Dancer’s Lament: Chapter 2

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 two below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one.

 

 

Chapter 2

In the honey light of early dawn the priests and acolytes of Heng’s uncounted temples walked barefoot through the lanes and broad ways of the city. Most carried copper begging bowls, the poorest holy men and women among them holding out mere upturned wicker hats. Shop-owners waited at their thresholds with small leaf-wrapped pouches of food that they deposited in the proffered begging bowls. Silk watched this timeless ritual while he waited for two of his fellow city mages, Smokey and Koroll, here on the main temple thoroughfare, the Street of the Gods. It was a curve of the Inner Round, hard against the wall on the outer side, given over to the many and varied gods, daemons, spirits, haunts, and otherworldly guardians of Quon lands.

At this early hour their devotees crowded the road. They brought offerings to the many temples, altars and shrines: leaf-wrapped pinches of rice or steamed vegetables; garlands woven of flowers, candles, incense of scented wood, tiny cups of cheap liquor; and prayer-scarves to be draped over shrines or tied to corner altar-pieces.

Towering over all, parting the mass like a man-o’-war, came the shambling figure of the inhuman Koroll. Half Thelomen or Toblakai, some said. A great forest of tangled unwashed hair fell about his shoulders. The slanting light cast strange shadows upon his face, seemingly all broken and rearranged in odd planes and angles; over these alien features swirled tattooed symbols and glyphs. Layers of cloth hung draped about him like tenting. And from this bulk extended a stone-like muscled arm and a hand gripping a staff fully as tall as he.

The half-human mage came to stand alongside Silk, planted the staff with a thump, and gripped its haft in both hands. Together they regarded the modest stained and aged stone building before them.

‘Greetings, Koroll.’

‘Good morn,’ the giant rumbled.

Silk smelled smoke and turned, crooking a smile.

From up the other way came a young man in a long loose shirt of fine-brushed cotton over white linen trousers. His long dark hair was pulled back and braided in a neat ponytail, his goatee black and freshly trimmed. Silk gave him a nod. ‘Smokey.’

‘Silk.’ The mage turned to the house. ‘So, what have we here?’

‘It was the custom,’ Koroll began in his rough voice, ‘generations ago, for noble families to bury their dead together in mausoleums. One such do we face now. The family name is forgotten, but the cult has chosen wisely, regardless.’

Smokey visibly shivered his revulsion. ‘Hood,’ he spat. ‘Gives me the willies.’

Stone steps led up to twin open doors, possibly of siltstone, but carved to resemble panelled wood. Cluttering the steps lay a collection of offerings: drying foodstuffs, pot shards engraved with prayers, wilted garlands, and carved wooden dolls representing enemies marked for Hood’s special attention.

Silk raised a hand, gesturing forward. ‘Koroll—the honours, if you would…’

The giant strode up and thumped the butt of his staff to the threshold. ‘Greetings!’ he announced. ‘In the name of the Protectress Shalmanat.’

They waited. The dark unlit hall paved in black marble remained empty. Smokey shot Silk a glance and rolled his eyes. ‘Bloody cheap theatrics. You first, Silk.’

Silk’s answering smile was tight and humourless. He entered, noting that the walls to each side bore alcoves, eight rows of them, floor to ceiling, down the entire length. Each held a dusty skull. Honoured ancestors. Silk tipped his own head to them, and advanced.

A short distance within, he paused as he came to three sprawled corpses—these far more fresh than the watching skulls. Smokey came to his side and crouched at the nearest. ‘Enforcers,’ he judged. ‘Pung’s, probably. Sometime last night.’

Silk raised his chin and called, ‘Shalmanat’s law. Murder is punishable by exile.’

A figure emerged from the shadowed gloom further in. A young man simply dressed in trousers and a loose shirt. He held a gleaming two-handed blade readied before him. ‘They offended Hood,’ he stated flatly.

‘And how did they do that?’ Silk enquired.

‘They demanded a tithe upon the temple. I demonstrated Hood’s tithe.’

‘And who are you to judge?’ Smokey demanded.

The lad’s dark, almost blue-black eyes edged aside to Smokey. ‘I am Hood’s Sword.’

Smokey snorted a laugh. Silk, however, sensed something wrong; the youth had said the words not like a challenge or a claim, but as an obvious, uncontestable truth. As if he’d just observed that the sun rose or the land moved with Burn’s exhalations.

‘Well, Hood’s Sword,’ Smokey was saying, ‘you’ll have to face Shalmanat’s justice. So come with us.’

The lad did not vary his ready stance. ‘The only true justice is Hood’s to give.’

Smokey held out a hand, fingers spread. ‘Don’t make me burn you, kid.’

‘My life is Hood’s to take or leave.’

Movement among a heap of blankets up against a wall drew Silk’s eye and he distinguished a young girl asleep among the rags. Like the lad, she was mahogany dark—Dal Honese the pair of them. He placed a hand on Smokey’s forearm. ‘Wait…’

A faint blue flame—more like a weak aura—flickered and stuttered about Smokey’s fingertips and the mage of Telas stared, his brows knitting. ‘My Warren…’

A dry laugh echoed round the hall and Silk flinched. Koroll rumbled from the doors, ‘We are not alone.’

‘Indeed, friend giant,’ came an old man’s rasp. ‘Though you carry the blood of the Thel Akai, it would be best not to press this matter.’

Silk squinted into the dark and could just make out the shape of a scrawny ancient, hunched cross-legged before a shrine at the far end of the hall—a shrine to the dead. He eased down Smokey’s arm, murmured, ‘Not now.’

The fire mage pointed to the lad. ‘Later, friend,’ Silk urged him back.

They stopped outside. The thinning traffic of adherents and worshippers gave the threesome a wide berth. Silk hugged himself, feeling oddly chilled from that house of the dead.

‘What now?’ Smokey demanded.

‘These are no frauds peddling fear,’ Koroll supplied. ‘Hood is with them, whatever their other claims.’

Silk nodded his agreement as he stroked his chin, thinking. ‘Pung can’t let this insult stand. Let’s leave them to him. See how he fares.’

The idea obviously appealed to Smokey who smiled, chuckling. ‘That’s a good one, Silk. Smooth.’

Koroll stamped his staff to the beaten dirt of the street. ‘The mistress must be informed that the Dark Taker has indeed entered Li Heng.’

‘I will inform her,’ Silk answered.

Koroll nodded his great shaggy head ponderously. ‘Very well. We are done here. I go to summon Ho from his labours within the catacombs.’

Silk inclined his head in farewell. The giant mage shambled off. Silk watched him go, trying to recall the words by which the old priest within had addressed him, but the foreign name escaped him. He turned to Smokey. ‘And you? Care to join me?’

The fire mage brushed a hand along his oiled hair then pulled his long braid forward and examined the fine silver wire binding its end. ‘Naw. I’m late for a manicure and massage with a big busty Purge gal.’ He bowed, waved Silk off. ‘I leave you to it.’

Silk answered the bow. ‘Until later.’ He turned and headed for the palace. Women, young and old, stopped to stare as he brushed by. Yet his thoughts were inward as he walked, and so he passed them by where they stood frozen in acts of laying garlands, or praying, or pouring milk over altars. He was off to see the Protectress of Li Heng. And thus, in his way, to offer up worship of his own.

* * *

North of Li Heng, a woman stood next to a smouldering campfire within a sheltered grove of poplars and alders. Her gaze was steady to the south. A frown of displeasure pulled her wide lips. She had been waiting within the grove for a full moon, and still each night she remained alone.

Turning, she kicked at the dying embers. Moments later the swelling beat of horse hooves announced the approach of a troop of cavalry. She waited, arms crossed; this was not the company she wished for.

The ten horsemen wore bright conical steel helmets and coats of mail beneath flowing robes dyed the green of the Itko Kan Southern League. Their leader dismounted, drew off his helmet, tucked it under his arm, and approached the woman, who had not stirred.

She examined the officer’s youthful face—only recently bearing a wispy moustache—and saw no resentment or hostility in his gaze. Indeed, all she noted was a frank professionalism that was the hallmark of the academies of Itko Kan, and one explanation behind that city’s domination of all its many neighbours to the south.

For his part, the officer took in her long wind-tossed black hair, the loose black silk pantaloons and shirt, her slim, strangely angled eyes and coarse wide cheekbones, and bowed deeply. ‘M’lady. You are unescorted.’

‘And what are the Kan Elites doing upon Hengan lands?’

The young man offered a modest shrug. ‘The Seti have renegotiated their treaties with Kan.’

‘Been bribed, you mean.’

Again, the modest shrug.

‘And now the Kan cavalry commands the central plains round Heng.’

The officer bowed once more. ‘Effectively.’

‘Chulalorn the Third is a fool. He mustn’t attempt to take Heng. Many lives will be lost—and all for nothing.’

‘The king judges his strength sufficient.’

‘Not even the Talian Iron Throne challenged the Protectress. Heng remained a centre of free trade during the hegemony.’

The officer nodded his agreement, but countered, ‘The historian Gudaran suggested it served the throne to allow it to do so…’

‘Gudaran was a creature of the court. A sycophant who kissed the Talian kings’ arses.’

The officer coughed into a fist, reddening. ‘Well… m’lady is far more of a scholar than I, I am certain. In any case, you will please accompany us.’

The woman hated coarse demonstrations, but understood their effectiveness, and so she indicated his helmet. ‘That is a handsome piece—may I see it?’

The young man frowned his puzzlement, yet manners dictated that he must hand over the helmet. She examined it, turning it in her fingers. A turban of green silk encircled it and the sun gleamed from its polished iron surface.

She grasped its domed top in one hand, and, squeezing, crushed it like a fruit.

All colour drained from the officer’s face. He weaved as if close to fainting. She extended the mangled piece. Mechanically, he took it from her.

‘I choose to remain here for a time,’ she said. ‘You will tell your commanders not to harass me.’

The officer nodded, swallowing, then bowed jerkily and withdrew.

She dismissed the retreating officer and returned her gaze to the south. Behind her, the horses stamped the ground once more, and then galloped off. After a time she sighed and turned her attention to the remains of the campfire. She set her hands to her hips and glared about. ‘I have observed all the rituals!’ she called. ‘I have sat at the fire all through the night!’ She kicked dirt over the ashes. ‘Why won’t you come to me? What is it?’ She glared about once more. ‘Something’s going on. I sense it! Come to me, damn you!

* * *

Iko tried not to display her disapproval of all she saw revealed in the streets of Heng, but it was hard. This was the storied meeting place of all the lands? The last of the independent city states?

It was a pesthole.

She fought to stop herself from covering her nose against the stink of close unwashed bodies, the stale cooking oil, and the vile reek of excrement. Had they not heard of latrines in this benighted backwater? Kan carried its waste away in sanitary pipes of running water. Had they no such services here?

From her side, Yuna shot a dark glare and Iko returned her wandering gaze to the armoured back before her as they marched the streets in rank: twenty of King Chulalorn’s legendary corps of Sword-Dancer bodyguards. All female. All virgin—though this particular detail Iko knew for a complete myth. All sworn to give their lives for his—and this Iko knew for a complete truth.

The fine mail coat of her sister ahead shimmered and glinted in the sunlight as they filed through Heng’s jammed streets. The extraordinary slim length of their corps’ unique weapon hung down the girl’s armoured back, encased in its oiled wooden sheath, ready to be drawn free from over the shoulder. A blade whose secrets of manufacture were known to only a few mage-enchanters of Kan, and left the razor steel as pliable as its name: whipsword.

Reflexively, Iko reached up the worn grip of her own blade where it jutted up over her shoulder. A grip familiar from a near decade of intensive—some said brutal and inhuman—training that began when she was taken aged four.

A long drawn out snarled breath from Yuna brought Iko’s attention to the opposite shop fronts where a crowd of local toughs were shouting out what they would do if they had their own set of female guardians—and demonstrating with thrusting fists and pelvises. Iko rolled her eyes. Certainly some of her fellows succumbed to desire for their patron, but most saw it as compromising their hard-won abilities. And the shameful dismissal of those weeping moon-eyed few was lesson enough.

Of course she knew the true reason behind her and Yuna’s poor humour.

They were not at his side. He had sent them away on this political mission to the Protectress. A mission none of them wanted. Yet here they were, escorting some damned jumped-up Askan diplomat sent to deliver his terms to the oh so famous Protectress of Li Heng.

Iko wondered if perhaps this Hengan witch would prove as underwhelming as the city itself.

When they entered the gates to the palace grounds they acquired their own escort of Hengan soldiery. She and Yuna shared a knowing smirk at the puffed-up armoured fools; their banded cuirasses were antiquated, their shortswords effectively useless. Even their shields were rusty.

Not experienced campaigners, these Hengans. Good only for hiding behind walls. Not like the Kanese forces. When his father took an arrow in the throat at the siege of Nex, Chulalorn the Third came to the throne as a mere lad of fifteen. Since then, over nearly two decades of constant warfare, he’d completed his father’s work of subjugating the wreckage left behind in the south by the collapse of the Talian hegemony. And so was an ancient political entity reasserted upon the face of the continent—Itko Kan.

The tall doors to the palace itself swung open before them—if one could name such a plain heap of stone a palace. Given the polished marble splendour of Chulalorn’s own dynastic seat in Kan, Iko considered it an insult to the term.

They advanced up a reception hall, parting a crowd of gathered city aristocracy and richer merchants, all present to welcome the emissary. Iko remained stony-faced, glaring straight ahead. At the far end of the hall waited their real objective. She sat upon a chair so blindingly white as to be glowing. Tall she was, and slim. Inhumanly so, whispered many. Itko felt her superior certainty slipping away. There she was. In the flesh. All agreed her the mightiest sorceress of the lands, the Protectress of Li Heng.

Even from this distance the woman’s calm gaze seemed to whisper What need have I of armies?

And arranged before her, the crowd a respectful distance from them, four city mages—each powerful enough to guide a kingdom yet gathered here in her service, as if to prove she feared no rival. Mountain-tall Koroll of Thelomen kind; wild-haired Mara whose magery could crush stone to dust; Hothalar in his bare dirty feet, who many claimed wielded the strength of a war elephant; and finely dressed Smokey, the mage of Telas, who burned the entire war fleet of Kartool as it approached Unta. And was paid handsomely for the service.

No indeed. What need had Li Heng of costly and hungry armies?

Like all of Chulalorn’s bodyguards, Iko had been briefed on Heng’s city mages, and so she wondered where the fifth was. The one who… and then she caught sight of him. Just now wandering in from a side door. Late on purpose perhaps? A half-smile played about his lips, as if to mock the pomposity of the occasion. He brushed a strand of stray blond hair from his face and Iko’s own hand twitched as if wanting to be the one to caress that lock. Somehow she knew that he wished to be here no more than she; that, in fact, just like her, he would rather be outside these miserable confining walls walking the open fields. And, amazingly, his gaze found hers among so many, and the eyes held a strange sadness, a mystery that only she could solve if she just…

Iko bit her lip and tore her gaze away. Her heart was pounding, her face glowing hot. Gods! Such power! It was he. The fifth city mage. The one many considered the most truly dangerous of them all. Silk.

Blinking and struggling to steady her breathing, she focused upon the emissary. The man was babbling on about ancient pacts and alliances between Itko Kan and Heng and how that old order had served them both so well. The Protectress sat radiating a neutral reserve and patience.

Iko thought the audience a hollow pretence. If this woman did not bend to the Talian Iron Legions, she certainly would not yield to them. Yet the dance of diplomacy had to be allowed to run its course. Now she would thank King Chulalorn for his generous invitation to become his most favoured trading partner and ask for time to consider the documents.

All this Iko took in with half an ear while she studied the hall’s entrances, its natural blind spots, the most defensible positions. Yet she could not keep her gaze from returning to the mages arrayed before the Protectress—skittishly avoiding Silk—for she understood that here was the real strength of Heng. A concentration of might few could match. What had Kan? Its Troika? Three mages? Not enough. Still… these could not be everywhere. It took soldiers to defend walls, to hold positions.

‘Might we,’ the Askan emissary began, unctuously, ‘offer the court some slight entertainment?’

Iko groaned inwardly. A demonstration. How she hated their being trotted out like trained monkeys or dancing bears. She thought it frankly undignified.

The Protectress nodded her approval and the emissary sent a glance to Iko’s commander, Hallens. ‘A cleared ring at the centre of the court, if you would please,’ the captain announced.

The assembled city nobles and notables yielded to the request, shifting backwards amid murmurs of anticipation. The contingent of Sword-Dancers lined the border of the ring. To Iko’s relief Hallens did not pick her this time. Instead, the woman selected two of the ‘heavies’, the largest and most impressive-looking of them, Yuna and Torral. These two started forward, bowed to one another, and unslung their long whipswords, evoking a ringing, high-pitched note from the man-tall wavering razor-sharp blades.

They began their dance. Each spun like a top, gathering speed. The blades began to flex, arcing round the women like whips indeed. Even as they spun, the dancers curled round each other, seeking openings. Now and then, utterly without hint or warning, their blades lashed out, snapping and whistling, but of course neither was touched as she leaped and ducked in this precisely choreographed set of attacks, counter-attacks, feints, and remises. The only sound now, other than the brush of the footwork across the polished stone floor, was the rising, ringing hiss of the keen blades themselves as they seemed to cut the very air.

Iko had seen it all before of course, and was trained in this particular set. Instead she watched the faces of the onlookers. Their fascination and fixed attention satisfied her, for such a show was rare; one had to be a guest of the palace in Kan to even hope to witness it.

The display ended very abruptly as in complete unison the two women suddenly knelt facing each other, one hand on the floor, bowing. The audience was startled for an instant, but then applause began as Hallens circled the ring handing out long scarves of silk. She nodded to Yuna who stood and began to turn, slowly, the long blade extended, one-handed, at shoulder height.

Hallens gestured in invitation to all. ‘Please, throw them in, if you will.’

Chuckling, a noble threw his and as the cloth floated downward Yuna’s blade snapped out, whipping, slicing the scarf in two. Everyone applauded, marvelling at the demonstration. More cloths came floating out and Yuna’s blade snapped in all directions, each time unerringly finding its mark to multiply the falling scraps into multicoloured snow.

‘All at once!’ Hallens invited.

Every remaining scarf came billowing in from all sides and Yuna spun in a blur, the blade hissing in circling arcs that parted every drifting scrap no matter how tiny, and Iko knew that one could spend the afternoon sorting through the litter and not find one cloth untouched.

The hissing halted as abruptly as before as Yuna bent at the waist in a deep bow to the Protectress and held it, head lowered, the fingertips of her left hand touching the floor. In the silence following, the Protectress raised her hands and offered her gentle applause. The assembled nobles joined in, offering polite cheers as well. Yuna straightened, inclined her head in acknowledgement of the applause, and backed away to re-join the circle. Hallens signed for the Sword-Dancers to re-form their ranks.

The Protectress applauded, Iko noted, but not her city mages. Not one of them clapped, or even altered their expressions throughout. Iko even thought she detected on Silk’s face a sort of bored resignation of the kind one might feel when forced to endure a child’s clumsy recital. The assumed superiority grated upon her. Were they truly so invulnerable?

The Askan emissary’s bowing and fawning informed her that the audience was at an end. She and the other nineteen SwordDancers came to attention, offered a brief respectful bow, and began backing away. When they reached a proper distance they halted, parted to allow the emissary to pass between them, then turned and exited.

At the last possible moment Iko shot a glance to Silk with his charmingly rumpled finery and boyish mussed hair and she saw that his gaze now rested upon the Protectress herself. She glimpsed in his expression the wistfulness that had touched her before, and she thought she now understood something more of it.

* * *

Silk returned to watching the glittering Sword-Dancers exit and sighed in half-longing. So pure. So vibrant.

So… earnest.

He shook his head. Too shallow, those pools, to captivate beyond a brief dalliance. Although a few gazes had held a real fire betraying surprising depths…

And Chulalorn the Third’s offer? Nothing Heng did not already possess.

Shalmanat inclined her head to the spectators who bowed deeply in response, familiar enough with her ways to know that the audience was at an end. They began filing out, talking loudly of the famous Kanese swordswomen, some hinting roguishly at the heavy duties involved in keeping such an extended harem of young women satisfied. Silk shot a glance to Shalmanat, but the Protectress’s features remained as composed as ever. She was, of course, above all such profane matters. Otherworldly, many named her. A queen. Even a goddess.

Silk, however, did not want a goddess.

Once the court had emptied, and the guards pulled closed the outer doors behind them, the other four mages bowed to Shalmanat and walked to separate exits. Silk alone remained before the throne of brilliant white stone.

Shalmanat descended the steps of the dais. He noted that her feet were bare and that as usual she wore no jewellery with her plain linen trousers and long loose shirt. As she passed it struck him once again that she possessed a good hand’s breadth in height beyond his own—and he was considered tall.

He bowed deeply from the waist, not coincidentally keeping his gaze hidden.

She paused, turning on the balls of her feet, and he smiled inwardly; she was trained in the ways of fighting. ‘Yes, Silk?’

‘News, m’lady.’

‘Yes?’

He straightened, keeping his gaze on her feet where her toes peeped out from beneath the hem of her trousers. Unbidden, the thought assaulted him: judging from the effect of those bare toes, would he faint at the glimpse of a whole ankle? Swallowing to clear his throat, he coughed into a fist. ‘We met the priest of Hood and his acolyte earlier.’

‘Yes?’

‘Koroll and Smokey and I agree that he is legitimate.’ Silk dared raise his gaze to the shirt over her torso beneath the outward brush of her modest chest. ‘The cult of Hood, it seems, has returned to Heng in truth.’

And then the impossible happened as the Protectress staggered. She tilted to the side, her feet tangling, and she would have fallen had not he, darting forward, caught her in his arms—his arms!—to gently lower her to the steps of the dais. His amazement at her reaction did not stop him from quickly yanking his guiding arm away, for the Protectress’s body burned with a vicious heat. The inner flesh of his biceps and forearm stung as if he’d brushed a kiln and he gasped, half in surprise and half in pain.

‘M’lady!’

Recovering, the Protectress waved off the episode. ‘It is nothing. My thanks. I was merely… taken unawares.’

He found it unseemly to be standing over her and so he dared sit at her feet, on the cool polished stone flags of the floor. ‘By what, may I ask?’

The woman looked away, blinking. Her fine long white hair fell over one shoulder like a cascade of frost. ‘I had hoped the man was just another travelling impostor or swindler, trading on the natural fears of the populace.’ She sent him a quick glance and this close he thought her pupils dusted in flecks of shimmering gold. ‘But you say he is not.’

He forced a breath deep within his vice-tightening chest. ‘Yes. Koroll judged that Hood was with them—and I concur.’

She sighed. ‘Koroll would not be mistaken on such a matter.’

‘You fear him, then? Hood? Is that why—’

Her raised hand silenced him. ‘Not Hood… as such. No.’ She let out a long low breath. ‘Long ago I was young and foolish, as all youth is. I was desperate to know my fate and I sought out the greatest reader of futures of the time—the power that some say created the means of reading in the first place. The Tiste Andii had given her a name, then. They called her T’riss. You know her by another name now. The Enchantress—the Queen of Dreams.’

A shiver of wonder took hold of Silk’s spine. This woman had spoken with a goddess! The mistress—some say ruler—of a Warren. To others, the patroness of sorcery itself. He steeled himself to dare ask, ‘And… what did she say?’

A thin smile haunted the Protectress’s lips as she gazed off across the hall. ‘At first she refused. Said it would be too great a burden. But I was insistent.’ She nodded to herself in wry memory. ‘And so did I learn how my death would come to me… it would come carrying the very face of death itself.’

Silk surged to his feet. ‘We will fall upon the temple tonight. All five of us. It will be nothing but a smoking pit by morning.’

The Protectress snapped up a hand. ‘No! I forbid it. There is nothing to be done. There is no stratagem, or trick, or flight to be made. One cannot outrun one’s fate. It is inevitable. You will not interfere.’ She turned her golden eyes directly upon him and he lowered his gaze. ‘Do I have your word?’

He unclenched his jaws. ‘You do.’

‘Very good.’ A small gesture from one slim pale hand. ‘We are done.’

He bowed and backed away, head lowered. Nearing the doors, he dared one swift glance. She remained upon the steps of the dais, now hugging herself, her hair a curtain of snow across her face. Silk turned to the doors and yanked one open. Very well. He might be forbidden to act… but there were others in this city. Others who might be persuaded by a bag of coin, or a bit of arm-twisting.

There was even that assassin he had heard of…

* * *

Dorin walked the northwest arm of the Outer Round. It was dominated by a bourse specializing in animal trading, with associated markets in fodder, tack and hides, corrals, abattoirs, and shops. He was ambling slowly, to all appearances merely one more labourer kicking about looking for work, but in actual fact he was tracing the building rooflines and windows, scouting routes for night-time hunting—or lines of retreat.

The way was quite crowded, the traffic of townsfolk and herded goats and sheep slowing him considerably. Squinting ahead through the dust, he glimpsed the multitude lining the parapets of the outer wall, together with further crowds jamming the stone stairways leading up. Many were pointing out over the wall. Dorin wondered if perhaps fighting had broken out between some lost Hengan foraging party and the Kanese forces spreading about the city. Then all standing upon the defences threw their hands in the air and gave vent to a great roar of delight such as one might hear from the spectators at any games or horserace. This did not sound like any sort of battle—especially one featuring Hengan infantry being run down by the glittering Kanese cavalry.

A lad came threading his way along the road towards him, flushed, his eyes bright, and Dorin grasped his shirt as he passed, yanking him to a halt. ‘What is it? What’s going on?’

‘Bouts!’ the lad enthused. ‘Horsemen duelling!’

‘Who? Who is duelling?’

The lad struggled to free himself. ‘Don’t know. The reds and the greens!’

Dorin released him and he scampered off. Reds and greens? Green would be the Kanese, of course. But reds? Who in all the Quon lands could that be? He headed for the stairs.

The walls of Heng were of course a byword for strength. The parapet of the outermost round stood broad enough to support a crowd some twenty people thick. Now the crenels were jammed with men and women, while braver souls perched on the tall merlons of the projecting machicolations. Dorin slid easily through to the front and pulled himself up atop a merlon to stand with two boys and a girl—all making great show of their daredevil contempt for heights and their precarious exposure to the buffeting winds.

On the fields of the gently rolling plain two lines of cavalry had formed on opposing hilltops. One of them shone and glimmered as the slanting amber beams of the late afternoon light reflected from polished Kanese mail coats and helmets. Forest-green pennants and flags rippled and danced over tents where Dorin supposed the officers and commanders of this particular regiment were encamped.

The opposing hilltop was nowhere near as colourful or bright. The force occupying it wore surcoats of red, but it was a carmine so dark as to be almost black. Two large field tents of plain canvas dominated this hill. Raised before one stood a pole supporting an odd downward-hanging pennant that tapered to a narrow whipping tail. It was of similar red and featured a sinuous snake-like emblem of silver or white. The other tent boasted a more conventional flag that bore a yellowish design on blue. This sigil Dorin knew: the gold flame of Gris.

What was a member of the royal family of Gris doing here?

While Dorin watched—together with thousands of Hengan citizens—a single Kanese horseman rode out to the empty, welltrodden field between the troops, reared up in his saddle, and began to harangue the opposing force. Dorin was much too far away to hear the words, but he had no need. He recognized a challenge when he saw one.

So too did the reds, evidently, as after a brief rustling among the far fewer cavalry there a single horseman came cantering out to meet the challenger.

Dorin had been raised in Tali lands, and red livery brought one particular possibility to his mind, but he couldn’t really believe it possible. ‘That’s not the Crimson Guard, is it?’ he asked.

Without turning her shaded gaze from the field, the girl spoke. ‘Who else in the name of Sleeping Burn might they be? Gods! Where do these hicks come from?’

‘Under rocks,’ the younger boy opined.

‘Mummy’s skirts,’ offered the other.

Dorin found his forbearance under severe strain. But pushing the three to their deaths just wasn’t an option in front of hundreds of witnesses.

The Crimson Guard—the legendary mercenary company that had opposed the Talian hegemony on almost all fronts. How his fellow citizens in Quon and Tali cursed them! Even after all these years. And they didn’t even have a kingdom. The D’Avore family held a few tiny isolated fortresses in the mountains of the northern Fenn range—where, it was said, they honed their unmatched skills in constant battle against the monsters, giants, and even dragons of those wild mountains.

So surprised was he to actually see the company that he murmured aloud, ‘What are they doing here?’

The girl turned on him, glaring. She was pale-skinned, and boasted a mane of glorious red hair. ‘Gods, you’re dense! How should I know?’

The younger lad shouted, ‘They’ve come to fight with us against the Kanese!’

The girl now lowered her ferocious scowl upon the boy. ‘Ass! They’d hardly be duelling in that case, would they?’

‘And they’re too few,’ Dorin added.

The girl’s gaze flicked to him. Her scorn softened to mere lofty disapproval. ‘’S true.’ She raised her chin to the distant hilltop. ‘They’re probably escort for that fancy nobleman.’

‘Makes sense,’ Dorin mused. ‘That’s a member of the Grisian ruling family.’ He studied the blue and yellow flag more closely and thought he distinguished a thin dark circlet over the flames. More of his heraldry came to him then and he added, ‘If that’s a crown over the flames, then that’s the designated heir.’

The three, he noted, now regarded him quizzically and he cursed inwardly. Never reveal more knowledge than you ought to have, fool!

Out upon the field the two horsemen were speaking. Exchanging pedigrees, Dorin imagined, or some such pompous shit. Then, an accord reached, the two turned their mounts a short distance apart, readying weapons. The Kanese cavalryman drew a slim curved blade and raised a broad shield. The Guardsman, a mace. A susurration of anticipation rippled up and down the crowd.

‘Is that Oberl?’ Dorin heard someone ask. Oberl of Purge was one of the most famous champions of the Guard.

‘No,’ another answered, ‘Oberl carries two swords.’

‘Must be Petra!’ came a shout. ‘At the siege of Athrans she swore a vow never to kill.’

Dorin choked back a laugh. Never to kill? No, she just breaks every bone in your body. This was all just so much idiotic extravagance! It seemed to him that if you were actually going to fight, you hit hard and fast. Get it done. Like a cutter lopping off a limb.

The duellists heeled their mounts and charged. They met and passed in a quick single exchange. The mace struck a solid blow to the shield while the slim sword flashed over a ducking back. Having dropped their reins, the two urged their mounts round with their knees.

Dorin heard murmurs of awe from the crowd at such a display, but he could not keep a sour scowl from his brow. Privilege and money was all he saw on show. The privilege of being born among the class that possessed the resources and tradition for such training—and the money to sustain it.

In a flurry of kicked-up mud and torn grasses the two charged once more. A thousand breaths were drawn and held at that instant. The mace slammed high, thrusting, while the slim sword cut down the back of the Guardswoman. The two thundered on, parting. The Kanese officer’s shield now hung low, that shoulder slumped. A great roar burst from a thousand throats.

‘They have won every bout so far!’ the younger boy shouted in Dorin’s ear.

With a sweep of his sword the Kanese officer saluted his opponent, and turned his mount to his gathered fellows. Petra, if it was indeed she, bowed in acknowledgement then waved to the walls—eliciting a rapturous roar—and trotted back to her hilltop.

Dorin did not cheer. It seemed to him that that Kanese had been a fool to take on such a heavily armoured opponent while armed with such a light blade. Still, to be fair, perhaps he had no choice in the matter.

A new challenger emerged from among the Kanese cavalry. Instead of yelling his history or insulting the Guard, he merely drew his curved blade and swept it in downward salute then waited, point aimed at the ground.

The Guard answered swiftly as a slim figure all in armour enamelled a deep carmine rode out to meet the new opponent. At this one’s appearance a great sussurus of anticipation rose among the massed onlookers. Dorin looked to the girl. ‘Who is it?’

This girl actually had a hand pressed to her mouth, the other shading her gaze. She breathed, awed, ‘The Red Prince!’

Dorin couldn’t help his own eyebrows rising in amazement. The son of the Guard commander himself? He’d heard stories that the lad had led armies even before coming into his beard. Such a one would ride out to fight in single combat? Dorin was impressed, but then he considered that these bouts were quite formalized, and rarely resulted in any permanent maiming or wounding. He found himself scowling once more. A cheap opportunity to impress the populace and burnish his image. Of course he took it! Even if he lost—how brave of him!

Already he disliked this lad for such sly calculation.

The two met halfway. They appeared well matched, both carrying sword and shield, but the much larger Kanese officer obviously held the advantage in weight and reach. The two kneed their mounts and began circling one another—no charging this time.

At some silent sign or signal, the horses lurched together, slamming their shoulders. The shields smashed, grinding and sliding. The blades wove and flashed overhead. The horses kicked and pushed, churning up a cloud of dust.

When the dust dispersed the crowds gasped. The Red Prince was on the ground. The Kanese officer circled him, gazing down. After a moment, the lad stirred, rising. Straightening, he shook off his shield and drew a second blade. The officer saluted him and swung down from his mount.

The crowd went wild with delight. They roared, slapped the stones of the wall, and stamped their feet. Dorin could only scowl harder. What a damned show-off! He hadn’t even been hurt by that fall! He tried to recall the youth’s name: something odd. The names out of the north followed some sort of strange old tradition, he remembered. K’azz. Yes. K’azz D’Avore.

Now they circled afoot. The youth carried two slim blades, the officer his broad shield. Personally, Dorin gave the edge to the officer. But then, in a real fight, he wouldn’t have dismounted anyway. He would’ve simply ridden the lad down.

Well, at least that’s what he’d have done.

They met in a high ringing of iron that was audible even upon the walls. Watching, Dorin had to give the lad his due: he was fast, and had obviously fought many times before. The two continued to circle; the officer constantly pushing, the lad giving ground to bring both blades into use.

Then sunlight flashed as the lad’s blades moved in a blur and the officer was down on one leg. K’azz set a sword next to his neck and the officer dipped his head in submission.

The crowd exploded into rapturous approval. They waved favours, even threw tokens from the walls. Dorin merely crossed his arms. The three with him were cheering and waving and howling. Out on the field, K’azz helped his one-time opponent back up into his saddle and saluted him as he went. Then he mounted his own warhorse—which was trained well enough not to run off—saluted the crowds with a wave, and returned to his camp.

The Hengan populace continued to roar their delight. Entertainment, Dorin reflected sourly, must be pretty thin on the ground here in Heng. The cheers had been abating, but suddenly they redoubled in volume and Dorin returned his attention to the Guard camp. It was breaking up and the Guard was forming a column, three abreast, and heading across the fields straight for Heng’s north gate, the Gate of the Plains.

The horde of townsfolk lining the walls now stampeded in a crush for the stairs, intent on reaching the main way to give the Guard a triumphant greeting. From atop the merlon, Dorin watched them struggling to force their way down the steps. He looked to the sky. Gods! Should he?

‘Good pickings tonight,’ the girl announced, now close at his side.

He shot her a glance. She was watching him with a knowing, openly mocking grin. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Don’t play all coy. I seen the blades you got hid. You can use them?’

Dorin allowed a wary nod.

‘You with a crew?’ He shook his head. She sighed at his monumental ignorance. ‘Gotta join a crew, man. You’re a nobody otherwise. Me, I’m with Tran. Me ’n’ the lads. Can you keep a lookout? Think you can manage that?’

Tran. A minor street boss associated with… Pung. A plan—one so very elegant and simple—suddenly appeared to Dorin, and he mentally kicked himself for being so stupid as not to have thought of it before. He offered the girl a shy smile.

‘Count me in.’

* * *

Iko listened to the roar of celebration out in the streets of Heng. She stood at the open latticework window of a covered walkway. Even from this distance she could make out individual laughter, cheers, and drunken singing. The majority sounded as if it were coming from furthest away, the outermost round.

Some sort of religious festival, she imagined. Though she’d heard nothing of it through the day.

She tapped the carved latticework: gold-painted wood. Hardly the stuff of prison bars.

Why, then, her restiveness? Shrugging, she returned to her pacing. Down the way, four of her sisters were on guard over the Sword-Dancers’ chambers—they had no need for reinforcements. Still, sleep would not come, and she had exited their suite of interconnected rooms.

Guest chambers, the chamberlain had explained.

Iko had taken one look at the fountains, the many scattered carpets, the cushions and divans, and felt her lips tighten with distaste.

More like the concubines’.

The chamberlain knew; how he’d smirked as he drew shut the doors upon them. Their captain, Hallens, demonstrated her displeasure by promptly kicking them open. The Hengan servants had jumped, dropping trays and towels, but at least the doors hadn’t been locked.

Now Iko walked a roofed path that crossed the gardens. Night birds called from ornamental trees and bushes bearing dark heavy blossoms. Frogs murmured and insects clouded round torches set about the trails. At the far end of the walkway, where doors led to the complex of the palace proper, a single man stood guard. Or perhaps was merely as restless as she. The slim, immaculately dressed figure of the city mage, Smokey.

Well. A single guard would be all that was required—if he or she were a mage of such a reputation. Steeling herself, she approached, and offered a slight bow of greeting. This the mage answered, only a touch condescendingly. Closer now, she saw that his shirt was of the finest brushed cotton, his footwear of the highest quality soft leather, and that his hair and beard were too evenly black—dyed, in point of fact, to hide a premature grey. Vanity was what she read in this. Vanity and an underlying insecurity. ‘A warm evening,’ she offered. ‘Is it always so warm this late?’

‘The plains can get quite hot, Sword-Dancer.’

She gestured out to the darkness beyond the decorative latticework of the walkway. ‘There is some sort of religious festival?’

The mage shook his head. ‘The locals are feting the arrival of the Crimson Guard… rumours are flying that they have come to save the city from you Kanese.’

Iko considered the mage’s words. ‘But they have not.’

‘They have not. They have come escorting a Grisian prince. He is keen to make a name for himself and has come to hunt the manbeast Ryllandaras. As so many have before—and failed.’

Iko grunted her rather shocked amazement at this.

‘Indeed. He and the Red Prince, K’azz, are close friends, so the talk goes. K’azz grew up in the Grisian court.’ The mage shot her a strange look. ‘A hostage, you understand.’

‘I see.’ She shrugged. ‘Well, they are only mercenaries. And the entire corps numbers only a thousand, yes?’

The mage inclined his head once more. ‘Indeed. They only take in new members when one of their number dies. And then only the greatest of those vying to enter.’

Iko now wondered what it was the mage was truly talking about; she decided it was war. She returned to studying the dark. ‘Mercenaries are untrustworthy and duplicitous allies. When it looks as though the cause is lost they will always betray or desert their employer. Sometimes they even offer their services to the opposing side.’

The mage nodded sagely. Iko thought she detected a hint of wood smoke in the air. It was not unpleasant; it reminded her of kneeling next to her family’s hearth, her mother cooking.

‘This is true—for most of the companies that have come and gone here in Quon. But not elsewhere. Have you not heard of the Grey Swords of Elingarth? The Guard are just as they. Can you think of a single reported incident when either deserted an employer? Or betrayed a contract? No?’ She shook her head. ‘Exactly. They dare not. It would destroy their reputation and none would hire them.’

‘Yet, in the end, war is not a profitable business.’

Iko waited, but the mage did not answer. She glanced to him and saw him eyeing her with a new expression in his eyes—a new respect.

He finally spoke, nodding to himself. ‘Indeed it is not—for those caught in it. And so I offer you advice, child… Urge your king away from this war. It will not win him the rewards he imagines. But more important, many southerners will die. And all for nothing. If he truly cared about the welfare of his people he would abandon this campaign.’

Stung, Iko faced him directly. ‘I am disappointed, old man. So speaks a city mage of Heng. What is next—base threats?’

But the mage merely stroked his beard, shaking his head. ‘It is I who am disappointed. Perhaps, in time, you will understand my words. I hope it will not be too late.’

Iko waved a curt farewell. ‘It is already too late, mage. I bid you good night.’ She turned away and stalked off. His last words came wafting through the darkness.

‘Remember. All that comes he has brought upon himself…’

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

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