in love, eh? Bad luck for us. Worse luck for our lovers. Who would have dreamed we have so much in common?” Ferro wondered about shoving the pink bastard off the balcony after his tea. But he still owed her, and she meant to collect. So she only scowled, and ducked back through the doorway.

There was a new arrival in the room. A man with curly hair and a wide smile. He had a tall staff in his hand, a case of weathered leather over one shoulder. There was something strange about his eyes— one light, one dark. There was something about his watchful gaze that made Ferro suspicious. Even more than usual.

“Ah, the famous Ferro Maljinn. Forgive my curiosity, but it is not every day that one encounters a person of your… remarkable ancestry.”

Ferro did not like that he knew her name, or her ancestry, or anything about her. “Who are you?”

“Where are my manners? I am Yoru Sulfur, of the order of Magi,” and he offered his hand. She did not take it but he only smiled. “Not one of the original twelve, of course, not I. Merely an afterthought. A late addition. I was once apprentice to great Bayaz.”

Ferro snorted. That hardly qualified him for trust in her estimation. “What happened?”

“I graduated.”

Bayaz tossed his cup down rattling on a table by the window. “Yoru,” he said, and the newcomer humbly bowed his head. “My thanks for your work thus far. Precise and to the point, as always.”

Sulfur’s smile grew broader. “A small cog in a large machine, Master Bayaz, but I try to be a sturdy one.”

“You have yet to let me down. I do not forget that. How is your next little game progressing?”

“Ready to begin, at your command.”

“Let us begin now. There is nothing to be gained by delay.”

“I shall make the preparations. I have also brought this, as you asked.” He swung the bag down from his shoulder and gingerly reached inside. He slowly drew out a book. Large and black, its heavy covers hacked, and scarred, and charred by fire. “Glustrod’s book,” he murmured softly, as though afraid to say the words.

Bayaz frowned. “Keep it, for now. There was an unexpected complication.”

“A complication?” Sulfur slid the book back into its case with some relief.

“What we sought… was not there.”


“As regards our other plans, nothing is changed.”

“Of course.” Sulfur bowed his head again. “Lord Isher will already be on his way.”

“Very well.” Bayaz glanced over at Ferro, as though he had only just remembered that she was there. “For the time being, perhaps you would be good enough to give us the room? I have a visitor that I must attend to.”

She was happy to leave, but she took her time moving, if only because Bayaz wanted her gone quickly. She unfolded her arms, stood on the spot and stretched. She strolled to the door by a roundabout route, letting her feet scuff against the boards and fill the room with their ugly scraping. She stopped on the way to gaze at a picture, to poke at a chair, to flick at a shiny pot, none of which interested her at all. All the while Quai watched, and Bayaz frowned, and Sulfur grinned his knowing little grin. She stopped in the doorway.


“Yes, now,” snapped Bayaz.

She looked round the room one more time. “Fucking Magi,” she snorted, and slid through the door.

She almost walked into a tall old pink in the room beyond. He wore a heavy robe, even in the heat, and had a sparkling chain around his shoulders. A big man loomed behind him, grim and watchful. A guard. Ferro did not like the old pink’s look. He stared down his nose at her, chin tilted up, as though she were a dog.

As though she were a slave.

“Ssssss.” She hissed in his face as she shouldered past him. He gave an outraged snort and his guard gave Ferro a hard look. She ignored it. Hard looks mean nothing. If he wanted her knee in his face he could try and touch her. But he did not. The two of them went in through the door.

“Ah, Lord Isher!” she heard Bayaz saying, just before it shut. “I am delighted that you could visit us at short notice.”

“I came at once. My grandfather always said that—”

“Your grandfather was a wise man, and a good friend. I would like to discuss with you, if I may, the situation in the Open Council. Will you take tea…?”


Jezal lay on his back, his hands behind his head, the sheets around his waist. He watched Ardee looking out of the window, her elbows on the sill, her chin on her hands. He watched Ardee, and he thanked the fates that some long-forgotten designer of military apparel had seen fit to provide the officers of the King’s Own with a high-waisted jacket. He thanked them with a deep and earnest gratitude, because his jacket was all she was wearing.

It was amazing how things had changed between them, since that bitter, bewildering reunion. For a week they had not spent a night apart, and for a week the smile had barely left his face. Occasionally the memory would wallow up, of course, unbidden and horribly surprising, like a bloated corpse bobbing to the surface of the pond while one enjoys a picnic on the shore, of Ardee biting and hitting him, crying and screaming in his face. But when it did so he would fix his grin, and see her smile at him, and soon enough he would be able to shove those unpleasant thoughts back down again, at least for now. Then he would congratulate himself on being a big enough man to do it, and on giving her the benefit of the doubt.

“Ardee,” he wheedled at her.


“Come back to bed.”


“Because I love you.” Strange, how the more he said it, the easier it became.

She gave a bored sigh. “So you keep saying.”

“It’s true.”

She turned round, hands on the sill behind, her body a dark outline against the bright window. “And what does that mean, exactly? That you’ve been fucking me for a week and you haven’t had enough yet?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get enough.”

“Well,” and she pushed herself away from the window and padded across the boards. “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in finding out, is there? No more harm, anyway.” She stopped at the foot of the bed. “Just promise me one thing.”

Jezal swallowed, worried at what she might ask him, worried at what he might say in reply. “Anything,” he murmured, forcing himself to smile.

“Don’t let me down.”

His smile grew easier. That was not so hard to say yes to. He was a changed man, after all. “Of course, I promise.”

“Good.” She crept up on to the bed, on her hands and knees, eyes fixed on his face while he wriggled his toes in anticipation under the sheet. She knelt up, one leg on either side of him, and jerked the jacket smooth across her chest. “Well then, Captain, do I pass muster?”

“I would say…” and he grabbed the front of the jacket and pulled her down on top of him, slipped his hands inside it, “that you are without a doubt…” and he slid his hand under her breast and rubbed at her nipple with his thumb, “the finest-looking soldier in my company.”

She pressed her groin against his through the sheet, and worked her hips back and forward. “Ah, the Captain is already at attention…”

“For you? Constantly…”

Her mouth licked and sucked at his, smearing spit on his face, and he pushed his hand between her legs and she rubbed herself against it for a while, his sticky fingers squelching in and out of her. She grunted and sighed in her throat, and he did the same. She reached down and dragged the sheet out of the way. He took hold of his prick and she wriggled her hips until they found the right spot and worked her way down onto him, her hair tickling at his face, her rasping breath tickling at his ear.

There were two heavy knocks at the door, and they both froze. Another two knocks. Ardee put her head up, pushing her hair out of her flushed face. “What is it?” she called, voice thick and throaty.

“There’s someone for the Captain.” The maid. “Is he… is he still here?”

Ardee’s eyes rolled down to Jezal’s. “I daresay I could get a message to him!” He bit on his lip to stifle a laugh, reached up and pinched at her nipple and she slapped his hand away. “Who is it?”

“A Knight Herald!” Jezal felt his smile fading. Those bastards never seemed to bring good news, and always at the worst possible times. “Lord Marshal Varuz needs to speak to the Captain urgently. They’re all over town looking for him.” Jezal cursed under his breath. It seemed that the army had finally realised he was back.

“Tell him that when I see the Captain I will let him know!” shouted Ardee, and the sound of footsteps retreated down the corridor outside.

“Fuck!” Jezal hissed as soon as he was sure the maid was gone, not that she could have been in too much doubt about what had been going on for the past few days and nights. “I’ll have to go.”


“Now, curse them. If I don’t they’ll just keep looking, and the sooner I go, the sooner I can get back.”

She sighed and rolled over onto her back while he slithered off the bed and started hunting round the room for his scattered clothes. His shirt had a wine stain down the front, his trousers were creased and rumpled, but they would have to do. Cutting the perfect figure was no longer his one goal in life. He sat down on the bed to pull his boots on and he felt her kneel behind him, her hands sliding across his chest, her lips brushing at his ear as she whispered to him. “So you’ll be leaving me all alone again, will you? Heading off to Angland, to slaughter Northmen with my brother?”

Jezal leaned down with some difficulty and heaved one boot on. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” The idea of the soldiering life no longer inspired him. He had seen enough of violence, close up, to know it was extremely frightening and hurt like hell. Glory and fame seemed like meagre rewards for all the risks involved. “I’m giving serious thought to the idea of resigning my commission.”

“You are? And doing what?”

“I’m not sure.” He turned his head and raised an eyebrow at her. “Maybe I’ll find a good woman and settle down.”

“A good woman? Do you know any?”

“I was hoping you might have some suggestions.”

She pressed her lips together. “Let me think. Does she have to be beautiful?”

“No, no, beautiful women are always so bloody demanding. Plain as ditchwater, please.”


Jezal snorted. “Anything but that. I am notorious for my empty-headedness. A clever woman would only make me look the dunce the whole time.” He dragged the other boot on, peeled her hands away and stood up. “A wide-eyed and thoughtless calf would be ideal. Someone to endlessly agree with me.”

Ardee clapped her hands. “Oh yes, I can see her on you now, trailing from your arm like an empty dress, a kind of echo at a higher pitch. Noble blood though, I imagine?”

“Of course, nothing but the best. One point on which I could never compromise. And fair hair, I have a weakness for it.”

“Oh, I entirely agree. Dark hair is so commonplace, so very much the colour of dirt, and filth, and muck.” She shuddered. “I feel sullied just thinking of it.”

“Above all,” as he pushed his sword through the clasp on his belt, “a calm and even temper. I have had my fill of surprises.”

“Naturally. Life is difficult enough without a woman making trouble. So terribly undignified.” She raised her eyebrows. “I will think through my acquaintance.”

“Excellent. In the meantime, and although you wear it with far greater dash than I ever could, I will need my jacket.”

“Oh, yes, sir.” She pulled it off and flung it at him, then stretched out on the bed, stark naked, back arched, hands above her head, wriggling her hips slowly back and forth, one knee in the air, the other leg stretched out, big toe pointing at him. “You aren’t going to leave me alone for too long, though, are you?”

He watched her for a moment. “Don’t you dare move a fucking inch,” he croaked, then he pulled the jacket on, wedged his prick between his thighs and waddled out the door, bent over. He hoped it would go down before he had his briefing with the Lord Marshal, but he was not entirely sure it would.

Once again, Jezal found himself in one of High Justice Marovia’s cavernous chambers, standing all alone on the empty floor, facing the enormous, polished table while three old men regarded him grimly from the other side.

As the clerk shut the high doors with an echoing boom, he had a deeply worrying sense of having lived through this very experience before. The day he had been summoned from the boat for Angland, torn from his friends and his ambitions, to be sent on a madcap, doomed journey into the middle of nowhere. A journey that had cost him some of his looks and nearly his life. It was safe to say that he did not entirely relish being back here, and hoped most fervently for a better outcome.

From that point of view, the absence of the First of the Magi was something of a tonic, even if the panel was otherwise far from comforting. Facing him were the hard old faces of Lord Marshal Varuz, High Justice Marovia, and Lord Chamberlain Hoff.

Varuz was busy waxing on about Jezal’s fine achievements in the Old Empire. He had, evidently, heard a very different version of events from the one that Jezal himself remembered.

“… great adventures in the west, as I understand it, bringing honour to the Union on foreign fields. I was particularly impressed by the story of your charge across the bridge at Darmium. Did that really happen the way I have been told?”

“Across the bridge, sir, well, truthfully, er…” He should probably have asked the old fool what the hell he was talking about, but he was far too busy thinking of Ardee, stretched out naked. Shit on his country. Duty be damned. He could resign his commission now and be back in her bed before the hour was out. “The thing is—”

“That was your favourite, was it?” asked Hoff, lowering his goblet. “It was the one about the Emperor’s daughter that most caught my fancy.” And he looked at Jezal with a twinkle in his eye that implied a story of a saucy tone.

“Honestly, your Grace, I’ve not the slightest idea how that rumour began. Nothing of the kind occurred, I assure you. The whole business appears somehow to have become greatly exaggerated—”

“Well, one glorious rumour is worth ten disappointing truths, would you not agree?”

Jezal blinked. “Well, er, I suppose—”

“In any case,” cut in Varuz, “the Closed Council have received excellent reports of your conduct while abroad.”

“They have?”

“Many and various reports, and all glowing.”

Jezal could not help grinning, though he had to wonder from whom such reports might have come. He could scarcely imagine Ferro Maljinn gushing about his fine qualities. “Well, your lordships are very kind, but I must—”

“As a result of your dedication and courage in this difficult and vital task, I am delighted to announce that you have been elevated to the rank of Colonel, with immediate effect.”

Jezal’s eyes opened up very wide. “I have?”

“You have indeed, my boy, and no one could deserve it more.”

To rise two ranks in one afternoon was an unprecedented honour, especially when he had fought in no battle, carried out no recent deeds of valour, and made no ultimate sacrifices. Unless you counted leaving off the most recent bedding of his best friend’s sister halfway. A sacrifice, no doubt, but scarcely the kind that usually earned the King’s favour.

“I, er, I…” He could not escape a glow of satisfaction. A new uniform, and more braid, and so forth, and more people to tell what to do. Glory and fame were meagre rewards, perhaps, but he had taken the risks already, and now had only to say yes. Had he not suffered? Had he not earned it?

He did not have to think about it for so very long. He scarcely had to think about it at all. The idea of leaving the army and settling down receded rapidly into the far distance. “I would be entirely honoured to accept this exceptional… er… honour.”

“Then we are all equally delighted,” said Hoff sourly. “Now to business. You are aware, Colonel Luthar, that there has been some trouble with the peasants of late?”

Surprisingly, no news had reached Ardee’s bedroom. “Nothing serious, surely, your Grace?”

“Not unless you call a full-blown revolt serious.”

“Revolt?” Jezal swallowed.

“This man, the Tanner,” spat the Lord Chamberlain. “He has been touring the countryside for months, whipping up dissatisfaction, sowing the seeds of disobedience, inciting the peasantry to crimes against their masters, against their lords, against their king!”

“No one ever suspected it would reach the point of open rebellion.” Varuz worked his mouth angrily. “But following a demonstration near Keln a group of peasants encouraged by this Tanner armed themselves and refused to disband. They won a victory over the local landowner, and the insurrection spread. Now we hear they crushed a significant force under Lord Finster yesterday, burned his manor house and hung three tax collectors. They are in the process of ravaging the countryside in the direction of Adua.”

“Ravaging?” murmured Jezal, glancing at the door. Ravaging really was a very ugly word.

“It is a most regrettable business,” bemoaned Marovia. “Half of them are honest men, faithful to their king, pushed to this through the greed of their landlords.”

Varuz sneered his disgust. “There can be no excuse for treason! The other half are thieves, and blackguards, and malcontents. They should be whipped to the gallows!”

“The Closed Council has made its decision,” cut in Hoff. “This Tanner has declared his intention to present a list of demands to the King. To the King! New freedoms. New rights. Every man the equal of his brother and other such dangerous nonsense. Soon it will become known that they are on their way and there will be panic. Riots in support of the peasants, and riots against them. Things are balanced on a knife edge already. Two wars in progress and the king in fading health, with no heir?” Hoff bashed at the table with his fist, making Jezal jump. “They must not be allowed to reach the city.”

Marshal Varuz clasped his hands before him. “The two regiments of the King’s Own that have remained in Midderland will be sent out to counter this threat. A list of concessions,” and he scowled as he said the word, “has been prepared. If the peasants will accept negotiation, and return to their homes, their lives can be spared. If this Tanner will not see reason, then his so-called army must be destroyed. Scattered. Broken up.”

“Killed,” said Hoff, rubbing at a stain on the table with his heavy thumb. “And the ringleaders delivered to his Majesty’s Inquisition.”

“Regrettable,” murmured Jezal, without thinking, feeling a cold shiver at the very mention of that institution.

“Necessary,” said Marovia, sadly shaking his head.

“But hardly straightforward.” Varuz frowned at Jezal across the table. “In each village, in each town, in every field and farm they have passed through they have picked up more recruits. The country is alive with malcontents. Ill-disciplined, of course, and ill-equipped, but at our last estimate they numbered some forty thousand.”

“Forty… thousand?” Jezal shifted his weight nervously. He had supposed they were perhaps discussing a few hundred, and those without proper footwear. There was no danger here, of course, safe behind the walls of the Agriont, the walls of the city. But forty thousand was an awful lot of very angry men. Even if they were peasants.

“The King’s Own are making their preparations: one regiment of horse and one of foot. All that is missing now is a commander for the expedition.”

“Huh,” grunted Jezal. He did not begrudge that unfortunate man his position, commanding a force outnumbered five to one against a bunch of savages buoyed up by righteousness and petty victories, drunk on hatred of noblemen and monarchy, thirsty for blood and loot…

Jezal’s eyes went wider still. “Me?”


He fumbled for the words. “I do not wish to seem… ungrateful, you understand, but, surely, I mean to say, there must be men better suited to the task. Lord Marshal, you yourself have—”

“This is a complicated time.” Hoff glared sternly at Jezal from beneath his bushy brows. “A very complicated time. We need someone without… affiliations. We need someone with a clean slate. You fit the bill admirably.”

“But… negotiating with peasants, your Grace, your Worship, Lord Marshal, I have no understanding of the issues! I have no understanding of law!”

“We are not blind to your deficiencies,” said Hoff. “That is why there will be a representative from the Closed Council with you. Someone who possesses unchallenged expertise in all those areas.”

A heavy hand slapped suddenly down on Jezal’s shoulder. “I told you it would be sooner rather than later, my boy!” Jezal slowly turned his head, a feeling of terrible dismay boiling up from his stomach, and there was the First of the Magi, grinning into his face from a distance of no more than a foot, very much present after all. It was no surprise, really, that the bald old meddler was involved in this. Strange and painful events seemed to follow in his wake like stray dogs barking behind the butcher’s wagon.

“The peasants’ army, if we can call it such, is camped within four days’ slovenly march of the city, spread out across the country, seeking for forage.” Varuz craned forward, poking at the table with a finger.

“You will proceed immediately to intercept them. Our hopes hang on this, Colonel Luthar. Do you understand your orders?”

“Yes, sir,” he whispered, trying and utterly failing to sound enthusiastic.

“The two of us, back together?” Bayaz chuckled. “They’d better run, eh, my boy?”

“Of course,” murmured Jezal, miserably. He had had his own chance to escape, his chance to start a new life, and he had given it up in return for an extra star or two on his jacket. Too late he realised his awful blunder. Bayaz’ grip tightened round his shoulder, drew him to a fatherly distance, and did not feel like releasing him. There really was no way out.

Jezal stepped out of the door to his quarters in a great hurry, cursing as he dragged his box behind him. It really was an awful imposition that he had been obliged to carry his own luggage, but time was extremely pressing if he was to save the Union from the madness of its own people. He had given only the briefest consideration to the idea of sprinting for the docks and taking passage on the first ship to distant Suljuk, before angrily dismissing it. He had taken the promotion with his eyes open, and now he supposed he had no choice but to see it through. Better to do it, than to live with the fear of it, and so forth. He twisted his key in the lock, turned around, and recoiled with a girlish gasp of shock. There was someone in the shadows opposite his door, and the feeling of horror only worsened when he realised who it was.

The cripple Glokta stood against the wall, leaning heavily on his cane and grinning his repulsive, toothless grin. “A word, Colonel Luthar.”

“If you are referring to this business with the peasants, it is well in hand.” Jezal was unable to keep the sneer of disgust entirely off his face. “You need not trouble yourself on that—”

“I am not referring to that business.”

“Then what?”

“Ardee West.”

The corridor seemed suddenly very empty, very quiet. The soldiers, the officers, the servants, all away in Angland. There were just the two of them, for all Jezal knew, in the entire barracks. “I fail to see how that is any concern of—”

“Her brother, our mutual friend Collem West, you do remember him? Worried-looking fellow, losing his hair. Bit of a temper.” Jezal felt a guilty flush across his face. He remembered the man well enough, of course, and his temper in particular. “He came to me shortly before departing for the war in Angland. He asked me to look to his sister’s welfare while he was away, risking his life. I promised to do so.” Glokta shuffled slightly closer and Jezal’s flesh crept. “A responsibility which, I assure you, I take as seriously as any task the Arch Lector might choose to give me.”

“I see,” croaked Jezal. That certainly explained the cripple’s presence at her house the other day, which had, until then, been causing him some confusion. He felt no easier in his mind, however. Considerably less, in fact.

“I hardly think that Collem West would be best pleased with what has been transpiring these last few days, do you?”

Jezal shifted guiltily from one foot to the other. “I admit that I have visited her—”

“Your visits,” whispered the cripple, “are not good for that girl’s reputation. We are left with three options. Firstly, and this is my personal favourite, you walk away, and you pretend you never met her, and you never see her again.”

“Unacceptable,” Jezal found himself saying, his voice surprisingly brash.

“Secondly, then, you marry the lady, and all’s forgotten.”

A course that Jezal was considering, but he was damned if he’d be bullied into it by this twisted remnant of a man. “And third?” he enquired, with what he felt was fitting contempt.

“Third?” A particularly disgusting flurry of twitches crawled up the side of Glokta’s wasted face. “I don’t think you want to know too much about number three. Let us only say that it will include a long night of passion with a furnace and a set of razors, and an even longer morning involving a sack, an anvil, and the bottom of the canal. You might find that one of the other two options suits you better.”

Before he knew what he was doing Jezal had taken a step forward, forcing Glokta to rock back, wincing, against the wall. “I do not have to explain myself to you! My visits are between me and the lady in question, but for your information, I long ago resolved to marry her, and am merely waiting for the right moment!” Jezal stood there in the darkness, hardly able to believe what he had heard himself say. Damn his mouth, it still landed him in all manner of trouble.

Glokta’s narrow left eye blinked. “Ah, lucky her.”

Jezal found himself moving forward again, almost butting the cripple in the face and crushing him helpless against the wall. “That’s right! So you can shove your threats up your crippled arse!”

Even squashed against the wall, Glokta’s surprise only lasted an instant. Then he leered his toothless grin, his eyelid fluttering and a long tear running down his gaunt cheek. “Why, Colonel Luthar, it is difficult for me to concentrate with you so very close.” He stroked the front of Jezal’s uniform with the back of his hand. “Especially given your unexpected interest in my arse.” Jezal jerked back, mouth sour with disgust. “It seems that Bayaz succeeded where Varuz failed, eh? He taught you where your spine is! My congratulations on your forthcoming wedding. But I think I’ll keep my razors handy, just in case you don’t follow through. I’m so glad we had this chance to talk.” And Glokta limped off towards the stairs, his cane tapping on the boards, his left boot scraping along behind.

“As am I!” shouted Jezal after him. But nothing could have been further from the truth.


Uffrith didn’t look much like it used to. Of course, the last time Logen had seen the place had been years ago, at night, after the siege. Crowds of Bethod’s Carls wandering the streets—shouting, and singing, and drinking. Looking for folk to rob and rape, setting fire to anything that would hold a flame. Logen remembered lying in that room after he’d beaten Threetrees, crying and gurgling at the pain all through him. He remembered scowling out the window and seeing the glow from the flames, listening to the screams over the town, wishing he was out there making mischief and wondering if he’d ever stand up again.

It was different now, with the Union in charge, but it wasn’t so very much more organised. The grey harbour was choked with ships too big for the wharves. Soldiers swarmed through the narrow streets, dropping gear all over. Carts and mules and horses, all loaded down and piled up, tried to shove a way through the press. Wounded limped on crutches down towards the docks, or were carried on stretchers through the spotting drizzle, bloody bandages stared at wide-eyed by the fresh-faced lads going the other way. Here and there, looking greatly puzzled at this mighty flood of strange people sweeping through their town, some Northerner was standing in a doorway. Women mostly, and children, and old men.

Logen walked fast up the sloping streets, pushing through the crowds with his head down and his hood up. He kept his fists bunched at his sides, so no one would see the stump of his missing finger. He kept the sword that Bayaz had given him wrapped up in a blanket on his back, under his pack, where it wouldn’t make anyone nervous. All the same, his shoulders prickled every step of the way. He was waiting to hear someone shout, “It’s the Bloody-Nine!” He was waiting for folk to start running, screaming, pelting him with rubbish, faces all stamped with horror.

But no one did. One more figure that didn’t belong was nothing to look at in all that damp chaos, and if anyone might have known him here, they weren’t looking for him. Most likely they’d all heard he went back to the mud, far away, and were good and glad about it too. Still, there was no point staying longer than he had to. He strode up to a Union officer who looked as if he might be in charge of something, pushed his hood back and tried to put a smile on his face.

He got a scornful look for his trouble. “We’ve no work for you, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“You don’t have my kind of work.” Logen held out the letter that Bayaz had given him.

The man unfolded it and looked it over. He frowned and read it again. Then he looked doubtfully up at Logen, mouth working. “Well then. I see.” He pointed towards a crowd of young men, standing nervous and uncertain a few strides away, huddled miserably together as the rain started to thicken up. “There’s a convoy of reinforcements leaving for the front this afternoon. You can travel with us.”

“Fair enough.” They didn’t look like they’d be much reinforcement, those scared-seeming lads, but that didn’t matter to him. He didn’t much care who he travelled with, as long as they were pointed at Bethod.

The trees clattered by on either side of the road—dim green and black, full of shadows. Full of surprises, maybe. It was a tough way to travel. Tough on the hands from clinging to the rail all the way, even tougher on the arse from bouncing and jolting on that hard seat. But they were getting there, gradually, and Logen reckoned that was the main thing.

There were more carts behind, spread out in a slow line along the road, loaded down with men, food, clothes, weapons, and all the stuff you need to make a war. Each one had a lamp lit, hanging up near the front, so there was a trail of bobbing lights in the dull dusk, down into the valley and up the far slope, marking out the path of the road they’d followed through the woods.

Logen turned and looked at the Union boys, gathered up in a clump near the front of the cart. Nine of them, all jolting and swaying about together with the jumping of the axles, and all keeping as well clear of him as they could.

“You seen scars like that on a man before?” one muttered, not guessing he could speak their tongue.

“Who is he anyway?”

“Dunno. A Northman, I guess.”

“I can see he’s a Northman, idiot. I mean what’s he doing here with us?”

“Maybe he’s a scout.”

“Big bastard for a scout, ain’t he?”

Logen grinned to himself as he watched the trees roll past. He felt the cool breeze on his face, smelled the mist, the earth, the cold, wet, air. He never would have thought he’d be happy to be back in the North, but he was. It was good, after all that time a stranger, to be in a place where he knew the rules.

They camped out on the road, the ten of them. One group out of many, strung out through the woods, each one clustered close to their cart. Nine lads on one side of a big fire, a pot of stew bubbling over the top of it and giving off a fine-smelling steam. Logen watched them stirring it, talking to each other about home, and what was coming, and how long they’d be out there.

After a while one of them started spooning the food out into bowls and handing them round. He looked over at Logen, once he was done with the rest, then served up one more. He edged over like he was coming at a wolfs cage.

“Er…” He held the bowl out at arm’s length. “Stew?” He opened his mouth up wide and pointed into it with his free hand.

“Thanks, friend,” said Logen as he took the bowl, “but I know where to put it.”

The lads all stared at him, a row of worried-looking faces, lit up flickering yellow on the far side of the fire, more suspicious than ever at him speaking their language. “You talk common? You kept that quiet, didn’t you?”

“Best to seem less than you are, in my experience.”

“If you say so,” said the lad who’d given him the bowl. “What’s your name, then?”

Logen wondered for a moment if he should make up a lie. Some nothing name that no one could have heard of. But he was who he was, and sooner or later someone would know him. That, and he’d never been much at lying. “Logen Ninefingers, they call me.”

The lads looked blank. They’d never heard of him, and why would they have? A bunch of farmers’ sons from far away, in the sunny Union. They looked like they barely knew their own names.

“What are you here for?” one of them asked him.

“Same as you. I’m here to kill.” The boys looked a bit nervy at that. “Not you, don’t worry. I’ve got some scores to settle.” He nodded off up the road. “With Bethod.”

The lads exchanged some glances, then one of them shrugged. “Well. Long as you’re on our side, I guess.” He got up and dragged a bottle out of his pack. “You want a drink?”

“Well, now.” Logen grinned and held out his cup. “I’ve never yet said no to that.” He knocked it down in one, smacked his lips as he felt it warming his gullet. The lad poured him another. “Thanks. Best not give me too much, though.”

“Why?” he asked. “Will you kill us then?”

“Kill you? If you’re lucky.”

“And if we’re not?”

Logen grinned over his mug. “I’ll sing.”

The lad cracked a smile at that, and one of his mates started laughing. Next moment an arrow hissed into his side and he coughed blood down his shirt, the bottle dropping on the grass, wine gurgling out in the dark. Another boy had a shaft sticking in his thigh. He sat there, frozen, staring down at it. “Where did that…” Then everyone was shouting, fumbling for weapons or throwing themselves flat on their faces. A couple more arrows whizzed over, one clattering into the fire and sending up a shower of sparks.

Logen threw his stew away, snatched up his sword and started running. He blundered into one of the boys on the way and knocked him on his face, slipped and slid, righted himself and ran full tilt for the trees where the arrow came from. It was run right at them, or run away, and he made the choice without thinking. Sometimes it doesn’t matter too much what choice you make, as long as you make it quick and stick to it. Logen saw one of the archers as he rushed up close, a flash of his pale skin in the darkness as he reached for another arrow. He pulled the Maker’s sword from its tattered sheath and let go a fighting roar.

The bowman could’ve got his arrow away before Logen was on him, most likely, but it would’ve been a close thing, and in the end he didn’t have the bones to stand there waiting. Not many men can weigh their choices properly while death comes racing up at them. He dropped the bow too late and turned to run, and Logen hacked him in the back before he got more than a stride or two, knocked him screaming into the bushes. He dragged himself round face up, all tangled in the brush, screeching and fumbling for a knife. Logen lifted the sword to finish the job. Then blood sprayed out of the archer’s mouth and he trembled, fell back and was quiet.

“Still alive,” Logen mouthed to himself, squatting down low beside the corpse, straining into the darkness. It would probably have been better for all concerned if he’d run the other way, but it was a bit late for that. Probably have been better if he’d stayed in Adua, but it was a bit late for that too.

“Bloody North,” he cursed in a whisper. If he let these bastards go they’d be making mischief all the way to the front and Logen wouldn’t get a wink of sleep for worrying, aside from the good chance of an arrow in his face. Better odds coming for them, than waiting for them to come to him. A lesson he’d learned from hard experience.

He could hear the rest of the ambush crashing away through the brush and he set out after them, fist clenched tight round the grip of his sword. He felt his way between the trunks, keeping his distance. The light of the fire and the noise of the Union boys shouting dwindled behind him until he was deep in the woods, smelling of pines and wet earth, only the sound of men’s hurrying feet to guide him. He made himself part of the forest, the way he had in the old days. It wasn’t so hard to do. The knack came right back as though he’d been creeping in the trees every night for years. Voices echoed through the night, and Logen pressed himself still and silent up behind a pine-trunk, listening.

“Where’s Dirty-Nose?”

There was a pause. “Dead, I reckon.”

“Dead? How?”

“They had someone with ’em, Crow. Some big fucker.” Crow. Logen knew the name. Knew the voice too, now that he heard it. A Named Man who’d fought for Littlebone. You couldn’t have called them friends, him and Logen, but they’d known each other. They’d been close together in the line at Carleon, fighting side by side. And now here they were again with no more than a few strides between them, more than willing to kill each other. Strange, the turns fate can take. Fighting with a man and fighting against him are only a whisker apart. Far closer together than not fighting at all.

“Northman, was he?” came Crow’s voice.

“Might’ve been. Whoever it was he knew his business. Came up real quick. I didn’t have time to get a shaft away.”

“Bastard! We ain’t letting that pass. We’ll camp out here and follow ’em tomorrow. Might be we’ll get him then, this big one.”

“Oh aye, we’ll fucking get him. Don’t you worry about that none. I’ll cut his neck for him, the bastard.”

“Good for you. ’Til then you can keep an eye open for him while the rest of us catch some sleep. Might be the anger’ll keep you awake this time, eh?”

“Aye, chief. Right y’are.”

Logen sat and watched, catching glimpses through the trees as four of them spread out their blankets and rolled up to sleep. The fifth took his place, back to the others, and looked out the way they’d come, sitting guard. Logen waited, and he heard one begin to snore. Some rain started up, and it tapped and trickled on the branches of the pines. After a while it spattered into his hair, into his clothes, ran down his face and fell to the wet earth, drip, drip, drip. Logen sat, still and silent as a stone.

It can be a fearsome weapon, patience. One that few men ever learn to use. A hard thing, to keep your mind on killing once you’re out of danger and your blood’s cooled off. But Logen had always had the trick of it. So he sat and let the slow time sneak by, and thought about long ago, until the moon was high, and there was pale light washing down between the trees with the tickling rain. Pale light enough for him to see his tasks by.

He uncurled his legs and started moving, working his way between the tree trunks, planting his feet nice and gentle in the brush. The rain was his ally, patter and trickle masking the soft sounds his boots made as he circled round behind the guard.

He slid out a knife, wet blade glinting once in the patchy moonlight, and he padded out from the trees and through their camp. Between the sleeping men, close enough to touch them. Close as a brother. The guard sniffed and shifted unhappily, dragging his wet blanket round his shoulders, all beaded up with twinkling rain drops. Logen stopped and waited, looked down at the pale face of one of the sleepers, turned sideways, eyes closed and mouth wide open, breath making faint smoke in the clammy night.

The guard was still now, and Logen slipped up close behind him, holding his breath. He reached out with his left hand, fingers working in the misty air, feeling for the moment. He reached out with his right hand, fist clenched tight round the hard grip of his knife. He felt his lips curling back from his gritted teeth. Now was the time, and when the time comes, you strike with no backward glances.

Logen reached round and clamped his hand tight over the guard’s mouth, cut his throat quick and hard, deep enough that he felt the blade scraping on his neck bones. He jerked and struggled for a moment, but Logen held him tight, tight as a lover, and he made no more than a quiet gurgle. Logen felt blood over his hands, hot and sticky. He didn’t worry yet about the others. If one of them woke all they’d see would be the outline of one man in the darkness, and that was all they were expecting.

It wasn’t long before the guard went limp, and Logen laid him down gently on his side, head flopping. Four shapes lay there under their wet blankets, helpless. Maybe there’d been a time when Logen would’ve had to work himself up to a job like this. When he’d have had to think about why it was the right thing to do. But if there had been, it was long gone. Up in the North, the time you spend thinking will be the time you get killed in. All they were now were four tasks to get done.

He crept up to the first, lifted his bloody knife, overhand, and stabbed him clean in the heart right through his coat, hand pressed over his mouth. He died quieter than he slept. Logen came up on the second one, ready to do the same. His boot clattered into something metal. Water flask, maybe. Whatever it was, it made quite the racket. The sleeping man’s eyes worked open, he started to lift himself up. Logen rammed the knife in his gut and dragged at it, slitting his belly open. He made a kind of a wheeze, mouth and eyes wide, clutching at Logen’s arm.

“Eh?” The third one sat straight up and staring. Logen tore his hand free and heaved his sword out. “Wha’ the—” The man lifted his arm up, on an instinct, and the dull blade took his hand off at the wrist and chopped deep into his skull, sending black spots of blood showering into the wet air and knocking him down on his back.

But that gave the last of them time enough to roll out of his blanket and grab up an axe. Now he stood hunched over, hands spread out, fighting ready like a man who’d had plenty of practice at it. Crow. Logen could hear his breath hissing, see it smoking in the rain.

“You should’ve started wi’ me!” he hissed.

Logen couldn’t deny it. He’d been concentrating on getting them all killed, and hadn’t paid much mind to the order. Still, it was a bit late to worry now. He shrugged. “Start or finish, ain’t too much difference.”

“We’ll see.” Crow weighed his axe in the misty air, shifting around, looking for an opening. Logen stood still and caught his breath, the sword hanging down by his side, the grip cold and wet in his clenched fist. He’d never been much of a one for moving until it was time. “Best tell me your name, while you still got breath in you. I like to know who I’ve killed.”

“You already know me, Crow.” Logen held his other hand up, and he let the fingers spread out, and the moonlight glinted black on his bloody hand, and on the bloody stump of his missing finger. “We were side by side in the line at Carleon. Never thought you’d all forget me so soon. But things don’t often turn out the way we expect, eh?”

He’d stopped moving now, had Crow. Logen couldn’t see more than a gleam of his eyes in the dark, but he could tell the doubt and the fear in the way he stood. “No,” he whispered, shaking his head in the darkness. “Can’t be! Ninefingers is dead!”

“That so?” Logen took a deep breath and pushed it out, slow, into the wet night. “Reckon I must be his ghost.”

They’d dug some sort of a hole to squat in, the Union lads, sacks and boxes up on the sides as a rampart. Logen could see the odd face moving over the top, staring off into the trees, the dull light from the guttering fire glinting on an arrow head or a spear tip. Dug in, watching for another ambush. If they’d been nervy before, they were most likely shitting themselves now. Probably one of them would get scared and shoot him as soon as he made himself known. Damn Union bows had a trigger that went off at a touch, once they were drawn. Would have been just about his luck, to get killed over nothing in the middle of nowhere, and by his own side too, but he didn’t have much of a choice. Not unless he wanted to walk up to the front.

So he cleared his throat and called out. “Now no one shoot or anything!” A string went and a bolt thudded into a tree a couple of strides to his left. Logen hunched down against the wet earth. “No one shoot, I said!”

“Who’s out there?”

“It’s me, Ninefingers!” Silence. “The Northman who was on the cart!”

A long pause, and some whispering. “Alright! But come out slow, and keep your hands where we can see them!”

“Fair enough!” He straightened up and crept out from the trees, hands held high. “Just don’t shoot me, eh? That’s your end of the deal!”

He walked across the ground towards the fire, arms spread out, wincing at the thought of getting a bolt in his chest any minute. He recognised the faces of the lads from before, them and the officer who had charge of the supply column. A couple of them followed him with their bows as he stepped slowly over the makeshift parapet and down into the trench. It had been dug along in front of the fire, but not that well, and there was a big puddle in the bottom.

“Where the hell did you get to?” demanded the officer angrily.

“Tracking them that ambushed us tonight.”

“Did you catch ’em?” one of the boys asked.

“That I did.”


“Dead.” Logen nodded at the puddle in the bottom of the hole. “So you needn’t sleep in the water tonight. Any of that stew left?”

“How many were there?” snapped the officer.

Logen poked around the embers of the fire, but the pot was empty. Just his luck, again. “Five.”

“You, on your own, against five?”

“There were six to begin with, but I killed one at the start. He’s in the trees over there somewhere.” Logen dug a heel of bread out of his pack and rubbed it round the inside of the pot, trying to get a bit of meat grease on there, at least. “I waited until they were sleeping, so I only had to fight one of ’em, face to face. Always been lucky that way, I guess.” He didn’t feel that lucky. Looking at his hand in the firelight, it was still stained with blood. Dark blood under his fingernails, dried into the lines in his palm. “Always been lucky.”

The officer hardly looked convinced. “How do we know that you aren’t one of them? That you weren’t spying on us? That they aren’t waiting out there now, for you to give them a signal when we’re vulnerable?”

“You’ve been vulnerable the whole way,” snorted Logen. “But it’s a fair question. I thought you might ask it.” He pulled the canvas bag out from his belt. “That’s why I brought you this.” The officer frowned as he reached out for it, shook it open, peered suspiciously inside. He swallowed. “Like I said, there were five. So you got ten thumbs in there. That satisfy you?”

The officer looked more sick than satisfied, but he nodded, lips squeezed together, and held the bag back out to him at arm’s length.

Logen shook his head. “Keep it. It’s a finger I’m missing. I got all the thumbs I need.”

The cart lurched to a stop. For the last mile or two they’d moved at a crawl. Now the road, if you could use the word about a sea of mud, was choked up with floundering men. They squelched their way from one near solid spot to another, flowing through the thin rain between the press of mired carts and unhappy horses, the stacks of crates and barrels, the ill-pitched tents. Logen watched a group of filth-caked lads straining at a wagon stuck up to its axles in the muck, without much success. It was like seeing an army sink slowly into a bog. A vast shipwreck, on land.

Logen’s travelling companions were down to seven now, hunched and gaunt, looking mighty tired from sleepless nights and bad weather on the trail. One dead, one sent back to Uffrith already with an arrow in his leg. Not the best start to their time in the North, but Logen doubted it would get any better from here on. He clambered down off the back of the cart, boots sinking into the well-rutted mud, arched his back and stretched his aching legs out, dragged his pack down.

“Luck, then,” he said to the lads. None of them spoke. They’d hardly said a word to him since the night of the ambush. Most likely that whole business with the thumbs had got them worried. But if that was the worst they saw while they were up here they’d have done alright, Logen reckoned. He shrugged and turned away, started floundering through the muck.

Just up ahead the officer from the supply column was being dealt a talking-to by a tall, grim-looking man in a red uniform, seemed like the closest thing they had in all this mess to someone in charge. It took Logen a minute to recognise him. They’d sat together at a feast, in very different surroundings, and they’d talked of war. He looked older, leaner, tougher, now. He had a hard frown on his face and a lot of hard grey in his wet hair, but he grinned when he saw Logen standing there, and walked up to him with his hand out.

“By the dead,” he said in good Northern, “but fate can play some tricks. I know you.”


“Ninefingers, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right. And you’re West. From Angland.”

“That I am. Sorry I can’t give you a better welcome, but the army only got up here a day or two ago and, as you can see, things aren’t quite in order yet. Not there, idiot!” he roared at a driver trying to get his cart between two others, the space between them nowhere near wide enough. “Do you have such a thing as summer in this bloody country?”

“You’re looking at it. Didn’t you see winter?”

“Huh. You’ve a point there. What brings you up here, anyway?”

Logen handed West the letter. He hunched over to shield it from the rain and read it, frowning.

“Signed by Lord Chamberlain Hoff, eh?”

“That a good thing?”

West pursed his lips as he handed the letter back. “I suppose that depends. It means you’ve got some powerful friends. Or some powerful enemies.”

“Bit of both, maybe.”

West grinned. “I find they go together. You’ve come to fight?”

“That I have.”

“Good. We can always use a man with experience.” He watched the recruits clambering down off the carts and gave a long sigh. “We’ve still got far too many here without. You should go up and join the rest of the Northmen.”

“You’ve got Northmen with you?”

“We have, and more coming over every day. Seems that a lot of them aren’t too happy with the way their King has been leading them. About his deal with the Shanka in particular.”

“Deal? With the Shanka?” Logen frowned. He’d never have thought that even Bethod would stoop that low, but it was hardly the first time he’d been disappointed. “He’s got Flatheads fighting with him?”

“He certainly does. He’s got Flatheads, and we’ve got Northmen. It’s a strange world, alright.”

“That it surely is,” said Logen, shaking his head. “How many do you have?”

“About three hundred, I’d say, at last count, though they don’t take too well to being counted.”

“Reckon I’ll make it three hundred and one, then, if you’ll have me.”

“They’re camped up there, on the left wing,” and he pointed towards the dark outline of trees against the evening sky.

“Right enough. Who’s the chief?”

“Fellow called the Dogman.”

Logen stared at him for a long moment. “Called the what?”

“Dogman. You know him?”

“You could say that,” whispered Logen, a smile spreading right across his face. “You could say that.”

Dusk was pressing on fast and night was pressing in fast behind, and they’d just got the long fire burning as Logen walked up. He could see the shapes of the Carls taking their places down each side of it, heads and shoulders cut out black against the flames. He could hear their voices and their laughter, loud in the still evening now the rain had stopped.

It had been a long time since he heard a crowd of men all speaking Northern, and it sounded strange in his ears, even if it was his own tongue. It brought back some ugly memories. Crowds of men shouting at him, shouting for him. Crowds charging into battle, cheering their victories, mourning their dead. He could smell meat cooking from somewhere. A sweet, rich smell that tickled his nose and made his gut grumble.

There was a torch set up on a pole by the path, and a bored-looking lad stood underneath it with a spear, frowning at Logen as he walked up. Must’ve drawn the short straw, to be on guard while the others were eating, and he didn’t look too happy about it.

“What d’you want?” he growled.

“You got the Dogman here?”

“Aye, what of it?”

“I’ll need to speak to him.”

“Will you, now?”

Another man walked up, well past his prime, with a shock of grey hair and a leathery face. “What we got here?”

“New recruit,” grumbled the lad. “Wants to see the chief.”

The old man squinted at Logen, frowning. “Do I know you, friend?”

Logen lifted up his face so the torchlight fell across it. Better to look a man in the eye, and let him see you, and show him you feel no fear. That was the way his father had taught him. “I don’t know. Do you?”

“Where did you come over from? Whitesides’ crew, is it?”

“No. I been working alone.”

“Alone? Well, now. Seems like I recognise—” The old boy’s eyes opened up wide, and his jaw sagged open, and his face went white as cut chalk. “By all the fucking dead,” he whispered, taking a stumbling step back. “It’s the Bloody-Nine!”

Maybe Logen had been hoping no one would know him. That they’d all have forgotten. That they’d have new things to worry them, and he’d be just a man like any other. But now he saw that look on the old boy’s face—that shitting-himself look, and it was clear enough how it would be. Just the way it used to be. And the worst of it was, now that Logen was recognised, and he saw that fear, and that horror, and that respect, he wasn’t sure that he didn’t like seeing it. He’d earned it, hadn’t he? After all, facts are facts.

He was the Bloody-Nine.

The lad didn’t quite get it yet. “Having a joke on me are yer? You’ll be telling me it’s Bethod his self come over next, eh?” But no one laughed, and Logen lifted his hand up and stared through the gap where his middle finger used to be. The lad looked from that stump, to the trembling old man and back.

“Shit,” he croaked.

“Where’s your chief, boy?” Logen’s own voice scared him. Flat, and dead, and cold as the winter.

“He’s… he’s…” The lad raised a quivering finger to point towards the fires.

“Well then. Guess I’ll sniff him out myself.” The two of them edged out of Logen’s way. He didn’t exactly smile as he passed. More he drew his lips back to show them his teeth. There was a certain reputation to be lived up to, after all. “No need to worry,” he hissed in their faces. “I’m on your side, ain’t I?”

No one said a word to him as he walked along behind the Carls, up towards the head of the fire. A couple of them glanced over their shoulders, but nothing more than any newcomer in a camp might get. They’d no idea who he was, yet, but they soon would have. That lad and that old man would be whispering, and the whispers would spread around the fire, as whispers do, and everyone would be watching him.

He started as a great shadow moved beside him, so big he’d taken it for a tree at first. A huge, big man, scratching at his beard, smiling at the fire. Tul Duru. There could be no mistaking the Thunderhead, even in the half-light. Not a man that size. Made Logen wonder afresh how the hell he’d beaten him in the first place.

He felt a strange urge, right then, just to put his head down and walk past, off into the night and never look back. Then he wouldn’t have to be the Bloody-Nine again. It would just have been a fresh lad and an old man, swore they saw a ghost one night. He could’ve gone far away, and started new, and been whoever he wanted. But he’d tried that once already, and it had done him no good. The past was always right behind him, breathing on his neck. It was time to turn around and face it.

“Alright there, big lad.” Tul peered at him in the dusk, orange light and black shadow shifting across his big rock of a face, his big rug of a beard.

“Who… hold on…” Logen swallowed. He’d no idea, now he thought about it, what any of them might make of seeing him again. They’d been enemies long before they were friends, after all. Each one of them had fought him. Each one had been keen to kill him, and with good reasons too. Then he’d run off south and left them to the Shanka. What if all he got after a year or more apart was a cold look?

Then Tul grabbed hold of him and folded him in a crushing hug. “You’re alive!” He let go of him long enough to check he had the right man, then hugged him again.

“Aye, I’m alive,” wheezed Logen, just enough breath left in him to say it. Seemed he’d get one warm welcome, at least.

Tul was grinning all over his face. “Come on.” And he beckoned Logen after. “The lads are going to shit!”

He followed Tul, his heart beating in his mouth, up to the head of the fire, where the chief would sit with his closest Named Men. And there they were, sat around on the ground. Dogman was in the middle, muttering something quiet to Dow. Grim was on the other side, leaning on one elbow, fiddling with the flights on his arrows. It was just like nothing had changed.

“Got someone here to see you, Dogman,” said Tul, his voice squeaky from keeping the surprise in.

“Have you, now?” Dogman peered up at Logen, but he was hidden in the shadows behind Tul’s great shoulder. “Can’t it wait ’til after we’ve eaten?”

“Do you know, I don’t think it can.”

“Why? Who is it?”

“Who is it?” Tul grabbed Logen’s shoulder and shoved him lurching out into the firelight. “It’s only Logen fucking Ninefingers!” Logen’s boot slid in the mud and he nearly pitched on his arse, had to wave his arms around all over to keep his balance. The talk around the fire all sputtered out in a moment and every face was turned towards him. Two long, frozen rows of them, slack in the shifting light, no sound but the sighing wind and the crackling fire. The Dogman stared up at him as though he was seeing the dead walk, his mouth hanging wider and wider open with every passing moment.

“I thought you was all killed,” said Logen as he got his balance back. “Guess there’s such a thing as being too realistic.”

Dogman got to his feet, slowly. He held out his hand, and Logen took hold of it.

There was nothing to say. Not for men who’d been through as much as the two of them had together—fighting the Shanka, crossing the mountains, getting through the wars, and after. Years of it. Dogman pressed his hand and Logen slapped his other hand on top of it, and Dogman slapped his other hand on top of that. They grinned at each other, and nodded, and things were back the way they had been. Nothing needed saying.

“Grim. Good to see you.”

“Uh,” grunted Grim, handing him up a mug then looking back to his shafts, just as though Logen had gone for a piss a minute ago and come back a minute later like everyone had expected. Logen had to grin. He’d have hoped for nothing else.

“That Black Dow hiding down there?”

“I’d have hidden better if I knew you were coming.” Dow looked Logen up and down with a grin not entirely welcoming. “If it ain’t Ninefingers his self. Thought you said he went over a cliff?” he barked at Dogman.

“That’s what I saw.”

“Oh, I went over.” Logen remembered the wind in his mouth, the rock and the snow turning around him, the crash as the water crushed his breath out. “I went on over and I washed up whole, more or less.” Dogman made room for him on the stretched-out hides by the fire, and he sat down, and the others sat near him.

Dow was shaking his head. “You always was a lucky bastard when it came to staying alive. I should’ve known you’d turn up.”

“I thought the Flatheads had got you all sure,” said Logen. “How d’you get out of there?”

“Threetrees got us out,” said Dogman.

Tul nodded. “Led us out and over the mountains, and hunted through the North, and all the way down into Angland.”

“Squabbling all the way like a bunch of old women, no doubt?”

Dogman grinned across at Dow. “There was some moaning on the trail.”

“Where’s Threetrees now, then?” Logen was looking forward to having a word with that old boy.

“Dead,” said Grim.

Logen winced. He’d guessed that might be the way, since Dogman was in charge. Tul nodded his big head. “Died fighting. Leading a charge, into the Shanka. Died fighting that thing. That Feared.”

“Bastard fucking thing.” And Dow hawked some spit into the mud.

“What about Forley?”

“Dead n’all,” barked Dow. “He went into Carleon, to warn Bethod that the Shanka were coming over the mountains. Calder had him killed, just for the sport of it. Bastard!” And he spat again. He’d always been a great one for spitting, had Dow.

“Dead.” Logen shook his head. Forley dead, and Threetrees dead, it was a damn shame. But it wasn’t so long since he thought the whole lot of them were back in the mud, so four still going was quite the bonus, in a way. “Well. Good men both. The best, and died well, by the sound of it. As well as men can, anyway.”

“Aye,” said Tul, lifting up a mug. “As well as you can. Here’s to the dead.”

They all drank in silence, and Logen smacked his lips at the taste of beer. Too long away. “So, a year gone by,” grunted Dow. “We done some killing, and we walked a damn long way, and we fought in a bastard of a battle. We lost two men and we got us a new chief. What the hell you been up to, Ninefingers?”

“Well… that there is some kind of a tale.” Logen wondered what kind, exactly, and found he wasn’t sure. “I thought the Shanka got you all, since life’s taught me to expect the worst, so I went south, and I fell in with this wizard. I went a sort of journey with him, across the sea and far away, to find some kind of a thing, which when we got there… weren’t there.” It all sounded more than a bit mad now he said it.

“What kind of a thing?” asked Tul, his face all screwed up with puzzlement.

“Do you know what?” Logen sucked at his teeth, tasting of drink. “I can’t say that I really know.” They all looked at each other as if they never heard such a damn-fool story, and Logen had to admit they probably hadn’t. “Still, it hardly matters now. Turns out life ain’t quite the bastard I took it for.” And he gave Tul a friendly clap on the back.

The Dogman puffed out his cheeks. “Well, we’re glad you’re back, anyway. Guess you’ll be taking your place again now, eh?”

“My place?”

“You’ll be taking over, no? I mean to say, you were chief.”

“Used to be, maybe, but I’ve no plans to go back to it. Seems as if these lads are happy enough with things the way they are.”

“But you know a sight more than me about leading men—”

“I don’t know that’s a fact. Me being in charge never worked out too well for anyone, now did it? Not for us, not for those who fought with us, not for them we fought against.” Logen hunched his shoulders at the memories. “I’ll put my word in, if you want it, but I’d sooner follow you. I did my time, and it wasn’t a good one.”

Dogman looked like he’d been hoping for a different outcome. “Well… if you’re sure…”

“I’m sure.” And Logen slapped him on the shoulder. “Not easy, is it, being chief?”

“No,” grumbled Dogman. “It bloody ain’t.”

“Besides, I reckon a lot of these lads have been on the other side of an argument with me before, and they’re not altogether pleased to see me.” Logen looked down the fire at the hard faces, heard the mutterings with his name in them, too quiet to tell the matter for sure, but he could guess that it wasn’t complimentary.

“They’ll be glad enough to have you alongside ’em when the fighting starts, don’t worry about that.”

“Maybe.” Seemed an awful shame that he’d have to set to killing before folk would give him so much as a nod. Sharp looks came at him from out the dark, flicking away when he looked back. There was only one man, more or less, who met his eye. A big lad with long hair, halfway down the fire.

“Who’s that?” asked Logen.

“Who’s what?”

“That lad down there staring at me.”

“That there is Shivers.” Dogman sucked at his pointed teeth. “He’s got a lot of bones, Shivers. Fought with us a few times now, and he does it damn well. First of all I’ll tell you he’s a good man and we owe him. Then I ought to mention that he’s Rattleneck’s son.”

Logen felt a wave of sickness. “He’s what?”

“His other son.”

“The boy?”

“Long time ago now, all that. Boys grow up.”

A long time ago, maybe, but nothing was forgotten. Logen could see that straight away. Nothing was ever forgotten, up here in the North, and he should’ve known better than to think it might be. “I should say something to him. If we have to fight together… I should say something.”

Dogman winced. “Might be better that you don’t. Some wounds are best not picked at. Eat, and talk to him in the morning. Everything sounds fairer in the daylight. That or you can decide against it.”

“Uh,” grunted Grim.

Logen stood up. “You’re right, most likely, but it’s better to do it—”

“Than to live with the fear of it.” Dogman nodded into the fire. “You been missed, Logen, and that’s a fact.”

“You too, Dogman. You too.”

He walked down through the darkness, smelly with smoke and meat and men, along behind the Carls sitting at the fire. He felt them hunching their shoulders, muttering as he passed. He knew what they were thinking. The Bloody-Nine, right behind me, and there’s no worse man in the world to have your back to. He could see Shivers watching him all the way, one eye cold through his long hair, lips pressed together in a hard line. He had a knife out for eating, but just as good for stabbing a man. Logen watched the firelight gleaming on its edge as he squatted down beside him.

“So you’re the Bloody-Nine.”

Logen grimaced. “Aye. I reckon.”

Shivers nodded, still staring at him. “This is what the Bloody-Nine looks like.”

“Hope you’re not disappointed.”

“Oh no. Not me. Good to have a face on you, after all this time.”

Logen looked down at the ground, trying to think of some way to come at it. Some way to move his hands, or set his face, some words that might start to make the tiniest part of it right. “Those were hard times, back then,” he ended up saying.

“Harder’n now?”

Logen chewed at his lip. “Well, maybe not.”

“Times are always hard, I reckon,” said Shivers between gritted teeth. “That ain’t an excuse for doing a runny shit.”

“You’re right. There ain’t any excuses for what I did. I’m not proud of it. Don’t know what else I can say, except I hope you can put it out of the way, and we can fight side by side.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Shivers, and his voice was strangled-sounding, like he was trying not to shout, or trying not to cry, or both at once, maybe. “It’s a hard thing to just put behind me. You killed my brother, when you’d promised him mercy, and you cut his arms and legs off, and you nailed his head on Bethod’s standard.” His knuckles were trembling white round the grip of his knife, and Logen saw that it was taking all he had not to stab him in the face, and he didn’t blame him. He didn’t blame him one bit. “My father never was the same after that. He’d nothing in him any more. I spent a lot of years dreaming of killing you, Bloody-Nine.”

Logen nodded, slowly. “Well. You’ll never be alone with that dream.”

He caught other cold looks from across the flames, now. Frowns in the shadows, grim faces in the flickering light. Men he didn’t even know, afraid to their bones, or nursing scores against him. A whole lot of fear and a whole lot of scores. He could count on the fingers of one hand the folk who were pleased to see him alive. Even missing a finger. And this was supposed to be his side of the fight.

Dogman had been right. Some wounds are best not picked at. Logen got up, his shoulders prickling, and walked back to the head of the fire, where the talk came easier. He’d no doubt Shivers wanted to kill him just as much as he ever had, but that was no surprise.

You have to be realistic. No words could ever make right the things he’d done.

Bad Debts

Superior Glokta,

Though I believe that we have never been formally introduced, I have heard your name mentioned often these past few weeks. Without causing offence, I hope, it seems as if every room I enter you have recently left, or are due soon to arrive in, and every negotiation I undertake is made more complicated by your involvement.

Although our employers are very much opposed in this business, there is no reason why we should not behave like civilised men. It may be that you and I can hammer out between us an understanding that will leave us both with less work and more progress.

I will be waiting for you at the slaughter-yard near the Four Corners tomorrow morning from six. My apologies for such a noisy choice of spot but I feel our conversation would be better kept private.

I daresay that neither one of us is to be put off by a little ordure underfoot.

Harlen Morrow,

Secretary to High Justice Marovia.

Being kind, the place stank. It would seem that a few hundred live pigs do not smell so sweet as one would expect. The floor of the shadowy warehouse was slick with their stinking slurry, the thick air full of their desperate noise. They honked and squealed, grunted and jostled each other in their writhing pens, sensing, perhaps, that the slaughterman’s knife was not so very far away. But, as Morrow had observed, Glokta was not one to be put off by the noise, or the knives, or, for that matter, an unpleasant odour. I spend my days wading through the metaphorical filth, after all. Why not the real thing? The slippery footing was more of a problem. He hobbled with tiny steps, his leg burning. Imagine arriving at my meeting caked in pig dung. That would hardly project the right image of fearsome ruthlessness, would it?

He saw Morrow now, leaning on one of the pens. Just like a farmer admiring his prize-winning herd. Glokta limped up beside him, boots squelching, wincing and breathing hard, sweat trickling down his back. “Well, Morrow, you know just how to make a girl feel special, I’ll give you that.”

Marovia’s secretary grinned up at him, a small man with a round face and eyeglasses. “Superior Glokta, may I first say that I have nothing but the highest respect for your achievements in Gurkhul, your methods in negotiation, and—”

“I did not come here to exchange pleasantries, Morrow. If that’s all your business I can think of sweeter-smelling venues.”

“And sweeter companions too, I do not doubt. To business, then. These are trying times.”

“I’m with you there.”

“Change. Uncertainty. Unease amongst the peasantry—”

“A little more than unease, I would say, wouldn’t you?”

“Rebellion, then. Let us hope that the Closed Council’s trust in Colonel Luthar will be justified, and he will stop the rebels outside the city.”

“I wouldn’t trust his corpse to stop an arrow, but I suppose the Closed Council have their reasons.”

“They always do. Though, of course, they do not always agree with each other.” They never agree about anything. It’s practically a rule of the damn institution. “But it is those that serve them,” and Morrow peered significantly over the rims of his eye-glasses, “that carry the burden for their lack of accord. I feel that we, in particular, have been stepping on each other’s toes rather too much for either of our comfort.”

“Huh,” sneered Glokta, working his numb toes inside his boot. “I do hope your feet aren’t too bruised. I could never live with myself if I caused you to limp. Might you have a solution in mind?”

“You could say that.” He smiled down at the pigs, watching them squirm and grunt and clamber over one another. “We had hogs on the farm, where I grew up.” Mercy. Anything but the life story. “It was my responsibility to feed them. Rising in the morning, so early it was still dark, breath smoking in the cold.” Oh, he paints a vivid picture! Young Master Morrow, up to his knees in filth, watching his pigs gorge themselves, and dreaming of escape. A brave new life in the glittering city! Morrow grinned up at him, dim light twinkling on the lenses of his spectacles. “You know, these things will eat anything. Even cripples.”

Ah. So that’s it.

It was then that Glokta became aware of a man moving furtively towards them from the far end of the shed. A burly-looking man in a ragged coat, keeping to the shadows. He had his arm pressed tightly by his side, hand tucked up in his sleeve. Just as if he were hiding a knife up there, and not doing it very well. Better just to walk up with a smile on your face and the knife in plain view. There are a hundred reasons to carry a blade in a slaughterhouse. But there can only ever be one reason to try and hide one.

He glanced over his shoulder, wincing as his neck clicked. Another man, much like the first, was creeping up from that direction. Glokta raised his eyebrows. “Thugs? How very unoriginal.”

“Unoriginal, perhaps, but I think you will find them quite effective.”

“So I’m to be slaughtered in the slaughterhouse, eh, Morrow? Butchered at the butchers! Sand dan Glokta, breaker of hearts, winner of the Contest, hero of the Gurkish war, shat out the arses of a dozen different pigs!” He snorted with laughter and had to wipe some snot off his top lip.

“I’m so glad you enjoy the irony,” muttered Morrow, looking slightly put out.

“Oh, I do. Fed to the swine. So obvious I can honestly say it’s not what I expected.” He gave a long sigh. “But not expected and not planned for are two quite different things.”

The bowstring made no sound over the clamour of the hogs. The thug seemed at first to slip, to drop his shining knife and fall on his side for no reason. Then Glokta saw the bolt poking from his side. Not too great a surprise, of course, and yet it always seems like magic.

The hired man at the other end of the warehouse took a shocked step back, never seeing Practical Vitari slip silently over the rail of the empty pen behind him. There was a flash of metal in the darkness as she slashed the tendons at the back of his knee and brought him down, his cry quickly shut off as she pulled her chain tight round his neck.

Severard dropped down easily from the rafters off to Glokta’s left and squelched into the muck. He sauntered over, flatbow across his shoulder, kicked the fallen knife off into the darkness and looked down at the man he had shot. “I owe you five marks,” he called to Frost. “Missed his heart, damn it. Liver, maybe?”

“Lither,” grunted the albino, emerging from the shadows at the far end of the warehouse. The man struggled up to his knees, clutching at the shaft through his side, twisted face half crusted with filth. Frost lifted his stick as he passed and dealt him a crunching blow on the back of the head, putting a sharp end to his cries and knocking him face down in the muck. Vitari, meanwhile, had wrestled her man onto the floor and was kneeling on his back, dragging at the chain round his neck. His struggling grew weaker, and weaker, and stopped. A little more dead meat on the floor of the slaughterhouse.

Glokta looked back to Morrow. “How quickly things can change, eh, Harlen? One minute everyone wants to know you. The next?” He tapped sadly at his useless foot with the filthy toe of his cane. “You’re fucked. It’s a tough lesson.” I should know.

Marovia’s secretary backed away, tongue darting over his lips, one hand held out in front of him. “Now hold on—”

“Why?” Glokta pushed out his bottom lip. “Do you really think we can grow to love each other again after all this?”

“Perhaps we can come to some—”

“I’m not upset that you tried to kill me. But to make such a pathetic effort at it? We’re professionals, Morrow. It’s an insult, that you thought this might work.”

“I’m hurt,” muttered Severard.

“Wounded,” sang Vitari, chain jingling in the darkness.

“Deethly othended,” grunted Frost, herding Morrow back towards the pen.

“You should have stuck to licking Hoff’s big drunk arse. Or maybe you should have stayed on the farm, with your pigs. Tough work, perhaps, in the early morning, and so on. But it’s a living.”

“Just wait! Just wuurgh—”

Severard grabbed Morrow’s shoulder from behind, stabbed him through the side of his neck and chopped his throat out as calmly as if he was gutting a fish.

Blood showered over Glokta’s boots and he stumbled back, wincing as pain shot up his ruined leg. “Shit!” he hissed through his gums, nearly stumbling and falling on his arse in the filth, only managing to stay upright by clinging desperately to the fence beside him. “Couldn’t you just have strangled him?”

Severard shrugged. “Same result, isn’t it?” Morrow slid to his knees, eye-glasses skewed across his face, one hand clutching at his cut neck while blood bubbled out into his shirt collar.

Glokta watched the clerk tip onto his back, one leg kicking at the floor, his scraping heel leaving long streaks in the stinking muck. Alas for the pigs on the farm. They will never now see young master Morrow coming back over the hill, returned from his brave life in the glittering city, his breath smoking in the cold, cold morning…

The secretary’s convulsions grew gentler, and gentler, and he lay still. Glokta clung to the rail for a moment, watching the corpse. When was it exactly that I became… this? By small degrees, I suppose. One act presses hard upon another, on a path we have no choice but to follow, and each time there are reasons. We do what we must, we do what we are told, we do what is easiest. What else can we do but solve one sordid problem at a time? Then one day we look up and find that we are… this.

He looked at the blood gleaming on his boot, wrinkled his nose and wiped it off on Morrow’s trouser leg. Ah, well. I would love to spend more time on philosophy, but I have officials to bribe, and noblemen to blackmail, and votes to rig, and secretaries to murder, and lovers to threaten. So many knives to juggle. And as one clatters to the filthy floor, another must go up, blade spinning razor sharp above our heads. It never gets any easier.

“Our magical friends are back in town.”

Severard lifted his mask and scratched behind it. “The Magi?”

“The First of the bastards, no less, and his bold company of heroes. Him, and his slinking apprentice, and that woman. The Navigator too. Keep an eye on them, and see if there’s a piglet we can separate from the herd. It’s high time we knew what they were about. Do you still have your charming house, by the water?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Perhaps for once we can get ahead of the game, and when his Eminence demands answers we can have them to hand.” And I can finally earn a pat on the head from my master.

“What shall we do with these?” asked Vitari, jerking her spiky head towards the corpses.

Glokta sighed. “The hogs will eat anything, apparently.”

The city was growing dark as Glokta dragged his ruined leg through the emptying streets and up towards the Agriont. The shopkeepers were closing their doors, the householders were lighting their lamps, candlelight spilling out into the dusky alleyways through chinks around the shutters. Happy families settling down to happy dinners, no doubt. Loving fathers with their lovely wives, their adorable children, their full and meaningful lives. My heartfelt congratulations.

He pressed his remaining teeth into his sore gums with the effort of maintaining his pace, sweat starting to dampen his shirt, his leg burning more and more with every lurching step. But I’m not stopping for this useless lump of dead meat. The pain crept up from ankle to knee, from knee to hip, from hip all the way up his twisted spine and into his skull. All this effort just to kill a mid-level administrator, who worked no more than a few buildings away from the House of Questions in any case. It’s a damn waste of my time, is what it is, it’s a damn—

“Superior Glokta?”

A man had stepped up, respectfully, his face in shadow. Glokta squinted at him. “Do I—”

It was well done, there was no denying it. He was not even aware of the other man until the bag was over his head and one of his arms was twisted behind his back, pushing him helplessly forward. He stumbled, fumbled his cane and heard it clatter to the cobbles.

“Aargh!” A searing spasm shot through his back as he tried unsuccessfully to drag his arm free, and he was forced to hang limp, gasping with pain inside the bag. In a moment they had his wrists tied and he felt a powerful hand shoved under each of his armpits. He was marched away with great speed, one man on each side, his feet barely scraping on the cobbles as they went. The fastest I’ve walked in a good long while, anyway. Their grip was not rough, but it was irresistible. Professionals. An altogether better class of thug than Morrow stretched to. Whoever ordered this is no fool. So who did order it?

Sult himself, or one of Sult’s enemies? One of his rivals in the race for the throne? High Justice Marovia? Lord Brock? Anyone on the entire Open Council? Or could it be the Gurkish? They have never been my closest friends. The banking house of Valint and Balk, perhaps, chosen finally to call in their debt? Might I have seriously misjudged young Captain Luthar, even? Or could it simply be Superior Goyle, no longer keen to share his job with the cripple? It was quite the list, now that he was forced to consider it.

He heard the footfalls slapping around him. Narrow alleys. He had no idea how far they had come. His breath echoed in the bag, rasping, throaty. The heart thumps, the skin prickles with cold sweat. Excited. Scared, even. What might they want with me? People are not snatched from the street in order to be given promotions, or confections, or tender kisses, more’s the pity. I know why people are snatched from the street. Few better.

Down a set of steps, the toes of his boots scuffing helplessly against the treads. The sound of a heavy door being heaved shut. Footsteps echoing in a tiled corridor. Another door closing. He felt himself dumped unceremoniously in a chair. And now, no doubt, for better or worse, we shall find out…

The bag was snatched suddenly from his head and Glokta blinked as harsh light stabbed at his eyes. A white room, too bright for comfort. A type of room with which I am sadly familiar. And yet it looks so much uglier from this side of the table. Someone was sitting opposite. Or the blurry outline of a someone. He closed one eye and peered through the other as his vision adjusted.

“Well,” he murmured. “What a surprise.”

“A pleasant one, I hope.”

“I suppose we’ll see.” Carlot dan Eider had changed. And it would seem that exile has not entirely disagreed with her. Her hair had grown back, not all the way, perhaps, but more than far enough to manage a fetching style. The bruises round her throat had faded, there were only the very faintest of marks where her cheek had been covered in scabs. She had swapped traitor’s sack-cloth for the travelling clothes of a lady of means, and looked extremely well in them. Jewels twinkled on her fingers, and around her neck. She seemed every bit as rich and sleek as when they first met. That, and she was smiling. The smile of the player who holds all the cards. Why is it that I cannot learn? Never do a good turn. Especially not for a woman.

A small pair of scissors lay on the table before her, within easy reach. Of the type that rich women use to trim their nails. But just as good for trimming the skin from the soles of a man’s feet, for trimming his nostrils wider, for trimming his ears off, strip by slow strip…

Glokta found it decidedly difficult to move his eyes away from those polished little blades, shining in the bright lamplight. “I thought I told you never to come back,” he said, but his voice lacked its customary authority.

“You did. But then I thought… why ever not? I have assets in the city that I was not willing to relinquish, and some business opportunities that I am keen to take advantage of.” She took up the scissors, trimmed the thinnest scrap from the corner of one already perfectly-shaped thumbnail, and frowned at the results. “And it’s hardly as though you’ll be telling anyone I’m here, now, is it?”

“My concerns for your safety are all laid to rest,” grunted Glokta. My concerns for my own, alas, grow with every moment. A man is never so crippled, after all, that he could not be more so. “Did you really need to go to all this trouble just to share your travel arrangements?”

Her smile grew somewhat broader, if anything. “I hope my men didn’t hurt you. I did ask them to be gentle. At least for the time being.”

“A gentle kidnapping is still a kidnapping, though, don’t you find?”

“Kidnapping is such an ugly word. Why don’t we think of it as an invitation difficult to resist? At least I let you keep your clothes, no?”

“That particular favour is a mercy to us both, believe me. An invitation to what, might I ask, beyond a painful manhandling and a brief conversation?”

“I’m hurt that you need more. But there was something else, since you mention it.” She pared away another sliver of nail with her scissors, and her eyes rolled up to his. “A little debt left over, from Dagoska. I fear that I will not sleep easily until it is repaid.”

A few weeks in a black cell and a choking to the point of death? What form of repayment might that earn me? “Please, then,” hissed Glokta through his gums, his eyelid flickering as he watched those blades snip, snip, snip. “I can scarcely stand the suspense.”

“The Gurkish are coming.”

He paused for a moment, wrong-footed. “Coming here?”

“Yes. To Midderland. To Adua. To you. They have built a fleet, in secret. They began building it after the last war, and now it is complete. Ships to rival anything the Union has.” She tossed her scissors down on the table and gave a long sigh. “Or so I hear.”

The Gurkish fleet, just as my midnight visitor Yulwei told me. Rumours and ghosts, perhaps. But rumours are not always lies. “When will they arrive?”

“I really couldn’t say. The mounting of such an expedition is a colossal work of organisation. But then the Gurkish have always been so very much better organised than us. That’s what makes doing business with them such a pleasure.”

My own dealings with them have been less than delightful, but still. “In what numbers will they come?”

“A very great number, I imagine.”

Glokta snorted. “Forgive me if I regard the words of a proven traitor with a certain scepticism, especially as you are rather thin on the details.”

“Have it your way. You’re here to be warned, not convinced. I owe you that much, I think, for giving me my life.”

How wonderfully old-fashioned of you. “And that is all?”

She spread her hands. “Can a lady not trim her nails without giving offence?”

“Could you not simply have written?” snapped Glokta, “and spared me the chafing on my underarms?”

“Oh, come now. You never struck me as a man to bridle at a little chafing. Besides, it has given us the chance to renew a thoroughly enjoyable friendship. And you have to allow me my little moment of triumph, after what you put me through.”

I suppose that I can. I’ve had less charming threats, and at least she has better taste than to meet in a pig sty. “I can simply walk away, then?”

“Did anyone pick up a cane?” No one spoke. Eider gave a happy smile, showing Glokta her perfect white teeth. “You can crawl away, then. How does that sound?”

Better than floating to the top of the canal after a few days on the bottom, bloated up like a great pale slug and smelling like all the graves in the city. “As good as I’ll get, I suppose. I do wonder, though. What is to stop me having my Practicals follow the scent of expensive perfume after we are done here and finish what they started?”

“It is so very like you to say such a thing.” She sighed. “I should inform you that an old and trustworthy business acquaintance of mine has a sealed letter in his possession. In the event of my death, it will be sent to the Arch Lector, laying out to him the exact nature of my sentence in Dagoska.”

Glokta sucked sourly at his gums. Just what I need, another knife to juggle. “And what will occur if, entirely independently from my actions, you succumb to the rot? Or a house falls on you? Or you choke on a slice of bread?”

She opened her eyes very wide, as though the thought had only just occurred. “In any of those cases… I suppose… the letter would be sent anyway, despite your innocence.” She gave a helpless laugh. “The world is nothing like as fair a place as it should be, in my opinion, and I daresay that the natives of Dagoska, the enslaved mercenaries, and the butchered Union soldiers who you made fight for your lost cause would concur.” She smiled as sweetly as if they were discussing gardening. “Things would probably have been far simpler for you if you’d had me strangled, after all.”

“You read my mind.” But it is far too late now. I did a good thing, and so, of course, there is a price to be paid.

“So tell me, before we part ways again, for what, we can both only hope, will be the last time—are you involved with this business of the vote?”

Glokta felt his eye twitch. “My duties would seem to touch upon it.” Indeed it occupies my every waking hour.

Carlot dan Eider leaned forward to a conspiratorial distance, her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. “Who will be the next king of the Union, do you suppose? Will it be Brock? Isher? Will it be someone else?”

“A little early to say. I’m working on it.”

“Off you hobble, then.” She pushed out her bottom lip. “And it’s probably better if you don’t mention our meeting to his Eminence.” She nodded, and Glokta felt the bag forced back over his face.

A Ragged Multitude

Jezal’s command post, if you could use the phrase in relation to a man as utterly confused and clueless as he felt, was at the crest of a long rise. It offered a splendid view of the shallow valley below. At least, it would have been a splendid view in happier times. As things stood, it had to be admitted, the spectacle was far from pleasant.

The main body of the rebels entirely covered several large fields further down the valley, and a dark, and grubby, and threatening infestation they seemed, glinting in places with bright steel. Farming implements and tradesman’s tools, perhaps, but sharp ones.

Even at this distance there was disturbing evidence of organisation. Straight, regular gaps through the men for the quick movement of messengers and supplies. It was plain, even to Jezal’s unpractised eye, that this was as much an army as a mob, and that someone down there knew his business. A great deal better than he did, most likely.

Smaller, less organised groups of rebels were scattered far and wide across the landscape, each one a considerable body in its own right. Men sent foraging for food and water, picking the country clean. That crawling black mass on the green fields reminded Jezal of a horde of black ants crawling over a pile of discarded apple peelings. He had not the slightest idea how many of them there were, but it looked at this distance as though forty thousand might have been a considerable underestimate.

Down in the village in the bottom of the valley, behind the main mass of rebels, fires were burning. Bonfires or buildings it was hard to say, but Jezal rather feared the latter. Three tall columns of dark smoke rose up and drifted apart high above, giving to the air a faint and worrying tang of fire.

It was a commander’s place to set a tone of fearlessness which his men would not be able to help but follow. Jezal knew that, of course. And yet, looking down that long, sloping field, he could not help but reflect on the very great number of men at the other end, so ominously purposeful. He could not stop his eyes from darting back towards their own lines, so thin, meagre, and uncertain-seeming. He could not avoid wincing and tugging uncomfortably at his collar. The damn thing still felt far too tight.

“How do you wish the regiments deployed, sir?” asked his adjutant, Major Opker, with a look which somehow managed to be both condescending and sycophantic all at once.

“Deployed? Er… well…” Jezal racked his brains for something vaguely appropriate, let alone correct, to say. He had discovered early in his military career that if one has an effective and experienced officer above, coupled with effective and experienced soldiers below, one need do, and know, nothing. This strategy had stood him in fine stead for several comfortable peacetime years, but its one shortcoming was now starkly laid bare. If by some miracle one rises to complete command, the system collapses entirely.

“Deployed…” he growled, furrowing his brow and trying to give the impression he was surveying the ground, though he had only a hazy idea what that even meant. “Infantry in double line…” he ventured, remembering a fragment of some story Collem West had once told him. “Behind this hedgerow here.” And he slashed his baton portentously across the landscape. The use of a baton, at least, he was expert in, having practiced extensively before the mirror.

“In front of the hedgerow, the Colonel means to say, of course,” threw in Bayaz smoothly. “Infantry deployed in double line to either side of that milestone. The light cavalry in the trees there, heavy cavalry in a wedge on the far flank, where they can use the open field to their advantage.” He displayed an uncanny familiarity with military parlance. “Flatbows in a single line behind the hedgerow where they will at first be hidden from the enemy, and can give them plunging fire from the high ground.” He winked at Jezal. “An excellent strategy, Colonel, if I may say.”

“Of course,” sneered Opker, turning away to give the orders.

Jezal gripped tight to his baton behind his back, rubbing nervously at his jaw with the other hand. Evidently there was a lot more to command than simply being called “sir” by everyone. He would really have to read some books when he got back to Adua. If he got back.

Three small dots had detached themselves from the crawling mass of humanity down in the valley and started moving up the rise toward them. Shading his eyes with his hand, Jezal could just see a shred of white moving in the air above them. A flag of parley. He felt Bayaz’ decidedly uncomforting hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t worry, my boy, we are well prepared for violence. But I feel confident it will not come to that.” He grinned down at the vast mass of men below. “Very confident.”

Jezal ardently wished he could have said the same.

For a famous demagogue, traitor, and inciter of riots, there was nothing in the least remarkable about the man known as the Tanner. He sat calmly in his folding chair at the table in Jezal’s tent, an ordinary face under a mop of curly hair, a man of medium size in a coat of unexceptional style and colour, a grin on his face that implied he knew very well that he held the upper hand.

“They call me the Tanner,” he said, “and I have been nominated to speak for the alliance of the oppressed, and the exploited, and the put-upon down in the valley. These are two of my partners in this righteous and entirely patriotic venture. My two generals, one might say. Goodman Hood,” and he nodded sideways at a burly man with a shovel beard, a ruddy complexion, and a seething frown, “and Cotter Hoist,” and he jerked his head the other way towards a weaselly type with a long scar on his cheek and a lazy eye.

“Honoured,” said Jezal warily, though they looked more like brigands than Generals as far as he was concerned. “I am Colonel Luthar.”

“I know. I saw you win the Contest. Fine swordplay, my friend, very fine.”

“Oh, well, er…” Jezal was caught off guard, “thank you. This is my adjutant, Major Opker, and this is… Bayaz, the First of the Magi.”

Goodman Hood snorted his disbelief, but the Tanner only stroked thoughtfully at his lip. “Good. And you have come to fight, or negotiate?”

“We have come for either one.” Jezal embarked on his statement. “The Closed Council, while condemning the method of your demonstration, concede that you may have legitimate demands—”

Hood made a rumbling snort. “What choice have they got, the bastards?”

Jezal pressed on. “Well, er… they have instructed me to offer you these concessions.” He held up the scroll that Hoff had prepared for him, a huge thing with elaborately carved handles and a seal the size of a saucer. “But I must caution you,” doing his very best to sound confident, “should you refuse, we are quite ready to fight, and that my men are the best trained, best armed, best prepared in the King’s service. Each one of them is worth twenty of your rabble.”

The burly farmer gave a threatening chuckle. “Lord Finster thought the same, and our rabble kicked his arse all the way from one end of his estates to the other. He would have got himself hung for his trouble if he’d had a slower horse. How fast is your horse, Colonel?”

The Tanner touched him gently on the shoulder. “Peace, now, my fiery friend. We came to get terms, if we can get terms we can accept. Why not show us what you have there, Colonel, and we’ll see if there is any need for threats.”

Jezal held out the weighty document and Hood snatched it angrily from his hand, tore it open and began to read, the thick paper crackling as it unrolled. The more he read, the grimmer grew his frown.

“An insult!” he snapped when he was done, giving Jezal a brooding stare. “Lighter taxes and some shit about the use of common land? And that much they’ll most likely never honour!” He tossed the scroll sideways to the Tanner, and Jezal swallowed. He had not the leanest understanding of the concessions or their possible shortcomings, of course, but Hood’s response hardly seemed to promise an early agreement.

The Tanner’s eyes moved lazily over the parchment. Different-coloured eyes, Jezal noticed: one blue, one green. When he got to the bottom he laid the document down and gave a theatrical sigh. “These terms will do.”

“They will?” Jezal’s eyes opened wide with surprise, but nowhere near as far as Goodman Hood’s.

“But these are worse than the last terms we were offered!” shouted the farmer. “Before we sent Finster’s men running! You said then we could accept nothing but land for every man!”

The Tanner screwed his face up. “That was then.”

“That was then?” muttered Hood, gaping with disbelief. “What happened to honest wages for honest work? What happened to shares in the profit? What happened to equal rights no matter the cost? You stood there, and you promised me!” He shoved his hand towards the valley. “You promised all of them! What’s changed, except that Adua’s within our grasp? We can take all we want! We can—”

“I say these terms will do!” snarled the Tanner with a sudden fury. “Unless you care to fight the King’s men on your own! They follow me, Hood, not you, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“But you promised us freedom, for every man! I trusted you!” The farmer’s face hung slack with horror. “We all trusted you.”

Jezal had never seen a man look so utterly indifferent as the Tanner did now. “I suppose I must have that kind of face that people trust,” he droned, and his friend Hoist shrugged and stared at his fingernails.

“Damn you, then! Damn you all!” And Hood turned and shoved angrily out through the tent flap.

Jezal was aware of Bayaz leaning sideways to whisper to Major Opker. “Have that man arrested before he leaves the lines.”

“Arrested, my Lord, but… under a flag of parley?”

“Arrested, placed in irons, and conducted to the House of Questions. A shred of white cloth can be no hiding place from the King’s justice. I believe Superior Goyle is handling the investigations.”

“Er… of course.” Opker rose to follow the Goodman out of the tent, and Jezal smiled nervously. There was no doubt that the Tanner had heard the exchange, but he grinned on as though the future of his erstwhile companion was no longer any of his concern.

“I must apologise for my associate. In a matter like this, you can’t please everyone.” He gave a flamboyant wave of his hand. “But don’t worry. I’ll give the little people a big speech, and tell them we have all we fought for, and they’ll soon be off back to their homes with no real harm done. Some few will be determined to make trouble perhaps, but I’m sure you can round them up without much effort, eh, Colonel Luthar?”

“Er… well,” mumbled Jezal, left without the slightest idea of what was going on. “I suppose that we—”

“Excellent.” The Tanner sprang to his feet. “I fear I must now take my leave. All kinds of errands to be about. Never any peace, eh, Colonel Luthar? Never the slightest peace.” He exchanged a long glance with Bayaz, then ducked out into the daylight and was gone.

“If anyone should ask,” murmured the First of the Magi in Jezal’s ear, “I would tell them that it was a testing negotiation, against sharp and determined opponents, but that you held your nerve, reminded them of their duty to king and country, implored them to return to their fields, and so forth.”

“But…” Jezal felt like he wanted to cry, he was so baffled. Hugely baffled and hugely relieved at once. “But I—”

“If anyone should ask.” There was an edge to Bayaz’ voice that implied the episode was now finished with.

Beloved of the Moon

The Dogman stood, squinting into the sun, and watched the Union lads all shuffling past the other way. There’s a certain look the beaten get, after a fight. Slow-moving, hunched-up, mud-spattered, mightily interested in the ground. Dogman had seen that look before often enough. He’d had it himself more’n once. Sorrowful they’d lost. Shamed they’d been beaten. Guilty, to have given up without getting a wound. Dogman knew how that felt, and a gnawing feeling it could be, but guilt was a sight less painful than a sword-cut, and healed a sight quicker.

Some of the hurt weren’t so badly off. Bandaged or splinted, limping with a stick or with their arm round a mate’s shoulders. Enough to get light duty for a few weeks. Others weren’t so lucky. Dogman thought he knew one. An officer, hardly old enough for a beard, his smooth face all twisted up with white pain and shock, his leg off just above the knee, his clothes, and the stretcher, and the two men carrying him, all specked and spattered with dark blood. He was the one who’d sat on the gate, when Dogman and Threetrees had first come to Ostenhorm to join up with the Union. The one who’d looked at ’em like they were a pair of turds. He didn’t sound so very clever now, squealing with every jolt of his stretcher, but it hardly made the Dogman smile. Losing a leg seemed like harsh punishment for a sneering manner.

West was down there by the path, talking to an officer with a dirty bandage round his head. Dogman couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could guess the gist. From time to time one of ’em would point up towards the hills they’d come from. A steep and nasty-looking pair, wooded mostly, with a few hard faces of bare rock showing. West turned and caught the Dogman’s eye, and his face was grim as a gravedigger’s. It hardly took a quick mind to see that the war weren’t won quite yet.

“Shit,” muttered the Dogman, under his breath. He felt that sucking feeling in his gut. That low feeling he used to get whenever he had to scout out a new piece of ground, whenever Threetrees called for weapons, whenever there was nothing for breakfast but cold water.

Since he was chief, though, he seemed to have it pretty much all the time. Everything was his problem now. “Nothing doing?”

West shook his head as he walked up. “Bethod was waiting for us, and in numbers. He’s dug in on those hills. Well dug in and well prepared, between us and Carleon. More than likely he was ready for this before he even crossed the border.”

“He always did like to be ready, did Bethod. No way round him?”

“Kroy’s tried both the roads and had two maulings. Now Poulder’s tried the hills head on and had a worse one.”

Dogman sighed. “No way round.”

“No way that won’t give Bethod a nice chance to stick the knife right into us.”

“And Bethod won’t be missing no chance like that. It’s what he’ll be hoping for.”

“The Lord Marshal agrees. He wants you to take your men north.” West glared out at the grey whispers of other hills, further off. “He wants you to look for a weakness. There’s no way Bethod can cover the whole range.”

“Is there not?” asked Dogman. “I guess we’ll see.” Then he headed off into the trees. The boys were going to love this.

He strode up the track, soon came up on where his crew were camped out. They were growing all the time. Might’ve been four hundred now, all counted, and a tough crowd too. Those who’d never much cared for Bethod in the first place, mostly, who’d fought against him in the wars. Who’d fought against the Dogman as well, for that matter. The woods were choked up with ’em, sat round fires, cooking, polishing at weapons and working at gear, a couple having a practice at each other with blades. Dogman winced at the sound of steel clashing. There’d be more of that later, and with bloodier results, he didn’t doubt.

“Chief!” they shouted at him. “Dogman! The chief! Hey hey!” They clapped their hands and tapped their weapons on the rocks they sat on. Dogman held up his fist, and gave the odd half-grin, and said “aye, good, good,” and all that. He still didn’t have the slightest clue how to act like a chief, if the truth be told, so he just acted like he always had. The band all seemed happy enough, though. He guessed they always did. Until they started losing fights, and decided they wanted a new chief.

He came up on the fire where the pick of his Named Men were passing the day. No sign of Logen, but the rest of the old crew were sat round it, looking bored. Those that were still alive, leastways. Tul saw him coming. “The Dogman’s back.”

“Uh,” said Grim, trimming at some feathers with a razor.

Dow was busy mopping grease out of a pan with a chunk o’ bread.

“How’d the Union get on with them hills, then?” And he had a sneer to his voice that said he knew the answer already. “Make a shit from it, did they?”

“Well, they came out second, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Second o’ two sides is what I call shit.”

Dogman took a deep breath and let it pass. “Bethod’s dug in good, watching the roads to Carleon. No one can see an easy way to come at him, or an easy way around him neither. He was good and ready for this, I reckon.”

“I could’ve bloody told you that!” barked Dow, spraying out greasy crumbs. “He’ll have Littlebone on one o’ them hills, and Whitesides on the other, then he’ll have Pale-as-Snow and Goring further out. Those four won’t be giving anyone any chances, but if they decide to, Bethod’ll be sat behind with the rest, and his Shanka, and his fucking Feared, ready to snuff ’em out double-time.”

“More’n likely.” Tul held his sword up to the light, peered at it, then set to polishing up the blade again. “Always liked to have a plan, did Bethod.”

“And what do them that hold our leash have to say?” sneered Dow. “What sort of work’s the Furious got for his animals?”

“Burr wants us to move north a way, through the woods, see if Bethod’s left a weak spot up there.”

“Huh,” snorted Dow. “Bethod ain’t in the habit of leaving holes. Not unless he’s left one he means for us to fall into. Fall into and break our necks.”

“Well I guess we’d better be careful where we tread then, eh?”

“More bloody errands.”

Dogman reckoned he was getting about as sick of Dow’s moaning as Threetrees used to be. “And just what else would it be, eh? That’s what life is. A bunch of errands. If you’re worth a shit you do your best at ’em. What’s got up your arse anyway?”

“This!” Dow jerked his head into the trees. “Just this! Nothing’s changed that much, has it? We might be over the Whiteflow, and back in the North, but Bethod’s dug in good and proper up there, with no way for the Union to get round him that won’t leave their arses hanging out. And if they do knock him off them hills, what then? If they get to Carleon and they get in, and they burn it just as good as Ninefingers did the last time, so what? Don’t mean nothing. Bethod’ll keep going, just like he always does, fighting and falling back, and there’ll always be more hills to sit on, and more tricks to play. Time’ll come, the Union will have had their fill and they’ll piss off south and leave us to it. Then Bethod’s going to turn around, and what d’you know? He’ll be the one chasing us all the way across the fucking North and back. Winter, summer, winter, summer, and it’s more of the same old shit. Here we are, fewer of us than there used to be, but still pissing around in the woods. Feel familiar?”

It did, somewhat, now it was mentioned, but Dogman didn’t see what he could do about it. “Logen’s back, now, eh? That’ll help.”

Dow snorted again. “Hah! Just when did the Bloody-Nine bring anything but death along with him?”

“Steady now,” grunted Tul. “You owe him, remember? We all do.”

“There’s a limit on what a man should owe, I reckon.” Dow tossed his pan down by the fire and stood up, wiping his hands on his coat. “Where’s he been, eh? He left us up in the valleys without a word, didn’t he? Left us to the Flatheads and pissed off halfway across the world! Who’s to say he won’t wander off again, if it suits him, or go over to Bethod, or set to murder over nothing, or the dead know what?”

Dogman looked at Tul, and Tul looked back, guilty. They’d all seen Logen do some damn dark work, when the mood was on him. “That was a long time ago,” said Tul. “Things change.”

Dow only grinned. “No. They don’t. Tell yourselves that tale if it makes you sleep easier, but I’ll be keeping one eye open, I can tell you that! It’s the Bloody-Nine we’re talking of. Who knows what he’ll do next?”

“I’ve one idea.” The Dogman turned round and saw Logen, leaning up against a tree, and he was starting to smile when he saw the look in his eye. A look Dogman remembered from way back, and dragged all kind of ugly memories up after it. That look the dead have, when the life’s gone out of ’em, and they care for nothing any more.

“You got a thing to say then you can say it to my face, I reckon.” Logen walked up, right up close to Dow, with his head falling on one side, scars all pale on his hanging-down face. The Dogman felt the hairs on his arms standing up, cold feeling even though the sun was warm.

“Come on, Logen,” wheedled Tul, trying to sound like the whole business was all a laugh when it was plain as a slow death it was no such thing. “Dow didn’t mean nothing by it. He’s just—”

Logen spoke right over him, staring Dow in the face with his corpse’s eyes all the long while. “I thought when I gave you the last lesson that you’d never need another. But I guess some folk have short memories.” He came in even closer, so close that their faces were almost touching. “Well? You need a learning, boy?”

Dogman winced, sure as sure they’d set to killing one another, and how the hell he’d stop ’em once they started he hadn’t the faintest clue. A tense moment all round, it seemed to last for ever. He wouldn’t have taken that from any other man, alive or dead, Black Dow, not even Threetrees, but in the end he just split a yellow grin.

“Nah. One lesson’s all I need.” And he turned his head sideways, hawked up and spat onto the ground. Then he backed off, no hurry, that grin still on his face, like he was saying he’d take a telling this time, maybe, but he might not the next.

Once he was gone, and no blood spilled, Tul blew out hard like they’d got away with murder. “Right then. North, was it? Someone better get the lads ready to move.”

“Uh,” said Grim, sliding the last arrow into his quiver and following him off through the trees.

Logen stood there for a moment, watching ’em walk. When they’d got away out of sight he turned round, and he squatted down by the fire, hunched over with his arms resting on his knees and his hands dangling. “Thank the dead for that. I nearly shit myself.”

Dogman realised he’d been holding onto his breath the whole while, and he let it rush out in a gasp. “I think I might’ve, just a bit. Did you have to do that?”

“You know I did. Let a man like Dow take liberties and he won’t ever stop. Then all the rest of these lads will get the idea that the Bloody-Nine ain’t anything like so frightening as they heard, and it’ll be a matter of time before someone with a grudge decides to take a blade to me.”

Dogman shook his head. “That’s a hard way of thinking about things.”

“That’s the way they are. They haven’t changed any. They never do.”

True, maybe, but they weren’t ever going to change if no one gave ’em half a chance. “Still. You sure all that’s needful?”

“Not for you maybe. You got that knack that folk like you.” Logen scratched at his jaw, looking sadly off into the woods. “Reckon I missed my chance at that about fifteen years ago. And I ain’t getting another.”

The woods were warm and familiar. Birds twittered in the branches, not caring a damn for Bethod, or the Union, or any o’ the doings of men. Nowhere had ever seemed more peaceful, and Dogman didn’t like that one bit. He sniffed at the air, sifting it through his nose, over his tongue. He was double careful these days, since that shaft came over and killed Cathil in the battle. Might have been he could’ve saved her, if he’d trusted his own nose a mite more. He wished he had saved her. But wishing don’t help any.

Dow squatted down in the brush, staring off into the still forest. “What is it, Dogman? What d’you smell?”

“Men, I reckon, but kind of sour, somehow.” He sniffed again. “Smells like—”

An arrow flitted up out of the trees, clicked into the tree trunk just beside Dogman and stuck there, quivering.

“Shit!” he squealed, sliding down on his arse and fumbling his own bow off his shoulder, much too late as always. Dow slithered down cursing beside him and they got all tangled up with each other. Dogman nearly got his eye poked out on Dow’s axe before he managed to push him off. He shoved his palm out at the men behind to say stop, but they were already scattering for cover, crawling for trees and rocks on their bellies, pulling out weapons and staring into the woods.

A voice drifted over from the forest ahead. “You with Bethod?” Whoever it was spoke Northern with some strange-sounding accent.

Dow and Dogman looked at each other for a minute, then shrugged. “No!” Dow roared back. “And if you are, you’d best make ready to meet the dead!”

A pause. “We’re not with that bastard, and never will be!”

“Good enough!” shouted Dogman, putting his head up no more’n an inch, his bow full drawn and ready in his hands. “Show yourselves, then!”

A man stepped out from behind a tree maybe six strides distant. Dogman was that shocked he nearly fumbled the string and let the shaft fly. More men started sliding out of the woods all round. Dozens of ’em. Their hair was tangled, their faces were smeared with streaks of brown dirt and blue paint, their clothes were ragged fur and half-tanned hides, but the heads of their spears, and the points of their arrows, and the blades of their rough-forged swords all shone bright and clean.

“Hillmen,” Dogman muttered.

“Hillmen we are, and proud of it!” A great big voice, echoing out from the woods. A few of ’em started to shuffle to one side, like they were making way for someone. Dogman blinked. There was a child coming between them. A girl, maybe ten years old, with dirty bare feet. She had a huge hammer over one shoulder, a thick length of wood a stride long with a scarred lump of iron the size of a brick for a head. Far and away too big for her to swing. It was giving her some trouble even holding it up.

A little boy came next. He had a round shield across his back, much too wide for him, and a great axe he was lugging along in both hands. Another boy was at his shoulder with a spear twice as high as he was, the bright point waving around above his head, gold twinkling under the blade in the strips of sunlight. He kept having to look up to make sure he didn’t catch it on a branch.

“I’m dreaming,” muttered the Dogman. “Aren’t I?”

Dow frowned. “If y’are it’s a strange one.”

They weren’t alone, the three children. Some huge bastard was coming up behind. He had a ragged fur round his great wide shoulders, and some big necklace hanging down on his great fat belly. A load of bones. Fingerbones, the Dogman saw as he got closer. Men’s fingers, mixed up with flat bits of wood, strange signs cut into them. He had a great yellow grin hacked out from his grey-brown beard, but that didn’t put the Dogman any more at ease.

“Oh shit,” groaned Dow, “let’s go back. Back south and enough o’ this.”

“Why? You know him?”

Dow turned his head and spat. “Crummock-i-Phail, ain’t it.”

Dogman almost wished it had turned out to be an ambush, now, rather than a chat. It was a fact that every child knew. Crummock-i-Phail, chief of the hillmen, was about the maddest bastard in the whole damn North.

He pushed the spears and the arrows gently out of his way as he came. “No need for that now, is there, my beauties? We’re all friends, or got the same enemies, at least, which is far better, d’you see? We all have a lot of enemies up in them hills, don’t we, though? The moon knows I love a good fight, but coming at them great big rocks, with Bethod and all his arse-lickers stuck in tight on top? That’s a bit too much fight for anyone, eh? Even your new Southern friends.”

He stopped just in front of them, fingerbones swinging and rattling. The three children stopped behind him, fidgeting with their great huge weapons and frowning up at Dow and the Dogman.

“I’m Crummock-i-Phail,” he said. “Chief of all the hillmen. Or all the ones as are worth a shit.” He grinned as though he’d just turned up to a wedding. “And who might be in charge o’ this merry outing?”

Dogman felt that hollow feeling again, but there was nothing for it. “That’d be me.”

Crummock raised his brows at him. “Would it now? You’re a little fellow to be telling all these big fellows just what to be about, are you not? You must have quite some name on your shoulders, I’m thinking.”

“I’m the Dogman. This is Black Dow.”

“Some strange sort of a crew you got here,” said Dow, frowning at the children.

“Oh it is! It is! And a brave one at that! The lad with my spear, that’s my son Scofen. The one with my axe is my son Rond.” Crummock frowned at the girl with the hammer. “This lad’s name I can’t remember.”

“I’m your daughter!” shouted the girl.

“What, did I run out of sons?”

“Scenn got too old and you give him ’is own sword, and Sceft’s too small to carry nothing yet.”

Crummock shook his head. “Don’t hardly seem right, a bloody woman taking the hammer.”

The girl threw the hammer down on the ground and booted Crummock in his shin. “You can carry it yourself then, y’old bastard!”

“Ah!” he squawked, laughing and rubbing his leg at once. “Now I remember you, Isern. Your kicking’s brought it all back in a rush. You can take the hammer, so you can. Smallest one gets the biggest load, eh?”

“You want the axe, Da?” The smaller lad held the axe up, wobbling.

“You want the hammer?” The girl dragged it up out the brush and shouldered her brother out the way.

“No, my loves, all I need for now is words, and I’ve plenty of those without your help. You can watch your father work some murder soon, if things run smooth, but there’ll be no need for axes or hammers today. We didn’t come here to kill.”

“Why did you come here?” asked Dogman, though he wasn’t sure he even wanted the answer.

“Right to business is it, and no time to be friendly?” Crummock stretched his neck to the side, his arms over his head, and lifted one foot and shook it around. “I came here because I woke in the night, and I walked out into the darkness, and the moon whispered to me. In the forest, d’you see? In the trees, and in the voices of the owls in the trees, and d’you know what the moon said?”

“That you’re mad as fuck?” growled Dow.

Crummock slapped his huge thigh. “You’ve a pretty way of talking for an ugly man, Black Dow, but no. The moon said…” And he beckoned to the Dogman like he had some secret to share. “You got the Bloody-Nine down here.”

“What if we do?” Logen came up quiet from behind, left hand resting on his sword. Tul and Grim came with him, frowning at all the painted-face hillmen stood about, and at the three dirty children, and at their great fat father most of all.

“There he is!” roared Crummock, sticking out one great sausage of a trembling finger. “Take your fist off that blade, Bloody-Nine, before I piss my breaks!” He dropped down on his knees in the dirt. “This is him! This is the one!” He shuffled forward through the brush and he clung to Logen’s leg, pressing himself up against it like a dog to his master.

Logen stared down at him. “Get off my leg.”

“That I will!” Crummock jerked away and dropped down on his fat arse in the dirt. Dogman had never seen such a performance. Looked like the rumours about him being cracked were right enough. “Do you know a fine thing, Bloody-Nine?”

“More’n one, as it goes.”

“Here’s another, then. I saw you fight Shama Heartless. I saw you split him open like a pigeon for the pot, and I couldn’t have done it better my blessed self. A lovely thing to see!” Dogman frowned. He’d been there too, and he didn’t remember much lovely about it. “I said then,” and Crummock rose up to his knees, “and I said since,” and he stood up on his feet, “and I said when I came down from the hills to seek you out,” and he lifted up his arm to point at Logen. “That you’re a man more beloved of the moon than any other!”

Dogman looked over at Logen, and Logen shrugged. “Who’s to say what the moon likes or doesn’t? What of it?”

“What of it, he says! Hah! I could watch him kill the whole world, and a thing of beauty it would be! The what of it is, I have a plan. It flowed up with the cold springs under the mountains, and was carried along in the streams under the stones, and washed up on the shore of the sacred lake right beside me, while I was dipping my toes in the frosty.”

Logen scratched at his scarred jaw. “We’ve got work to be about, Crummock. You got something worth saying you can get to it.”

“Then I will. Bethod hates me, and the feeling’s mutual, but he hates you more. Because you’ve stood against him, and you’re living proof a man of the North can be his own man, without bending on his knee and tonguing the arse of that golden-hat bastard and his two fat sons and his witch.” He frowned. “Though I could be persuaded to take my tongue to her. D’you follow me so far?”

“I’m keeping up,” said Logen, but Dogman weren’t altogether sure that he was.

“Just whistle if you drop behind and I’ll come right back for you. My meaning’s this. If Bethod were to get a good chance at catching you all alone, away from your Union friends, your crawling-like-ants sunny-weather lovers over down there yonder, then, well, he might give up a lot to take it. He might be coaxed down from his pretty hills for a chance like that, I’m thinking, hmmm?”

“You’re betting that he hates me a lot.”

“What? Do you doubt that a man could hate you that much?” Crummock turned away, spreading his great long arms out wide at Tul and Grim. “But it’s not just you, Bloody-Nine! It’s all of you, and me as well, and my three sons here!” The girl threw the hammer down again and planted her hands on her hips, but Crummock blathered on regardless. “I’m thinking your boys join up with my boys and it might be we’ll have eight hundred spears. We’ll head up north, like we’re going up into the High Places, to get around behind Bethod and play merry mischief with his arse end. I’m thinking that’ll get his blood up. I’m thinking he won’t be able to pass on a chance to put all of us back in the mud.”

The Dogman thought it over. Chances were that a lot of Bethod’s people were jumpy about now. Worried to be fighting on the wrong side of the Whiteflow. Maybe they were hearing the Bloody-Nine was back, and thinking they’d picked the wrong side. Bethod would love to put a few heads on sticks for everyone to look at. Ninefingers, and Crummock-i-Phail, Tul Duru and Black Dow, and maybe even the Dogman too. He’d like that, would Bethod. Show the North there was no future in anything but him. He’d like it a lot.

“Supposing we do wander off north,” asked Dogman. “How’s Bethod even going to know about it?”

Crummock grinned wider than ever. “Oh, he’ll know because his witch’ll know.”

“Bloody witch,” piped up the lad with the spear, his thin arms trembling as he fought to keep it up straight.

“That spell-cooking, painted-face bitch Bethod keeps with him. Or does she keep him with her? There’s a question, though. Either way, she’s watching. Ain’t she, Bloody-Nine?”

“I know who you mean,” said Logen, and not looking happy. “Caurib. A friend o’ mine once told me she had the long eye.” Dogman didn’t have the first clue about all that, but if Logen was taking it to heart he reckoned he’d better too.

“The long eye, is it?” grinned Crummock. “Your friend’s got a pretty name for an ugly trick. She sees all manner of goings-on with it. All kind of things it’d be better for us if she didn’t. Bethod trusts her eyes before he trusts his own, these days, and he’ll have her watching for us, and for you in particular. She’ll have both her long eyes open for it, that she will. I may be no wizard,” and he spun one of the wooden signs around and around on his necklace, “but the moon knows I’m no stranger to the business neither.”

“And what if it goes like you say?” rumbled Tul, “what happens then? Apart from we give Bethod our heads?”

“Oh, I like my head where it is, big lad. We draw him on, north by north, that’s what the forest told me. There’s a place up in the mountains, a place well loved by the moon. A strong valley, and watched over by the dead of my family, and the dead of my people, and the dead of the mountains, all the way back until when the world was made.”

Dogman scratched his head. “A fortress in the mountains?”

“A strong, high place. High and strong enough for a few to hold off a many until help were to arrive. We lure him on up into the valley, and your Union friends follow up at a lazy distance. Far enough that his witch don’t see ’em coming, she’s so busy looking at us. Then, while he’s all caught up in trying to snuff us out for good and all, the Southerners creep up behind, and—” He slapped his palms together with an echoing crack. “We squash him between us, the sheep-fucking bastard!”

“Sheep-fucker!” cursed the girl, kicking at the hammer on the ground.

They all looked at each other for a moment. Dogman didn’t much like the sound of this for a plan. He didn’t much like the notion of trusting their lives to the say-so o’ this crazy hillman. But it sounded like some kind of a chance. Enough that he couldn’t just say no, however much he’d have liked to. “We got to talk on this.”

“Course you do, my new best friends, course you do. Don’t take too long about it though, eh?” Crummock grinned wide. “I been down from the High Places for way too long, and the rest o’ my beautiful children, and my beautiful wives, and the beautiful mountains themselves will all of them be missing me. Think on the sunny side o’ this. If Bethod don’t follow, you get a few nights sat up in the High Places as the summer dies, warming yourselves at my fire, and listening to my songs, and watching the sun going down over the mountains. That sound so bad? Does it?”

“You thinking of listening to that mad bastard?” muttered Tul, once they’d got out of earshot. “Witches and wizards and all that bloody rubbish? He makes it up as he goes along!”

Logen scratched his face. “He’s nowhere near as mad as he sounds. He’s held out against Bethod all these years. The only one who has. Twelve winters is it now, he’s been hiding, and raiding, and keeping one foot ahead? Up in the mountains maybe, but still. He’d have to be slippery as fishes and tough as iron to make that work.”

“You trust him, then?” asked Dogman.

“Trust him?” Logen snorted. “Shit, no. But his feud with Bethod’s deeper even than ours is. He’s right about that witch, I seen her, and I seen some other things this past year… if he says she’ll see us, I reckon I believe him. If she doesn’t, and Bethod don’t come, well, nothing lost is there?”

Dogman had that empty feeling, worse’n ever. He looked over at Crummock, sitting on a rock with his children round him, and the madman smiled back a mouthful of yellow teeth. Hardly the man you’d want to hang all your hopes on, but Dogman could feel the wind changing. “We’d be taking one bastard of a risk,” he muttered. “What if Bethod caught up to us and got his way?”

“We move fast, then, don’t we!” growled Dow. “It’s a war. Taking risks is what you do if you reckon on winning!”

“Uh,” grunted Grim.

Tul nodded his big head. “We’ve got to do something. I didn’t come here to watch Bethod sit on a hill. He needs to be got down.”

“Got down where we can set to work on him!” hissed Dow.

“But it’s your choice.” Logen clapped his hand down on the Dogman’s shoulder. “You’re the chief.”

He was the chief. He remembered them deciding on it, gathered round Threetrees’ grave. Dogman had to admit, he’d much rather have told Crummock to fuck himself, then turned round and headed back, and told West they never found a thing except woods. But once you’ve got a task, you get it done. That’s what Threetrees would’ve said.

Dogman gave a long sigh, that feeling in his gut bubbling up so high he was right on the point of puking. “Alright. But this plan ain’t going to get us anything but dead unless the Union are ready to do their part, and in good time too. We’ll take it to Furious, and let their chief Burr know what we’re about.”

“Furious?” asked Logen.

Tul grinned. “Long story.”

Flowers and Plaudits

Jezal still did not have the slightest idea why it was necessary for him to wear his best uniform. The damn thing was stiff as a board and creaking with braid. It had been designed for standing to attention in rather than riding, and, as a result, dug painfully into his stomach with every movement of his horse. But Bayaz had insisted, and it was surprisingly difficult to say no to the old fool, whether Jezal was supposed to be in command of this expedition or not. It had seemed easier, in the end, just to do as he was told. So he rode at the head of the long column in some discomfort, constantly tugging at his tunic and sweating profusely in the bright sun. The one consolation was that he got to breathe fresh air. Everyone else had to eat his dust.

To further add to his pain, Bayaz was intent on continuing the themes that had made Jezal so very bored all the way to the edge of the World and back.

“…it is vital for a king to maintain the good opinion of his subjects. And it is not so very hard to do. The lowly have small ambitions, and are satisfied with small indulgences. They need not get fair treatment. They need only think that they do…”

Jezal found that after a while he could ignore the droning of the old man’s voice, in the same way that one could ignore the barking of an old dog that barked all the time. He slumped into his saddle and allowed his thoughts to wander. And where else would they find their way, but to Ardee?

He had landed himself in quite a pickle, alright. Out on the plain, things had seemed so very simple. Get home, marry her, happily ever after. Now, back in Adua, back among the powerful, and back in his old habits, they grew more complicated by the day. The possibility of damage to his reputation and his prospects were issues that could not simply be dismissed. He was a Colonel in the King’s Own, and that meant certain standards to uphold.

“… Harod the Great always had respect for the common man. More than once, it was the secret of his victories over his peers…”

And then Ardee herself was so much more complicated in person than she had been as a silent memory. Nine parts witty, clever, fearless, attractive. One part a mean and destructive drunk. Every moment with her was a lottery, but perhaps it was that sense of danger that struck the sparks when they touched, made his skin tingle and his mouth go dry… his skin was tingling now, even at the thought. He had never felt like this about a woman before, not ever. Surely it was love. It had to be. But was love enough? How long would it last? Marriage, after all, was forever, and forever was a very long time.

An indefinite extension of their current not-so secret romance would have been his preferred choice, but that bastard Glokta had stuck his ruined foot through that possibility. Anvils, and sacks, and canals. Jezal remembered that white monster shoving his bag over a prisoner’s head on a public thoroughfare, and shuddered at the thought. But he had to admit that the cripple was right. Jezal’s visits were not good for that girl’s reputation. One should treat others the way one would want to be treated, he supposed, just as Ninefingers had once said. But it certainly was a damned inconvenience.

“…are you even listening, my boy?”

“Eh? Er… yes, of course. Harod the Great, and so forth. The high respect he had for the common man.”

“Appeared to have,” grumbled Bayaz. “And he knew how to take a lesson too.”

They were getting close to Adua now, passing out of the farmland and through one of the huddles of shacks, impromptu dwellings, cheap inns and cheaper brothels that had grown up around each of the city’s gates, huddling about the road, each one almost a town in its own right. Up into the long shadow of Casamir’s Wall, the outermost of the city’s lines of defence. A dour guardsmen stood on either side of the high archway, gates marked with the Golden sun of the Union standing open. They passed through the darkness and out into the light. Jezal blinked.

A not inconsiderable number of people had gathered in the cobbled space beyond, pressing in on either side of the road, held back by members of the city watch. They burst into a chorus of happy cheers as they saw him ride through the gate. Jezal wondered for a moment if it was a case of mistaken identity, and they had been expecting someone of actual importance. Harod the Great, perhaps, for all he knew. He soon began to make out the name “Luthar” repeated amongst the noise, however. A girl at the front flung a flower at him, lost under his horse’s hooves, and shouted something he could not make out. But her manner left Jezal with no doubts. All these people had gathered for him.

“What’s happening?” he whispered to the First of the Magi.

Bayaz grinned as though he, at least, had expected it. “I imagine the people of Adua wish to celebrate your victory over the rebels.”

“They do?” He winced and gave a limp-wristed wave, and the cheering grew noticeably in volume. The crowd only thickened as they made their way into the city and the space reduced. There were people scattered up and down the narrow streets, people at the downstairs windows and people higher up, whooping and cheering. More flowers were thrown from a balcony high above the road. One stuck in his saddle and Jezal picked it up, turned it round and round in his hand.

“All this… for me?”

“Did you not save the city? Did you not stop the rebels, and without spilling a drop of blood on either side?”

“But they gave up for no reason. I didn’t do anything!”

Bayaz shrugged, snatched the flower from Jezal’s hand and sniffed at it, then tossed it away and nodded his head towards a clump of cheering tradesmen crowding a street corner. “It would seem they disagree. Just keep your mouth shut and smile. That’s always good advice.”

Jezal did his best to oblige, but the smiles were not coming easily. Logen Ninefingers, he was reasonably sure, would not have approved. If there was an opposite to trying to look like less than you were, then this, surely, was its very definition. He glanced nervously around, convinced that the crowds would suddenly recognise him for the utter fraud he felt, and replace the flowers and calls of admiration with angry jeers and the contents of their chamber pots.

But it did not happen. The cheering continued as Jezal and his long column of soldiers worked their slow way through the Three Farms district. With each street Jezal passed down he relaxed a little more. He slowly began to feel as if he must indeed have achieved something worthy of the honour. To wonder if he might, in fact, have been a dauntless commander, a masterful negotiator. If the people of the city wished to worship him as their hero, he began to suppose it would be churlish to refuse.

They passed through a gate in Arnault’s Wall and into the central district of the city. Jezal sat up tall in his saddle and puffed out his chest. Bayaz dropped behind to a respectful distance, allowing him to lead the column alone. The cheering mounted as they tramped down the wide Middleway, as they crossed the Four Corners towards the Agriont. It was like the feeling of victory at the Contest, only it had involved considerably less work, and was that really such an awful thing? What harm could it do? Ninefingers and his humility be damned. Jezal had earned the attention. He plastered a radiant smile across his face. He lifted his arm with self-satisfied confidence, and began to wave.

The great walls of the Agriont rose up ahead and Jezal crossed the moat to the looming south gatehouse, rode up the long tunnel into the fortress, the crackling hooves and tramping boots of the King’s Own echoing in the darkness behind him. He processed slowly down the Kingsway, approvingly observed by the great stone monarchs of old and their advisers, between high buildings crammed with onlookers, and into the Square of Marshals.

Crowds had been carefully arranged on each side of the vast open space, leaving a long track of bare stone down the middle. At the far end a wide stand of benches had been erected, a crimson canopy in the centre denoting the presence of royalty. The noise and spectacle were breathtaking.

Jezal remembered the triumph laid on for Marshal Varuz when he returned from his victory over the Gurkish, remembered staring wide-eyed, little more than a child. He had caught one fleeting glimpse of the Marshal himself, seated high on a grey charger, but never imagined that one day he might ride in the place of honour. It still seemed strange, if he was honest. After all, he had defeated a bunch of peasants rather than the most powerful nation in the Circle of the World. Still, it was hardly his place to judge who was worthy of a triumph and who was not, was it?

And so Jezal spurred his horse forwards, passing between the rows of smiling faces, waving arms, through air thick with support and approval. He saw that the great men of the Closed Council were arranged across the front row of benches. He recognised Arch Lector Sult in shining white, High Justice Marovia in solemn black. His erstwhile fencing master, Lord Marshal Varuz, was there, Lord Chamberlain Hoff just beside him. All applauding, mostly with a faint disdain which Jezal found rather ungracious. In the midst, well propped up on a gilded chair, was the King himself.

Jezal, now fully adjusted to his role of conquering hero, dragged hard on the bridle making his steed rear up, front hooves thrashing theatrically at the air. He vaulted from the saddle, approached the royal dais, and sank gracefully down on one knee, head bowed, the applause of the crowd echoing around him, to await the King’s gratitude. Would it be too much to hope for a further promotion? Perhaps even a title of his own? It seemed suddenly hard to believe that he had been forced to consider a quiet life in obscurity, not so very long ago.

“Your Majesty…” he heard Hoff saying, and he peered up from under his brows. The King was asleep, his eyes firmly closed, his mouth hanging open. Hardly a great surprise in its own way, the man was long past his best, but Jezal could not help being galled. It was the second time, after all, that he had slumbered through one of Jezal’s moments of glory. Hoff nudged the monarch as subtly as possible with an elbow, but when he did not wake, was forced to lean close to whisper in his ear.

“Your Majesty—” He got no further. The King leaned sideways, his head slumping, and fell all of a sudden from his gilded chair, sprawling on his back before the stricken members of the Closed Council like a landed whale. His scarlet robe flopped open to reveal a great wet stain across his trousers and the crown tumbled from his head, bounced once and clattered across the flags.

There was a collective gasp, punctuated by a shriek from a lady near the back. Jezal could only stare, open mouthed, as the Lord Chamberlain flung himself down on his knees, bending over the stricken King. A silent moment passed, a moment in which every person in the Square of Marshals held their breath, then Hoff got slowly to his feet. His face had lost all of its redness.

“The King is dead!” he wailed, the tortured echoes ringing from the towers and buildings around the square. Jezal could only grimace. It was just his luck. Now no one would be cheering for him.

Too Many Knives

Logen sat on a rock, twenty strides from the track that Crummock was leading them up. He knew all the ways, Crummock-i-Phail, all the ways in the North. That was the rumour, and Logen hoped it was a fact. He didn’t fancy being led straight into an ambush. They were heading north, towards the mountains. Hoping to draw Bethod down off his hills and up into the High Places. Hoping the Union would come up behind him, and catch him in a trap. An awful lot of hoping, that.

It was a hot, sunny day, and the earth under the trees was broken with shadow and slashed with bright sunlight, shifting as the branches moved in the wind, the sun slipping through and stabbing in Logen’s face from time to time. Birds tweeted and warbled, trees creaked and rustled, insects floated in the still air, and the forest floor was spattered with clumps of flowers, white and blue. Summer, in the North, but none of it made Logen feel any better. Summer was the best season for killing, and he’d seen plenty more men die in good weather than in bad. So he kept his eyes open, looking out into the trees, watching hard and listening harder.

That was the task Dogman had given him. Staying out on the right flank, making sure none of Bethod’s boys crept up while they were all spread out in file down that goat track. It suited Logen well enough. Kept him on the edge, where none of his own side might get tempted to try and kill him.

Watching men moving quiet through the trees, voices kept down low, weapons at the ready, brought back a rush of memories. Some good, some bad. Mostly bad, it had to be said. One man came away from the others as Logen watched, started walking towards him through the trees. He had a big grin on his face, just as friendly as you like, but that meant nothing, Logen had known plenty of men who could grin while they planned to kill you. He’d done it himself, and more than once.

He turned his body sideways a touch, sliding his hand down out of sight and curling it tight round the grip of a knife. You can never have too many knives, his father had told him, and that was strong advice. He looked around, slow and easy, just to make sure there was no one at his back, but there were only empty trees. So he shifted his feet for a better balance and stayed sitting, trying to look as if nothing worried him, but with every muscle tensed and ready to spring.

“My name’s Red Hat.” The man stopped no more than a stride away, still grinning, his left hand slack on the pommel of his sword, the other just hanging.

Logen’s mind raced, thinking over all the men he’d wronged, or hurt, or got bound up in a feud with. Those he’d left alive, anyway. Red Hat. He couldn’t find a place for it anywhere, but that was no reassurance. Ten men with ten big books couldn’t have kept track of all the enemies he’d made, and the friends and the family and the allies of all his enemies. And that was without a man trying to kill him without much of a reason, just to make his own name bigger. “Can’t say I recognise the name.”

Red Hat shrugged. “No reason you should do. I fought for Old Man Yawl, way back. He was a good man, was Yawl, a man you could respect.”

“Aye,” said Logen, still watching hard for a sudden move.

“But when he went back to the mud I got a place with Littlebone.”

“Never saw eye to eye with Littlebone, even when we were on the same side.”

“Neither did I, being honest. A right bastard. All bloated up with victories that Bethod won for him. Didn’t sit well with me. That’s why I came over, you know? When I heard Threetrees was here.” He sniffed and looked down at the earth. “Someone needs to do something about that fucking Feared.”

“So they tell me.” Logen was hearing a lot about this Feared, and none of it good, but it’d take more than a few words in the right direction to get his hand off his knife.

“Still, the Dogman’s a good chief, I reckon. One of the best I’ve had. Knows his business. Careful, like. Thinks about things.”

“Aye. Always thought he would be.”

“You think Bethod’s following us?”

Logen didn’t take his eyes from Red Hat’s. “Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Don’t reckon we’ll know ’til we get up in the mountains and hear him knocking at the door.”

“You think the Union’ll keep to their end of it?”

“Don’t see why not. That Burr seems to know what he’s about, far as I can tell, and his boy Furious as well. They said they’ll come, I reckon they’ll come. Not much we can do about it either way now, though, is there?”

Red Hat wiped some sweat from his forehead, squinting off into the trees. “I reckon you’re right. Anyway, all’s I wanted to say was, I was in the battle, at Ineward. I was on the other side from you, but I saw you fight, and I kept well away, I can tell you that.” He shook his head, and grinned. “Never saw anything like that, before or since. I suppose what I’m saying is, I’m happy to have you with us. Real happy.”

“Y’are?” Logen blinked. “Alright, then. Good.”

Red Hat nodded. “Well. That’s all. See you in the fight, I reckon.”

“Aye. In the fight.” Logen watched him stride away through the trees, but even when Red Hat was well out of sight, he somehow couldn’t make his hand uncurl from the grip of his knife, still couldn’t lose the feeling that he had to watch his back.

Seemed he’d let himself forget what the North was like. Or he’d let himself pretend it would be different. Now he saw his mistake. He’d made a trap for himself, years ago. He’d made a great heavy chain, link by bloody link, and he’d bound himself up in it. Somehow he’d been offered the chance to get free, a chance he didn’t come near to deserving, but instead he’d blundered back in, and now things were apt to get bloody.

He could feel it coming. A great weight of death, like the shadow of a mountain falling on him. Every time he said a word, or took a step, or had a thought, even, it seemed he’d somehow brought it closer. He drank it down with every swallow, he sucked it in with every breath. He hunched his shoulders up and stared down at his boots, strips of sunlight across the toes. He should never have let go of Ferro. He should have clung to her like a child to its mother. How many things halfway good had he been offered in his life? And now he’d turned one down, and chosen to come back and settle some scores. He licked his teeth, and he spat sour spit out onto the earth. He should’ve known better. Vengeance is never halfway as simple, or halfway as sweet, as you think it’s going to be.

“I bet you’re wishing you didn’t come back at all, eh?”

Logen jerked his head up, on the point of pulling the knife and setting to work. Then he saw it was only Tul standing over him. He pushed the blade away and let his hands drop. “Do you know what? The thought had occurred.”

The Thunderhead squatted down beside him. “Sometimes I find my own name’s a heavy weight to carry. Dread to think how a name like yours must drag at a man.”

“It can seem a burden.”

“I bet it can.” Tul watched the men moving past, single file, down on the dusty track. “Don’t mind ’em. They’ll get used to you. And if things get low, well, you’ve always got Black Dow’s smile to fall back on, eh?”

Logen grinned. “That’s true. It’s quite the smile he has, that man. It seems to light up the whole world, don’t it?”

“Like sunshine on a cloudy day.” Tul sat down on the rock next to him, pulled the stopper from his canteen and held it out. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry? For what?”

“That we didn’t look for you, after you went over that cliff. Thought you were dead.”

“Can’t say I hold much of a grudge for that. I was pretty damn sure I was dead myself. I’m the one should have gone looking for you lot, I reckon.”

“Well. Should’ve looked for each other, maybe. But I guess you learn to stop hoping, after a while. Life teaches you to expect the worst, eh?”

“You have to be realistic, I reckon.”

“That you do. Still, it came out alright. Back with us now, aren’t you?”

“Aye.” Logen sighed. “Back to warring, and bad food, and creeping through woods.”

“Woods,” grunted Tul, and he split a big grin. “Will I ever get tired of em?

Logen took a drink from the canteen, then handed it back, and Tul took a swig himself. They sat there, silent, for a minute.

“I didn’t want this, you know, Tul.”

“Course not. None of us wanted this. Don’t mean we don’t deserve it, though, eh?” Tul slapped his big hand down on Logen’s shoulder. “You need to talk it over, I’m around.”

Logen watched him go. He was a good man, the Thunderhead. A man that could be trusted. There were still a few left. Tul, and Grim, and the Dogman. Black Dow too, in his own way. It almost gave Logen some hope, that did. Almost made him glad that he chose to come back to the North. Then he looked back at the file of men and he saw Shivers in there, watching him. Logen would have liked to look away, but looking away wasn’t something the Bloody-Nine could do. So he sat there on his rock, and they stared at each other, and Logen felt the hatred digging at him until Shivers was lost through the trees. He shook his head again, and sucked his teeth again, and spat.

You can never have too many knives, his father had told him. Unless they’re pointed at you, and by people who don’t like you much.

Best of Enemies

Tap, tap.

“Not now!” stormed Colonel Glokta. “I have all these to get through!” There must have been ten thousand papers of confession for him to sign. His desk was groaning with great heaps of them, and the nib of his pen was soft as butter. What with the red ink, his marks looked like dark bloodstains sprayed across the pale paper. “Damn it!” he raged as he knocked over the bottle with his elbow, splashing ink out over the desk, soaking into the piles of papers, dripping to the floor with a steady tap, tap, tap.

“There will be time later for you to confess. Ample time.”

The Colonel frowned. The air had grown decidedly chill. “You again! Always at the worst times!”

“You remember me, then?”

“I seem to…” In truth, the Colonel was finding it hard to recall from where. It looked like a woman in the corner, but he could not make out her face.

“The Maker fell burning… he broke upon the bridge below…” The words were familiar, but Glokta could not have said why. Old stories and nonsense. He winced. Damn it but his leg hurt.

“I seem to…” His usual confidence was all ebbing away. The room was icy cold now, he could see his breath smoking before his face. He stumbled up from his chair as his unwelcome visitor came closer, his leg aching with a vengeance. “What do you want?” he managed to croak.

The face came into the light. It was none other than Mauthis, from the banking house of Valint and Balk. “The Seed, Colonel.” And he smiled his joyless smile. “I want the Seed.”

“I… I…” Glokta’s back found the wall. He could go no further.

“The Seed!” Now it was Goyle’s face, now Sult’s, now Severard’s, but they all made the same demand. “The Seed! I lose patience!”

“Bayaz,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes closed, tears running out from underneath his lids. “Bayaz knows—”

“Tap, tap, torturer.” The woman’s hissing voice again. A finger-tip jabbed at the side of his head, painfully hard. “If that old liar knew, it would be mine already. No. You will find it.” He could not speak for fear. “You will find it, or I will tear the price from your twisted flesh. So tap, tap, time to wake.”

The finger stabbed at his skull again, digging into the side of his head like a dagger blade. “Tap, tap, cripple!” hissed the hideous voice in his ear, breath so cold it seemed to burn his bare cheek. “Tap, tap!”

Tap, tap.

For a moment Glokta hardly knew where he was. He jerked upright, struggling with the sheets, staring about him, hemmed in on every side by threatening shadows, his own whimpering breath hissing in his head. Then everything fell suddenly into place. My new apartments. A pleasant breeze stirred the curtains in the sticky night, washing through the one open window. Glokta saw its shadow shifting on the rendered wall. It swung shut against the frame, open, then shut again.

Tap, tap.

He closed his eyes and breathed a long sigh. Winced as he sagged back in his bed, stretching his legs out, working his toes against the cramps. Those toes the Gurkish left me, at least. Only another dream. Everything is—

Then he remembered, and his eyes snapped wide open. The King is dead. Tomorrow we elect a new one.

The three hundred and twenty papers were hanged, lifeless, from their nails. They had grown more and more creased, battered, greasy and grubby over the past few weeks. As the business itself has slid further into the filth. Many were ink smudged, covered with angrily scrawled notes, with fillings-in and crossings-out. As men were bought and sold, bullied and blackmailed, bribed and beguiled. Many were torn where wax had been removed, added, replaced with other colours. As the allegiances shifted, as the promises were broken, as the balance swung this way and that.

Arch Lector Sult stood glaring at them, like a shepherd at his troublesome flock, his white coat rumpled, his white hair in disarray. Glokta had never before seen him look anything less than perfectly presented. He must, at last, taste blood. His own. I would almost want to laugh, if my own mouth were not so terribly salty.

“Brock has seventy-five,” Sult was hissing to himself, white gloved hands fussing with each other behind his back. “Brock has seventy-five. Isher has fifty-five. Skald and Barezin, forty a piece. Brock has seventy-five…” He muttered the numbers over and over, as though they were a charm to protect him from evil. Or from good, perhaps. “Isher has fifty-five…”

Glokta had to suppress a smile. Brock, then Isher, then Skald and Barezin, while the Inquisition and Judiciary struggle over scraps. For all our efforts, the shape of things is much the same as when we began this ugly dance. We might as well have led the country then and saved ourselves the trouble. Perhaps it is still not too late…

Glokta noisily cleared his throat and Sult’s head jerked round. “You have something to contribute?”

“In a manner of speaking, your Eminence.” Glokta kept his tone as servile as he possibly could. “I received some rather… troubling information recently.”

Sult scowled, and nodded his head at the papers. “More troubling than this?”

Equally, at any rate. After all, whoever wins the vote will have but a brief celebration if the Gurkish arrive and slaughter the lot of us a week later. “It has been suggested to me… that the Gurkish are preparing to invade Midderland.”

There was a brief, uncomfortable pause. Scarcely a promising reception, but we have set sail now. What else to do but steer straight for the storm? “Invade?” sneered Goyle. “With what?”

“It is not the first time I have been told they have a fleet.” Trying desperately to patch my foundering vessel. “A considerable fleet, built in secret, after the last war. We could easily make some preparations, then if the Gurkish do come—”

“And what if you are wrong?” The Arch Lector was frowning mightily. “From whom did this information come?”

Oh, dear me no, that would never do. Carlot dan Eider? Alive? But how? Body found floating by the docks… “An anonymous source, Arch Lector.”

“Anonymous?” His Eminence glowered through narrowed eyes. “And you would have me go to the Closed Council, at a time like this, and put before them the unproven gossip of your anonymous source?” The waves swamp the deck…

“I merely wished to alert your Eminence to the possibility—”

“When are they coming?” The torn sailcloth flaps in the gale…

“My informant did not—”

“Where will they land?” The sailors topple screaming from the rigging…

“Again, your Eminence I cannot—”

“What will be their numbers?” The wheel breaks off in my shaking hands…

Glokta winced, and decided not to speak at all.

“Then kindly refrain from distracting us with rumours,” sneered Sult, his lip twisted with contempt. The ship vanishes beneath the merciless waves, her cargo of precious warnings consigned to the deep, and her captain will not be missed. “We have more pressing concerns than a legion of Gurkish phantoms!”

“Of course, your Eminence.” And if the Gurkish come, who will we hang? Oh, Superior Glokta, of course. Why ever did that damn cripple not speak up?

Sult’s mind had already slipped back into its well-worn circles. “We have thirty-one votes and Marovia has something over twenty. Thirty-one. Not enough to make the difference.” He shook his head grimly, blue eyes darting over the papers. As if there were some new way to look at them that would alter the terrible mathematics. “Nowhere near enough.”

“Unless we were to come to an understanding with High Justice Marovia.” Again, a pause, even more uncomfortable than last time. Oh dear. I must have said that out loud.

“An understanding?” hissed Sult.

“With Marovia?” squealed Goyle, his eyes bulging with triumph. When the safe options are all exhausted, we must take risks. Is that not what I told myself as I rode down to the bridge, while the Gurkish massed upon the other side? Ah well, once more into the tempest…

Glokta took a deep breath. “Marovia’s seat on the Closed Council is no safer than anyone else’s. We may have been working against each other, but only out of habit. On the subject of this vote our aims are the same. To secure a weak candidate and maintain the balance. Together you have more than fifty votes. That might well be enough to tip the scales.”

Goyle sneered his contempt. “Join forces with that peasant-loving hypocrite? Have you lost your reason?”

“Shut up, Goyle.” Sult glared at Glokta for a long while, his lips pursed in thought. Considering my punishment, perhaps? Another tongue-lashing? Or a real lashing? Or my body found floating— “You are right. Go and speak to Marovia.”

Sand dan Glokta, once more the hero! Goyle’s jaw hung open. “But… your Eminence!”

“The time for pride is far behind us!” snarled Sult. “We must seize any chance of keeping Brock and the rest from the throne. We must find compromises, however painful, and we must take whatever allies we can. Go!” he hissed over his shoulder, folding his arms and turning back to his crackling papers. “Strike a deal with Marovia.”

Glokta got stiffly up from his chair. A shame to leave such lovely company, but when duty calls… He treated Goyle to the briefest of toothless smiles, then took up his cane and limped for the door.

“And Glokta!” He winced as he turned back into the room. “Marovia’s aims and ours may meet for now. But we cannot trust him. Tread carefully.”

“Of course, your Eminence.” I always do. What other choice, when every step is agony?

The private office of the High Justice was as big as a barn, its ceiling covered in festoons of old moulding, riddled with shadows. Although it was only late afternoon, the thick ivy outside the windows, and the thick grime on the panes, had sunk the place into a perpetual twilight. Tottering heaps of papers were stacked on every surface. Wedges of documents tied with black tape. Piles of leather-bound ledgers. Stacks of dusty parchments in ostentatious, swirling script, stamped with huge seals of red wax and glittering gilt. A kingdom’s worth of law, it looked like. And, indeed, it probably is.

“Superior Glokta, good evening.” Marovia himself was seated at a long table near the empty fireplace, set for dinner, a flickering candelabra making each dish glisten in the gloom. “I hope you do not mind if I eat while we talk? I would rather dine in the comfort of my rooms, but I find myself eating here more and more. So much to do, you see? And one of my secretaries appears to have taken a holiday unannounced.” A holiday to the slaughterhouse floor, in fact, by way of the intestines of a herd of swine. “Would you care to join me?” Marovia gestured at a large joint of meat, close to raw in the centre, swimming in bloody gravy.

Glokta licked at his empty gums as he manoeuvred himself into a chair opposite. “I would be delighted, your Worship, but the laws of dentistry prevent me.”

“Ah, of course. Those laws there can be no circumventing, even by a High Justice. You have my sympathy, Superior. One of my greatest pleasures is a good cut of meat, and the bloodier the better. Just show them the flame, I always tell my cook. Just show it to them.” Funny. I tell my Practicals to start the same way. “And to what do I owe this unexpected visit? Do you come on your own initiative, or at the urging of your employer, my esteemed colleague from the Closed Council, Arch Lector Sult?”

Your bitter mortal enemy from the Closed Council, do you mean? “His Eminence is aware that I am here.”

“Is he?” Marovia carved another slice and lifted it dripping onto his plate. “And with what message has he sent you? Something relating to tomorrow’s business in the Open Council, perhaps?”

“You spoil my surprise, your Worship. May I speak plainly?”

“If you know how.”

Glokta showed the High Justice his empty grin. “This affair with the vote is a terrible thing for business. The doubt, the uncertainty, the worry. Bad for everyone’s business.”

“Some more than others.” Marovia’s knife squealed against the plate as he slit a ribbon of fat from the edge of his meat.

“Of course. At particular risk are those that sit on the Closed Council, and those that struggle on their behalf. They are unlikely to be given such a free hand if powerful men such as Brock or Isher are voted to the throne.” Some of us, indeed, are unlikely to live out the week.

Marovia speared a slice of carrot with his fork and stared sourly at it. “A lamentable state of affairs. It would have been preferable for all concerned if Raynault or Ladisla were still alive.” He thought about it for a moment. “If Raynault were still alive, at least. But the vote will take place tomorrow, however much we might tear our hair. It is hard now to see our way to a remedy.” He looked from the carrot to Glokta. “Or do you suggest one?”

“You, your Worship, control between twenty and thirty votes on the Open Council.”

Marovia shrugged. “I have some influence, I cannot deny it.”

“The Arch Lector can call on thirty votes himself.”

“Good for his Eminence.”

“Not necessarily. If the two of you oppose each other, as you always have, your votes will mean nothing. One for Isher, the other for Brock, and no difference made.”

Marovia sighed. “A sad end to our two glittering careers.”

“Unless you were to pool your resources. Then you might have sixty votes between you. As many, almost, as Brock controls. Enough to make a King of Skald, or Barezin, or Heugen, or even some unknown, depending on how things go. Someone who might be more easily influenced in the future. Someone who might keep the Closed Council he has, rather than selecting a new one.”

“A King to make us all happy, eh?”

“If you were to express a preference for one man or another, I could take that back to his Eminence.” More steps, more coaxing, more disappointments. Oh, to have a great office of my own, and to sit all day in comfort while cringing bastards slog up my stairs to smile at my insults, lap up my lies, beg for my poisonous support.

“Shall I tell you what would make me happy, Superior Glokta?”

Now for the musings of another power-mad old fart. “By all means, your Worship.”

Marovia tossed his cutlery onto his plate, sat back in his chair and gave a long, tired sigh. “I would like no King at all. I would like every man equal under the law, to have a say in the running of his own country and the choosing of his own leaders. I would like no King, and no nobles, and a Closed Council selected by, and answerable to, the citizens themselves. A Closed Council open to all, you might say. What do you think of that?”

I think some people would say that it sounds very much like treason. The rest would simply call it madness. “I think, your Worship, that your notion is a fantasy.”

“Why so?”

“Because the vast majority of men would far rather be told what to do than make their own choices. Obedience is easy.”

The High Justice laughed. “Perhaps you are right. But things will change. This rebellion has convinced me of it. Things will change, by small steps.”

“I am sure Lord Brock on the throne is one small step none of us would like to see taken.”

“Lord Brock does indeed have very strong opinions, mostly relating to himself. You make a convincing case, Superior.” Marovia sat back in his chair, hands resting on his belly, staring at Glokta through narrowed eyes. “Very well. You may tell Arch Lector Sult that this once we have common cause. If a neutral candidate with sufficient support presents themselves, I will have my votes cast along with his. Who could have thought it? The Closed Council united.” He slowly shook his head. “Strange times indeed.”

“They certainly are, your Worship.” Glokta struggled to his feet, wincing as he put his weight on his burning leg, and shuffled across the gloomy, echoing space towards the door. Strange, though, that our High Justice is so philosophical on the subject of losing his position tomorrow. I have scarcely ever seen a man look calmer. He paused as he touched the handle of the door. One would almost suppose that he knows something we do not. One might almost suppose that he already has a plan in mind.

He turned back. “Can I trust you, High Justice?”

Marovia looked sharply up, the carving knife poised in his hand. “What a beautifully quaint question from a man in your line of work. I suppose that you can trust me to act in my own interests. Just as far as I can trust you to do the same. Our deal goes no further than that. Nor should it. You are a clever man, Superior, you make me smile.” And he turned back to his joint of meat, prodding at it with a fork and making the blood run. “You should find another master.”

Glokta shuffled out. A charming suggestion. But I already have two more than I’d like.

The prisoner was a scrawny, sinewy specimen, naked and bagged as usual, with hands manacled securely behind his back. Glokta watched as Frost dragged him into the domed room from the cells, his stumbling bare feet flapping against the cold floor.

“He wasn’t too hard to get a hold of,” Severard was saying. “He left the others a while ago, but he’s been hanging round the city like the smell of piss ever since. We picked him up yesterday night.”

Frost flung the prisoner down in the chair. Where am I? Who has me? What do they want? A horrifying moment, just before the work begins. The terror and the helplessness, the sick tingling of anticipation. My own memory of it was sharply refreshed, only the other day, at the hands of the charming Magister Eider. I was set free unmolested, however. The prisoner sat there, head tilted to one side, the canvas on the front of the bag moving back and forth with his hurried breath. I very much doubt that he will be so lucky.

Glokta’s eyes crept reluctantly to the painting above the prisoner’s bagged head. Our old friend Kanedias. The painted face stared grimly down from the domed ceiling, the arms spread wide, the colourful fire behind. The Maker fell burning… He weighed the heavy hammer reluctantly in his hand. “Let’s get on with it, then.” Severard snatched the canvas bag away with a showy flourish.

The Navigator squinted into the bright lamplight, a weather-beaten face, tanned and deeply lined, head shaved, like a priest. Or a confessed traitor, of course.

“Your name is Brother Longfoot?”

“Indeed! Of the noble Order of Navigators! I assure you that I am innocent of any crime!” The words came out in rush. “I have done nothing unlawful, no. That would not be my way at all. I am a law-abiding man, and always have been. I can think of no possible reason why I should be manhandled in this way! None!” His eyes swivelled down and he saw the anvil, gleaming on the floor between him and Glokta, where the table would usually have been. His voice rose an entire octave higher. “The Order of Navigators is well respected, and I am a member in good standing! Exceptional standing! Navigation is the foremost of my many remarkable talents, it is indeed, the foremost of—”

Glokta cracked his hammer against the top of the anvil with a clang to wake the dead. “Stop! Talking!” The little man blinked, and gaped, but he shut up. Glokta sank back in his chair, kneading at his withered thigh, the pain prickling up his back. “Do you have any notion of how tired I am? Of how much I have to do? The agony of getting out of bed each morning leaves me a broken man before the day even begins, and the present moment is an exceptionally stressful one. It is therefore a matter of the most supreme indifference to me whether you can walk for the rest of your life, whether you can see for the rest of your life, whether you can hold your shit in for the rest of your intensely short, intensely painful life. Do you understand?”

The Navigator looked wide-eyed up at Frost, looming over him like an outsize shadow. “I understand,” he whispered.

“Good,” said Severard.

“Ve’ gooth,” said Frost.

“Very good indeed,” said Glokta. “Tell me, Brother Longfoot, is one among your remarkable talents a superhuman resistance to pain?”

The prisoner swallowed. “It is not.”

“Then the rules of this game are simple. I ask a question and you answer precisely, correctly, and, above all, briefly. Do I make myself clear?”

“I understand completely. I do not speak other than to—”

Frost’s fist sunk into his gut and he folded up, eyes bulging. “Do you see,” hissed Glokta, “that your answer there should have been yes?” The albino seized the wheezing Navigator’s leg and dragged his foot up onto the anvil. Oh, cold metal on the sensitive sole. Quite unpleasant, but it could be so much worse. And something tells me it probably will be. Frost snapped a manacle shut around Longfoot’s ankle.

“I apologise for the lack of imagination.” Glokta sighed. “In our defence, it’s difficult to be always thinking of something new. I mean, smashing a man’s feet with a lump hammer, it’s so…”

“Pethethrian?” ventured Frost.

Glokta heard a sharp volley of laughter from behind Severard’s mask, felt his own mouth grinning too. He really should have been a comedian, rather than a torturer. “Pedestrian! Precisely so. But don’t worry. If we haven’t got what we need by the time we’ve crushed everything below your knees to pulp, we’ll see if we can think of something more inventive for the rest of your legs. How does that sound?”

“But I have done nothing!” squealed Longfoot, just getting his breath back. “I know nothing! I did—”

“Forget… about all that. It is meaningless now.” Glokta leaned slowly, painfully forwards, let the head of the hammer tap gently against the iron beside the Navigator’s bare foot. “What I want you to concentrate on… are my questions… and your toes… and this hammer. But don’t worry if you find that difficult now. Believe me when I say—once the hammer starts falling, you will find it easy to ignore everything else.”

Longfoot stared at the anvil, nostrils flaring as his breath snorted quickly in and out. And the seriousness of the situation finally impresses itself upon him.

“Questions, then,” said Glokta. “You are familiar with the man who styles himself Bayaz, the First of the Magi?”

“Yes! Please! Yes! Until recently he was my employer.”

“Good.” Glokta shifted in his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position while bending forwards. “Very good. You accompanied him on a journey?”

“I was the guide!”

“What was your destination?”

“The Island of Shabulyan, at the edge of the World.”

Glokta let the head of the hammer click against the anvil again. “Oh come, come. The edge of the World? A fantasy, surely?”

“Truly! Truly! I have seen it! I stood upon that island with my own feet!”

“Who went with you?”

“There was… was Logen Ninefingers, from the distant North.” Ah, yes, he of the scars and the tight lips. “Ferro Maljinn, a Kantic woman.” The one that gave our friend Superior Goyle so much trouble. “Jezal dan Luthar, a… a Union officer.” A posturing dolt. “Malacus Quai, Bayaz’ apprentice.” The skinny liar with the troglodyte’s complexion. “And then Bayaz himself!”

“Six of you?”

“Only six!”

“A long and a difficult journey to undertake. What was at the edge of the World that demanded such an effort, besides water?”

Longfoot’s lip trembled. “Nothing!” Glokta frowned, and nudged at the Navigator’s big toe with the head of the hammer. “It was not there! The thing that Bayaz sought! It was not there! He said he had been tricked!”

“What was it that he thought would be there?”

“He said it was a stone!”

“A stone?”

“The woman asked him. He said it was a rock… a rock from the Other Side.” The Navigator shook his sweating head. “An unholy notion! I am glad we found no such thing. Bayaz called it the Seed!”

Glokta felt the grin melting from his face. The Seed. Is it my imagination, or has the room grown colder? “What else did he say about it?”

“Just myths and nonsense!”

“Try me.”

“Stories, about Glustrod, and ruined Aulcus, and taking forms, and stealing faces! About speaking to devils, and the summoning of them. About the Other Side.”

“What else?” Glokta dealt Longfoot’s toe a firmer tap with the hammer.

“Ah! Ah! He said the Seed was the stuff of the world below! That it was left over from before the Old Time, when demons walked the earth! He said it was a great and powerful weapon! That he meant to use it, against the Gurkish! Against the Prophet!” A weapon, from before the Old Time. The summoning of devils, the taking of forms. Kanedias seemed to frown down from the wall more grimly than ever, and Glokta flinched. He remembered his nightmare trip into the House of the Maker, the patterns of light on the floor, the shifting rings in the darkness. He remembered stepping out onto the roof, standing high above the city without climbing a single stair.

“You did not find it?” he whispered, his mouth dry.

“No! It was not there!”

“And then?”

“That was all! We came back across the mountains. We made a raft and rode the great Aos back to the sea. We took a ship from Calcis and I sit before you now!”

Glokta narrowed his eyes, studying carefully his prisoner’s face. There is more. I see it. “What are you not telling me?”

“I have told you everything! I have no talent for dissembling!” That, at least, is true. His lies are plain.

“If your contract is ended, why are you still in the city?”

“Because… because…” The Navigator’s eyes darted round the room.

“Oh, dear me, no.” The heavy hammer came down with all of Glokta’s crippled strength and crushed Longfoot’s big toe flat with a dull thud. The Navigator gaped at it, eyes bulging from his head. Ah, that beautiful, horrible moment between stubbing your toe and feeling the hurt. Here it comes. Here it comes. Here it— Longfoot let vent a great shriek, squirmed around in his chair, face contorted with agony.

“I know the feeling,” said Glokta, wincing as he wriggled his own remaining toes around in his sweaty boot. “I truly, truly do, and I sympathise. That blinding flash of pain, then up washes the sick and dizzy faintness of the shattered bone, then the slow pulsing up the leg that seems to drag the water from your eyes and make your whole body tremble.” Longfoot gasped, and whimpered, tears glistening on his cheeks. “And what comes next? Weeks of limping? Months of hobbling, crippled? And if the next blow is to on your ankle?” Glokta prodded at Longfoot’s shin with the end of the hammer. “Or square on your kneecap, what then? Will you ever walk again? I know the feelings well, believe me.” So how can I inflict them now, on someone else? He shrugged his twisted shoulders. One of life’s mysteries. “Another?” And he raised the hammer again.

“No! No! Wait!” wailed Longfoot. “The priest! God help me, a priest came to the Order! A Gurkish priest! He said that one day the First of the Magi might ask for a Navigator, and that he wished to be told of it! That he wished to be told what happened afterward! He made threats, terrible threats, we had no choice but to obey! I was waiting in the city for another Navigator, who will convey the news! Only this morning I told him everything I have told you! I was about to leave Adua, I swear!”

“What was the name of this priest?” Longfoot said nothing, his wet eyes wide, the breath hissing in his nose. Oh, why must they test me? Glokta looked down at the Navigator’s toe. It was already starting to swell and go blotchy, streaks of black blood-blisters down each side, the nail deep, brooding purple, edged with angry red. Glokta ground the end of the hammer’s handle savagely into it. “The name of the priest! His name! His name! His—”

“Aargh! Mamun! God help me! His name was Mamun!” Mamun. Yulwei spoke of him, in Dagoska. The first apprentice of the Prophet himself. Together they broke the Second Law, together they ate the flesh of men.

“Mamun. I see. Now.” Glokta craned further forward, ignoring an ugly tingling up his twisted spine. “What is Bayaz doing here?”

Longfoot gaped, a long string of drool hanging from his bottom lip. “I don’t know!”

“What does he want with us? What does he want in the Union?”

“I don’t know! I have told you everything!”

“Leaning forwards is a considerable ordeal for me. One that I begin to tire of.” Glokta frowned, and lifted the hammer, its polished head glinting.

“I just find ways from here to there! I only navigate! Please! No!” Longfoot squeezed his eyes shut, tongue wedged between his teeth. Here it comes. Here it comes. Here it comes…

Glokta tossed the hammer clattering down on the floor and leaned back, rocking his aching hips left and right to try and squeeze away the aches. “Very well,” he sighed. “I am satisfied.”

The prisoner opened first one grimacing eye, and then the other. He looked up, face full of hope. “I can go?”

Severard chuckled softly behind his mask. Even Frost made a kind of hissing sound. “Of course you can go.” Glokta smiled his empty smile. “You can go back in your bag.”

The Navigator’s face went slack with horror. “God take pity on me.”

If there is a God, he has no pity in him.

Fortunes of War

Lord Marshal Burr was in the midst of writing a letter, but he smiled up as West let the tent flap drop.

“How are you, Colonel?”

“Well enough, thank you, sir. The preparations are well underway. We should be ready to leave at first light.”

“As efficient as ever. Where would I be without you?” Burr gestured at the decanter. “Wine?”

“Thank you, sir.” West poured himself a glass. “Would you care for one?”

Burr indicated a battered canteen at his elbow. “I believe it would be prudent if I was to stick to water.”

West winced, guiltily. He hardly felt as if he had the right to ask, but there was no escaping it now. “How are you feeling, sir?”

“Much better, thank you for asking. Much, much better.” He grimaced, put one fist over his mouth, and burped. “Not entirely recovered, but well on the way.” As though to prove the point he got up easily from his chair and strode to the map, hands clasped behind his back. His face had indeed regained much of its colour. He no longer stood hunched over, wobbling as though he were about to fall.

“Lord Marshal… I wanted to speak to you… about the battle at Dunbrec.”

Burr looked round. “About what feature of it?”

“When you were sick…” West teetered on the brink of speaking, then let the words bubble out. “I didn’t send for a surgeon! I could have, but—”

“I’m proud that you didn’t.” West blinked. He had hardly dared to hope for that answer. “You did what I would have wanted you to do. It is important that an officer should care, but it is vital that he should not care too much. He must be able to place his men in harm’s way. He must be able to send them to their deaths, if he deems it necessary. He must be able to make sacrifices, and to weigh the greatest good, without emotion counting in his choice. That is why I like you, West. You have compassion in you, but you have iron too. One cannot be a great leader without a certain… ruthlessness.”

West found himself lost for words. The Lord Marshal chuckled, and slapped the table with his open hand. “But as it happens, no harm done, eh? The line held, the Northmen were turned out of Angland, and I tottered through alive, as you can see!”

“I am truly glad to see you feeling better, sir.”

Burr grinned. “Things are looking up. We are free to move again, with our lines of supply secure and the weather finally dry. If your Dogman’s plan works then we have a chance of finishing Bethod within a couple of weeks! They’ve been a damn courageous and useful set of allies!”

“They have, sir.”

“But this trap must be carefully baited, and sprung at just the right moment.” Burr peered at the map, rocking energetically back and forward on his heels. “If we’re too early Bethod may slip away. If we’re too late our Northern friends could be crushed before we can reach them. We have to make sure bloody Poulder and bloody Kroy don’t drag their bloody feet!” He winced and put a hand on his stomach, reached for his canteen and took a swig of water.

“I’d say you finally have them house-trained, Lord Marshal.”

“Don’t you believe it. They’re only waiting for their chance to put the knife in me, the pair of them! And now the King is dead. Who knows who will replace him? Voting for a monarch! Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

West’s mouth felt unpleasantly dry. It was almost impossible to believe that the whole business had been partly his own doing. It would hardly have done to take credit for it however, given that his part had been to murder the heir to the throne in cold blood. “Who do you think they will choose, sir?” he croaked.

“I’m no courtier, West, for all I have a seat on the Closed Council. Brock, maybe, or Isher? I’ll tell you one thing for sure—if you think there’s violence going on up here, it’ll be twice as brutal back home in Midderland, with half the mercy shown.” The Marshal burped, and swallowed, and laid a hand on his stomach. “Gah. No Northman’s anything like as ruthless as those vultures on the Closed Council when they get started. And what will change when they have their new man in his robes of state? Not much, I’m thinking. Not much.”

“Very likely, sir.”

“I daresay there’s nothing that we can do about it either way. A pair of blunt soldiers, eh, West?” He stepped up close to the map again, and traced their route northwards towards the mountains, his thick forefinger hissing over the paper. “We must make sure we are ready to move at sunup. Every hour could be vital. Poulder and Kroy have had their orders?”

“Signed and delivered, sir, and they understand the urgency. Don’t worry, Lord Marshal, we’ll be ready to go in the morning.”

“Don’t worry?” Burr snorted. “I’m the commander of his Majesty’s army. Worrying is what I do. But you should get some rest.” He waved West out of the tent with one thick hand. “I’ll see you at first light.”

They played their cards by torchlight on the hillside, in the calm night under the stars, and by torchlight below them the Union army made its hurried preparations to advance. Lamps bobbed and moved, soldiers cursed in the darkness. Bangs, and clatters, and the ill-tempered calls of men and beasts floated through the still air.

“There’ll be no sleep for anyone tonight.” Brint finished dealing and scraped up his cards with his fingernails.

“I wish I could remember the last time I got more than three good hours together,” said West. Back in Adua, most likely, before his sister came to the city. Before the Marshal put him on his staff. Before he came back to Angland, before he met Prince Ladisla, before the freezing journey north and the things he had done on it. He hunched his shoulders and frowned down at his dog-eared cards.

“How’s the Lord Marshal?” asked Jalenhorm.

“Much better, I’m pleased to say.”

“Thank the fates for that.” Kaspa raised his brows. “I don’t much fancy the idea of that pedant Kroy in charge.”

“Or Poulder either,” said Brint. “The man’s ruthless as a snake.”

West could only agree. Poulder and Kroy hated him almost as much as they hated each other. If one of them took command he’d be lucky if he found himself swabbing latrines the following day. Probably he’d be on a boat to Adua within the week. To swab latrines there.

“Have you heard about Luthar?” asked Jalenhorm.

“What about him?”

“He’s back in Adua.” West looked up sharply. Ardee was in Adua, and the idea of the two of them together again was not exactly a heartening thought.

“I had a letter from my cousin Ariss.” Kaspa squinted as he clumsily fanned out his cards. “She says Jezal was far away somewhere, on some kind of mission for the king.”

“A mission?” West doubted anyone would have trusted Jezal with anything important enough to be called a mission.

“All of Adua is buzzing with it, apparently.”

“They say he led some charge or other,” said Jalenhorm, “across some bridge.”

West raised his eyebrows. “Did he now?”

“They say he killed a score of men on the battlefield.”

“Only a score?”

“They say he bedded the Emperor’s daughter,” murmured Brint.

West snorted. “Somehow I find that the most believable of the three.”

Kaspa spluttered with laughter. “Well whatever the truth of it, he’s been made up to Colonel.”

“Good for him,” muttered West, “he always seems to fall on his feet, that boy.”

“Did you hear about this revolt?”

“My sister mentioned something about it in her last letter. Why?”

“There was a full-scale rebellion, Ariss tells me. Thousands of peasants, roaming the countryside, burning and looting, hanging anyone with a “dan” in their name. Guess who was given command of the force sent to stop them?”

West sighed. “Not our old friend Jezal dan Luthar, by any chance?”

“The very same, and he persuaded them to go back to their homes, how about that?”

“Jezal dan Luthar,” murmured Brint, “with the common touch. Who could have thought it?”

“Not me.” Jalenhorm emptied his glass and poured himself another. “But they’re calling him a hero now, apparently.”

“Toasting him in the taverns,” said Brint.

“Congratulating him in the Open Council,” said Kaspa.

West scraped the jingling pile of coins towards him with the edge of his hand. “I wish I could say I was surprised, but I always guessed I’d be taking my orders from Lord Marshal Luthar one of these days.” It could have been worse, he supposed. It could have been Poulder or Kroy.

The first pink glow of dawn was creeping across the tops of the hills as West walked up the slope towards the Lord Marshal’s tent. It was past time to give the word to move. He saluted grimly to the guards beside the flap and pushed on through. One lamp was still burning in the corner beyond, casting a ruddy glow over the maps, over the folding chairs and the folding tables, filling the creases in the blankets on Burr’s bed with black shadows. West crossed to it, thinking over all the tasks he had to get done that morning, checking that he had left nothing out.

“Lord Marshal, Poulder and Kroy are waiting for your word to move.” Burr lay upon his camp bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open, sleeping peacefully. West would have liked to leave him there, but time was already wasting. “Lord Marshal!” he snapped, walking up close to the bed. Still he did not respond.

That was when West noticed that his chest was not moving.

He reached out with hesitant fingers and held them above Burr’s open mouth. No warmth. No breath. West felt the horror slowly spreading out from his chest to the very tips of his fingers. There could be no doubt. Lord Marshal Burr was dead.

It was grey morning when the coffin was carried from the tent on the shoulders of six solemn guardsmen, the surgeon walking along behind with his hat in his hand. Poulder, Kroy, West, and a scattering of the army’s most senior men lined the path to watch it go. Burr himself would no doubt have approved of the simple box in which his corpse would be shipped back to Adua. The same rough carpentry in which the Union’s lowest levies were buried.

West stared at it, numb.

The man inside had been like a father to him, or the closest he had ever come to having one. A mentor and protector, a patron and a teacher. An actual father, rather than the bullying, drunken worm that nature had cursed him with. And yet he did not feel sorrow as he stared at that rough wooden box. He felt fear. For the army and for himself. His first instinct was not to weep, it was to run. But there was nowhere to run to. Every man had to do his part, now more than ever.

Kroy lifted his sharp chin and stood up iron rigid as the shadow of the casket passed across them. “Marshal Burr will be much missed. He was a staunch soldier, and a brave leader.”

“A patriot,” chimed in Poulder, his lip trembling, one hand pressed against his chest as though it might burst open with emotion. “A patriot who gave his life for his country! It was my honour to serve under his orders.”

West wanted to vomit at their hypocrisy, but the fact was he desperately needed them. The Dogman and his people were out in the hills, moving north, trying to lure Bethod into a trap. If the Union army did not follow, and soon, they would have no help when the King of the Northmen finally caught up to them. They would only succeed in luring themselves into their graves.

“A terrible loss,” said West, watching the coffin carried slowly down the hillside, “but we will honour him best by fighting on.”

Kroy gave a regulation nod. “Well said, Colonel. We will make these Northmen pay!”

“We must. To that end, we should make ready to advance. We are already behind schedule, and the plan relies on precise—”

“What?” Poulder stared at him as though he suspected West of having gone suddenly insane. “Move forward? Without orders? Without a clear chain of command?”

Kroy gave vent to an explosive snort. “Impossible.”

Poulder violently shook his head. “Out of the question, entirely out of the question.”

“But Marshal Burr’s orders were quite specific—”

“Circumstances have very plainly altered.” Kroy’s face was an expressionless slab. “Until I receive explicit instructions from the Closed Council, no one will be moving my division so much as a hair’s breadth.”

“General Poulder, surely you—”

“In this particular circumstance, I cannot but agree with General Kroy. The army cannot move an inch until the Open Council has selected a new king, and the king has appointed a new Lord Marshal.” And he and Kroy eyed each other with the deepest hatred and distrust.

West stood stock still, his mouth hanging slightly open, unable to believe his ears. It would take days for news of Burr’s death to reach the Agriont, and even if the new king decided on a replacement immediately, days for the orders to come back. West pictured the long miles of forested track to Uffrith, the long leagues of salt water to Adua. A week, perhaps, if the decision was made at once, and with the government in chaos that hardly seemed likely.

In the meantime the army would sit there, doing nothing, the hills before them all but undefended, while Bethod was given ample time to march north, slaughter the Dogman and his friends, and return to his positions. Positions which, no doubt, untold numbers of their own men would be killed assaulting once the army finally had a new commander. All an utterly pointless, purposeless waste. Burr’s coffin had only just passed out of sight but already, it seemed, it was quite as if the man had never lived. West felt the horror creeping up his throat, threatening to strangle him with rage and frustration. “But the Dogman and his Northmen, our allies… they are counting on our help!”

“Unfortunate,” observed Kroy.

“Regrettable,” murmured Poulder, with a sharp intake of breath, “but you must understand, Colonel West, that the entire business is quite out of our hands.”

Kroy nodded stiffly. “Out of our hands. And that is all.”

West stared at the two of them, and a terrible wave of powerlessness swept over him. The same feeling that he had when Prince Ladisla decided to cross the river, when Prince Ladisla decided to order the charge. The same feeling that he had when he floundered up in the mist, blood in his eyes, and knew the day was lost. That feeling that he was nothing more than an observer. That feeling that he had promised himself he would never have again. His own fault, perhaps.

A man should only make such promises as he is sure he can keep.

The Kingmaker

It was a hot day outside, and sunlight poured in through the great stained-glass windows, throwing coloured patterns across the tiled floor of the Lords’ Round. The great space usually felt airy and cool, even in the summer. Today it felt stuffy, suffocating, uncomfortably hot. Jezal tugged his sweaty collar back and forth, trying to let some breath of air into his uniform without moving from his attitude of stiff attention.

The last time he had stood in this spot, back to the curved wall, had been the day the Guild of Mercers was dissolved. It was hard to imagine that it was little more than a year ago, so much seemed to have happened since. He had thought then that the Lords’ Round could not possibly have been more crowded, more tense, more excited. How wrong he had been.

The curved banks of benches that took up the majority of the chamber were crammed to bursting with the Union’s most powerful noblemen, and the air was thick with their expectant, anxious, fearful whispering. The entire Open Council was in breathless attendance, wedged shoulder to fur-trimmed shoulder, each man with the glittering chain about his shoulders that marked him out in gold or silver as the head of his family. Jezal might have had little more understanding of politics than a mushroom, but even he had to be excited by the importance of the occasion. The selection of a new High King of the Union by open vote. He felt a flutter of nerves in his throat at the thought. As occasions went, it was difficult to imagine one bigger.

The people of Adua certainly knew it. Beyond the walls, in the streets and squares of the city, they were waiting eagerly for news of the Open Council’s decision. Waiting to cheer their new monarch, or perhaps to jeer him, depending on the choice. Beyond the high doors of the Lords’ Round, the Square of Marshals was a single swarming crowd, each man and woman in the Agriont desperate to be the first to hear word from inside. Futures would be decided, great debts would be settled, fortunes won and lost on the result. Only a lucky fraction had been permitted into the public gallery, but still enough that the spectators were crushed together around the balcony, in imminent danger of being shoved over and plunging to the tiled floor below.

The inlaid doors at the far end of the hall opened with a ringing crash, the echoes rebounding from the distant ceiling and booming around the great space. There was a rustling as every one of the councillors swivelled in his seat to look towards the entrance, and then a clatter of feet as the Closed Council approached steadily down the aisle between the benches. A gaggle of secretaries, and clerks, and hangers-on hurried after, papers and ledgers clutched in their eager hands. Lord Chamberlain Hoff strode at their head, frowning grimly. Behind him walked Sult, all in white, and Marovia, all in black, their faces equally solemn. Next came Varuz, and Halleck, and… Jezal’s face fell. Who else but the First of the Magi, attired once again in his outrageous wizard’s mantle, his apprentice skulking at his elbow. Bayaz grinned as though he were doing nothing more than attending the theatre. Their eyes met, and the Magus had the gall to wink. Jezal was far from amused.

To a swelling chorus of mutterings, the old men took their high chairs behind a long, curved table, facing the noblemen on their banked benches. Their aides arranged themselves on smaller chairs and laid out their papers, opened their books, whispered to their masters in hushed voices. The tension in the hall rose yet another step towards outright hysteria.

Jezal felt a sweaty shiver run up his back. Glokta was there, beside the Arch Lector, and the familiar face was anything but a reassurance. Jezal had been at Ardee’s house only that morning, and all night too. Needless to say, he had neither forsworn her nor proposed marriage. His head spun from going round and round the issue. The more time he spent with her, the more impossible any decision seemed to become.

Glokta’s fever-bright eyes swivelled to his, held them, then flicked away. Jezal swallowed, with some difficulty. He had landed himself in a devil of a spot, alright. What ever was he to do?

Glokta gave Luthar one brief glare. Just to remind him of where we stand. Then he swivelled in his chair, grimacing as he stretched out his throbbing leg, pressing his tongue hard into his empty gums as he felt the knee click. We have more important business than Jezal dan Luthar. Far more important business.

For this one day, the power lies with the Open Council, not the Closed. With the nobles, not the bureaucrats. With the many, not the few. Glokta looked down the table, at the faces of the great men who had guided the course of the Union for the last dozen years and more: Sult, Hoff, Marovia, Varuz, and all the rest. Only one member of the Closed Council was smiling. Its newest and least welcome addition.

Bayaz sat in his tall chair, his only companion his pallid apprentice, Malacus Quai. And he looks scant companionship for anyone. The First of the Magi seemed to revel in the bowel-loosening tension as much as his fellows were horrified by it, his smile absurdly out of place among the frowns. Worried faces. Sweaty brows. Nervous whispers to their cronies. They perch on razors, all of them. And I too, of course. Let us not forget poor Sand dan Glokta, faithful public servant! We cling to power by our fingernails—slipping, slipping. We sit like the accused, at our own trials. We know the verdict is about to come down. Will it be an ill-deserved reprieve? Glokta felt a smile twitch the corner of his mouth. Or an altogether bloodier sentence? What say the gentlemen of the jury?

His eyes flickered over the faces of the Open Council on their benches. Three hundred and twenty faces. Glokta pictured the papers nailed to the Arch Lector’s wall, and he matched them to the men sitting before him. The secrets, the lies, and the allegiances. The allegiances most of all. Which way will they vote?

He saw some whose support he had made certain of. Or as certain as we can be in these uncertain times. He saw Ingelstad’s pink face among the press, near to the back, and the man swallowed and looked away. As long as you vote our way, you can look where you like. He saw Wetterlant’s slack features a few rows back, and the man gave him an almost imperceptible nod. So our last offer was acceptable. Four more for the Arch Lector? Enough to make the difference, and keep us in our jobs? To keep us all alive? Glokta felt his empty grin widen. We shall soon see…

In the centre of the front row, among the oldest and best families of Midderland’s nobility, Lord Brock sat, arms folded, with a look of hungry expectation. Our front runner, keen to spring from the gate. Not far from him was Lord Isher, old and stately. The second favourite, still with every chance. Barezin and Heugen sat nearby, wedged uncomfortably together and occasionally looking sideways at each other with some distaste. Who knows? A late spurt and the throne could be theirs. Lord Governor Skald sat on the far left, at the front of the delegations from Angland and Starikland. New men, from the provinces. But a vote is still a vote, however we might turn our noses up. Over on the far right twelve Aldermen of Westport sat, marked as outsiders by the cut of their clothes and the tone of their skin. Yet a dozen votes still, and undeclared.

There were no representatives of Dagoska today. There are none left at all, alas. Lord Governor Vurms was relieved of his post. His son lost his head and could not attend. As for the rest of the city—it was conquered by the Gurkish. Well. Some wastage is inevitable. We will struggle on without them. The board is set, the pieces ready to be moved. Who will be the winner of this sordid little game, do we suppose? We shall soon see…

The Announcer stepped forwards into the centre of the circular floor, lifted his staff high above his head and brought it down with a series of mighty crashes that echoed from the polished marble walls. The chatter faded, the magnates shuffled round to face the floor, every face drawn with tension. A pregnant silence settled over the packed hall, and Glokta felt a flurry of twitches slink up the left side of his face and set his eyelid blinking.

“I call this meeting of the Open Council of the Union to order!” thundered the Announcer. Slowly, and with the grimmest of frowns, Lord Hoff rose to face the councillors.

“My friends! My colleagues! My Lords of Midderland, Angland, and Starikland, Aldermen of Westport! Guslav the Fifth, our King… is dead. His two heirs… are dead. One at the hands of our enemies in the north, the other, our enemies in the south. Truly, this is a time of troubles, and we are left without a leader.” He held his arms up imploringly to the councillors. “You are now faced with a grave responsibility. The selection, from among your number, of a new High King of the Union. Any man who holds a chair on this Open Council is a potential candidate! Any of you… could be our next King.” A volley of near-hysterical whispers floated down from the public gallery, and Hoff was obliged to raise his voice to shout over them.

“Such a vote has only been taken once before in the long history of our great nation! After the civil war and the fall of Morlic the Mad, when Arnault was raised to the throne by near-unanimous accord. He it was who sired the great dynasty that lasted until a few short days ago.” He let fall his arms and stared sadly down at the tiles. “Wise was the choice your forebears made that day. We can only hope that the man elected here this morning, by and in full view of his peers, will found a dynasty just as noble, just as strong, just as even-handed, and just as long-lived!”

We can only hope for someone who will do as he’s damn well told.

Ferro shoved a woman in a long gown out of her way. She elbowed past a fat man, his jowls trembling with outrage. She forced her way through to the balcony and glared down. The wide chamber below was crammed with fur-trimmed old men, crowded together on high banks of seating, each with a sparkling chain round his shoulders and a sparkling sheen of sweat across his pale face. Opposite them, behind a curved table, were another set of men, fewer in number. She scowled as she saw Bayaz sitting at one end of them, smiling as if he knew some secret that no one else could guess.

Just like always.

Beside him stood a fat pink with a face full of broken veins, shouting something about each man voting with his conscience. Ferro snorted. She would have been surprised if the few hundred men down there had five whole consciences between them. It seemed as if they were all attending carefully to the fat man’s address, but Ferro saw differently.

The room was full of signals.

Men glanced sideways at one another and gave subtle nods. They winked with one eye or the other. They touched forefingers to noses and ears. They scratched in strange ways. A web of secrets, spreading out to every part of the chamber, and with Bayaz sitting grinning in the midst of it. Some way behind him, with his back to the wall, Jezal dan Luthar was standing in a uniform festooned with shiny thread. Ferro curled her lip. She could see it in the way he stood.

He had learned nothing.

The Announcer stabbed at the floor with his stick again. “Voting will now begin!” There was a ragged groan and Ferro saw the woman she had pushed past earlier slide to the floor in a faint. Someone dragged her away, flapping a piece of paper in her face, and the ill-tempered press closed in tight behind. “In the first round the field will be narrowed to three choices! There will be a show of hands for each candidate in order of the most extensive lands and holdings!”

Down below on their benches, the richly dressed sweated and trembled like men before a battle.

“Firstly!” shrieked a clerk, voice cracking as he consulted an enormous ledger, “Lord Brock!”

Up in the gallery people mopped their faces, muttering and gasping as if they were facing death. Perhaps some of them were. The whole place reeked of doubt, and excitement, and terror. So strong it was contagious. So strong that even Ferro, who did not care a shit for the pinks and their damn vote, felt her mouth dry, her fingers itching, her heart thumping fast.

The Announcer turned to face the chamber. “The first candidate will be Lord Brock! All those members of the Open Council who wish to vote for Lord Brock as the next High King of the Union, will you please raise your—”

“One moment, my Lords!”

Glokta jerked his head round, but his neck-bones stuck halfway and he had to peer from the corner of one dewy eye. He need hardly have bothered. I could have guessed without looking who spoke. Bayaz had risen from his chair and was now smiling indulgently towards the Open Council. With perfect timing. A volley of outraged calls rose up from its members in response.

“This is no time for interruptions!”

“Lord Brock! I vote for Brock!”

“A new dynasty!”

Bayaz’ smile did not slip a hair’s breadth. “But what if the old dynasty could continue? What if we could make a new beginning,” and he glanced significantly across the faces of his colleagues on the Closed Council, “while keeping all that is good in our present government? What if there was a way to heal wounds, rather than to cause them?”

“How?” came the mocking calls.

“What way?”

Bayaz’ smile grew broader yet, “Why, a royal bastard.”

There was a collective gasp. Lord Brock bounced from his seat. Quite as if he had a spring under his arse. “This is an insult to this house! A scandal! A slur on the memory of King Guslav!” Indeed, he now seems not only a drooling vegetable, but a lecherous one. Other councillors rose to join him, faces red with outrage, white with fury, shaking fists and making angry calls. The whole sweep of benches seemed to honk and grunt and wriggle. Just like the pigpens at the slaughterhouse, clamouring for any swill on offer.

“Wait!” shrieked the Arch Lector, his white-gloved hands raised in entreaty. Sensing some faint glimmer of hope in the darkness, perhaps? “Wait, my Lords! There is nothing to be lost by listening! We shall have the truth here, even if it is painful! The truth should be our only concern!” Glokta had to chomp his gums down on a splutter of laughter. Oh, of course, your Eminence! The truth has ever been your only care!

But the babble gradually subsided. Those councillors who were on their feet were shamed back into line. Their habit of obedience to the Closed Council is not easily broken. But then habits never are. Especially of obedience. Only ask my mother’s dogs. They grumbled their way back into their seats, and allowed Bayaz to continue.

“Your Lordships have perhaps heard of Carmee dan Roth?” A swell of noise from the gallery above confirmed that the name was not unfamiliar. “She was a great favourite with the King, when he was younger. A very great favourite. So much so that she became pregnant with a child.” Another wave of muttering, louder. “I have always carried a sentimental regard for the Union. I have always had one eye on its welfare, despite the scant thanks I have received for it.” And Bayaz gave the very briefest curl of his lip towards the members of the Closed Council. “So, when the lady died in childbirth, I took the King’s bastard into my care. I placed him with a noble family, to be well raised and well educated, in case the nation should one day find itself without an heir. My actions now seem prudent indeed.”

“Lies!” someone shrieked. “Lies!” But few voices joined in. Their tone instead was one of curiosity.

“A natural son?”

“A bastard?”

“Carmee dan Roth, did he say?”

They have heard this tale before. Rumours, perhaps, but familiar ones. Familiar enough to make them listen. To make them judge whether it will be in their interests to believe.

But Lord Brock was not convinced. “A blatant fabrication! It will take more than rumour and conjecture to sway this house! Produce this bastard, if you can, so-called First of the Magi! Work your magic!”

“No magic is needful,” sneered Bayaz. “The King’s son is already with us in the chamber.” Gasps of consternation from the gallery, sighs of amazement from the councillors, stunned silence from the Closed Council and their aides, every eye fixed on Bayaz’ pointing finger as he swept out his hand towards the wall. “No other man than Colonel Jezal dan Luthar!”

The spasm began in Glokta’s toeless foot, shot up his ruined leg, set his twisted spine shivering from his arse right to his skull, made his face twitch like an angry jelly, made his few teeth rattle in his empty gums, set his eyelid flickering fast as a fly’s wings.

The echoes of Bayaz’ last utterance whispered round the suddenly silent hall. “Luthar, Luthar, Luthar…”

You must be fucking joking.

The pale faces of the councillors were frozen, hanging in wide-eyed shock, squashed up in narrow-eyed rage. The pale men behind the table gaped. The pale people at the balcony pressed their hands over their mouths. Jezal dan Luthar, who had wept with self-pity while Ferro had stitched his face. Jezal dan Luthar, that leaky piss-pot of selfishness, and arrogance, and vanity. Jezal dan Luthar, who she had called the princess of the Union, had a chance of ending the day as its King.

Ferro could not help herself.

She let her head drop back and she hacked, and coughed, and gurgled with amusement. Tears sprung up in her eyes, her chest shook and her knees trembled. She clung to the rail of the balcony, she gasped, blubbered, drooled. Ferro did not laugh often. She could scarcely remember the last time. But Jezal dan Luthar, a King?

This was funny.

High above, in the public gallery, someone had started laughing. A jagged cackling completely inappropriate to the solemnity of the moment. But Jezal’s first impulse, when he realised that it was his name that Bayaz had called out, when he realised that it was him the outstretched finger was pointing to, was to join in. His second, as every face in the entire vast space turned instantly towards him, was to vomit. The result was an ungainly cough, a shame-faced grin, an unpleasant burning at the very back of the mouth, and an instant paling of the complexion.

“I…” he found himself croaking, but without the slightest idea of how he would continue his sentence. What words could possibly help at a time like this? All he could do was stand there, sweating profusely, trembling under his stiff uniform, as Bayaz continued in ringing tones, his voice cutting over the laughter bubbling down from above.

“I have the sworn statement of his adoptive father here, attesting that all I say is true, but does it matter? The truth of it is plain for any man to see!” His arm shot out towards Jezal again. “He won a Contest before you all, and accompanied me on a journey full of peril with never a complaint! He charged the bridge at Darmium, without a thought for his own safety! He saved Adua from the revolt without a drop of blood spilled! His valour and his prowess, his wisdom and his selflessness are well known to all! Can it be doubted that the blood of kings flows in his veins?”

Jezal blinked. Odd facts began to bob to the surface of his sluggish mind. He was not much like his brothers. His father had always treated him differently. He had got all the looks in the family. His mouth was hanging open, but he found he could not close it. When his father had seen Bayaz, at the Contest, he had turned white as milk, as though he recognised him.

He had done, and he was not Jezal’s father at all.

When the king had congratulated Jezal on his victory, he had mistaken him for his own son. Not such blinding folly, evidently, as everyone might have thought. The old fool had been closer to the mark than anyone. Suddenly, it all made horrible sense.

He was a bastard. Literally.

He was the natural son of a king. What was much more, he was slowly and with increasing terror beginning to realise, he was now being seriously considered as his replacement.

“My Lords!” shouted Bayaz over the disbelieving chatter gaining steadily in volume with every passing moment. “You sit amazed! It is a difficult fact to accept, I can understand. Especially with the suffocating heat in here!” He signalled to the guards at both ends of the hall. “Open the gates, please, and let us have some air!”

The doors were heaved open and a gentle breeze washed into the Lords’ Round. A cooling breeze, and something else with it. Hard to make out at first, and then coming more clearly. Something like the noise of the crowd at the Contest. Soft, repetitive, and more than a little frightening.

“Luthar! Luthar! Luthar!” The sound of his own name, chanted over and over from a multitude of throats beyond the walls of the Agriont, was unmistakable.

Bayaz grinned. “It would seem that the people of the city have already chosen their favoured candidate.”

“This is not their choice!” roared Brock, still on his feet but only now regaining his composure. “Any more than it is yours!”

“But it would be foolish to ignore their opinion. The support of the commoners cannot be lightly dismissed, especially in these restless times. If they were to be disappointed, in their current mood, who knows what might occur? Riots in the streets, or worse? None of us wants that, surely, Lord Brock?”

Several of the councillors shifted nervously on their benches, glancing towards the open doors, whispering to their neighbours, if the atmosphere in the Round had been confused before, it was flabbergasted now. But the worry and surprise of the Open Council was nothing compared to Jezal’s own.

A fascinating tale, but if he supposes that the Union’s greediest men will simply take his word for it and give the crown away he has made a staggering blunder, whether commoners wet themselves at the name of Luthar or not. Lord Isher rose from the front row for the first time, stately and magnificent, the jewels on his chain of office flashing. And so the furious objections, the outraged denials, the demands for punishment begin.

“I wholeheartedly believe!” called Isher in ringing tones, “that the man known as Colonel Jezal dan Luthar is none other than the natural child of the recently deceased King Guslav the Fifth!” Glokta gawped. So, it seemed, did almost everyone else in the chamber. “And that he is further fitted for rule on account of his exemplary character and extensive achievements, both within the Union and outside it!” Another peal of ugly laughter gurgled down from above, but Isher ignored it. “My vote, and the votes of my supporters, are wholeheartedly for Luthar!”

If Luthar’s eyes had gone any wider they might have dropped from his skull. And who can blame him? Now one of the Westport delegation was on his feet. “The Aldermen of Westport vote as one man for Luthar!” he sang out in his Styrian accent. “Natural son and heir to King Guslav the Fifth!”

A man jumped up a few rows back. He glanced quickly and somewhat nervously at Glokta. None other than Lord Ingelstad. The lying little shit, what’s he about? “I am for Luthar!” he shrieked.

“And I, for Luthar!” Wetterlant, his hooded eyes giving away no more emotion than they had when he fed the ducks. Better offers, eh, gentlemen? Or better threats? Glokta glanced at Bayaz. He had a faint smile on his face as he watched others spring from their benches to declare their support for the so-called natural son of Guslav the Fifth. Meanwhile, the chanting of the crowds out in the city could still be heard.

“Luthar! Luthar! Luthar!”

As the shock drained away, Glokta’s mind began to turn. So that is why our First of the Magi cheated in the Contest on Luthar’s behalf. That is why he has kept him close, all this time. That is why he procured for him so notable a command. If he had presented some nobody as the King’s son, he would have been laughed from the chamber. But Luthar, love him or hate him, is one of us. He is known, he is familiar, he is… acceptable. Glokta looked at Bayaz with something close to admiration. Pieces of a puzzle, patient years in the preparation, calmly slotted into place before our disbelieving eyes. And not a thing that we can do, except, perhaps, to dance along to his tune?

Sult leaned sideways in his chair and hissed urgently in Glokta’s ear. “This boy, Luthar, what manner of a man is he?”

Glokta frowned over at him, standing dumbstruck by the wall. He looked at that moment as if he could scarcely be trusted to control his own bowels, let alone a country. Still, you could have said much the same for our previous King, and he discharged his duties admirably. His duties of sitting and drooling, while we ran the country for him. “Before his trip abroad, your Eminence, he was as empty-headed, spineless and vain a young fool as one might hope to find in the entire nation. The last time I spoke to him, though—”


“But, your Eminence, you must see that this is all according to Bayaz’ plans—”

“We will deal with that old fool later. I am taking advice.” Sult turned to hiss at Marovia without waiting for a reply. Now the two old men looked out at the Open Council, now they gave their nods and their signals to the men they controlled. All the while, Bayaz smiled. The way an engineer might smile as his new machine works for the first time, precisely according to his design. The Magus caught Glokta’s eye, and gave the faintest of nods. There was nothing for Glokta to do but shrug, and give a toothless grin of his own. I wonder if the time may come when we all wish we had voted for Brock.

Now Marovia was speaking hurriedly to Hoff. The Lord Chamberlain frowned, nodded, turned towards the house and signalled to the Announcer, who beat furiously on the floor for silence.

“My Lords of the Open Council!” Hoff roared, once something resembling quiet had been established. “The discovery of a natural son plainly changes the complexion of this debate! Fate would appear to have gifted us the opportunity to continue the dynasty of Arnault without further doubt or conflict!” Fate gifts us? I rather think we have a less disinterested benefactor. “In view of these exceptional circumstances, and the strong support already voiced by members of this house, the Closed Council judges that an exceptional vote should now be taken. A single vote, on whether the man previously known as Jezal dan Luthar should be declared High King of the Union forthwith!”

“No!” roared Brock, veins bulging from his neck. “I strongly protest!” But he might as well have protested against the incoming tide. The arms were already shooting up in daunting numbers. The Aldermen of Westport, the supporters of Lord Isher, the votes that Sult and Marovia had bullied and bribed their way. Glokta saw many more, now, men he had thought undecided, or firmly declared for one man or another. All lending their support to Luthar with a speed that strongly implies a previous arrangement. Bayaz sat back, arms folded, as he watched the hands shoot skywards. It was already becoming terribly clear that over half of the room was in favour.

“Yes!” hissed the Arch Lector, a smile of triumph on his face. “Yes!”

Those who had not raised their arms, men committed to Brock, or Barezin, or Heugen, stared about them, stunned and not a little horrified at how quickly the world seemed to have passed them by. How quickly the chance at power has slipped through their fingers. And who can blame them? It has been a surprising day for us all.

Lord Brock made one last effort, raising a finger to stab at Luthar, still goggling by the wall. “What proof have you that he is the son of anyone in particular, beside the word of this old liar?” and he gestured at Bayaz. “What proof, my Lords? I demand proof!”

Angry mutterings swept up and down the benches, but no one made themselves conspicuous. The second time Lord Brock has stood before this Council and demanded proof, and the second time no one has cared. What proof could there be, after all? A birthmark on Luthar’s arse in the shape of a crown? Proof is boring. Proof is tiresome. Proof is an irrelevance. People would far rather be handed an easy lie than search for a difficult truth, especially if it suits their own purposes. And most of us would far rather have a King with no friends and no enemies, than a King with plenty of both. Most of us would rather have things stay as they are, than risk an uncertain future.

More hands were raised, and more. Luthar’s support had rolled too far for any one man to stop it. Now it is like a great boulder hurtling down a slope. They dare not stand in its way in case they are squashed to gravy. So they crowd in behind, and add their own weight to it, and hope to snatch the scraps up afterward.

Brock turned, a deadly frown across his face, and he stormed down the aisle and out of the chamber. Probably he had hoped that a good part of the Open Council would storm out with him. But in that, as in so much else today, he must be harshly disappointed. No more than a dozen of his most loyal followers accompanied him on the lonely march out of the Lords’ Round. The others have better sense. Lord Isher exchanged a long look with Bayaz, then raised his pale hand. Lords Barezin and Heugen watched the best part of their support flocking to the cause of the young pretender, glanced at each other, retreated back into their seats and stayed carefully silent. Skald opened his mouth to call out, looked about him, thought better of it, and with evident reluctance, slowly lifted his arm.

There were no further protests.

King Jezal the First was raised to the throne by near-unanimous accord.

The Trap

Coming up into the High Places again, and the air felt crisp and clear, sharp and familiar in Logen’s throat. Their march had begun gently as they came up through the woods, a rise you’d hardly notice. Then the trees thinned out and their path took them up a valley between grassy fells, cracked with trickling streams, patched with sedge and gorse. Now the valley had narrowed to a gorge, hemmed in on both sides with slopes of bare rock and crumbling scree, getting always steeper. Above them, on either side of that gorge, two great crags rose up. Beyond, the hazy hints of mountain peaks—grey, and light grey, and even lighter grey, melted in the distance into the heavy grey sky.

The sun was out, and meaning business, and it was hot to walk in, bright to squint into. They were all weary from climbing, and worrying, and looking behind them for Bethod. Four hundred Carls, maybe, and as many painted-face hillmen, all spread out in a great long column, cursing and spitting, boots crunching and sliding in the dry dirt and the loose stones. Crummock’s daughter was struggling up ahead of Logen, bent double under the weight of her father’s hammer, hair round her face dark with sweat. Logen’s own daughter would have been older than that, by now. If she hadn’t been killed by the Shanka, along with her mother and her brothers. That thought gave Logen a hollow, guilty feeling. A bad one.

“You want a hand with that mallet, girl?”

“No I fucking don’t!” she screamed at him, then dropped it off her shoulder and dragged it away up the slope by the handle, scowling at him all the way, the hammer’s head clattering along and leaving a groove in the stony soil. Logen blinked after her. Seemed his touch with the women went all the way down to ones ten years old.

Crummock came up behind him, fingerbones swinging round his neck. “Fierce, ah? Y’ave to be fierce, to get on in my family!” He leaned close and gave a wink. “And she’s the fiercest of the lot, that little bitch. If I’m honest, she’s my favourite.” He shook his head as he watched her dragging at that hammer. “She’ll make some poor bastard one hell of a wife one day. We’re here, in case you were wondering.”

“Eh?” Logen wiped sweat from his face, frowning as he stared about. “Where’s the—”

Then he realised. Crummock’s fortress, if you could call it that, was right ahead of them.

The valley was no more than a hundred strides now from one cliff to the other, and a wall was built across it. An ancient and crumbling wall of rough blocks, so full of cracks, so coated with creeper, brambles, seeding grass, that it seemed almost part of the mountains. It wasn’t a whole lot steeper than the valley itself, and as tall as three men on each other’s shoulders at its highest, sagging here and there as if it was about to fall down on its own. In the centre was a gate of weathered grey planks, splattered with lichen, managing to seem rotten and dried-out both at once.

To one side of the wall there was a tower, built up against the cliff. Or at least there was a great natural pillar sticking out from the rock with half-cut chunks of stone mortared to the top, making a wide platform on the cliff-side, overlooking the wall from high above. Logen looked at the Dogman as he trudged up, and the Dogman squinted at that wall as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“This is it?” growled Dow, coming up next to them, his lip curling. A few trees had taken root at one side, just under the tower, must have been fifty years ago at least. Now they loomed up over the wall. A man could have climbed them easily, and stepped inside the place without even stretching far.

Tul stared up at the ragged excuse for a fortress. “A strong place in the mountains, you said.”

“Strong… ish.” Crummock waved his hand. “We hillmen have never been much for building and so on. What were you expecting? Ten marble towers and a hall bigger’n Skarling’s?”

“I was expecting a halfway decent wall, at least,” growled Dow.

“Bah! Walls? I heard you were cold as snow and hot as piss, Black Dow, and now you want walls to hide behind?”

“We’ll be outnumbered ten to one if Bethod does turn up, you mad fuck! You’re damn right I want a wall, and you told us there’d be one!”

“But you said it yourself friend.” Crummock spoke soft and slow as though he was explaining it to a child, and he tapped at the side of his head with one thick finger. “I’m mad! Mad as a sack of owls, and everyone says so! I can’t remember the names of my own children. Who knows what I think a wall looks like? I hardly know what I’m talking of myself, most of the time, and you’re fool enough to listen to me? You must be mad yourselves!”

Logen rubbed at the bridge of his nose and he gave a groan. The Dogman’s Carls were gathering near them now, looking up at that mossy heap of stones and muttering to each other, far from happy. Logen could hardly blame them. It was a long, hot walk they’d had to find this at the end of it. But they had no choices, as far as he could see. “It’s a bit late to build a better one,” he grumbled. “We’ll have to do what we can with what we’ve got.”

“That’s it Bloody-Nine, you need no wall and you know it!” Crummock clapped Logen on the arm with his great fat hand. “You cannot die! You’re beloved of the moon, my fine new friend, above all others! You cannot die, not with the moon looking over you! You cannot—”

“Shut up,” said Logen.

They crunched sourly across the slope towards the gate. Crummock called out and the old doors wobbled open. A pair of suspicious hillmen stood on the other side, watching them come in. They slogged up a steep ramp cut into the rock, all tired and grumbling, and came out into a flat space above. A saddle between the two crags, might have been a hundred strides wide and two hundred long, sheer cliffs of stone all round. There were a few wooden shacks and sheds scattered about the edges, all green with old moss, a slumping stone hall built against the rock face with smoke rising out of a squat chimney. Just next to it a narrow stair was cut into the cliff, climbing up to the platform at the top of the tower.

“Nowhere to run to,” Logen muttered, “if things turn sour.”

Crummock only grinned the wider. “Course not. That’s the whole point, ain’t it? Bethod’ll think he’s got us like beetles in a bottle.”

“He will have,” growled the Dogman.

“Aye, but then your friends will come up behind him and won’t he get the father of all shocks, though? It’ll almost be worth it for the look on his face, the shit-eating bastard!”

Logen worked his mouth and spat onto the stony ground. “I wonder what the looks on our faces’ll be by then? All slack and corpse-like would be my guess.” A herd of shaggy sheep were pressed in tight together in a pen, staring around wide-eyed, bleating to each other. Hemmed in and helpless, and Logen knew exactly how they felt. From inside the fort, where the ground was a good deal higher, there was hardly a wall at all. You could’ve stepped up onto its walkway, if you’d got long legs, and stood at its crumbling, moss-ridden excuse for a parapet.

“Don’t you worry your beautiful self about nothing, Bloody-Nine,” laughed Crummock. “My fortress could be better built, I’ll grant you, but the ground is with us, and the mountains, and the moon, all smiling on our bold endeavour. This is a strong place, with a strong history. Do you not know the story of Laffa the Brave?”

“Can’t say that I do.” Logen wasn’t altogether sure he wanted to hear it now, but he was in the long habit of not getting what he wanted.

“Laffa was a great bandit chief of the hillmen, a long time ago. He raided all the clans around for years, him and his brothers. One hot summer the clans had enough, so they banded together and hunted him in the mountains. Here’s where he made his last stand. Right here in this fortress. Laffa and his brothers and all his people.”

“What happened?” asked Dogman.

“They all got killed, and their heads cut off and put in a sack, and the sack was buried in the pit they used to shit in.” Crummock beamed. “Guess that’s why they call it a last stand, eh?”

“That’s it? That’s the story?”

“That’s all of it that I know, but I’m not right sure what else there could be. That was pretty much the end for Laffa, I’d say.”

“Thanks for the encouragement.”

“That’s alright, that’s alright! I’ve more stories, if you need more!”

“No, no, that’s enough for me.” Logen turned and started walking off, the Dogman beside him. “You can tell me more once we’ve won!”

“Ha ha, Bloody-Nine!” shouted Crummock after him, “that’ll be a story in itself, eh? You can’t fool me! You’re like I am, beloved of the moon! We fight hardest when our backs are to the mountains and there’s no way out! Tell me it ain’t so! We love it when we got no choices!”

“Oh aye,” Logen muttered to himself as he stalked off towards the gate. “There’s nothing better than no choices.”

Dogman stood at the foot o’ the wall, staring up at it, and wondering what to do to give him and the rest a better chance at living out the week.

“It’d be a good thing to get all this creeper and grass cleared off it,” he said. “Makes it a damn sight easier to climb.”

Tul raised an eyebrow. “You sure it ain’t all that plant that’s holding it together?”

Grim tugged at a vine and a shower of dried-out mortar came with it.

“Might be you’re right.” Dogman sighed. “Cut off what we can, then, eh? Some work at the top would be time well spent and all. Be nice to have a decent stack o’ stones to hide behind when Bethod starts shooting arrows at us.”

“That it would,” said Tul. “And we could dig us a ditch down here in front, plant some stakes round the bottom, make it harder for ’em to get up close.”

“Then close that gate, nail it shut, and wedge a load of rocks in behind it.”

“We’ll have trouble getting out,” said Tul.

Logen snorted. “Us getting out won’t be the pressing problem, I’m thinking.”

“You’ve a point right there,” laughed Crummock, ambling up with a lit pipe in his fat fist. “It’s Bethod’s boys getting in that we should worry on.”

“Getting these walls patched up would be a good start at settling my mind.” Dogman pointed at the trees grown up over the wall. “We need to get these cut down and cut up, carve us out some stone, mix us some mortar and all the rest. Crummock, you got people can do that? You got tools?”

He puffed at his pipe, frowning at Dogman all the long while, then blew brown smoke. “I might have, but I won’t take my orders from such as you, Dogman. The moon knows my talents, and they’re for murder, not mortaring.” Grim rolled his eyes.

“Who will you take orders from?” asked Logen.

“I’ll take ’em from you, Bloody-Nine, and from no other! The moon loves you, and I love the moon, and you’re the man for—”

“Then get your people together and get to fucking cutting wood and stone. I’m bored o’ your blather.”

Crummock knocked out his ashes sourly against the wall. “You’re no fun at all, you boys, you do nothing but worry. You need to think on the sunny side o’ this. The worst that can happen is that Bethod don’t show!”

“The worst?” Dogman stared at him. “You sure? What about if Bethod does come, and his Carls kick your wall over like a pile o’ turds and kill every last one of us?”

Crummock’s brow furrowed. He frowned down at the ground. He squinted up at the clouds. “True,” he said, breaking out in a smile. “That is worse. You got a fast mind, lad.”

Dogman gave a long sigh, and stared down into the valley. The wall might not have been all they’d hoped for, but you couldn’t knock the position. Coming up that steep slope against a set of hard men, high above and with nothing to lose, ready and more’n able to kill you. That was no one’s idea o’ fun.

“Tough to get organised down there,” said Logen, speaking Dogman’s own thoughts. “Specially with arrows plunging on you from above and nothing to hide behind. Hard to make numbers count. I wouldn’t much fancy trying it myself. How are we going to work it, if they come?”

“I reckon we’ll make three crews.” Dogman nodded to the tower. “Me up there with five score or so o’ the best archers. Good spot to shoot from, that. Nice and high, and a good view of the front o’ the wall.”

“Uh,” said Grim.

“Maybe some strong lads to throw a rock or two.”

“I’ll lob a rock,” said Tul.

“Fair enough. Then the pick of our lads up on the wall, ready to take ’em on hand to hand, if they get up there. That’ll be your crew, I reckon, Logen. Dow and Shivers and Red Hat can be your seconds.”

Logen nodded, not looking all that happy. “Aye, alright.”

“Then Crummock up behind with his hillmen, ready to charge if they make it through the gate. If we last more’n a day, maybe you can swap over. Hillmen on the wall, Logen and the rest behind.”

“That’s quite the plan for a little man!” Crummock clapped him on the shoulder with a huge hand and damn near knocked him on his face. “Like as not you had it from the moon while you slept! Ain’t one thing in it I’d change!” He slapped his meaty fist into his palm. “I love a good charge! I hope the Southerners don’t come, and leave more for the rest of us! I want to charge now!”

“Good for you,” grunted Dogman. “Maybe we can find you a cliff to charge off.” He squinted into the sun, taking another look up at the wall that held all of their hopes. He wouldn’t have cared to try and climb it, not from this side, but it wasn’t halfway as high, or as thick, or as strong as he’d have liked. You don’t always get things the way you like, Threetrees would have said. But just once would’ve been nice.

“The trap is ready,” said Crummock, grinning down into the valley.

The Dogman nodded. “The only question is who’ll get caught in it. Bethod? Or us?”

Logen walked through the night, between the fires. Some fires had Carls round them, drinking Crummock’s beer, and smoking his chagga, and laughing at stories. Others had hillmen, looking like wolves in the shifting light with their rough furs, their tangled hair, their half-painted faces. One was singing, somewhere. Strange songs in a strange tongue that yapped and warbled like the animals in the forest, rose and fell like the valleys and the peaks. Logen had to admit he’d been smoking, for the first time in a while, and drinking too. Everything felt warm. The fires, and the men, and the cool wind, even. He wove his way through the dark, looking for the fire where the Dogman and the rest were sitting, and not having a clue which way to find it. He was lost, and in more ways than one.

“How many men you killed, Da?” Had to be Crummock’s daughter. There weren’t too many high voices round that camp, more was the pity. Logen saw the hillman’s great shape in the darkness, his three children sitting near him, their outsize weapons propped up in easy reach.

“Oh, I’ve killed a legion of ’em, Isern.” Crummock’s great deep voice rumbled out at Logen as he came closer. “More’n I can remember. Your father might not have all his wits all the time, but he’s a bad enemy to have. One of the worst. You’ll see the truth of that close up, when Bethod and his arse-lickers come calling.” He looked up and saw Logen coming through the night. “I swear, and I don’t doubt Bethod would swear with me, there’s only one bastard in all the North who’s nastier, and bloodier, and harder than your father.”

“Who’s that?” asked the boy with the shield. Logen felt his heart sinking as Crummock’s arm lifted up to point towards him.

“Why, that’s him there. The Bloody-Nine.”

The girl glared at Logen. “He’s nothing. You could have him, Da!”

“By the dead, not me! Don’t even say it girl, in case I make a piss-puddle big enough to drown you in.”

“He don’t look like much.”

“And there’s a lesson for all three of you. Not looking much, not saying much, not seeming much, that’s a good first step in being dangerous, eh, Ninefingers? Then when you let the devil go free it’s twice the shock for whatever poor bastard’s on the end of it. Shock and surprise, my little beauties, and quickness to strike, and lack of pity. These are the things that make a killer. Size, and strength, and a big loud voice are alright in their place, but they’re nothing to that murderous, monstrous, merciless speed, eh, Bloody-Nine?”

It was a hard lesson for children, but Logen’s father had taught it to him young, and he’d kept it in mind all these years. “It’s a sorry fact. He who strikes first often strikes last.”

“That he does!” shouted Crummock, slapping his great thigh. “Well said! But it’s a happy fact, not a sorry one. You remember old Wilum, don’t you, my children?”

“Thunder got him!” shouted the boy with the shield, “in a storm, up in the High Places!”

“That it did! One moment he’s standing there, the next there’s a noise like the world falling and a flash like the sun, and Wilum’s dead as my boots!”

“His feet was on fire!” laughed the girl.

“That they were, Isern. You saw how fast he died, how much the shock, how little the mercy that the lightning showed, well.” And Crummock’s eyes slid across to Logen. “That’s what it’d be to cross that man there. One moment you’d say your hard word, the next?” He clapped his hands together with a crack and made the three children jump. “He’d send you back to the mud. Faster than the sky killed Wilum, and with no more regret. Your life hangs on a thread, every moment you stand within two strides of that nothing-looking bastard there, does it not, Bloody-Nine?”

“Well…” Logen wasn’t much enjoying this.

“How many men you killed then?” the girl shouted at him, sticking her chin out.

Crummock laughed and rubbed his hand in her hair. “The numbers aren’t made to count that high, Isern! He’s the king of killers! No man made more deadly, not anywhere under the moon.”

“What about that Feared?” asked the boy with the spear.

“Ohhhhhh,” cooed Crummock, smiling right across his face. “He’s not a man, Scofen. He’s something else. But I wonder. Fenris the Feared and the Bloody-Nine, setting to kill one another?” He rubbed his hands together. “Now that is a thing I would like to see. That is a thing the moon would love to shine upon.” His eyes rolled up towards the sky and Logen followed them with his own. The moon was up there, sitting in the black heavens, big and white, glowing like new fire.

Horrible Old Men

The tall windows stood open, allowing a merciful breeze to wash through the wide salon, to give the occasional cooling kiss to Jezal’s sweating face, to make the vast, antique hangings flap and rustle. Everything in the chamber was outsized—the cavernous doorways were three times as high as a man, and the ceiling, painted with the peoples of the world bowing down before an enormous golden sun, was twice as high again. The immense canvases on the walls featured life-size figures in assorted majestic poses, whose warlike expressions would give Jezal uncomfortable shocks whenever he turned around.

It seemed a space for great men, for wise men, for epic heroes or mighty villains. A space for giants. Jezal felt a tiny, meagre, stupid fool in it.

“Your arm, if it please your Majesty,” murmured one of the tailors, managing to give Jezal orders while remaining crushingly sycophantic.

“Yes, of course… I’m sorry.” Jezal raised his arm a little higher, inwardly cursing at having apologised yet again. He was a king now, as Bayaz was constantly telling him. If he had shoved one of the tailors out of the window, no apology would have been necessary. The man would probably have thanked him profusely for the attention as he plummeted to the ground. As it was he merely gave a wooden smile, and smoothly unravelled his measuring tape. His colleague was crawling below, doing something similar around Jezal’s knees. The third was punctiliously recording their observations in a marbled ledger.

Jezal took a long breath, and frowned into the mirror. An uncertain-seeming young idiot with a scar on his chin gazed back at him from the glass, draped with swatches of glittering cloth as though he were a tailor’s dummy. He looked, and certainly felt, more like a clown than a king. He looked a joke, and undoubtedly would have laughed, had he not himself been the ridiculous punch-line.

“Perhaps something after the Osprian fashion, then?” The Royal Jeweller placed another wooden nonsense carefully on Jezal’s head and examined the results. It was far from an improvement. The damn thing looked like nothing so much as an inverted chandelier.

“No, no!” snapped Bayaz, with some irritation. “Far too fancy, far too clever, far too big. He will scarcely be able to stand in the damn thing! It needs to be simple, to be honest, to be light. Something a man could fight in!”

The Royal Jeweller blinked. “He will be fighting in the crown?”

“No, dolt! But he must look as if he might!” Bayaz came up behind Jezal, snatched the wooden contraption from his head and tossed it rattling on the polished floor. Then he seized Jezal by the arms and stared grimly at his reflection from over his shoulder. “This is a warrior king in the finest tradition! The natural heir to the Kingdom of Harod the Great! A peerless swordsman, who has dealt wounds and received them, who has led armies to victory, who has killed men by the score!”

“Score?” murmured Jezal, uncertainly.

Bayaz ignored him. “A man as comfortable with saddle and sword as with throne and sceptre! His crown must go with armour. It must go with weapons. It must go with steel. Now do you understand?”

The Jeweller nodded slowly. “I believe so, my Lord.”

“Good. And one more thing.”

“My Lord has but to name it.”

“Give it a big-arsed diamond.”

The Jeweller humbly inclined his head. “That goes without saying.”

“Now out. Out, all of you! His Majesty has affairs of state to attend to.”

The ledger was snapped shut, the tapes were rolled up in a moment, the swatches of cloth were whisked away. The tailors and the Royal Jeweller bowed their way backwards from the room with a range of servile mutterings, whisking the huge, gilt-encrusted doors silently shut. Jezal had to stop himself from leaving with them. He kept forgetting that he was now his Majesty.

“I have business?” he asked, turning from the mirror and trying his best to sound offhand and masterful.

Bayaz ushered him out into the great hallway outside, its walls covered in beautifully rendered maps of the Union. “You have business with your Closed Council.”

Jezal swallowed. The very name of the institution was daunting. Standing in marble chambers, being measured for new clothes, being called your Majesty, all of this was bemusing, but hardly required a great effort on his part. Now he was expected to sit at the very heart of government. Jezal dan Luthar, once widely celebrated for his towering ignorance, would be sharing a room with the twelve most powerful men in the Union. He would be expected to make decisions that would affect the lives of thousands. To hold his own in the arenas of politics, and law, and diplomacy, when his only areas of true expertise were fencing, drink, and women, and he was forced to concede that, in that last area at least, he did not seem to be quite the expert he had once reckoned himself.

“The Closed Council?” His voice shot up to a register more girlish than kingly, and he was forced to clear his throat. “Is there some particular matter of importance?” he growled in an unconvincing bass.

“Some momentous news arrived from the North earlier today.”

“It did?”

“I am afraid that Lord Marshal Burr is dead. The army needs a new commander. Argument on that issue will probably take up a good few hours. Down here, your Majesty.”

“Hours?” muttered Jezal, his boot-heels clicking down a set of wide marble steps. Hours in the company of the Closed Council. He rubbed his hands nervously together.

Bayaz seemed to guess his thoughts. “There is no need for you to fear those old wolves. You are their master, whatever they may have come to believe. At any time you can replace them, or have them dragged away in irons, for that matter, should you desire. Perhaps they have forgotten it. It might be that we will need to remind them, in due course.”

They stepped through a tall gateway flanked by Knights of the Body, their helmets clasped under their arms but their faces kept so carefully blank they might as well have had their visors down. A wide garden lay beyond, lined on all four sides by a shady colonnade, its white marble pillars carved in the likenesses of trees in leaf. Water splashed from fountains, sparkling in the bright sunlight. A pair of huge orange birds with legs as thin as twigs strutted self-importantly about a perfectly clipped lawn. They stared haughtily at Jezal down their curved beaks as he passed them, evidently in no more doubt than him that he was an utter impostor.

He gazed at the bright flowers, and the shimmering greenery, and the fine statues. He stared up at the ancient walls, coated with red, white, and green creeper. Could it really be that all this belonged to him? All this, and the whole Agriont besides? Was he walking now in the mighty footsteps of the kings of old? Of Harod, and Casamir, and Arnault? It boggled the mind. Jezal had to blink and shake his head, as he had a hundred times already that day, simply to prevent himself from falling over. Was he not the same man as he had been last week? He rubbed at his beard, as if to check, and felt the scar beneath it. The same man who had been soaked out on the wide plain, who had been wounded among the stones, who had eaten half-cooked horsemeat and been glad to get it?

Jezal cleared his throat. “I would like very much… I don’t know whether it would be possible… to speak to my father?”

“Your father is dead.”

Jezal cursed silently to himself. “Of course he is, I meant… the man I thought was my father.”

“What is it that you suppose he would tell you? That he made bad decisions? That he had debts? That he took money from me in return for raising you?”

“He took money?” muttered Jezal, feeling more forlorn than ever.

“Families rarely take in orphans out of good will, even those with a winning manner. The debts were cleared, and more than cleared. I left instructions that you should have fencing lessons as soon as you could hold a steel. That you should have a commission in the King’s Own, and be encouraged to take part in the summer Contest. That you should be well prepared, in case this day should come. He carried out my instructions to the letter. But you can see that a meeting between the two of you would be an extremely awkward scene for you both. One best avoided.”

Jezal gave a ragged sigh. “Of course. Best avoided.” An unpleasant thought crept across his mind. “Is… is my name even Jezal?”

“It is now that you have been crowned.” Bayaz raised an eyebrow. “Why, would you prefer another?”

“No. No, of course not.” He turned his head away and blinked back the tears. His old life had been a lie. His new one felt still more so. Even his own name was an invention. They walked in silence through the gardens for a moment, their feet crunching in the gravel, so fresh and perfect that Jezal wondered if every stone of it was daily cleaned by hand.

“Lord Isher will make many representations to your Majesty over the coming weeks and months.”

“He will?” Jezal coughed, and sniffed, and put on his bravest face. “Why?”

“I promised him that his two brothers would be made Lords Chamberlain and Chancellor on the Closed Council. That his family would be preferred above all others. That was the price of his support in the vote.”

“I see. Then I should honour the bargain?”

“Absolutely not.”

Jezal frowned. “I am not sure that I—”

“Upon achieving power, one should immediately distance oneself from all allies. They will feel they own your victory, and no rewards will ever satisfy them. You should elevate your enemies instead. They will gush over small tokens, knowing they do not deserve them. Heugen, Barezin, Skald, Meed, these are the men you should bring into your circle.”

“Not Brock?”

“Never Brock. He came too close to wearing the crown to ever feel himself beneath it. Sooner or later he must be kicked back into his place. But not until you are safe in your position, and have plentiful support.”

“I see,” Jezal puffed out his cheeks. Evidently there was more to being king than fine clothes, a haughty manner, and always getting the biggest chair.

“This way.” Out of the garden and into a shadowy hallway panelled with black wood and lined with an array of antique arms to boggle the mind. Assorted suits of full armour stood to glittering attention: plate and chain-mail, hauberk and cuirass, all stamped and emblazoned with the golden sun of the Union. Ceremonial greatswords as tall as a man, and halberds considerably taller, were bolted to the wall in an elaborate procession. Under them were mounted an army’s worth of axes, maces, morningstars and blades curved and straight, long and short, thick and thin. Weapons forged in the Union, weapons captured from the Gurkish, weapons stolen from Styrian dead on bloody battlefields. Victories and defeats, commemorated in steel. High above, the flags of forgotten regiments, gloriously slaughtered to a man in the wars of long ago, hung tattered and lifeless from charred pikestaffs.

A heavy double door loomed at the far end of this collection, black and unadorned, as inviting as a scaffold. Knights Herald stood on either side of it, solemn as executioners, winged helmets glittering. Men taxed not only with guarding the centre of government, but with carrying the King’s Orders to whatever corner of the Union was necessary. His orders, Jezal realised with a sudden further lurch of nerves.

“His Majesty seeks audience with the Closed Council,” intoned Bayaz. The two men reached out and pulled the heavy doors open. An angry voice surged out into the corridor. “There must be further concessions or there will only be further unrest! We cannot simply—”

“High Justice, I believe we have a visitor.”

The White Chamber was something of a disappointment after the magnificence of the rest of the palace. It was not that large. There was no decoration on the plain white walls. The windows were narrow, almost cell-like, making the place seem gloomy even in the sunshine. There was no draft and the air was uncomfortably close and stale. The only furniture was a long table of dark wood, piled high with papers, and six plain, hard chairs arranged down either side with another at the foot and one more, noticeably higher than the others, at the head. Jezal’s own chair, he supposed.

The Closed Council rose as he ducked reluctantly into the room. As frightening a selection of old men as could ever have been collected in one place, and every man of them staring right at Jezal in expectant silence. He jumped as the door was heaved shut behind him, the latch dropping with an unnerving finality.

“Your Majesty,” and Lord Chamberlain Hoff bowed deep, “may I and my colleagues first congratulate you on your well-deserved elevation to the throne. We all feel that we have in you a worthy replacement for King Guslav, and look forward to advising you, and carrying out your orders, over the coming months and years.” He bowed again, and the collection of formidable old men clapped their hands in polite applause.

“Why, thank you all,” said Jezal, pleasantly surprised, however little he might feel like a worthy replacement for anything. Perhaps this would not be so painful as he had feared. The old wolves seemed tame enough to him.

“Please allow me to make the introductions,” murmured Hoff. “Arch Lector Sult, head of your Inquisition.”

“An honour to serve, your Majesty.”

“High Justice Marovia, chief Law Lord.”

“Likewise, your Majesty, an honour.”

“With Lord Marshal Varuz, I believe you are already well acquainted.”

The old soldier beamed. “It was a privilege to train you in the past, your Majesty, and will be a privilege to advise you now.”

So they went on, Jezal smiling and nodding to each man in turn. Halleck, the Lord Chancellor. Torlichorm, the High Consul. Reutzer, Lord Admiral of the Fleet, and so on, and so on. Finally Hoff ushered him to the high chair at the head of the table and Jezal enthroned himself while the Closed Council smiled on. He grinned gormlessly up at them for a moment, and then realised. “Oh, please be seated.”

The old men sat, a couple of them with evident winces of pain as old knees crunched and old backs clicked. Bayaz dropped carelessly into the chair at the foot of the table, opposite Jezal, as though he had been occupying it all his life. Robes rustled as old arses shifted on polished wood, and gradually the room went silent as a tomb. One chair was empty at Varuz’ elbow. The chair where Lord Marshal Burr would have sat, had he not been assigned to duty in the North. Had he not been dead. A dozen daunting old men waited politely for Jezal to speak. A dozen old men who he had thought of until recently as occupying the pinnacle of power, all now answerable to him. A situation he could never have imagined in his most self-indulgent daydreams. He cleared his throat.

“Pray continue, my Lords. I will try and catch up as we go.”

Hoff flashed a humble smile. “Of course, your Majesty. If at any time you require explanation, you have but to ask.”

“Thank you,” said Jezal, “thank—”

Halleck’s grinding voice cut over him. “Back to the issue of discipline among the peasantry, therefore.”

“We have already prepared concessions!” snapped Sult. “Concessions which the peasants were happy to accept.”

“A shred of bandage to bind a suppurating wound!” returned Marovia. “It is only a matter of time before rebellion comes again. The only way we can avoid it is by giving the common man what he needs. No more than is fair! We must involve him in the process of government.”

“Involve him!” sneered Sult.

“We must transfer the burden of tax to the landowners!”

Halleck’s eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Not this nonsense again.”

“Our current system has stood for centuries,” barked Sult.

“It has failed for centuries!” threw back Marovia.

Jezal cleared his throat and the heads of the old men snapped round to look at him. “Could each man not simply be taxed the same proportion of his income, regardless of whether he is a peasant or a nobleman… and then, perhaps…” He trailed off. It had seemed a simple enough idea to him, but now all eleven bureaucrats were staring at him, shocked, quite as if a domestic pet had been ill-advisedly allowed into the room, and it had suddenly decided to speak up on the subject of taxation. At the far end of the table, Bayaz silently examined his fingernails. There was no help there.

“Ah, your Majesty,” ventured Torlichorm in soothing tones, “such a system would be almost impossible to administer.” And he blinked in a manner that said, “How do you manage to dress yourself, given your incredible ignorance?”

Jezal flushed to the lips of his ears. “I see.”

“The subject of taxation,” droned Halleck, “is a stupendously complex one.” And he gave Jezal a look that said, “It is far too complex a subject to fit inside your tiny fragment of a mind.”

“It would perhaps be better, your Majesty, if you were to leave the tedious details to your humble servants.” Marovia had an understanding smile that said, “It would perhaps be better if you kept your mouth shut and avoided embarrassing the grown-ups.”

“Of course.” Jezal retreated shame-facedly into his chair. “Of course.”

And so it went on, as the morning ground by, as the strips of light from the windows slunk slowly over the heaps of papers across the wide table. Gradually, Jezal began to work out the rules of this game. Horribly complex, and yet horribly simple. The aging players were split roughly into two teams. Arch Lector Sult and High Justice Marovia were the captains, fighting viciously over every subject, no matter how small, each with three supporters who agreed with their every utterance. Lord Hoff, meanwhile, ineffectually assisted by Lord Marshal Varuz, played the role of referee, and struggled to build bridges across the unbridgeable divide between these two entrenched camps.

Jezal’s mistake had not been to think that he would not know what to say, though of course, he did not. His mistake had been to think that anyone would want him to say anything. All they cared about was continuing their own profitless struggles. They had become used, perhaps, to conducting the affairs of state with a drooling halfwit at the head of the table. Jezal now realised that they saw in him a like-for-like trade. He began to wonder if they were right.

“If your Majesty could sign here… and here… and here… and there…”

The pen scratched against paper after paper, the old voices droned on, and held forth, and bickered one with the other. The grey men smiled, and sighed, and shook their heads indulgently whenever he spoke, and so he spoke less and less. They bullied him with praise and blinded him with explanation. They bound him up in meaningless hours of law, and form, and tradition. He sagged slowly lower and lower into his uncomfortable chair. A servant brought wine, and he drank, and became drunk, and bored, and even more drunk and bored. Minute by stretched-out minute, Jezal began to realise: there was nothing so indescribably dull, once you got down to the nuts and bolts of it, as ultimate power.

“Now to a sad matter,” observed Hoff, once the most recent argument had sputtered to a reluctant compromise. “Our colleague, Lord Marshal Burr, is dead. His body is on its way back to us from the North, and will be interred with full honours. In the meantime, however, it is our duty to recommend a replacement. The first chair to be filled in this room since the death of the esteemed Chancellor Feekt. Lord Marshal Varuz?”

The old soldier cleared his throat, wincing as though he realised he was about to open a floodgate that might very well drown them all. “There are two clear contenders for the post. Both are men of undoubted bravery and experience, whose merits are well known to this council. I have no doubt that either General Poulder or General Kroy would—”

“There can be not the slightest doubt that Poulder is the better man!” snarled Sult, and Halleck immediately voiced his assent.

“On the contrary!” hissed Marovia, to angry murmurs from his camp, “Kroy is transparently the better choice!”

It was an area in which, as an officer of some experience, Jezal felt he might have been of some minuscule value, but not one of the Closed Council seemed even to consider seeking his opinion. He sagged back sulkily into his chair, and took another slurp of wine from his goblet while the old wolves continued to snap viciously at one another.

“Perhaps we should discuss this matter at greater length later!” cut in Lord Hoff over the increasingly acrimonious debate. “His Majesty is growing fatigued with the fine points of the issue, and there is no particular urgency to the matter!” Sult and Marovia glared at each other, but did not speak. Hoff gave a sigh of relief. “Very well. Our next point of business relates to the supply of our army in Angland. Colonel West writes in his dispatches—”

“West?” Jezal sat up sharply, his voice rough with wine. The name was like smelling salts to a fainting girl, a solid and dependable rock to cling to in the midst of all this chaos. If only West had been there now, to help him through, things would have made so much more sense… he blinked at the chair that Burr had left behind him, sitting empty at Varuz’ shoulder. Jezal was drunk, perhaps, but he was king. He cleared his wet throat. “Colonel West shall be my new Lord Marshal!”

There was a stunned silence. The twelve old men stared. Then Torlichorm chuckled indulgently, in a manner that said, “How will we shut him up?”

“Your Majesty, Colonel West is known to you personally, and a brave man, of course…”

The entire Council, it seemed, had finally found one issue on which they could all agree. “First through the breach at Ulrioch and so on,” muttered Varuz, shaking his head, “but really—”

“…he is junior, and inexperienced, and…”

“He is a commoner,” said Hoff, eyebrows raised.

“An unseemly break with tradition,” lamented Halleck.

“Poulder would be far superior!” snarled Sult at Marovia.

“Kroy is the man!” Marovia barked back.

Torlichorm gave a syrupy smile, of the kind a wet-nurse might use while trying to calm a troublesome infant. “So you see, your Majesty, we cannot possibly consider Colonel West as—”

Jezal’s empty goblet bounced off Torlichorm’s bald forehead with a loud crack and clattered away into the corner of the room. The old man gave a wail of shock and pain and slid from his chair, blood running from a long gash across his face.

“Cannot?” screamed Jezal, on his feet, eyes starting from his head. “You dare to give me fucking ‘cannot’, you old bastard? You belong to me, all of you!” His finger stabbed furiously at the air. “You exist to advise me, not to dictate to me! I rule here! Me!” He snatched up the ink bottle and hurled it across the room. It burst apart against the wall, spraying a great black stain across the plaster and spattering the arm of Arch Lector Sult’s perfect white coat with black spots. “Me! Me! The tradition we need here is one of fucking obedience!” He grabbed a sheaf of documents and flung them at Marovia, filling the air with fluttering paper. “Never again give me ‘cannot!’ Never!”

Eleven sets of dumbstruck eyes stared at Jezal. One set smiled, down at the very end of the table. That made him angrier than ever. “Collem West shall be my new Lord Marshal!” he screeched, and kicked his chair over in a fury. “At our next meeting I will be treated with the proper respect, or I’ll have the pack of you in chains! In fucking chains… and… and…” His head was hurting, now, rather badly. He had thrown everything within easy reach, and was becoming desperately unsure of how to proceed.

Bayaz rose sternly from his chair. “My Lords, that will be all for today.”

The Closed Council needed no further encouragement. Papers flapped, robes rustled, chairs squealed as they scrambled to be first out of the room. Hoff made it into the corridor. Marovia followed close behind and Sult swept after him. Varuz helped Torlichorm up from the floor and guided him by his elbow. “I apologise,” he was wheezing as he was hustled, bloody-faced, through the door, “your Majesty, I apologise profusely…”

Bayaz stood sternly at the end of the table, watching the councillors hurry from the room. Jezal lurked opposite, frozen somewhere between further anger and mortal embarrassment, but increasingly tending towards the latter. It seemed to take an age for the last member of the Closed Council to finally escape from the room, and for the great black doors to be dragged shut.

The First of the Magi turned towards Jezal, and a broad smile broke suddenly out across his face. “Richly done, your Majesty, richly done.”

“What?” Jezal had been sure that he had made an ass of himself to a degree from which he could never recover.

“Your advisers will think twice before taking you lightly again, I think. Not a new strategy, but no less effective for that. Harod the Great was himself possessed of a fearsome temper, and made excellent use of it. After one of his tantrums no one would dare to question his decisions for weeks.” Bayaz chuckled. “Though I suspect that even Harod would have balked at dealing a wound to his own High Consul.”

“That was no tantrum!” snarled Jezal, his temper flickering up again. If he was beset by horrible old men, then Bayaz was himself the worst culprit by far. “If I am a king I will be treated like one! I refuse to be dictated to in my own palace! Not by anyone… not by… I mean…”

Bayaz glared back at him, his green eyes frighteningly hard, and spoke with frosty calm. “If your intention is to lose your temper with me, your Majesty, I would strongly advise against it.”

Jezal’s rage had been on the very verge of fading already, and now, under the icy gaze of the Magus, it wilted away entirely. “Of course… I’m sorry… I’m very sorry.” He closed his eyes and stared numbly down at the polished tabletop. He never used to say sorry for anything. Now that he was a king, and needed to apologise to no man, he found he could not stop. “I did not ask for this,” he muttered weakly, flopping down in his chair. “I don’t know how it happened. I did nothing to deserve it.”

“Of course not.” Bayaz came slowly around the table. “No man can ever deserve the throne. That is why you must strive to be worthy of it now. Every day. Just as your great predecessors did. Casamir. Arnault, Harod himself.”

Jezal took a long breath, and blew it out. “You’re right, of course. How can you always be right?”

Bayaz held up a humble hand. “Always right? Scarcely. But I have the benefit of long experience, and am here to guide you as best I can. You have made a fine start along a difficult road, and you should be proud, as I am. There are certain steps we cannot delay, however. Chief among them is your wedding.”

Jezal gaped. “Wedding?”

“An unmarried king is like a chair with three legs, your Majesty. Apt to fall. Your rump has only just touched the throne, and it is far from settled there. You need a wife who brings you support, and you need heirs so that your subjects may feel secure. All that delay will bring is opportunities for your enemies to work against you.”

The blows fell so rapidly that Jezal had to grasp his head, hoping to stop it flying apart. “My enemies?” Had he not always tried to get on with everyone?

“Can you be so naive? Lord Brock is doubtless already plotting against you. Lord Isher will not be put off indefinitely. Others on the Open Council supported you out of fear, or were paid to do so.”

“Paid?” gasped Jezal.

“Such support does not last forever. You must marry, and your wife must bring you powerful allies.”

“But I have…” Jezal licked his lips, uncertain of how to broach the subject. “Some commitments… in that line.”

“Ardee West?” Jezal half opened his mouth to ask Bayaz how he knew so much about his romantic entanglements, but quickly thought better of it. The old man seemed to know far more about him than he did himself, after all. “I know how it is, Jezal. I have lived a long life. Of course you love her. Of course you would give up anything for her, now. But that feeling, trust me, will not last.”

Jezal shifted his weight uncomfortably. He tried to picture Ardee’s uneven smile, the softness of her hair, the sound of her laugh. The way that had given him such comfort, out on the plain. But it was hard to think of her now without remembering her teeth sinking into his lip, his face tingling from her slap, the sound of the table creaking back and forward underneath them. The shame, and the guilt, and the complexity. Bayaz’ voice continued: mercilessly calm, brutally realistic, ruthlessly reasonable.

“It is only natural that you made commitments, but your past life is gone, and your commitments have gone with it. You are a king, now, and your people demand that you behave like one. They need something to look up to. Something effortlessly higher than themselves. We are talking of the High Queen of the Union. A mother to kings. A farmer’s daughter with a tendency towards unpredictable behaviour and a penchant for heavy drinking? I think not.” Jezal flinched to hear Ardee described that way, but he could hardly argue the point.

“You are a natural son. A wife of unimpeachable breeding would lend your line far greater weight. Far greater respect. There is a world full of eligible women, your Majesty, all born to high station. Dukes’ daughters, and kings’ sisters, beautiful and cultured. A world of princesses to choose from.”

Jezal felt his eyebrows rising. He loved Ardee, of course, but Bayaz made a devastating argument. There was so much more to think of now than his own needs, if the idea of himself as a king was absurd, the idea of Ardee as a queen was triply so. He loved her, of course. In a way. But a world of princesses to choose from? That was a phrase it was decidedly hard to find fault with.

“You see it!” The First of the Magi snapped his fingers in triumph. “I will send to Duke Orso of Talins, that his daughter Terez should be introduced to you.” He held up a calming hand. “Just to begin with, you understand. Talins would make a powerful ally.” He smiled, and leaned forward to murmur in Jezal’s ear. “But you need not leave everything behind, if you truly are attached to this girl. Kings often keep mistresses, you know.”

And that, of course, decided the matter.

Prepared for the Worst

Glokta sat in his dining room, staring down at his table, rubbing at his aching thigh with one hand. His other stirred absently at the fortune in jewels spread out on the black leather case.

Why do I do this? Why do I stay here, and ask questions? I could be gone on the next tide, and no one any worse off. Perhaps a tour of the beautiful cities of Styria? A cruise round the Thousand Isles? Finally to faraway Thond, or distant Suljuk, to live out my twisted days in peace among people who do not understand a word I say? Hurting no one? Keeping no secrets? Caring no more for innocence or guilt, for truth or for lies, than do these little lumps of rock.

The gems twinkled in the candlelight, clicking against each other, tickling at his fingers as he pushed them through one way, and back the other. But his Eminence would weep and weep at my sudden disappearance. So, one imagines, would the banking house of Valint and Balk. Where in all the wide Circle of the World would I be safe from the tears of such powerful masters? And why? So I can sit on my crippled arse all the long day, waiting for the killers to come? So I can lie in bed, and ache, and think about all that I’ve lost?

He frowned down at the jewels: clean, and hard, and beautiful. I made my choices long ago. When I took Valint and Balk’s money. When I kissed the ring of office. Before the Emperor’s prisons, even, when I rode down to the bridge, sure that only magnificent Sand dan Glokta could save the world…

A thumping knock echoed through the room and Glokta jerked his head up, toothless mouth hanging open. As long as it is not the Arch Lector—

“Open up, in the name of his Eminence!”

He grimaced at a spasm through his back as he dragged himself out of his chair, clawing the stones into a heap. Priceless, glittering handfuls of them. Sweat had broken out across his forehead.

What if the Arch Lector were to discover my little treasure trove? He giggled to himself as he snatched at the leather case. I was going to mention all this, really I was, but the timing never seemed quite right. A small matter, after all—no more than a king’s ransom. His fingers fumbled with the jewels, and in his haste he flicked one astray and it dropped sparkling to the floor with a sharp click, click.

Another knock, louder this time, the heavy lock shuddering from the force of it. “Open up!”

“I’m just coming!” He forced himself down onto his hands and knees with a moan, casting about across the floor, his neck burning with pain. He saw it—a flat green one sitting on the boards, shining bright in the firelight.

Got you, you bastard! He snatched it up, pulled himself to his feet by the edge of the table, folded up the case, once, twice. No time to hide it away. He shoved it inside his shirt, right down so it was behind his belt, then he grabbed his cane and limped towards the front door, wiping his sweaty face, adjusting his clothes, doing his best to present an unruffled appearance.

“I’m coming! There’s no need to—”

Four huge Practicals shoved past him into his apartments, almost knocking him over. Beyond them, in the corridor outside, stood his Eminence the Arch Lector, frowning balefully, two more vast Practicals at his back. A surprising hour for such a gratifying visit. Glokta could hear the four men stomping around his apartments, throwing open doors, pulling open cupboards. Never mind me, gentlemen, make yourself at home. After a moment they marched back in.

“Empty,” grunted one, from behind his mask.

“Huh,” sneered Sult, moving smoothly over the threshold, staring about him with a scowl of contempt. My new lodgings, it would seem, are scarcely more impressive than my old ones. His six Practicals took up positions around the walls of Glokta’s dining room, arms folded across their chests, watching. An awful lot of great big men, to keep an eye on one little cripple.

Sult’s shoes stabbed at the floor as he strode up and down, his blue eyes bulging, a furious frown twisting his face. It does not take a masterful judge of character to see that he is not a happy man. Might one of my ugly secrets have come to his attention? One of my little disobediences? Glokta felt a sweaty trembling slink up his bent spine. The non-execution of Magister Eider, perhaps? My agreement with Practical Vitari to tell less than the whole truth? The corner of the leather pouch dug gently into his ribs as he shifted his hips. Or merely the small matter of the large fortune with which I was purchased by a highly suspect banking house?

An image sprang unbidden into Glokta’s mind, of the jewel-case suddenly splitting behind his belt, gems spilling from his trouser legs in a priceless cascade while the Arch Lector and his Practicals stared in amazement. I wonder how I’d try to explain that one? He had to stifle a giggle at the thought.

“That bastard Bayaz!” snarled Sult, his white-gloved hands curling into shaking fists.

Glokta felt himself relax by the smallest hair. I am not the problem, then. Not yet, at least. “Bayaz?”

“That bald liar, that smirking impostor, that ancient charlatan! He has stolen the Closed Council!” Stop, thief. “He has that worm Luthar dictating to us! You told me he was a spineless nothing!” I told you he used to be a spineless nothing, and you ignored me. “This cursed puppy-dog proves to have teeth, and is not afraid to use them, and that First of the bastard Magi is holding his leash! He is laughing at us! He is laughing at me! At me!” screamed Sult, stabbing at his chest with a clawing finger.


“Damn your excuses, Glokta! I am drowning in a sea of damned excuses, when what I need are answers! What I need are solutions! What I need is to know more about this liar!”

Then perhaps this will impress you. “I have already, in fact, taken the liberty of some steps in that direction.”

“What steps?”

“I was able to take his Navigator into custody,” said Glokta, allowing himself the smallest of smiles.

“The Navigator?” Sult gave no sign of being impressed. “And what did that stargazing imbecile tell you?”

Glokta paused. “That he journeyed across the Old Empire to the edge of the World with Bayaz and our new king, before his enthronement.” He struggled for words that would fit cleanly into Sult’s world of logic, and reasons, and neat explanations. “That they were seeking for… a relic, of the Old Time—”

“Relics?” asked Sult, his frown deepening. “Old Time?”

Glokta swallowed. “Indeed, but they did not find it—”

“So we now know one of a thousand things that Bayaz did not do? Bah!” Sult ripped angrily at the air with his hand. “He is nobody, and told you less than nothing! More of your myths and rubbish!”

“Of course, your Eminence,” muttered Glokta. There really is no pleasing some people.

Sult frowned down at the squares board under the window, his white-gloved hand hovering over the pieces as if to make a move. “I lose track of how often you have failed me, but I will give you a final chance to redeem yourself. Look into this First of the Magi once more. Find some weakness, some weapon we can use against him. He is a disease, and we must burn him out.” He prodded angrily at one of the white pieces. “I want him destroyed! I want him finished! I want him in the House of Questions, in chains!”

Glokta swallowed. “Your Eminence, Bayaz is ensconced in the palace, and well beyond my reach… his protégé is now our King…” Thanks in part to our own desperate efforts. Glokta almost winced, but he could not stop himself from asking the question. “How am I to do it?”

“How?” shrieked Sult, “how, you crippled worm?” He swept his hand furiously across the board and dashed the pieces spinning across the floor. And I wonder who will have to bend down to pick those up? The six Practicals, as though controlled by the pitch of the Arch Lector’s voice, detached themselves from the walls and loomed menacingly into the room. “If I wished to attend to every detail myself I would have no need of your worthless services! Get out there and get it done, you twisted slime!”

“Your Eminence is too kind,” muttered Glokta, humbly inclining his head once more. But even the lowest dog needs a scratch behind the ears, from time to time, or he might go for his master’s throat…

“And look into his story while you’re about it.”

“Story, Arch Lector?”

“This fairytale of Carmee dan Roth!” Sult’s eyes went narrower still, hard creases cutting into the bridge of his nose. “If we cannot take the leash ourselves, we must have the dog put down, do you understand?”

Glokta felt his eye twitching, in spite of his efforts to make it be still. We find a way to bring King Jezal’s reign to an abrupt end. Dangerous. If the Union is a ship, it has but lately come through a storm, and is listing badly. We have lost one captain. Replace another now, and the boat might break apart entirely. We will all be swimming in some deep, cold, unknown waters then. Civil War, anyone? He frowned down at the squares pieces scattered across his floor. But his Eminence has spoken. What is it that Shickel said? When your master gives you a task, you do your best at it. Even if the task is a dark one. And some of us are only suited to dark tasks…

“Carmee dan Roth, and her bastard. I shall find the truth of it, your Eminence, you can depend on me.”

Sult’s sneer curled to even greater heights of contempt. “If only!”

The House of Questions was busy, for an evening. Glokta saw no one as he limped down the corridor, his excuses for teeth pressed into his lip, his hand clenched tight around the handle of his cane, slippery with sweat. He saw no one, but he heard them.

Voices bubbled from behind the iron-bound doors. Low and insistent. Asking the questions. High and desperate. Spilling the answers. From time to time a shriek, or a roar, or a howl of pain would cut through the heavy silence. Those hardly need explaining. Severard was leaning against the dirty wall as Glokta limped towards him, one foot up on the plaster, whistling tunelessly behind his mask.

“What’s all this?” asked Glokta.

“Some of Lord Brock’s people got drunk, then they got noisy. Fifty of ’em, made quite a mess up near the Four Corners. Moaning about rights, whining on how the people were cheated, mouthing off how Brock should’ve been king. They say it was a demonstration. We say it was treason.”

“Treason, eh?” The definition is notoriously flexible. “Pick out some ringleaders and get some paper signed. Angland is back in Union hands. High time we started filling the place up with traitors.”

“They’re already at it. Anything else?”

“Oh, of course.” Juggling knives. One comes down, two go up. Always more blades spinning in the air, and each one with a deadly edge. “I had a visit from his Eminence earlier today. A brief visit, but too long for my taste.”

“Work for us?”

“Nothing that will make you a rich man, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”

“I’m always hoping. I’m what you call an optimist.”

“Lucky for you.” I rather tend the other way. Glokta took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “The First of the Magi and his bold companions.”


“His Eminence wants information.”

“This Bayaz, though. Isn’t he tight with our new king?”

Glokta raised an eyebrow as a muffled roar of pain echoed down the corridor. Tight? He might as well have made him out of clay. “That is why we must keep our eyes upon him, Practical Severard. For his own protection. Powerful men have powerful enemies, as well as powerful friends.”

“Think that Navigator knows anything else?”

“Nothing that will do the trick.”

“Shame. I was getting used to having the little bastard around. He tells a hell of a story about a huge fish.”

Glokta sucked at his empty gums. “Keep him where he is for now. Perhaps Practical Frost will appreciate his tall tales.” He has a fine sense of humour.

“If the Navigator’s no use, who do we squeeze?”

Who indeed? Ninefingers is gone. Bayaz himself is tucked up tight in the palace, and his apprentice hardly leaves his side. The erstwhile Jezal dan Luthar, we must concede, is now far beyond our reach… “What about that woman?”

Severard looked up. “What, that brown bitch?”

“She’s still in the city, isn’t she?”

“Last I heard.”

“Follow her, then, and find out what she’s about.”

The Practical paused. “Do I have to?”

“What? You scared?”

Severard lifted up his mask and scratched underneath it. “I can think of people I’d rather follow.”

“Life is a series of things we would rather not do.” Glokta looked up and down the corridor, making sure there was no one there. “We also need to ask some questions about Carmee dan Roth, supposed mother of our present king.”

“What sort of questions?”

He leaned towards Severard and hissed quietly in his ear. “Questions like—did she really bear a child before she died? Was that child really the issue of the overactive loins of King Guslav? Is that child truly the same man that we now have on the throne? You know the kind of questions.” Questions that could land us in a great deal of trouble. Questions that some people might call treason. After all, the definition is notoriously flexible.

Severard’s mask looked the same as ever, but the rest of his face was decidedly worried. “You sure we want to go digging there?”

“Why don’t you ask the Arch Lector if he’s sure? He sounded sure to me. Get Frost to help you if you’re having trouble.”

“But… what are we looking for? How will we—”

“How?” hissed Glokta. “If I wished to attend to every detail myself I would have no need of your services. Get out there and get it done!”

When Glokta had been young and beautiful, quick and promising, admired and envied, he had spent a great deal of time in the taverns of Adua. Though I never remember falling this far, even in my darkest moods.

He scarcely felt out of place now, as he hobbled among the customers. To be crippled was the norm here, and he had more teeth than average. Nearly everyone carried unsightly scars or debilitating injuries, sores or warts to make a toad blush. There were men with faces rough as the skin on a bowl of old porridge. Men who shook worse than leaves in a gale and stank of week-old piss. Men who looked as if they’d slit a child’s throat just to keep their knives sharp. A drunken whore slouched against a post in an attitude that could hardly have been arousing to the most desperate sailor. That same reek of sour beer and hopelessness, sour sweat and early death that I remember from the sites of my worst excesses. Only stronger.

There were some private booths at one end of the stinking common room, vaulted archways full of miserable shadows and even more miserable drunks. And who might one expect to find in such surroundings? Glokta shuffled to a stop beside the last of them.

“Well, well, well. I never thought I’d see you alive again.”

Nicomo Cosca looked even worse than when Glokta first met him, if that was possible. He was spread out against the slimy wall, his hands dangling, his head hanging over to one side, his eyes scarcely open as he watched Glokta work his painful way into a chair opposite. His skin was soapy pale in the flickering light from the single mean candle flame, dark pouches under his eyes, dark shadows shifting over his pinched and pointed face. The rash on his neck had grown angrier, and spread up the side of his jaw like ivy up a ruin. With just a little more effort he might look nearly as ill as me.

“Superior Glokta,” he wheezed, in a voice as rough as tree-bark, “I am delighted that you received my message. What an honour to renew our acquaintance, against all the odds. Your masters did not reward your efforts in the South with a cut throat, eh?”

“I was as surprised as you are, but no.” Though there is still ample time. “How was Dagoska after I left?”

The Styrian puffed out his hollow cheeks. “Dagoska was a real mess, since you are asking. A lot of men dead. A lot of men made slaves. That’s what happens when the Gurkish come to dinner, eh? Good men with bad endings, and the bad men did little better. Bad endings for everyone. Your friend General Vissbruck got one of them.”

“I understand he cut his own throat.” To rapturous approval from the public. “How did you get away?”

The corner of Cosca’s mouth curled up, as though he would have liked to smile but had not the energy. “I disguised myself as a servant girl, and I fucked my way out.”

“Ingenious.” But far more likely you were the one who opened the gates to the Gurkish, in return for your freedom. I wonder if I would have done the same, in that position? Probably. “And lucky for us both.”

“They say that luck is a woman. She’s drawn to those that least deserve her.”

“Perhaps so.” Though I appear to be both undeserving and unlucky. “It is certainly fortunate that you should appear in Adua at this moment. Things are… unsettled.”

Glokta heard a squeaking, rustling sound and a large rat dashed out from under his chair and paused for a moment in full view. Cosca delved a clumsy hand into his stained jacket and whipped it out. A throwing knife flew out with it, flashed through the air. It shuddered into the boards a good stride or two wide of the mark. The rat sat there for a moment longer, as though to communicate its contempt, then scurried away between the table and chair legs, the scuffed boots of the patrons.

Cosca sucked at his stained teeth as he slithered from the booth to retrieve his blade. “I used to be dazzling with a throwing knife, you know.”

“Beautiful women used to hang from my every word.” Glokta sucked at his own empty gums. “Times change.”

“So I hear. All kinds of changes. New rulers mean new worries. Worries mean business, for people in my trade.”

“It might be that I will have a use for your particular talents, before too long.”

“I cannot say that I would turn you down.” Cosca tipped his bottle up and stuck his tongue into the neck, licking out the last trickle. “My purse is empty as a dry well. So empty, in fact, that I don’t even have a purse.”

There, at least, I am able to assist. Glokta checked that they were not observed, then tossed something across the rough table top and watched it bounce with a click and a spin to a halt in front of Cosca. The mercenary picked it up between finger and thumb, held it to the candle flame and stared at it through one bloodshot eye. “This seems to be a diamond.”

“Consider yourself on retainer. I daresay you could find some like-minded men to assist you. Some reliable men, who tell no tales and ask no questions. Some good men, to help out.”

“Some bad men, do you mean?”

Glokta grinned, displaying the gaps in his teeth. “Well. I suppose that all depends on whether you’re the employer, or you’re the job.”

“I suppose it does at that.” Cosca let his empty bottle drop to the ill-formed floorboards. “And what is the job, Superior?”

“For now, just to wait, and stay out of sight.” He leaned from the booth with a wince and snapped his fingers at a surly serving girl. “Another bottle of what my friend is drinking!”

“And later?”

“I’m sure I can find something for you to do.” He shuffled painfully forward in his chair to whisper. “Between you and me, I heard a rumour that the Gurkish are coming.”

Cosca winced. “Them again? Must we? Those bastards don’t play by the rules. God, and righteousness, and belief.” He shuddered. “Makes me nervous.”

“Well, whoever it is banging on the door, I’m sure I can organise a heroic last stand, against the odds, without hope of relief.” I am not lacking for enemies, after all.

The mercenary’s eyes glinted as the girl thumped a full bottle down on the warped table before him. “Ah, lost causes. My favourite.”

The Habit of Command

West sat in the Lord Marshal’s tent and stared hopelessly into space. For the past year he had scarcely had an idle moment. Now, suddenly, there was nothing for him to do but wait. He kept expecting to see Burr push through the flap and walk to the maps, his fists clenched behind him. He kept expecting to feel his reassuring presence around the camp, to hear his booming voice call the wayward officers to order. But of course he would not. Not now and not ever again.

On the left sat General Kroy’s staff, solemn and sinister in their black uniforms, as rigidly pressed as ever. On the right lounged Poulder’s men, top buttons carelessly undone in an open affront to their opposite numbers, as puffed-up as peacocks displaying their tail feathers. The two great Generals themselves eyed each other with all the suspicion of rival armies across a battlefield, awaiting the edict that would raise one of them to the Closed Council and the heights of power, and dash the other’s hopes for ever. The edict that would name the new King of the Union, and his new Lord Marshal.

It was to be Poulder or Kroy, of course, and both anticipated their final, glorious victory over the other. In the meantime the army, and West in particular, sat paralysed. Powerless. Far to the north the Dogman and his companions, who had saved West’s life in the wilderness more times than he could remember, were no doubt fighting for survival, watching desperately for help that would never come.

For West, the entire business was very much like being at his own funeral, and one attended chiefly by sneering, grinning, posturing enemies. It was to be Poulder or Kroy, and whichever one it was, he was doomed. Poulder hated him with a flaming passion, Kroy with an icy scorn. The only fall swifter and more complete than his own would be that of Poulder, or of Kroy, whichever of them was finally overlooked by the Closed Council.

There was a dim commotion outside, and heads turned keenly to look. There was a scuffle of feet up to the tent, and several officers rose anxiously from their chairs. The flap was torn aside and the Knight Herald finally burst jingling through it. He was immensely tall, the wings on his helmet almost poking a hole in the tent’s ceiling as he straightened up. He had a leather case over one armoured shoulder, stamped with the golden sun of the Union. West stared at it, holding his breath.

“Present your message,” urged Kroy, holding out his hand.

“Present it to me!” snapped Poulder.

The two men jostled each other with scant dignity while the Knight Herald frowned down at them, impassive. “Is Colonel West in attendance?” he demanded, in a booming bass. Every eye, and most especially those of Poulder and Kroy, swivelled round.

West found himself rising hesitantly from his chair. “Er… I am West.”

The Knight Herald stepped carelessly around General Kroy and advanced on West, spurs rattling. He opened his dispatch case, pulled out a roll of parchment and held it up. “On the king’s orders.”

The final irony of West’s unpredictable career, it seemed, was that he would be the one to announce the name of the man who would dismiss him in dishonour moments later. But if he was to fall on his sword, delay would only increase the pain. He took the scroll from the Knight’s gauntleted hand and broke the heavy seal. He unrolled it halfway, a block of flowing script coming into view. The room held its breath as he began to read.

West gave vent to a disbelieving giggle. Even with the tent as tense as a courtroom waiting for judgement, he could not help himself. He had to go over the first section twice more before he came close to taking it in.

“What is amusing?” demanded Kroy.

“The Open Council has elected Jezal dan Luthar as the new King of the Union, henceforth known as Jezal the First.” West had to stifle more laughter even though, if it was a joke, it was not a funny one.

“Luthar?” someone asked. “Who the hell is Luthar?”

“That boy who won the Contest?”

It was all, somehow, awfully appropriate. Jezal had always behaved as though he was better than everyone else. Now, it seemed, he was. But all of that, momentous though it might have been, was a side-issue here.

“Who is the new Lord Marshal?” growled Kroy, and the two staffs shuffled forward, all on their feet now, forming a half-circle of expectation.

West took a deep breath, gathered himself like a child preparing to plunge into an icy pool. He pulled the scroll open and his eyes scanned quickly over the lower block of writing. He frowned. Neither Poulder’s name nor Kroy’s appeared anywhere. He read it again, more carefully. His knees felt suddenly very weak.

“Who does it name?” Poulder nearly shrieked. West opened his mouth, but he could not find the words. He held the letter out, and Poulder snatched it from his hand while Kroy struggled unsuccessfully to look over his shoulder.

“No,” breathed Poulder, evidently having reached the end.

Kroy wrestled the dispatch away and his eyes flickered over it. “This must be a mistake!”

But the Knight Herald did not think so. “The Closed Council are not in the habit of making mistakes. You have the King’s orders!” He turned to West and bowed. “My Lord Marshal, I bid you farewell.”

The army’s best and brightest all gawped at West, jaws dangling. “Er… yes,” he managed to stammer. “Yes, of course.”

An hour later, the tent was empty. West sat alone at Burr’s writing desk, nervously arranging and rearranging the pen, ink, paper, and most of all the large letter he had just sealed with a blob of red wax. He frowned down at it, and up at the maps on the boards, and back down at his hands sitting idle on the scarred leather, and he tried to understand what the hell had happened.

As far as he could tell, he had been suddenly elevated to one of the highest positions in the Union. Lord Marshal West. With the possible exception of Bethod himself, he was the most powerful man on this side of the Circle Sea. Poulder and Kroy would be obliged to call him “sir”. He had a chair on the Closed Council. Him! Collem West! A commoner, who had been scorned, and bullied, and patronised his entire life. How could it possibly have happened? Not through merit, certainly. Not through any action or inaction on his part. Through pure chance. A chance friendship with a man who, in many ways, he did not particularly like, and had certainly never expected to do him any favours. A man who, in a stroke of fortune that could only be described as a miracle, had now ascended to the throne of the Union.

His disbelieving laughter was short-lived. A most unpleasant image was forming in his head. Prince Ladisla, lying somewhere in the wilderness with his head broken open, half-naked and unburied. West swallowed. If it had not been for him, Ladisla would now be king, and he would be swabbing latrines instead of preparing to take command of the army. His head was starting to hurt and he rubbed uncomfortably at his temples. Perhaps he had played a crucial part in his own advancement after all.

The tent flap rustled as Pike came through with his burned-out ruin of a grin. “General Kroy is here.”

“Let him sweat a moment.” But it was West who was sweating. He wiped his moist palms together and tugged the jacket of his uniform smooth, his Colonel’s insignia but recently cut from the shoulders. He had to appear to be in complete and effortless control, just as Marshal Burr had always done. Just as Marshal Varuz had used to, out in the dry wastelands of Gurkhul. He had to squash Poulder and Kroy while he had the chance. If he did not do it now, he would be forever at their mercy. A piece of meat, torn between two furious dogs. He reluctantly picked up the letter and held it out to Pike.

“Could we not just hang the pair of them, sir?” asked the convict as he took it.

“If only. But we cannot do without them, however troublesome they may be. A new King, a new Lord Marshal, both men that, by and large, no one has ever heard of. The soldiers need leaders they know.” He took a long breath through his nose, puffing out his chest. Each man had to do his part, and that was all. He let it hiss out. “Show in General Kroy, please.”

“Yes, sir.” Pike held the tent flap open and roared out, “General Kroy!”

Kroy’s black uniform, chased about the collar with embroidered golden leaves, was so heavily starched that it was a surprise he could move at all. He drew himself up and stood to vibrating attention, eyes fixed on the middle distance. His salute was impeccable, every part of his body in regulation position, and yet he somehow managed to make his contempt and disappointment plain to see.

“May I first offer my congratulations,” he grated, “Lord Marshal.”

“Thank you, General. Graciously said. “

“A considerable promotion, for one so young, so inexperienced—”

“I have been a professional soldier some dozen years, and fought in two wars and several battles. It would seem his Majesty the King deems me sufficiently seasoned.”

Kroy cleared his throat. “Of course, Lord Marshal. But you are new to high command. In my opinion you would be wise to seek the assistance of a more experienced man.”

“I agree with you absolutely.”

Kroy lifted one eyebrow a fraction. “I am glad to hear that.”

“That man should, without the slightest doubt, be General Poulder.” To give him credit, Kroy’s face did not move. A small squeak issued from his nose. The only indication of what, West did not doubt, was his boundless dismay. He had been hurt when he arrived. Now he was reeling. The very best time to plunge the blade in to the hilt. “I have always been a great admirer of General Poulder’s approach to soldiering. His dash. His vigour. He is, to my mind, the very definition of what an officer should be.”

“Quite so,” hissed Kroy through gritted teeth.

“I am taking his advice in a number of areas. There is only one major issue upon which we differed.”


“You, General Kroy.” Kroy’s face had assumed the colour of a plucked chicken, the trace of scorn replaced quick-time by a definite tinge of horror. “Poulder was of the opinion that you should be dismissed immediately. I was for giving you one more chance. Sergeant Pike?”

“Sir.” The ex-convict stepped forward smartly and held out the letter. West took it from him and displayed it to the General.

“This is a letter to the king. I begin by reminding him of the happy years we served together in Adua. I go on to lay out in detail the reasons for your immediate dismissal in dishonour. Your unrepentant stubbornness, General Kroy. Your tendency to steal the credit. Your bloodless inflexibility. Your insubordinate reluctance to work with other officers.” If it was possible for Kroy’s face to grow yet more drawn and pale it did so, steadily, as he stared at the folded paper. “I earnestly hope that I will never have to send it. But I will, at the slightest provocation to myself or to General Poulder, am I understood?”

Kroy appeared to grope for words. “Perfectly understood,” he croaked in the end, “my Lord Marshal.”

“Excellent. We are extremely tardy in setting off for our rendezvous with our Northern allies and I hate to arrive late to a meeting. You will transfer your cavalry to my command, for now. I will be taking them north with General Poulder, in pursuit of Bethod.”

“And I, sir?”

“A few Northmen still remain on the hills above us. It will be your task to sweep them away and clear the road to Carleon, giving our enemies the impression that our main body has not moved north. Succeed in that and I may be willing to trust you with more. You will make the arrangements before first light.” Kroy opened his mouth, as though about to complain at the impossibility of the request. “You have something to add?”

The General quickly thought better of it. “No, sir. Before first light, of course.” He even managed to force his face into a shape vaguely resembling a smile.

West did not have to try too hard to smile back. “I am glad you are embracing this chance to redeem yourself, General. You are dismissed.” Kroy snapped to attention once more, spun on his heel, caught his leg up with his sabre and stumbled from the tent in some disarray.

West took a long breath. His head was pounding. He wanted nothing more than to lie down for a few moments, but there was no time. He tugged the jacket of his uniform smooth again. If he had survived that nightmare journey north through the snow, he could survive this. “Send in General Poulder.”

Poulder swaggered into the tent as though he owned the place and stood to slapdash attention, his salute as flamboyant as Kroy’s had been rigid. “Lord Marshal West, I would like to extend to you my earnest congratulations on your unexpected advancement.” He grinned unconvincingly, but West did not join him. He sat there, frowning up at Poulder as if he was a problem that he was considering a harsh solution to. He sat there for some time, saying nothing. The General’s eyes began to dart nervously around the tent. He gave an apologetic cough. “Might I ask, Lord Marshal, what you had to discuss with General Kroy?”

“Why, all manner of things.” West kept his face stony hard. “My respect for General Kroy on all matters military is boundless. We are much alike, he and I. His precision. His attention to detail. He is, to my mind, the very definition of what a soldier should be.”

“He is a most accomplished officer,” Poulder managed to hiss.

“He is. I have been elevated with great rapidity to my position, and I feel I need a senior man, a man with a wealth of experience, to act as a… as a mentor, if you will, now that Marshal Burr is gone. General Kroy has been good enough to agree to serve in that capacity.”

“Has he indeed?” A sheen of sweat was forming across Poulder’s forehead.

“He has made a number of excellent suggestions which I am already putting into practice. There was only one issue on which we could not agree.” He steepled his fingers on the desk before him and looked sternly at Poulder over the top of them. “You were that issue, General Poulder. You.”

“I, Lord Marshal?”

“Kroy pressed for your immediate dismissal.” Poulder’s fleshy face was rapidly turning pink. “But I have decided to extend to you one final opportunity.”

West picked up the very same paper that he had displayed to Kroy. “This is a letter to the king. I begin by thanking him for my promotion, by enquiring after his health, by reminding him of our close personal friendship. I go on to lay out in detail the reasons for your immediate cashiering in disgrace. Your unbecoming arrogance, General Poulder. Your tendency to steal the credit. Your reluctance to obey orders. Your stubborn inability to work with other officers. I earnestly hope that I will never have to send it. But I will, at the slightest provocation. The slightest provocation to myself or to General Kroy, am I understood?”

Poulder swallowed, sweat glistening all over his ruddy face. “You are, my Lord Marshal.”

“Good. I am trusting General Kroy to seize control of the hills between us and Carleon. Until you prove yourself worthy of a separate command you will stay with me. I want your division ready to move north before first light, and the swiftest units to the fore. Our Northern allies are relying on us, and I do not mean to let them down. At first light, General, and with the greatest speed.”

“The greatest speed, of course. You can rely on me… sir.”

“I hope so, in spite of my reservations. Every man must do his part, General Poulder. Every man.”

Poulder blinked and worked his mouth, half turned to leave, remembered belatedly to salute, then strode from the tent. West watched the flap moving ever so gently in the wind outside, then he sighed, crumpled the letter up in his hand and tossed it away into the corner. It was nothing but a blank sheet of paper, after all.

Pike raised one pink, mostly hairless brow. “Sweetly done, sir, if I may say. Even in the camps, I never saw better lying.”

“Thank you, Sergeant. Now that I begin, I find I warm to the work. My father always warned me against untruths, but between you and me the man was a shit, a coward, and a failure. If he was here now I’d spit in his face.”

West rose and walked to the largest-scale of the maps, stood before it, his hands clasped behind his back. In just the way that Marshal Burr would have done, he realised. He examined the dirty finger-smudge in the mountains where Crummock-i-Phail had indicated the position of his fortress. He traced the route to the Union army’s own current position, far to the south, and frowned. It was hard to believe that a Union cartographer could ever have come close to surveying that terrain in person, and the flamboyant shapes of the hills and rivers had an undoubted flavour of make-believe about them.

“How long do you think it will take to get there, sir?” asked Pike.

“Impossible to say.” Even if they got started immediately, which was unlikely. Even if Poulder did as he was told, which was doubly so. Even if the map was halfway accurate, which he knew it was not. He shook his head grimly. “Impossible to say.”

The First Day

The eastern sky was just catching fire. Long strips of pink cloud and long strips of black cloud were stretched out across the pale blue, the hazy grey shapes of mountains notched and jagged as a butcher’s knife underneath. The western sky was a mass of dark iron still—cold and comfortless.

“Nice day for it,” said Crummock.

“Aye.” But Logen wasn’t sure there was any such a thing.

“Well, if Bethod don’t show, and we get nothing killed at all, at least you lot will have done wonders for my wall, eh?”

It was amazing how well and how fast a man could patch a wall when it was the pile of stones that might save his own life. A few short days and they had the whole stretch of it built up and mortared, most of the ivy cut away. From inside the fort, where the ground was that much higher, it didn’t look too fearsome. From outside it was three times the height of a tall man up to the walkway. They’d new made the parapet neck-high at the top, with plenty of good slots for shooting and throwing rocks from. Then they’d dug out a decent ditch in front, and lined it with sharp stakes.

They were still digging, over on the left where the wall met the cliff and it was easiest to climb over. That was Dow’s stretch, and Logen could hear him shouting at his boys over the sound of shovels. “Get digging, you lazy fucks! I’ll not be killed for your lack of work! Put your back into it, you bastards!” and so on, all day long. One way of getting work out of a man, Logen reckoned.

They’d dug the ditch out especially deep right in front of the old gate. A nice reminder to everyone that there were no plans to leave. But it was still the weakest spot, and there was no missing it. That was where Logen would be, if Bethod came. Right in the middle, on Shivers’ stretch of wall. He was standing above the archway now, not far from Logen and Crummock, his long hair flapping about in the breeze, pointing out some cracks that still needed mortaring.

“Wall’s looking good!” Logen shouted at him.

Shivers looked round, worked his mouth, then spat over his shoulder. “Aye,” he growled, and turned away.

Crummock leaned close. “If it comes to a battle you’ll have to watch your back with that one, Bloody-Nine.”

“I reckon so.” The middle of a fight was a good place to settle a score with a man on your own side. No one ever checked too carefully if the corpses got it in the back or the front once the fighting was done. Everyone too busy crying at their cuts, or digging, or running away. Logen gave the big hillman a long stare. “I’ll have a lot of men to watch if it comes to a battle. We ain’t so very friendly that you won’t be one of ’em.”

“Likewise,” said Crummock, grinning all the way across his big, bearded face. “We both got a reputation for being none too picky who gets killed, once the killing starts. But that’s no bad thing. Too much trust makes men sloppy.”

“Too much trust?” It had been a while since Logen had too much of anything except enemies. He jerked his thumb towards the tower. “I’m going up, check if they’ve seen anything.”

“I hope they have!” said Crummock, rubbing his fat palms together. “I hope that bastard comes today!”

Logen hopped down from the wall and walked out across the fort, if you could call it that, past Carls and hillmen, sat in groups eating, or talking, or cleaning weapons. A few who’d been on guard through the night wrapped up in blankets, asleep. He passed the pen where the sheep were huddled together, a good deal fewer than there had been. He passed the makeshift forge set up near the stone shed, a couple of soot-smeared men working a bellows, another pouring metal into moulds for arrow heads. They’d need a damn lot of arrow-heads if Bethod came calling. He came to the narrow steps cut into the rock-face and took them two at a time, up above the fort to the top of the tower.

There was a big pile of rocks for throwing up there, on that shelf on the mountainside, and six big barrels wedged full of shafts. The pick of the archers stood at the new-mortared parapets, the men with the best eyes and the best ears, keeping watch for Bethod. Logen saw the Dogman in amongst the rest, with Grim on one side of him and Tul on the other.

“Chief!” It still made Logen smile to say it. A long time, they’d done things the other way around, but it worked a lot better like this, to his mind. At least no one was scared all the time. Not of their own chief, anyway. “See anything?”

The Dogman grinned round, and offered him out a flask. “A lot, as it goes.”

“Uh,” said Grim. The sun was getting up above the mountains now, slitting the clouds with bright lines, eating into the shadows across the hard land, burning away the dawn haze. The great fells loomed up bold and careless on either side, smeared with yellow green grass and fern on the slopes, strips of bare rock breaking through the brown summits. Below, the bare valley was quiet and still. Spotted with thorn bushes and clumps of stunted trees, creased with the paths of dried-out streams. Just as empty as it had been the day before, and the day before that, and ever since they’d got there.

It reminded Logen of his youth, climbing up in the High Places, alone. Days at a time, testing himself against the mountains. Before his was a name that anyone had heard of. Before he married, or had children, and before his wife and his children went back to the mud. The happy valleys of the past. He sucked in a long, cold breath of the high air, and he blew it out. “It’s quite a spot for a view, alright, but I meant have we seen anything of our old friend.”

“You mean Bethod, the right royal King of the Northmen? No, no sign of him. Not a hair.”

Tul shook his big head. “Would’ve expected there to be some sign by now, if he was coming.”

Logen sloshed some water round his mouth and spat it out over the side of the tower, watched it splatter on the rocks way down below. “Maybe he won’t fall for it.” He could see the happy side of Bethod not coming. Vengeance is a nice enough notion at a distance, but the getting of it close up isn’t so very pretty. Especially when you’re outnumbered ten to one with nowhere to run to.

“Maybe he won’t at that,” said Dogman, wistful. “How’s the wall?”

“Alright, long as they don’t bring such a thing as a ladder with ’em. How long do you reckon we wait, before we—”

“Uh,” grunted Grim, his long finger pointing down into the valley.

Logen saw a flicker of movement down there. And again. He swallowed. A couple of men, maybe, creeping through the boulders like beetles through gravel. He felt the men tense up all around him, heard them muttering. “Shit,” he hissed. He looked sideways at the Dogman, and the Dogman looked back. “Seems like Crummock’s plan worked.”

“Seems that way. Far as getting Bethod to follow us, at least.”

“Aye. The rest is the tricky bit.” The bit that was more than likely to get them all killed, but Logen knew they were all thinking it without him saying a word.

“Now we just hope that the Union keeps their end of the deal,” said Dogman.

“We hope.” Logen tried to smile, but it didn’t come out too good. Hoping had never turned out that well for him.

Once they’d started coming, the valley had filled up quick, right in front of Dogman’s eyes. Nice and clean, just the way Bethod had always done things. The standards were set out between the two rock faces, three times a good bowshot distant, and the Carls and the Thralls were pressed in tight around ’em, all looking up towards their wall. The sun was getting up high in a blue sky with just a few shreds of cloud to cast a shadow, and all that weight of steel flashed and sparked like the sea under the moon.

Their signs were all there, all Bethod’s best from way back—Whitesides, Goring, Pale-as-Snow, Littlebone. Then there were others—sharp and ragged marks from out past the Crinna. Wild men, made dark and bloody deals with Bethod. Dogman could hear them whooping and calling to each other, strange sounds like animals might make in the forest.

Quite a gathering, all in all, and the Dogman could smell the fear and the doubt thick as soup up on the wall. A lot of weapons being fingered, a lot of lips being chewed. He did his best to keep his face hard and careless, the way that Threetrees would’ve done. The way a chief should. However much his own knees wanted to tremble.

“How many now, you reckon?” asked Logen.

Dogman let his eyes wander over ’em, thinking about it. “Eight thousand do you think, or ten, maybe?”

A pause. “That’s about what I was thinking.”

“A lot more’n us, anyway,” Dogman said, keeping his voice low.

“Aye. But fights aren’t always won by the bigger numbers.”

“Course not.” Dogman worked his lips as he looked at all them men. “Just mostly.” There was plenty going on down there, up at the front, shovels glinting, a ditch and an earth rampart taking shape, all across the valley.

“Doing some digging o’ their own,” grunted Dow.

“Always was thorough, was Bethod,” said Dogman. “Taking his time. Doing it right.”

Logen nodded. “Make sure none of us get away.”

Dogman heard the sound of Crummock’s laughter behind him. “Getting away wasn’t ever the purpose o’ this, though, eh?”

Bethod’s own standard was going up now, near to the back but still towering over the others. Huge great thing, red circle on black. Dogman frowned at it, flapping in the breeze. He remembered seeing it months ago, back in Angland. Back when Threetrees had still been alive, and Cathil too. He worked his tongue round his sour mouth.

“King o’ the fucking Northmen,” he muttered.

A few men came out from the front, where they were digging, started walking up towards the wall. Five of ’em, all in good armour, the one at the front with his arms spread out wide.

“Jawing time,” muttered Dow, then gobbed down into the ditch. They came up close, the five, up in front of the patched-up gate, mail coats shining dull in the brightening sun. The first of ’em had long white hair and one white eye, and weren’t too hard to remember. White-Eye Hansul. He looked older than he used to, but didn’t they all? He’d been the one to ask Threetrees to surrender, at Uffrith, and been told to piss off. He’d had shit thrown down on him at Heonan. He’d offered duels to Black Dow, and to Tul Duru, and to Harding Grim. Duels against Bethod’s champion. Duels against the Bloody-Nine. He’d done a lot of talking for Bethod, and he’d told a lot o’ lies.

“That Shite-Eye Hansul down there?” jeered Black Daw at him. “Still sucking on Bethod’s cock, are you?”

The old warrior grinned up at them. “Man’s got to feed his family somehow, don’t he, and one cock tastes pretty much like another, if you ask me! Don’t pretend like your mouths ain’t all tasted salty enough before!”

He had some kind of point there, the Dogman had to admit. They’d all fought for Bethod themselves, after all. “What’re you after, Hansul?” he shouted. “Bethod want to surrender to us, does he?”

“You’d have thought so, wouldn’t you, outnumbered like he is, but that’s not why I’m here. He’s ready to fight, just like always, but I’m more of a talker than a fighter, and I talked him into giving you all a chance. I got two sons down there, in with the rest, and call me selfish but I’d rather not have ’em in harm’s way. I’m hoping we can maybe talk our way clear of this.”

“Don’t seem too likely!” shouted Dogman, “but give it a go if you must, I’ve got nothing else pressing on today!”

“Here’s the thing, then! Bethod don’t particularly want to waste time, and sweat, and blood on climbing your little shit-pile of a wall. He’s got business with the Southerners he wants to get settled. It’s scarcely worth the breath of pointing out the bastard of a fix you’re in. We’ve got the numbers more’n ten to one, I reckon. Much more, and you’ve no way out. Bethod says any man wants to give up now can go in peace. All he has to do is give over his weapons.”

“And his head soon afterwards, eh?” barked Dow.

Hansul took a big breath in, like he hardly expected to be believed. “Bethod says any man wants to can go free. That’s his word.”

“Fuck his word!” Dow sneered at him, and down the walls men jeered and spat their support. “D’you think we ain’t all seen him break it ten times before? I done shits worth more!”

“Lies, o’ course,” chuckled Crummock, “but it’s traditional, no? To get a bit o’ lying done, before we get started on the hard work. You’d feel insulted if he didn’t give it some kind of a try at least. Any man, is it?” he called down. “What about Crummock-i-Phail, can he go free? What about the Bloody-Nine?”

Hansul’s face sagged at the name. “It’s true then? Ninefingers is up there, is he?”

Dogman felt Logen come up beside and show himself on the wall. White-Eye turned pale, and his shoulders slumped. “Well,” Dogman heard him saying quiet, “it has to be blood, then.”

Logen leaned lazily on the parapet, and he gave Hansul and his Carls a look. That hungry, empty look, like he was picking which one of a herd o’ sheep to slaughter first. “You can tell Bethod we’ll come out.” He left a pause. “Once we’ve killed the fucking lot o’ you.”

A ripple of laughter went down the walls, and men jeered and shook their weapons in the air. Not funny words, particularly, but hard ones, which was what they all needed to hear, Dogman reckoned. Good way to get rid of their fear, for a moment. He even managed half a smile himself.

White-Eye just stood there, in front of their rickety gate, and he waited for the boys to go quiet. “I heard you was chief of this crowd now, Dogman. So you don’t have to take your orders from this blood-mad butcher no more. That your answer as well? That the way it is?”

Dogman shrugged. “Just what other way did you think it’d be? We didn’t come here to talk, Hansul. You can piss off back, now.”

Some more laughter, and some more cheers, and one lad down at Shivers’ end of the wall pulled his trousers down and stuck his bare arse over the parapet. So that was that for the negotiations.

White-Eye shook his head. “Alright, then. I’ll tell him. Back to the mud with the lot o’ you, I reckon, and well earned. You can tell the dead I tried, when you meet ’em!” He started picking his way back down the valley, the four Carls behind him.

Logen loomed forward, all of a sudden. “I’ll be looking for your sons, Hansul!” he screamed, spit flying out his snarling, grinning mouth and away into the wind, “When the work begins! You can tell Bethod I’m waiting! Tell ’em all I’ll be waiting!”

A strange stillness fell on the wall and the men upon it, on the valley and the men within it. That kind of stillness that comes sometimes, before a battle, when both sides know what to expect. The same stillness that Logen had felt at Carleon, before he drew his sword and roared for the charge. Before he lost his finger. Before he was the Bloody-Nine. Long ago, when things were simpler.

Bethod’s ditch was deep enough for him, and the Thralls had put away their shovels and moved behind it. The Dogman had climbed the steps back to the tower, no doubt taken up his bow beside Grim and Tul, and was waiting. Crummock was behind the wall with his Hillmen, lined up fierce and ready. Dow was with his lads on the left. Red Hat was with his boys on the right. Shivers wasn’t far from Logen, both of them stood above the gate, waiting.

The standards down in the valley flapped and rustled gently in the wind. A hammer clanged once, twice, three times in the fortress behind them. A bird called, high above. A man whispered, somewhere, then was still. Logen closed his eyes, and tipped his face back, and he felt the hot sun and the cool breeze of the High Places on his skin. All as quiet as if he’d been alone, and there were no ten thousand men about him eager to set to killing one another. So still, and calm, he almost smiled. Was this what life would have been, if he’d never held a blade?

For the length of three breaths or so, Logen Ninefingers was a man of peace.

Then he heard the sound of men moving, and he opened his eyes. Bethod’s Carls shuffled to the sides of the valley, rank after rank of them, with a crunching of feet and a rattling of gear. They left a rocky path, an open space through their midst. Out of that gap black shapes came, swarming over the ditch like angry ants from a broken nest, boiling up the slope towards the wall in a formless mass of twisted limbs, and snarling mouths and scraping claws.

Shanka, and even Logen had never seen half so many in one place. The valley crawled with them—a gibbering, clattering, squawking infestation.

“By the fucking dead,” someone whispered.

Logen wondered if he should shout something to the men on the walls around him. If he should cry, “Steady!”, or “Hold!”. Something to help put some heart in his lads, the way a leader was meant to. But what would have been the point? Every one of them had fought before and knew his business. Every one of them knew that it was fight or die, and there was no better spur to a man’s courage than that.

So Logen gritted his teeth, and he curled his fingers tight round the cold grip of the Maker’s sword, and he slid the dull metal from its scarred sheath, and he watched the Flatheads come. A hundred strides away now, maybe, the front runners, and coming on fast.

“Ready your bows!” roared Logen.

“Bows!” echoed Shivers.

“Arrows!” came Dow’s harsh scream from down the wall, and Red Hat’s bellow from the other side. All around Logen the bows creaked as they were drawn, men taking their aim, jaws clenched, faces grim and dirty. The Flatheads came on, heedless, teeth shining, tongues lolling, bitter eyes bright with hate. Soon, now, very soon. Logen spun the grip of the sword round in his hand.

“Soon,” he whispered.

“Start fucking shooting, then!” And the Dogman loosed his shaft into the crowd of Shanka. Strings buzzed all round him and the first volley went hissing down. Arrows missed their marks, bounced off rock and spun away, arrows found their marks and brought Flatheads squealing down in a tangle of black limbs. Men reached for more, calm and solid, the best archers in the whole crew and knowing it.

Bows clicked and shafts twittered and Shanka died down in the valley, and the archers took aim, nice and easy, loosing ’em off and on to the next. Dogman heard the order from down below and he saw the twitch and flicker of shafts flying from the walls. More Flatheads dropped, thrashing and struggling in the dirt.

“Easy as squashing ants in a bowl!” someone shouted.

“Aye!” growled the Dogman, “except ants won’t climb up out of that bowl and cut your fucking head off! Less talk and more arrows!” He watched the first Shanka come up to their fresh-dug ditch, start floundering in, trying to drag the stakes down, scrabbling about at the bottom of the wall.

Tul heaved a great stone up over his head, leaned out and flung it spinning down with a roar. Dogman saw it crash into a Shanka’s head below in the ditch and dash its brains out, red against the rocks, saw it bounce and tumble into others, send a couple reeling. More fell, screeching as shafts flitted down into them, but there were plenty behind, sliding into the ditch, swarming over each other. They crushed up to the wall, spreading out down its length, a few of them hurling spears up at the men on top, or shooting clumsy arrows.

Now they were starting to climb, claws digging into pitted stone, hauling themselves up, and up. Slow across most of the wall, and getting torn off by rocks and arrows from above. Quicker on the far side, over on the left, furthest from the Dogman and his boys, where Black Dow had the watch. Even quicker round the gate, where there was still some ivy stuck to the stone.

“Damn it, but those bastards can climb!” hissed the Dogman, fumbling out his next shaft.

“Uh,” grunted Grim.

The Shanka’s hand slapped down on the top of the parapet, a twisted claw, scratching at the stones. Logen watched the arm come after, bent and ugly, patched with thick hair and squirming with thick sinew. Now came the flattened top of its bald head, a hulking lump of heavy brow, great jaw yawning wide, sharp teeth slick with spit. The deep set eyes met his. Logen’s sword split its skull down to its flat stub of nose and popped one eye from its socket.

Men shot arrows and ducked down as arrows bounced from stone. A spear went twittering past over Logen’s head. Down below he could hear the Shanka scratching and tearing at the gates, beating at them with clubs and hammers, could hear them shrieking with rage. Shanka hissed and squawked as they tried to pull themselves over the parapet and men hacked at them with sword and axe, poked them off the wall with spears.

He could hear Shivers roaring, “Get ’em away from the gate! Away from the gate!” Men bellowed curses. One Carl who’d been leaning out over the parapet fell back, coughing. He had a Shanka’s spear through him, just under his shoulder, the point making the shirt stick right up off his back. He blinked down at the warped shaft, opened his mouth to say something. He groaned, took a couple of wobbling steps, and a big Flathead started dragging itself over the parapet behind him, its arm stretched out on the stone.

The Maker’s sword chopped deep into it just below the elbow, spattering sticky spots across Logen’s face. The blade caught stone and made his hand sing, sent him stumbling long enough for the Shanka to drag itself over, its flopping arm only just held on by a flap of skin and sinew, dark blood drooling out in long spurts.

It came for Logen with its other claw but he caught its wrist, kicked its knee sideways and brought it down. Before it could get up he’d chopped a long gash out of its back, splinters of white bone showing in the great wound. It thrashed and struggled, splattering blood around, and Logen caught it tight under the throat, heaved it back over the wall and flung it off. It fell, and crashed into another just starting to climb. Both of them went sprawling in the ditch, one scrabbling around with a broken stake in its throat.

A young lad stood there, gawping, bow hanging limp from his hand.

“Did I tell you to stop fucking shooting?” Logen roared at him, and he blinked and nocked a shaft with a trembling hand, hurried back to the parapet. There were men everywhere fighting, and shouting, shooting arrows and swinging blades. He saw three Carls stabbing at a Flathead with their spears. He saw Shivers plant a blow in the small of another’s back, blood leaping in the air in dark streaks. He saw a man smash a Flathead in the face with his shield, just as it got to the top of the wall, and knock it into the empty air. Logen slashed at a Shanka’s hand, slipped in some blood and fell on his side, nearly stabbed himself. He crawled a stride or two and fumbled his way up. He hacked a Shanka’s arm off that was already spitted thrashing on a Carl’s spear, chopped halfway through another’s neck as it showed itself over the parapet. He lurched after it and stared over.

One Shanka was still on the wall, and Logen was just pointing to it when an arrow from off the tower took it in the back. It crashed down into the ditch, stuck on a stake. The ones round the gate were all done, crushed with rocks and bristling with broken arrows. That was it for the centre, and Red Hat’s side was already clear. Over on the left there were still a few up on the walls, but Dow’s boys were getting well on top of them now. Even as Logen watched he saw a couple flung down bloody into the ditch.

In the valley they started wavering, edging away, squeaking and shrieking, arrows still falling among them from the Dogman’s archers. Seemed that even Shanka could have enough. They started to turn, to scuttle back towards Bethod’s ditch.

“We done ’em!” someone bellowed, and then everyone was cheering and screaming. The boy with the bow was waving it over his head now, grinning like he’d beaten Bethod all by himself.

Logen didn’t celebrate. He frowned out at the great crowd of Carls beyond the ditch, the standards of Bethod’s host flapping over them in the breeze. Brief and bloody, that one might have been, but the next time they came it was likely to be a lot less brief, and a lot more bloody. He made his aching fist uncurl from round the Maker’s sword, leaned it up against the parapet, and he pressed one hand with the other to stop them shaking. He took a long breath.

“Still alive,” he whispered.

Logen sat sharpening his knives, the firelight flashing on the blades as he turned them this way and that, stroking them with the whetstone, licking his fingertip and wiping a smudge away, getting them nice and clean. You could never have too many, and that was a fact. He grinned as he remembered what Ferro’s answer to that had been. Unless you fall into a river and drown for all that weight of iron. He wondered for an idle moment if he’d ever see her again, but it didn’t look likely. You have to be realistic, after all, and getting through tomorrow seemed like quite the ambition.

Grim sat opposite, trimming some straight sticks to use as arrow shafts. There’d still been the slightest glimmer of dusk in the sky when they’d sat down together. Now it was dark as pitch but for the dusty stars, and neither one of them had said a word the whole time. That was Harding Grim for you, and it suited Logen well enough. A comfortable silence was much preferable to a worrisome conversation, but nothing lasts forever.

The sound of angry footsteps came out of the darkness and Black Dow stalked up to the fire, Tul and Crummock just behind him. He had a frown on his face black enough to have earned his name, and a dirty bandage round his forearm, a long streak of dark blood dried into it.

“Pick up a cut, did you?” asked Logen.

“Bah!” Dow dropped down beside the fire. “Nothing but a scratch. Fucking Flatheads! I’ll burn the lot of ’em!”

“How about the rest of you?”

Tul grinned. “My palms are terrible chafed from hefting rocks, but I’m a tough bastard. I’ll live through it.”

“And I still find myself miserably idle,” said Crummock, “with my children looking to my weapons, and cutting arrows from the dead. Good work for children, that, gets ’em comfortable round a corpse. The moon’s keen to see me fight, though, so she is, and so am I.”

Logen sucked at his teeth. “You’ll get your chance, Crummock, I’d not worry about that. Bethod’s got plenty for everyone, I reckon.”

“I never seen Flatheads come on like that,” Dow was musing. “Right at a well-manned wall with no ladders, no tools. It ain’t too clever, your Flathead, but it ain’t stupid either. They like ambushes. They like cover, and hiding, and creeping around. They can be mad fearless, when they have to be, but to come on like that, by choice? Not natural.”

Crummock chuckled, a great raspy rumbling. “Shanka fighting for one set of men against another ain’t natural either. These aren’t natural times. Might be Bethod’s witch has worked some charm to get ’em all stirred up. Cooked herself a chant and a ritual to fill those things with hate of us.”

“Danced naked round a green fire and all the rest, I don’t doubt,” said Tul.

“The moon will see us right, my friends, don’t worry yourself on that score!” Crummock rattled the bones around his neck. “The moon loves us all, and we cannot die while there’s—”

“Tell it to those as went back to the mud today.” Logen jerked his head over towards the fresh dug graves at the back of the fortress. There was no seeing them in the darkness, but they were there. A score or so long humps of turned and pressed-down earth.

But the big hillman only smiled. “I’d call them the happy ones, though, wouldn’t you? Least they all get their own beds, don’t they? We’ll be lucky if we don’t go in pits for a dozen each once the work gets hot. There’ll be nowhere for the living to sleep otherwise. Pits for a score! Don’t tell me you ain’t seen that before, or dug the holes your own sweet self.”

Logen got up. “Maybe I have, but I didn’t like it any.”

“Course you did!” Crummock roared after him. “Don’t give me that, Bloody-Nine!”

Logen didn’t look back. There were torches set on the wall, every ten paces or so, bright flames in the darkness, white specks of insects floating around them. Men stood in their light, leaning on their spears, bows clenched in their hands, swords drawn, watching the night for surprises. Bethod had always loved surprises, and Logen reckoned they’d have some before they were through, one way or another.

He came up to the parapet and set his hands on the clammy stone, frowned down at the fires burning in the blackness of the valley. Bethod’s fires, far away in the dark, and their own ones, bonfires built up and lit just below the wall to try and catch any clever bastards trying to sneak up. They cast flickering circles across the shadowy rocks, with here or there the twisted corpse of a Flathead, hacked and flung from the wall or stuck with arrows.

Logen felt someone move behind him and his back prickled, eyes sliding to the corners. Shivers, maybe, come to settle their score and shove him off the wall. Shivers, or one of a hundred others with some grudge that Logen had forgotten but they never would. He made sure his hand was close to a blade, and he bared his teeth, and he made ready to spin and strike.

“We did good today, though, eh?” said the Dogman. “Lost less than twenty.”

Logen breathed easy again, and he let his hand drop. “We did alright. But Bethod’s just getting started. He’s prodding, to see where we’re weakest, see if he can wear us down. He knows that time’s the thing. Most valuable thing there is, in war. A day or two’s worth more to him than a load of Flatheads. If he can crush us quick he’ll take the losses, I reckon.”

“Best thing might be to hold out, then, eh?”

Off in the darkness, far away and echoing, Logen could just hear the clang and clatter of smithing and carpentry. “They’re building down there. All the stuff they’ll need to climb our wall, fill in our ditch. Lots of ladders, and all the rest. He’ll take us quick if he can, Bethod, but he’ll take us slow if he has to.”

Dogman nodded. “Well, like I said. Best thing to do would be to hold out. If all goes to plan, the Union’ll be here soon.”

“They’d better be. Plans have a way of coming apart when you lean on ’em.”

Such Sweet Sorrow

“His Resplendence, the Grand Duke of Ospria, desires only the best of relations…”

Jezal could do little but sit and smile, as he had been sitting and smiling all the whole interminable day. His face, and his rump, were aching from it. The burbling of the ambassador continued unabated, accompanied by flamboyant hand gestures. Occasionally he would dam the river of blather for a moment, so that his translator could render his platitudes into the common tongue. He need scarcely have bothered.

“…the great city of Ospria was always honoured to count herself among the closest friends of your illustrious father, King Guslav, and now seeks nothing more than the continuing friendship of the government and people of the Union…”

Jezal had sat and smiled through the long morning, in his bejewelled chair, on his high marble dais, as the ambassadors of the world came to pay their ingratiating respects. He had sat as the sun rose in the sky and poured mercilessly through the vast windows, glinting on the gilt mouldings that encrusted every inch of wall and ceiling, flashing from the great mirrors, and silver candlesticks, and grand vases, striking multi-coloured fire from the tinkling glass beads on the three monstrous chandeliers.

“…the Grand Duke wishes once again to express his brotherly regret at the minor incident last spring, and assures you that nothing of the kind will happen again, provided the soldiers of Westport stay on their side of the border…”

He had sat through the endless afternoon as the room grew hotter and hotter, squirming as the representatives of the world’s great leaders bowed in and scraped out with identical bland congratulations in a dozen different languages. He had sat as the sun went down, and hundreds of candles were lit and hoisted up, twinkling at him from the mirrors, and the darkened windows, and the highly polished floor. He sat, smiling, and receiving praise from men whose countries he had scarcely even heard of before that endless day began.

“…His Resplendence furthermore hopes and trusts that the hostilities between your great nation and the Empire of Gurkhul may soon come to an end, and that trade may once more flow freely around the Circle Sea.”

Both ambassador and translator paused politely for a rare instant and Jezal managed to stir himself into sluggish speech. “We have a similar hope. Please convey to the Grand Duke our thanks for the wonderful gift.” Two lackeys, meanwhile, heaved the huge chest to one side and placed it with the rest of the gaudy rubbish Jezal had accumulated that day.

Further Styrian chatter flowed out into the room. “His Resplendence wishes to convey his heartfelt congratulations on your August Majesty’s forthcoming marriage to the Princess Terez, the Jewel of Talins, surely the greatest beauty alive in all the wide Circle of the World.” Jezal could only fight to maintain his stretched grin. He had heard the match spoken of as a settled thing so often that day that he had lost the will to correct the misconception, and had in fact almost started to think of himself as engaged. All he cared about was that the audiences should finally be finished with, so he might steal a moment to drown himself in peace.

“His Resplendence has further instructed us to wish your August Majesty a long and happy reign,” explained the translator, “and many heirs, that your line may continue undiminished in glory.” Jezal forced his smile a tooth wider, and inclined his head. “I bid you good evening!”

The Osprian ambassador bowed with a theatrical flourish, sweeping off his enormous hat, its multicoloured feathers thrashing with enthusiasm. Then he shuffled backwards, still bent over, across the gleaming floor. He somehow made it out into the corridor without pitching over on his back, and the great doors, festooned with gold leaf, were smoothly shut upon him.

Jezal snatched the crown from his head and tossed it onto the cushion beside the throne, rubbing at the chafe marks round his sweaty scalp with one hand while he tugged his embroidered collar open with the other. Nothing helped. He still felt dizzy, weak, oppressively hot.

Hoff was already ingratiating himself onto Jezal’s left side. “That was the last of the ambassadors, your Majesty. Tomorrow will be occupied by the nobility of Midderland. They are eager to pay homage—”

“Lots of homage and little help, I’ll be bound!”

Hoff managed a chuckle of suffocating falseness. “Ha, ha, ha, your Majesty. They have sought audiences from dawn, and we would not wish to offend them by—”

“Damn it!” hissed Jezal, jumping up and shaking his legs in a vain effort to unstick his trousers from his sweaty backside. He jerked his crimson sash over his head and flung it away, tore his gilded frock coat open and tried to rip it off, but in the end he got his hand caught in one cuff and had to turn the bloody thing inside out before he could finally get free of it.

“Damn it!” He hurled it down on the marble dais with half a mind to stamp it to rags. Then he remembered himself. Hoff had taken a cautious step back, and was frowning as if he had discovered his fine new mansion was afflicted with a terrible case of rot. The assorted servants, pages, and Knights, both Herald and of the Body, were all staring studiously ahead, doing their best to imitate statues. Over in the dark corner of the room, Bayaz was standing. His eyes were sunk in shadow, but his face was stony grim.

Jezal blushed like a naughty schoolboy called to account, and pressed one hand over his eyes, “A terribly trying day…” He hurried down the steps of the dais and out of the audience chamber with his head down. The blaring of a belated and slightly off-key fanfare pursued him down the hallway. So, unfortunately, did the First of the Magi.

“That was not gracious,” said Bayaz. “Rare rages render a man frightening. Common ones render him ridiculous.”

“I apologise,” growled Jezal through gritted teeth. “The crown is a mighty burden.”

“A mighty burden and a mighty honour both. We had a discussion, as I recall, about your striving to be worthy of it.” The Magus left a significant pause. “Perhaps you might strive harder.”

Jezal rubbed at his aching temples. “I just need a moment to myself is all. Just a moment.”

“Take all the time you need. But we have business in the morning, your Majesty, business we cannot avoid. The nobility of Midderland will not wait to congratulate you. I will see you at dawn, brimful with energy and enthusiasm, I am sure.”

“Yes, yes!” Jezal snapped over his shoulder. “Brimful!”

He burst out into a small courtyard, surrounded on three sides by a shadowy colonnade, and stood still in the cool evening. He shook himself, squeezed his eyes shut, let his head tip back and took a long, slow breath. A minute alone. He wondered if, aside from pissing or sleeping, it was the first he had been permitted since that day of madness in the Lords’ Round.

He was the victim, or perhaps the beneficiary, of the most almighty blunder. Somehow, everyone had mistaken him for a king, when he was very clearly a selfish, clueless idiot who had scarcely in his life thought more than a day ahead. Every time someone called him, “your Majesty” he felt more of a fraud, and with each moment that passed he was more guiltily surprised not to have been found out.

He wandered across the perfect lawn, giving vent to a long, self-pitying sigh. It caught in his throat. There was a Knight of the Body beside a doorway opposite, standing to attention so rigidly that Jezal had hardly noticed him. He cursed under his breath. Could he not be left alone for five minutes together? He frowned as he walked closer. The man seemed somehow familiar. A great big fellow with a shaved head and a noticeable lack of neck…

“Bremer dan Gorst!”

“Your Majesty,” said Gorst, his armour rattling as he clashed his meaty fist against his polished breastplate.

“It is a pleasure to see you!” Jezal had disliked the man from the first moment he had laid eyes on him, and being bludgeoned round a fencing circle by him, whether Jezal had won in the end or no, had not improved his opinion of the neckless brute. Now, however, anything resembling a familiar face was like a glass of water in the desert. Jezal actually found himself reaching out and squeezing the man’s heavy hand as though they were old friends, and had to make himself let go of it.

“Your Majesty does me too much honour.”

“Please, you need not call me that! How did you come to be part of the household? I thought that you served with Lord Brock’s guard?”

“That post did not suit me,” said Gorst in his strangely high, piping voice. “I was lucky enough to find a place with the Knights of the Body some months ago, your Maj—” He cut himself off.

An idea slunk into Jezal’s head. He looked over his shoulder, but there was no one else nearby. The garden was still as a graveyard, its shadowy arcades as quiet as crypts. “Bremer… I may call you Bremer, may I?”

“I suppose that my king may call me whatever he wishes.”

“I wonder… could I ask you for a favour?”

Gorst blinked. “Your Majesty has only to ask.”

Jezal spun around as he heard the door open. Gorst stepped out into the colonnade with the soft jingle of armour. A cloaked and hooded figure followed him, silently. The old excitement was still there as she pushed back her hood and a chink of light from a window above crept across the lower part of her face. He could see the bright curve of her cheek, one side of her mouth, the outline of a nostril, the gleam of her eyes in the shadows, and that was all.

“Thank you, Gorst,” said Jezal. “You may leave us.” The big man thumped his chest and backed through the archway, pulling the door to behind him. Hardly the first time they had met in secret, of course, but things were different now. He wondered if it would end with kisses and soft words between them, or if it would simply end. The start was far from promising.

“Your August Majesty,” said Ardee with the very heaviest of irony. “What a towering honour. Should I grovel on my face? Or do I curtsey?”

However hard her words, the sound of her voice still made the breath catch in his throat. “Curtsey?” he managed to say. “Do you even know how?”

“In truth, not really. I have not had the training for polite society, and now the lack of it quite crushes me.” She stepped forward, frowning into the darkened garden. “When I was a girl, in my wildest flights of fancy, I used to dream of being invited to the palace, a guest of the king himself. We would eat fine cakes, and drink fine wine, and talk fine talk of important things, deep into the night.” Ardee pressed her hands to her chest and fluttered her eyelashes. “Thank you for making the pitiful dreams of one poor wretch come true, if only for the briefest moment. The other beggars will never believe me when I tell them!”

“We are all more than a little shocked by the turn events have taken.”

“Oh, we are indeed, your Majesty.”

Jezal flinched. “Don’t call me that. Not you.”

“What should I call you?”

“My name. Jezal, that is. The way you used to… please.”

“If I must. You promised me, Jezal. You promised me you would not let me down.”

“I know I did, and I meant to keep my promise… but the fact is…” King or not, he fumbled with the words as much as he ever had, then blurted them out in an idiotic spurt. “I cannot marry you! I surely would have done, had not…” He raised his arms and hopelessly let them drop. “Had not all this happened. But it has happened, and there is nothing that I can do. I cannot marry you.”

“Of course not.” Her mouth gave a bitter twist. “Promises are for children. I never thought it very likely, even before. Even in my most unrealistic moments. Now the notion seems ridiculous. The king and the peasant-girl. Absurd. The most hackneyed story-book would never dare suggest it.”

“It need not mean that we never see each other again.” He took a hesitant step towards her. “Things will be different, of course, but we can still find moments…” He reached out, slowly, awkwardly. “Moments when we can be together.” He touched her face, gently, and felt the same guilty thrill he always had. “We can be to each other just as we were. You would not need to worry. Everything would be taken care of…”

She looked him in the eye. “So… you’d like me to be your whore?”

He jerked his hand back. “No! Of course not! I mean… I would like you to be…” What did he mean? He fumbled desperately for a better word. “My lover?”

“Ah. I see. And when you take a wife, what will I be then? What word do you think your queen might use to describe me?” Jezal swallowed, and looked at his shoes. “A whore is still a whore, whatever word you use. Easily tired of, and even more easily replaced. And when you tire of me, and you find other lovers? What will they call me then?” She gave a bitter snort. “I’m scum, and I know it, but you must think even less of me than I do.”

“It’s not my fault.” He felt tears in his eyes. Pain, or relief, it was hard to tell. A bitter alloy of both, perhaps. “It’s not my fault.”

“Of course it isn’t. I don’t blame you. I blame myself. I used to think I had bad luck, but my brother was right. I make bad choices.” She looked at him with that same judging expression in her dark eyes that she had when they first met. “I could have found a good man, but I chose you. I should have known better.” She reached up and touched his face, rubbed a tear from his cheek with her thumb. Just as she had when they parted before, in the park, in the rain. But then there had been the hope that they would meet again. Now there was none. She sighed, and let her arm drop, and stared sulkily out into the garden.

Jezal blinked. Could that really be all? He yearned to say some last tender word, at least, some bitter-sweet farewell, but his mind was empty. What words could there possibly be that could make any difference? They were done, and more talk would only have been salt in the cuts. Wasted breath. He set his jaw, and wiped the last damp streaks from his face. She was right. The king and the peasant-girl. What could have been more ridiculous?

“Gorst!” he barked. The door squealed open and the muscle-bound guardsman emerged from the shadows, his head humbly bowed. “You may escort the lady back to her home.”

He nodded, and stood away from the dark archway. Ardee turned and walked towards it, pulling up her hood, and Jezal watched her go. He wondered if she would pause on the threshold and look back, and their eyes would meet, and there would be one last moment between them. One last catching of his breath. One last tugging at his heart.

But she did not look back. Without the slightest pause she stepped through and was gone, and Gorst after her, and Jezal was left in the moonlit garden. Alone.

Picked Up A Shadow

Ferro sat on the warehouse roof, her eyes narrowed against the bright sun, her legs crossed underneath her. She watched the boats, and the people flowing off them. She watched for Yulwei. That was why she came here every day.

There was war between the Union and Gurkhul, a meaningless war with a lot of talk and no fighting, and so no ships went to Kanta. But Yulwei went where he pleased. He could take her back to the South, so she could have her vengeance on the Gurkish. Until he came, she was trapped with the pinks. She ground her teeth, and clenched her fists, and grimaced at her own uselessness. Her boredom. Her wasted time. She would have prayed to God for Yulwei to come.

But God never listened.

Jezal dan Luthar, fool that he was, for reasons she could not comprehend, had been given a crown and made king. Bayaz, who Ferro was sure had been behind the whole business, now spent every hour with him. Still trying to make him a leader of men, no doubt. Just as he had all the long way across the plain and back, with small results.

Jezal dan Luthar, the King of the Union. Ninefingers would have laughed long and hard at that, if he could have heard it. Ferro smiled to think of him laughing. Then she realised that she was smiling, and made herself stop. Bayaz had promised her vengeance, and given her nothing, and left her mired here, powerless. There was nothing to smile at.

She sat, and watched the boats for Yulwei.

She did not watch for Ninefingers. She did not hope to see him slouch onto the docks. That would have been a foolish, childish hope, belonging to the foolish child she had been when the Gurkish took her for a slave. He would not change his mind and come back. She had made sure of it. Strange, though, how she kept thinking that she saw him, in amongst the crowds.

The dockers had come to recognise her. They had shouted at her, for a while. “Come down here, my lovely, and give me a kiss!” one of them had called, and his friends had laughed. Then Ferro had thrown half a brick at his head and knocked him in the sea. He had nothing to say to her once they fished him out. None of them had, and that suited her well enough.

She sat, and watched the boats.

She sat until the sun was low, casting a bright glare across the bottoms of the clouds, making the shifting waves sparkle. Until the crowds thinned out, and the carts stopped moving, and the shouting and bustle of the docks faded to a dusty quiet. Until the breeze grew cool against her skin.

Yulwei was not coming today.

She climbed down from the roof of the warehouse and worked her way through the back streets towards the Middleway. It was as she was walking down that wide road, scowling at the people who passed her, that she realised. She was being followed.

He did it well, and carefully. Sometimes closer, sometimes further back. Staying out of plain sight, but never hiding. She took a few turns to make sure, and he always followed. He was dressed all in black, with long, lank hair and a mask covering part of his face. All in black, like a shadow. Like the men that had chased her and Ninefingers, before they left for the Old Empire. She watched him out of the corners of her eyes, never looking straight at him, never letting him know that she knew.

He would find out soon enough.

She took a turn down a dingy alley, stopped and waited behind the corner. Pressed up against the grimy stonework, holding her breath. Her bow and her sword might be far away, but shock was the only weapon she needed. That and her hands, and her feet, and her teeth.

She heard the footsteps coming. Careful footsteps, padding down the alley, so soft she could barely hear them. She found that she was smiling. It felt good to have an enemy, to have a purpose. Very good, after so long without one. It filled the empty space inside her, even if it was only for a moment. She gritted her teeth, feeling the fury swelling up in her chest. Hot and exciting. Safe and familiar. Like the kiss of an old lover, much missed.

When he rounded the corner her fist was already swinging. It crunched into his mask and sent him reeling. She pressed in close, cracking him in the face with each hand and knocking his head right and left. He fumbled for a knife, but he was slow and dizzy and the blade was barely out of its sheath before she had his wrist tight. Her elbow snapped his head back, jabbed into his throat and left him gurgling. She tore the knife out of his limp hand, spun around and kicked him in the gut so he bent over. Her knee thudded into his mask and sent him onto his back in the dirt. She followed him down, her legs wrapping tight around his waist, her arm across his chest, his own knife pressed up against his throat.

“Look at this,” she whispered in his face. “I have picked up a shadow.”

“Glugh,” came from behind his mask, his eyes still rolling.

“Hard to talk with that on, eh?” And she slashed the straps of his mask with a jerk of the knife, the blade leaving a long scratch down his cheek. He did not look so dangerous without it. Much younger than she had thought, with a rash of spots around his chin and a growth of downy hair on his top lip. He jerked his head and his eyes came back into focus. He snarled, tried to twist free, but she had him fast, and a touch of the knife against his neck soon calmed him.

“Why are you following me?”

“I’m not fucking—”

Ferro had never been a patient woman. Straddling her shadow as she was it was an easy thing to rear up and smash her elbow into his face. He did his best to ward her off, but all her weight was on his hips and he was helpless. Her arm crashed through his hands and into his mouth, his nose, his cheek, cracking his head back against the greasy cobbles. Four of those and the fight was out of him. His head lolled back, and she crouched down over him again and tucked the knife up under his neck. Blood bubbled out of his nose and his mouth and ran down the side of his face in dark streaks.

“Following me now?”

“I just watch.” His voice clicked in his bloody mouth. “I just watch. I don’t give the orders.”

The Gurkish soldiers did not give the orders to kill Ferro’s people and make her a slave. That did not make them innocent. That did not make them safe from her. “Who does?”

He coughed, and his face twitched, bubbles of blood blew out of his swollen nostrils. Nothing else. Ferro frowned.

“What?” She moved the knife down and pricked at his thigh with the point, “you think I never cut a cock off before?”

“Glokta,” he mumbled, closing his eyes. “I work… for Glokta.”

“Glokta.” The name meant nothing to her, but it was something to follow.

She slid the knife back up, up to his neck. The lump on his throat rose and fell, brushing against the edge of the blade. She clenched her jaw, and worked her fingers round the grip, frowning down. Tears had started to glitter in the corners of his eyes. Best to get it done, and away. Safest. But her hand was hard to move.

“Give me a reason not to do it.”

The tears welled up and ran down the sides of his bloody face. “My birds,” he whispered.


“There’ll be no one to feed them. I deserve it, sure enough, but my birds… they’ve done nothing.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

Birds. Strange, the things that people have to live for.

Her father had kept a bird. She remembered it, in a cage, hanging from a pole. A useless thing, that could not even fly, only cling to a twig. He had taught it words. She remembered watching him feeding it, when she was a child. Long ago, before the Gurkish came.

“Ssssss,” she hissed in his face, pressing the knife up against his neck and making him cower. Then she pulled the blade away, got up and stood over him. “The moment when I see you again will be your last. Back to your birds, shadow.”

He nodded, his wet eyes wide, and she turned and stalked off down the dark alleyway, into the dusk. When she crossed a bridge she tossed the knife away. It vanished with a splash, and ripples spread out in growing circles across the slimy water. A mistake, most likely, to have left that man alive. Mercy was always a mistake, in her experience.

But it seemed she was in a merciful mood today.


Colonel Glokta was a magnificent dancer, of course, but with his leg feeling as stiff as it did it was difficult for him to truly shine. The constant buzzing of flies was a further distraction, and his partner was not helping. Ardee West looked well enough, but her constant giggling was becoming quite the irritation.

“Stop that!” snapped the Colonel, whirling her around the laboratory of the Adeptus Physical, the specimens in the jars pulsing and wobbling in time to the music.

“Partially eaten,” grinned Kandelau, one eye enormously magnified through his eyeglass. He pointed downwards with his tongs. “This is a foot.”

Glokta pushed the bushes aside, one hand pressed over his face. The butchered corpse lay there, glistening red, scarcely recognisable as human. Ardee laughed and laughed at the sight of it. “Partially eaten!” she tittered at him. Colonel Glokta did not find the business in any way amusing. The sound of flies was growing louder and louder, threatening to drown out the music entirely. Worse yet, it was getting terribly cold in the park.

“Careless of me,” said a voice from behind.

“How do you mean?”

“Just to leave it there. But sometimes it is better to move quickly, than to move carefully, eh, cripple?”

“I remember this,” murmured Glokta. It had grown colder yet, and he was shivering like a leaf. “I remember this!”

“Of course,” whispered the voice. A woman’s voice, but not Ardee. A low and hissing voice, that made his eye twitch.

“What can I do?” The Colonel could feel his gorge rising. The wounds in the red meat yawned. The flies were so loud he could hardly hear the reply.

“Perhaps you should go to the University, and ask for advice.” Icy breath brushed his neck and made his back shiver. “Perhaps while you are there… you could ask them about the Seed.”

Glokta lurched to the bottom of the steps and staggered sideways, falling back against the wall, the breath hissing over his wet tongue. His left leg trembled, his left eye twitched, as though the two were connected by a cord of pain that cut into his arse, guts, back, shoulder, neck, face, and tightened with every movement, however small.

He forced himself to be still. To breathe long and slow. He made his mind move off the pain and on to other things. Like Bayaz, and his failed quest for this Seed. After all, his Eminence is waiting, and is not known for his patience. He stretched his neck out to either side and felt the bones clicking between his twisted shoulder-blades. He pressed his tongue into his gums and shuffled away from the steps, into the cool darkness of the stacks.

They had not changed much in the past year. Or probably in a few centuries before that. The vaulted spaces smelled of fust and age, lit only by a couple of nickering, grimy lamps, sagging shelves stretching away into the shifting shadows. Time to go digging once again through the dusty refuse of history. The Adeptus Historical did not appear to have changed much either. He sat at his stained desk, poring over a mouldy-looking pile of papers in the light from a single squirming candle flame. He squinted up as Glokta hobbled closer.

“Who’s there?”

“Glokta.” He peered up suspiciously towards the shadowy ceiling. “What happened to your crow?”

“Dead,” grunted the ancient librarian sadly.

“History, you might say!” The old man did not laugh. “Ah, well. It happens to us all.” And some sooner than others. “I have questions for you.”

The Adeptus Historical craned forward over his desk, peering dewily up at Glokta as though he had never seen another human before. “I remember you.” Miracles do happen, then? “You asked me about Bayaz. First apprentice of great Juvens, first letter in the alphabet of the—”

“Yes, yes, we’ve been over this.”

The old man gave a sulky frown. “Did you bring that scroll back?”

“The Maker fell burning, and so on? I’m afraid not. The Arch Lector has it.”

“Gah. I hear far too much about that man these days. Them upstairs are always carping on him. His Eminence this, and his Eminence that. I’m sick of hearing it!” I know very much how you feel. “Everyone’s in a spin, these days. A spin and a ruckus.”

“Lots of changes upstairs. We have a new king.”

“I know that! Guslav, is it?”

Glokta gave a long sigh as he settled himself in the chair on the other side of the desk. “Yes, yes, he’s the one.” Only thirty years out of date, or so. I’m surprised he didn’t think Harod the Great was still on the throne.

“What do you want this time?”

Oh, to fumble in the darkness for answers that are always just out of reach. “I want to know about the Seed.”

The lined face did not move. “The what?”

“It was mentioned in your precious scroll. That thing that Bayaz and his magical friends searched for in the House of the Maker, after the death of Kanedias. After the death of Juvens.”

“Bah!” The Adeptus waved his hand, the saggy flesh under his wrist wobbling. “Secrets, power. It’s all a metaphor.”

“Bayaz does not seem to think so.” Glokta shuffled his chair closer, and spoke lower. Though there cannot be anyone to hear, or to care if they did. “I heard it was a piece of the Other Side, left over from the Old Time, when devils walked our earth. The stuff of magic, made solid.”

The old man wheezed with papery laughter, displaying a rotten cavern of a mouth with fewer teeth even than Glokta’s own. “I did not take you for a superstitious man, Superior.” Nor was I one, when I last came here with questions. Before my visit to the House of the Maker, before my meeting with Yulwei, before I saw Shickel smile while they burned her. What happy times they were, before I had heard of Bayaz, when things still made sense. The Adeptus wiped his runny eyes with his palsied mockery of a hand. “Where did you hear that?”

Oh, from a Navigator with his foot on an anvil. “Never you mind from where.”

“Well, you know more about it than me. I read once that rocks sometimes fall out of the sky. Some say they are fragments of the stars. Some say they are splinters, flung out from the chaos of hell. Dangerous to touch. Terribly cold.”

Cold? Glokta could almost feel that icy breath upon his neck, and he wriggled his shoulders at it, forcing himself not to glance behind him. “Tell me about hell.” Though I think I already know more than most on the subject.


“Hell, old man. The Other Side.”

“They say it is where magic comes from, if you believe in such things.”

“I have learned to keep an open mind on the subject.”

“An open mind is like to an open wound, apt to—”

“So I have heard, but we are speaking of hell.”

The librarian licked at his sagging lips. “Legend has it that there was a time when our world and the world below were one, and devils roamed the earth. Great Euz cast them out, and spoke the First Law—forbidding all to touch the Other Side, or to speak to devils, or to tamper with the gates between.”

“The First Law, eh?”

“His son Glustrod, hungry for power, ignored his father’s warnings, and he sought out secrets, and summoned devils, and sent them against his enemies. It is said his folly led to the destruction of Aulcus and the fall of the Old Empire, and that when he destroyed himself, he left the gates ajar… but I am not the expert on all that.”

“Who is?”

The old man grimaced. “There were books here. Very old. Beautiful books, from the time of the Master Maker. Books on the subject of the Other Side. The divide between. The gates and the locks. Books on the subject of the Tellers of Secrets, and of their summoning and sending. A load of invention if you ask me. Myth and fantasy.”

“There were books?”

“They have been missing from my shelves for some years now.”

“Missing? Where are they?”

The old man frowned. “Strange, that you of all people should ask that—”

“Enough!” Glokta turned as quickly as he could to look behind him. Silber, the University Administrator, stood at the foot of the steps, with a look of the strangest horror and surprise on his rigid face. Quite as if he had seen a ghost. Or even a demon. “That will be quite enough, Superior! We thank you for your visit.”

“Enough?” Glokta gave a frown of his own. “His Eminence will not be—”

“I know what his Eminence will or will not be…” An unpleasantly familiar voice. Superior Goyle worked his way slowly down the steps. He strolled around Silber, across the shadowy floor between the shelves. “And I say enough. We most heartily thank you for your visit.” He leaned forwards, eyes popping furiously from his head. “Make it your last!”

There had been some startling changes in the dining hall since Glokta went downstairs. The evening had grown dark outside the dirty windows, the candles had been lit in their tarnished sconces. And, of course, there is the matter of two dozen widely assorted Practical of the Inquisition.

Two narrow-eyed natives of Suljuk sat staring at Glokta over their masks, as like as if they had been twins, their black boots up on the ancient dining table, four curved swords lying sheathed on the wood before them. Three dark-skinned men stood near one dark window, heads shaved, each with an axe at his belt and a shield on his back. A great tall Practical loomed up by the fireplace, long and thin as a birch tree with blond hair hanging over his masked face. Beside was a short one, almost dwarfish, his belt bristling with knives.

Glokta recognised the huge Northman called the Stone-Splitter from his previous visit to the University. But it looks as if he has been attempting to split stones with his face since we last met, and with great persistence. His cheeks were uneven, his brows were wonky, the bridge of his nose pointed sharply to the left. His ruin of a face was almost as disturbing as the enormous mallet he had clenched in his massive fists. But not quite.

So it went on, as strange and worrying a collection of murderers as could ever have been collected together in one place, and all heavily armed. And it seems that Superior Goyle has restocked his freak show. In the midst of them, and seeming quite at home, stood Practical Vitari, pointing this way and that, giving orders. You would never have thought she was the mothering type, seeing her now, but I suppose we all have our hidden talents.

Glokta threw his right arm up in the air. “Who are we killing?”

All eyes turned towards him. Vitari stalked over, a frown across the freckled bridge of her nose. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll ask no questions at all.”

Glokta leered his empty smile at her. “If I knew what was good for me I’d never have lost my teeth, and questions are all I have left. What’s in this old pile of dust that’s of interest to you?”

“That’s none of my business, and even less of yours. If you’re looking for traitors, maybe you should look in your own house first, eh?”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

Vitari leaned close to him and whispered through her mask. “You saved my life, so let me return the favour. Get away from here. Get away, and keep away.”

Glokta shuffled down the passageway and up to his heavy door. As far as Bayaz goes, we are no further on. Nothing that will bring a rare smile to the face of his Eminence. Summonings and sendings. Gods and devils. Always more questions. He turned his key impatiently in the lock, desperate to sit down and take the weight from his trembling leg. What was Goyle doing at the university? Goyle, and Vitari, and two dozen Practicals, all armed as if they were going to war? He took a wincing step over the threshold. There must be some—

“Gah!” He felt his cane snatched away and he lurched sideways, clutching at the air. Something crunched into his face and filled his head with blinding pain. The next moment the floor thumped him in the back and drove his wind out in a long sigh. He blinked and slobbered, mouth salty with blood, the dark room swaying madly around him. Oh dear, oh dear. A fist in the face, unless I am much mistaken. It never loses its impact.

A hand grabbed the collar of his coat and dragged him up, the cloth cutting into his throat and making him squawk like a strangled chicken.

Another had him by the belt and he was hauled bodily along, his knees and the toes of his boots scraping limp over the boards. He struggled weakly on a reflex, but only managed to send a stab of pain through his own back.

The bathroom door cracked against his head and banged open on the wall, he was dragged powerless across the darkened room towards the bath, still full of dirty water from that morning. “Wait!” he croaked as he was wrestled over the edge. “Who are—blurghhhh!”

The cold water closed around his head, the bubbles rushed around his face. He was held there, struggling, eyes bulging open with shock and panic, until it seemed his lungs would burst. Then he was yanked up by the hair, water pouring from his face and splattering into the bath. A simple technique, but undeniably effective. I am greatly discomfited. He took in a gasping breath. “What do you—blarghhh!”

Back into the darkness, such air as he had managed to drag in gurgling out into the dirty water. But whoever it is let me breathe. I am not being murdered. I am being softened up. Softened up for questions. I would laugh at the irony… were there any breath… left in my body… He shoved at the bath and thrashed at the water. His legs kicked pointlessly, but the hand on the back of his neck was made of steel. His stomach clenched and his ribs heaved, desperate to drag in air. Do not breathe… do not breathe… do not breathe! He was just sucking in a great lungful of dirty water as he was snatched up from the bath and flung onto the boards, coughing, gasping, vomiting all at once.

“You are Glokta?” A woman’s voice, short and hard, with a rough Kantic accent.

She squatted down in front of him, balanced on the balls of her feet, her wrists resting on her knees, her long brown hands hanging limp. She wore a man’s shirt, loose around her scrawny shoulders, wet sleeves rolled up around her bony wrists. Her black hair was hacked off short and stuck from her head in greasy clumps. She had a thin, pale scar down her hard face, a scowl on her thin lips, but it was her eyes that were most off-putting, gleaming yellow in the half light from the corridor. Small wonder that Severard was reluctant to follow her. I should have listened to him.

“You are Glokta?”

There was no point denying it. He wiped the bitter drool from his chin with a shaking hand. “I am Glokta.”

“Why are you watching me?”

He pushed himself painfully up to sitting. “What makes you think I will have anything to say to—”

Her fist struck him on the point of his chin and snapped his head back, tore a gasp out of him. His jaws banged together and one tooth punched a hole in the bottom of his tongue. He sagged back against the wall, the dark room lurching, his eyes filling up with tears. When things came back into focus she was staring at him, yellow eyes narrowed. “I will keep hitting you until you give me answers, or you die.”

“My thanks.”


“I think you might have loosened my neck up just a fraction.” Glokta smiled, showing her his few bloody teeth. “For two years I was a captive of the Gurkish. Two years in the darkness of the Emperor’s prisons. Two years of cutting, and chiselling, and burning. Do you think the thought of a slap or two scares me?” He chuckled bloody laughter in her face. “It hurts more when I piss! Do you think I’m scared to die?” He grimaced at the stabbing through his spine as he leaned towards her. “Every morning… that I wake up alive… is a disappointment! If you want answers you’ll have to give me answers. Like for like.”

She stared at him for a long moment, not blinking. “You were a prisoner of the Gurkish?”

Glokta swept a hand over his twisted body. “They gave me all this.”

“Huh. We have both lost something to the Gurkish, then.” She slid down onto crossed legs. “Questions. Like for like. But if you try to lie to me—”

“Questions, then. I would be failing in my duties as a host if I did not allow you to go first.”

She did not smile. But then she does not seem the joking type. “Why are you watching me?”

I could lie, but for what? I might as well die telling the truth. “I am watching Bayaz. The two of you seem friendly, and Bayaz is hard to watch these days. So I am watching you.”

She scowled. “He is no friend of mine. He promised me vengeance, that is all. He has yet to deliver.”

“Life is full of disappointments.”

“Life is made of disappointments. Ask your question, cripple.”

Once she has her answers, will it be bath-time again, and this time my last? Her flat yellow eyes gave nothing away. Empty, like the eyes of an animal. But what are my choices? He licked the blood from his lips, and leaned back against the wall. I might as well die a little wiser. “What is the Seed?”

Her frown deepened by the smallest fraction. “Bayaz said it is a weapon. A weapon of very great power. Great enough to turn Shaffa to dust. He thought it was hidden, at the edge of the World, but he was wrong. He was not happy to be wrong.” She frowned at him for a silent moment. “Why are you watching Bayaz?”

“Because he stole the crown and put it on a spineless worm.”

She snorted. “There at least we can agree.”

“There are those in my government who worry about the direction in which he might take us. Who worry profoundly.” Glokta licked at one bloody tooth. “Where is he taking us?”

“He tells me nothing. I do not trust him, and he does not trust me.”

“There too we can agree.”

“He planned to use the Seed as a weapon. He did not find it, so he must find other weapons. My guess is he is taking you to war. A war against Khalul, and his Eaters.”

Glokta felt a flurry of twitches run up the side of his face and set his eyelid fluttering. Damn treacherous jelly! Her head jerked to the side. “You know of them?”

“A passing acquaintance.” Well, where’s the harm? “I caught one, in Dagoska. I asked it questions.”

“What did it tell you?”

“It talked of righteousness and justice.” Two things that I have never seen. “It talked of war and sacrifice.” Two things that I have seen too much of. “It said that your friend Bayaz killed his own master.” The woman did not move so much as an eyelash. “It said that its father, the Prophet Khalul, still seeks vengeance.”

“Vengeance,” she hissed, her hands bunching into fists. “I will show them vengeance!”

“What did they do to you?”

“They killed my people.” She uncrossed her legs. “They made me a slave.” She rose smoothly to her feet, looming over him. “They stole my life from me.”

Glokta felt the corner of his mouth twitch up. “One more thing we have in common.” And I sense my borrowed time is up.

She reached down and grabbed two fistfuls of his wet coat. She dragged him from the floor with fearsome strength, his back sliding up the wall. Body found floating in the bath…? He felt his nostrils opening wide, the air hissing fast in his bloody nose, his heart thumping in anticipation. No doubt my ruined body will struggle, as best it can. An irresistible reaction to the lack of air. The unconquerable instinct to breathe. No doubt I will thrash and wriggle, just as Tulkis, the Gurkish ambassador, thrashed and wriggled when they hanged him, and dragged his guts out for nothing.

He did his twisted best to stay up under his own power, to stand as close to straight as he could manage. After all, I was a proud man once, even if that is all far behind me. Hardly the end that Colonel Glokta would have hoped for. Drowned in the bath by a woman in a dirty shirt. Will they find me slumped over the rim, my arse in the air? But what does it matter? It is not how you die, but how you lived, that counts.

She let go of his coat, flattened the front with a slap of her hand. And what has my life been, these past years? What do I have that I might truly miss? Stairs? Soup? Pain? Lying in the darkness with the memories of the things I have done digging at me? Waking in the morning to the stink of my own shit? Will I miss tea with Ardee West? A little perhaps. But will I miss tea with the Arch Lector? It almost makes you wonder why I didn’t do it myself, years ago. He stared into his killer’s eyes, as hard and bright as yellow glass, and he smiled. A smile of the purest relief. “I am ready.”

“For what?” She pressed something into his limp hand. The handle of his cane. “If you have more business with Bayaz, leave me out of it. I will not be so gentle next time.” She backed slowly towards the doorway, a bright rectangle against the shadowy wall. She turned, and the sound of her boots receded down the corridor. Aside from the soft tip-tap of water dripping from his wet coat, all fell silent.

And so, it seems, I survive. Again. Glokta raised his eyebrows. Perhaps the trick is not wanting to.

The Fourth Day

He was an ugly bastard, this Easterner. A huge big one, dressed all in stinking, half-tanned furs and a bit of rusted chain-mail, more ornament than protection. Greasy black hair, bound up here and there with rough-forged silver rings, dripped with the thin rain. He had a great scar down one cheek and another across his forehead, and the countless nicks and pittings of lesser wounds and boils as a lad, nose flattened and bent sideways like a dented spoon. His eyes were screwed up tight with effort, his yellow teeth were bared, the front two missing, his grey tongue pressed into the gap. A face that had seen war all its days. A face that had lived by sword, and axe, and spear, and counted every day alive a bonus.

For Logen, it was almost like looking in a mirror.

They held each other as tight as a pair of bad lovers, blind to everything around them. They lumbered back and forward, lurching like feuding drunkards. They plucked and tugged, bit and gouged, gripped and tore, strained in frozen fury, blasting sour breath in each other’s faces. An ugly, and a wearying, and a fatal dance, and all the while the rain came down.

Logen took a painful dig in the gut and had to twist and wriggle to smother a second. He gave a half-hearted head-butt and did nothing more then scuff Ugly’s face with his forehead. He nearly got tripped, stumbled, felt the Easterner shift his weight, trying to find a set to throw him. Logen managed to dig him in the fruits with his thigh before he could do it, enough to make his arms go weak for a moment, enough so he could slide his hand up onto Ugly’s neck.

Logen forced that hand up, inch by painful inch, his stretched-out forefinger creeping over the Easterner’s pitted face while he peered down at it, cross-eyed, trying to tip his head out of the way. His hand gripped painful tight round Logen’s wrist, trying to haul it back, but Logen had his shoulder dipped, his weight set right. The finger edged past his grimacing mouth, over his top lip, into Ugly’s bent nose, and Logen felt his broken nail digging at the flesh inside. He crooked his finger, and bared his teeth, and twisted it about as best he could.

The Easterner hissed and thrashed around, but he was hooked. He’d no choice but to grab at Logen’s wrist with his other hand and try to drag that tearing finger out of his face. But that left Logen one hand free.

He snatched a knife out and grunted as he stabbed, his arm jerking in and out. Quick punches, but with steel on the end of them. The blade squelched in the Easterner’s gut, and his thigh, and his arm, and his chest, blood coming out in long streaks, splattering them both and trickling into the puddles under their boots. Once he was stabbed enough Logen caught him by his coat, hauled him into the air with a jaw-clenched effort, and roared as he flung him over the battlements. He plummeted away, limp as a carcass and soon to be one, crashed to the ground in among his fellows.

Logen bent over the parapet, gasping at the wet air, the rain drops flitting down away from him. There were hundreds of them, it seemed like, milling around in the sea of mud at the base of the wall. Wild men, from out past the Crinna, where they hardly spoke right and cared nothing for the dead. They all were rain-soaked and filth-spattered, hiding under rough-made shields and waving rough-forged weapons, barbed and brutal. Their standards stood flapping in the rain behind them, bones and ragged hides, ghostly shadows in the downpour.

Some were carrying rickety ladders forwards, or lifting those that had been thrown down, trying to foot them near the wall and haul them up while rocks and spears and sodden arrows flapped and splattered into the mud. Others were climbing, shields held over their heads, two ladders up at Dow’s side, one on Red Hat’s side, one just to Logen’s left. A pair of big savages were swinging great axes against the scarred gates, chopping wet splinters out with every blow. Logen pointed at them, screamed uselessly into the wet. No one heard him, or could have over the great noise of drumming rain, of crashing, thudding, scraping, blades on shields, shafts in flesh, battle cries and shrieks of pain.

He fumbled his sword up from the puddles on the walkway, dull metal glistening with beads of water. Just near him one of Shivers’ Carls was facing off against an Easterner who’d scrambled from the top of a ladder. They traded a couple of blows, axe against shield then sword swishing at the empty air. The Easterner’s axe-arm went up again and Logen hacked it off at the elbow, stumbled into his back and knocked him screaming on his face. The Carl finished him with a chop to the back of the skull, pointed his bloody sword over Logen’s shoulder.


Another Easterner with a big hook nose just getting to the top of the ladder, leaning forward over the battlements, right arm going back with a spear ready. Logen bellowed as he came for him.

His eyes went wide and the spear wobbled, too late to throw. He tried to swing out of the way, clinging to the wet wood with his free hand, but only managed to drag the ladder grating across the battlements. Logen’s sword stabbed him under the arm and he flailed back with a grunt, dropping his spear behind him. Logen stabbed at him again, slipped and lunged too far, near falling into his arms. Big-Nose clawed at him, trying to bundle him over the parapet. Logen smashed him in the face with the pommel of his sword and knocked his head back, took some teeth out with a second blow. The third one knocked him senseless and he fell back off the ladder, plummeting down and taking one of his friends into the mud with him.

“Bring that pole!” Logen roared at the Carl with the sword.


“Pole, you fucker!”

The Carl snatched the wet length of wood up and threw it through the rain. Logen dropped his sword and wedged the branched end against one upright of the ladder, started pushing for all he was worth. The Carl came and added his weight to it, and the ladder creaked, wobbled, and started tipping back. An Easterner’s face came up over the battlements, surprised-looking. He saw the pole. He saw Logen and the Carl growling at it. He tumbled off as the ladder dropped away, down on the heads of the bastards below.

Further along the wall another ladder had just been pushed back up and the Easterners were starting to climb it, shields up over their heads while Red Hat and his boys chucked rocks at them. Some had got to the top over on Dow’s bit of the wall, and he could hear the shouting from there, the sounds of murder. Logen gnawed at his bloody lip, wondering whether to push on down there and give them some help, but he decided against. He’d be needed here before long.

So he took up the Maker’s sword, and he nodded to the Carl who’d helped him, and he stood and caught his breath. He waited for the Easterners to come again, and all around him men fought, and killed, and died.

Devils, in a cold, wet, bloody hell. Four days of it, now, and it felt as if he’d been there forever. As if he’d never left. Perhaps he never had.

Like the Dogman’s life weren’t difficult enough already, there had to be rain.

Wet was an archer’s worst fear, alright. Apart from being ridden down by horsemen, maybe, but that weren’t so likely up a tower. The bows were slippery, the strings were stretchy, the feathers were sodden, which all made for some ineffective shooting. Rain was costing them their advantage, and that was a worry, but it could cost them more than that before the day was out. There were three big wild bastards working at the gates, two swinging heavy axes at the softened wood, the third trying to get a pry-bar in the gaps they’d made and tear the timbers apart.

“If we don’t deal with them, they’ll have those gates in!” Dogman shouted hoarse into the wet air.

“Uh,” said Grim, nodding his head, water flicking off his shaggy thatch of hair.

Took a good bit of bellowing and pointing from him and Tul, but Dogman got a crowd of his lads lined up by the slick parapet. Three score wet bows, all lowered at once, all drawn back creaking, all pointing down towards that gate. Three score men, frowning and taking aim, all dripping with water and getting wetter every minute.

“Alright then, loose!”

The bows went more or less together, the sounds muffled. The shafts spun down, bouncing off the wet wall, sticking in the rough wood of the gate, prickling the ground all round where the ditch used to be, before it became just another load of mud. Not what you’d call accurate, but there were a lot of shafts, and if you can’t get quality, then numbers will have to do the job for you. The Easterner on the right dropped his axe, three arrows sticking out his chest, one through his leg. The one on the left slipped and fell on his side, went floundering for cover, an arrow in his shoulder. The one with the bar went down on his knees, thrashing around and grabbing behind him, trying to get at a shaft in the small of his back.

“Alright! Good!” the Dogman shouted. None of the rest of ’em seemed keen to try the gate for the moment, which was something to be grateful for. There were still plenty trying the ladders, but that was a harder task to deal with from up here. They might just as easily shoot their own boys on the walls as the enemy in this weather. Dogman gritted his teeth, and loosed a harmless, looping wet arrow down into the milling crowd. Nothing they could do. The walls was Shivers’ job, and Dow’s, and Red Hat’s. The walls was Logen’s job.

There was a crack, loud as the sky falling. The world went reeling bright, and soupy slow, sounds all echoing. Logen stumbled through this dream-place, the sword clattering out of his stupid fingers, lurched against the wall and grappled with it as it swayed around, trying to understand what had happened and not getting there.

Two men were struggling with each other over a spear, wrestling and jerking round and round, and Logen couldn’t remember why. A man with long hair took a great slow blow with a club on his shield, a couple of splinters spinning, then he swept an axe round, teeth bared and shining, caught a wild-looking man in the legs and tore him off his feet. There were men everywhere, wet and furious, dirt and blood stained. A battle, maybe? Which side was he on?

Logen felt something warm tickling his eye, and he touched his hand to it. Frowned down at his red finger tips, turning pink as the rain pattered on them. Blood. Had someone hit him on the head, then? Or was he dreaming it? A memory, from long ago.

He spun round just before the club came down and crushed his skull like an egg, caught some hairy bastard’s wrists with both hands. The world was suddenly fast, noisy, pain pulsing in his head. He lurched against the parapet, staring into a dirty, bearded, angry face, pressed up tight against his.

Logen let go the club with one hand, started snatching at his belt for a knife. He couldn’t feel one. All that time spent sharpening all those blades, and now he needed one there was nothing to hand. Then he realised. The blade he was looking for was stuck in that ugly bastard, down in the mud somewhere at the base of the wall. He scrabbled round the other side of his belt, still wrestling at the club, but losing that battle now, given that he only had the one hand to work with. Logen got bent back, slowly, over the battlements. His fingers found the grip of a knife. The hairy Easterner tore his club free and lifted it up, opening his mouth wide and giving a stinking yell.

Logen stabbed him right through the face, and the blade went through one cheek and out the other and took a couple of teeth with it. Hairy’s bellow turned to a high-pitched howl and he dropped his club and stumbled away, eyes bulging. Logen slid down and snatched his sword from under the trampling feet of the two fighting over the spear, waited a moment for the Easterner to come round close to him, then chopped through the back of one thigh and brought him down with a scream where the Carl could see to him.

Hairy was still drooling blood, one hand on the grip of the knife through his face, trying to work it free. Logen’s sword made a red gash through the wet furs on his side, brought him to his knees. The next swing split his head in half.

Not ten strides away Shivers was in bad trouble, backed up with three Easterners at him, another just getting to the top of a ladder, and all his boys kept busy behind. He winced as he took a hard blow from a hammer across his shield, stumbled back, his axe dropping from his hand and clattering on the stone. The thought did pass through Logen’s mind that he’d be a deal better off if Shivers got his head flattened. But the odds were good that he’d be next.

So he took a great breath, and bellowed as he charged.

The first one turned just in time to get his face hacked open rather than the back of his skull. The second got his shield up, but Logen went low and chopped clean through his shin instead, sent him shrieking down on to his back, blood pumping out into the pools of water across the walkway. The third one was a big bastard, wild red hair sticking all ways off his head. He had Shivers stunned and on his knees by the parapet, his shield hanging down, blood running from a cut on his forehead. Red Hair raised a big hammer up to finish the job. Logen stabbed him through the back before he got the chance, the long blade sliding through him right to the hilt. Never take a man face to face if you can kill him from behind, Logen’s father used to say, and that was one good piece of advice he’d always tried to follow. Red Hair thrashed and squealed, twisting madly with his last breaths, dragging Logen around after him by the hilt of his sword, but it wasn’t long before he dropped.

Logen grabbed Shivers under the arm and hauled him up. He frowned hard as his eyes came back into focus, saw who was helping him. He leaned down and snatched his fallen axe up from the stones. Logen wondered for a moment if he was about to get it buried in his skull, but Shivers only stood there, blood running down his wet face from the cut across his head.

“Behind you,” said Logen, nodding past his shoulder. Shivers turned, Logen did the same, and they stood with their backs to each other. There were three or four ladders up now, around the gate, and the battle on the walls had broken up into a few separate, bloody little fights. There were Easterners clambering over the parapet, screaming their meaningless jabber, hard faces and hard weapons glistening wet, coming at Logen along the wall while more dragged themselves up. Behind him he heard the clash and grunt of Shivers fighting, but he paid it no mind. He could only deal with what was in front of him. You have to be realistic about these things.

He shuffled back, showing weariness that was only half-feigned, then as the first of them came on he gritted his teeth and leaped forward, cut him across the face and sent him screaming, hand clasped to his eyes. Logen stumbled into another and got barged in the chest with a shield, its rim catching him under the chin and making him bite his tongue.

Logen nearly tripped over the sprawled-out corpse of a dead Carl, righted himself just in time, flailed with his sword and hit nothing, reeled after it and felt something cut into his leg as he went. He gasped, and hopped, waving the sword around, all off-balance. He lunged at some moving fur, his leg gave under him and he piled into someone. They fell together and Logen’s head cracked against the stone. They rolled and Logen struggled up on top, shouting and drooling, tangled his fingers in an Easterner’s greasy hair and smashed his face into the stone, again and again until his skull went soft. He dragged himself away, heard a blade clang against the walkway where he’d been, hauled himself up to his knees, sword loose in one sticky hand.

He knelt there, water running down his face, dragging in air. More of them coming at him, and nowhere to go. His leg was hurting, no strength in his arms. His head felt light, like it might float away. No strength left to fight with, hardly. More of them coming at him, one at the front with thick leather gloves, a big maul in his hands, its heavy spiked head red with blood. Looked like he’d already broken one skull with it, and Logen’s would be next. Then Bethod would’ve won, at last.

Logen felt a cold feeling stab at his gut. A hard, empty feeling. His knuckles clicked as the muscles in his hand went rigid, gripping the sword painful tight. “No!” he hissed. “No, no, no.” But he might as well have said no to the rain. That cold feeling spread out, up through Logen’s face, tugging his mouth into a bloody smile. Gloves came closer, his maul scraping against the wet stone. He glanced over his shoulder.

His head came apart, spraying out blood. Crummock-i-Phail roared like an angry bear, fingerbones flying round his neck, his great hammer whirling round and round his head in huge circles. The next Easterner tried to back away, holding up his shield. Crummock’s hammer swung two-handed, ripped his legs out from under him, sent him tumbling over and over and onto his face on the stone. The big hillman sprang up onto the walkway, nimble as a dancer for all his great bulk, caught the next man a blow in the stomach that hurled him through the air and left him crumpled against the battlements.

Logen watched one set of savages murdering another, breathing hard as Crummock’s boys whooped and screamed, paint on their faces smeared in the rain. They flooded up onto the wall, hacking at the Easterners with their rough swords and their bright axes, driving them back and shoving their ladders away, flinging their bodies over the parapet and into the mud below.

He knelt there, in a puddle, leaning on the cold grip of Kanedias’ sword, its point dug into the stone walkway. He bent over and breathed hard, his cold gut sucking in and out, his raw mouth salty, his nose full of the stink of blood. He hardly dared to look up. He clenched his teeth, and closed his eyes, and hawked sour spit up onto the stones. He forced that cold feeling in his stomach down and it slunk away, for now, at least, and left him with only pain and weariness to worry about.

“Looks like those bastards had enough,” came Crummock’s laughing voice from out of the drizzle. The hillman tipped his head back, mouth open, stuck his tongue out into the rain, then licked his lips. “That was some good work you put in today, Bloody-Nine. Not that it ain’t my special pleasure to watch you at it, but I’m glad to get my share.” He hefted his great long hammer up in one hand and spun it round as if it was a willow switch, peering at a great bloody stain on the head with a clump of hair stuck to it, then grinning wide.

Logen looked up at him, hardly enough strength left to lift his head. “Oh aye. Good work. We’ll go at the back tomorrow though, eh, since you’re that keen? You can take the fucking wall.”

The rain was slacking, down to a thin spit and drizzle. A glimmer of fading sunlight broke through the sagging clouds, bringing Bethod’s camp back into view, his muddy ditch and his standards, tents scattered across the valley. Dogman squinted, thought he could see a few men stood around the front watching the Easterners run back, a glint of sunlight on something. An eye-glass maybe, like the Union used, usually to look the wrong way. Dogman wondered if it was Bethod down there, watching it all happen. It would be just like Bethod to have got himself an eye-glass.

He felt a big hand clap him on the shoulder. “We gave ’em a slap, chief,” rumbled Tul, “and a good ’un!”

There was small doubt o’ that. There were a lot of dead Easterners scattered in the mud round the base of that wall, a lot of wounded carried by their mates, or dragging themselves slow and painful back towards their lines. But there were a fair few killed on their side of the wall as well. Dogman could see a stack of muddy corpses over near the back of the fortress where they were doing the burying. He could hear someone screaming. Hard and nasty screams, the kind a man makes when he needs a limb taken off, or he’s had one off already.

“We gave ’em a slap, aye,” Dogman muttered, “but they gave us one as well. I’m not sure how many slaps we’ll stand.” The barrels that carried their arrows were no more’n half full now, the rocks close to run out. “Best send some boys to pick over the dead!” he shouted to the men over his shoulder. “Get what we can while we can!”

“Can’t have too many arrows at a time like this,” said Tul. “Number o’ those Crinna bastards we killed today, I reckon we’ll have more spears tonight than we had this morning.”

Dogman managed to put a grin on his face. “Nice of ’em to bring us something to fight with.”

“Aye. Reckon they’d get bored right quick if we ran out of arrows.” Tul laughed, and he clapped the Dogman on the back harder than ever, hard enough to make his teeth rattle. “We did well! You did well! We’re still alive, ain’t we?”

“Some of us are.” Dogman looked down at the corpse of the one man who’d died up on the tower. An old boy, hair mostly grey, a rough-made arrow in his neck. Bad luck, that had been, to catch a shaft on a day as wet as today, but you’re sure to get a measure of luck in a fight, both good and bad. He frowned down into the darkening valley. “Where the hell are the Union at?”

At least the rain had stopped. You have to be grateful for the small things in life, like some smoky kind of a fire after the wet. You have to be grateful for the small things, when any minute might be your last.

Logen sat alone beside his scrub of a flame, and rubbed gently at his right palm. It was sore, pink, stiff from gripping the rough hilt of the Maker’s sword all the long day, blistered round the joints of his fingers. His head was bruised all over. The cut on his leg was burning some, but he could still walk well enough. He could’ve ended up a lot worse. There were more than three score buried now, and they were putting them in pits for a dozen each, just as Crummock had said they would. Three score and more gone back to the mud, and twice that many hurt, a lot of them bad.

Over by the big fire, he could hear Dow growling about how he’d stabbed some Easterner in the fruits. He could hear Tul’s rumbling laughter. Logen hardly felt like a part of it, any more. Maybe he never had been. A set of men he’d fought and beaten. Lives he’d spared, for no reason that made sense. Men who’d hated him worse than death, but been bound to follow. Hardly more his friends than Shivers was. Perhaps the Dogman was his only true friend in all the wide Circle of the World, and even in his eyes, from time to time, Logen thought he could see that old trace of doubt, that old trace of fear. He wondered if he could see it now, as the Dogman came up out of the darkness.

“You think they’ll come tonight?” he asked.

“He’ll give it a go in the dark sooner or later,” said Logen, “but my guess is he’ll leave it ’til we’re a bit more worn down.”

“You get more worn down than this?”

“I guess we’ll find out.” Logen grimaced as he stretched out his aching legs. “It really seems like this shit used to be easier.”

Dogman gave a snort. Not a laugh, really. More just letting Logen know he’d heard. “Memory can work some magic. You remember Carleon?”

“Course I do.” Logen looked down at his missing finger, and he bunched his fist, so it looked the same as it always had. “Strange, how it all seemed so simple back in them days. Who you fought for, and why. Can’t say it ever bothered me.”

“It bothered me,” said Dogman.

“It did? You should’ve said something.”

“Would you have listened?”

“No. I guess not.”

They sat there for a minute, in silence.

“You reckon we’ll live through this?” asked the Dogman.

“Maybe. If the Union turns up tomorrow, or the day after.”

“You think they will?”

“Maybe. We can hope.”

“Hoping for a thing don’t make it happen.”

“The opposite, usually. But every day we’re still alive is a chance. Maybe this time it’ll work.”

Dogman frowned at the shifting flames. “That’s a lot of maybes.”

“That’s war.”

“Who’d have thought we’d be relying on a bunch of Southerners to solve our problems for us, eh?”

“I reckon you solve ’em any way you can. You have to be realistic.”

“Being realistic, then. You reckon we’ll live through this?”

Logen thought about it for a while. “Maybe.”

Boots squelched in the soft earth, and Shivers walked up quiet towards the fire. There was a grey bandage wrapped round his head, where he’d taken that cut, and his hair hung down damp and greasy from under it.

“Chief,” he said.

Dogman smiled as he got up, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Alright, Shivers. That was good work, today. I’m glad you came over, lad. We all are.” He gave Logen a long look. “All of us. Think I might try and get a rest for a minute. I’ll see you boys when they come again. Most likely it’ll be soon enough.” He walked off into the night, and left Shivers and Logen staring one at the other.

Probably Logen should have got his hand near to a knife, watched for sudden moves and all the rest. But he was too tired and too sore for it. So he just sat there, and watched. Shivers pressed his lips together, squatting down beside the fire opposite, slow and reluctant, as if he was about to eat something he knew was rotten, but had no choice.

“If I’d have been in your place,” he said, after a while, “I would’ve let those bastards kill me today.”

“Few years ago I’m sure I would’ve.”

“What changed?”

Logen frowned as he thought about it. Then he shrugged his aching shoulders. “I’m trying to be better than I was.”

“You think that’s enough?”

“What else can I do?”

Shivers frowned at the fire. “I wanted to say…” He worked the words around in his mouth and spat them out. “That I’m grateful, I guess. You saved my life today. I know it.” He wasn’t happy about saying it, and Logen knew why. It’s hard to be done a favour by a man you hate. It’s hard to hate him so much afterwards. Losing an enemy can be worse than losing a friend, if you’ve had him for long enough.

So Logen shrugged again. “It’s nothing. What a man should do for his crew, that’s all. I owe you a lot more. I know that. I can never pay what I owe you.”

“No. But it’s some kind o’ start at it, far as I’m concerned.” Shivers got up and took a step away. Then he stopped, and turned back, firelight shifting over one side of his hard, angry face. “It ain’t ever as simple, is it, as a man is just good or bad? Not even you. Not even Bethod. Not anybody.”

“No.” Logen sat and watched the flames moving. “No, it ain’t ever that simple. We all got our reasons. Good men and bad men. It’s all a matter of where you stand.”

The Perfect Couple

One of Jezal’s countless footmen perched on the stepladder, and lowered the crown with frowning precision onto his head, its single enormous diamond flashing pricelessly bright. He gave it the very slightest twist back and forth, the fur-trimmed rim gripping Jezal’s skull. He climbed back down, whisked the stepladder away, and surveyed the result. So did half a dozen of his fellows. One of them stepped forward to tweak the precise positioning of Jezal’s gold-embroidered sleeve. Another grimaced as he flicked an infinitesimal speck of dust from his pure white collar.

“Very good,” said Bayaz, nodding thoughtfully to himself. “I believe that you are ready for your wedding.”

The peculiar thing, now that Jezal had a rare moment to think about it, was that he had not, in any way of which he was aware, agreed to get married. He had neither proposed nor accepted a proposal. He had never actually said “yes” to anything. And yet here he was, preparing to be joined in matrimony in a few short hours, and to a woman he scarcely knew at all. It had not escaped his notice that in order to have been managed so quickly the arrangements must have been well underway before Bayaz had even suggested the notion. Perhaps before Jezal had even been crowned… but he supposed it was not so very surprising. Since his enthronement he had drifted helplessly through one incomprehensible event after another, like a man shipwrecked and struggling to keep his head above water, out of sight of land, dragged who knew where by unseen, irresistible currents. But considerably better dressed.

He was gradually starting to realise that the more powerful a man became, the fewer choices he really had. Captain Jezal dan Luthar had been able to eat what he liked, to sleep when he liked, to see who he liked. His August Majesty King Jezal the First, on the other hand, was bound by invisible chains of tradition, expectation, and responsibility, that prescribed every aspect of his existence, however small.

Bayaz took a discerning step forward. “Perhaps the top button undone here—”

Jezal jerked away with some annoyance. The attention of the Magus to every tiny detail of his life was becoming more than tiresome. It seemed that he could scarcely use the latrine without the old bastard poking through the results. “I know how to button a coat!” he snapped. “Should I expect to find you here tonight when I bring my new wife to our bed-chamber, ready to instruct me on how best to use my prick?”

The footmen coughed, and averted their eyes, and scraped away towards the corners of the room. Bayaz himself neither smiled nor frowned. “I stand always ready to advise your Majesty, but I had hoped that might be one item of business you could manage alone.”

“I hope you’re well prepared for our little outing. I’ve been getting ready all morn—” Ardee froze when she looked up and saw Glokta’s face. “What happened to you?”

“What, this?” He waved his hand at the mottled mass of bruises. “A Kantic woman broke into my apartments in the night, punched me repeatedly and near drowned me in the bath.” An experience I would not recommend.

Evidently she did not believe him. “What really happened?”

“I fell down the stairs.”

“Ah. Stairs. They can be brutal bastards when you’re not that firm on your feet.” She stared at her half-full glass, her eyes slightly misty.

“Are you drunk?”

“It’s the afternoon, isn’t it? I try always to be drunk by now. Once you start a job you should give it your best. Or so my father liked to tell me.”

Glokta narrowed his eyes at her, and she stared back evenly over the rim of her glass. No trembling lip, no tragic face, no streaks of bitter tears down the cheek. She seemed no less happy than usual. Or no more unhappy, perhaps. But Jezal dan Luthar’s wedding day can be no joyous occasion for her. No one appreciates being jilted, whatever the circumstances. No one enjoys being abandoned.

“We need not go, you know.” Glokta winced as he tried unsuccessfully to stretch some movement into his wasted leg, and the wince itself caused a ripple of pain through his split lips and across his battered face. “I certainly won’t complain if I do not have to walk another step today. We can sit here, and talk of rubbish and politics.”

“And miss the king’s marriage?” gasped Ardee, one hand pressed to her chest in fake horror. “But I really must see what the Princess Terez is wearing! They say she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and even scum like me must have someone to look up to.” She tipped back her head and swilled down the last of her wine. “Having fucked the groom is really no excuse for missing a wedding, you know.”

The flagship of Grand Duke Orso of Talins ploughed slowly, deliberately, majestically forwards, under no more than quarter sail, a host of seabirds flapping and calling in the rich blue sky above. It was by far the largest ship that Jezal, or anyone among the vast crowds that lined the quay and crammed the roofs and windows of the buildings along the waterfront, had ever laid eyes upon.

It was decked out in its finest: coloured bunting fluttered from the rigging and its three towering masts were hung with bright flags, the sable cross of Talins and the golden sun of the Union, side by side in honour of the happy occasion. But it looked no less menacing for that. It looked as Logen Ninefingers might have in a dandy’s jacket. Unmistakably still a man of war, and appearing more savage rather than less for the gaudy finery in which it was plainly uncomfortable. As the means of bringing a single woman to Adua, and that woman Jezal’s bride-to-be, this mighty vessel was anything but reassuring. It implied that Grand Duke Orso might be an intimidating presence as a father-in-law.

Jezal saw sailors now, crawling among the myriad ropes like ants through a bush, bringing the acres of sailcloth in with well-practised speed. They let the mighty ship plough forward under its own momentum, its vast shadow falling over the quay and plunging half the welcoming party into darkness. It slowed, the air full of the creaking of timbers and hawsers. It came to a deliberate stop, dwarfing the now tiny-seeming boats meekly tethered to either side as a tiger might dwarf kittens. The golden figurehead, a woman twice life-size thrusting a spear towards the heavens, glittered menacingly far over Jezal’s head.

A huge wharf had been specially constructed in the middle of the quay where the draught was at its deepest. Down this gently sloping ramp the royal party of Talins descended into Adua, like visitors from a distant star where everyone was rich, beautiful, and obliviously happy.

To either side marched a row of bearded guardsmen, all dressed in identical black uniforms, their helmets polished to a painful pitch of mirror brightness. Between them, in two rows of six, came a dozen ladies-in-waiting, each one arrayed in red, or blue, or vivid purple silks, each one as splendid as a queen herself.

But not one of the awestruck multitude on the waterfront could have been in any doubt who was the centre of attention. The Princess Terez glided along at the fore: tall, slender, impossibly regal, as graceful as a circus dancer and as stately as an Empress of legend. Her pure white gown was stitched with glittering gold, her shimmering hair was the colour of polished bronze, a chain of daunting diamonds flashed and sparkled on her pale chest in the bright sunlight. The Jewel of Talins seemed at that moment an apt name indeed. Terez looked as pure and dazzling, as proud and brilliant, as hard and beautiful as a flawless gemstone.

As her feet touched the stones the crowds burst out into a tumultuous cheer, and flower petals began to fall in well-orchestrated cascades from the windows of the buildings high above. So it was that she advanced on Jezal with magnificent dignity, her head held imperiously high, her hands clasped proudly before her, over a soft carpet and through a sweet-smelling haze of fluttering pink and red.

To call it a breathtaking entrance would have been understatement of an epic order.

“Your August Majesty,” she murmured, somehow managing to make him feel like the humble one as she curtsied, and behind her the ladies followed suit, and the guardsmen bowed low, all with impeccable coordination. “My father, the Grand Duke Orso of Talins, sends his profound apologies,” and she rose up perfectly erect again as though hoisted by invisible strings, “but urgent business in Styria prevents him from attending our wedding.”

“You are all we need,” croaked Jezal, cursing silently a moment later as he realised he had completely ignored the proper form of address. It was somewhat difficult to think clearly, under the circumstances. Terez was even more breathtaking now than when he had last seen her, a year or more ago, arguing savagely with Prince Ladisla at the feast held in his honour. The memory of her vicious shrieking did little to encourage him, but then Jezal would hardly have been delighted by the prospect of marrying Ladisla himself. After all, the man had been a complete ass. Jezal was an entirely different sort of person and could no doubt expect a different response. So he hoped.

“Please, your Highness,” and he held out his hand to her. She rested hers on it, seeming to weigh less than a feather.

“Your Majesty does me too much honour.”

The hooves of the grey horses crackled on the paving, the carriage-wheels whirred smoothly. They set off up the Kingsway, a company of Knights of the Body riding in tight formation around them, arms and armour glinting, each stride of the great thoroughfare lined with appreciative commoners, each door and window filled with smiling subjects. All there to cheer for their new king, and for the woman soon to be their queen.

Jezal knew he must look an utter idiot next to her. A clumsy, lowborn, ill-mannered oaf, who had not the slightest right to share her carriage, unless, perhaps, she was using him as a footrest. He had never in his life felt truly inferior before. He could scarcely believe that he was marrying this woman. Today. His hands were shaking. Positively shaking. Perhaps some heartfelt words might help them both relax.

“Terez…” She continued to wave imperiously to the crowds. “I realise… that we do not know each other in the least, but… I would like to know you.” The slightest twitch of her mouth was the only sign that she had heard him. “I know that this must have come as a terrible shock to you, just as it has to me. I hope, if there is anything I can do… to make it easier, that—”

“My father feels the interests of my country are best served by this marriage, and it is a daughter’s place to obey. Those of us born to high station are long prepared to make sacrifices.”

Her perfect head turned smoothly on her perfect neck, and she smiled. A smile slightly forced, perhaps, but no less radiant for that. It was hard to believe that a face so smooth and flawless could be made of meat, like everybody else’s. It seemed like porcelain, or polished stone. It was a constant, magical delight to see it move. He wondered if her lips were cool or warm. He would have liked very much to find out. She leaned close to him, and placed her hand gently on the back of his. Warm, undoubtedly warm, and soft, and very much made of flesh. “You really should wave,” she murmured, her voice full of Styrian song.

“Er, yes,” he croaked, his mouth very dry, “yes, of course.”

Glokta stood, Ardee beside him, and frowned at the doors of the Lords’ Round. Beyond those towering gates, in the great circular hall, the ceremony was taking place. Oh, joyous, joyous day! High Justice Marovia’s wise exhortations would be echoing from the gilded dome, the happy couple would be speaking their solemn vows with light hearts. Only the lucky few had been allowed within to bear witness. The rest of us must worship from afar. And quite a crowd had gathered to do just that. The wide Square of Marshals was choked with them. Glokta’s ears were stuffed with their excited babbling. A sycophantic throng, all eager for their divine Majesties to emerge.

He rocked impatiently back and forth, from side to side, grimacing and hissing, trying to get the blood to flow in his aching legs, the cramps to be still. But standing in one place for this length of time is, to put it simply, torture.

“How long can a wedding take?”

Ardee raised one dark eyebrow. “Perhaps they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and are busy consummating the marriage right there on the floor of the Lords’ Round.”

“How bloody long can a consummation take?”

“Lean on me if you need to,” she said, holding out her elbow to him.

“The cripple using the drunk for support?” Glokta frowned. “We make quite the couple.”

“Fall over if you prefer, and knock out the rest of your teeth. I’ll lose no sleep over it.”

Perhaps I should take her up on the offer, if only for a moment. After all, where’s the harm? But then the first shrill cheers began to float up, soon joined by more and more until a jubilant roar was making the air throb. The doors of the Lords’ Round were finally being heaved open, and the High King and Queen of the Union emerged into the bright sunlight, hand in hand.

Even Glokta was forced to admit that they made a dazzling pair. Like monarchs of myth they stood arrayed in brilliant white, trimmed with twinkling embroidery, matching golden suns across the back of her long gown and his long coat, glittering as they turned to the crowds. Each tall, and slender, and graceful, each crowned with shining gold and a single flashing diamond. Both so very young, and so very beautiful, and with all their happy, rich, and powerful lives ahead of them. Hurrah! Hurrah for them! My shrivelled turd of a heart bursts open with joy!

Glokta rested his hand on Ardee’s elbow, and he leaned towards her, and he smiled his most twisted, toothless, grotesque grin. “Is it really true that our King is more handsome than I?”

“Offensive nonsense!” She thrust out her chest and tossed her head, giving Glokta a withering sneer down her nose. “And I sparkle more brightly than the Jewel of Talins!”

“Oh, you do, my dear, you absolutely do. We make them look like beggars!”

“Like scum.”

“Like cripples.”

They chuckled together as the royal pair swept majestically across the square, accompanied by a score of watchful Knights of the Body. The Closed Council followed behind at a respectful distance, eleven stately old men with Bayaz among them in his arcane vestments, smiling almost as wide as the glorious couple themselves.

“I didn’t even like him,” muttered Ardee under her breath, “to begin with. Not really.” That certainly makes two of us.

“No need to weep. You’re far too sharp to have been satisfied with a dullard like him.”

She breathed in sharply. “I’m sure you’re right. But I was so bored, and lonely, and tired.” And drunk, no doubt. She shrugged her shoulders hopelessly. “He made me feel like I was something more than a burden. He made me feel… wanted.”

And what makes you suppose that I want to know about it? “Wanted, you say? How wonderful. And now?”

She looked miserably down at the ground, and Glokta felt just the smallest trace of guilt. But guilt only really hurts when there’s nothing else to worry about.

“It was hardly as if it was true love.” He saw the thin sinews in her neck moving as she swallowed. “But somehow I always thought it would be me making a fool of him.”

“Huh.” How rarely any of us get what we expect.

The royal party processed gradually out of view, the last splendid courtiers and shining bodyguards tramping after them, the sound of rapturous applause creeping off towards the palace. Towards their glorious futures, and we guilty secrets are by no means invited.

“Here we stand,” murmured Ardee. “The off-cuts.”

“The wretched leavings.”

“The rotten stalks.”

“I wouldn’t worry over much.” Glokta gave a sigh. “You are still young, clever, and passably pretty.”

“Epic praise indeed.”

“You have all your teeth and both your legs. A marked advantage over some of us. I do not doubt that you will soon find some other highborn idiot to entrap, and no harm done.”

She turned away from him, and hunched her shoulders, and he guessed that she was biting her lip. He winced, and lifted his hand to lay it on her shoulder… The same hand that cut Sepp dan Teufel’s fingers into slices, that pinched the nipples from Inquisitor Harker’s chest, that carved one Gurkish emissary into pieces and burned another, that sent innocent men to rot in Angland, and so on, and so on… He jerked it back, and let it fall. Better to cry all the tears in the world than be touched by that hand. Comfort comes from other sources, and flows to other destinations. He frowned out across the square, and left Ardee to her misery.

The crowd cheered on.

It was a magnificent event, of course. No effort or expense had been spared. Jezal would not have been at all surprised if he had five hundred guests, and no more than a dozen of them known to himself in any significant degree. The Lords and Ladies of the Union. The great men of Closed and Open Councils. The richest and the most powerful, dressed in their best and on their best behaviour.

The Chamber of Mirrors was a fitting venue. The most spectacular room in the entire palace, as big as a battlefield and made to seem larger yet by the great mirrors which covered every wall, creating the disconcerting impression of dozens of other magnificent weddings, in dozens of other adjoining ballrooms. A multitude of candles flickered and waved on the tables, and in the sconces, and among the crystal chandeliers high above. Their soft light shone on the silverware, glittered on the jewels of the guests, and was reflected back from the dark walls, gleaming into the far, dim distance: a million points of light, like the stars in a dark night sky. A dozen of the Union’s finest musicians played subtle and entrancing music, and it mingled with the swell of satisfied chatter, the clink and rattle of old money and new cutlery.

It was a joyous celebration. The evening of a lifetime. For the guests.

For Jezal it was something else, and he was not sure what. He sat at a gilded table with his queen beside him, the two of them outnumbered ten to one by fawning servants, displayed to the full view of the whole assembly as though they were a pair of prize exhibits in a zoo. Jezal sat in a haze of awkwardness, in a dreamlike silence, startling from time to time like a sick rabbit as a powdered footman blindsided him with vegetables. Terez sat on his right, occasionally spearing the slightest morsel with a discerning fork, lifting it, chewing it, swallowing it with elegant precision. Jezal had never thought that it was possible to eat beautifully. He now realised his mistake.

He could scarcely remember the ringing words of the High Justice that had, he supposed, bound the two of them irrevocably together. Something about love and the security of the nation, he vaguely recalled. But he could see the ring that he had handed numbly to Terez in the Lords’ Round, its enormous blood-red stone glittering on her long middle finger. He chewed at a slice of the finest meat, and it tasted like mud in his mouth. They were man and wife.

He saw now that Bayaz had been right, as always. The people longed for something effortlessly higher than themselves. They might not all have had the king they would have asked for, but no one could possibly deny that Terez was all a queen should be and more. The mere idea of Ardee West sitting in that gilded chair was absurd. And yet Jezal felt a pang of guilt when the idea occurred, closely followed by a greater one of sadness. It would have been a comfort to have someone to talk to, then. He gave a painful sigh. If he was to spend his life with this woman, they would have to speak. The sooner they began, he supposed, the better.

“I hear that Talins… is a most beautiful city.”

“Indeed,” she said with careful formality, “but Adua has its sights also.” She paused, and looked down unhopefully at her plate.

Jezal cleared his throat. “This is somewhat… difficult to adjust to.” He ventured a fraction of a smile.

She blinked, and looked out at the room. “It is.”

“Do you dance?”

She turned her head smoothly to look at him without the slightest apparent movement of her shoulders. “A little.”

He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Then shall we, your Majesty?”

“As you wish, your Majesty.”

As they made their way towards the middle of the wide floor, the chatter gradually diminished. The Chamber of Mirrors grew deathly quiet aside from the clicking of his polished boots, and her polished shoes, on the glistening stone. Jezal swallowed as they took their places, surrounded on three sides by the long tables, and the legions of magnificent guests, all watching. He had rather that same feeling of breathless anticipation, of fear and excitement, that he had used to have when he stepped into the fencing circle against an unknown opponent, before the roaring crowd.

They stood still as statues, looking into each other’s eyes. He held out his hand, palm up. She reached out, but instead of taking it she pressed the back of her hand firmly against the back of his and pushed it up so that their fingers were level. She lifted one eyebrow by the slightest margin. A silent challenge, that no one else in the hall could possibly have seen.

The first long drawn-out note sobbed from the strings and echoed around the chamber. They set off, circling each other with exaggerated slowness, the golden hem of Terez’ dress swishing across the floor, her feet out of sight so that she appeared to glide rather than take steps, her chin held painfully high. They moved first one way and then the other, and in the mirrors around them a thousand other couples moved in time, stretching away into the shadowy distance, crowned and dressed in flawless white and gold.

As the second phrase began, and other instruments joined in, Jezal began to realise that he was utterly outclassed, worse than ever he had been by Bremer dan Gorst. Terez moved with such immaculate poise that he was sure she could have balanced a glass of wine on her head without spilling a drop. The music grew louder, faster, bolder, and Terez’ movements came faster and bolder with it. It seemed as if she somehow controlled the musicians with her outstretched hands, the two were linked so perfectly. He tried to steer her and she stepped effortlessly around him. She feinted one way and whirled the other and Jezal almost went over on his arse. She dodged and spun with masterful disguise and left him lunging at nothing.

The music grew faster yet, the musicians sawed and plucked with furious concentration. Jezal made a vain attempt to catch her but Terez twisted away, dazzling him with a flurry of skirts that he could barely follow. She almost tripped him with a foot which was gone before he knew it, tossed her head and almost stabbed him in the eye with her crown. The great and good of the Union looked on in enchanted silence. Even Jezal found himself a dumbstruck spectator. It was the most he could do to remain in roughly the right positions to be made an utter fool of.

He was not sure whether he was relieved or disappointed when the music slowed again and she offered out her hand as though it were a rare treasure. He pressed the back of his against it and they circled each other, drawing closer and closer. As the last refrain wept from the instruments she pressed herself against him, her back to his chest.

Slowly they turned, and slower still, his nose full of the smell of her hair. At the last long note she sank back and he lowered her gently, her neck stretching out, her head dropping, her delicate crown almost brushing the floor. And there was silence.

The room broke into rapturous applause, but Jezal hardly heard them. He was too busy staring at his wife. There was a faint colour to her cheek now, her lips slightly parted exposing flawless front teeth, and the lines of her jaw, and stretched-out neck, and slender collarbones were etched with shadow and ringed with sparkling diamonds. Lower down her chest rose and fell imperiously in her bodice with her rapid breathing, the slightest, fascinating sheen of sweat nestling in her cleavage. Jezal would have very much liked to nestle there himself. He blinked, his own breath sharp in his throat.

“If it please your Majesty,” she murmured.

“Eh? Oh… of course.” He whisked her back to her feet as the applause continued. “You dance… magnificently.”

“Your Majesty is too kind,” she replied, with the barest fragment of a smile, but a smile nonetheless. He beamed gormlessly back at her. His fear and confusion had, in the space of a single dance, smoothly transformed into a most pleasurable excitement. He had been gifted a glimpse beneath the icy shell, and plainly his new Queen was a woman of rare and fiery passion. A hidden side to her that he was now greatly looking forward to investigating further. Looking forward so sharply, in fact, that he was forced to avert his eyes and stare off into the corner, frowning and trying desperately to think of other things, lest the tightness of his trousers caused him to embarrass himself in front of the assembled guests.

The sight of Bayaz grinning in the corner was for once just what he needed to see, the old man’s cold smile cooling his ardour as surely as a bucket of iced water.

Glokta had left Ardee in her over-furnished living room making every effort to get even more drunk, and ever since he had found himself in a black mood. Even for me. There’s nothing like the company of someone even more wretched than yourself to make you feel better. Trouble is, take their misery away and your own presses in twice as cold and dreary behind it.

He slurped another half mouthful of gritty soup from his spoon, grimaced as he forced the over-salty slop down his throat. I wonder how wonderful a time King Jezal is enjoying now? Lauded and admired by all, gorging himself on the best food and the best company. He dropped the spoon into the bowl, his left eye twitching, and winced at a ripple of pain through his back and down into his leg. Eight years since the Gurkish released me, yet I am still their prisoner, and always will be. Trapped in a cell no bigger than my own crippled body.

The door creaked open and Barnam shuffled in to collect the bowl. Glokta looked from the half-dead soup to the half-dead old man. The best food, and the best company. He would have laughed if his split lips had allowed it.

“Finished, sir?” asked the servant.

“More than likely.” I have been unable to pull the means of destroying Bayaz out of my arse, and so, of course, his Eminence will not be pleased. How displeased can he get, do we suppose, before he loses patience entirely? But what can be done?

Barnam carried the bowl from the room, pulled the door shut behind him, and left Glokta alone with his pain. What is it that I did to deserve this? And what is it that Luthar did? Is he not just as I was? Arrogant, vain, and selfish as hell? Is he a better man? Then why has life punished me so harshly, and rewarded him so richly?

But Glokta already knew the answer. The same reason that innocent Sepp dan Teufel languishes in Angland with his fingers shortened. The same reason that loyal General Vissbruck died in Dagoska, while treacherous Magister Eider was let live. The same reason that Tulkis, the Gurkish Ambassador, was butchered in front of a howling crowd for a crime he did not commit.

He pressed his sore tongue into one of his few remaining teeth. Life is not fair.

Jezal pranced down the hallway in a dream, but no longer the panicked nightmare of the morning. His head was spinning from praise, and applause, and approval. His body was glowing with dancing, and wine, and, increasingly, lust. With Terez beside him, for the first time in his brief reign, he truly felt like a king. Gems and metal, silk and embroidery, and pale, smooth skin all shone excitingly in the soft candlelight. The evening had turned out to be a delight, and the night promised only to be better yet. Terez might have seemed as hard as a jewel from a distance, but Jezal had held her in his arms, and he knew better.

The great panelled doors of the royal bedchamber were held open by a pair of cringing footmen, then shut silently as the King and Queen of the Union swept past. The mighty bed dominated the far side of the room, sprays of tall feathers at the corners of its canopy casting long shadows up onto the gilded ceiling. Its rich green curtains hung invitingly wide, the silken space beyond filled with soft and tantalising shadows.

Terez took a few slow steps into the chamber ahead of him, her head bowed, while Jezal turned the key in the lock with a long, smooth rattling of wards. His breath came fast as he stepped up behind his wife, lifted his hand and placed it gently on her bare shoulder. He felt the muscles stiffen under her smooth skin, smiled at her nervousness, matching his own so closely. He wondered if he should say something to try and calm her, but what would have been the purpose? They both knew what had to happen now, and Jezal for one was impatient to begin.

He came closer, slipping his free hand around her waist, feeling his palm hiss over rough silk. He brushed the nape of her neck with his lips, once, twice, three times. He nuzzled against her hair, dragging in her fragrance and breathing it out softly against the side of her face. He felt her tremble at his breath upon her skin, but that only encouraged him. He slid his fingers over her shoulder and across her chest, her diamonds trailing over the back of his hand as he slipped it down into her bodice. He moved up closer yet, pressing himself against her, making a satisfied growl in his throat, his prick nudging pleasantly into her backside through their clothes—

In a moment she had torn away from him with a gasp, spun around and slapped him across the face with a smack that set his head ringing. “You filthy bastard!” she shrieked in his face, spit flying from her twisted mouth. “You son of a fucking whore! How dare you touch me? Ladisla was a cretin, but at least his blood was clean!”

Jezal gaped, one hand pressed against his burning face, his whole body rigid with shock. He reached out feebly with his other hand. “But I—ooof!”

Her knee caught him between the legs with pitiless accuracy, driving the wind from his chest, making him teeter for a breathless moment, then bringing him down like a sledgehammer to a house of cards. As he slid groaning to the carpet in that special, shooting agony that only a blow to the fruits can produce, it was little consolation that he had been right.

His Queen was quite evidently a woman of rare and fiery passion.

The tears flowing so liberally from his eyes were not just of pain, and awful surprise, and temporary disappointment, they were, increasingly, of deepening horror. It seemed that he had misjudged Terez’ feelings most seriously. She had smiled for the crowds, but now, in private, she gave every indication of despising him and all he stood for. The fact that he had been born a bastard was hardly something he could ever change. For all he knew his wedding night was about to be spent on the royal floor. The queen had already hurried across the room, and the curtains of the bed were tightly drawn against him.

The Seventh Day

The Easterners had come again last night. Crept up by darkness, found a spot to climb in and killed a sentry. Then they’d set a ladder and a crowd of ’em had sneaked inside by the time they were found out. The cries had woken the Dogman, hardly sleeping anyway, and he’d scrabbled awake in the black, all tangled with his blanket. Enemies inside the fortress, men running and shouting, shadows in the dark, everything reeking of panic and chaos. Men fighting by starlight, and by torchlight, and by no light at all, blades swung with hardly a notion of where they were headed, boots stumbling and kicking showers of bright sparks out of the guttering campfires.

They’d driven ’em back in the end. They’d herded them to the wall, and cut them down in numbers, and only three had lived to drop their weapons and give up. A bad mistake for them, as it turned out. There were a lot of men dead, these seven days. Every time the sun went down there were more graves. No one was in much of a merciful mood, providing they’d been suited that way in the first place, and not many had. So when they’d caught these three, Black Dow had trussed ’em up on the wall where Bethod and all the rest could see. Trussed ’em up in the hard blue dawn, first streaks of light just stabbing across the black sky, and he’d doused them all with oil and set a spark to them. One by one he’d done it. So the others could see what was coming and set to screaming before their turn.

Dogman didn’t much take to seeing men on fire. He didn’t like hearing their shrieks and their fat crackling. He didn’t smile at a nose-full of the sick-sweet stink of their burning meat. But he didn’t think of trying to stop it neither. There was a time for soft opinions, and this weren’t it. Mercy and weakness are the same thing in war, and there’s no prizes for nice behaviour. He’d learned that from Bethod, a long time ago. Maybe now those Easterners would give it a second thought before they came again at night and fucked up everyone’s breakfast.