Dancer’s Lament: Chapter 4

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

 

 

Chapter 4

‘How much for Pung’s head?’

Rafall, who had been sipping his tea, spat all over the mass of papers on his desk. He dabbed a sleeve to the cheap fibre sheets and glared at the youth slouched in the chair opposite. Hood forefend! He can’t be serious, surely? ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, lad. We have a good thing going here. A fat purse for the old harridan. That grain merchant. Let’s not ruin it.’

The lean youth appeared unmoved. His sharp gaze remained unreadable. ‘It could be done. How much would Urquart pay?’

Ye gods—where to start? He opened his arms wide. ‘Listen, lad. We—all of us—we’re allowed to run our quaint little businesses because we keep our heads down and don’t cause too much trouble. Understand? The Protectress and her pet mages, they could shut us all down if they wished.’

‘You, maybe,’ the lad muttered.

Rafall winced and bit his tongue to stop himself from cursing the youth as he would any of his usual lads or lasses. He took a deep breath. ‘I’m going to do you a favour right now, lad. Here it is. With that little snipe there, you just effectively dismissed my life and therefore the livelihood of all those here who depend upon me for food and a roof over their head. Understand? Now, am I supposed to thank you for that? Or maybe I should now decide that you’re a threat to me and arrange to get rid of you. There. See how consequences of words and actions work?’

The youth shifted in his seat. His mouth tightened and turned down in an uncertain frown.

Rafall was pleased. Maybe he’d finally made a dent in that massive arrogance. The problem with this one was he was too good. It had all come too easy. Too much early success. For his part, Rafall couldn’t imagine what it must be like to see no one as a threat. But it couldn’t breed prudence, of that he was sure.

The assassin suddenly lurched to his feet. ‘You’re forgetting who works for whom, Rafall. Get the word out. I want to know how much.’

Rafall pressed a hand to his forehead. ‘You’re not listening. Just… listen.’ The lad had crossed to the window. ‘Look around!’ Rafall went on. ‘There’s a war on. Don’t start another. You won’t like it!’ But the youth was gone out of the window into the night. Banging started on the trapdoor to his chambers.

‘You okay, boss?’ one of his guards called. ‘Who’s that you’re talking to?’

Rafall moved to stand on the door. ‘A nightmare,’ he said. He could not take his gaze from the window. ‘Just a nightmare.’

* * *

Dorin stopped to rest on a flat rooftop. He was panting and sweaty, but not from his exertions. It’s nothing, he told himself. It means nothing. He’s just searching for a hold on you. Like all the others. Trying to control you. Remember, you can’t count on anyone.

He drew in the cool night air, felt the hairs on his neck prickle as they cooled and dried in the wind. And yet the fellow seemed genuinely kind to all the young pickpockets and cutpurses and clubbers in his employ. Like a father.

He scowled at that while he stared out across the dark rooftops. Yes. A father. Like the one who’d sold him. Pulled him yelling from his mother’s arms and sold him off for a few coins that he no doubt squandered on drink.

So much for love. Or affection. Or any other ties, blood or otherwise. He drew out a coil of his best cord and yanked it taut around a forearm, round and round, biting into the flesh.

The only ties he could count on were those he tied himself.

A scuff on the sun-dried tiles of the roof alerted him. He spun, throwing daggers readied. A fellow who looked like a wrestler stood eyeing him. He carried no obvious weapons, but his thick arms hung loose at his sides, and they ended at the wide gnarled hands of a professional strangler.

‘What do you want?’ Dorin called. For some reason he felt wary, despite the distance between them and the brace of weapons he carried.

‘We’d like to talk,’ said a new voice, and Dorin spun again, to where another fellow occupied the far corner of the rooftop. This one was dressed like a godsdamned male courtesan. Dorin backed away to keep both in view. His feet in their soft leather slippers touched the lip of the roof behind him. ‘I’m done talking.’

The fop smiled, hands held out and open. ‘A brief word, that’s all.’

For some reason Dorin paused before leaping off the roof. Why not? He was armed. Might as well hear this ridiculous fellow out. ‘All right. Talk.’

The fop smiled his encouragement. ‘Excellent. Thank you. We have a job for you.’

Dorin eased his ready stance ever so slightly. ‘A job? What?’

The uncommonly handsome bastard shared a glance with his equally uncommonly ugly compatriot. ‘The priest of Hood in town. We want him to meet his god.’

Dorin chuckled at the sentiment. ‘How much?’

‘One hundred gold rounds.’

It was an incredible price. Dorin raised an eyebrow. ‘For one dead priest?’

A modest shrug from the man said that they had their reasons. ‘As you see—an easy job. Shall we say you return here, this rooftop at mid-night, whenever the job is done?’

‘Agreed.’ Dorin hopped back off the lip and fell by lowering himself from one window to the next until he landed, a touch more heavily than he would’ve liked, in the alley beneath, and ran off.

* * *

Silk peered down over the lip of the roof into the darkness-shrouded alley. He couldn’t see a blasted thing. He crossed his arms and tapped a thumb to his lips. ‘Well… he’s acrobatic. I’ll give him that.’

‘And if he fails?’ Ho asked.

Silk shrugged again. ‘Then we’re rid of him.’

‘And if he succeeds?’

Silk smiled. ‘Then we’ll be rid of him a few days from now.’

But Ho did not share the smile. He rubbed his grey-bristled jowls, frowning as if troubled by some vague unease.

Silk rolled his eyes to the night sky. Gods! There’s no pleasing some people, is there? He waved Ho onwards. ‘Fine. Let’s take a tour of the walls. Mara says the Kanese infantry have finished their investment.’

‘They will attack on all sides. Hope to overbear us.’

‘Then we will be busy.’

Ho walked with a heavy tread, his hands clasped behind his back, his head lowered. ‘I fear so.’

They reached a ladder and Silk allowed Ho to go first. ‘You fear?’ he asked when they reached the alley. ‘What could you possibly fear?’

The big man sent Silk a puzzled look. ‘Having to kill, of course.’

Silk resisted a scoff. ‘You’ve killed—I know this.’

‘Oh, yes. But not poor innocent soldiers. They’re not responsible for this mess. They’re forced to serve, you know. They don’t even want to be here, I’m sure.’

Silk shook his head in wonder as he walked along. What a strange fellow! Could crush a man’s skull in one fist yet disliked violence? Was he deluded? And as for soldiers—innocent? Please! Murderers and rapists all. Human filth. Eliminating them would be a favour to civilized society. Clearly his fellow mage was suffering from the romanticized image of the brave and honest soldier-citizen, or some such rubbish.

Soft-minded fool. The truth was, most people simply weren’t worth one’s attention.

* * *

Dorin walked the crowded night-time market streets that Rheena and her crew called their own. Eventually, he spotted her hanging about by an open-air tavern. She saw him as well and they met among the flow of people in the middle of the street.

‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.

‘Eyeing some prospects.’

‘Not without us you don’t.’

‘I have other work, you know.’

‘Sidelines aren’t allowed.’

Dorin crossed his arms. ‘Oh? So, am I in or not?’

She pushed back her unruly bush of frizzy red hair. ‘All right, all right. I’ll take you to see Tran.’

He let his arms fall. ‘Okay. ’Cause I can do more than keep a lookout, you know.’

‘Oh, I know that!’ And she hooked an arm through his, leading him on through the market.

‘You can’t browbeat me into being another of your loyal followers,’ he said.

‘I know that too,’ she answered, shooting him a sly grin. She slipped her hand down his thigh and clenched there. ‘Maybe I’ll have to find another way to hook you.’

He felt his brows rising very high indeed.

* * *

She led him to the bourse of the hide merchants. Most of the shops were closed, though activity continued in warehouses and dye works where the hides were soaked, stirred and hung all through the night. The stench was horrendous, but in time he became able to tolerate it, just. Rheena’s two loyal followers trailed behind. Neither looked too happy at the change in marching order.

Tran’s base was one of these leather works. Two thugs lounged at the entrance. Rheena gave them a nod and sauntered in. One thrust out a truncheon, blocking Dorin’s way. ‘Who’s this?’

‘One of mine, okay?’ Rheena answered, glaring.

‘Tran’s the judge of that.’

‘Then we’ll see, won’t we?’

The fellow’s lips quirked in a knowing way and he chuckled. ‘Yeah. Won’t we?’ He let his arm fall. Dorin sent a glance to Rheena, wondering at the exchange, but she avoided his gaze as she hurried in. Even her loyal followers had laughed at the last comment, but they too quietened as he turned his eyes on them.

Inside, up a long hall, a great many men and women sat with plates and mugs before them, eating and drinking amid shouts and loud laughter. It appeared that Tran set a generous table—not surprising as his territory included several animal markets. Rheena kicked a fellow from one mostly empty bench and sat, elbows splayed on the crowded tabletop. Shreth and Loor were quick to sit to either side. Dorin slid in opposite.

Rheena raised her chin and shouted, ‘Drink here for those out working hard!’

Someone shouted back: ‘You’re in trouble, Red.’

‘Story of my life,’ she answered.

A boy brought round a tall tankard and filled the nearby cups. Dorin let his sit on the table while Shreth and Loor quickly emptied theirs. Shreth then elbowed Loor behind Rheena’s back and the lad got up to hunt down more. Trenchers of hard bread arrived followed by a slab of grey meat. Dorin eyed it dubiously while the others set to with gusto, gnawing and pulling apart the greasy flesh. Dorin found that he had no appetite. He picked up a pear—one barely ripe—and chewed on it, waiting. Soon, he knew, it would come. The assertion of command. He wondered what form it would take this time. Benevolent ruthlessness? Bluster and gladhanding? Or perhaps the automatic—and ignorant—assumption of superiority?

The laughter in the room quietened and Dorin set down the core, bringing his hands under the table. A dark short fellow had entered, his slit gaze fixed upon Rheena. He marched for their table and she straightened as he came, a grin coming to her lips—a grin Dorin knew already as the one she used on marks. ‘Tran!’ she greeted, enthusiastic. ‘Good to see you.’

But Tran had switched his attention to Dorin and did not answer. He stood at their table, glaring, and the room became very quiet. Dorin gazed back, as placid as he could manage, his hands ready under the table. The fellow—a minor boss—was youngish, perhaps in his twenties. Slim and wiry, and short. Already Dorin surmised that he carried quite the attitude.

The eyes slid back to Rheena, who lowered hers. Everyone, Dorin noted, now studied their cups. He, on the other hand, continued to study Tran. He decided that behind the hot slit eyes hid fear. Fear of any challenge to his power—and thus the mask of belligerence.

‘Who said you could bring anyone in?’ Tran demanded.

Rheena’s attempt to laugh off the question was edged with nervousness. ‘He’s not in yet. He’s here for you to check out. Name’s Dorin.’

Dorin said nothing. He understood his place in this dance. He was a nobody right now, without even the standing to speak.

The gaze, as if reluctant to acknowledge Dorin’s existence, now slowly edged to him again. ‘Dorin, hey? What kind of name is that?’

‘Talian.’

Tran grunted. ‘And you want to join Pung’s gang, hey? Why should we take you in?’

Dorin gave a modest shrug. ‘You guys are always on the lookout for talent, yes?’

The tightening of the lines around the man’s glaring eyes told Dorin he’d said the wrong thing; that this fellow was of the kind who hated talent—in others.

The lizard eyes blinked, slowly, as if clicking; swung to Loor sitting opposite. Tran tousled the lad’s thick kinky hair. ‘Here’s a rogue ready to run with the big dogs, hey, Loor?’

‘You bet!’ the lad laughed, grinning. Dorin, however, caught the silent warning Rheena shot Loor’s way.

Tran urged him up. ‘C’mon, this way.’ He walked Loor over to a narrow timber post, stood him in front of it. ‘Here’s your initiation, boy.’

Laughing again, Rheena called in a wheedling way, ‘Tran…’

‘Shut up, bitch.’ He motioned Dorin to him. ‘I hear you know how to use knives. That you even stood down Breaker-Jon.’

Dorin glanced to Rheena—Breaker-Jon? Must’ve been the big fellow in the alley. Rheena cast him a pleading look. Oh, girl. You’ve done me no favours with your talk…

‘So let’s see how good you are, hey?’

Loor’s eyes now goggled with dread and he slouched from the post, mumbling, ‘Another time, maybe…’

Tran took a fistful of the youth’s hair and dragged him back to the post. ‘I say now. You want in or not?’

The lad was on the verge of tears. ‘Yeah, sure,’ he managed, his voice breaking.

Dorin glanced about. None of the gathered crew appeared ready to step in. Most weren’t even watching; their gazes hadn’t risen from the tabletops. Cowed. Thoroughly beaten down. He’d seen it before, unfortunately. The rule of brutality and malice.

Tran now sent Dorin a gloating, twisted smile. ‘Let’s see you put one right next to his ear, there. Hey?’

Saying nothing, Dorin drew out his best throwing dagger. For a moment, he considered burying it in Tran’s throat but thought better of it. He wanted to get close to Pung, or at least that damned Dal Hon he kept as a mage. And killing the man’s lieutenants wouldn’t help him do that.

He hefted the flat blade, raised his gaze to Loor. To his credit the boy was quiet, though he was crying. Tears were wet on his cheeks. No blubbering or fainting. Bravery and dedication—and to what? A monster who cared not one whit for his safety or life.

Dorin raised the blade to his eyes, sighted. It was a mystery to him why anyone would follow such a fool. Unfortunately, as he’d found in Tali and elsewhere, the rule of the most violent was often the norm. He tried not to meet Loor’s pleading terrified eyes, but couldn’t avoid them. He gave what he hoped was a calm reassuring nod, and drew back his arm.

Everything froze for him as he brought the arm forward, the blade flat against his fingers. He took in at that moment Rheena’s horrified eyes-wide stare, her fingers white on the table edge; Shreth’s almost comic gape-mouthed incomprehension; Tran’s lips climbing into a grin of triumph; the rest of the crew now watching—and many of them already wincing.

He released. Loor flinched his head aside, yelping, and slapped a hand to his ear.

He’d overcompensated for the too narrow post and nicked the lobe.

Tran’s grin fell. Rheena jumped from the bench, whooping her joy and relief. Shreth ran to his friend’s side and slapped his shoulder in congratulations. Many of the crew gathered round as well, welcoming him to their gang.

In the noise of the celebrations Tran closed on Dorin and brought his pock-marked face up to his. ‘So you can hit a post,’ he murmured, unnoticed by anyone else. He brought a finger alongside his nose in warning. ‘Posts don’t fight back.’ He turned away, crossed to Loor, and made a big show of slapping his shoulder and tousling his hair once more.

Dorin reflected that if he were Loor, he’d deck the bastard.

Tran eventually raised his arms for silence and the teasing of Loor fell away. He nodded to Rheena as if he were some sort of king granting his noble dispensation. ‘Okay,’ he admitted, ‘maybe I do have a job for you.’

Rheena forced a smile—the most false and sickly one yet.

* * *

This first night of the investment of Heng, Silk was assigned the north wall. His personal preference during such shifts was to pace the length of the walkway throughout the night, always on the move, and thus never at any one predictable location. Since he was no soldier, nor possessed of the least interest in that profession, he left it up to the commanding officers to make any such preparations or accommodations as they deemed necessary for communication.

This time the officer seemed most dutiful. A party of Hengan infantry met Silk at the top of the tower of the north gate. One young fellow doffed his helmet and bowed. ‘Lord Silk, I am Captain Glenyllen. Welcome.’

‘Thank you, captain.’ Silk set off walking at once and though the fellow was startled, he was quick to catch up. The rest of the party—Silk’s bodyguard for the evening—trailed behind. ‘Any activity?’

‘Nothing of note, yet.’

‘You’ll let me know if there is any, yes?’

‘Yes, m’lord.’

‘Thank you. No doubt you have responsibilities to attend to. Do not let me delay you.’

The captain swallowed hard, nodding. ‘Of course.’

Silk inclined his head to indicate that the meeting was at an end yet the captain continued along beside him. ‘Yes?’ Silk asked.

The fellow cleared his throat. ‘Sir—you were here for prior campaigns, were you not?’

‘Yes.’

‘The Protectress… have you ever seen her, ah, intervene?’

Silk stopped his rapid walk, faced the young man directly. ‘No, captain. And pray to all the gods you know that she will never have to.’

The captain bowed again. ‘Yes, m’lord.’

‘You will use runners.’

‘Yes, m’lord.’

Silk set off once more. The captain did not follow, though the bodyguard did, tramping heavily in their armour. Silk knew that before dawn he’d have worn out three or four sets of the footsore troopers.

He kept an eye on the surrounding fields as he paced. They were black as night, as the farmers had burned them all under orders of the Protectress. The Kanese campfires glowed like an arc of stars just outside crossbow range. He wondered what they were burning—had they carted their firewood with them? But Smokey was no doubt far ahead of him on that.

The movement of the soldiery was no secret to him. Through his Thyr-enhanced vision every warm-blooded creature out there glowed like a night-worm. This advantage was often interrupted, however, when he came abreast of the torches and lanterns set to light the defences. For the nonce, he was content to watch and wait, wondering what the Kanese king Chulalorn the Third intended for this first night.

His thoughts turned to considerations of hubris and overreach. Not even this one’s grandfather, Chulalorn the First, had dared move against Heng. What new advantage or secret weapon might this grandson now possess that he should make the attempt?

Perhaps it was overconfidence. He was fresh from success. All the southlands lay within his grip, and he possessed an army of some thirty thousand veterans flush with victory at his back. Why not reach for the richest prize of central Quon Tali? Why not dominate the centre of the board, able to strike east or west at whim?

Or was he merely testing his limits, as young men were wont to do? Greedily reaching for more and more until their hands were finally slapped aside. And this one had yet to be slapped down. Silk hoped Shalmanat would not be forced to be the one to do so. Not because of the massive loss of life it would no doubt require, but because at present the people of Heng loved and even worshipped her.

He did not want them to fear her.

* * *

The probe that Silk knew had to come eventually appeared just after the eighth bell of the night, two before the brightening of the coming dawn. To his vision, its preparations were painfully obvious. The Kanese soldiers, believing themselves unseen, came massing together as all good troopers should. Silk had plenty of time to reach their intended section of wall.

Here he found the highest ranking officer and waved her over. ‘Put out all the torches,’ he ordered.

The woman’s heavy mouth, so typical for a Hengan, drew down. ‘What?’

‘Put out all the torches here along this reach of wall.’

‘Why?’

Silk sighed to calm himself. ‘Because an attack’s coming.’

‘I don’t see nothing.’

‘That would be because of all the torches, wouldn’t it?’ Silk said through clenched teeth.

The woman shifted her weight to one hip and cocked her head to study him anew. ‘You know,’ she drawled, ‘you’re really cute when you get all huffy like that.’

Silk realized he’d met one of the women—and there were a few of them—who weren’t the least bit impressed or mesmerized by him. He let out his breath and relaxed his jaws. ‘By order of the Protectress—for whom I speak. Douse the torches.’

The officer slowly nodded. ‘Well, when you put it that way…’ She waved to the guards nearby. The torches and lanterns and braziers started going out all around. ‘Whatcha going to do?’

‘Stand up on the wall in full view of the entire Kanese army.’

‘Ah. You gonna take a dive?’

‘No, I’m not going to— Listen… what’s your name?’

‘Lieutenant Veralarathell.’

‘Well, lieutenant, you don’t seem to be demonstrating proper respect for command.’

The woman nodded her understanding. ‘Ah. That’s because I’m an engineer.’

‘An engineer?’

She leaned closer and lowered her voice, ‘A sapper, saboteur, miner—’

‘I know what an engineer is!’ Controlling his voice, he continued, ‘I mean, I didn’t know the two were conjoined.’

‘Ah. Certainly are, sir. Comes with the papers.’

Silk pressed his fingertips to his brow. ‘Well. Fascinating as all this is, I have an attack to thwart and a lesson to give.’

‘I am all attention, sir.’

‘Very good. When I give the word, order all your command to duck down and close their eyes.’

‘Strange way to repel an attack—if I may say so, sir.’

Silk, who had been climbing a merlon, paused, his shoulders hunching. ‘Just do it,’ he hissed, and carried on. Atop his rather precarious position, the cool night wind buffeting him, he reflected that he had actually rather enjoyed that byplay. At least it was far preferable to the toadying—or contempt—most officers gave him.

He scanned the field and found the Kanese formation. It was close enough. Importantly, he could see them, which meant that they could see him—should there be enough light. And there certainly would be in a moment. More than enough.

He pressed his hands together and concentrated, summoning his Warren. He took his time to gather and amass all the energy he could. The assault force was closing even more slowly now, wary because of the change among the torches and braziers high atop the wall. Silk could barely contain the intense power he held at bay, yammering to burst forth. To wait much longer would mean the consumption of his own flesh to ash.

‘Now,’ he grated to the lieutenant through his gritted teeth. He gave them three heartbeats to comply then thrust his hands palm out towards the field before the wall.

A burst of white light brighter than any day flooded the field like a solid flow of water. Screams rose from leagues around, and rising calls of panic. He must have blacked out momentarily as hands pulled him down, supporting him. Blinking, he found himself peering up at the lieutenant, who was pressing her forearm to her eyes and blinking as well.

‘Could’ve warned us,’ she growled.

‘I did.’

‘Not too organized in the follow-through, either.’

Silk nodded his rueful acceptance of that. ‘Yes, well, I was delayed by an officer who wouldn’t shut up.’

‘And who saved you from that dive.’

‘Do I owe you a date?’

‘You owe me a bottle of Untan cherry brandy.’

‘Done.’

The officer inclined her head towards the wall where, beyond, cries and panicked shouts continued. ‘They won’t be back tonight.’

‘Nor ever.’

The woman’s broad face hardened. ‘Never? You mean… ever?’

He shrugged a negative. ‘No. I’m not that strong. Maybe in a few years some should start getting their sight back.’

Lieutenant Veralarathell’s hardened mouth now turned down in distaste. ‘Gods, man. Years gone blind?’ She studied the dark out beyond the wall. ‘Who’ll take care of them? How will they provide for themselves?’

For the second time that night Silk raised his gaze to the night sky. What was everyone’s problem with expediency these days? ‘Please. They’re enemy soldiers. They can all stumble into the Idryn and drown for all I care.’

The woman shook her head, now in open disapproval. ‘You can keep your brandy, mage. Drink it. Maybe you’ll find some human feelings there at the bottom.’

Silk was practised at hiding his feelings. He was insulted to his face every day by those who took one look at him and developed an instant dislike. But for some reason this woman’s condemnation stung far deeper than most. As nonchalantly as he could, however, he tipped his head and offered a friendly grin. ‘You are dismissed, then, lieutenant.’

The woman gave him her back and walked away.

The urge to report the woman to the commander of the Hengan forces gripped Silk for a moment, but then it passed. Not least because Lord Plyngeth despised him and would probably promote her just for insulting him. Mostly, he simply didn’t want her to know she’d gotten under his skin.

Perhaps, instead, he’d tease her about it. When he was once more assigned to the north wall. Which he deemed unlikely to be in the near future. He cast a glance over the crenellations as he walked. His Thyr-enhanced vision revealed the chaos of the stumbling red glow-worm shapes milling about the fields like an overturned anthill.

No, he did not think they would be assaulting the north wall again any time soon.

* * *

After her first night’s walk, and her conversation with the city mage Smokey, Iko made it her habit to take the air every evening, sometimes as late as long after the mid-night bell. She was thinking ahead to when it might be helpful to have these Hengans used to her being out wandering the grounds late at night. She’d even struck up a courteous familiarity with the palace guards.

This eve, however, she was not alone. Yvonna was with her. And the sister’s grating presence reminded her of another reason why she so often sought the clean fresh air of the night over their crowded quarters with their heated rumours, rivalries, backbiting, and wearying eternal gossip.

And this night the mood of the city surrounding them was different. She’d sensed it immediately. It was, as the saying went, far too quiet; as if by some unspoken agreement all three hundred thousand or so of the city’s inhabitants had decided to retreat indoors.

Iko paused on the gravelled garden walkway and strained to listen. Yvonna, meanwhile, was prattling on: ‘There’s talk about you and your walks, you know,’ she announced in her ridiculous, falsely ingratiating way.

Iko frowned—was that a distant roar coming from the south? ‘Oh?’

‘Yes. Some say…’ Yvonna paused, waiting. When Iko said nothing she continued, ‘Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say anything…’

Yet you have, you idiot. Iko sighed, rising to the bait. ‘What do they say?’

Yvonna leaned closer as she warmed to the subject. ‘Well, some… and I really shouldn’t say who…’

Because you’re one of them.

‘…say that you’ve taken a lover here among the Hengan guards!’ The girl laughed gushingly. ‘Can you believe that?’

Gods, you’re enjoying this, you petty bitch.

‘And that your walks are a mere excuse for your assignations—’

‘I get it,’ Iko cut in. She was squinting off to the south. That was definitely the sound of an attack and the great voice of the giant Koroll answering it. Their brothers and sisters were dying in an assault on the walls of Heng even as this vapid fool twittered on pushing her ugly rumours. For Iko’s part, every muscle ached to cut her way out of this palace and storm that wall herself.

‘You’re not even listening to me!’ Yvonna complained. Her revelation was obviously not having the desired effect.

‘Is he well hung?’ Iko asked.

Yvonna wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘What?’

‘My lover. Is he hung like a horse? Because I’d really like it to be worth it.’

Now the nostrils of Yvonna’s pointed nose flared angrily. ‘Don’t you care what everyone thinks?’

‘I don’t care what idiots think. And we have to report to Hallens, now.’ She ran without waiting to see whether her sister-at-arms followed.

* * *

She found their quarters a riot of activity. Armed sisters guarded every access and the rest were finishing readying their gear. She crossed to Hallens and bowed. Scanning the preparations, Hallens nodded to indicate that Iko had her attention.

‘An attack on the south wall,’ Iko reported. ‘Do we join them?’

An indulgent smile quirked the tall woman’s lips. ‘No, Iko.’

‘But an unexpected assault from the rear might turn the tide—or we could take a gate and hold it until a relieving party arrived.’ The smile broadened even as other nearby sisters gaped or smirked their astonishment. Their commander merely shook her head. ‘These are mere probes, Iko. Chulalorn must test the walls—no…’ she paused, as was her habit when correcting herself in mid-flow, ‘rather, the king must test the Hengans. He must measure the degree of their readiness, yes?’

Iko, who had been clenching her lips against a flow of objections, jerked her head in protest. ‘Why then do we prepare to fight?’

Now the older woman’s thin lips drew down. ‘Other news, Iko. Our sisters found the emissary’s chambers empty and went to demand his whereabouts. Word has come that he has gone over to the Protectress. Bought by Hengan gold, no doubt. He has betrayed the trust of the king.’

‘We must bring his head to Chulalorn!’

Hallens nodded. ‘In time. In time.’

‘Why then the preparations?’

‘Because we have also been informed that we are now hostages against the siege.’

Iko laughed her scorn. ‘We will easily cut our way free!’

Hallens raised her hands for calm. ‘Yes. But not now.’

‘Why ever not? Now is the time to strike. Before they have adequate guards in place!’

The sisters around them smirked anew at this, some hiding their mouths while others did not even bother. Iko felt her brows crimping in a ferocious frown. What was going on? Had Hallens turned as well? Was she the only one ready to fight?

Hallens invited her aside. ‘Let us walk, Iko.’

She now felt the blood drain from her face: dear gods above! She was to be disciplined. In front of everyone she had virtually accused her commander of cowardice and now she was to be kicked down to the lowest of the low.

She hung her head, bowing. ‘Yes… commander.’

Without, it was quiet. The attacks—probes, as Hallens had it—were over. The air was cool and its touch revived her spirits… slightly. ‘I apologize,’ she murmured once they were alone on the gravel path.

Hallens, so much taller, now cast another of her smiles down upon her. ‘For what? For being a Sword-Dancer? No, Iko. You show proper fighting spirit.’ She paused, sorting among her words, and Iko braced herself: Here it comes… ‘But you are impetuous. You do not consider the broader strategic picture.’

So her sisters were right to laugh at her! What a fool she must’ve seemed! She felt her throat clenching in sick self-loathing. ‘You will send me down,’ she gasped. Her heart burned in her chest with the shame of it.

The woman suddenly turned to her and grasped her shoulders. ‘No, Iko. Not at all. If that were true, I would not be out here with you now explaining our situation.’

‘You owe me no explanation.’

‘But I do.’ Hallens released her shoulders to resume her slow measured walk. ‘There is a sickness among us, Iko,’ she began, haltingly. ‘It comes from too much time in the palace, I think. Too many among us now value status and prestige over service, I fear. Who has Chulalorn’s momentary favour versus who has not. Or worse—who has the support of the palace functionaries.’ She shook her head sadly and her bunched auburn curls brushed her shoulders. ‘The bureaucrats, Iko. They will be the death of us…’ She pinched her eyes as she walked along. ‘But I digress. My point is that you seem immune to this political sickness and for that I am glad.’

Iko found she was frowning once more. ‘I’m sorry, commander, but I do not understand…’

‘You will. What bell is it?’

‘The second past the mid-night sounding.’

Hallens pinched her eyes again. ‘I am not used to these late-night vigils. But you are, yes? How old are you, Iko?’

‘Sixteen years.’

Her commander smiled fondly in reminiscence. ‘I remember my sixteenth year. When Chulalorn the Second travelled to Dal Hon for the treaty negotiations. I stood guard for two days and nights without relief when all the others fell sick. I fought off seven attempts upon his life.’

‘It is legend among us,’ Iko answered, hushed.

The woman waved it aside. ‘Well… Sometimes I wonder whether we shall ever see such days again.’ She cleared her throat and scanned the night sky for a time. ‘Anyway. They are late.’

Iko was surprised. ‘I’m sorry, commander. Who?’

‘Those whom I brought you out to meet. The attack must have delayed them.’

Iko peered round at the shadowed gardens. ‘But… we are in the palace grounds…’

Hallens raised a hand for silence. ‘Regardless—ah! Here they are.’

Iko peered round once again but saw nothing. Then her hand reflexively flew to the grip of her whipsword as something shifted in the dark. A night-black shape rose before her as if stepping out of the murk itself. Then another dropped from the sky on her left. Stunned, Iko let her hand fall, for she knew these shapes that now surrounded them, or had had them described to her—the way their black clothes seemed to shift and blur. The narrow slits of their eyes. And those eyes as flat and black as deepest night.

Their hidden companion order. The Nightblades of Itko Kan.

One stepped forth. She, or he, inclined a head all wrapped in obscuring layers of jet-black gauze. Hallens answered the small nod as one equal to another. ‘What does Chulalorn command?’ she enquired.

‘You are to remain in place,’ answered a man’s voice, soft, yet firm.

‘How goes the hunting?’

‘There is nothing to hunt. The Protectress places too much faith in her mages and has cultivated no other assets. The rooftops are ours to travel as we wish.’ The Nightblade extended a hand towards Iko and she was unnerved to see a long thin blade in his grip, its metal blued against any betraying glimmer. ‘This was to be a private meeting. Why bring another?’

‘This is Iko,’ Hallens answered. ‘You are to regard her as my second.’

Iko jerked, stunned, only just managing to keep her mouth from falling open. The arm fell. ‘Very well. We will bring any further orders.’ The Nightblade moved to go.

Iko blurted, ‘And Jerruth? The emissary?’

The Nightblade did not even turn round. ‘He is nothing. He will be found when the city falls.’ Then the man was gone; it was as if he’d dissolved into the night. Many in Itko Kan speculated that these servants to the Chulalorn dynasty were all sorcerers and mages, but Iko had heard that in truth few were, and that plain gruelling training lay behind their rare skills and abilities—just as with hers.

She turned to Hallens, whom she found eyeing her with a playful half-smile pulling at her lips. ‘I cannot be your second,’ she exclaimed.

‘Nonsense. You are my choice. We need your ferocity and dedication. We are trapped behind enemy lines, after all.’

‘And what if they should try to disarm us?’

Hallens barked a raucous laugh and started back to their quarters. ‘They would be fools to try. No, they dare not touch us. And they believe we wouldn’t throw our lives away in an attempt to cut a path through the city. Or that we would be stupid enough to make an attempt upon the Protectress.’ She regarded Iko sidelong. ‘That’s not our job. But,’ and she clasped her hands behind her back, ‘your point about the gate is a rather good one.’

Iko said nothing, understanding the unspoken promise—they would see action. Eventually, they would be unsheathed.

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

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