Chapter One S
urrounded in a city of blue fire, she stood alone on the balcony. The sky's darkness was pushed away, an unwelcome guest on this the first night of the Gedderone Fete. Throngs filled the streets of Darujhistan, happily riotous, good- natured in the calamity of one year's ending and another's beginning. The night air was humid and pungent with countless scents.
There had been banquets. There had been unveilings of eligible young men and maidens. Tables laden with exotic foods, ladies wrapped in silks, men and women in preposterous uniforms all glittering gilt - a city with no standing army bred a plethora of private militias and a chaotic proliferation of high ranks held, more or less exclusively, by the nobility.
Among the celebrations she had attended this evening, on the arm of her husband, she had not once seen a real officer of Darujhistan's City Watch, not one genuine soldier with a dusty cloak- hem, with polished boots bearing scars, with a sword- grip of plain leather and a pommel gouged and burnished by wear. Yet she had seen, bound high on soft, well- fed arms, torcs in the manner of decorated soldiers among the Malazan army - soldiers from an empire that had, not so long ago, provided for Darujhistan mothers chilling threats to belligerent children. 'Malazans, child! Skulking in the night to steal foolish children! To make you slaves for their terrible Empress - yes! Here in this very city!
But the torcs she had seen this night were not the plain bronze or faintly etched silver of genuine Malazan decorations and signi.ers of rank, such as appeared like relics from some long- dead cult in the city's market stalls. No, these had been gold, studded with gems, the blue of sapphire being the commonest hue even among the coloured glass, blue like the blue .re for which the city was famous, blue to proclaim some great and brave service to Darujhistan itself.
Her fingers had pressed upon one such torc, there on her husband's arm, although there was real muscle beneath it, a hardness to match the contemptuous look in his eyes as he surveyed the clusters of nobility in the vast humming hall, with the proprietary air he had acquired since attaining the Council. The contempt had been there long before and if anything had grown since his latest and most triumphant victory.
Daru gestures of congratulation and respect had swirled round them in their stately passage through the crowds, and with each acknowledgement her husband's face had grown yet harder, the arm beneath her fingers drawing ever tauter, the knuckles of his hands whitening above his sword- belt where the thumbs were tucked into braided loops in the latest fashion among duellists. Oh, he revelled in being among them now; indeed, in being above many of them. But for Gorlas Vidikas, this did not mean he had to like any of them. The more they fawned, the deeper his contempt, and that he would have been offended without their obsequy was a contradiction, she suspected, that a man like her husband was not wont to entertain.
The nobles had eaten and drunk, and stood and posed and wandered and paraded and danced themselves into swift exhaustion, and now the banquet halls and staterooms echoed with naught but the desultory ministrations of servants. Beyond the high walls of the estates, however, the common folk rollicked still in the streets. Masked and half naked, they danced on the cobbles - the riotous whirling steps of the Flaying of Fander - as if dawn would never come, as if the hazy moon itself would stand motionless in the abyss in astonished witness to their revelry. City Watch patrols simply stood back and observed, drawing dusty cloaks about their bodies, gauntlets rustling as they rested hands on truncheons and swords.
On the balcony where she stood, the fountain of the unlit garden directly below chirped and gurgled to itself, buffered by the estate's high, solid walls from the raucous festivities they had witnessed during the tortured carriage ride back home. Smeared moonlight struggled in the softly swirling pool surrounding the fountain.
The blue fire was too strong this night, too strong even for the mournful moon. Darujhistan itself was a sapphire, blazing in the torc of the world. And yet its beauty, and all its delighted pride and its multitudinous voice, could not reach her tonight.
This night, Lady Vidikas had seen her future. Each and every year of it. There on her husband's hard arm. And the moon, well, it looked like a thing of the past, a memory dimmed by time, yet it had taken her back.
To a balcony much like this one in a time that now seemed very long ago.
Lady Vidikas, who had once been Challice Estraysian, had just seen her future. And was discovering, here in this night and standing against this rail, that the past was a better place to be.
Talk about the worst night yet to run out of Rhivi flatbread. Swearing under her breath, Picker pushed her way through the crowds of the Lakefront market, the mobs of ferociously hungry, drunk revellers, using her elbows when she needed to and glowering at every delirious smile swung her way, and came out eventually at the mouth of a dingy alley heaped ankle- deep in rubbish. Somewhere just to the south of Borthen Park. Not quite the route back to the bar she would have preferred, but the fete was in full frenzy. Wrapped package of flatbread tucked under her left arm, she paused to tug loose the tangles of her heavy cloak, scowled on seeing a fresh stain from a careless passer- by - some grotesque Gadrobi sweetcake - tried wiping it off which only made it worse, then, her mood even fouler, set out through the detritus.
With the Lady's pull, Bluepearl and Antsy had fared better in finding Saltoan wine and were even now back at K'rul's. And here she was, twelve streets and two wall passages away with twenty or thirty thousand mad fools in between. Would her companions wait for her? Not a chance. Damn Blend and her addiction to Rhivi flatbread! That and her sprained ankle had conspired to force Picker out here on the first night of the fete - if that ankle truly was
sprained, and she had her doubts since Mallet had just squinted down at the offending appendage, then shrugged.
Mind you, that was about as much as anyone had come to expect from Mallet. He'd been miserable since the retirement, and the chance of the sun's rising any time in the healer's future was about as likely as Hood's forgetting to tally the count. And it wasn't as if he was alone in his misery, was it?
But where was the value in feeding her ill temper with all these well- chewed thoughts? Well, it made her feel better, that's what.
Dester Thrin, wrapped tight in black cloak and hood, watched the big- arsed woman kicking her way through the rubbish at the other end of the alley. He'd picked her up coming out of the back door of K'rul's Bar, the culmination of four nights positioned in the carefully chosen, darkness- shrouded vantage point from which he could observe that narrow postern.
His clan- master had warned that the targets were all ex- soldiers, but Dester Thrin had seen little to suggest that any of them had kept .t and trim. They were old, sagging, rarely sober, and this one, well, she wore that huge, thick woollen cloak because she was getting heavy and it clearly made her self- conscious.
Following her through the crowds had been relatively easy - she was a head taller than the average Gadrobi, and the route she took to this decrepit Rhivi market in Lakefront seemed to deliberately avoid the Daru streets, some strange affectation that would, in a very short time, prove fatal.
Dester's own Daru blood had permitted him a clear view of his target, pushing purposefully through the heaving press of celebrants.
He set out to traverse the alley once his target exited at the far end. Swiftly padding at a hunter's pace, he reached the alley mouth and edged out, in time to see the woman move into the passageway through Second Tier Wall, with the tunnel through Third just beyond.
The Guild's succession wars, following the disappearance of Vorcan, had finally been settled, with only a minimum amount of spilled blood. And Dester was more or less pleased with the new Grand Master, who was both vicious and clever where most of the other aspirants had been simply vicious. At last, an assassin of the Guild did not have to be a fool to feel some optimism regarding the future.
This contract was a case in point. Straightforward, yet one sure to earn Dester and the others of his clan considerable prestige upon its summary completion.
He brushed his gloved hands across the pommels of his daggers, the weapons slung on baldrics beneath his arms. Ever reassuring, those twin blades of Daru steel with their ferules filled with the thick, pasty poison of Moranth tralb.
Poison was now the preferred insurance for a majority of the Guild's street killers, and indeed for more than a few who scuttled Thieves' Road across the rooftops. There'd been an assassin, close to Vorcan herself, who had, on a night of betrayal against his own clan, demonstrated the deadliness of fighting without magic. Using poison, the assassin had proved the superiority of such mundane substances in a single, now legendary night of blood.
Dester had heard that some initiates in some clans had raised hidden shrines to honour Rallick Nom, creating a kind of cult whose adherents employed secret gestures of mutual recognition within the Guild. Of course, Seba Krafar, the new Grand Master, had in one of his very first pronouncements outlawed the cult, and there had been a cull of sorts, with five suspected cult leaders greeting the dawn with smiling throats.
Still, Dester had since heard enough hints to suggest that the cult was far from dead. It had just burrowed deeper.
In truth, no one knew which poisons Rallick Nom had used, but Dester believed it was Moranth tralb, since even the smallest amount in the bloodstream brought unconsciousness, then a deeper coma that usually led to death. Larger quantities simply speeded up the process and were a sure path through Hood's Gate.
The big- arsed woman lumbered on.
Four streets from K'rul's Bar - if she was taking the route he believed she was taking - there'd be a long, narrow alley to walk up, the inside face of Third Tier Wall Armoury on the left, and on the right the high wall of the bath- house thick and solid with but a few scattered, small windows on upper floors, making the unlit passage dark.
He would kill her there.
Perched on a corner post's finial at one end of the high wall, Chillbais stared with stony eyes on the tattered wilds beyond. Behind him was an overgrown garden with a shallow pond recently rebuilt but already unkempt, and toppled columns scattered about, bearded in moss. Before him, twisted trees and straggly branches with crumpled dark leaves dangling like insect carcasses, the ground beneath rumpled and matted with greasy grasses; a snaking path of tilted pavestones leading up to a squat, brooding house bearing no architectural similarity to any other edifice in all of Darujhistan.
Light was rare from the cracks between those knotted shutters, and when it did show it was dull, desultory. The door never opened.
Among his kin, Chillbais was a giant. Heavy as a badger, with sculpted muscles beneath the prickly hide. His folded wings were very nearly too small to lift him skyward, and each sweep of those leathery fans forced a grunt from the demon's throat.
This time would be worse than most. It had been months since he'd last moved, hidden as he was from prying eyes in the gloom of an overhanging branch from the ash tree in the estate garden at his back. But when he saw that .ash of movement before him, that whispering flow of motion, out from the gnarled, black house and across the path, even as earth erupted in its wake to open a succession of hungry pits, even as roots writhed out seeking to ensnare this fugitive, Chillbais knew his vigil was at an end.
The shadow slid out to crouch against the low wall of the Azath House, seemed to watch those roots snaking closer for a long moment, then rose and, .owing like liquid night over the stone wall, was gone.
Grunting, Chillbais spread his creaking wings, shook the creases loose from the sheets of membrane between the rib- like fingers, then leapt forward, out from beneath the branch, catching what air he could, then flapping frenziedly - his grunts growing savage - until he slammed hard into the mulched ground.
Spitting twigs and leaves, the demon scrambled back for the estate wall, hearing how those roots spun round, lashing out for him. Claws digging into mortar, Chillbais scrabbled back on to his original perch. Of course, there had been no real reason to fear. The roots never reached beyond the Azath's own wall, and a glance back assured him- Squealing, Chillbais launched back into the air, this time out over the estate garden.
Oh, no one ever liked demons!
Cool air above the overgrown fountain, then, wings thudding hard, heaving upward, up into the night.
A word, yes, for his master. A most extraordinary word. So unexpected, so incendiary, so fraught!
Chillbais thumped his wings as hard as he could, an obese demon in the darkness above the blue, blue city.
Zechan Throw and Giddyn the Quick had found the perfect place for the ambush. Twenty paces down a narrow street two recessed doorways faced each other. Four drunks had staggered past a few moments earlier, and none had seen the assassins standing motionless in the inky darkness. And now that they were past and the way was clear . . . a simple step forward and blood would flow.
The two targets approached. Both carried clay jugs and were weaving slightly. They seemed to be arguing, but not in a language Zechan understood. Malazan, likely. A quick glance to the left. The four drunks were just leaving the far end, plunging into a motley crowd of revellers.
Zechan and Giddyn had followed the two out from K'rul's Bar, watching on as they found a wine merchant, haggled over what the woman demanded for the jugs of wine, settled on a price, then set out on their return leg of the journey.
Somewhere along the way they must have pulled the stoppers on the jugs, for now they were loud in their argument, the slightly taller one, who walked pigeon- toed and was blue- skinned - Zechan could just make him out from where he stood - pausing to lean against a wall as if moments from losing his supper.
He soon righted himself, and it seemed the argument was suddenly over. Straightening, the taller one joined the other and, from the sounds of their boots in the rubbish, set out by his side.
Nothing messy, nothing at all messy. Zechan lived for nights like this.
Dester moved quickly, his moccasins noiseless on the cobbles, rushing for the woman striding oblivious ahead of him. Twelve paces, eight, four-
She spun, cloak whirling out.
A blurred sliver of blued steel, .ickering a slashing arc. Dester skidded, seeking to pull back from the path of that weapon - a longsword, Beru fend! - and something clipped his throat. He twisted and ducked down to his left, both daggers thrust out to damn her should she seek to close.
Heat was spilling down his neck, down his chest beneath his deerhide shirt. The alley seemed to waver before his eyes, darkness curling in. Dester Thrin staggered, flailing with his daggers. A boot or mailed fist slammed into the side of his head and there was more splashing on to the cobbles. He could no longer grip the daggers. He heard them skitter on stone.
Blind, stunned, lying on the hard ground. It was cold.
A strange lassitude filled his thoughts, spreading out, rising up, taking him away.
Picker stood over the corpse. The red smear on the tip of her sword glistened, drawing her gaze, and she was reminded, oddly enough, of poppies after a rain. She grunted. The bastard had been quick, almost quick enough to evade her slash. Had he done so, she might have had some work to do. Still, unless the fool was skilled in throwing those puny daggers, she would have cut him down eventually.
Pushing through Gadrobi crowds risked little more than cutpurses. As a people they were singularly gentle. In any case, it made such things as picking up someone trailing her that much easier - when that someone wasn't Gadrobi, of course.
The man dead at her feet was Daru. Might as well have worn a lantern on his hooded head, the way it bobbed above the crowd in her wake.
Even so . . . she frowned down at him. You wasn't no thug. Not with daggers like those. Hound's Breath.
Sheathing her sword and pulling her cloak about her once more, ensuring that it well hid the scabbarded weapon which, if discovered by a Watch, would see her in a cell with a damned huge fine to pay, Picker pushed the wrapped stack of flatbread tighter under her left arm, then set out once more.
Blend, she decided, was in a lot of trouble.
Zechan and Giddyn, in perfect unison, launched themselves out from the alcoves, daggers raised then thrusting down.
A yelp from the taller one as Giddyn's blades plunged deep. The Malazan's knees buckled and vomit sprayed from his mouth as he sank down, the jug crashing to a rush of wine. Zechan's own weapons punched through leather, edges grating along ribs. One for each lung. Tearing the daggers loose, the assassin stepped back to watch the red- haired one fall.
A short sword plunged into the side of Zechan's neck.
He was dead before he hit the cobbles.
Giddyn, looming over the kneeling Malazan, looked up.
Two hands closed round his head. One clamped tight over his mouth, and all at once his lungs were full of water. He was drowning. The hand tightened, fingers pinching his nostrils shut. Darkness rose within him, and the world slowly went away.
Antsy snorted as he tugged his weapon free, then added a kick to the assassin's face to punctuate its frozen expression of surprise.
Bluepearl grinned across at him. 'See the way I made the puke spray out? If that ain't genius I don't know what-'
'Shut up,' Antsy snapped. 'These weren't muggers looking for a free drink, in case you hadn't noticed.'
Frowning, Bluepearl looked down at the body before him with the water leaking from its mouth and nose. The Napan ran a hand over his shaved pate. 'Aye. But they was amateurs anyway. Hood, we saw those breath plumes from halfway down the street. Which stopped when those drunks crossed, telling us they wasn't the target. Meaning-'
'We were. Aye, and that's my point.'
'Let's get back,' Bluepearl said, suddenly nervous.
Antsy tugged at his moustache, then nodded. 'Work up that illusion again, Bluepearl. Us ten paces ahead.'
'I ain't no sergeant no more.' 'Yeah? Then why you still barking orders?'
By the time Picker arrived within sight of the front entrance to K'rul's Bar, her rage was incandescent. She paused, scanned the area. Spotted someone leaning in shadows across from the bar's door. Hood drawn up, hands hidden.
Picker set off towards the figure.
She was noticed with ten paces between them, and she saw the man straighten, saw the growing unease betrayed by a shift of those covered arms, the cloak rippling. A half- dozen celebrants careened between them, and as they passed, Picker took the last stride needed to reach the man.
What ever he had been expecting - perhaps her accosting him with some loud accusation - it was clear that he was unprepared for the savage kick she delivered between his legs. As he was going down she stepped closer and slapped her right hand against the back of his head, adding momentum to the man's collapse. When his forehead cracked against the cobbles there was a sickly crunch. The body began to spasm where it lay.
A passer- by paused, peered down at the twitching body.
'You!' Picker snarled. 'What's your damned problem?'
Surprise, then a shrug. 'Nothing, sweetie. Served 'im right, standin' there like that. Say, would you marry me?'
As the stranger ambled on, bemoaning his failure at love, Picker looked around, waiting to see if there was someone else . . . bolting from some hidden place nearby. If it had already happened, then she had missed it. More likely, the unseen eyes watching all of this were peering down from a rooftop somewhere.
The man on the ground had stopped twitching.
Spinning round, she headed for the entrance to K'rul's Bar.
Two strides from the battered door, she turned, and saw Antsy and Bluepearl - lugging jugs of Saltoan wine - hurrying up to join her. Antsy's expression was fierce. Bluepearl lagged half a step behind, eyes on the motionless body on the other side of the street, where a Gadrobi urchin was now busy stealing what ever she could find.
'Get over here,' Picker snapped, 'both of you! Keep your eyes open.'
'Shopping's gettin' murderous,' Antsy said. 'Bluepearl had us illusioned most of the way back, after we sniffed out an ambush-'
With one last glare back out on to the street, Picker took them both by their arms and pulled them unceremoniously towards the door. 'Inside, idiots.' Unbelievable, a night like this, making me so foul of temper I went and turned down the first decent marriage proposal I've had in twenty years.
Blend was sitting in the place she sat in whenever she smelled trouble. A small table in shadows right beside the door, doing her blending thing, except this time her legs were stretched out, just enough to force a stumble from anyone coming inside.
Stepping through the doorway, Picker gave those black boots a solid kick.
'Ow, my ankle!'
Picker dropped the stack of .atbread on to Blend's lap.
Antsy and Bluepearl pushed past. The ex- sergeant snorted. 'Now there's our scary minder at the door. "Ow, oof!" she says.'
But Blend had already recovered and was unwrapping the flatbread.
'You know, Blend,' Picker said as she settled at the bar, 'the old Rhivi hags who make those spit on the pan before they slap down the dough. Some ancient spirit blessing-'
'It's not that,' Blend cut in, folding back the flaps of the wrapper. 'The sizzle tells them the pan's hot enough.'
'Ain't it just,' Bluepearl muttered.
Picker scowled, then nodded. 'Aye. Let's all head to our office, all of us - Blend, go find Mallet, too.'
'Bad timing,' Blend observed.
'Spindle taking that pilgrimage.'
'Lucky for him.'
Blend slowly rose and said round a mouthful of flatbread, 'Duiker?'
Picker hesitated, then said, 'Ask him. If he wants, aye.'
Blend slowly blinked. 'You kill somebody to night, Pick?'
No answer was a good enough answer. Picker peered suspiciously at the small crowd in the bar, those too drunk to have reeled out into the street at the twelfth bell, as was the custom. Regulars one and all. That'll do
. Waving for the others to follow, Picker set out for the stairs.
At the far end of the main room, that damned bard was bleating on with one of the more obscure verses of Anomandaris
, but nobody was listening.
The three of them saw themselves as the new breed on Darujhistan's Council. Shardan Lim was the thinnest and tallest, with a parched face and washed- out blue eyes. Hook- nosed, a lipless slash of a mouth perpetually turned down as if he could not restrain his contempt for the world. The muscles of his left wrist were twice the size of those of the right, criss- crossed with proudly displayed scars. He met Challice's eyes like a man about to ask her husband if his own turn with her was imminent, and she felt that regard like the cold hand of possession round her throat. A moment later his bleached eyes slid away and there was the flicker of a half- smile as he reached for his goblet where it rested on the mantel.
Standing opposite Shardan Lim, on the other side of the nearly dead fire, with long fingers caressing the ancient ground hammerstones mortared into the fireplace, was Hanut Orr. Plaything to half the noble women in the city, so long as they were married or otherwise divested of maidenhood, he did indeed present that most enticing combination of dangerous charm and dominating arrogance - traits that seduced otherwise intelligent women - and it was well known how he delighted in seeing his lovers crawl on their knees towards him, begging a morsel of his attention.
Challice's husband was sprawled in his favourite chair to Hanut Orr's left, legs stretched out, looking thoughtfully into his goblet, the wine with its hue of blue blood slowly swirling as he tilted his hand in lazy circles.
'Dear wife,' he now said in his usual drawl, 'has the balcony air revived you?'
'Wine?' asked Shardan Lim, brows lifting as if serving her was his life's calling. Should a husband take umbrage with such barely constrained leering from his so- called friends? Gorlas seemed indifferent.
'No thank you, Councillor Lim. I have just come to wish you all a good night. Gorlas, will you be much longer here?'
He did not look up from his wine, though his mouth moved as if he was tasting his last sip all over again, finding the remnants faintly sour on his palate.
'There is no need to wait for me, wife.'
An involuntary glance over at Shardan revealed both amusement and the clear statement that he
would not be so dismissive of her.
And, with sudden, dark perverseness, she found herself meeting his eyes and smiling in answer.
If it could be said, without uncertainty, that Gorlas Vidikas did not witness this exchange, Hanut Orr did, although his amusement was of the more savage, contemptuous kind. Feeling sullied, Challice turned away.
Her handmaid trailed her out and up the broad flight of stairs, the only witness to the stiffness of her back as she made her way to the bedroom.
Once the door was closed she threw off her half- cloak. 'Lay out my jewellery,' she said. 'Mistress?'
She spun to the old woman. 'I wish to see my jewellery!'
Ducking, the woman hurried off to do her bidding.
'The old pieces,' Challice called after her. From the time before all this. When she had been little more than a child, marvelling over the gifts of suitors, all the bribes for her affection still clammy from sweaty hands. Oh, there had been so many possibilities then. Her eyes narrowed as she stood before her vanity.
Well, perhaps not only then. Did it mean anything? Did it even matter any more?
Her husband had what he wanted now. Three duellists, three hard men with hard voices in the Council. One of the three now, yes, all he wanted.
Well, what about what she
wanted? But . . . what is it that I want?
She didn't know.
Laid out on the vanity's worn surface, the trea sure of her maidenhood looked . . . cheap. Gaudy. The very sight of those baubles made her sick in the pit of her stomach. 'Put them in a box,' she said to her servant. 'Tomorrow we sell them.'
He should never have lingered in the garden. His amorous host, the widow Sepharla, had fallen into a drunken slumber on the marble bench, one hand still holding her goblet as, head tilted back and mouth hanging open, loud snores groaned out into the sultry night air. The failed enterprise had amused Murillio, and he had stood for a time, sipping at his own wine and smelling the fragrant scents of the blossoms, until a sound alerted him to someone's quiet arrival.
Turning, he found himself looking upon the widow's daughter.
He should never have done that, either.
Half his age, but that delineation no longer distinguished unseemly from otherwise. She was past her rite of passage by three, perhaps four years, just nearing that age among young women when it was impossible for a man to tell whether she was twenty or thirty. And by that point, all such judgement was born of wilful self- delusion and hardly mattered anyway.
He'd had, perhaps, too much wine. Enough to weaken a certain resolve, the one having to do with recognizing his own maturity, that host of years behind him of which he was constantly reminded by the dwindling number of covetous glances flung his way. True, one might call it experience, settling for those women who knew enough to appreciate such traits. But a man's mind was quick to .it from how things were to how he wanted them to be, or, even worse, to how they used to be. As the saying went, when it came to the truth, every man was a duellist sheathed in the blood of ten thousand cuts.
None of this passed through Murillio's mind in the moment his eyes locked gazes with Delish, the unwed daughter of widow Sepharla. The wine, he would later conclude. The heat and steam of the fete, the sweet blossom scents on the moist, warm air. The fact that she was virtually naked, wearing but a shift of thin silk. Her light brown hair was cut incredibly short in the latest fashion among maidens. Face pale as cream, with full lips and the faintest slope to her nose. Liquid brown eyes big as a waif's, but there was no cracked bowl begging alms in her hands. This urchin's need belonged elsewhere. Reassured by the snoring from the marble bench - and horri.ed by own relief - Murillio bowed low before her. 'Well timed, my dear,' he said, straightening. 'I was considering how best to assist your mother to her bed. Suggestions?'
A shake of that perfectly shaped head. 'She sleeps there most nights. Just like that.'
The voice was young yet neither nasal nor high- pitched as seemed the style among so many maidens these days, and so it failed in reminding him of that vast chasm of years between them.
Oh, in retrospect, so many regrets this night!
'She never thought you'd accept her invitation,' Delish went on, glancing down to where she had kicked off one of her sandals and was now prodding it with a delicate toe. 'Desirable as you are. In demand, I mean, on this night especially.
' Too clever by far, this stroking of his vaguely creped and nearly flaccid ego. 'But dear, why are you here? Your list of suitors must be legion, and among them-'
'Among them, not a single one worth calling a man.'
Did a thousand hormone- soaked hearts break with that dismissive utterance? Did beds lurch in the night, feet kicking clear of sweaty sheets? He could almost believe it.
'And that includes Prelick.'
'Excuse me, who?'
'The drunk, useless fool now passed out in the foyer. Tripping over his sword all night. It was execrable.' Execrable. Yes, now I see
'The young are prone to excessive enthusiasm,' Murillio observed. 'I have no doubt poor Prelick has been anticipating this night for weeks, if not months. Naturally, he succumbed to ner vous agitation, brought on by proximity to your lovely self. Pity such young men, Delish; they deserve that much at least.'
'I'm not interested in pity, Murillio.'
She should never have said his name in just that way. He should never have listened to her say anything at all.
'Delish, can you stomach advice on this night, from one such as myself?'
Her expression was one of barely maintained forbearance, but she nodded.
'Seek out the quiet ones. Not the ones who preen, or display undue arrogance. The quiet ones, Delish, prone to watchfulness.'
'You describe no one I know.'
'Oh, they are there. It just takes a second glance to notice them.'
She had both sandals off now, and she dismissed his words with a wave of one pale hand that somehow brought her a step closer. Looking up as if suddenly shy, yet holding his gaze too long for there to be any real temerity. 'Not quiet ones. Not ones to pity. No . . . children! Not to night, Murillio. Not under this moon.'
And he found her in his arms, a soft body all too eager with naught but filmy silk covering it and she seemed to be sliding all over him, a sylph, and he thought: Under this moon?
Her last gesture at the poetic, alas, since she was already tearing at his clothes, her mouth with those full lips wet and parted and a tongue .ickering as she bit at his own lips. And here he was with one hand on one of her breasts, his other hand slipping round to her behind, hitching her up as she spread her legs and climbed to anchor herself on his hips, and he heard his belt buckle clack on the pavestone between his boots.
She was not a large woman. Not at all heavy, but surprisingly athletic, and she rode him with such violence that he felt his lower spine creak with every frenzied plunge. He sank into his usual detachment at this point, the kind that assured impressive endurance, and took a moment to confirm that the snoring continued behind him. All at once that sonorous sound struck him with a sense of prophetic dissolution, surrender to the years of struggle that was life's own chorus - and so we shall all end our days
- a momentary pang that, had he permitted it to linger, would have unmanned him utterly. Delish, meanwhile, was wearing herself out, her gasps harsher, quicker, as shudders rose through her, and so he surrendered - not a moment too soon - to sensation. And joined her in one final, helpless gasp.
She held on to him and he could feel her pounding heart as he slowly lowered her back on to her feet, gently pulling away.
It was, all things considered, the worst moment to witness the blur of an iron blade flashing before his eyes. Burning agony as the sword thrust into his chest, the point pushing entirely through, making the drunken fool wielding it stumble forward, almost into the arms of Murillio.
Who was then falling back, the sword sliding out with a reluctant sob.
Delish screamed, and the look on Prelick's face was triumphant.
'Hah! The rapist dies!'
More footsteps, then, rushing out from the house. Voices clamouring. Bemused, Murillio picked himself back up, tugging at his pantaloons, cinching tight his belt. His lime green silk shirt was turning purple in blotches. There was blood on his chin, frothing up in soft, rattling coughs. Hands pulled at him and he pushed them all away, staggering for the gate.
Regrets, yes, jostling with the oblivious crowds on the street. Moments of lucidity, unknown periods of dim, red haze, standing with one hand on a stone wall, spitting down streams of blood. Oh, plenty of regrets.
Fortunately, he did not think they would hound him for much longer.
Was it habit or some peculiar twist in family traits that gave Scorch his expression of perpetual surprise? There was no telling, since every word the man uttered was delivered in tones of bewildered disbelief, as if Scorch could never be sure of what his senses told him of the outside world, and was even less certain of what ever thoughts clamoured in his head. He stared now at Leff, eyes wide and mouth gaping in between nervous licks of his lips, while Leff in turn squinted at Scorch as if chronically suspicious of his friend's apparent idiocy.
'All them ain't gonna wait for ever, Leff! We should never have signed on to this. I say we hitch on the next trader shippin' out. Down to Dhavran, maybe all the way t'the coast! Ain't you got a cousin in Mengal?'
Leff slowly blinked. 'Aye, Scorch. They let 'im furnish his cell himself, he's in there so much. You want us go up there and take on his mess too? Besides, then we'd
end up on the list.'
Astonishment and dread filled Scorch's face. He looked away, whispered, 'It's the list that's done us in. The list . . .'
'We knew it wouldn't be easy,' Leff said in a possible attempt at mollification. 'Things like that never are.'
'But we ain't gotten nowhere!'
'It's only been a week, Scorch.'
The time had come for a modest clearing of the throat, a dab of the silk handkerchief on oily brow, a musing tug on the mouse- tail beard. 'Gentlemen!' Ah, now he had their attention. 'Witness the Skirmishers on the .eld and yon Mercenary's Coin, glinting ever as golden lures are wont to glint . . . everywhere. But here especially, and the knuckles still reside in the sweaty hand of surprised Scorch, too long clutched and uncast. Interminable has this game grown, with Kruppe patient as he perches on very edge of glorious victory!' Leff scowled. 'You ain't winning nothing, Kruppe! You're losing, and bad, Coin or no Coin! And what use is it anyway - I don't see no mercenary anywhere on the .eld, so who's it paying for? Nobody!'
Smiling, Kruppe leaned back.
The crowd was noisome this night at the Phoenix Inn, as more and more drunks stumbled back in after their pleasing foray in the dusty, grimy streets. Kruppe, of course, felt magnanimous towards them all, as suited his naturally magnanimous nature.
Scorch cast the knuckles, then stared at the half- dozen etched bones as if they spelled out his doom.
And so they had. Kruppe leaned forward once again. 'Ho, the Straight Road reveals itself, and see how these six Mercenaries march on to the field! Slaying left and right! One cast of the knuckles, and the universe changes! Behold this grim lesson, dear companions of Kruppe. When the Coin is revealed, how long before a hand reaches for it?'
Virtually no cast in the Riposte Round could save the two hapless Kings and their equally hapless players, Scorch and Leff. Snarling, Leff swept an arm through the field, scattering pieces everywhere. As he did so he palmed the Coin and would have slipped it into his waistband if not for a wag of Kruppe's head and the pudgy hand reaching out palm up.
Cursing under his breath, Leff dropped the Coin into that hand.
'To the spoiler, the victory,' Kruppe said, smiling. 'Alas for poor Scorch and Leff, this single coin is but a fraction of riches now belonging to triumphant Kruppe. Two councils each, yes?'
'That's a week's wages for a week that ain't come yet,' Leff said. 'We'll have to owe you, friend.'
'Egregious precedent! Kruppe, however, understands how such reversals can catch one unawares, which makes perfect sense, since they are reversals. Accordingly, given the necessity for a week's noble labour, Kruppe is happy to extend deadline for said payment to one week from today.'
Groaning, Scorch sat back. 'The list, Leff. We're back to that damned list.'
'Many are the defaulters,' Kruppe said, sighing. 'And eager those demanding recompense, so much so that they assemble a dread list, and upon diminishment of names therein remit handsomely to those who would enforce collection, yes?'
The two men stared. Scorch's expression suggested that he had just taken a sharp blow to the head and was yet to find his wits. Leff simply scowled. 'Aye, that list, Kruppe. We took the job on since we didn't have nothing else to do since Boc's sudden . . . demise. And now it looks like our names might end up on it!'
'Nonsense! Or, rather, Kruppe elaborates, not if such a threat looms as a result of some future defaultment on monies owed Kruppe. Lists of that nature are indeed pernicious and probably counterproductive and Kruppe finds their very existence reprehensible. Wise advice is to relax somewhat on that matter. Unless, of course, one finds the deadline fast approaching with naught but lint in one's pouch. Further advice, achieve a victory on the list, receive due reward, repair immediately to Kruppe and clear the modest debt. The alternative, alas, is that we proceed with an entirely different solution.'
Leff licked his lips. 'What solution would that be?'
'Why, Kruppe's modest assistance regarding said list, of course. For a minuscule percentage.'
'For a cut you'd help us hunt down them that's on the list?'
'To do so would be in Kruppe's best interests, given this debt between him and you two.' 'What's the percentage?'
'Why, thirty- three, of course.'
'And you call that modest?'
'No, I called it minuscule. Dearest partners, have you found any
of the people on that list?'
Miserable silence answered him, although Scorch was still looking rather confused. 'There is,' Kruppe said with an expansive swell of his chest that threatened the two stalwart buttons of his vest, 'no one in Darujhistan that Kruppe cannot find.' He settled back, and the brave buttons gleamed with victory.
Shouting, a commotion at the door, then Meese crying out Kruppe's name.
Startled, Kruppe rose, but could not see over the heads of all these peculiarly tall patrons - how annoying - and so he edged round his table and pushed his grunting, gasping way through to the bar, where Irilta was half dragging a blood- drenched Murillio on to the counter, knocking aside tankards and goblets. Oh my
. Kruppe met Meese's eyes, noted the fear and alarm. 'Meese, go to Coll at once.'
Pale, she nodded.
The crowd parted before her. Because, as the Gadrobi are wont to say, even a drunk knows a fool, and, drunk or not, no one was fool enough to get in that woman's way.
Picker's sword lay on the table, its tip smeared in drying blood. Antsy had added his short sword, its blade far messier. Together, mute testaments to this impromptu meeting's agenda.
Bluepearl sat at one end of the long table, nursing his headache with a tankard of ale; Blend was by the door, arms folded as she leaned against the frame. Mallet sat in a chair to Bluepearl's left, with all his nerves pushed into one jumpy leg, the thigh and knee jittering, while his face remained closed as he refused to meet anyone's eyes. Near the ratty tapestry dating back from the time when this place was still a temple stood Duiker, once Imperial Historian, now a broken old man.
In fact, Picker was mildly surprised that he’d accepted the invitation to join them. Perhaps some remnant of curiosity flickered still in the ashes of Duiker’s soul, although he seemed more interested in the faded scene on the tapestry with its aerial flotilla of dragons approaching a temple much like the one they were in.
Nobody seemed ready to start talking. Typical. The task always fell at her feet,like some wounded dove. ‘Assassins’ Guild’s taken on a contract,’ she said, deliberately harsh. ‘Target? At the very least, me, Antsy and Bluepearl. More likely, all us partners.’ She paused, waiting to hear some objection. Nothing. ‘Antsy, we turn down any offers on this place?’
Excerpted from Toll The Hounds by Steve Erikson.
Copyright © 2008 by Steve Erikson.
Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.