Apr 12 2012 12:00pm
Orb Sceptre Throne (Excerpt)
Check out the prologue for the latest Malazan Empire novel, Orb Sceptre Throne, out on May 22:
Darujhistan, city of dreams, city of blue flames, is peaceful at last; its citizens free to return to politicking, bickering, trading and, above all, enjoying the good things in life. Yet there are those who will not allow the past to remain buried. A scholar digging in the plains stumbles across an ancient sealed vault. The merchant Humble Measure schemes to drive out the remaining Malazan invaders. And the surviving agents of a long-lost power are stirring, for they sense change and so, opportunity. While, as ever at the centre of everything, a thief in a red waistcoat and of rotund proportions walks the streets, juggling in one hand custard pastries, and in the other the fate of the city itself.
Far to the south, fragments of the titanic Moon’s Spawn have crashed into the Rivan Sea creating a series of isles...and a fortune hunter’s dream. A Malazan veteran calling himself ’Red’ ventures out to try his luck—and perhaps say goodbye to old friends. But there he finds far more than he’d bargained for as the rush to claim the Spawn’s treasures descends into a mad scramble of chaos and bloodshed. For powers from across the world have gathered here, searching for the legendary Throne of Night. The impact of these events are far reaching, it seems. On an unremarkable island off the coast of Genabackis, a people who had turned their backs upon all such strivings now lift their masked faces towards the mainland and recall the ancient prophesy of a return.
Did we not look out together upon the dark waters of the lake
And behold there the constellations
Of both hemispheres at once?
Love Songs of the Cinnamon Wastes
That day of discovery began as any other. He arose before the dawn and saw to his toilet aware that the toothless hag he kept as camp cook was already up boiling water for the morning tea and mealy porridge. He checked in on the tent of the two guards that he’d hired simply because he thought he ought to have someone around to watch the camp. Both men were asleep; that didn’t strike him as proper guard procedure, but it was the Twins’ own luck he’d found anyone willing to work at all for the poor wages he could offer.
‘Tea’s on,’ he said, and let the flap fall closed.
He kicked awake his two assistants, who lay in the sands next to the dead campfire. These were sullen youths whom he paid a few copper slivers a month to see to the lifting and hauling. Like the ancient, they were of the older tribal stock out of the surrounding steppes, the Gadrobi; no citified Daru would waste his time out here in the old burial hills south of the great metropolis of Darujhistan. None but he, Ebbin, who alone among all the Learned Brethren of the Philosophical Society (of whom he was charter member) remained convinced that there yet lurked far more to be found among these pot-hunted and pit-riddled vaults and tombs.
Sipping the weak tea, he studied the brightening sky: clear; the wind: anaemic at best. Good weather for another day’s exploration. He waved the youths away from the fire where they huddled warming their skinny shanks, then pointed to the distant scaffolding. The two guards drank their tea and continued their interminable arguing. Ebbin knew that at the end of the day he’d come back to camp to find them still gnawing on the same old bones from the first day he’d hired them. He supposed it took all kinds.
The lads dragged themselves down the hill to station themselves next to a wide barrel winch. Ebbin knelt at the stone-lipped well, opened the old bronze padlock, pulled free the iron chains, and heaved aside the leaves of the wood cover. What was revealed appeared nothing more than one of the many ancient wells that dotted this region, once a Gadrobi settlement.
But what might he find down at the bottom of this otherwise unremarkable well? Oh, but what he could find! Beginning some generations ago, a relative warming and drying period in the region’s weather had resulted in a drain on the local water reserves and a subsequent fall in the waterline. A lowering of nearly a man’s full height. And what has lain submerged, hidden, for thousands of years may be revealed! The subtlest of arcane hints and annotated asides in obscure sources had led him step by incremental step to this series of wells. As yet, all had proved unremarkable. Dead ends year after year in his research.
But perhaps this one. Perhaps this time all my work . . . vindicated!
He swung his legs out over the darkness, ran a hand over the lip’s curved inner surface. Not for the first time did he marvel at these ancient artisans; the chiselled stone so smooth! The opening as near to a perfect circle as he could discern. How inferior and shabby contemporary construction now, with its eye to mere costs rather than the regal course of posterity!
He yanked down the board seat and wrapped an arm round its rope. After checking his bag of equipment, the lantern, oil, hammer, chisel and such, he waved a curt command to the youths. The winch screeched shrill and piercing as they let out slack and Ebbin swung out over the void.
The descent was eerily silent but for the occasional jangling of the bells attached to the rope – his means of announcing his intent to ascend, and calling the worthless youths back to the well from the shade to which they would always slink off during the heat of the day. He jerked the rope for a pause while he lit his lantern. This accomplished, he signalled for a continued slow playing out of the rope.
It was during these murky silent descents, as if he were submerging himself, that doubts most vividly assailed him. What if the evidence were here, yet hidden from his eyes? He brought the lantern closer to his face while he studied the passing stones for any sign of structural elements. As before, he saw no hint of variation among the slime and dried algae scum.
Failure again. And yet this one had seemed to fit the clues perfectly . . .
Below, the surface of the water glimmered like night. Ebbin moved to shift the lantern to reach for the rope, but his fingers brushed the burning hot bronze and he yelped, dropping the light. It fell for an instant then was snuffed out. A distant splash reached him. He sat in the dark cursing his clumsiness and sucking his fingers.
Then weak shimmerings wavered before his vision. He squinted, dismissed the phenomenon as the stars one can see before one’s eyes in the night. But the lustrous flickerings persisted. His eyes widened in the utter dark. Could these not be the remnants of Warren magics? Wards, and seals, and such?
And does not their very presence confirm the correlative supposition that follows?
Ebbin gaped, fingers forgotten. His grimed sweaty skin prickled with the sensation of . . . discovery.
Yet could these not be admonitions against meddling? Was it not whispered that it was from these very burial fields that the ancient Tyrant Raest returned (if indeed he had that night not so long ago, which was dismissed by many, and remains an incident completely undreamed of to most)?
He squeezed his hands to warm them in the cool of the well and made an effort to thrust aside such atavistic shrinking from shadows. Superstition! He was a scholar! He had no time for such mummery. True, the Warrens and their manipulation were real, but the efficacious power itself was not evil, not consciously malevolent. It was merely a natural force to be reckoned with, such as weight, or the life-essence.
Ebbin steadied himself in the cold damp dark and tentatively, almost reverently, reached out. His fingertips brushed cool eroded stone. He felt about for a sign of any opening and something brushed his fingertips – a curved edge. Luminescence flared then, limpid and fitful, and it seemed to him now that he must be mistaken, for no tunnel existed here down this thoroughly explored well: it was only the deceptive irregularities in the stone that had fooled him. He should abandon this wasted effort and signal the lads to pull him up.
Then his feet in their worn goatskin shoes suddenly plunged into frigid water and the shock made him flinch, almost tipping him from his narrow perch. He frantically signalled a halt.
The grip he kept on the lip of the curved wall steadied him. And it seemed to him that the tunnel had always been here, undiscovered and patient, as if awaiting him. He wiped a sleeve across his clammy face, swallowed his relief. He sat for a time immobile. His breath echoed in the enclosed space, harsh and quick.
I may have done it! Found what all others said did not even exist! Here may be the tomb of the greatest, and last, of the Tyrant Kings of Darujhistan.
And I can’t see a damned thing. He shook the rope to signal retrieval. Please, gods, please . . . let there be another lantern somewhere in camp!
But there was no other lantern. After overturning all his equipment, his tent and that of his guards, Ebbin was reduced to having himself lowered clutching a single soft tallow candle. All through the descent he shielded the meagre flame as one might a precious gem. Just before his feet once more touched the frigid water he shook the rope to order a halt.
In the cool dead air he held out the candle. Hadn’t it been here? Was he mistaken?
He squinted at the curved wall of eroded ancient stones, shifted the candle from side to side. Gods, please! What a discovery this would be! Then it was there. Not a sealed smooth barrier of bricks and mortar raised across a tunnel but a dark jagged hole of pushedin stones.
Ebbin’s heart broke.
Failure. Looted. Like all the rest. He was not the first. For a time he sat, hunched, wax dribbling down his fingers. Then, sighing, he roused himself to reach out. Leaning perilously far he just managed to clutch a stone and pull himself over. He raised the candle. A tunnel. Smooth-sided. And something ahead. Rubble?
Intrigued, he shifted his weight even further to lean upon the smashed opening. It was slow going, as he had to hold the candle upraised in one hand the entire time, but eventually, awkwardly, he slid forward into the tunnel and left the sling seat twisting behind. He edged onward through the dusty cobwebbed chute, candle held out before him.
It was a rockfall. A barrier of dirt and debris. How old? He glanced back to the hammered opening and his heart soared anew. Did they get no further? Could what lay beyond as yet remain . . . inviolate?
Perhaps. He would have to find out. He studied the packed dirt and rock with an assessor’s eye. Looks like this will call for some oldfashioned digging after all. He began pushing himself backwards.
This could take some time.
In the surf of a shimmering sea of light a man struggled to push a creature four times his size free of the heaving waves. The liquid tore and ate at the creature like acid. Steam frothed and sizzled bubbling over its sides. Inhuman screams of agony and rage sounded. It flailed its limbs in terror, delivering desperate rock-shattering blows deflected from the man only by flashes of argent power. The brilliant waves crashed over them both as the man knelt, struggling to roll the creature.
Between waves he urged, ‘Crawl! Crawl! You can do it!’
‘I burn!’ it shrieked, raging and crying.
‘I die . . .’
From rocks up the beach came running and limping a motley collection of mismatched creatures. They dashed into the surf, shrieking and gasping as the liquid burst into smoke around them. Their flesh sloughed off in strips, eaten by the acid light. ‘No! Get back!’ the man bellowed, terrified. Together, all pulling and tugging, they heaved the giant figure on to the black sand beach. A number of the smaller ones sank from sight beneath the frothing waves and the man searched frantically, blindly feeling about. He dragged out two tiny smoking figures then fell, exhausted, on to the sands.
The huge creature snarled in an effort to gain its bird-like clawed feet. Its flesh was melted to the bone in places. Clear ichor ran from its wounds as it lurched to the man who lay gasping and knelt next to him.
‘Why . . . ?’
The man rose to his elbows. The luminescent waters ran from him leaving no wounds. His long black hair lay plastered to his skull. ‘You were cast out through no fault of your own. Cast out to dissolve into nothingness. That is not right. Not right.’
The creature’s glowing furnace eyes blinked its wonder. ‘You are unhurt. Immune . . . you are . . . Eleint?’
‘No. I am just a man.’
A grunt of disbelief from the giant. ‘You are more than that. I am Korus, High Born of Aral Gamelon. What is your name?’
The man lowered his gaze. ‘I do not know it. It is lost to me. I was given a new one: Thenaj.’
Korus settled back upon his thick haunches, examined one clawed scarred hand where his armoured flesh had been scoured away entirely. Pale tendons shifted, exposed to the air. ‘Well, Thenaj. Such as I am, I am yours.’
Angered, the man waved the offer aside. ‘No. You are your own now. Free of all compellings. Free of all the summonings and abuse of exploiters of the Warrens, damn them all to dissolution! Free to do as you please.’
The huge demon cocked his armoured head, his golden eyes taking in the desolate shore of black sands. ‘Then I shall remain.’
Thenaj nodded his gratitude. ‘Good. Then help me with the little ones – their courage is greater than their wisdom.’
In the estate district of Darujhistan a tall, hook-nosed man returned to long-delayed work of drawing a new map of the city copied from an older version, one that bore upon it an obscuring rust-red stain. He worked bent over, face close to the vellum, the quill scratching patiently.
‘The city ever renews itself, Master Baruk?’ observed someone close to his elbow.
The High Alchemist jumped, his forearm striking a crystal inkpot and overturning it, sending an impenetrable black wash across the map. Baruk turned slowly to stare down at the squat rotund figure beside him, a figure so short as to barely see over the high table.
‘Oh dear. Kruppe is most apologetic. If something should happen – as it cannot help but do – such will be looked back upon as a most portentous omen.’
Baruk cleaned the quill on a scrap of rag. ‘It was only an accident.’ He dropped the quill into its holder. ‘And in any case, how did you . . . I doubled all the wards.’
Watery, bulging frog-like eyes blinked innocently back up at him. Baruk’s shoulders slumped. ‘We both know what is threatening. There have been warnings enough. Death’s death, for the love of all the gods. The green banner of the night sky. The shattering and rebirth of the moon. The breaking of Dragnipur . . .’ He waved a hand. ‘Choose any you wish.’
‘As it is the proclivity of all to do.’ The fat man sighed contentedly as he settled into a plush chair. ‘In the ease of hindsight . . . or is that behindsight?’ The bulging eyes seemed to cross and the man held a white silk handkerchief to his face. ‘Gods wipe such a sight!’
From his high stool Baruk studied the man. He pressed steepled fingers to his chin, his gaze sharpening. ‘I fear you will not fare as well this time.’
A demon waddled up to sit at Kruppe’s slippered feet – one even more squat and obese than he. It struck Baruk that had Chillbais possessed a tail, it would most certainly be wagging. From one voluminous sleeve, rather dirty and threadbare, it must be said, came a stoppered sample jar. Baruk’s gaze sharpened even further as he recognized the jar. Kruppe uncorked it and fished out the sample, which itself was a fish, a small white one. This he held out over Chillbais, who snapped up the offering. Kruppe petted the demon’s knobbled bald head.
‘That was a rare blind albino cave fish from the deserts of the Jhag Odhan, Kruppe.’
‘And tasty too. I highly recommend them. On toast.’
‘And to what, other than the raiding of my sample shelves and the bribing and suborning of my servants, do I owe this visit? I am reminded of your earlier call not so long ago, and I am not reassured.’
The fat man sniffed the jar’s milky fluid, wrinkled his nose, and set it aside. ‘Kruppe wonders now, in the presentsight, as it were – or is it is? – what pedestrian activities or seemingly innocuous events will, in the hindsight of the future, be seen to be foreshadowings of the grievous event which may, or may not, come to pass, and which, by the forewarning, may thusly be headed off.’ He set his pale hands under his chin and beamed up at Baruk who blinked, frowning.
A fluttering of the oversized handkerchief. ‘Oh, who is to say? The subject is quite picked over. Perhaps if one dug deeper, though – who knows what might be uncovered? Things long hidden from the bright glare of the sun heaving up gasping and blinking unseeing orbs yet somehow managing to be preserved, perhaps for all foreverness, thereby outlasting even you and me?’
Baruk turned the quill in its carved soapstone holder. ‘Now you are making me damned uncomfortable, Kruppe. The circle remains broken,’ and he inclined his head, ‘thanks to . . . whoever. Its hoped-for eternity of perfection was smashed. And all my time and resources are spent in ensuring that it remain so . . . yet the perturbations of these powerful events of late . . .’ He rubbed his brows and his back hunched, betraying an uncharacteristic infirmity and exhaustion.
For an instant the little man’s brows pinched in concern, unnoticed. Then he puffed out his chest – though to nowhere near the protrusion of the straining lower buttons of his waistcoat.
‘Do not despair, my High Alchemicalness. The Eel has eyes like a hawk! And had it any limbs, why, they would be the thews of a panther! No pale wriggling albino cave fish is the Eel! Er . . . that is . . . unlike said fish, no pickling jar could ever be quick enough to capture it!’
All through the alleys of the bourse of the dancing girls, beneath its multi-coloured awnings and drifting fumes of burning prayer sticks, the gossip of the day was fixed upon the unprecedented arrival of a bright new star among the constellation of its most talented practitioners.
The heart of the bourse was the narrow Way of Sighs, a length of shadowed alley not incidentally overlooked by the open window alcoves of the dancers’ quarters. Here in the cool of the twilight the girls often gathered in their window seats to take in the pleasant night air, observe dusk prayers, and to receive the admiration of suitors lingering below. This eve the courtiers and young bravos talked among themselves, comparing rapturous descriptions of the new dancer’s goddess-like grace and classical beauty; while, above, tortoiseshell combs yanked rather savagely through midnight manes of hair.
She had appeared out of nowhere, this diminutive captivating sprite whose confidence so far surpassed her apparent age. No school could boast of having trained her, though many wished they had. A secretive rise of her painted lips and a flash of her green-tinged sloe-eyes easily deflected even the subtlest of questioning and left would-be interrogators speechless. Schooling at home by her mother, herself once a very famous dancer, was all she had admitted so far.
Then the romance began. How the alleyways resounded, the awnings fluttered, with twice the usual wistful sighs of admiration! The dedicated, brilliant dancer (no doubt of the lowest of family origins) and the awkward son of a noble house (and that house in poverty and decline). Why, it was like the stories of old! Jeshin Lim, the bookish, unpromising son of the once great Lim family, cousin to councilman Shardan, himself cut off so tragically, madly in love with a dancing girl of no family and no connections. What other explanation could there be but pure unadorned love?
In their window nooks some clenched perfectly manicured nails to palms and muttered through pearl teeth of bewitchment.
Then the unlikeliest of strokes. The cousin vaulted to a seat on the Council! All nod sagely at the obvious tonic to a man of the love and devotion of a gifted woman. And the path to said Council seat no doubt paved by the freely given gold bangles and anklets from those very shapely limbs!
Yet inevitably must come the tragic and tearful end. All know the conclusion to such star-crossed affairs. Lim, having achieved the vaunted rank of councilman is far too prominent for such a low entanglement.
And so, in the cooling breezes of the window nooks, brushes now slid smoothly through long black hair, and kohl-lined eyes were languid and satisfied in the certain knowledge of such pending devastation.
Now he came, this very eve, drawn in a hired carriage to the apartment houses near the dancers’ quarters where so many girls were similarly kept at the expense of their, shall we say, patrons.
Lim’s carriage pulled up at the private entrance and he stepped down wrapped in a dark hooded cloak, a delicate gold mask pressed to his face, obscuring his features. The guard bowed respectfully, eyes averted, and pulled the sliding bolt. The councilman slipped within.
He came to one specific door along the second floor hall and knocked four quick raps: their agreed secret code. Yet the door did not open; no smooth naked arms entwined him. The gold mask edged right and left, then a hand rose to try the latch, and found it unlocked. He stepped within, pushed the door shut behind. ‘My love?’
No answer from the cluttered darkened room. Layered carpets covered the floor in heaps, cushions lay about draped in abandoned gossamer clothes. He edged forward tentatively. ‘My dear?’
He found her at the window – no open seated alcove here: bars sealed these small openings. She was peering out to where the bluetinted night flames of the city seemed to battle the green-tinged night sky above.
‘I am sorry, my dear . . .’ he began.
She turned, arms crossed over her small high breasts. For a moment her eyes seemed to flash with a green light akin to that of the night sky. ‘And who is this who comes intruding upon my privacy?’
Jeshin stared, confused, then lowered the mask and examined it wryly. He pushed back the hood, revealing his long black hair, his narrow scholar’s face. He tapped a finger to the gold mask. ‘You see? Even now I come as you request. Though why this façade of anonymity when everyone seems to know of . . . well.’ He tossed the mask aside.
‘You should not have come,’ she said, hugging herself even tighter, as if struggling to keep something in.
Jeshin turned away, pacing. ‘Yes, yes. Now that I am a councillor. Even now you shame me in your concern for my reputation.’ He spun upon her. ‘Yet perhaps there is a way. I no longer need the blessings of my family . . .’
Slipping forward, she silenced him with a finger to his lips. ‘No.’ She spoke soothingly, as if to a child. ‘I’ll not have you weakened in any way. Your opponents will use it against you. Paint you an impetuous fool. You must not be compromised.’ And she peered up at him, her gaze almost furtive. ‘Your great vision for the city, remember?’
He squeezed her to him. ‘But without you?’
Dancer that she was, she somehow easily eluded his grasp to put her back to him. ‘We . . . both . . . must make sacrifices,’ she said, facing the window once more.
He shook his head in awed admiration. ‘Your determination is a lesson to me.’
She turned, finger at her chin. ‘Yet there is one last thing I can do for you, my Jeshin, my noble councillor.’
He waved the suggestion aside, still shaking his head. ‘You have done enough – too much. Your advice, the things you knew . . . As they say: all secrets are revealed beneath the feet of the dancer.’
Her henna-lined lips drew up, pleased. ‘That is a very old saying. And very true. No, one last word that has come to me. There is an extraordinarily wealthy man in the city who shares your vision of a strong Darujhistan that commands the respect it deserves.’ Her lips drew down, dismissive. ‘True, he is a northerner, from Cat. But he should support you. His name is Humble. Humble Measure.’
Jeshin frowned. ‘The ironmonger?’
‘He is more than that. Trust in me.’
The young councillor held out his hands as if in surrender. ‘If you say so, dearest. I shall contact him.’
‘Excellent. With his resources your ascent will be assured.’
Jeshin stared, almost awestruck. ‘I do not deserve you, my love.’
Smiling once more, she pressed a palm to his chest and gently urged him down to a heap of cushions. ‘You shall, my love. You shall.’
Standing above him she struck the opening pose of Burn Awakening, one leg raised, toe just brushing the floor, one hand lifted to face as if warding off the harsh glare of a primeval dawn. From this pose she flowed into the first four devotional motions, one to each corner of the world, bowing, hands raised in supplication, palms inward.
Then she danced.
Staring, mesmerized, his pulse racing, Jeshin could only moan, ‘Oh, Taya . . . Taya . . .’
The retreat had been established in the coastal mountains south of Mengal generations ago. Some named it a monastery, others a school. Those who entered did so in the understanding of a voluntary abandonment of the world, with all its diversions and deluding ambitions.
Why the legendary Traveller, slayer of Anomander Rake, the very son of Darkness and Lord of Moon’s Spawn, would come here was a mystery to Esten Rul. If he had defeated the most feared and powerful Ascendant once active in the world he would not be squatting in some dusty monastery full of mumbling priests and acolytes.
And that was not what he planned on doing after he in turn defeated this Traveller.
Even now, assured by numerous independent sources, he could not quite believe that this squalid mountain-hugging collection of huts and open-air temples was the retreat of the great swordsman. Entering the main sand courtyard he paused, eyed the passing robed priests on their unhurried ways. None even cast him a single glance. This was not the sort of treatment to which Esten Rul, master duellist and swordsman of three continents, was accustomed. These shaven-headed wretches obviously did not possess the wit to understand that the man who stood before them was acknowledged a master on Quon Tali and Falar. And that he had taken the measure of the current crop of talents here in Genabackis and frankly thought them rather second-rate.
One oldster was dutifully sweeping up the leaves that littered the courtyard and this one he approached.
‘You. Old man. Where can I find the one who goes by the name Traveller?’
In what was obviously a deliberate insult the fellow had the effrontery to continue sweeping. Esten stamped his foot down on the bundled straw of the broom. ‘I am talking to you, grandfather.’
The man peered up at him, very dark, not a local, his scalp freshly shaven, the face scarred and graven in lines of care. Yet the eyes: utterly without fear, deep midnight blue like ocean depths.
The weight of that gaze made Esten look away, uncomfortable. So, not a servant after all. A broken-down veteran perhaps, shattered by battle. ‘You know of him?’
‘The one those here call Master? Yes.’
Esten grunted. So, their master, was he? Of course. What else could such a man be? ‘Where is he? Which of these pathetic huts?’ The old man looked him up and down. Esten saw his eyes casting over the quillions of his sheathed rapier.
‘You would challenge him?’
‘No, I’m here delivering flowers from Black Coral. Of course I’m here to challenge him, you senile fool!’
The old man closed his eyes as if pained; lowered his head. ‘Go back to Darujhistan. The one called Traveller has . . . retired . . . from all swordplay.’ He returned to his sweeping.
Esten barely restrained himself from cuffing the insolent fool. He set his hand instead on the grip of his sword. ‘Do not try me. I am not used to such treatment. Take me to Traveller or I will find someone else who will – at sword-point.’
The old man stilled. He turned to face him: the eyes had narrowed now, and darkened even more. ‘Is that the way of it? Very well. I will take you to Traveller, but before I do you must demonstrate your worthiness.’
Esten gaped at the man. ‘What? Demonstrate my . . . worthiness?’ He peered about in disbelief. A crowd of the robed monks, or priests, or whatever they were, had gathered silent and watchful. Esten Rul was not a man to be spooked but he found their quiet regard a touch unnerving. He returned his attention to the old sweeper, gave a vague gesture of invitation with one gloved hand. ‘And pray tell how do I do that?’
‘By defeating the least of us.’
Esten bit down on his impatience and took a slow calming breath. ‘And . . . that would be?’
A sad slow shrug from the man. ‘Well . . . that would be me.’
‘Yes. I’m very new here.’
‘You . . .’ He stepped away as if the fellow were a lunatic. ‘But you’re just cleaning the court!’
A rueful nod. ‘Yes. And I’ve yet to get it right. It’s the wind, you know. No matter how careful you are the wind just comes tumbling through and all your plans and care are for naught.’
Esten snorted his disgust and turned away. He raised his hands to his mouth to bellow: ‘Traveller! Can you hear me? Are you hiding here? Come out and face me!’
‘Defeat me and they will bring you to him.’
Having turned full circle Esten faced the man again. ‘Really . . . just like that.’
‘Yes. Just like that. It is an ancient practice. One remembered and honoured here.’
Esten opened his hands as if in a gesture of futility. ‘Well . . . if I must . . . You do have a weapon?’
The old man merely shrugged his regretful apology once more and raised his broom.
From the gates to the monastery an acolyte watched the foreign duellist walking down the zigzag mountain trail. The swordsman’s hands were clasped behind his back and his head was lowered as if he had just been given a great deal to think about. The acolyte bowed to the man at the gate where he leaned on his broom, the wood of the haft nicked and gouged.
‘Will he return, Master?’ the acolyte asked.
‘I keep telling you lot not to call me that,’ sighed the man who had given up the name Traveller. He shrugged. ‘Let’s hope not. He’s been offered a lesson. We can only hope it will be heeded.’ He shifted his grip on the broom. ‘But . . . life is nothing more than a series of lessons and few learn enough of them.’ He looked to the courtyard and winced. ‘Gods – you turn away for one moment and everything goes to the Abyss. I’m going to have to start all over again . . .’
‘As we all should, Master.’
For an instant a small smile graced the man’s pain-ravaged face, then the mouth eased back into its habitual slash of a grimace. ‘Well said. Yes. As we all should. Every day. With every breath.’
In the nameless shanty town rambling westward of Darujhistan, an old woman squatted in front of her shack carving a stick beneath a night sky dominated by the slashing lurid green banner of the Scimitar. Her hair was a wild bush about her head tied with lengths of string, ribbon, beads, and twists of leather. Her bare feet where they poked out beneath her layered skirts were as dark as the earth the toes gripped. She droned to herself in a language no one understood.
An old woman living alone in a decrepit hut was nothing unusual for the shanty town, peopled as it was by the poorest, most brokendown of the lowest class of tannery workers, sewer cleaners and garbage haulers of Darujhistan. Every second shack seemed occupied by an old widow or grandmother, the menfolk dying off early as they do everywhere – the men claiming this proves they do all the hard work, and the women knowing it’s because men aren’t tough enough to endure being old.
And so this woman had lived in her squalid hut for as long as anyone could remember and none remarked upon it, except for all the surrounding old widows and grandmothers who amongst themselves knew her as ‘that crazy old woman’.
Squatting in the mud before her hut she brought the thin stick she was carving close to eyes clouded by milky cataracts and studied the intricate tracery of curve and line that ran end to end. She crooned to herself, ‘Almost, now. Almost.’ Then she glanced fearfully, and rather blindly, to the starry night sky and its intruding alien banner, muttering, ‘Almost now. Almost.’
The stick went into a sack at her side. From a smaller bag she drew a pipe and a pinch of a sticky dark substance like gum that she rolled into a ball then pressed into the pipe. She lit the pipe with a twig from a low fire, drew the smoke in deep and held it down in her lungs for a long time before leaning her head back and letting the great plume blow skyward.
She blinked her watering eyes. ‘Almost, now. Almost.’
Orb Sceptre Throne © Ian Cameron Esslemont 2012