‘HE WAS A SOLDIER’
I am known
in the religion of rage.
Worship me as a pool
Of blood in your hands.
Drink me deep.
It’s bitter fury
that boils and burns.
Your knives were small
but they were many.
I am named
in the religion of rage.
Worship me with your
long after I am dead.
It’s a song of dreams
crumbled to ashes.
Your wants overflowed
but now gape empty.
I am drowned
in the religion of rage.
Worship me unto
death and down
to a pile of bones.
The purest book
is the one never opened.
No needs left unfulfilled
on the cold, sacred day.
I am found
in the religion of rage.
Worship me in a
stream of curses.
This fool had faith
and in dreams he wept.
But we walk a desert
rocked by accusations,
where no man starves
with hate in his bones.
Poet’s Night i.iv
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Fisher kel Tath
If you never knew
the worlds in my mind
your sense of loss
would be small pity
and we’ll forget this on the trail.
Take what you’re given
and turn away the screwed face.
I do not deserve it,
no matter how narrow the strand
of your private shore.
If you will do your best
I’ll meet your eye.
It’s the clutch of arrows in hand
that I do not trust
bent to the smile hitching my way.
We aren’t meeting in sorrow
or some other suture
We haven’t danced the same
and my sympathy for your troubles
I give freely without thought
of reciprocity or scales on balance.
It’s the decent thing, that’s all.
Even if that thing
is a stranger to so many.
But there will be secrets
you never knew
and I would not choose any other way.
All my arrows are buried and
the sandy reach is broad
and all that’s private
cools pinned on the altar.
Even the drips are gone,
that child of wants
with a mind full of worlds
and his reddened tears.
The days I feel mortal I so hate.
The days in my worlds,
are where I live for ever,
and should dawn ever arrive
I will to its light awaken
as one reborn.
Poet’s Night iii.iv
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Fisher kel Tath
Cotillion drew two daggers. His gaze fell to the blades.
The blackened iron surfaces seemed to swirl, two pewter rivers oozing across pits and gouges, the edges ragged where armour and bone had slowed their thrusts. He studied the sickly sky’s lurid reflections for a moment longer, and then said, ‘I have no intention of explaining a damned thing.’ He looked up, eyes locking. ‘Do you understand me?’
The figure facing him was incapable of expression. The tatters of rotted sinew and strips of skin were motionless upon the bones of temple, cheek and jaw. The eyes held nothing, nothing at all.
Better, Cotillion decided, than jaded scepticism. Oh, how he was sick of that. ‘Tell me,’ he resumed, ‘what do you think you’re seeing here? Desperation? Panic? A failing of will, some inevitable decline crumbling to incompetence? Do you believe in failure, Edgewalker?’
The apparition remained silent for a time, and then spoke in a broken, rasping voice. ‘You cannot be so . . . audacious.’
‘I asked if you believed in failure. Because I don’t.’
‘Even should you succeed, Cotillion. Beyond all expectation, beyond, even, all desire. They will still speak of your failure.’
He sheathed his daggers. ‘And you know what they can do to themselves.’
The head cocked, strands of hair dangling and drifting. ‘Arrogance?’
‘Competence,’ Cotillion snapped in reply. ‘Doubt me at your peril.’
‘They will not believe you.’
‘I do not care, Edgewalker. This is what it is.’
When he set out, he was not surprised that the deathless guardian followed. We have done this before. Dust and ashes puffed with each step. The wind moaned as if trapped in a crypt. ‘Almost time, Edgewalker.’
‘I know. You cannot win.’
Cotillion paused, half turned. He smiled a ravaged smile. ‘That doesn’t mean I have to lose, does it?’
Dust lifted, twisting, in her wake. From her shoulders trailed dozens of ghastly chains: bones bent and folded into irregular links, ancient bones in a thousand shades between white and deep brown. Scores of individuals made up each chain, malformed skulls matted with hair, fused spines, long bones bent, clacking and clattering. They drifted out behind her like a tyrant’s legacy and left a tangled skein of furrows in the withered earth.
Her pace did not slow, as steady as the sun’s own crawl to the horizon ahead, as inexorable as the darkness overtaking her. She was indifferent to notions of irony, and the bitter taste of irreverent mockery that could so sting the palate. In this there was only necessity, the hungriest of gods. She had known imprisonment. The memories remained fierce, but such recollections were not those of crypt walls and unlit tombs. Darkness, indeed, but also pressure. Terrible, unbearable pressure. Madness was a demon and it lived in a world of helpless need, a thousand desires unanswered, a world without resolution. Madness, yes, she had known that demon. They had bargained with coins of pain, and those coins came from a vault that never emptied. She’d once known such wealth.
And still the darkness pursued.
Walking, a thing of hairless pate, skin the hue of bleached papyrus, elongated limbs that moved with uncanny grace. The landscape surrounding her was empty, flat on all sides but ahead, where a worndown range of colourless hills clawed the horizon.
She had brought her ancestors with her and they rattled a chaotic chorus. She had not left a single one behind. Every tomb of her line now gaped empty, as hollowed out as the skulls she’d plundered from their sarcophagi. Silence ever spoke of absence. Silence was the enemy of life and she would have none of it. No, they talked in mutters and grating scrapes, her perfect ancestors, and they were the voices of her private song, keeping the demon at bay. She was done with bargains.
Long ago, she knew, the worlds – pallid islands in the Abyss – crawled with creatures. Their thoughts were blunt and simple, and beyond those thoughts there was nothing but murk, an abyss of ignorance and fear. When the first glimmers awakened in that confused gloom, they quickly flickered alight, burning like spot fires. But the mind did not awaken to itself on strains of glory. Not beauty, not even love. It did not stir with laughter or triumph. Those fires, snapping to life, al belonged to one thing and one thing only.
The first word of sentience was justice. A word to feed indignation.
A word empowering the will to change the world and all its cruel circumstances, a word to bring righteousness to brutal infamy. Justice, bursting to life in the black soil of indifferent nature. Justice, to bind families, to build cities, to invent and to defend, to fashion laws and prohibitions, to hammer the unruly mettle of gods into religions. All the prescribed beliefs rose out twisting and branching from that single root, losing themselves in the blinding sky.
But she and her kind had stayed wrapped about the base of that vast tree, forgotten, crushed down; and in their place, beneath stones, bound in roots and dark earth, they were witness to the corruption of justice, to its loss of meaning, to its betrayal.
Gods and mortals, twisting truths, had in a host of deeds stained what once had been pure.
Well, the end was coming. The end, dear ones, is coming. There would be no more children, rising from the bones and rubble, to build anew all that had been lost. Was there even one among them, after all, who had not suckled at the teat of corruption? Oh, they fed their inner fires, yet they hoarded the light, the warmth, as if justice belonged to them alone.
She was appalled. She seethed with contempt. Justice was incandescent within her, and it was a fire growing day by day, as the wretched heart of the Chained One leaked out its endless streams of blood. Twelve Pures remained, feeding. Twelve. Perhaps there were others, lost in farflung places, but she knew nothing of them. No, these twelve, they would be the faces of the final storm, and, pre-eminent among them all, she would stand at that storm’s centre.
She had been given her name for this very purpose, long ago now. The Forkrul Assail were nothing if not patient. But patience itself was yet one more lost virtue.
Chains of bone trailing, Calm walked across the plain, as the day’s light died behind her.
‘God failed us.’
Trembling, sick to his stomach as something cold, foreign, coursed through his veins, Aparal Forge clenched his jaw to stifle a retort. This vengeance is older than any cause you care to invent, and no matter how often you utter those words, Son of Light, the lies and madness open like flowers beneath the sun. And before me I see nothing but lurid fields of red, stretching out on all sides.
This wasn’t their battle, not their war. Who fashioned this law that said the child must pick up the father’s sword? And dear Father, did you really mean this to be? Did she not abandon her consort and take you for her own? Did you not command us to peace? Did you not say to us that we children must be as one beneath the newborn sky of your union?
What crime awoke us to this?
I can’t even remember.
‘Do you feel it, Aparal? The power?’
‘I feel it, Kadagar.’ They’d moved away from the others, but not so far as to escape the agonized cries, the growl of the Hounds, or, drifting out over the broken rocks in ghostly streams, the blistering breath of cold upon their backs. Before them rose the infernal barrier. A wall of imprisoned souls. An eternally crashing wave of despair. He stared at the gaping faces through the mottled veil, studied the pitted horror in their eyes. You were no different, were you? Awkward with your inheritance, the heavy blade turning this way and that in your hand.
Why should you pay for someone else’s hatred?
Why should we?
‘What so troubles you, Aparal?’
‘We cannot know the reason for our god’s absence, Lord. I fear it is presumptuous of us to speak of his failure.’
Kadagar Fant was silent.
Aparal closed his eyes. He should never have spoken. I do not learn. He walked a bloody path to rule and the pools in the mud still gleam red. The air about Kadagar remains brittle. This flower shivers to secret winds. He is dangerous, so very dangerous.
‘The Priests spoke of impostors and tricksters, Aparal.’ Kadagar’s tone was even, devoid of inflection. It was the voice he used when furious. ‘What god would permit that? We are abandoned. The path before us now belongs to no one else – it is ours to choose.’
Ours. Yes, you speak for us all, even as we cringe at our own confessions. ‘Forgive my words, Lord. I am made ill – the taste—’
‘We had no choice in that, Aparal. What sickens you is the bitter flavor of its pain. It passes.’ Kadagar smiled and clapped him on the back. ‘I understand your momentary weakness. We shall forget your doubts, yes? And never again speak of them. We are friends, after all, and I would be most distressed to be forced to brand you a traitor. Set upon the White Wall . . . I would kneel and weep, my friend. I would.’
A spasm of alien fury hissed through Aparal and he shivered. Abyss! Mane of Chaos, I feel you! ‘My life is yours to command, Lord.’
‘Lord of Light!’
Aparal turned, as did Kadagar.
Blood streaming from his mouth, Iparth Erule staggered closer, eyes wide and fixed upon Kadagar. ‘My lord, Uhandahl, who was last to drink, has just died. He – he tore out his own throat!’
‘Then it is done,’ Kadagar replied. ‘How many?’
Iparth licked his lips, visibly flinched at the taste, and then said, ‘You are the First of Thirteen, Lord.’
Smiling, Kadagar stepped past Iparth. ‘Kessobahn still breathes?’
‘Yes. It is said it can bleed for centuries—’
‘But the blood is now poison,’ Kadagar said, nodding. ‘The wounding must be fresh, the power clean. Thirteen, you say. Excellent.’
Aparal stared at the dragon staked to the slope behind Iparth Erule. The enormous spears pinning it to the ground were black with gore and dried blood. He could feel the Eleint’s pain, pouring from it in waves. Again and again it tried to lift its head, eyes blazing, jaws snapping, but the vast trap held. The four surviving Hounds of Light circled at a distance, hackles raised as they eyed the dragon. Seeing them, Aparal hugged himself. Another mad gamble. Another bitter failure. Lord of Light, Kadagar Fant, you have not done well in the world beyond.
Beyond this terrible vista, and facing the vertical ocean of deathless souls as if in mocking madness, rose the White Wall, which hid the decrepit remnants of the Liosan city of Saranas. The faint elongated dark streaks lining it, descending just beneath the crenellated battlements, were all he could make out of the brothers and sisters who had been condemned as traitors to the cause. Below their withered corpses ran the stains from everything their bodies had drained down the alabaster facing. You would kneel and weep, would you, my friend?
Iparth asked, ‘My lord, do we leave the Eleint as it is?’
‘No. I propose something far more fitting. Assemble the others. We shall veer.’
Aparal started but did not turn. ‘Lord—’
‘We are Kessobahn’s children now, Aparal. A new father, to replace the one who abandoned us. Osserc is dead in our eyes and shall remain so. Even Father Light kneels broken, useless and blind.’
Aparal’s eyes held on Kessobahn. Utter such blasphemies often enough and they become banal, and all shock fades. The gods lose their power, and we rise to stand in their stead. The ancient dragon wept blood, and in those vast, alien eyes there was nothing but rage. Our father. Your pain, your blood, our gift to you. Alas, it is the only gift we understand. ‘And once we have veered?’
‘Why, Aparal, we shall tear the Eleint apart.’
He’d known what the answer would be and he nodded. Our father. Your pain, your blood, our gift. Celebrate our rebirth, Our Father Kessobahn, with your death. And for you, there shall be no return. ‘I have nothing with which to bargain. What brings you to me? No, I see that. My broken servant cannot travel far, even in his dreams. Crippled, yes, my precious flesh and bones upon this wretched world. Have you seen his flock? What blessing can he bestow? Why, naught but misery and suffering, and still they gather, the mobs, the clamouring, beseeching mobs. Oh, I once looked upon them with contempt. I once revelled in their pathos, their ill choices and their sorry luck. Their stupidity.
‘But no one chooses their span of wits. They are each and all born with what they have, that and nothing more. Through my servant I see into their eyes – when I so dare – and they give me a look, a strange look, one that for a long time I could not understand. Hungry, of course, so brimming with need. But I am the Foreign God. The Chained One. The Fallen One, and my holy word is Pain.
‘Yet those eyes implored.
‘I now comprehend. What do they ask of me? Those dull fools glittering with fears, those horrid expressions to make a witness cringe. What do they want? I will answer you. They want my pity.
‘They understand, you see, their own paltry scant coins in their bag of wits. They know they lack intelligence, and that this has cursed them and their lives. They have struggled and lashed out, from the very beginning. No, do not look at me that way, you of smooth and subtle thought, you give your sympathy too quickly and therein hide your belief in your own superiority. I do not deny your cleverness, but I question your compassion.
‘They wanted my pity. They have it. I am the god that answers prayers – can you or any other god make that claim? See how I have changed. My pain, which I held on to so selfishly, now reaches out like a broken hand. We touch in understanding, we flinch at the touch. I am one with them all, now.
‘You surprise me. I had not believed this to be a thing of value. What worth compassion? How many columns of coins balance the scales? My servant once dreamed of wealth. A buried treasure in the hills. Sitting on his withered legs, he pleaded with passers-by in the street. Now you look at me here, too broken to move, deep in the fumes, and the wind slaps these tent walls without rest. No need to bargain. My servant and I have both lost the desire to beg. You want my pity? I give it. Freely.
‘Need I tell you of my pain? I look in your eyes and find the answer.
‘It is my last play, but you understand that. My last. Should I fail . . .
‘Very well. There is no secret to this. I will gather the poison, then. In the thunder of my pain, yes. Where else?
‘Death? Since when is death failure?
‘Forgive the cough. It was meant to be laughter. Go then, wring your promises with those upstarts.
‘That is all faith is, you know. Pity for our souls. Ask my servant and he will tell you. God looks into your eyes, and God cringes.’
Three dragons chained for their sins. At the thought Cotillion sighed, suddenly morose. He stood twenty paces away, ankle deep in soft ash. Ascendancy, he reflected, was not quite as long a stride from the mundane as he would have liked. His throat felt tight, as if his airpassages were constricted. The muscles of his shoulders ached and dull thunder pounded behind his eyes. He stared at the imprisoned Eleint lying so gaunt and deathly amidst drifts of dust, feeling . . . mortal.
Abyss take me, but I’m tired.
Edgewalker moved up alongside him, silent and spectral.
‘Bones and not much else,’ Cotillion muttered.
‘Do not be fooled,’ Edgewalker warned. ‘Flesh, skin, they are raiment. Worn or cast off as suits them. See the chains? They have been tested. Heads lifting . . . the scent of freedom.’
‘How did you feel, Edgewalker, when everything you held fell to pieces in your hands? Did failure arrive like a wall of fire?’ He turned to regard the apparition. ‘Those tatters have the look of scorching, come to think of it. Do you remember that moment, when you lost everything? Did the world echo to your howl?’
‘If you seek to torment me, Cotillion—’
‘No, I would not do that. Forgive me.’
‘If these are your fears, however . . .’
‘No, not my fears. Not at all. They are my weapons.’
Edgewalker seemed to shiver, or perhaps some shift of the ash beneath his rotted moccasins sent a tremble through him, a brief moment of imbalance. Settling once more, the Elder fixed Cotillion with the withered dark of its eyes. ‘You, Lord of Assassins, are no healer.’
No. Someone cut out my unease, please. Make clean the incision, take out what’s ill and leave me free of it. We are sickened by the unknown, but knowledge can prove poisonous. And drifting lost between the two is no better. ‘There is more than one path to salvation.’
‘It is curious.’
‘Your words . . . in another voice, coming from . . . someone else, would leave a listener calmed, reassured. From you, alas, they could chill a mortal soul to its very core.’
‘This is what I am,’ Cotillion said.
Edgewalker nodded. ‘It is what you are, yes.’
With that, Cotillion advanced another six paces, eyes on the nearest dragon, the gleaming bones of the skull visible between strips of rotted hide. ‘Eloth,’ he said, ‘I would hear your voice.’
‘Shall we bargain again, Usurper?’
The voice was male, but such details were in the habit of changing on a whim. Still, he frowned, trying to recall the last time. ‘Kalse, Ampelas, you will each have your turn. Do I now speak with Eloth?’
‘I am Eloth. What is it about my voice that so troubles you, Usurper? I sense your suspicion.’
‘I needed to be certain,’ Cotillion replied. ‘And now I am. You are indeed Mockra.’
A new draconic voice rumbled laughter through Cotillion’s skull, and then said, ‘Be careful, Assassin, she is the mistress of deceit.’
Cotillion’s brows lifted. ‘Deceit? Pray not, I beg you. I am too innocent to know much about such things. Eloth, I see you here in chains, and yet in mortal realms your voice has been heard. It seems you are not quite the prisoner you once were.’
‘Sleep slips the cruellest chains, Usurper. My dreams rise on wings and I am free. Do you now tell me that such freedom was more than delusion? I am shocked unto disbelief.’
Cotillion grimaced. ‘Kalse, what do you dream of?’
Does that surprise me? ‘Ampelas?’
‘The rain that burns, Lord of Assassins, deep in shadow. And such a grisly shadow. Shall we three whisper divinations now? All my truths are chained here, it is only the lies that fly free. Yet there was one dream, one that still burns fresh in my mind. Will you hear my confession?’
‘My rope is not quite as frayed as you think, Ampelas. You would do better to describe your dream to Kalse. Consider that advice my gift.’ He paused, glanced back at Edgewalker for a moment, and then faced the dragons once more. ‘Now then, let us bargain for real.’
‘There is no value in that,’ Ampelas said. ‘You have nothing to give us.’
‘But I do.’
Edgewalker suddenly spoke behind him. ‘Cotillion—’
‘Freedom,’ said Cotillion.
He smiled. ‘A fine start. Eloth, will you dream for me?’
‘Kalse and Ampelas have shared your gift. They looked upon one another with faces of stone. There was pain. There was fire. An eye opened and it looked upon the Abyss. Lord of Knives, my kin in chains are . . . dismayed. Lord, I will dream for you. Speak on.’
‘Listen carefully then,’ Cotillion said. ‘This is how it must be.’
The depths of the canyon were unlit, swallowed in eternal night far beneath the ocean’s surface. Crevasses gaped in darkness, a world’s death and decay streaming down in ceaseless rain, and the currents whipped in fierce torrents that stirred sediments into spinning vortices, lifting like whirlwinds. Flanked by the submerged crags of the canyon’s ravaged cliffs, a flat plain stretched out, and in the centre a lurid red flame flickered to life, solitary, almost lost in the vastness.
Shifting the almost weightless burden resting on one shoulder, Mael paused to squint at that improbable fire. Then he set out, making straight for it.
Lifeless rain falling to the depths, savage currents whipping it back up into the light, where living creatures fed on the rich soup, only to eventually die and sink back down. Such an elegant exchange, the living and the dead, the light and the lightless, the world above and the world below. Almost as if someone had planned it.
He could now make out the hunched figure beside the flames, hands held out to the dubious heat. Tiny sea creatures swarmed in the reddish bloom of light like moths. The fire emerged pulsing from a rent in the floor of the canyon, gases bubbling upward.
Mael halted before the figure, shrugging off the wrapped corpse that had been balanced on his shoulder. As it rocked down to the silts tiny scavengers rushed towards it, only to spin away without alighting. Faint clouds billowed as the wrapped body settled in the mud.
The voice of K’rul, Elder God of the Warrens, drifted out from within his hood. ‘If all existence is a dialogue, how is it there is still so much left unsaid?’
Mael scratched the stubble on his jaw. ‘Me with mine, you with yours, his with his, and yet still we fail to convince the world of its inherent absurdity.’
K’rul shrugged. ‘Him with his. Yes. Odd that of all the gods, he alone discovered this mad, and maddening, secret. The dawn to come . . . shall we leave it to him?’
‘Well,’ Mael grunted, ‘first we need to survive the night. I have brought the one you sought.’
‘I see that. Thank you, old friend. Now tell me, what of the Old Witch?’
Mael grimaced. ‘The same. She tries again, but the one she has chosen . . . well, let us say that Onos T’oolan possesses depths Olar Ethil cannot hope to comprehend, and she will, I fear, come to rue her choice.’
‘A man rides before him.’
Mael nodded. ‘A man rides before him. It is . . . heartbreaking.’
‘“Against a broken heart, even absurdity falters.”’
‘“Because words fall away.”’
Fingers fluttered in the glow. ‘“A dialogue of silence.”’
‘“That deafens.”’ Mael looked off into the gloomy distance. ‘Blind Gallan and his damnable poems.’ Across the colourless floor armies of sightless crabs were on the march, drawn to the alien light and heat. He squinted at them. ‘Many died.’
‘Errastas had his suspicions, and that is all the Errant needs. Terrible mischance, or deadly nudge. They were as she said they would be. Unwitnessed.’ K’rul lifted his head, the empty hood now gaping in Mael’s direction. ‘Has he won, then?’
Mael’s wiry brows rose. ‘You do not know?’
‘That close to Kaminsod’s heart, the warrens are a mass of wounds and violence.’
Mael glanced down at the wrapped corpse. ‘Brys was there. Through his tears I saw.’ He was silent for a long moment, reliving someone else’s memories. He suddenly hugged himself, released a ragged breath. ‘In the name of the Abyss, those Bonehunters were something to behold!’
The vague hints of a face seemed to find shape inside the hood’s darkness, a gleam of teeth. ‘Truly? Mael – truly?’
Emotion growled out his words. ‘This is not done. Errastas has made a terrible mistake. Gods, they all have!’
After a long moment, K’rul sighed, gaze returning to the fire. His pallid hands hovered above the pulsing glow of burning rock. ‘I shall not remain blind. Two children. Twins. Mael, it seems we shall defy the Adjunct Tavore Paran’s wish to be for ever unknown to us, unknown to everyone. What does it mean, this desire to be unwitnessed? I do not understand.’
Mael shook his head. ‘There is such pain in her . . . no, I dare not get close. She stood before us, in the throne room, like a child with a terrible secret, guilt and shame beyond all measure.’
‘Perhaps my guest here will have the answer.’
‘Is this why you wanted him? To salve mere curiosity? Is this to be a voyeur’s game, K’rul? Into a woman’s broken heart?’
‘Partly,’ K’rul acknowledged. ‘But not out of cruelty, or the lure of the forbidden. Her heart must remain her own, immune to all assault.’
The god regarded the wrapped corpse. ‘No, this one’s flesh is dead, but his soul remains strong, trapped in its own nightmare of guilt. I would see it freed of that.’
‘Poised to act, when the moment comes. Poised to act. A life for a death, and it will have to do.’
Mael sighed unevenly. ‘Then it falls on her shoulders. A lone woman. An army already mauled. With allies fevered with lust for the coming war. An enemy awaiting them all, unbowed with inhuman confidence, so eager to spring the perfect trap.’ He lifted his hands to his face. ‘A mortal woman who refuses to speak.’
‘Yet they follow.’
‘Mael, do they truly have a chance?’
He looked down at K’rul. ‘The Malazan Empire conjured them out of nothing. Dassem’s First Sword, the Bridgeburners, and now the Bonehunters. What can I tell you? It is as if they were born of another age, a golden age lost to the past, and the thing of it is: they don’t even know it. Perhaps that is why she wishes them to remain unwitnessed in all that they do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She doesn’t want the rest of the world to be reminded of what they once were.’
K’rul seemed to study the fire. Eventually, he said, ‘In these dark waters, one cannot feel one’s own tears.’
Mael’s reply was bitter. ‘Why do you think I live here?’
If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement. But if I am to be accused of being cleverer than I am – and how is this even possible? – or, gods forbid, too aware of every echo sent charging out into the night, to bounce and cavort, to reverberate like a sword’s edge on a shield rim, if, in other words, I am to be castigated for heeding my sensitivities, well, then something rises like fire within me. I am, and I use the word most cogently, incensed.
Udinaas snorted. The page was torn below this, as if the author’s anger had sent him or her into an apoplectic frenzy. He wondered at this unknown writer’s detractors, real or imagined, and he thought back to the times, long ago, when someone’s fist had answered his own too-quick, too-sharp wits. Children were skilled at sensing such things, the boy too smart for his own good, and they knew what needed doing about it. Beat him down, lads. Serves him right. So he was sympathetic to the spirit of the long-dead writer.
‘But then, you old fool, they’re dust and your words live on. Who now has the last laugh?’
The rotting wood surrounding him gave back no answer. Sighing, Udinaas tossed the fragment aside, watched flakes of parchment drift down like ashes. ‘Oh, what do I care? Not much longer, no, not much longer.’ The oil lamp was guttering out, used up, and the chill had crept back in. He couldn’t feel his hands. Old legacies, no one could shake them, these grinning stalkers.
Ulshun Pral had predicted more snow, and snow was something he had grown to despise. ‘As if the sky itself was dying. You hear that, Fear Sengar? I’m almost ready to take up your tale. Who could have imagined that legacy?’
Groaning at the stiffness in his limbs, he clambered out of the ship’s hold, emerged blinking on the slanted deck, the wind battering at his face. ‘World of white, what are you telling us? That all is not well. That the fates have set a siege upon us.’
He had taken to talking to himself. That way, no one else had to cry, and he was tired of those glistening tears on weathered faces. Yes, he could thaw them all with a handful of words. But that heat inside, well, it had nowhere to go, did it? He gave it to the cold, empty air instead. Not a single frozen tear in sight.
Udinaas climbed over the ship’s side, dropped down into kneedeep snow, and then took a fresh path back to the camp in the shelter of rocks, his thick, fur-lined moccasins forcing him to waddle as he ploughed through the drifts. He could smell woodsmoke.
He caught sight of the Emlava halfway to the camp. The two enormous cats stood perched on high rocks, their silvered backs blending with the white sky. Watching him. ‘So, you’re back. That’s not good, is it?’ He felt their eyes tracking him as he went on. Time was slowing down. He knew that was impossible, but he could imagine an entire world buried deep in snow, a place devoid of animals, a place where seasons froze into one and that season did not end, ever. He could imagine the choking down of every choice until not a single one was left.
‘A man can do it. Why not an entire world?’ The snow and wind gave no answer, beyond the brutal retort that was indifference. In between the rocks, now, the bitter wind falling off, the smoke stinging awake his nostrils. There was hunger in the camp, there was white everywhere else. And still the Imass sang their songs. ‘Not enough,’ Udinaas muttered, breath pluming. ‘It’s just not, my friends. Face it, she’s dying. Our dear little child.’
He wondered if Silchas Ruin had known all along. This imminent failure. ‘All dreams die in the end. Of all people I should know that. Dreams of sleep, dreams of the future, sooner or later comes the cold, hard dawn.’ Walking past the snow-humped yurts, scowling against the droning songs drifting out around the hide flaps, he made for the trail leading to the cave.
Dirty ice crusted the rocky maw, like frozen froth. Once within its shelter the air warmed around him, damp and smelling of salts. He stamped the snow from his moccasins, and then strode into the twisting, stony corridor, hands out to the sides, fingertips brushing the wet stone. ‘Oh,’ he said under his breath, ‘but you’re a cold womb, aren’t you?’
Ahead he heard voices, or, rather, one voice. Heed your sensitivities now, Udinaas. She stands unbowed, for ever unbowed. This is what love can do, I suppose.
The old stains on the stone floor remained, timeless reminders of blood spilled and lives lost in this wretched chamber. He could almost hear the echoes, sword and spear, the gasp of desperate breaths. Fear Sengar, I would swear your brother stands there still. Silchas Ruin staggering back, step by step, his scowl of disbelief like a mask he’d never worn before, and was it not ill-fitting? It surely was. Onrack T’emlava stood to the right of his wife. Ulshun Pral crouched a few paces to Kilava’s left. Before them all reared a withered, sickly edifice. Dying House, your cauldron is cracked. She was a flawed seed.
Kilava turned upon his arrival, her dark animal eyes narrowing as would a hunting cat’s as it gathered to pounce. ‘Thought you might have sailed away, Udinaas.’
‘The charts lead nowhere, Kilava Onnass, as I’m sure the pilot observed upon arriving in the middle of a plain. Is there anything more forlorn than a foundered ship, I wonder?’
Onrack spoke. ‘Friend Udinaas, I welcome your wisdom. Kilava speaks of the awakening of the Jaghut, the hunger of the Eleint, and the hand of the Forkrul Assail, which never trembles. Rud Elalle and Silchas Ruin have vanished – she cannot sense them and she fears the worst.’
‘My son lives.’
Kilava stepped closer. ‘You cannot know that.’
Udinaas shrugged. ‘He took more from his mother than Menandore ever imagined. When she faced that Malazan wizard, when she sought to draw upon her power, well, one of many fatal surprises that day.’
His gaze fell to those blackened stains. What happened to our heroic outcome, Fear? To the salvation you gave your life to win? ‘If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement.’ But the world’s judgement is cruel.
‘We contemplate a journey from this realm,’ said Onrack.
Udinaas glanced at Ulshun Pral. ‘Do you agree?’
The warrior freed one hand to a flurry of fluid gestures.
Udinaas grunted. Before the spoken word, before song, there was this. But the hand speaks in broken tongue. The cipher here belongs to his posture – a nomad’s squat. No one fears walking, or the unfolding of a new world. Errant take me, this innocence stabs the heart.
‘You won’t like what you will find. Not the fiercest beast of this world stands a chance against my kind.’ He glared at Onrack. ‘What do you think that Ritual was all about? The one that stole death from your people?’
‘Hurtful as his words are,’ growled Kilava, ‘Udinaas speaks the truth.’ She faced the Azath once more. ‘We can defend this gate. We can stop them.’
‘And die,’ snapped Udinaas.
‘No,’ she retorted, wheeling to face him. ‘You will lead my children from here, Udinaas. Into your world. I will remain.’
‘I thought you said “we,” Kilava.’
‘Summon your son.’
Her eyes flared.
‘Find someone else to join you in your last battle.’
‘I will stand with her,’ said Onrack.
‘You will not,’ hissed Kilava. ‘You are mortal—’
‘And you are not, my love?’
‘I am a Bonecaster. I bore a First Hero who became a god.’ Her face twisted but there was anguish in her eyes. ‘Husband, I shall indeed summon allies to this battle. But you, you must go with our son, and with Udinaas.’ She pointed a taloned finger at the Letherii. ‘Lead them into your world. Find a place for them—’
‘A place? Kilava, they are as the beasts of my world – there are no places left!’
‘You must find one.’
Do you hear this, Fear Sengar? I am not to be you after all. No, I am to be Hull Beddict, another doomed brother. ‘Follow me! Listen to all my promises! Die.’ ‘There is nowhere,’ he said, throat tight with grief, ‘In all the world . . . nowhere. We leave nothing well enough alone. Not ever. The Imass can make claim to empty lands, yes, until someone casts upon it a covetous eye. And then they will begin killing you. Collecting hides and scalps. They will poison your food. Rape your daughters. All in the name of pacification, or resettlement, or whatever other euphemistic bhederin shit they choose to spit out. And the sooner you’re all dead the better, so they can forget you ever existed in the first place. Guilt is the first weed we pluck, to keep the garden pretty and smelling sweet. That is what we do, and you cannot stop us – you never could. No one can.’
Kilava’s expression was flat. ‘You can be stopped. You will be stopped.’
Udinaas shook his head.
‘Lead them into your world, Udinaas. Fight for them. I do not mean to fall here, and if you imagine I am not capable of protecting my children, then you do not know me.’
‘You condemn me, Kilava.’
‘Summon your son.’
‘Then you condemn yourself, Udinaas.’
‘Will you speak so coolly when my fate extends to your children as well?’
When it seemed that no answer was forthcoming, Udinaas sighed and, turning about, set off for the outside, for the cold and the snow, and the whiteness and the freezing of time itself. To his anguish, Onrack followed.
‘I’m sorry, Onrack, I can’t tell you anything helpful – nothing to ease your mind.’
‘Yet,’ rumbled the warrior, ‘you believe you have an answer.’
Errant’s nudge, it’s hopeless. Oh, watch me walk with such resolve. Lead you all, yes. Bold Hull Beddict has returned, to repeat his host of crimes one more time.
Still hunting for heroes, Fear Sengar? Best turn away, now.
‘You will lead us, Udinaas.’
‘So it seems.’
Beyond the cave mouth, the snow whipped down.
He had sought a way out. He had flung himself from the conflagration. But even the power of the Azath could not breach Akhrast Korvalain, and so he had been cast down, his mind shattered, the fragments drowning in a sea of alien blood. Would he recover? Calm did not know for certain, but she intended to take no chances. Besides, the latent power within him remained dangerous, a threat to all their plans. It could be used against them, and that was not acceptable. No, better to turn this weapon, to take it into my own hand and wield it against the enemies I know I must soon face. Or, if that need proves unnecessary, kill him.
Before either could ever happen, however, she would have to return here. And do what must be done. I would do it now, if not for the risk. Should he awaken, should he force my hand . . . no, too soon. We are not ready for that.
Calm stood over the body, studying him, the angular features, the tusks, the faint flush that hinted of fever. Then she spoke to her ancestors. ‘Take him. Bind him. Weave your sorcery – he must remain unconscious. The risk of his awakening is too great. I will return before too long. Take him. Bind him.’ The chains of bones slithered out like serpents, plunging into the hard ground, ensnaring the body’s limbs, round the neck, across the torso, stitching him spread-eagled to this hilltop.
She saw the bones trembling. ‘Yes, I understand. His power is too immense – that is why he must be kept unconscious. But there is something else I can do.’ She stepped closer and crouched. Her right hand darted out, the fingers stiff as blades, and stabbed a deep hole in the man’s side. She gasped and almost reeled back – was it too much? Had she awoken him?
Blood seeped down from the wound.
But Icarium did not move.
Calm released a long, unsteady breath. ‘Keep the blood trickling,’ she told her ancestors. ‘Feed on his power.’
Straightening, she lifted her gaze, studied the horizon on all sides.
The old lands of the Elan. But they had done away with them, leaving nothing but the elliptical boulders that once held down the sides of tents, the old blinds and runs from an even older time, and of the great animals that once dwelt in this plain not even a single herd remained, domestic or wild. There was, she observed, admirable perfection in this new state of things. Without criminals, there can be no crime. Without crime, no victims. The wind moaned and none stood against it to give answer.
Perfect adjudication, it tasted of paradise.
Reborn. Paradise reborn. From this empty plain, the world. From this promise, the future.
She set out, leaving the hill behind, and with it the body of Icarium, bound to the earth in chains of bone. When she returned again to this place, she would be flush with triumph. Or desperate need. If the latter, she would awaken him. If the former, she would grasp his head in her hands, and with a single, savage twist, break the abomination’s neck.
And no matter which decision awaited her, on that day her ancestors would sing with joy.
Crooked upon the mound of rubbish, the stronghold’s throne was burning in the courtyard below. Smoke, grey and black, rose in a column until it lifted past the ramparts, where the wind tore it apart, shreds drifting like banners high above the ravaged valley.
Half-naked children scampered across the battlements, their voices cutting sharp through the clatter and groan from the main gate, where the masons were repairing yesterday’s damage. A watch was turning over and the High Fist listened to commands snapping like flags behind him. He blinked sweat and grit from his eyes and leaned, with some caution, on the eroded merlon, his narrowed gaze scanning the wellordered enemy camp spread out along the valley floor.
From the rooftop platform of the square tower on his right a child of no more than nine or ten years was struggling with what had once been a signal kite, straining to hold it overhead, until with thudding wing-flaps the tattered silk dragon lifted suddenly into the air, spinning and wheeling. Ganoes Paran squinted up at it. The dragon’s long tail flashed silver in the midday sunlight. The same tail, he recalled, that had been in the sky above the stronghold the day of the conquest.
What had the defenders been signalling then?
He stared up at the kite, watched it climb ever higher. Until the windspun smoke devoured it.
Hearing a familiar curse, he turned to see the Host’s High Mage struggling past a knot of children at the top of the stairs, his face twisted in disgust as if navigating a mob of lepers. The fish spine clenched between his teeth jerking up and down in agitation, he strode up to the High Fist.
‘I swear there’re more of them than yesterday, and how is that possible? They don’t leap out of someone’s hip already half grown, do they?’
‘Still creeping out from the caves,’ Ganoes Paran said, fixing his attention on the enemy ranks once more.
Noto Boil grunted. ‘And that’s another thing. Whoever thought a cave was a decent place to live? Rank, dripping, crawling with vermin. There will be disease, mark my words, High Fist, and the Host has had quite enough of that.’
‘Instruct Fist Bude to assemble a clean-up crew,’ Paran said. ‘Which squads got into the rum store?’
‘Seventh, Tenth and Third, Second Company.’
‘Captain Sweetcreek’s sappers.’
Noto Boil plucked the spine from his mouth and examined the pink point. He then leaned over the wall and spat something red. ‘Aye, sir. Hers.’
Paran smiled. ‘Well then.’
‘Aye, serves them right. So, if they stir up more vermin—’
‘They are children, mage, not rats. Orphaned children.’
‘Really? Those white bony ones make my skin crawl, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’ He reinserted the spine and it went up and down. ‘Tell me again how this is better than Aren.’
‘Noto Boil, as High Fist I answer only to the Empress.’
The mage snorted. ‘Only she’s dead.’
‘Which means I answer to no one, not even you.’
‘And that’s the problem, nailed straight to the tree, sir. Nailed to the tree.’ Seemingly satisfied with that statement, he pointed with a nod and jab of the fish spine in his mouth. ‘Lots of scurrying about over there. Another attack coming?’
Paran shrugged. ‘They’re still . . . upset.’
‘You know, if they ever decide to call our bluff—’
‘Who says I’m bluffing, Boil?’
The man bit something that made him wince. ‘What I mean is, sir, no one’s denying you got talents and such, but those two commanders over there, well, if they get tired of throwing Watered and Shriven against us – if they just up and marched themselves over here, in person, well . . . that’s what I meant, sir.’
‘I believe I gave you a command a short while ago.’
Noto scowled. ‘Fist Bude, aye. The caves.’ He turned to leave and then paused and looked back. ‘They see you, you know. Standing here day after day. Taunting them.’
‘I wonder,’ Paran mused as he returned his attention to the enemy camp.
‘The Siege of Pale. Moon’s Spawn just sat over the city. Months, years. Its lord never showed himself, until the day Tayschrenn decided he was ready to try him. But here’s the thing, what if he had? What if, every damned day, he’d stepped out on to that ledge? So Onearm and all the rest could pause, look up, and see him standing there? Silver hair blowing, Dragnipur a black god-shitting stain spreading out behind him.’
Noto Boil worked his pick for a moment, and then said, ‘What if he had, sir?’
‘Fear, High Mage, takes time. Real fear, the kind that eats your courage, weakens your legs.’ He shook his head and glanced at Noto oil. ‘Anyway, that was never his style, was it? I miss him, you know.’
He grunted. ‘Imagine that.’
‘Noto, do you understand anything I say? Ever?’
‘I try not to, sir. No offence. It’s that fear thing you talked about.’
‘Don’t trample any children on your way down.’
‘That’s up to them, High Fist. Besides, the numbers could do with some thinning.’
‘We’re an army, not a crèche, that’s all I’m saying. An army under siege. Outnumbered, overcrowded, confused, bored – except when we’re terrified.’ He plucked out his fish spine again, whistled in a breath between his teeth. ‘Caves filled with children – what were they doing with them all? Where are their parents?’
‘We should just hand them back, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’
‘Haven’t you noticed, today’s the first day they’re finally behaving like normal children. What does that tell you?’
‘Doesn’t tell me nothing, sir.’
‘Fist Rythe Bude. Now.’
‘Aye sir, on my way.’
Ganoes Paran settled his attention on the besieging army, the precise rows of tents like bone tesserae on a buckled floor, the figures scrambling tiny as fleas over the trebuchets and Great Wagons. The foul air of battle never seemed to leave this valley. They look ready to try us again. Worth another sortie? Mathok keeps skewering me with that hungry look. He wants at them. He rubbed at his face. The shock of feeling his beard caught him yet again, and he grimaced. No one likes change much, do they? But that’s precisely my point.
The silk dragon cut across his vision, diving down out of the reams of smoke. He glanced over to the boy on the tower, saw him struggling to keep his footing. A scrawny thing, one of the ones from up south. A Shriven. When it gets too much, lad, be sure to let go.
Seething motion now in the distant camp. The glint of pikes, the chained slaves marching out to the yokes of the Great Wagons, High Watered emerging surrounded by runners. Dust slowly lifting in the sky above the trebuchets as they were wheeled forward.
Aye, they’re still upset all right.
‘I knew a warrior once. Awakening from a wound to the head believing he was a dog, and what are dogs if not loyalty lacking wits? So here I stand, woman, and my eyes are filled with tears. For that warrior, who was my friend, who died thinking he was a dog. Too loyal to be sent home, too filled with faith to leave. These are the world’s fallen. When I dream, I see them in their thousands, chewing at their own wounds. So, do not speak to me of freedom. He was right all along. We live in chains. Beliefs to shackle, vows to choke our throats, the cage of a mortal life, this is our fate. Who do I blame? I blame the gods. And curse them with fire in my heart.
‘When she comes to me, when she says that it’s time, I shall take my sword in hand. You say that I am a man of too few words, but against the sea of needs, words are weak as sand. Now, woman, tell me again of your boredom, this stretch of days and nights outside a city obsessed with mourning. I stand before you, eyes leaking with the grief of a dead friend, and all I get from you is a siege of silence.’
She said, ‘You have a damned miserable way of talking your way into my bed. Fine then, get in. Just don’t break me.’
‘I only break what I do not want.’
‘And if the days of this relationship are numbered?’
‘They are,’ he replied, and then he grinned. ‘But not the nights.’
Faintly, the distant city’s bells tolled their grief at the fall of darkness, and in the blue-lit streets and alleys, dogs howled.
In the innermost chamber of the palace of the city’s lord, she stood in shadows, watching as he moved away from the hearth, brushing charcoal from his hands. There was no mistaking his legacy of blood, and it seemed the weight his father had borne was settling like an old cloak on his son’s surprisingly broad shoulders. She could never understand such creatures. Their willingness to martyrdom. The burdens by which they measured self-worth. This embrace of duty.
He settled into the high-backed chair, stretched out his legs, the awakening fire’s flickering light licking the studs ringing his knee-high leather boots. Resting his head back, eyes closed, he spoke. ‘Hood knows how you managed to get in here, and I imagine Silanah’s hackles are lifting at this very moment, but if you are not here to kill me, there is wine on the table to your left. Help yourself.’
Scowling, she edged out from the shadows. All at once the chamber seemed too small, its walls threatening to snap tight around her. To so willingly abandon the sky in favour of heavy stone and blackened timbers, no, she did not understand this at all. ‘Nothing but wine?’ Her voice cracked slightly, reminding her that it had been some time since she’d last used it.
His elongated eyes opened and he observed her with unfeigned curiosity. ‘You prefer?’
‘Sorry. You will need to go to the kitchens below for that.’
‘Mare’s milk, then.’
His brows lifted. ‘Down to the palace gate, turn left, walk half a thousand leagues. And that is just a guess, mind you.’
Shrugging, she edged closer to the hearth. ‘The gift struggles.’
‘Gift? I do not understand.’
She gestured at the flames.
‘Ah,’ he said, nodding. ‘Well, you stand in the breath of Mother Dark—’ and then he started. ‘Does she know you’re here? But then,’ he settled back again, ‘how could she not?’
‘Do you know who I am?’ she asked.
‘I am Apsal’ara. His night within the Sword, his one night, he freed me. He had the time for that. For me.’ She found she was trembling. He was still studying her. ‘And so you have come here.’
‘You didn’t expect that from him, did you?’
‘No. Your father – he had no reason for regret.’
He rose then, walked over to the table and poured himself a goblet of wine. He stood with the cup in hand, staring down at it. ‘You know,’ he muttered, ‘I don’t even want this. The need . . . to do something.’ He snorted. ‘“No reason for regret”, well . . .’
‘They look for him – in you. Don’t they?’
He grunted. ‘Even in my name you will find him. Nimander. No, I’m not his only son. Not even his favoured one – I don’t think he had any of those, come to think of it. Yet,’ and he gestured with the goblet, ‘there I sit, in his chair, before his fire. This palace feels like . . . feels like—’
Nimander flinched, looked away. ‘Too many empty rooms, that’s all.’
‘I need some clothes,’ she said.
He nodded distractedly. ‘I noticed, yes.’
‘You intend to stay, Apsal’ara?’
‘At your side, yes.’
He turned at that, eyes searching her face.
‘But,’ she added, ‘I will not be his burden.’
A wry smile. ‘Mine, then?’
‘Name your closest advisers, Lord.’
He swallowed half the wine, and then set the goblet down on the table. ‘The High Priestess. Chaste now, and I fear that does not serve her well. Skintick, a brother. Desra, a sister. Korlat, Spinnock, my father’s most trusted servants.’
‘And the one below?’
‘Did he once advise you, Lord? Do you stand at the bars in the door’s window, to watch him mutter and pace? Do you torment him? I wish to know the man I will serve.’
She saw clear anger in his face. ‘Are you to be my jester now? I have heard of such roles in human courts. Will you cut the sinews of my legs and laugh as I stumble and fall?’ He bared his teeth. ‘If yours is to be my face of conscience, Apsal’ara, should you not be prettier?’
She cocked her head, made no reply.
Abruptly his fury collapsed, and his eyes fell away. ‘It is the exile he has chosen. Did you test the lock on that door? It is barred from within. But then, we have no problem forgiving him. Advise me, then. I am a lord and it is in my power to do such things. To pardon the condemned. Yet you have seen the crypts below us. How many prisoners cringe beneath my iron hand?’
‘And I cannot free him. Surely that is worth a joke or two.’
‘Is he mad?’
‘Then no, not even you can free him. Your father took scores for the chains of Dragnipur, scores just like this Clip.’
‘I dare say he did not call it freedom.’
‘Nor mercy,’ she replied. ‘They are beyond reach. Not a lord’s reach, not even a god’s.’
‘Then we fail them all. Both lords and gods – we fail them, our broken children.’
This, she realized, would not be an easy man to serve. ‘He drew others to him – your father. Others who were not Tiste Andii. I remember, in his court, in Moon’s Spawn.’
Nimander’s eyes narrowed.
She hesitated, unsure, and then resumed. ‘Your kind are blind to many things. You need others close to you, Lord. Servants who are not Tiste Andii. I am not one of these . . . jesters you speak of. Nor, it seems, can I be your conscience, ugly as I am to your eyes—’
He held up a hand. ‘Forgive me for that, I beg you. I sought to wound and so spoke an untruth, just to see it sting.’
‘I believe I stung you first, my lord.’
He reached again for the wine, and then stood looking into the hearth’s flames. ‘Apsal’ara, Mistress of Thieves. Will you now abandon that life, to become an adviser to a Tiste Andii lord? All because my father, at the very end, showed you mercy?’
‘I never blamed him for what he did. I gave him no choice. He did not free me out of mercy, Nimander.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. But I mean to find out.’
‘And this pursuit – for an answer – has brought you here, to Black Coral. To . . . me.’
‘And how long will you stand at my side, Apsal’ara, whilst I govern a city, sign writs, debate policies? Whilst I slowly rot in the shadow of a father I barely knew and a legacy I cannot hope to fill?’
Her eyes widened. ‘Lord, that is not your fate.’
He wheeled to her. ‘Really? Why not? Please, advise me.’
She cocked her head a second time, studied the tall warrior with the bitter, helpless eyes. ‘For so long you Tiste Andii prayed for Mother Dark’s loving regard. For so long you yearned to be reborn to purpose, to life itself. He gave it all back to you. All of it. He did what he knew had to be done, for your sake. You, Nimander, and all the rest. And now you sit here, in his chair, in his city, among his children. And her holy breath, it embraces you all. Shall I give you what I possess of wisdom? Very well. Lord, even Mother Dark cannot hold her breath for ever.’
‘She does not—’
‘When a child is born it must cry.’
‘With its voice, it enters the world, and it must enter the world. Now,’ she crossed her arms, ‘will you continue hiding here in this city? I am the Mistress of Thieves, Lord. I know every path. I have walked them all. And I have seen what there is to be seen. If you and your people hide here, Lord, you will all die. And so will Mother Dark. Be her breath. Be cast out.’
‘But we are in this world, Apsal’ara!’
‘One world is not enough.’
‘Then what must we do?’
‘What your father wanted.’
‘And what is that?’
She smiled. ‘Shall we find out?’
‘You have some nerve, Dragon Master.’
A child shrieked from somewhere down the walkway.
Without turning, Ganoes Paran sighed and said, ‘You’re frightening the young ones again.’
‘Not nearly enough.’ The iron-shod heel of a cane cracked hard on the stone. ‘Isn’t that always the way, hee hee!’
‘I don’t think I appreciate the new title you’re giving me, Shadowthrone.’
A vague dark smear, the god moved up alongside Paran. The cane’s gleaming head swung its silver snarl out over the valley. ‘Master of the Deck of Dragons. Too much of a mouthful. It’s your . . . abuses. I so dislike unpredictable people.’ He giggled again. ‘People. Ascendants. Gods. Thick-skulled dogs. Children.’
‘Where is Cotillion, Shadowthrone?’
‘You should be tired of that question by now.’
‘I am tired of waiting for an answer.’
‘Then stop asking it!’ The god’s manic shriek echoed through the fortress, rattled wild along corridors and through hallways before echoing back to where they stood atop the wall.
‘That has certainly caught their attention,’ Paran observed, nodding to a distant barrow where two tall, almost skeletal figures now stood.
Shadowthrone sniffed. ‘They see nothing.’ He hissed a laugh. ‘Blinded by justice.’
Ganoes Paran scratched at his beard. ‘What do you want?’
‘Whence comes your faith?’
The cane rapped and skittered on the stone. ‘You sit with the Host in Aren, defying every imperial summons. And then you assault the Warrens with this.’ He suddenly cackled. ‘You should have seen the Emperor’s face! And the names he called you, my, even the court scribers cringed!’ He paused. ‘Where was I? Yes, I was berating you, Dragon Master. Are you a genius? I doubt it. Leaving me no choice but to conclude that you’re an idiot.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Is she out there?’
‘You don’t know?’
Paran slowly nodded. ‘Now I understand. It’s all about faith. A notion unfamiliar to you, I take it.’
‘This siege is meaningless!’
Shadowthrone hissed, one ethereal hand reaching out, as if to claw at Paran’s face. Instead, it hovered, twisted and then shrank into something vaguely fist-shaped. ‘You don’t understand anything!’
‘I understand this,’ Paran replied. ‘Dragons are creatures of chaos. There can be no Dragon Master, making the title meaningless.’
‘Exactly.’ Shadowthrone reached out to gather up a tangled snarl of spider’s web from beneath the wall’s casing. He held it up, apparently studying the cocooned remnant of a desiccated insect.
Miserable turd. ‘Here is what I know, Shadowthrone. The end begins here. Do you deny it? No, you can’t, else you wouldn’t be haunting me—’
‘Not even you can breach the power surrounding this keep,’ the god said. ‘You have blinded yourself. Open your gate again, Ganoes Paran, find somewhere else to lodge your army. This is pointless.’ He flung the web away and gestured with the head of his cane. ‘You cannot defeat those two, we both know that.’
‘But they don’t, do they?’
‘They will test you. Sooner or later.’
‘I’m still waiting.’
‘Perhaps even today.’
‘Will you wager on that, Shadowthrone?’
The god snorted. ‘You have nothing I want.’
‘Then I have nothing you want.’
‘Actually, as it happens . . .’
‘Do you see me holding a leash? He’s not here. He’s off doing other things. We’re allies, do you understand? An alliance. Not a damned marriage!’
Paran grinned. ‘Oddly enough, I wasn’t even thinking of Cotillion.’
‘A pointless wager in any case. If you lose you die. Or abandon your army to die, which I can’t see you doing. Besides, you’re nowhere near as devious as I am. You want this wager? Truly? Even when I lose, I win. Even when I lose . . . I win!’
Paran nodded. ‘And that has ever been your game, Shadowthrone. You see, I know you better than you think. Yes, I would wager with you. They shall not try me this day. We shall repulse their assault . . . again. And more Shriven and Watered will die. We shall remain the itch they cannot scratch.’
‘All because you have faith? Fool!’
‘Those are the conditions of this wager. Agreed?’
The god’s form seemed to shift about, almost vanishing entirely at one moment before reappearing, and the cane head struck chips from the merlon’s worn edge. ‘Agreed!’
‘If you win and I survive,’ resumed Paran, ‘you get what you want from me, whatever that is, and assuming it’s in my power to grant. If I win, I get what I want from you.’
‘If it’s in my power—’
Shadowthrone muttered something under his breath, and then hissed. ‘Very well, tell me what you want.’
And so Paran told him.
The god cackled. ‘And you think that’s in my power? You think Cotillion has no say in the matter?’
‘If he does, best you go and ask him, then. Unless,’ Paran added, ‘it turns out that, as I suspect, you have no idea where your ally has got to. In which case, Lord of Shadows, you will do as I ask, and answer to him later.’
‘I answer to no one!’ Another shriek, the echoes racing.
Paran smiled. ‘Why, Shadowthrone, I know precisely how you feel. Now, what is it you seek from me?’
‘I seek the source of your faith.’ The cane waggled. ‘That she’s out there. That she seeks what you seek. That, upon the Plain of Blood and Chains, you will find her, and stand facing her – as if you two had planned this all along, when I damned well know you haven’t! You don’t even like each other!’
‘Shadowthrone, I cannot sell you faith.’
‘So lie, damn you, just do it convincingly!’
He could hear silk wings flapping, the sound a shredding of the wind itself. A boy with a kite. Dragon Master. Ruler over all that cannot be ruled. Ride the howling chaos and call it mastery – who are you fooling? Lad, let go now. It’s too much. But he would not, he didn’t know how.
The man with the greying beard watches, and can say nothing.
He glanced to his left, but the shadow was gone.
A crash from the courtyard below drew him round. The throne, a mass of flames, had broken through the mound beneath it. And the smoke leapt skyward, like a beast unchained.
Copyright © 2011 by Steven Erikson