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Dancer’s Lament: Chapters 1-4

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Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Dancer’s Lament by Ian C. Esslemont. The Path to Ascendancy trilogy takes readers deep into the politics and intrigue behind the genesis of the Malazan Empire. The next book, Deadhouse Landingwill be available November 14th.

For ages warfare has crippled the continent as minor city states, baronies, and principalities fought in an endless round of hostilities. Only the alliance of the rival Tali and Quon cities could field the resources to mount a hegemony from coast to coast — and thus become known as Quon Tali.

It is a generation since the collapse of this dynasty and regional powers are once more rousing themselves. Into this arena of renewed border wars come two youths to the powerful central city state that is Li Heng. One is named Dorin, and he comes determined to prove himself the most skilled assassin of his age; he is chasing the other youth — a Dal Hon mage who has proven himself annoyingly difficult to kill.

Li Heng has been guided and warded for centuries by the powerful sorceress known as the “Protectress”, and she allows no rivals. She and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions — what could two youths hope to accomplish under their stifling rule?

Yet under the new and ambitious King Chulalorn the Third, Itko Kan is on the march from the south. He sends his own assassin servants, the Nightblades, against the city, and there are hints that he also commands inhuman forces out of legend.

While above all, shadows swirl oddly about Li Heng, and monstrous slathering beasts seem to appear from nowhere to run howling through the street. It is a time of chaos and upheaval, and in chaos, as the young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity.

Prelude

The prize was his and none would rob him of it. A recent shudder of the earth had exposed it here on the Seti Plains, close by the Great Cliff, south of the river Idryn, near to where Burn herself is said to rest.

Uneasily, most obviously.

A small twinge, or minor itch, or passing flatulence from the Great Goddess had shaken the ground not more than a fortnight ago. And now this tunnel, or cave, revealed here in this narrow rocky cleft. His find. True, he’d only come across it because he’d caught a hint of movement out there on the plains and so had clambered down into the gorge out of prudent care. The plains curse, the man-eating beast Ryllandaras, was never far.

So it was his. Yet not his alone.

Someone else was lurking about: a sneaky fellow hard to pin down. And coming from him, from Dorin Rav, that was saying a lot. Not in all Quon or Tali had he met his match in stealth or murder. The so-called ‘Assassin Guilds’ he’d dug up these last years had proved themselves no more than gangs of brutes and thugs for hire. Not one true practitioner among them.

He’d been disgusted.

So much for the exploits of the thief queen Lady Apsalar, or daring Topaz, the favourites of so many jongleur songs. Petty greed, sadistic cruelty, and a kind of slope-browed cunning were all he’d found among the criminal underworld – if that was what you could call it. All of which, he had to allow, was at least the minimal requirement for extortion, blackmail, theft, and murder for hire.

Not that that had stopped him from profiting from their ineptitude. A few well-placed thrusts and their stashes of coin rode tightly wrapped in a baldric across his chest – a baldric that also supported a selection of graded blades and lengths of rope.

He was of the opinion that one can never carry too much rope.

He passed the best of the night crouched on his haunches in a thick stand of desert tall-grass, patiently watching that dark opening, and saw nothing. A hunting snake slithered over one sandalled foot. Midges and chiggers feasted upon him. A lizard climbed his shirt, lost its footing on his sweat-slick neck and fell inside the padded, cloth-covered armour vest he wore next to his skin.

Yet he hadn’t twitched. And still his rival had not revealed himself. Then, just as the sun kissed the lips of the narrow crevice ridge high above, a rock clattered close to the shadowed gap.

He ground his teeth. Somehow the bastard had slipped past. Very well. He’d follow. Dog the man until whatever lay ahead was revealed. The least the fellow could do was make himself useful by falling first into any hidden dangers.

He edged out to the mouth of the gap and, hunched, a blade ready, felt his way down. Just within, he paused to press himself against one wall of jagged broken rock. He listened and waited for his vision to adjust. A brush of cloth on stone sighed ahead. He felt his way onward.

A descending slope of loose broken rock ended at a narrow corridor of set blocks. Ancient, these, gigantic and of a dark stone he didn’t recognize. He searched the gloom; where had the Hood-damned bastard gone? Then a dim ringing ahead as of metal on stone, quickly muted. He pressed himself to a wall – could he be seen outlined by the faint light behind? He darted forward.

The corridor ended at a wall that supported a door in the form of a slab of rock of similar origin. The slab stood at an angle aslant of the portal, a slim opening running top to bottom, at the foot a gap where a slim man or woman might just squirm within.

Damn the fellow for winning through first!

He knelt at the fissure, only to flinch away from the mouldy stink of things long dead. The still air was cold too, unaccountably so. Crystals of frost glittered on the rock. Wincing, he slipped one arm through. His other hand brushed the thick door slab. A nest of symbols carved in the naked rock writhed beneath his fingers.

Wards. Glyphs. A tomb. Or hoard. Out here? In the middle of nowhere?

Yet this had not stopped his rival.

He slid onward. Rising, brushing away the accumulated dust of centuries, it seemed to him passing strange that fine sand and grit should still choke the gap. Such speculations, however, were driven away by a wan golden glow coming from further ahead. There’s the bastard and now’s your chance.

He drew another blade and slid along the wall. His breath plumed in the oddly chill air.

It was a low-roofed chamber: a lost cellar or tomb, perhaps. Gloom swallowed its exact size and shape, which might have been circular. The low flame from a single clay oil-lamp provided the only faint light. Hoar frost glittered on what of the walls he could see. The lamp rested on a monolithic raised stone platform at the chamber’s centre. A large figure, a near giant, sat at the block, slouched forward, arms resting on the surface. Its hair was long and iron-grey and hung in tangled lengths that obscured its features. Before it on the slab sat the remains of a mummified animal of some sort – possibly a monkey, Dorin thought.

Where was his rival? Hiding behind the stone? Must have nerves of iron.

He drew a breath to call the fellow out, but almost bit his tongue as the mummified animal moved. The thing reached out to sort among the dusty objects cluttering the stone. With a nimble long-fingered hand, it picked up what looked like a slim wooden tile and waved it through the air, showering dust and bright crystals of ice everywhere.

The corpse lashed out to slam the tile to the slab and Dorin grunted his shock.

‘Don’t meddle,’ the corpse breathed in a voice like creaking wood. It raised its head, revealing outsized canines and bright gleaming eyes. ‘I smell a breeze,’ it said. ‘That crack that lets in mice and cockroaches … and other pests …’

The tall figure shifted its head to fix those unnatural eyes upon Dorin. ‘Come in, then – since you have already.’ The being’s gaze shifted slightly to the left. ‘You too.’

Dorin spun to see his rival there just to one side.

Behind him all this time! A damned mage!

The fellow was short and young, dark-skinned – Dal Honese. Young? Well, no older than I. And he was an ugly lad with a scrunched-up face and a sad patchy attempt at a beard and moustache. He wore loose dark robes, dirty and tattered, and carried a walking stick – though he didn’t grip it like a warrior. In answer to Dorin’s scowl he flashed uneven yellow teeth.

Dorin shifted aside to face them both.

‘You are Jaghut,’ the newcomer called to their host, pleased with himself.

The huge man’s expression remained unchanged. He lowered his head. ‘I should think that obvious.’

Dorin took satisfaction from the fall of the smirk from the Dal Hon’s face.

The creature – a Jaghut, or Jag, such as Dorin had heard of in stories – waved them in. ‘Come, come. Make yourselves at home. We have all the time in the world.’

That gave Dorin pause. But not so his rival, who pushed in without hesitation. The youth bent over the huge block to study the scattered wooden tiles. ‘You are doing a reading,’ he announced.

‘Another stunning deduction,’ the Jag observed, acidly.

Dorin edged up behind his rival. Why so bravely, or foolishly, offer his back now? Because he knows I’ll not act in front of the Jag. Cheap courage, that. He made a point of standing close to the Dal Hon’s side. Let him sweat.

Squinting in the dim lamplight the young fellow was studying the dust-covered cards, tapping a thin finger to his lips. ‘This casting has defeated you for some time.’

One thick brow arched ever so slightly. The lips drew back further from the sallow canines. ‘Indeed.’

Dorin swept a quick glance over the wooden cards – artefacts as oversized as their host. The shadowed figures and images painted on their faces held little interest for him. His mother had once hired a reader to foretell his future … the woman’s screams had woken all the neighbours. After that, there’d been no more readings for Dorin Rav.

The dark-skinned youth reached out for the nearest wooden slat but the animal – more than a monkey or diminutive ape, Dorin now saw; possibly, then, a nacht of the southern isles – batted his arm aside. It chattered something that sounded eerily like ‘Doan medo’. The Dal Hon answered by hitting its hand away. The two then actually fell into a slapping fight there over the stone, until the Jag snarled his irritation and pushed the creature out of the youth’s reach, from where it busied itself making faces at the lad, who responded with scrunched-up leers of his own.

Dorin mustered his courage to clear his throat and ask, ‘What did you mean by “all the time in the world”?’

The Jag inclined his head as if acknowledging the justness of the question. ‘This structure is my retreat. None may be allowed to know of its existence.’ He raised a hand in a near apology. ‘Now that you are here … you may never leave.’

Dorin did his best to keep his expression neutral – to hide his thoughts – but a smile crept over the being’s wide mouth, entirely baring his canines, and he laughed, low and sardonic. ‘You would not succeed, my friend.’ He tapped a thick yellow nail, more like a talon, to the platform.

Squinting, Dorin examined the solid block of dark rock, some three paces in length. The surface was inscribed in an intricate pattern of swirls and those grooves were inlaid with silver. A humanoid shape lying flat, encircled by a series of complicated wards and sigils …

Dorin stepped away from what had resolved itself into a stone sarcophagus. This one’s?

The Dal Hon meanwhile had set out exploring the chamber, poking his stick into the distant edges. ‘Well then,’ the lad mused from the dark, ‘I suppose we should make ourselves at home.’ He found a shelf along one wall, jabbed the stick at it, and objects tumbled, crashing loudly in the confined quarters.

The Jag scowled his annoyance. ‘Must you?’

‘Sorry.’ The youth raised a small pot fashioned of plain brown earthenware, now cracked. He held it out. ‘Your most precious treasures, I assume?’

The Jag growled from somewhere deep within his throat. ‘Grave offerings, I’ll have you know.’

The Dal Hon returned to his explorations. The nacht had jumped from the sarcophagus and now stalked along behind the youth, mimicking his every move. Dorin put his back to one wall next to where the tunnel entered the chamber. Should I try the door? Might as well. He retreated up the tunnel. In the almost absolute dark, he felt along the door slab; the gap was there, but it now seemed far too slim for his shoulders. He’d slipped through that? How in the name of the Queen of Mystery …

Returning to the chamber, he found the Jag once more bent over the wooden cards. A frown of puzzlement now creased his long face.

‘Is this your bed?’ the Dal Hon called from somewhere in the darkness.

The Jag let out a long hissed breath and pressed his fingers to his temples, his elbows on the stone sarcophagus. He growled, ‘I suppose I shall have to kill you now.’

The youth emerged from the gloom, his walking stick tapping. He spoke lightly, as if disinterested, ‘But then you would just be alone again, wouldn’t you?’

The fellow came alongside, and Dorin whispered, heated, ‘What have you got us into?’

A vexed look from the lad – no younger than he, Dorin had to remind himself. ‘I was following you.’

Dorin clenched his teeth. ‘I thought I was following you—’

‘Please,’ the Jag rumbled, ‘must I now endure your bickering?’

Dorin edged open his cloak to reveal his many knives.

The Dal Hon’s brows rose. ‘You could?’

‘If anyone.’

‘If you say so. Not my field.’

‘And just what is your field?’

‘Oh, a little of this, a little of that … Here, I found this.’ He slipped a thin wooden box between them.

Dorin tucked it away. ‘What is it?’

‘I have absolutely no idea.’ And he wandered off again.

Dorin found himself becoming just as irritated by the skinny fellow as their host.

The Dal Hon now gazed over the hunched Jag’s shoulder, studying the cards. As Dorin watched, the nacht scampered up the young man’s back until its wizened ugly hairy face peered over the youth’s own shoulder. The sight of those three serried faces, each uglier and smaller than the one below, made Dorin feel dizzy, and rather queasy.

‘The cards are unsettled,’ the Dal Hon announced.

Massaging his brow with his fingertips, the Jag stifled his annoyance. ‘Indeed.’

‘You have ones here I have never seen.’

‘My manufacture.’

‘They appear not to be assigned.’

The Jag slapped his hands to the sarcophagus lid with a crack of bone on stone. ‘Do you mind!

The Dal Hon flinched away, sniffed. ‘Just trying to help.’

Jis trya alp,’ the nacht chattered.

The young mage tried to slap the creature away but it was far too quick for him, and it bounded off mouthing something that sounded entirely too similar to laughter. The youth now stalked the beast, his walking stick cocked like a club.

‘What is to become of us?’ Dorin asked.

The Jag had returned to massaging his forehead. ‘A welcome diversion, I thought,’ he said from behind his hands. ‘Make the time pass more quickly. Already I regret it.’

Somewhere in the dark a hissing squalling fight had broken out.

The Jag lunged to his feet, gesturing. ‘I’m trying to think!’ A wave of power pounded through the chamber, slamming Dorin to the wall and squeezing the breath from him. The entire structure groaned and shifted. Dust flew up in a storm, obscuring everything. Dorin squinted into the haze, coughing and gasping. He held his aching chest, unable to straighten. Ye gods! A mere fit of pique almost crushes me!

Off in the dark, a wet coughing eased into a laboured bubbling moaning that faded into a last gasping death-rattle. The little nacht emerged from the swirling dust. It gave an almost human shrug. The Jag turned to Dorin and raised a finger. ‘Excuse me one moment.’ The huge creature stood, almost hunched double, his head brushing the shadowed stonework of the ceiling, and lumbered off. Dorin and the nacht watched him disappear. After a time came a gruff bemused growl: ‘He’s not here …’

A stab of anger, and envy, lanced through Dorin. Damn the fellow! Playing with us all along! I’ll have his head. No one does this to Dorin Rav. The nacht happened to be standing just in front of him then, and in an instant he decided what he’d do. And why not? I’m as good as dead anyway

He snatched up the beast by its neck and pressed a blade under its chin. ‘Come out!’ he shouted. ‘I have your familiar, or pet, or whatever it is!’

The animal froze for an instant, perhaps in surprise, or disbelief. Then it went limp. It hung in his arms as if dead already and Dorin had to hitch it up to steady it. Damned heavy bastard.

The Jag stepped out of the gloom. ‘You have my what?’

‘Let me out or I’ll slit its throat.’

The same strange unreadable smile climbed the Jag’s features and he cocked his head. ‘You … kill … it?’ He laughed soundlessly. Returning to the sarcophagus, he set his elbows upon it then rested his chin on his fists. ‘Very well. I will make you a deal. If you promise to take that thing with you, I will let you go.’

Dorin stared, utterly surprised. What in the name of Hood …?

‘We accept,’ came the Dal Hon’s voice from the darkness at his elbow, and Dorin flinched. The nacht came to life, wriggling and twisting, easily breaking his grip. It plucked the wooden box from his belt and launched itself upon the young mage.

The Jag studied them anew, his expression calculating. His bright amber gaze slid from Dorin to his companion, and he shook a finger at the Dal Hon. ‘You – you move in ways I have not seen in a long time.’ The blazing eyes shifted to Dorin. ‘Is there nothing you fear? Nothing you would not dare?’ And he laughed again, waving them off. ‘By all means. Good riddance! At least now I shall have some peace and quiet. Though I predict that those without these walls will not!’

Dorin began edging backwards. ‘The door,’ he hissed to his— what … accomplice?

‘Not an impediment, I expect,’ the youth answered. The nacht rode his shoulders, a maniac’s grin at its dagger-toothed mouth. Dorin leaned away. Gods, what is this thing?

The door was as before, the opening just manageable. The nacht scampered through first. It chattered and waved as if urging them on. Dorin squatted on his haunches, suspicious. Large, then small, then large once more? The Jag must have let them in. Must have been bored beyond reason.

The dark-skinned youth slid through. Dorin cast one last narrowed glance to the rear, as if expecting a quick attack after the lull, but saw nothing. Very well. Back to your frigid gloom and brooding silence. Good riddance to you, I say.

Outside it was dark – not the dimness of a coming dawn but that of gathering twilight. Much more murky as they were at the bottom of a narrow gorge. Dorin faced the youth who now stood waiting, his walking stick planted before him. He held the nacht curled up in one arm for all the world like a sleeping baby – the ugliest one in existence. ‘So …’ Dorin began, clearing his throat. ‘What is your name, then?’

The Dal Hon’s brows rose as if he was completely startled by the question. ‘My name?’ His eyes darted about the rocks. ‘Ah … my name.’ He smiled and raised a finger. ‘Ah! Wu! My name is … Wu. Yes, Wu … and you?’

Dorin felt his lips tightening to a slit. If you’re going to use a fake name at least make it up beforehand! He thought of a possible pseudonym for himself – his nickname from his youth? But Beanpole wasn’t exactly the image he wished to project. No other name suggested itself and so he fell back on his own: ‘Dorin.’

The Dal Hon – Dorin couldn’t bring himself to think of the youth as Wu – gave a thoughtful nod. ‘Good, good. Well … it has been amusing, but I must be going. Quite busy, you know. Much in demand.’

Now Dorin’s gaze narrowed. He brought his hands up close to his baldric. ‘Go? We have to decide how to split …’ But the damned fellow was somehow fading away. Blasted mages! How he hated them! His hands flicked out and two blades darted to fly through the mage’s dissolving form.

The Dal Hon’s expression registered shocked surprise as he disappeared. ‘Amazing! Those would have got me … had I been standing there in the first place …’

Mages! Blasted warren-rats! Dorin retrieved his knives, checked their edges. Only mages had ever escaped him. He scanned the dark cliff-sides. And yet … they were a long way from anywhere. Time remained. He’d find him. There was really only one place the fellow could possibly be heading for. Li Heng.

If he didn’t track him down before then he’d find the Hood-damned thief there. Eventually.

*

Within the chamber, the Jaghut waved a hand and stone grated and shifted as the entrance sealed itself once again. He returned to studying the ancient pattern of the slats before him – one set out thousands of years ago. His tangled brows rose then, and he sat back, stroking his chin. ‘Well, well … You would send two more upon your hopeless fool’s errand.’ He studied the darkness about him as if awaiting an answer. ‘Why should these two fare any better than all those you have sent to their deaths before?’ He waited again, head cocked, listening for a time; then his shoulders slumped and he hung his head. ‘Oh – very well.’ Grumbling, he rose and shambled off into the darkness beyond the lamp’s glow.

The clank and clatter of rummaging echoed about the chamber before he returned to set an enormous battered full helm upon the stone slab, its grille facing him, and sat once more, sighing. He eyed the helm. ‘So?’ he demanded.

‘Your problem, Gothos,’ came a weak, breathless voice from within the bronze helm, ‘is that you give up too easily.’

Gothos snorted his scorn. ‘And what of you, Azathani?’

After a long silence the helm answered, sounding almost sad. ‘Our problem is that we cannot.’

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man gave a curt nod.

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

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

Now Dorin frowned. ‘You speak in riddles.’

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

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

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

‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

‘The stones …?’ he repeated.

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

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

‘Bolt-holes,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should he not feel sympathy for such a plight?

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

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

Who was to say? Not he.

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

But enough of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He frowned. ‘I can pay for myself.’

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

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

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

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

‘Oh? That’s … too bad.’

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

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

‘Yes. Here’s where you’re stayin’.’

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

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

‘Nobody move!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You are badly hurt,’ she said.

‘Nothing I don’t deserve.’

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

‘I’m not a thief.’

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

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

‘Manners? Also very unthief-like.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ullara.’

‘Why are you …?’

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

‘You are welcome. You needn’t go.’

‘I might be found.’

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

‘What, then, is this place?’

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

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

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

Dorin gave a small nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

But this troubled him.

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

And left him alive.

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

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

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

A knock on the door. ‘Yes?’

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

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

So. I was right.

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

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

‘Just do as I say!’

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

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

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

What was a businessman to do?

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

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

‘No. I took it you wanted to talk.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll take a room there.’

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

‘Very good.’ The lad leaned forward then, hands still flat on the desk between them. ‘Now, about my possessions …’

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bowed and headed for the stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Pung?’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, ma’am.’

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

Ho inclined his head. ‘Yes, Protectress.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, Protectress.’

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

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

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

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

‘Give them a first warning.’

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh?’

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

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

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

‘You have.’

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

‘You can leave it there.’

‘We’re even, then?’

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

‘All right, then. I guess I’ll go.’

‘Very well.’

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

She looked away, blinking. ‘Good eve.’

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

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

‘Careful?’

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

‘Crowded?’

‘The Nightblades of Kan are here.’

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The ways to pleasure are many.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not leaving the city.’

‘And what if the walls should fall?’

‘Why should they fall?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 own 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 Sword-Dancers 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, well-trodden 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 man-beast 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 …’

Chapter 3

The red-headed girl’s name was Rheena. She and her two loyal followers, Shreth and Loor – Loor being the younger – played thieves’ games long familiar to Dorin. He recognized buttoning, fishing, and the crooked cross. Rheena picked the marks and usually served as the distraction. She sometimes asked for coin, or she’d catch a man’s roving gaze and offer herself. During the negotiations the mark would get run into by Shreth, or the two lads would start a fight right on top of him. She also proved a shrewd judge of character as, after eyeing one finely dressed fellow, she immediately started yelling that the bastard had felt her up. Under the surrounding hostile stares the embarrassed mark practically begged her to take a quarter-round to go away.

But theirs was a dangerous game. The streets were crowded with revellers and she made a mistake with one big fellow, who snatched Loor’s quick hand and twisted, sending him on his way with a kick. Shreth swung at him but was quickly laid out with a blow to the head. The man snatched Rheena by the arm and dragged her into an alley. Loor picked up a board but Dorin pulled him back, motioned for him to wait, and followed them himself.

In the narrow way the fellow had her up against a wall, one hand clutching her throat, the other holding her up by her crotch. Dorin cleared his throat. The fellow turned his head; his gaze was full of lazy confidence. ‘Who the fuck are you?’

Dorin motioned up the alley. ‘Put her down and walk away.’

The man dropped Rheena to the cobbles where she lay gasping for breath. He pointed a stubby finger at Dorin. ‘Dumb-fuck kids. Shouldn’t play with grownups.’

Dorin flexed his wrists to allow the thin blades he carried there to ease into his palms. The light in the alleyway was dim and flickering as revellers passed on the street waving torches and lanterns, but a change in the man’s expression told Dorin he’d seen them and knew what they meant. ‘Not worth it,’ Dorin told him. ‘Plenty of other girls out there. Walk away.’

A strange sort of knowing smile crept up the fellow’s lips and he opened his arms wide. ‘You gonna kill me, little man?’

‘No.’

‘No? Why not?’

‘I don’t kill for free.’

The other man frowned at that, stroked his chin with a wide paw. ‘Hunh. Makes sense.’ He kicked Rheena, who’d sat up. Shreth and Loor pressed up close behind Dorin, snarling their rage. ‘You, girl,’ the fellow demanded, ‘who do you work for?’

Rheena was rubbing her neck. ‘Fuck off.’

‘It ain’t Odd-Hand, I’m sure of that.’

Rheena started, surprised, and dropped her hand. ‘Tran,’ she spat, resentfully.

The big fellow grinned without humour. ‘Thought so. Well, you tell Tran to keep his brats off our streets. Right?’

‘Fine!’

‘Good for you. Not so stupid after all.’ He brushed his hands together. ‘Now run along.’

Still unsteady, Rheena climbed to her feet. Shreth and Loor rushed forward and helped her limp away. Dorin did not move.

‘You too, knife-boy.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Unimportant, lad. This is just business. Now g’wan.’

Dorin decided to let it go. He backed away, all the while keeping his eyes on the other man. The fellow – an enforcer? – watched him go, his amusement quite obvious.

Out on the street, Dorin asked, ‘What was that all about?’

Rheena waved it off. ‘Just a little border scuffle.’

‘Who was he?’

‘He works for Urquart.’

Urquart. Pung’s main rival for control of all the city’s black market and thievery. Rafall, he knew, worked for Urquart.

Rheena suddenly laughed uproariously. She tossed her flame-hued hair, the familiar fey light once more shining in her eyes. ‘Forget all that!’ She held out a fistful of coins. ‘Let’s get shit-faced drunk!’ Shreth and Loor howled their enthusiasm, joining their voices to the surrounding roar of revelry and singing.

With dawn, Dorin slid out of the dive where Rheena and her small loyal crew had finished their drinking. As the coin dwindled, the quality of the dives had slid precipitously, until they’d crashed in this dingy basement among snoring drunks. Dorin didn’t even think it a true business, just an abandoned room where you could find watered beer and the cheapest of narcotic chew and stale old d’bayang powder.

His head throbbed from the one tankard of disgusting beer he’d nursed and the smoke he couldn’t avoid inhaling. He rubbed his stinging eyes and headed off for the main street of the Outer Round. He circled pools of spilt beer and vomit, and stepped over unconscious revellers. Shop-owners tossed trash and the contents of night buckets into the streets. Hengans walked the streets holding their heads and groaning. He overheard stories of one large gang of celebrants, overcome with alcohol and confidence, that sallied out into the field in the pre-dawn. They’d been armed only with what they could pick up, and made a charge for the Kanese camp. Cooler heads had prevailed, however, or perhaps it was the chill prairie wind in their faces, or rumours that Ryllandaras had been seen in the vicinity, but they thought better of the assault and retreated. The mounted Kanese pickets had kindly allowed them to go with only a few jabs of their lances to hurry them along.

What made everyone twice as sick was the news on all tongues of the Crimson Guard’s being seen riding out of the north gate, the Gate of the Plains, that very morning. Evidently, as he and Rheena had deduced, they’d not come to rescue Heng but to escort a Grisian royal brat on yet another of those idiotic campaigns to hunt down the man-beast, Ryllandaras.

Walking the main way, Dorin found he was close to Ullara’s family stable. He jiggled the few poor coins in his pouch – his share of the remaining takings, hardly worth his bother, but she could clearly use them.

Though it was light, he risked the climb up the side and ducked into the open gable window. Within, the usual crowd of birds of prey roosted. They stirred uneasily at his entrance, but soon calmed and returned to cleaning their feathers. The night-hunters among them eased back into sleep. Dorin peered about for the gigantic raptor he’d glimpsed on earlier nights but saw no sign of it. Not surprising, as he doubted it could even fit through any of the windows. He bunched up some straw and lay back to join the other night-hunters in their rest.

He awoke to the birds’ muted mutterings and yawned, stretching. It was mid-day.

‘Good morning.’

He turned over. Ullara was sitting on a box, feet tucked up beneath her, watching him.

‘Morning.’

‘You were working last night,’ she said.

He nodded, then frowned; that hadn’t been a question.

She jumped up. ‘I’ll get some tea.’

‘Well … my thanks.’

‘Thanks?’ Her brows shot up. ‘Again? Your manners are improving.’

He searched for a response but she was gone down the trapdoor. Alone with the birds, he studied one stately russet plains falcon – the namesake of one of the Seti tribes. It returned his gaze with the cutting superiority that only a bird of prey can manage. Ullara returned with a cup of weak green tea, and a bowl of yogurt and bread.

‘My mother makes the yogurt,’ she explained. ‘We have goats.’

Dorin sat cross-legged and scooped up the mix. ‘It’s very good.’

‘Thank you, Dan—’ She stopped herself, blushing.

‘What was that? Dan?’

She plucked at her threadbare tunic, her head lowered, obviously mortified.

He cleared his throat. ‘You don’t have to say …’ Her hair, he saw, had dirt and straw clumped within, and hadn’t seen a brushing in a good long time.

She dared a quick glance up, her lip in her teeth. ‘I … I name all my … rescues.’

It seemed to him that she was going to say something different there, but he did not comment. He waited, instead.

She gestured to the tall plains falcon. ‘That’s Prince.’ She pointed to a savage-looking split-tail hawk. ‘Keen.’ A huge dozing tuft-eared owl, ‘Biter.’ Several more names followed: ‘Swift, Watcher, Fury, Red, Cutter.’

Dorin nodded to each then returned to Ullara. ‘And me?’

She hid her face once more, whispered, hushed, ‘Dancer.’

He raised a brow at that; he had indeed been forced to train for a time as a dancer – for flexibility and speed. And his teacher had always treated duels as a dance as well. ‘Well, thank you, Ullara.’ His hand rested on his coin-pouch and he jumped, remembering. ‘Oh, yes. This is for you.’ He held it out.

She eyed it but made no move to take it. After a moment, he laid it on the boards of the floor amid the straw and bird shit. ‘It isn’t much … I just thought …’

‘Thank you. My little brother is sickly, and we can’t … my thanks.’

‘I see. Well. I ought to be going.’

‘Yes.’ Again, so sad. How was it that he seemed only to make her sad? She reached to take up the bowl and his breath hissed from him in shock. ‘Your hands!’

She tried to hide them but he was far quicker and took both, turning them over. The flesh of the fingers, backs and palms was cracked so severely that dried blood filled most of the deep crevasses and much of the ridged flesh was white – dead and hardened. ‘You work with lye and other such chemicals?’

‘It is my job to clean all the tack, and treat the leather for softness.’

‘It’s eating your flesh to the bone – you will lose your fingers.’

She yanked her hands away. ‘I’ll not let my mother do it! Nor my sisters!’

He raised his own hands in open surrender. ‘No – I’m not suggesting. I’m just … Here.’ From his shirt he drew another pouch and pulled out a packet wrapped in waxed parchment. ‘Use this.’

‘What is it?’

‘A healing unguent. Here – let me.’ He urged her to give him her hands. She extended them like a scared, wary animal, and he kneaded the honey-thick preparation into them. It softened with the heat, like a wax. He rubbed her fingers, careful to get it between.

‘This is alchemy,’ she said, her voice rising in alarm. ‘You bought this.’

‘Yes.’

She almost succeeded in yanking her hands from his. She hissed, ‘We – I – cannot afford this!’

‘Never mind. Consider it a gift.’ He returned to rubbing her hands. ‘Relax now.’ He hardly had to say it, as her shoulders had fallen, easing, and her eyes slowly shut. A dreamy smile came to her lips as he worked the unguent into the wounds.

‘This is infused with Denul magics,’ she murmured, seeming half awake.

‘Yes.’

‘You are wasting it on me.’

‘No. This is what it is for. Now … better, yes?’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice barely audible. ‘Better.’

‘I’ve got to go. Will I see you again?’

She shook herself, blinking and straightening. ‘Yes. Certainly.’

‘Good. Now, take care of yourself.’ He rose, and, peering down at her, fought an urge to take her head in his hands and press a kiss to her forehead and whisper It will be all right. You will see. Everything will be all right. He shook himself instead and retreated to the window, waved, and started down the side of the stable. As he made the alley, it occurred to him that perhaps their roles were now reversed – he the rescuer and she the wounded trembling bird.

Alone, Ullara remained sitting. She allowed her eyes to close once more and tucked her hands under her chin and held them there, rocking. A smile came to her lips again, only this time much more fierce. She curled up among the scattered straw and breathed in the scents rising from her oh so warmed hands.

*  *  *

Silk knew of three hidden entrances to the catacombs far beneath Heng. One was through the sewers behind the palace, another was via a tunnel accessible along the riverside, while the third was theoretical: a door barred and secured in the very wall of the Outer Round. He opted for the riverside. He owned several river crafts and selected the one he used for his more clandestine journeys; one little more than a long narrow dugout. He unmoored it and paddled out among the forest of pilings that supported the countless docks, wharves, and waterside businesses.

Since he was out on the Idryn, he decided to swing by someone, who, if not really a friend, could be described as a compatriot. For while all Heng knew there were five city mages in the Protectress’s employ, what those five knew was that, in truth, there were far more than that. He idled for a time close to the shore of the muddy ochre course that was the Idryn here on its slow way to Cawn and the Bay of Nap. After tracing the flats among the shadows beneath the wharves high overhead, he spotted a hunched shape seated on a rock amid the mud, bare feet caked in the green-grey muck, hair a frighteningly tangled mass. The shape was hardly recognizable as female, but he knew her. She was holding up one of the exceptionally large Idryn crayfish by one claw.

‘Ho! Liss!’ he called.

The old woman peered up, squinting. ‘Who’s there? Is that that slick and smarmy fellow?’

Silk raised his eyes to the wood decking above. ‘Must we, Liss?’

She made a show of addressing the crayfish. ‘Why does he wear that hollow pretty mask?’ She held the creature to her ear. ‘No! Not that monstrous, surely!’

‘Thank you, Liss. I’m sure the crayfish are full of insights.’

‘They are full of Hengan citizens – I’ll tell you that!’

He rubbed his chin. ‘Well … I’ll have to give you that one.’

‘Come to drop the mask, Silk?’

Smiling, he shook his head. ‘Just a greeting. On my way to see Ho.’

She shook the crayfish like a warning finger. ‘Watch out for Hothalar, my friend. He is a haunted man.’

Silk bowed in answer to the warning. Liss, he knew, went far back here in Heng. The sluggish current dragged him onward.

‘Have a care,’ she shouted. ‘I see trouble ahead.’

‘What? The Kanese?’

‘No. Send King Chulalorn my way and I’ll squeeze the ambition out of him – along with all his seed! No, something else.’

‘What?’

She called back, ‘Don’t know. Something sly, hidden. I see it in the corner of my eye.’ Silk bowed again in answer to the warning as the figure disappeared among the forest of pilings.

Later that afternoon he found the gated access, magically disguised in the dark under the decking and raised walkways. He drew up his dugout, and, with extreme distaste, squelched his way through the muck to the entrance, and unlatched the iron grating.

Many tunnels and rickety ladders later, he was within the stone-walled catacombs. In the utter dark, he summoned his Warren and a tiny flame flickered to life upon his upturned palm. It gave no heat, of course, just illumination, as Thyr was his Warren. Many, he knew, assumed that he was a mage of Mockra – one specializing in what some named the art of glamour. But in fact his allure came naturally rather than deliberately. Or perhaps he did somehow innately draw upon Mockra. He didn’t know. What he could do, however, through his years of discipline and study, was touch this one Warren of Thyr and even, in moments of his greatest inspiration, catch glimpses of a wellspring of might that lay beyond it.

The tunnel was a narrow semicircle of crudely dressed sandstone blocks. Narrow, but tall. Rats scampered from his light. He stilled, listening. All he heard was his heartbeat and water dripping. He picked a direction and followed it.

Beams of light streamed down here and there, illuminating short stretches of the anonymous stone tunnels. A stream of cascading water flooded one intersection. He stepped carefully through puddles for some time after that. At one point he thought he glimpsed a human figure moving among the shifting shadows and would have dismissed it as just such another but for a faint tapping that seemed to accompany the blurry disturbance.

‘Hello?’

The rippling, shifting darkness that might or might not be an actual person turned at a corner. Silk found the junction and cast his sorcerous light beyond. The tunnel lay completely empty and utterly quiet. He snorted at his overworked imagination and moved on, coming at last to a gate of very thick iron bars. It was locked and there was no way he could open it. However, the bars were quite far apart and he was very slim. He almost tore an ear off, but he made it through. His shirt was now frankly ruined, as were his trousers of fine imported Darujhistani silk. He brushed at his clothes, cursing Ho, then carried on. A few turns later he came to a tunnel faced by a series of iron doors. He studied the flagged floor. The dust was disturbed. Someone walked here regularly. He listened at the nearest door. All was quiet. Eerily so, as he was so far underground. Yet he thought he heard something. Movement.

‘Hello?’ he whispered.

The door struck him in the side of his head as something rammed or punched it from within. He staggered away, holding his head, cursing again. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded, ears ringing and head throbbing.

‘Lar!’ came in an animal-like growl. Or some sound resembling that. ‘Lar, Lar, Lar!’

‘Lar? Lar who?’

‘What are you doing here?’ a new voice rumbled from far down the tunnel.

Silk spun, hunching, his Warren readied. A dark shape came shambling up. It filled the tunnel completely from side to side and top to bottom – the giant form of Koroll. Silk straightened, eased the knot of tension in his shoulders and neck. ‘Greetings,’ he offered.

‘It is dangerous here,’ Koroll murmured, his voice low. He waved Silk back up the tunnel. ‘Come.’

Koroll unlocked the barred gate and had Silk shut it behind him. Then the giant led him on through the maze.

Another door, this one a stone slab two hand-lengths thick, opened on to a much wider and taller complex of stone-walled tunnels. Silk found that he could now walk next to Koroll as the Thelomen-kind giant slowly strode along, rather like a rocking shack. ‘What was all that back there?’ he asked.

‘A prison.’

‘Yes. I gathered that. For whom? Or what?’

‘Things dangerous to Heng. Things that over the centuries Shalmanat has been forced to subdue.’

Silk felt the hairs of his arms and neck prickling as he considered this. Ye gods! Centuries! And what things might lie in those cells? Daemons? Creatures of other realms? Perhaps even murderous fellow mages … Silk shook himself as the cold subterranean air left him feeling chill and clammy.

Koroll led him into a broad chamber, round and dome-roofed, rather like some sort of ancient tomb. Silk was alarmed to hear chains – the reverberation of very large chains clunking and thumping in the dark. Reflexively, he raised the power of his light, revealing a tall block of stone at the chamber’s centre and his fellow city mage Mister Ho at its side.

Ho crossed his thick arms. His scowl had turned even more wary than usual. ‘What brings you down here, Silk?’

‘The view,’ Silk answered, absently. His gaze rose to where an equally large block of stone hung suspended over the first. It was held there by numerous thick chains all extending off into the dark where stone counterweights waited. A single chain led up into the gloom of the hidden roof, and there Silk thought he caught a faint glimmer of light. ‘What is this?’

‘A work in progress.’

The block was far wider and longer than any man. Silk rose on to his tiptoes to peer over the top. It was hollow, with thick sides. It resembled, to all appearances, an enormous … sarcophagus. As the thought came, Silk flinched away. What might it once have held? He shot a glance to Ho – one just as wary as his. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Preparing a prison.’

‘A prison? For whom?’ And the answer came as he asked and Silk’s hand went to his mouth. ‘No … it will never work.’

Ho sent a dark glance to Koroll. The look seemed to say Why did you bring this asshole here? Koroll sighed and grasped his staff in both hands, resting his weight there. Ho cleared his throat. ‘What do you want, Silk?’

Silk dropped his hand. ‘Help. I want help tracking someone down.’

Ho grunted his understanding of the request. ‘The assassin you mentioned?’

‘Yes. He’s good. Better than most who’ve tried to set up shop here.’

Ho brushed a hand along the glittering granite wall of the sarcophagus. ‘Not my specialty. Nor Mara or Smokey.’ He grunted a dry laugh. ‘Something of a hole in our defences, hey?’

‘I will help,’ Koroll rumbled.

Silk raised a hand in thanks. ‘With all respect, Koroll, you’re not very … stealthy.’

‘I will give you my nights,’ Ho said.

Silk was quite surprised. ‘You said it wasn’t your specialty.’

The fellow shrugged his meaty shoulders. ‘I’ll pull something together.’

Silk tilted his head in cautious agreement. ‘Very well. Tomorrow night, then.’

Ho nodded to Koroll. ‘Make sure he gets out.’

The giant murmured a rolling laugh and raised an arm, pointing to the door. Silk was irritated at such a dismissal, but something in the strange mage’s grim manner told him not to object. He bowed instead, mockingly, and followed Koroll. At the entrance, he paused, turning back. ‘By the way … I thought I saw someone else down here.’

Ho stood motionless, his thick arms crossed, his gaze steady, almost suspicious. ‘That’s impossible. No one else could ever find their way down here.’

Silk gave a shrug, saluted, and headed out.

All the way back through the tunnels, he wondered whether he had discovered the truth of things. Was Ho simply Shalmanat’s warder-in-chief? And this huge stone sarcophagus. Did they really imagine it could possibly succeed? After all, how could they hope to lure the man-beast down here?

*  *  *

A voice whispering from across the fire woke her. That and the sense of a presence – at long last. She started up from beneath her blanket, blinking, and wiping at her eyes. The fire was a mere orange blur of embers. The stars through the overhanging branches glowed much brighter. At first she thought no one was there, but then the faintest of ghostly waverings, as of a mirage, betrayed a presence. A very weak and tenebrous breath of one.

She recognized the unwelcome essence. ‘Errant,’ she growled, making no effort to conceal her distaste.

‘Good to see you too,’ came a wavering ghostly response. ‘Sister. Cold night, isn’t it?’

She smiled thinly. ‘What do you want?’

The figure across the embers was of a man, seated cross-legged. Yet the bushes behind showed through quite clearly. ‘Want? Why must I want something? Could this not be purely social?’

‘No it could not.’ Only the eyes, she noted, held any definite presence. They burned with an inner light. And the teeth gleamed where the lips were curled back in that familiar habitual sneer.

‘Very well, sister. I am here for the same reason as you.’

‘No you are not.’

A phantom shrug. ‘Close enough.’

‘And what is that?’

‘Come, come. You sense it just as I have. You, who remain so very much of this mortal realm. And I, whose aspect could not help but take note of any play.’

Though she was resolved not to allow this one to bait her, she roused, annoyed. ‘Play? This is no game, Errant.’

‘Everything is a game, sister.’

‘With you.’

‘Your mulish mundanity bores me.’

‘The oblivious arrogance of those who expect others to entertain them sickens me.’

The flickering ghost-image across the campfire smiled. ‘Good to see you have not lost your edge, sister.’

She did not answer. Crossed her arms.

The Errant let out the faintest of sighs. ‘Very well. I know when a throw is made. A gambit opened. It is my nature, of course. Our … cousins … have made another play. The enormous dusty wheels of fate are grinding into motion once again. What might this game bring? Who is to say?’

She smiled at his uncertainty. ‘They worry you, don’t they?’

‘Of course they do! They have withdrawn. We no longer know what they intend.’

She made a show of shrugging her insouciance. ‘I am not worried.’

‘If you concerned yourself with the larger picture of things, you would be.’

‘Do not condescend to me, Errant. You are not intelligent enough.’

The eyes glittered hungrily across the orange glow. ‘And do not provoke me, sister. You are vulnerable. A nudge here or there and you could find yourself dead.’

‘Says a pallid ghost with little to no influence.’

The sneering smile twisted into slyness. ‘Oh, I have influence … elsewhere.’

A new voice spoke at the dying fire. ‘Making up, are we?’

The shade that was the sending of the Errant flinched and vanished.

She inclined her head in greeting to the hooded figure now warming his hands at the embers. ‘Welcome, K’rul.’

‘Sister. And what did our poor misguided friend have to say?’

‘He has sensed it also. Ripples from the Azath. And the stone was cast here. I fear he will try to interfere.’

‘It is true that he yet remains capable of meddling. Strange how those least fit to hold or wield power lust after it the most.’ K’rul turned his hands in the warmth and she knew it as a gesture purely for her benefit. ‘That is a mystery that remains beyond even me. However, another is in place to keep an eye on the Errant.’

‘And what of our cousins?’ she asked.

A tilt of the head. ‘They, too, remain beyond me. Beyond us all. None have ever succeeded in penetrating their secrets.’

‘Some may have,’ she murmured, her gaze deep in the flickering glow of the fading embers.

‘Possibly. But they have not returned to us, have they? They have disappeared within. The Azath are like black pits that swallow all.’

‘Yet they repeatedly demonstrate this compelling urge to intercede. They have goals. And for that they require agents. Brother, I will try to plumb their intent.’

K’rul sighed, drew his hands back to clasp them across his lap. ‘A perilous path for you, sister. And for me as well, I fear. That aside, is it not the case that only you, who yet remain free among us, could do so? Our brother lies imprisoned within the consequences of his own designs, while I remain enmeshed within mine. Very well, sister. I honour your intent and will do what I can to aid it.’

She bowed her head. ‘Thank you, brother.’

K’rul raised a finger. ‘Have a care. I foresee that this involvement could cost everything.’

‘That is as it should be, else it would not be worthwhile.’

The hand withdrew. ‘Very well. May you choose the wisest of all the many ways, Sister of Cold Nights.’

The hooded shape faded away into the dark and she was alone. Wincing, she stretched out her legs, arched her back, and threw more branches upon the embers. As the fire grew, she shifted to sit cross-legged, set her hands palm up on her knees, closed her eyes, and cast her awareness towards the city to the south.

She was searching. Searching for a flavour. The faintest of brushstrokes. Something … inexplicable. And through the darkness there came rumbling about her the creaking and grating of titanic wheels, such as Errant had mentioned. Only now, reverberating among the Warrens and Holds, these vibrations were not the cogs of fate’s machinations but the wheels of a gigantic wagon accompanied by the rattling of chains. And stricken by a chilling dread, she shuddered.

Wheels. Wheels groaning in the dark.

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 glad-handing? 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.

Copyright © 2016 by Ian C. Esslemont

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