The Malazan Saga Returns: Read Chapter Two of Steven Erikson’s The God Is Not Willing

New York Times bestselling author Steven Erikson continues the beloved Malazan Book of the Fallen with The God Is Not Willing, first in the thrilling new Witness sequel trilogy—publishing November 9, 2021 with Tor Books.

Read Chapter Two below, and find previous excerpts here.

 


Chapter Two

Something’s always happening. It’s why misery gets no rest.

Karsa Orlong

 

The bandit leader, Balk, was slouched on the cell’s wooden bench, his back to the stone wall. This cell and three others were on the opposite side of the compound from the barracks that had been turned into a prison for Balk’s Company. Normally, the gaol was reserved for the occasional murderer or drunk, someone from the company ranks, where some private adjustment of behaviour was required. Usually with fists, only occasionally with a knife across the throat.

Spindle sent the garrison guard out of the corridor and drew the stool the guard had been seated on up closer to the cell’s bars. Balk glanced across at him briefly before returning his attention to the floor, where three dead rats—necks obviously broken—made a tidy small pile.

Something about the scene made Spindle frown. ‘You’re not a necromancer, are you?’

There was a faint gleam of bared teeth. ‘No. I am not.’

Relaxing, Spindle sat down. ‘He’s dead,’ he said.

‘Who?’

‘The self-styled Baron Rinagg of Fool’s Forest. Seems he was pretty sick to begin with. Dying, I’m told. But we got what we needed out of him before he died.’

‘And what did you need from him, Sergeant?’

‘He had something on you, and it was enough to extort your participation.’

‘Participation in what, exactly?’

Spindle shrugged. ‘I take it you were a mercenary company, and what started out as a basic contract of service eventually turned into something else. Banditry.’

Balk glanced up a second time, his eyes mostly hidden in the shadows pervading the cell. ‘The baron was asserting his right to rule the region. Tithes and tolls. Not banditry.’

‘Aye, I get it,’ Spindle replied. ‘But tithes and tolls are administered by the empire. Those imperial title-holders who manage that also hand over most of the taxes to the regional collector. No one appointed Rinagg, and he handed over nothing.’

‘The baron had been a soldier,’ Balk said. ‘He’d fought against the invasion.’

‘Yes, well, he lost.’

Neither man spoke for a time. Then Spindle rose and rubbed at his face. He arched his back and winced slightly. ‘You are nobleborn, or so my captain believes. A man of honour. Your followers certainly think so.’

‘They should’ve ignored my fate,’ Balk said.

‘Had I killed you, I’m sure they would have.’

‘And then you would have lost.’

‘Probably. So, I’m wondering, what were you doing with a company of four hundred veteran mercenaries, wandering through Fool’s Forest? The empire doesn’t hire mercenaries. It couldn’t have been to take Rinagg’s coin. Not at first.’

‘And why not?’

‘Because the man was a nobody. Even with his taxing the caravans and loggers in the east, he couldn’t afford you for long. Whatever he had on you was serious enough for you to work against a loss, probably emptying out your own holdings all the while.’

Balk looked away, seemed to study one of the walls. ‘Know much about mercenary companies, Sergeant?’

‘Ran up against a few, aye. Years back. Most of ’em barely held together even when the going was good. Show them a mailed fist and they’d scatter more often than not. It takes a special kind of fool to give up a life for coin. With a few exceptions, the empire would buy them out and then break them up.’

‘And the better ones?’

Spindle moved to lean his back against the wall opposite the bars. He crossed his arms. ‘There were two, maybe three,’ he said.

‘The Elin Shields? The Tulip Troop? Amberstone?’

Spindle sneered. ‘Runts, all three.’

‘Fool. You’ve never dealt with any of them, have you? Tulip masses eight whole companies—’

‘The days of the ones worth anything are long gone, Balk. Aye, yours could bloody a nose, and did, but only because we were understrength. Ill-informed. We went in expecting a hundred or so losers.’

‘You went in with all you had.’

‘All comfy, aye. Had we known better, your soldiers would’ve risen in the morning to find all their officers dead, you and the baron included.’

‘Nothing up front, then. Just knives at night.’

‘Aye, short and sweet.’

‘You really know nothing—’

‘Oh, Balk,’ Spindle said, resting the back of his head against the wall. ‘The Crimson Guard. The Grey Swords.’ He cocked his head. ‘Mott Irregulars? Not sure whether I’d count them, to be honest. Less a company than a tribe, and us trespassing.’

‘Liar.’

‘Don’t think I can count the Tiste Andii of Moon’s Spawn either,’ Spindle went on. ‘Not as mercenaries. They took coin from no one. As for the Grey Swords, well, thankfully we met up with them not to fight each other, but to join forces. Liberating Capustan… that’s a day I’ll never forget.’

Balk had climbed to his feet and drawn closer to the bars. ‘You really expect me to believe you, Sergeant? Why play this game?’

‘I don’t think I trust you, Balk,’ Spindle said, now eyeing the man from beneath half-lowered lids. ‘But Captain Gruff has an offer. Your previous employer is dead. The Second Company’s understrength, but we need to garrison Silver Lake. The local Fist has approved a six-month contract. You’ll earn enough to restore your holdings. For purposes of command structure, you would rank as Lieutenant.’

‘A contract? Not broken up and folded into the Legion?’

Spindle pushed away from the wall and headed for the door. He wasn’t in the habit of repeating himself. ‘Decide, and then inform your guard.’

 

‘It’s against his nature,’ Stillwater pronounced.

‘What nature would that be?’ So Bleak asked, leaning forward to stack the wooden chips. ‘The white paint’s coming off.’

‘It’s not paint,’ Clay Plate said. ‘It’s lead. Keep stacking and stacking ’em and your hands will turn blue. Then rot and fall off. But you won’t care, because you’ll be insane by then.’ He jabbed a finger at Anyx Fro. ‘And I told you, Anyx, you want proper paint. Crushed limestone and birdshit and a few drops of linseed oil. Better yet, just gild the damned things.’

‘Will you kindly shut your word-hole?’ Anyx said calmly. ‘Just let the man think.’

‘Benger doesn’t know how to think,’ Clay Plate replied.

Stillwater groaned and rubbed at her eyes. ‘This is the problem,’ she said. ‘Right here. Anyx, little carved chips of wood ain’t a Deck of Dragons, no matter what you say. Besides, the whole point of Fiddler’s Gambit is it’s a card game played with a Deck of Dragons.’

‘Well,’ Anyx retorted, ‘have you got a Deck, Stillwater? Have you even seen one?’

‘Once,’ she answered. ‘In G’danisban. Three-Finger Herahv, just before he deserted. Last thing he said was something about finding the old Path of Hands. Poor Herahv.’

Clay Plate snorted. ‘Ha ha hah!’

Stillwater scowled at him. ‘What?’

‘Guy with only three fingers goes looking for hands! Ha ha hah!’

Benger straightened and slapped down a disc. ‘I’m countering with the Mistress.’

‘That’s still in Death’s Company,’ Clay Plate said. ‘You can’t win the game hiding behind the Gate.’

‘I’ll think about winning later,’ Benger replied as he collected up his tankard and drank deep.

Stillwater made a sound she’d intended to be amused but it came out like something caught in her throat. She took a quick drink from her own tankard, wondering why things like that kept happening to her. ‘It’s all just surviving right now, right? Like I said, not in his nature. Push Benger against a wall and he’ll look for a window to close.’

‘Push me against a wall and I’d do the same,’ Clay Plate said to her. He laid out a pair of chips. ‘Icari to blank the past, giving me a free play. Unloved Woman to break the Mistress.’

Frowning, So Bleak slid a chip into play. ‘Black Feathers to flank.’

‘Ganging up on me!’ Benger hissed. ‘Come on, Stillwater, do something!’

‘Who made me your friend, Benger? But if you hand over that Korabas you’re hiding in that stack…’

‘No trading!’ Clay Plate shouted.

‘Who says?’ Stillwater asked.

‘This is the problem in a game without any rules,’ Anyx Fro observed. ‘Every company I’ve ever been in plays a different version.’

‘But ours is the official version,’ Clay Plate said.

‘There is no official version!’

In the meantime, Benger had sent the Korabas chip skidding across the table, to vanish under Stillwater’s right hand.

‘There,’ she said, ‘that wasn’t so bad, was it?’

‘You’ve ruined my victory,’ Benger grumbled. ‘But this way I won’t go out weakest, either.’

‘True enough,’ Stillwater said. ‘I play Church of the Eel. The Unblinking Eye, the Lord of Omens. The Unloved Woman turns away and the Shroud descends. Tears flow into the River that runs through the Gate. It’s a flood of disaster, swelling the depleted ranks of Death’s Company. You all miss a turn in confusion and here comes Korabas, Slayer of Magic. The world ends. I win!’

‘You gave that victory to her!’ Clay Plate snarled at Benger.

‘To make sure you end up in the weakest position, aye, I did! Now, give me that Twice Alive chip. I get open-of-play next time, because her Korabas ending knocks her off the pedestal.’

‘I don’t want to play any more,’ said Clay Plate. ‘Politics and betrayal and back-stabbing, why am I even surprised?’

‘Just as well,’ Anyx Fro said, ‘give me all the chips. They need repainting.’

‘Just remember who owns Twice Alive.’

‘I will, Benger. Maybe.’

‘Cheat me and I’ll curse you, Anyx.’

‘Fine. I need to test the Iron Maw anyway and you’ll be as good a target as any.’

‘Not much of a threat,’ Benger said with a grin. ‘An invention that doesn’t even work, and looks stupid, besides.’

Anyx used her forearm to sweep all the chips into a hide sack, which she then cinched tight. ‘Remember Benger’s words, everybody. We can repeat them over his grave. Well, the hump of earth containing the few bits left of him, that is.’

‘Poor Benger,’ said Stillwater.

Clay Plate was nursing his ale. ‘It’s Blanket who should be cursed. Benger, I’ll ally with you next game if you curse that redolent piece of animated shit.’

‘I don’t need allies, since I got Twice Alive.’

‘Maybe,’ said Anyx Fro. ‘You ain’t gonna make many friends with all that cursing people stuff. Besides, you’re supposed to be a healer, not a curse-spewing asshole.’

‘Curse-spewing asshole?’

‘That would be Blanket, actually,’ said Clay Plate.

Everyone but Stillwater laughed. She wondered what they’d found so funny.

Trader’s Inn was crowded, but not as crowded as it used to be. Most of the three squads were here, the heavies all at one table and arguing about something. The only sergeant in sight from where Stillwater sat was her own, Drillbent, who was at a small table with only a jug of ale for company.

It wasn’t that nobody liked Drillbent, Stillwater reflected morosely. It was just that nobody knew him. Well, they knew him, but they didn’t know him, either. They knew him enough, after all these years, to know that they didn’t know him, was what she meant to think.

And the corporals had a table of their own, with Oams taking the fourth chair but sitting well back from Morrut, Undercart and Snack. It was probably the only seat he’d found. She’d worked with Oams. He was competent, one of the last of the sappers but also a night-blade, since sappers didn’t count the way they used to. They had a handful of munitions to work with, but those were touchy. Not Moranth, of course. Just imperial copies. Oams was always complaining. Every fourth one was a dud. Not consistently, of course, but that’s how it averaged out. And the flamers had a way of blowing up in one’s hand, which wasn’t good. She didn’t understand sappers.

There was a vivid memory of the last battle, out on the outlying flank edging the tree-line. Pithambra from the 7th Squad, facing down a half-dozen of the enemy with a single sharper, which he threw at their feet. But the clay was too thick, Oams later explained, so it bounced instead of exploding, and in the next breath Pithambra was dead. Someone stepped on the sharper later, took off both legs. Too little, too late.

She remembered pointing that out even as she pointed at the legless bandit who’d died upright. Those within hearing had laughed for some reason. Thinking on it again made her scowl deepen. Imagine, laughing after having had the crap beaten out of the company. And whenever someone talked about that whole scene now, they ended it by describing that bandit, whom they had named Too-Little Too-Late, and then laughing all over again.

Malazan marines seemed to like laughing at all the wrong things. She didn’t get it at all. Now, stealing from a dead witch, that was funny.

Anyway, poor Pithambra.

Benger and Clay Plate left the table, followed a moment later by So Bleak, leaving just Anyx Fro for company. Stillwater eyed the woman. ‘You look sick.’

‘I am,’ Anyx replied. ‘Sick of you always saying I look sick. I just happen to have a porcelain complexion.’

‘A what?’

Anyx brushed one cheek and fluttered her eyelashes. ‘Creamy—’

‘Colourless.’

‘Delicate.’

‘Deathly.’

Anyx fell silent.

‘Go on,’ Stillwater prompted. ‘Let’s hear your description of those bags under your eyes.’

‘They’re my mother’s.’

‘So why do you have them?’

Anyx frowned. ‘I just told you. They’re my mother’s!’

‘So why did she give them to you, and why did you agree to take them in the first place? What did she say? “Oh here, darling, I’m tired of carrying them.” And you said, “Yes Mommy” and now here you are, looking like you live under a rock.’

‘It’s just an act, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a good one. You’ve got all the heavies convinced, anyway.’

‘Convinced of what?’

‘That you’re thicker than a gangplank, Stillwater.’

‘I should’ve joined the Claw. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with all these insults. In the Claw they talk about killing and that’s all they talk about, and really, what else is there to talk about? Especially in the Claw.’

‘Oams was in the Claw,’ said Anyx Fro. ‘Might be he still is.’

‘Oams? I don’t believe you. He never talks about killing.’ She glanced over at the man sitting with but not with the corporals. Something obviously poked him about her attention, since his head turned and he met her eyes, and then made a face. She made one back and returned her gaze to Anyx, who was busy tucking a wad of rustleaf into her mouth. ‘Yesterday afternoon all he was talking about is the jumpy thing.’

‘The jumpy what?’

‘Thing. Inside his body. Jumping this way and that.’

‘What kind of thing?’

‘The jumpy kind, I guess.’

Anyx Fro’s look flattened, and her eyes thinned. ‘It’s got to be an act.’

‘Oams? He’s got no act. I mean, he couldn’t. Besides, now he’s all jumpy.’

‘Doesn’t look jumpy. Looks half asleep, actually.’

‘And he was asking me about spirits and spectres and gods and did they like to fuck mortals and what if one did?’

Anyx emptied a stream of brown spit into a spare tankard on the table, then looked down at it and moved the tankard away. ‘And what did you say, Stillwater?’

‘I said what anybody’d say.’

‘Which is?’

‘Oh, I said: “No, Oams, I’m not fucking you, so fuck off already.”’

Anyx nodded. ‘No argument there. So… which one are you?’

‘Which one what?’

‘Spirit, spectre or god? Goddess, I mean.’

‘I didn’t fuck him, so it wasn’t me in the first place.’

‘So you think one did?’

‘Oams? Why would anything fuck Oams? No, he’s just fishing.’ She sat back and crossed her arms. ‘And that’s why he’s not a Claw and never was.’

‘You might have a point,’ Anyx conceded. ‘He’s got no magery in him, after all. Most Claws do, you know.’

‘They do?’

‘Of course. They’re mage-assassins, Stillwater. It’s pretty much required to even be considered for admission into the ranks.’

Stillwater stared at Anyx Fro. She made a sound that meant… that meant something, but she didn’t know what. Then she swore. ‘It’s always the way, dammit! Just like the barrows—someone always gets to them first!’

Clay Plate swung by at that moment, collected up his tankard, drained it, set it back down, and then walked away.

Stillwater looked at the tankard and then at Anyx, who met her eyes and then looked at the tankard, and then they were both looking at the tankard. After a long moment, Anyx rose from her chair, shouldering her bag of wooden chips. ‘Got some painting to do.’

‘More lead-paste paint?’

‘Why not? Got a whole jar of the shit. Just don’t stack ’em and stack ’em, that’s all.’

‘Maybe that’s what’s making you look so sickly, Anyx.’

‘Not sickly. Porcelain.’

 

Sergeant Shrake dipped the tip of her braid into the wine and then slipped it between her full lips and sucked.

‘Do you really have to do that?’ So Bleak asked.

‘We cast knuckles, So Bleak,’ she said around the braid, which she was now chewing. ‘I lost.’

‘You were also short in your squad.’

‘Been short before. Your reputation preceded you. It’s not a good one.’

‘Nothing changed,’ So Bleak said, in some exasperation, and it didn’t help that he was a bit drunk. ‘Luck is luck. The Lady’s pull. Then someone decided that it was everybody around me getting the Lord’s push. That’s not fair.’

‘You’re right,’ she replied. ‘The Law of Fair has been broken. I suggest you register a complaint with the universe. Best way, of course, is to scratch it on a piece of pottery and then throw it into a well. I’m told that works every time.’

‘You should really be considering me your charm.’

‘I would, if you were at all charming. Truth is, you’re plain, So Bleak. And besides, you came in with that name of yours, meaning you’d already earned it.’

‘I earned it because I’d lost too many friends. Because your miserable universe doesn’t have any laws.’

Shrake dipped her braid back into her wine and made stirring motions. ‘My universe isn’t miserable at all. It’s all flowers and meadows and butterflies under a bright sun on a warm summer’s day. Want in?’

‘Do I ever.’

‘Never happening. You’re too plain and besides, you’re bad luck to have around. And now we’re stuck with you and if you go and outlive us, I swear, So Bleak, I’ll break the Gate Guardian’s other leg to get back here and haunt you for the rest of your Lady-kissed butt-polishing life, and I’ll be bringing my marines with me.’

He glared at her while she slid the braid-end back into her mouth and sucked, somewhat noisily. ‘I hope you choke on that,’ he said.

‘Just my luck, or, rather, yours. Now go get more drunk and puke in someone else’s lap, will you? I’m waiting for Spindle.’

He rose and wobbled momentarily, and then swung about with as much dignity as possible and made his way outside. He didn’t like Trader’s Inn anyway, especially on the night before they all shipped out. Worse yet, something wasn’t right about this time. He couldn’t pin it down, of course, but it was the kind of feeling he’d had before. Usually on the night preceding disaster. Then again, it wouldn’t do to talk about that to anyone, especially since the last time he’d had this feeling, they’d been about to slap down a hundred or so useless bandits.

His life seemed to have found a new trajectory. He was tumbling down the stairs, one agonizing step at a time.

Once outside, he paused, letting the night’s cold breath wash over him. He decided that he hated Sergeant Shrake. With her wine-stained braid and big squishy lips, her eyes so veiled and languid like pools of water, her pointy chin and wide, flaring jawline, her big-boned chest and the slight inward turn of her left foot making her walk look tentative despite her bouncy back-end. He especially hated how smart she was, all that sarcasm oozing out like snake venom. But most of all, he hated the fact that she could swing that broadsword of hers the way she could. Imagine, cutting a man halfway through at chest-level! He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.

That’d been right after he’d saved Corporal Undercart’s life. Or maybe it was just before. One or the other, anyway. True, she was a bit beefy on the shoulders, but still, she’d left her feet to do it, at the end of a sudden charge, and she’d come at the man from a flank—he’d not even seen her, and both his arms were up for some reason, so she got in under that. Ribs snapping like a sapper’s knucklers. Snap! Snapsnap! And then gushing blood, and down he went choking on red gore.

He hated her all right. Hated her so much all he wanted to do was fuck her.

But plain men had no luck with women like that, making him hate her even more. So that was the truth of it all right. This miserable universe only ever showed him its bleakest face.

Then he reeled at a sudden insight. Your universe, So Bleak? Why, it’s your perfect reflection. That’s all it is and all it ever will be. Now be a man and chew on that!

A pox of black feathers on the Lady’s pull. Next time, next scrap, next whatever, he was going to march straight into it, praying for the Lord’s push. End it. End it all, damn you!

Then he dropped to his knees and puked.

 

‘It’s all about the greater good,’ Blanket was saying, ‘and if that meant chaining some poor fools to a damned wall, well, better that than a whole damned continent under water and thousands and thousands drowned.’

‘Easy to say,’ Paltry Skint retorted, ‘since it wasn’t you chained to the Stormwall.’

‘I was speaking in terms of principles, Skint, which is what we have been addressing all this time.’

‘But your principles are just your way of glossing over the nasty details, Blanket. And that’s why I’m saying that what Stonewielder did was the right thing.’

‘We don’t really know what Stonewielder did,’ Folibore pointed out.

Paltry Skint turned on him. ‘That’s so typical, Folibore. This may shock you, but your ignorance does not constitute a defence of your position. It simply highlights its flaws, not to mention the appalling paucity of your education.’

Folibore blinked. ‘Whilst you in turn engage in personal attacks, that being the last refuge of the indefensible.’

‘Wrong. My last refuge is this fist in your face.’

‘Hah!’ snorted Blanket. ‘As if physical violence isn’t the first choice of the intellectually challenged.’

She pointed her finger at him. ‘Exactly! And what did Stonewielder do on the Stormwall? He stopped fighting! All that killing and dying had to stop so that’s what he did!’

‘”And in the icy waters rush,”‘ intoned Say No, ‘”the white waves scythe / until the stone stands alone. / On their salt-maned horses they ride / circle the single tower. / You would swallow the heart / of the Fallen God? / Ascend the stairs to confront / his beautiful broken daughter? / Then heed this granite blade / that rises no more…”‘

The heavies sat silent, a few eyes made damp.

Folibore leaned back, sighing. A little poetry was all it took, to keep the fists from flying.

‘How does the rest of that go?’ Blanket asked hoarsely.

Say No shrugged. ‘Can’t recall, to be honest.’

‘Something about “the blinded eye”,’ ventured Daint.

‘Wrong song,’ Given Loud said in a growl, glaring at Daint. ‘You’re thinking of the Lay of Ipshank—’

‘No, I’m not,’ snarled Daint. ‘The Lay of Ipshank is on a four-three-four cadence and needs a tusk-drum dropped down an octave—’

‘Not without the thumping heel dance on the counter-beat!’

‘Only in Dal Hon! Nobody else cares a whit about a thumping heel dance, you damned fool!’

Folibore startled everyone by pounding his fist on the table. Wine and ale spilled. ‘We were discussing principles in the matter of what constitutes true ethical virtue, my friends. Paltry Skint elected to focus on the fate of Stonewielder upon the Stormwall, and the Washing of Tears that thereafter cleansed Kolanse. Might I now take the opportunity to counter with The Unwitnessed—’

‘Not again!’ Paltry Skint shouted. ‘If the damned Fall of the Bone-hunters was unwitnessed, how can we ever know what happened in the first place? That history is all fake! No, it’s worse than fake. It’s made up!’

Blanket half-rose in his chair, teeth bared. ‘And what’s so wrong with “made up”?’

‘”Our fates unknown,”‘ sang Say No suddenly, ‘”where ends the magic road / and the wings cannot give shelter…”‘

And once more, as she continued, everything settled back down. But Folibore knew that it was going to be a long night. He eyed Say No, praying to all the gods that she’d memorized enough stirring poetry.

 

When Shrake saw Spindle entering the tavern and approaching her table, she also took note of Drillbent getting up and heading over. Drillbent arrived first. Shrake used a foot to push a chair away from the table and he gave her a curt nod before slumping down in it.

‘No one’s going to like it,’ he said, flicking a glance at Spindle when he pulled up another chair.

‘So Bleak’s getting drunk,’ said Shrake.

Drillbent frowned at her. ‘So?’

‘Bleak.’

‘No, I heard you. I meant, so what?’

‘The old stories are true. We have proof. When it’s going to be a shit-storm, So Bleak gets drunk first.’

‘We ain’t in any shitstorm.’

‘Yet.’

‘Well,’ Drillbent said after a moment, ‘too bad you couldn’t distract him.’

‘I told you, Drill, it’s a bad idea. Look, I’m having a hard enough time keeping my hands off him. He’s so… puppy.’

Spindle and Drillbent exchanged looks.

‘Fuck off you both. It’s bad form, crotch-grinding one of your squad-dies. You know it.’

A waiter arrived and set down a jug of the cheap Nathii wine and then walked off.

‘He forgot your cups,’ Shrake observed, defensively corralling her own lest anyone get ideas. ‘But you can swap the jug back and forth.’

Spindle said, ‘So the braid thing didn’t work?’

‘Oh, he made disgusted noises, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it. In other words, it went the opposite way. I suppose if I start picking my nose… but no, nothing’s working. We’re like lodestones on a tabletop, slowly crawling closer and closer. Pretty soon… snap!’

‘Four-legged back-beast,’ said Drillbent. ‘Little Shrakes, little Bleaks.’

‘Did you call him ugly?’ Spindle asked her.

‘I called him plain.’

‘Try ugly next time.’

Drillbent breathed loudly through his nostrils. ‘Calling him ugly doesn’t change the fact that he’s good-looking, at least as far as you’re concerned, Shrake. Me, if I had to get up every morning looking at that face, I’d probably hang myself.’

‘But that’s because you hate everybody.’

‘I don’t hate everybody, Shrake. They just bore me.’ Then he blinked. ‘Present company excluded.’

Spindle cleared his throat. ‘Lieutenant Balk will lead his column. We’ll camp a bit apart on the way to Silver Lake, but I’m still expecting a few cat-calls and maybe a scrap or two. We need to keep our soldiers tightly reined. The captain wants that understood. Meals will be communal.’

Shrake leaned back and started dipping her braid-end into her wine, and then yanked it away with a scowl. ‘I foresee an epic food-fight with losses on both sides. I suggest we get ours in first by having Oams spike a few bread-rolls with knucklers. I know, they’re used to scare horses but I’m sure one blowing up in a mouth will be surprising enough.’

Sighing, Drillbent said, ‘The empire ain’t what it used to be. Hiring mercenaries. And if that’s not bad enough, how about ones we just locked horns with?’

‘Their previous employer is dead,’ Spindle pointed out.

‘Look at us,’ Shrake suddenly said. ‘Three left.’

‘Makes for short meetings,’ Drillbent said, and then held up a hand. ‘I know, bad taste. Sorry. We need to be more like Stillwater.’

Shrake’s eyebrows lifted. ‘Stillwater? That knify mage of yours?’

‘But no one knows she’s a mage,’ said Drillbent.

‘What are you talking about? Everyone knows!’

She doesn’t know that.’

‘Which makes her an idiot,’ Shrake said. ‘And you think we should all be like that? Idiots?’

‘She doesn’t see the real world,’ Drillbent explained, ‘including all the people around her. She lives in her own little place, and what a place! Crowded with dead friends and living friends who will soon be dead, and meanwhile, everything else doesn’t even exist!’ He sat back. ‘I envy her.’

Shrake dipped her braid into her wine and then sucked at it.

The two men at the table with her watched.

She scowled, yanked the braid from her mouth and said, ‘Fucking men, you’re all alike.’

 

Excerpted from The God Is Not Willing, copyright © 2021 by Steven Erikson.

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