Dancer’s Lament: Chapter 1

At the heart of Quon Tali lies the powerful city-state of Li Heng, which has for centuries enjoyed relative stability under the guidance of the powerful sorceress known as the Protectress. She is not someone likely to tolerate the arrival of two particular young men into her domain: one determined to prove he is the most skilled assassin of his age, the other his quarry— a Dal Hon mage who is proving annoyingly difficult to kill. The sorceress and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions, so how could two such troublemakers upset her ironfisted rule?

And now, under a new and ambitious king, the forces of Itko Kan are marching on Li Heng from the south. His own assassins, the Nightblades, have been sent ahead into the city, and rumors abound that he has inhuman, nightmarish forces at his command. So as shadows and mistrust swirl, and monstrous beasts that people say appear from nowhere run rampage through Li Heng’s streets, it seems chaos is come—but in chaos, as a certain young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity…

Ian C. Esslemont’s all-new prequel trilogy takes readers deeper into the politics and intrigue of the Malazan Empire from its very beginnings. Dancer’s Lament, the first book in the series, is available May 31st from Tor Books. Read chapter one below, and check back all month for additional excerpts!

 

 

Chapter 1

Dorin Rav walked the dusty beaten earth of Quon’s storied Trunk Road. It was an ancient traders’ way that crossed the midsection of Quon like a narrow belt. From great Quon and Tali in the west, it stretched to the proverbial midsection clasp of Li Heng, and from there onward to the rich vineyards and orchards of wealthy Unta in the east.

Over thousands of years countless armies had trodden this route. They came marching out of both the east and the west: Bloor and Gris nobles convening to subdue the plains and the populace to the west of them; Tali and Quon kings emptying their treasuries to assemble vast infantry hordes, and eventually succeeding in subjugating the far eastern lands beneath their Iron Legions. Meanwhile, across the central plains, generation after generation of the Seti Wolf, Eagle, and Ferret clans raided all points indifferently.

He walked at a leisurely pace. He was not worried that his quarry might have struck out in any direction other than east. To the west and north lay the vast central grasslands of the Seti. To the south it was many days to any Dal Hon settlement or coastal Kanese confederacy. No, only to the east lay any nearby haven of civilization: the greatest of the independent city states, Li Heng itself.

The Trunk Road might be storied, he reflected as he walked, but these days it certainly wasn’t busy. Pedestrians such as himself consisted almost entirely of local farmers. Long distance travellers tended to band together into large caravans for protection against Seti raids—and to discourage the attentions of the great man-beast, Ryllandaras.

When he’d come down out of Tali lands, he’d hired on as a guard with just such a band of traders, religious pilgrims and wanderers. Unfortunately for him, after more than a week without a sighting of the feared Seti, the caravan-mistress had let half her guards go. And so he’d found himself unemployed and cast adrift in the empty, dusty middle of nowhere.

Unlike his brother guards, he’d not been concerned for his safety. Being mostly of Tali extraction, they’d ganged together to strike back west. He’d continued on, quickly outstripping the caravan’s rather disorganized, laborious pace. He did not fear any attack from the tribesmen, nor did he expect any attention from the legendary man-beast. Alone, he knew he could hide his presence. His opinion differed from his fellow travellers’ regarding strength in numbers: the great clattering mass of banging copperware, shouting drivers, bawling donkeys, and rattling bric-a-brac was to his mind nothing less than an attracter of raiders and unwanted attention.

And so now he neared Li Heng, and somewhere nearby, ahead or behind, lay his quarry. A fellow who had dared to cheat him… Or, perhaps more to the point, had succeeded in cheating him. That was not to be borne. Not by Dorin Rav. Who had been beaten by no one.

The second day of travel revealed smoke over the prairie to the north, not so far off the trader road. He altered his path to investigate. After pushing through the tall-grass for a few leagues, he came to a wide swath of trampled and broken stalks. The first thing he found was a man’s boot. When he picked it up, he found that it still held a foot.

It was a caravan, attacked and massacred in the night. By Seti tribesmen, probably. Old treaties existed—once enforced by the Tali Legions—that forbade predation on the road, but they were hardly honoured any longer. And there were always renegades and outlaws. Still, this was awfully close to Hengan lands.

Walking farther, he realized that it hadn’t been the Seti at all, whether war-party or outlaws. Wagons and carts lay torn apart. Loot glittered among the trampled grass: ironware, clothes, broken chests. Corpses still wore their personal possessions. He paused and knelt at one body. A single swipe of massive claws had torn the woman across the front as deep as her spine. She had twisted as she fell, her hips no longer in line with her shoulders; her viscera lay tossed about, congealing in the dirt. The only reason the organs and intestines remained was that—for the moment—the wild dogs, jackals, and carrion crows had more than enough to eat.

Her wristlet, he noted, was of gold. This he unlatched and tucked away. Brushing his hands, he continued on. It seemed his earlier instincts regarding the curse of Li Heng, the man-eater’s presence, were well founded. Ryllandaras had rampaged through this caravan like the predator of humans he was. Some named him a giant wolf, others a hyena, or a jackal. Such distinctions were meaningless as far as Dorin was concerned. Ryllandaras was a beast who ate people… what more need one know?

He kicked his way through the wreckage. At one point he stepped over a child’s severed arm. The noise of movement brought him round and his hands went to his baldric. One of the presumed corpses, a man—soldier or caravan guard—was levering himself erect from where he had lain propped up against an overturned wagon. Dorin coolly watched him do so.

Weaving, stoop-shouldered, the fellow—dark, clothes and armour rent and bloodied—staggered towards him. He was a young man, muscular, half Dal Hon perhaps. His long wavy black hair hung like a curtain of night and Dorin felt a twinge of envy—this one the girls must fawn over. ‘Ryllandaras?’ he called to him.

The man gave a curt nod.

Something in that casual acknowledgement irked Dorin—too self-possessed by far. On a chance he asked, ‘You didn’t see anyone else come by, did you?’

The youth nodded again. ‘Someone passed but I did not see him.’

Now Dorin frowned. ‘You speak in riddles.’

‘I speak the truth. I saw no one go by but someone did. He was humming.’

That’s him. Humming! Fits all too well. Li Heng for certain. He gave an answering nod. ‘My thanks.’

The young soldier lurched forward, suddenly animated. Something like a cross between disbelief and disgust twisted his mahogany features. ‘You are not walking away, are you?’

‘Yes.’

The youth opened his arms to gesture all about. ‘But the dead… they must be seen to.’

‘See to them, then. I’ll not stop you.’

Another lurched step, the lad’s face hardening. A hand settled on the longsword’s bloodied grip. ‘You’ll stay and help, or greet Hood.’

Dorin’s hands went to his hips where he carried his heaviest fighting blades. What was troubling everyone lately? Was it some sort of fog of animus carried by the man-beast? ‘Reconsider, friend. There is no need to start a feud. The dead are dead. The crows and jackals will take care of them.’

The lad drew and Dorin flinched backwards, actually taken by surprise—so fast!

But the youth staggered sideways, gasping his pain, one hand across his chest where the torn mail and leathers hung in tatters.

Dorin eased his hands from his knife grips, began backing away. ‘Perhaps you should just rest—or join them yourself.’

‘The beast might return. He said we’d meet again.’

‘He said—’ Dorin froze. ‘You duelled the Curse of Quon? The man-eater?’

The lad’s gaze was on the horizon, shadowed, as he rubbed his chest. ‘We fought all through the night.’

Dorin laughed outright, sneering. To think he almost had me believing. ‘Learn to temper your lies, hick. No one has ever faced him and lived.’

A sullen glance from the other. ‘I care not what you think. I know the truth of it… and that is enough for me.’

The truth of it? Smacks of religion. The lad must be an adherent. Dead on his feet now, in any case. Must have been cut down by another guard while fleeing the beast and is now trying for a cover story. Dorin continued backing away. Well, he’ll have to do better than claim that he faced Ryllandaras!

‘I will remember you!’ the lad shouted after him. ‘And this insult to the dead!’

Dorin had been pushing backwards through the tall-grass. His last glimpse of the guard was of him digging among the spilled cargo and raising a young girl to her feet.

He turned away with a shake of his head. Insult? Where was this fellow from? How provincial. He faced east. Two days’ hike away lay Li Heng. Surely there, of all places, he would find a true assassins’ guild where his skills would be appreciated.

And there also he would find this upstart Dal Hon mage and he would have his revenge for this… for this… He slowed, cast a troubled glance back to the smoking fields behind. For this insult?

* * *

Dorin had grown up in Tali, and so was no gawking farm-boy. Yet while that west coast city was far larger than Li Heng, it was a loose and sprawling collection of distinct precincts and quarters. It, and its neighbouring city and sister state of Quon, might have pressed their names upon the entire continent—though many still refused to acknowledge the claim—but it did not possess anything like Heng’s titanic famous fortifications. ‘Strong as the walls of Heng’ was a saying common across the land.

All through the final day of his approach up the trader road, those walls reared against the surrounding Seti Plains like a distant butte or outcrop of rock. Or like a wart, Dorin appended, reluctant to grant the city any unearned regard. To either side fields hung heavy with grain, and market garden plots lay ripening for harvest. Locals pulled carts burdened with produce, while sheep and hogs jostled Dorin on their way to be butchered.

Many of the fields boasted curious stone heaps that mystified him. After noting a few, he fell in with a girl swaying beneath a burden of large wicker baskets hung from a yoke across her bare, scraped-raw shoulders. Each brimmed over with bricks of cow manure.

‘Those piles of field stones,’ he asked. ‘What are they?’ The girl flinched, peered up with scared deer-like eyes through dirty tangled hair. Young, startlingly young, for such an onerous chore.

‘The stones… ?’ he repeated.

‘Not from around here, are you,’ she said, her vowels elongated in the Hengian manner.

‘No.’ He did not say where he was from; in fact, he was quite pleased to be hard to place, carrying a medium hue neither so dark as Dal Hon nor the olive of Tali or the Kanese confederacy, and not so burly or wavy-haired as to be Gris or Untan.

‘Bolt-holes,’ she said.

He cocked his head closer, wrinkled his nose at the stink. The cow shit, one must hope. ‘Pardon?’

The girl glanced fearfully about the surrounding fields. ‘Run there if he comes. Hide inside.’

Ah. He. The man-beast. Ryllandaras. An entire society living under siege. Thus the walls, of course. Nothing more than one big bolt-hole. That put things into their proper perspective.

‘Thanks, child.’ Child? Why say that? He was barely older. ‘Pray tell, why the manure? What do they do with it, there, in the city?’

The girl’s thick dark brows climbed in unguarded disbelief. ‘Why, they burn it a’course. Don’t see too many trees around, do you?’

Burn it? For fuel? To cook? Ye Gods, how disgusting…

He fell out of step with the girl. ‘Child’ may have slipped out in sympathy. He felt for her. For the dirty exhausting chore, and the probable buyer, a man he saw in his mind’s eye as fat and old, leering down at her and murmuring that he’d throw in a few more coins if she’d just… cooperate. And she, desperate to bring in more wages to ease her parents’ burdens, complying.

Should he not feel sympathy for such a plight?

But another, more cynical inner voice spun a different scenario: a calculating stone-hearted mother and father who knew full well what awaited daughter number four yet urged her on regardless, looking forward to the extra coins her winsomeness would bring. Who was to say which was the more accurate reading of the truth?

Or neither. Perhaps the child schemed for the chore, and once free of her smelly burden walked the busy city streets, marvelling, inspired, dreaming of one day remaining.

Who was to say? Not he.

Not so when a not too dissimilar young lad was sold from his village to Tali to enter into apprenticeship with a man who trained him to climb walls, squeeze into narrow openings, and spin knives. A skinny ragged child, who when chased into an alley turned his rage, ferocity, and tiny knives upon the two pursuing armoured guards and that night found his true calling…

But enough of that.

Hovels now crowded the trader way, as did corrals, market squares, and warehouses. All no doubt abandoned when night descended. The gates reared ahead, thick, three man-heights tall, and open only a slit, as if grudging, or fearful. He slowed to fall in next to a man on a wagon heaped with cheap blankets, brown earthenware pots, and copper wares.

As he expected, the two gate guards practically shoved him aside in their eagerness to extract their informal tithes and taxes from the unfortunate petty merchant. Past the guards, he helped himself to two pears from their baskets of confiscated goods and walked on, entering Heng unremarked and unmolested in the bright glaring heat of a late summer day.

He found himself in a crowded wide boulevard running more or less north–south, and bearing a slight curve to its broad course. Over the shop fronts and three storeys of tenements across the way reared another city wall. He realized he was within the bounded Outer Round, the outermost ring, or precinct, of the city proper. The air here was thick and still, redolent with cooking oils, but overlain by the stink of human sweat. Here he stopped for some time while making a great show of gawking right and left, as if having no idea where to go.

‘Just in to the city, then?’ someone said from behind.

He turned, smiling. ‘Yes. I had no idea it’d be so… huge.’

The man was short and very wide about the middle. His black beard was oiled and braided. Gold rings shone at his ears and fingers. He answered Dorin’s smile. ‘Yes, I guess it is. Where’re you from, then?’

‘You wouldn’t know it. A village near Cullis.’

‘Cullis? Tali lands? Just so happens I know a lad from there.’

Dorin smiled again. ‘That so? What’s his name?’

The fellow glanced about. ‘I’ll introduce you. Listen, you must be parched after all your walking. How ’bout a drink? My treat.’

He frowned. ‘I can pay for myself.’

‘’Course you can, lad! No offence, please. Just trying to be welcoming.’ And the man pressed a wide hand to Dorin’s back urging him onward, and he allowed it.

‘What are your plans, then?’ the fellow asked as he guided him down ever narrower and darker side alleys. ‘You have a trade?’

‘I thought I’d apprentice… weapon-smithing perhaps.’

The man pulled at his oiled beard. ‘Weapon-smithing!’ He whistled. ‘Very difficult trade to enter, that. Start them young they do—younger than you.’

‘Oh? That’s… too bad.’

The fellow had manoeuvred him into a very narrow shadowed alley that ended in a naked wall. He turned, hands at his wide leather belt. ‘Here we are, lad.’

Dorin peered about. Quiet enough for my purposes as well… ‘Here?’

‘Yes. Here’s where you’re stayin’.’

Steps behind. He turned to see four young men coming up the narrow way, all armed with short blunt sticks. No edged weapons. Just theft, then. He sidled up closer to the man while making a show of his confusion. ‘I don’t understand. There’s nothing here.’

‘You’ll be stayin’ here, lad, if you don’t hand over those fancy leatherwork belts and those long-knives I seen. Where’d you come by them any—’ and Dorin was suddenly behind him, one of those selfsame blades now pressed to his neck.

‘Nobody move!’

The youths pulled up, surprised. The man raised his empty hands. ‘Now calm down, lad. You’ve some moves, I see… maybe we can—’

Dorin pressed the blade even harder. ‘Answer my questions and I’ll let you live.’

‘Questions? Whatever are you…’ Dorin pressed so hard the man edged up on to his toes, hissing his alarm.

‘I want names. Names of those who run the black market here. And any assassins, and where to make contact.’

‘Killers for hire? So that’s the way of it… Lad, you are green. The Protectress, she don’t allow any killin’ here in the city. An’ now I’m sorry to say we’re done.’ The fellow waved one of his raised hands.

Dorin glanced at the four youths to ready himself for their move. But suddenly he was on the ground peering up at the clear blue sky through the narrow gap of the alleyway. The vision of one eye was a hazy bright pink. A face loomed over him—the fat fellow.

‘You were watchin’ the lads in the alley, weren’t ya? A mistake there, my little blade. Should’ve been watchin’ the roofs. Hengan slingers, lad. Deadly accurate. We’ll have those belts and blades now. No hard feelings, hey?’

He tried to speak, to damn the fellow to Hood and beyond, but his mouth was numb and his eyes closed like heavy doors, leaving him in a black box, and he knew nothing more.

* * *

Itching and tickling woke him. That and a light rain pattering down on to his face. He blinked open his eyes; the thin slit of clouds overhead held the first promise of dawn. Something was tickling his head. He pressed his hand above his ear to warm wetness, together with squirming shapes, and he yanked his hand away to see it smeared in blackening blood with a crowd of cockroaches happily feeding.

He next found himself atop a second-storey landing. How he got there he’d no idea. But the effort, and that image of his hand writhing with vermin, convulsed his stomach and he heaved over on to the alleyway. While he knelt on the small deck, gasping for breath, the insects below charged out to feed anew on the sprayed vomit.

Gods, but I’m developing a serious dislike of this city.

Still dazed, he wiped his mouth and headed off to try to find a place to hide and sleep.

Disjointed images came to him of narrow dark alleyways; hands rifling his torn shirt and he fighting someone off; running and smacking his head anew against a brick wall. Strangely, that impact cleared his thoughts the way a lightning strike at night allowed a moment of vision. He glimpsed a large wooden structure, some sort of barn, and he climbed its side, found a shadowed gable on the slope of the shingle roof, and squatted there, in the dark beneath the open sky. The barn, he noted, butted up against the tall stone wall of the Inner Round.

He did not mean to sleep; but his head kept drooping, and once he jerked awake to discover himself curled up on his side. Alarmed, he fought drunkenly for wakefulness, but failed to push away the cottony numbness of his thoughts and sank back into the dark.

* * *

The lightest of touches roused him to snatch a wrist. A yelp sounded at that; a high feminine squeak.

He opened his eyes, or rather, opened one—the other was gummed shut. He was grasping the slim forearm of a wisp of a girl who stared at him with wide, sable-black eyes. What impressed him was that the eyes held no fear. Only brief surprise.

‘You are badly hurt,’ she said.

‘Nothing I don’t deserve.’

‘That’s not the usual attitude among thieves.’

‘I’m not a thief.’

‘Ah, well. That explains everything, then.’

He released her arm; gingerly, he touched his head to find a cold damp cloth laid there. ‘Thank you.’

‘Manners? Also very unthief-like.’

Dorin felt his face scrunching up in annoyance. ‘I told you…’

She waved her hand. ‘Yes, yes. Here you are, wounded, hiding on our roof, yet you are not a thief. However, I believe you because you’re clearly the one who’s been robbed.’ She gestured to indicate his full length.

Frowning, he roused himself to peer down. His jacket was gone, his shirtings were torn and blood-spattered, his trousers were likewise torn, scuffed and bloody, and his feet were bare. They’d taken his shoes? He didn’t remember that happening. Now, his feet were blackened and filthy and oozing blood from innumerable cuts. At least he still possessed his laced inner vest of toughened leather lined with bone strapping.

By the beast gods, I’m a stinking wreck! One day in Li Heng and I’ve fallen to the lowest dregs!

All he felt was excruciating embarrassment and a rising dark fury. Embarrassment at his condition; rage against those who had thrown him into it.

‘Come inside,’ the girl urged. ‘Soon it will be light enough for the guards on the wall to see you.’ She pointed up.

He glanced up to the wall of the Inner Round, then peered about. He studied the surrounding shadowed maze of rooftops and the distant vista of the Seti Plains beyond, now brightening under a slanting pink and purple light; dawn was near.

Nodding, he eased himself up on to his feet, then winced and hissed, tottering on the blazing pain from his soles, and dizzy, his head pounding. The girl steadied him. ‘This way.’ She led him to the front of the gable where the shutters now swung open and guided him within. Here was a tall attic space, crowded with dusty chests and bales, with straw scattered about the wood floor. Birds fluttered their wings and flew about, disturbed by their entry.

She helped him ease down on to a heap of straw. ‘Rest here. I’ll bring food later.’

Dorin did not know what to say; he’d never felt so helpless. ‘Thank you. You are… ?’

‘Ullara.’

‘Why are you… ?’

The girl blushed and looked away. Having sufficient clarity of mind to study her now, he noted the smudged dirt on her freckled cheeks, and how her sleeveless tunic was stained and much mended, as were her old faded skirts. Perhaps feeling his steady gaze, she edged away while motioning about the attic, saying, airily, ‘Oh, I collect things I find on the roof.’ And she swung her legs over an open trapdoor in the floor and disappeared.

Dorin frowned his puzzlement as he peered round. Perched all about on the trunks, bales, rafters, and roof-struts was a multitude of birds. All studied him with unblinking bead-like eyes. He was amazed as the dawning realization came that each one of them was a bird of prey. He recognized the common red plains falcon, the spotted hawk, owls large and small, and even two tawny eagles. Many, he noted, sported makeshift bandages on wings and legs.

He snorted into the swirls of hanging straw dust. Greetings. Guess I’m the new wounded brother.

* * *

Ullara was of course the shortened nickname of her much longer Hengan given name. She returned later that day with scraps of food and sat, her long thin legs drawn up beneath her skirts, to watch him eat. Dorin had to shake off his irritation at feeling like a rescued cat—or bird, in this case—and thus being in her care.

Finishing the crust of bread and mushed leavings of vegetables he set down the bowl and wiped his fingers in the straw. ‘I should go now.’

The girl had watched him with an eerie sideways intensity, as if not really looking at him at all, her chin resting in one hand. She seemed to lack all the usual self-consciousness and attention to decorum of the Talian girls he’d known. ‘You are not used to saying thanks after all,’ she observed, matter-of-factly.

He forced his teeth to unclench. ‘Thank you for all you have done.’

‘You are welcome. You needn’t go.’

‘I might be found.’

‘No you won’t. No one else ever comes here.’

‘What, then, is this place?’

‘The upper garret of our business. We are stablers. Father allows me to keep my birds here—they help keep down the pests.’

He watched while one of the larger predators, a long-tailed hawk, glided away out of an open gable. ‘Keep down the local dog and cat population too, I should think,’ he murmured. ‘Those are big birds.’

‘That’s true,’ she allowed. ‘It’s the owls that really do most of the work.’ She studied him anew, unblinking, tilting her head. Her unkempt mass of auburn hair was a matted dirty halo about her head. ‘You, too, are a night-hunter.’

Dorin gave a small nod.

‘You should sleep, then. I will wake you later.’ He frowned at what sounded like a peremptory command. Noting his expression, she explained, ‘You need to recover your strength for what is to come.’

Now he frowned even more deeply, his brows crimping. ‘And what is that?’

She cocked her head, chin in her fists, eyeing him almost dreamily. ‘Your hunting, of course.’

Later that day, though his head hurt abominably, he did manage to sleep, if poorly, starting awake a number of times, uncertain of his surroundings, his heart hammering.

The girl returned after dusk. She brought more table-scraps and a stoneware mug full of fresh rainwater taken from their cistern. The scraps, Dorin knew, couldn’t have been intended for the birds, and so he surmised that even now hungry dogs watched a certain back door with sad, yet hopeful, gazes.

He thanked her again—which was indeed unusual behaviour for him, who so rarely had cause to thank anyone for anything—then slipped out of the open gable and climbed down to the alley below.

* * *

Standing at the open window, Ullara watched him go, then turned and hooted twice into the now darkened attic space. A gust of displaced air fluttered her tunic and layered skirts and a dark shape as tall as her hips perched next to her. Wood cracked as it sank its knife-like talons into the sill. Bending, she whispered into a great, wide, tufted ear. Large night-black eyes blinked twice, and the horned owl spread its wings, shaking them, and launched itself into the shadows.

She sat then on the still-warm shingles of the roof just outside the window. She drew her skirts tight about her knees and hugged them to her chest. She rested her pointed chin upon them and rocked herself while dreaming of straight black hair that peaked over a pale forehead and the sharp nose and thin lips of a very predatory profile. Most of all, however, she dwelt on the memory of eyes snapping open and the thrill of having found herself captured by the savage gaze of a raptor.

* * *

Rafalljara Undath’al Brunn, known on the streets of Li Heng by his nickname Rafall, should have been a happy man. The simple waylaying of that youth a week ago had netted him more than fifty gold Quon rounds. An amount worth four times its number in Hengan rounds. One of his larger hauls. All sewn into the lad’s belts and baldrics. And the weapons—very fine indeed. Worth perhaps another twenty rounds.

But this troubled him.

The lad had asked after an assassins’ brotherhood, or guild, such as existed in some cities; and the hoard he carried was just the sort one might net from such employment. Which meant he may have stolen from a killer.

And left him alive.

In his second-storey office, next to a window overlooking the cloth market square in the Outer Round, Rafall played with one of the foreigner’s fine throwing knives, turning it round and round in his fingers. From below came the raucous calls and laughter of his own lads and lasses of the streets, eating, joking, and teasing one another.

But how was he to have known? Still, nothing to be done for it. What was done was done as the gods willed. It was simply his nature not to kill—if it could be helped. The Twins might have just played their last jest on old Rafall.

He touched the blackened knife’s edge. Fine enough to shave with… had I ever shaved.

A knock on the door. ‘Yes?’

Lee, one of his enforcer lads, pushed up the trap and handed him a slip of torn rag. ‘An urchin lass, a dust-sweeper, was given this for you.’

He broke the crude seal of plain candle-wax that closed the folds. On the scrap, in the neat hand of a hired scribe, was the single word Tonight. Accompanying the message was a clumsy charcoal drawing of a knife.

So. I was right.

Rafall threw the rag aside to burn later. He studied Lee’s puzzled lopsided face. ‘I want everyone out tonight. All the clubbers rolling drunks. All the pretty boys and lasses pulling customers. Everyone working.’

‘Festival of Burn’s still a long way off…’

‘Just do as I say!’

The lad flinched, pulled at his wispy beard. ‘If y’ say so.’ He slammed the door.

Good lads and lasses, all of ’em. Even the arm-breakers, clubbers, and enforcers. Even them. Beat anyone senseless, they would. But no knifing. No. That took another sort altogether. So the fellow wanted to talk. All right. They’d have them a chat. Got off on the wrong foot, was all. And if talk wasn’t what the lad had in mind, he wouldn’t have given fair warning, would he?

He spent the evening going over his accounts—a depressing enough exercise for any small businessman. His above-board ‘import’ business was haemorrhaging money. All the income from his street waifs, their whoring, theft, and mugging, even taken together with his fencing, barely kept him afloat. Too much uncertainty around the raids of the Seti, the terror of the maneater, and unofficial ‘taxes’ and bandits in general. Overland commerce had pretty much fallen into ruin since the end of the last Talian hegemony. Why, the tithes Cawn levelled for portage were outrageous. Nothing better than thieves, those Cawnese.

What was a businessman to do?

He sighed, pushed away the books and looked up in the dim candlelight to see the dark-haired lad himself sitting opposite. His heart lurched and he dropped his quill. ‘You’re early,’ he said in a gasp.

‘Of course.’ The thin youth made a show of peering about the office. ‘No guards?’

‘No. I took it you wanted to talk.’

‘Good for you. I do want to talk—among other things. Now…’ and he placed his slim long-fingered hands on the desk, ‘I asked you a question a few days ago…’

Rafall swallowed hard. He edged one hand to his lap and there took hold of the grip and trigger of the crossbow he kept mounted under the desk. Talk was one thing—but a man’d be a fool not to have insurance. ‘I know everyone, lad. If you’re looking for work I can get the word out.’ The youth’s flat features turned down. So unremarkable, this one’s appearance, Rafall thought. Bland, even. Unmemorable. But then that was all for the better, wasn’t it? In this one’s line of work only a fool would try to stand out.

‘I thought you said there was no brotherhood in town. Something about your Protectress.’

‘No, no organization. But killin’, yes. Plenty of that. Accidents happen… you know how it is.’

The youth nodded. ‘I understand.’ He studied him, his eyes watchful, with a predatory air. ‘Ask around. Bring me any offers. You know the inn down the street?’

‘The Riverside? Aye.’ Rafall didn’t add that its owner was up to his bushy eyebrows in debt to him.

‘I’ll take a room there.’

‘I’ll make the arrangements and deliver the word.’

‘Very good.’ The lad leaned forward then, hands still flat on the

desk between them. ‘Now, about my possessions…’

* * *

In late summer the Favathalven family petitioned the Protectress to look into the death of their great matron, Denili Liejen Favathalven. ‘Auntie’, as she was known to her many customers, being a madam and one of the most important moneychangers in the city.

Ten days later a sleepy-eyed slave answered a knock at the brothel door. Opening the door a crack she curtsied, saying, ‘Sorry, good sir, the house is not formally open yet. Perhaps you’d care for a— Oh!’ Looking up, her breath had caught in her throat. Standing on the threshold was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Striking long blond hair fell loose about a lean smiling face; an exquisite white silk shirt was wrapped taut at a slim waist by a wide scarlet silk sash over black silk pantaloons. The man winked, and though the young slave had seen more than anyone her age ought to have seen, she blushed.

‘I’m expected,’ he said, his voice warm and gentle, and somehow so understanding of all her troubles and the unfairness of her life.

‘This way,’ she barely breathed, bowing him in.

The man paused in the entrance hall, peered around. The girl stared motionless, wishing he would glance to her again.

‘Spivy!’ a woman snapped from within. ‘What’re you doin’ openin’ the damned door? You useless— Oh!’ The pinched woman who entered the hall also caught her breath, but not because of the beauty of their guest. She curtsied, then motioned to the stairs. ‘This way, ah… good sir. I am Tapal—mistress of the estate.’

She led him to her dead aunt’s offices above. Here the fellow ambled about, studying the walls, the windows. ‘All windows sealed and barred,’ she said, hardly able to take her eyes from him. The Protectress, she reflected enviously, didn’t spare herself much, did she?

He nodded absently. Then he stopped before the broad stone fireplace. Kneeling, he held a hand over the hearth. ‘Cold.’

‘Not the season, is it? An’ that’s just a little pipe.’

‘It’s rectangular,’ he said, peering up. He ran a hand inside then examined the black soot coating his fingers. He returned to pacing about the rooms, this time studying the scattered carpets and rugs. Eventually he stopped, turned to face her. ‘A shame your mistress didn’t keep a fire. She’d be alive now if she had.’

She gaped at him. Surely not! How can that be possible?

He bowed and headed for the stairs.

She would have followed but a stain on the rug right where he had been standing caught her eye. A black smear of soot. She stared at that offending mark until the sound of the man descending the treads pulled her back to herself. She hurried after him.

At the door Spivy curtsied, peering up at him fixedly. He smiled back down at her warmly. ‘Goodbye, child.’

Tapal closed the door then immediately smacked Spivy across the side of her head. ‘You keep your eyes down when greetin’ guests!’

‘Yes, mistress.’ The girl rubbed her head, wincing, then dared to say, her voice low: ‘May I ask, mistress… who was that?’

Tapal laughed throatily. ‘You don’t aim half high, do you, child? That, you ignorant minx, is Silk. A mage in service to the city.’ She knelt closer, smirking as she enjoyed what she was about to impart: ‘And… most say… lover to our good Protectress herself.’

* * *

Silk walked the busy streets of Li Heng hardly aware of his surroundings. His mind was elsewhere, sifting the clues and hints he’d picked up from the Favathalven household, composing his report to his patron: the sorceress Shalmanat, Protectress of Li Heng.

Thus he failed to notice the many gasps from those he passed, both male and female; the many who froze in their steps, staring, some open-mouthed. He failed to hear the crash of dropped pots; the whispered invitations and admirations; the outright offers from women—and some men as well. Perhaps it was because his thoughts were so far away, but in fact he rarely noticed any of the stir he caused, as he’d grown used to it long ago.

He passed through the Inner Round and Central Round gates without challenge; the guards knew him for his rich finery, his rare blond hair, but mostly for the sudden shift in attention among any women nearby, including their fellow city guards.

Similarly, he passed unchallenged through the gates of the Palace Circle, crossed the broad cobbled marshalling grounds and was allowed through the main doors of the palace proper. These halls he ambled with his usual distracted air, his thoughts elsewhere. The vast majority of the palace functionaries he met in the hallways passed him by without any acknowledgement, other than fascinated sidelong glances, envious glares, or a curled lip, all depending upon the other’s opinion of him: respected city mage, favoured lover of the Protectress, or mere fop no better than a male prostitute.

A footman directed him to the palace gardens. Here he found the usual crowd of scribes and higher bureaucrats gathered a respectful distance from a tall woman bearing a striking mane of bright white hair who wore a functional long blouse and trousers of plain undyed linen. Facing her was a squat fat fellow in glaringly bright blue and scarlet robes trimmed with rich brushed sable. Silk knew the man as Lakke Sumarkethol, High Priest of Burn the earth-goddess, official patron deity of Li Heng.

Beside these two, his thick arms crossed over an equally thick chest, his hair a greying tangled mop and his shirt and trousers in an equally tattered and unkempt state, stood the stolid figure of one of Silk’s four compatriots: the city mage whom everyone called simply, Mister Ho.

‘We ask that you act,’ the High Mage was saying. ‘It is against the law, after all. Your law, I might add.’

Silk met Ho’s gaze and the man sent his eyes to the sky. Silk fought to keep a smile from his face as he stepped up into High Priest Lakke’s sight.

The High Priest caught him from the corner of his vision and began to stammer, his voice catching, cheeks flushing. Silk merely crossed his arms, betraying no emotion. ‘. . . that is…’ Lakke began again, clearing his throat. ‘Protectress, the cult of Hood has long been outlawed here in Heng. We demand that you enforce the laws of the city.’

Shalmanat spoke, her gaze upon the golden flowers of a nearby shrub. ‘Which is it?’ Her voice was soft and musical, tinged by a strange foreign accent. As always, the sound of it ran like a warm hand down Silk’s back and, as always, it was here, in her presence, that he understood the reactions he evoked in others.

Lakke’s thick brows crimped as he paused, uncertain. ‘I’m sorry? Which is what?’

The Protectress continued studying the heavy blossoms. She ran the back of a pale hand beneath one as if urging it to approach. ‘First you ask, then you demand… I was just wondering which it was.’

The priest of Burn blushed furiously. He gulped rather like one of the fat catfish that inhabited the depths of the river Idryn. Silk and Ho shared a grin at the man’s utter discomfiture. She could do that, the Protectress Shalmanat.

The man swallowed his embarrassment long enough to stammer, ‘…why… ask… of course, Protectress.’

She turned a brilliant smile upon him. ‘Very good, Lakke. I thought so. Be assured. We shall look into it—as always.’ She beckoned Silk and Ho forward—‘Come. Walk with me’—and started off without any farewell or dismissal of the priest.

As they walked away, Silk heard the man grind through clenched teeth: ‘Protectress…’

He and his fellow mage took up positions just slightly behind the woman as she strolled the grounds. She walked with her long slim hands clasped behind her back. Her feet were bare, and silent upon the crushed gravel. Ho trudged flat-footed, like an ox. Silk struggled in his leather shoes to match the woman’s noiseless tread.

‘The blind fool,’ Ho grumbled. ‘He doesn’t even know what’s coming.’

‘It’s all over the market squares,’ Silk observed.

‘The merchants are always the first to know,’ Shalmanat agreed. ‘King Chulalorn the Third is moving. Kan is on its way.’ She drew a hard breath, stopped walking, and stood still for a time, facing away, her hands pressed against the curve of her back. ‘When?’

‘Soon,’ Ho answered. ‘Within half a fortnight, I should think. His outriders and scouts are already on the plains.’ He shot a glance heavy with significance to Silk. ‘We will have much work to do.’

For his part, Silk fought an urge to take one of the woman’s pale slim hands and press it to his lips—anything to ease the burden he felt settling now upon her shoulders.

‘You have a report, Ho?’ she asked after a time of silence.

The big fellow cleared his throat. ‘There’re rumours Pung has hired some kind of foreign magician.’

‘Pung?’

‘Runs the prostitution and black market in the Rounds. They call him Pung the child-stealer.’

The Protectress raised her gaze to study the clear blue sky for a time. ‘Ah yes. Well, better than child-eater, I suppose.’

Ho cleared his throat once more, looking uncomfortable. Silk was relatively new to the Protectress’s service while she and Ho went back very far indeed. Silk did not know all that lay between them and did not know whether to be envious or relieved that Shalmanat never teased him so.

‘All talents are to present themselves upon entrance to Heng.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Well. He may be just another charlatan. Keep an eye on it none the less.’

Ho inclined his head. ‘Yes, Protectress.’

Shalmanat then turned her luminous gaze upon Silk and he quickly lowered his eyes, if only to avoid the crushing embarrassment of blushing. ‘And Silk? You are here to report?’

‘There are indications that a new assassin is operating in the city.’

The brushing of her plain linen trousers betrayed that she had moved on and Silk raised his head. ‘I see…’ she mused as she walked. ‘That is forbidden.’

He and Ho walked quickly after her. ‘Yes, Protectress.’

‘Stay on it, Silk. Persuade him or her to ply their trade elsewhere.’

‘Yes, Protectress.’

She turned towards the entrance to the palace that led directly to her inner sanctum, the cynosure in this city of nested circles. The mages stopped as each understood the audience was at an end. Both stood for a time, watching her go. What his companion’s thoughts were, Silk had no idea; the man never spoke of anything save their duties towards Shalmanat. In private he kept to his catacombs beneath the city, ever busy on this or that project or experiment—some sort of thaumaturgical research, Silk gathered.

And what did everyone think of Silk himself, with his suite of rooms in the most fashionable Central Round of Heng, among the apartments rich merchants held aside for their mistresses? Many might wonder whose lover he was. Well… it served as a cover, after all. And now… yes, well. Now… He shook his head.

Shalmanat climbed the marble stairs to the palace doors. Tall and slim, dressed all in white, to his eyes in the heat of the power she emanated she resembled an intense pale flame. Well could he sympathize with the Burn priest’s agitation. For many in the streets of Heng were of the opinion that the city did indeed possess a new patron goddess who kept it safe from marauding bands of raiders, foreign armies, and even the man-beast Ryllandaras himself. They worshipped her at altars, street shrines, and temples: Shalmanat, patron goddess of Heng, whom some even named Queen.

When the tall double doors of the palace closed he and Ho turned away to walk the crackling gravel path back through the gardens. ‘What of this Hood worship?’ Silk asked. ‘She gave no orders.’

‘Give them a first warning.’

Silk nodded his agreement, pursed his lips in thought. ‘Why doesn’t she allow the Grey Walker? It is an established creed. Multitudes of other gods are welcome.’

The mage shrugged his thick knotted shoulders. ‘Don’t know. Never asked.’ Silk felt a vague irritation at the man’s myopic indifference to all except his arcane researches. ‘Take Smokey and Koroll with you,’ Ho added. ‘Just to make our point.’

Silk nodded again; those two, and Mara, the other three of the city mages, handled the arm-twisting and day-to-day enforcement of the Protectress’s will. Their presence would impress far more than his own rather… well, rather less than imposing appearance.

* * *

One night Dorin Rav returned to the gabled barn roof of Ullara’s family. Nothing more than a whim, he told himself, and a plain errand of business: he owed her, after all. And he paid his debts. He found it as before, the wooden shingles creaking and ticking as they gave off the day’s heat, and streaked in bird shit. And said birds roosting in rather alarming numbers along the roof crest and gables. He ducked within the vaulted attic. The bright amber eyes of more birds than he cared to count gleamed from the shadows of the beams and distant perches of boxes and crates. Distantly, from below, came the snorts and neighing of horses together with the jangle of tack. Men called to one another, their voices indistinct as they floated up from the streets: the night stalls were opening for another eve’s business.

He took out a leather bag of coins—not so few as to be insulting, but not that many, as she was after all only a stabler’s daughter—and hefted it. He decided, then, that he would hand it over in person together with his thanks rather than merely leaving it behind. He put it down and set to practising while he waited.

He snapped his wrists and twinned blued blades in sheaths hidden up his sleeves slipped into his palms. These he slashed about him as he spun, crouched, jumped and rolled between the heaped boxes and the narrow alleys of dusty crates. The raptors’ fierce gazes followed him as he wove through the dark and they raised their wings, wary, whenever a dodge or a roll brought him near their perches.

Sweaty now, he straightened and pushed the throwing blades back into their sheaths. He grasped his leather belt, spun quickly, and a slim cord leaped from his hand to lash about a timber post. He yanked on it, testing the firmness of the hold. Then he walked up to the timber, rewinding the cord of woven black silk as he went. He fought for a time to unknot it from its grip upon the post, and when he finally freed it the many twisted ends clacked and clattered as tiny lead weights affixed there knocked among themselves.

‘They use cords like that to capture birds,’ said a girl’s voice from the dark and Dorin flinched, startled.

He turned, raised a brow. ‘You are quiet. There are few who could sneak up on me.’

Ullara approached from the shadows. She wore her same old dirty smock, her feet bare and dusty. She came quite close to stare up at him and he was vaguely troubled to see how her eyes seemed to shine in the dark just like the birds that surrounded them. ‘You came back,’ she said.

He nodded, embarrassed for some reason. Her closeness made him conscious of his laboured breath and he struggled to suppress it.

‘I was watching. You move so gracefully and effortlessly,’ she said. ‘Like a dancer.’

Memories of years of pain-filled training sessions enforced by blows slid across his mind and he smiled thinly, stepping aside. ‘I’ve worked on it.’ He retrieved the small leather bag. ‘I have something for you.’

‘Oh?’

He held it out to her. ‘Payment. For your help.’

She did not reach for it. Instead, her steady gaze went from the bag to his face. For an instant he saw something there, hurt and a flare of anger it seemed to him, before she quickly turned away. She wrapped her arms round her slim chest and crossed to the open window. After a time she murmured, her voice low: ‘Thank you, sir, for your consideration.’

He set the bag down on the wooden slats of a box. ‘I just wanted to say thank you.’

‘You have.’

He frowned into the dark. ‘Don’t you want it?’

‘You can leave it there.’

‘We’re even, then?’

From the far gable, she turned her face to him, her expression unreadable in the shadows. ‘Yes. Even.’

‘All right, then. I guess I’ll go.’

‘Very well.’

He came to the gable’s open window. Her face was lowered. ‘Good eve,’ he offered. ‘My thanks.’

She looked away, blinking. ‘Good eve.’

He paused, then, thinking he should go, yet something held him back. He felt that he ought to do something more, but didn’t know what that should be. He cleared his throat instead, nodding, and stepped out on to the roof.

‘Be careful,’ she suddenly called after him and he stopped where he crouched at the roof ’s lip.

‘Careful?’

‘The rooftops are crowded these days,’ she whispered.

‘Crowded?’

‘The Nightblades of Kan are here.’

He laughed—quietly—at that subject of song and stories. It was said that the fearsome Nightblades, servants of the kings of Itko Kan, flew through the dark at a word from the king, penetrated the very walls, and slew his enemies. He waved a hand. ‘Those are just stories.’

Her warning gaze was fierce. ‘No, it is true! Kan is coming. They are here. I have seen—’ She stopped herself, glanced back within the attic and lowered her face once more. ‘That is, I have—heard—in the market.’

Dorin knew he spent too little time listening to the talk in the streets below. He knew this was an unavoidable flaw deriving from his strengths—and weaknesses. By nature and preference the rooftops were his territory. And he was a solitary hunter. He shrugged, allowing, ‘Well… I have heard nothing. But… my thanks.’ He ducked over the lip and began lowering himself down the wall.

Knowing he would not hear, Ullara murmured, ‘Have a care, my Dancer,’ then retreated within. She tightened her arms about her chest as if fighting to keep some vast explosive force constrained. She fell heavily on a crate and rocked herself, her head lowered. Finally, as if no longer able to suppress a burgeoning eruption, she flung her arms outwards letting loose a great cry and at once every bird of prey leaped to the air, echoing her call with their shrill hunting shrieks, and sped off into the dark. Alone now among the churning dust she fell to the timber floor and curled herself up into a protective ball to lie panting and weeping.

* * *

Dorin traced the rooftops of the Outer Round. This was not as difficult as perhaps in other large cities such as Unta or Cawn, for space within Heng’s walls was at a premium and every building pressed up against its neighbour—most, in point of fact, shared common walls. At one moment he ran the knife-edge of a leadsheathed roof crest and here he paused, thinking he heard the call of a raptor. This troubled him, as most night-hunters, he believed, were silent. He studied the star-dusted night sky, the bright sickle moon, then ducked and hurried onward. He knew his path was taking him once more to his usual night-haunt: a compound a good third of the way round the walls, close to the north gate. Here, a large warehouse and yard carried out a seemingly aboveboard trade in timber, clay for bricks, and other such mundane building materials.

But this compound was the property of the black marketeer Pung the child-stealer. Here children captured from across the lands were held, and here they were assigned to their various fates: to work chained in mines where almost none would live to see their fifteenth year; to be cast among the poisonous chemicals of the leather-curing and dying vats where most choked out their lives even sooner—or to be broken to the sex trade where many met their ends in even worse manners.

This compound Dorin now overlooked from the flat brick roof of a three-storey tenement across the Plains Bourse, a sprawling smoky marketplace specializing in leather goods and metalworking that wound its course to abut the north gate.

He crouched behind the shallow lip of the flat roof and renewed his study of the compound’s buildings and the comings and goings of Pung’s guards and hirelings. Behind him, in piled rattan cages, pigeons cooed to the night. How to get in? That was the problem. Three times he’d tried an approach, and each time he’d been spotted long before getting close enough.

He edged forward to peer down into the torchlit crowded market below. The main warehouses were closed for the night, but food stalls lined the way, and inns and drinking houses were just now picking up business—most drawing trade from travellers who’d entered from the vast Seti Plains to the north. He settled in for another long watch. Eventually, one of these nights, his quarry would show himself. The bastard couldn’t stay hidden in there for ever, surely.

For even he had heard the stories making the rounds of the taverns and corner idling-spots.

The news that Pung had hired the services of a new mage. Some had him a towering magus with eyes of fire; others, an aged oldster crippled and bent from the soul-twisting horrors of his wizardry; still others named him only a faint voice in the darkness whispering of things that made one’s blood freeze. Some swore he could kill with a look, or a word. His Warren was variously speculated to be that of Rashan, D’riss, or Thyr; some claimed that he was a mystic shaman, or a necromancer with access to Hood’s own paths.

Yet upon one feature all these differing accounts were in accord: the mage hailed from the sun-scorched savannahs far to the south, from Dal Hon.

It was his man—that slippery youth. The damned prick might disguise himself as an oldster but Dorin knew better. It was he. The one who’d laughed at him. Who’d cheated and stolen from him.

And no one got the better of Dorin Rav. Ever. It simply could not be allowed to stand.

So he eased down to his shins for yet another fruitless eve’s watch, hoping to catch sight of his quarry out along the crowded bourse. The night darkened, the hours passed, his head drooped. Startled, glancing up, he noticed a tall shadow at the roof corner—a figure that had not been there before.

He watched while keeping himself absolutely still. Behind him the pigeons had all gone quiet. His hands slowly rose to cross his chest and close on the roughened grips of the slimmest throwing daggers pushed through his baldrics.

The big brass bell in the main temple to Burn began to ring out the mid-night hour. The shape stirred itself, broad wings unfolded, and it fell away to glide off in utter silence. He let out a long breath and relaxed his grip—what had that been? A mere bird? As tall as a youth?

The sight left him uncharacteristically unnerved. Was this the source of all the recent strange night sightings of unnatural daemons, spirits, and flying creatures? Some large predator, lost or imported? Perhaps Ullara knew of it; he’d have to ask… his thoughts shifted away, however, as a new sound reached him from the street below: the tapping of a thin sharp walking stick against stone flagging.

He jumped to his feet and ran down the length of the roof’s edge, searching the shifting crowds below. Was it he? What might he be wearing now? He’d been a short fellow—but that stick! That stupid vanity of a walking stick…

He thought he caught the glimpse of a short dark figure far down the street before it disappeared from the flickering torchlight. He ran for the side of the building over a narrow alleyway and threw himself over the side to climb down.

In the market he walked swiftly—not too swiftly—yet resolutely towards the north gate. Weaving round wanderers and revellers, he congratulated himself once more on his personal choice not to wear clothing that would mark him outwardly as anything other than one more poor labourer in search of a night’s entertainment: a hookah of d’bayang, perhaps, or the attentions of the lowest of prostitutes. Camouflage, stealth and deceit—such were the superior skills of his trade; only the failure ends up having to knife his way out of a corner. And only the fool advertises his vocation.

So he walked, deferring to the gangs of swaggering Hengan toughs who refused to yield any way, and to the entourages of baton-wielding guards clearing paths for their masters or mistresses in gaudy shaded litters carried by hulking bearers sweating despite the cool of the night. He passed a troop of down-on-their-luck Untan street performers: jugglers, musicians and child dancers. The sight of the painted boys and girls, the cheap bronze bangles ringing on their wrists and ankles, drew unhappy memories of his own training in similar circumstances—both for the punishing physical conditioning and the convenient cover. A smattering of lesser coins glinted among the cobbles before their bare shuffling and slapping feet.

Yet all the while he kept an eye to the east where the swirl of the traffic betrayed a figure making slow progress—one too short to be seen. He moved on. A courtesan stood beside the open door to her quarters, the colourful gauzy scarves of her calling wrapped about her. She beckoned him with the supple twist of a wrist, ‘Delights of the Perfumed World await within, O champion.’

Dorin knew this type: too old now to maintain a coterie of steady clients, or remain a mistress. Such ones were reduced to eking out a living here on the streets.

Grinning, he motioned ahead. ‘My sweetheart awaits beyond.’

The courtesan sniffed her derision. ‘Sweetheart? Can mere sighs and blushes satisfy a stallion such as you?’

‘The ways to pleasure are many.’

‘Aye—and I know every one of them. Save your last coin, come back at dawn, and I will give you far more than a chaste kiss.’

Dorin bowed deeply. ‘You shall not be forgotten, O Dispenser of Delights.’

All the nearby courtesans tittered at this epithet for a royal concubine and the woman chuckled behind her hands. ‘You are a very rogue!’ she called after him.

Dorin continued on his way, pleased with the exchange. Camouflage. Always camouflage.

He reached the broad open boulevard that was the North Way, or the Way of the Plains, close to where it led in from its namesake gate. Here he damned his luck, for the night was bright and the traffic nonexistent. He would stand out like a beacon crossing through the moonlight. Nor could he wait for some passing group to trail along behind, for with every heartbeat his quarry was disappearing ahead. Unhappy with the necessity of it, he struck out, hunched, slouching, disguising his walk into the stupefied shuffle of a d’bayang smoker.

He angled into the deepest shadows across the way, then sped along with the hope of catching a glimpse of the youth. He was in luck, as there the fellow stood, inspecting a torchlit stall front. Dorin eased back into the dark and waited. Presently, the youth walked on. He tapped and swung his walking stick jauntily as he went. Dorin followed. Coming abreast of the modest stall, he peered at the many amulets and charms. ‘What are these?’

‘Wards ’gainst the man-beast, good sir. Some blessed from the temples. You’d do well to carry one. Might I suggest—’

‘I’m not leaving the city.’

‘And what if the walls should fall?’

‘Why should they fall?’

The old man shrugged his thin shoulders. ‘There is talk of war—who is to say what might happen? Best to be prepared, yes?’

From the edge of his vision, Dorin watched his quarry amble on. ‘There is always talk of war. Good for business, I suppose.’

The old man pursed his lips as if to say Throw your life away, then. Dorin moved on again. The road was narrow and contained no active night market or inns. Only isolated shops and stalls lit the mostly residential tenement fronts. He would have lost his quarry in the darkness were it not for the click of the walking stick from a flint cobblestone. He turned up a slim alleyway, and here he almost ran into the fellow, who stood motionless, his back to him, apparently studying the night sky above.

The man turned and Dorin was shocked to see the wrinkled aged features of an ancient—the disguise was masterful. The withered face screwed up even more as its owner squinted. ‘So… a mere footpad, I see. A clubber, as I understand is slang for you here.’ He raised a warning finger. ‘Well, have a care. For I’ll have you know I work for—’

‘I know who you damned well work for,’ Dorin cut in savagely. ‘Don’t you recognize me?’

The fellow squinted his ferret-like tiny eyes. ‘Did I perchance buy some shoes from you? Because if I did, I have a complaint—’

‘No!’ Dorin snarled. ‘I did not—that is—’ He wiped his hot slick forehead and saw that he’d already drawn his best dagger. ‘All these wasted nights,’ he murmured aloud in wonder. ‘And he doesn’t even…’ He shook his head at his own foolishness.

‘Is this a robbery or have you stopped me just to babble on?’ The fellow set his hands atop the walking stick and rolled his eyes to the sky. ‘Oh, please do not tell me this is about some god you saw in a stain on the tabletop. I really am quite busy.’

Dorin stepped away as if to go. As he did so he threw the dagger, which struck the fellow high in the chest and lodged there. ‘You’re no longer busy,’ he said, and he watched the youth’s eyes widen in shock.

The fellow slumped back against the wall. He frowned at Dorin, coughed and murmured, hurt: ‘That was… unnecessarily… brusque…’ Then he slid down the brick wall to settle propped up, as if asleep.

Dorin knelt on his haunches before him. ‘This is to teach you that no one steals from me. Or thinks he’s gotten the better of me—yes?’ He studied the disguised face. A weak breath, wet with blood, eased from the lips. Dorin passed a hand before the beady eyes, which did not track. He sat back. ‘Well, then, let’s see what you’ve got on you.’ He reached in under the cloak.

A sudden screech of rage and a sharp jab of pain jerked him to the opposite wall where he stood squeezing his hand, his heart hammering at the surprise. A monkey now occupied the fellow’s lap. It glared its rage at him, waving him off; bared its curved yellow fangs.

Dorin shook his hand. Damned thing bit him! What kind of lunatic travels with a monkey under his cloak? But it wasn’t a monkey, it was that creature from the tomb—the nacht. A kind of miniature ape from the wretched island of Malaz. He stalked out of the alley while sucking the gouges at the meat of his palm. Blasted creature could’ve taken his thumb! Then what would he do? At the alley mouth he paused, wiped a sleeve across his face. Damned heat. It was too hot here on the plains, even though it was autumn.

He tied a handkerchief round his thumb, knotted it off. Then he turned to stare back up the deep shadows of the alley. His teeth slowly clenched hard enough to creak, and he hissed out a long breath of suspicion. With his off-hand he drew another blade and edged up the alley, crouched, sliding his feet forward silently on their soft leather soles.

He found the narrow way empty but for garbage, pots, and bits of furniture.

Later that night the city Watch received a call to subdue a madman who was howling and bellowing and smashing property in a lane off the Way of the Glaziers. When they arrived they found only garbage kicked and strewn all about, every resident’s pots thrown against the walls, and furniture broken and trampled. They left, but not before demanding a fee, which the locals reluctantly handed over, lest the Watch arrive even later the next time.

Excerpted from Dancer’s Lament © Ian C. Esslemont, 2016

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