Wayward winds had stirred the dust into the air earlier that day, and all who came into Ehrlitan’s eastern inland gate were coated, clothes and skin, with the colour of the red sandstone hills. Merchants, pilgrims, drovers and travellers appeared before the guards as if conjured, one after another, from the swirling haze, heads bent as they trudged into the gate’s lee, eyes slitted behind folds of stained linen. Rust-sheathed goats stumbled after the drovers, horses and oxen arrived with drooped heads and rings of gritty crust around their nostrils and eyes, wagons hissed as sand sifted down between weathered boards in the beds. The guards watched on, thinking only of the end of their watch, and the baths, meals and warm bodies that would follow as proper reward for duties upheld.
The woman who came in on foot was noted, but for all the wrong reasons. Sheathed in tight silks, head wrapped and face hidden beneath a scarf, she was nonetheless worth a second glance, if only for the grace of her stride and the sway of her hips. The guards, being men and slavish to their imaginations, provided the rest.
She noted their momentary attention and understood it well enough to be unconcerned. More problematic had one or both of the guards been female. They might well have wondered that she was entering the city by this particular gate, having come down, on foot, this particular road, which wound league upon league through parched, virtually lifeless hills, then ran parallel to a mostly uninhabited scrub forest for yet more leagues. An arrival, then, made still more unusual since she was carrying no supplies, and the supple leather of her moccasins was barely worn. Had the guards been female, they would have accosted her, and she would have faced some hard questions, none of which she was prepared to answer truthfully.
Fortunate for the guards, then, that they had been male. Fortunate, too, the delicious lure of a man’s imagination as those gazes followed her into the street, empty of suspicion yet feverishly disrobing her curved form with every swing of her hips, a motion she only marginally exaggerated.
Coming to an intersection she turned left and moments later was past their lines of sight. The wind was blunted here in the city, although fine dust continued to drift down to coat all in a monochrome powder. The woman continued through the crowds, her route a gradual, inward spiral towards the Jen’rahb, Ehrlitan’s central tel, the vast multilayered ruin inhabited by little more than vermin, of both the four-legged and two-legged kind. Arriving at last within sight of the collapsed buildings, she found a nearby inn, modest in presentation and without ambition to be other than a local establishment housing a few whores in the second-floor rooms and a dozen or so regulars in the ground-floor tavern.
Beside the tavern’s entrance was an arched passage leading into a small garden. The woman stepped into that passage to brush the dust from her clothing, then walked on to the shallow basin of silty water beneath a desultorily trickling fountain, where she unwound the scarf and splashed her face, sufficient to take the sting from her eyes.
Returning through the passage, the woman then entered the tavern.
Gloomy, the smoke from fires, oil lanterns, durhang, itralbe and rustleaf drifting beneath the low plaster ceiling, three-quarters full and all of the tables occupied. A youth had preceded her by a few moments, and was now breathlessly expounding on some adventure barely survived. Noting this as she walked past the young man and his listeners, the woman allowed herself a faint smile that was, perhaps, sadder than she had intended.
She found a place at the bar and beckoned the tender over. He stopped opposite and studied her intently while she ordered, in unaccented Ehrlii, a bottle of rice wine.
At her request he reached under the counter and she heard the clink of bottles as he said, in Malazan, ‘Hope you’re not expecting anything worth the name, lass.’ He straightened, brushing dust from a clay bottle then peering at the stopper. ‘This one’s at least still sealed.’
‘That will do,’ she said, still speaking the local dialect, laying out on the bar-top three silver crescents.
‘Plan on drinking all of it?’
‘I’d need a room upstairs to crawl into,’ she replied, tugging the stopper free as the barman set down a tin goblet. ‘One with a lock,’ she added.
‘Then Oponn’s smiling on you,’ he said. ‘One’s just become available.’
‘You attached to Dujek’s army?’ the man asked.
She poured out a full draught of the amber, somewhat cloudy wine. ‘No. Why, is it here?’
‘Tail ends,’ he replied. ‘The main body marched out six days ago. Left a garrison, of course. That’s why I was wondering—’
‘I belong to no army.’
Her tone, strangely cold and flat, silenced him. Moments later, he drifted away to attend to another customer.
She drank. Steadily working through the bottle as the light faded outside, and the tavern grew yet more crowded, voices getting louder, elbows and shoulders jostling against her more often than was entirely necessary. She ignored the casual groping, eyes on the liquid in the goblet before her.
At last she was done, and so she turned about and threaded her way, unsteadily, through the press of bodies to arrive finally at the stairs. She made her ascent cautiously, one hand on the flimsy railing, vaguely aware that someone was, unsurprisingly, following her.
At the landing she set her back against a wall.
The stranger arrived, still wearing a stupid grin—that froze on his face as the point of a knife pressed the skin beneath his left eye.
‘Go back downstairs,’ the woman said.
A tear of blood trickled down the man’s cheek, gathered thick along the ridge of his jaw. He was trembling, wincing as the point slipped in ever deeper. ‘Please,’ he whispered.
She reeled slightly, inadvertently slicing open the man’s cheek, fortunately downward rather than up into his eye. He cried out and staggered back, hands up in an effort to stop the flow of blood, then stumbled his way down the stairs.
Shouts from below, then a harsh laugh.
The woman studied the knife in her hand, wondering where it had come from, and whose blood now gleamed from it.
She went in search of her room, and, eventually, found it.
The vast dust storm was natural, born out on the Jhag Odhan and cycling widdershins into the heart of the Seven Cities subcontinent. The winds swept northward along the east side of the hills, crags and old mountains ringing the Holy Desert of Raraku—a desert that was now a sea—and were drawn into a war of lightning along the ridge’s breadth, visible from the cities of Pan’potsun and G’danisban. Wheeling westward, the storm spun out writhing arms, one of these striking Ehrlitan before blowing out above the Ehrlitan Sea, another reaching to the city of Pur Atrii. As the main body of the storm curled back inland, it gathered energy once more, battering the north side of the Thalas Mountains, engulfing the cities of Hatra and Y’Ghatan before turning southward one last time. A natural storm, one final gift, perhaps, from the old spirits of Raraku.
The fleeing army of Leoman of the Flails had embraced that gift, riding into that relentless wind for days on end, the days stretching into weeks, the world beyond reduced to a wall of suspended sand all the more bitter for what it reminded the survivors of—their beloved Whirlwind, the hammer of Sha’ik and Dryjhna the Apocalyptic. Yet, even in bitterness, there was life, there was salvation.
Tavore’s Malazan army still pursued, not in haste, not with the reckless stupidity shown immediately following the death of Sha’ik and the shattering of the rebellion. Now, the hunt was a measured thing, a tactical stalking of the last organized force opposed to the empire. A force believed to be in possession of the Holy Book of Dryjhna, the lone artifact of hope for the embattled rebels of Seven Cities.
Though he possessed it not, Leoman of the Flails cursed that book daily. With almost religious zeal and appalling imagination, he growled out his curses, the rasping wind thankfully stripping the words away so that only Corabb Bhilan Thenu’alas, riding close alongside his commander, could hear. When tiring of that tirade, Leoman would concoct elaborate schemes to destroy the tome once it came into his hands. Fire, horse piss, bile, Moranth incendiaries, the belly of a dragon . . . until Corabb, exhausted, pulled away to ride in the more reasonable company of his fellow rebels.
Who would then ply him with fearful questions, casting uneasy glances Leoman’s way. What was he saying?
Prayers, Corabb would answer. Our commander prays to Dryjhna all day. Leoman of the Flails, he told them, is a pious man.
About as pious as could be expected. The rebellion was collapsing, whipped away on the winds. Cities had capitulated, one after another, upon the appearance of imperial armies and ships. Citizens turned on neighbours in their zeal to present criminals to answer for the multitude of atrocities committed during the uprising. Once-heroes and petty tyrants alike were paraded before the reoccupiers, and bloodlust was high. Such grim news reached them from caravans they intercepted as they fled ever onward. And with each tatter of news, Leoman’s expression darkened yet further, as if it was all he could do to bind taut the rage within him.
It was disappointment, Corabb told himself, punctuating the thought each time with a long sigh. The people of Seven Cities so quickly relinquished the freedom won at the cost of so many lives, and this was indeed a bitter truth, a most sordid comment on human nature. Had it all been for nothing, then? How could a pious warrior not experience soul-burning disappointment? How many tens of thousands of people had died? For what?
And so Corabb told himself he understood his commander. Understood that Leoman could not let go, not yet, perhaps never. Holding fast to the dream gave meaning to all that had gone before.
Complicated thoughts. It had taken Corabb many hours of frowning regard to reach them, to make that extraordinary leap into the mind of another man, to see through his eyes, if only for a moment, before reeling back in humble confusion. He had caught a glimpse, then, of what made great leaders, in battle, in matters of state. The facility of their intelligence in shifting perspectives, in seeing things from all sides. When, for Corabb, it was all he could manage, truth be told, to cling to a single vision—his own—in the midst of so much discord as the world was wont to rear up before him.
If not for his commander, Corabb well knew, he would be lost.
A gloved hand, gesturing, and Corabb kicked his mount forward until he was at Leoman’s side.
The hooded, cloth-wrapped face swung close, leather-clad fingers tugging the stained silk away from the mouth, and words shouted so that Corabb could hear them: ‘Where in Hood’s name are we?’
Corabb stared, squinted, then sighed.
Her finger provided the drama, ploughing a traumatic furrow across the well-worn path. The ants scurried in confusion, and Samar Dev watched them scrabbling fierce with the insult, the soldiers with their heads lifted and mandibles opened wide as if they would challenge the gods. Or, in this case, a woman slowly dying of thirst.
She was lying on her side in the shade of the wagon. It was just past midday, and the air was still. The heat had stolen all strength from her limbs. It was unlikely she could continue her assault on the ants, and the realization gave her a moment of regret. The deliverance of discord into otherwise predictable, truncated and sordid lives seemed a worthwhile thing. Well, perhaps not worthwhile, but certainly interesting. God-like thoughts, then, to mark her last day among the living.
Motion caught her attention. The dust of the road, shivering, and now she could hear a growing thunder, reverberating like earthen drums. The track she was on was not a well-traversed one here on the Ugarat Odhan. It belonged to an age long past, when the caravans plied the scores of routes between the dozen or more great cities of which ancient Ugarat was the hub, and all those cities, barring Kayhum on the banks of the river and Ugarat itself, were dead a thousand years or more.
Still, a lone rider could as easily be one too many as her salvation, for she was a woman with ample womanly charms, and she was alone. Sometimes, it was said, bandits and raiders used these mostly forgotten tracks as they made their way between caravan routes. Bandits were notoriously ungenerous.
The hoofs approached, ever louder, then the creature slowed, and a moment later a sultry cloud of dust rolled over Samar Dev. The horse snorted, a strangely vicious sound, and there was a softer thud as the rider slipped down. Faint footfalls drew nearer.
What was this? A child? A woman?
A shadow slid into view beyond that cast by the wagon, and Samar Dev rolled her head, watching as the figure strode round the wagon and looked down on her.
No, neither child nor woman. Perhaps, she considered, not even a man. An apparition, tattered white fur riding the impossibly broad shoulders. A sword of flaked flint strapped to his back, the grip wrapped in hide. She blinked hard, seeking more details, but the bright sky behind him defeated her. A giant of a man who walked quiet as a desert cat, a nightmare vision, a hallucination.
And then he spoke, but not, it was clear, to her. ‘You shall have to wait for your meal, Havok. This one still lives.’
‘Havok eats dead women?’ Samar asked, her voice ragged. ‘Who do you ride with?’
‘Not with,’ the giant replied. ‘On.’ He moved closer and crouched down beside her. There was something in his hands—a waterskin—but she found she could not pull her gaze from his face. Even, hard-edged features, broken and crazed by a tattoo of shattered glass, the mark of an escaped slave. ‘I see your wagon,’ he said, speaking the language of the desert tribes yet oddly accented, ‘but where is the beast that pulled it?’
‘In the bed,’ she replied.
He set the skin at her side and straightened, walked over and leaned in for a look. ‘There’s a dead man in there.’
‘Yes, that’s him. He’s broken down.’
‘He was pulling this wagon? No wonder he’s dead.’
She reached over and managed to close both hands around the waterskin’s neck. Tugged the stopper free and tilted it over her mouth. Warm, delicious water. ‘Do you see those double levers beside him?’ she asked. ‘Work those and the wagon moves. It’s my own invention.’
‘Is it hard work? Then why hire an old man to do it?’
‘He was a potential investor. Wanted to see how it would work for himself.’
The giant grunted, and she saw him studying her. ‘We were doing fine,’ she said. ‘At first. But then it broke. The linkage. We were only planning half a day, but he’d taken us too far out before dropping dead. I thought to walk, but then I broke my foot—’
‘Kicking the wheel. Anyway, I can’t walk.’
He continued staring down at her, like a wolf eyeing a lame hare. She sipped more water. ‘Are you planning on being unpleasant?’ she asked.
‘It is blood-oil that drives a Teblor warrior to rape. I have none. I have not taken a woman by force in years. You are from Ugarat?’
‘I must enter that city for supplies. I want no trouble.’
‘I can help with that.’
‘I want to remain beneath notice.’
‘I’m not sure that’s possible,’ she said.
‘Make it possible and I will take you with me.’
‘Well, that’s not fair. You are half again taller than a normal man. You are tattooed. You have a horse that eats people—assuming it is a horse and not an enkar’al. And you seem to be wearing the skin of a white-furred bear.’
He turned away from the wagon.
‘All right!’ she said hastily. ‘I’ll think of something.’
He came close again, collected the waterskin, slung it over a shoulder, and then picked her up by the belt, one-handed. Pain ripped through her right leg as the broken foot dangled. ‘Seven Hounds!’ she hissed. ‘How undignified do you have to make this?’
Saying nothing, the warrior carried her over to his waiting horse. Not an enkar’al, she saw, but not quite a horse either. Tall, lean and pallid, silver mane and tail, with eyes red as blood. A single rein, no saddle or stirrups. ‘Stand on your good leg,’ he said, lifting her straight. Then he picked up a loop of rope and vaulted onto the horse.
Gasping, leaning against the horse, Samar Dev tracked the double strands of the rope the man held, and saw that he had been dragging something while he rode. Two huge rotted heads. Dogs or bears, as oversized as the man himself.
The warrior reached down and unceremoniously pulled her up until she was settled behind him. More waves of pain, darkness threatening.
‘Beneath notice,’ he said again.
Samar Dev glanced back at those two severed heads. ‘That goes without saying,’ she said.
Musty darkness in the small room, the air stale and sweaty. Two slitted, rectangular holes in the wall just beneath the low ceiling allowed the cool night air to slip inside in fitful gusts, like sighs from a waiting world. For the woman huddled on the floor beside the narrow bed, that world would have to wait a little longer. Arms closed about her drawn-up knees, head lowered, sheathed in black hair that hung in oily strands, she wept. And to weep was to be inside oneself, entirely, an inner place far more unrelenting and unforgiving than anything that could be found outside.
She wept for the man she had abandoned, fleeing the pain she had seen in his eyes, as his love for her kept him stumbling in her wake, matching each footfall yet unable to come any closer. For that she could not allow. The intricate patterns on a hooded snake held mesmerizing charms, but the bite was no less deadly for that. She was the same. There was nothing in her—nothing that she could see—worth the overwhelming gift of love. Nothing in her worthy of him.
He had blinded himself to that truth, and that was his flaw, the flaw he had always possessed. A willingness, perhaps a need, to believe in the good, where no good could be found. Well, this was a love she could not abide, and she would not take him down her path.
Cotillion had understood. The god had seen clearly into the depths of this mortal darkness, as clearly as had Apsalar. And so there had been nothing veiled in the words and silences exchanged between her and the patron god of assassins. A mutual recognition. The tasks he set before her were of a nature suited to his aspect, and to her particular talents. When condemnation had already been pronounced, one could not be indignant over the sentence. But she was no god, so far removed from humanity as to find amorality a thing of comfort, a refuge from one’s own deeds. Everything was getting . . . harder, harder to manage.
He would not miss her for long. His eyes would slowly open. To other possibilities. He travelled now with two other women, after all—Cotillion had told her that much. So. He would heal, and would not be alone for long, she was certain of that.
More than sufficient fuel to feed her self-pity.
Even so, she had tasks set before her, and it would not do to wallow overlong in this unwelcome self-indulgence. Apsalar slowly raised her head, studied the meagre, grainy details of the room. Trying to recall how she had come to be here. Her head ached, her throat was parched. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she slowly stood. Pounding pain behind her eyes.
From somewhere below she could hear tavern sounds, a score of voices, drunken laughter. Apsalar found her silk-lined cloak, reversed it and slipped the garment over her shoulders, then she walked over to the door, unlocked it, and stepped out into the corridor beyond. Two wavering oil-lamps set in niches along the wall, a railing and stairs at the far end. From the room opposite hers came the muffled noise of love-making, the woman’s cries too melodramatic to be genuine. Apsalar listened a moment longer, wondering what it was about the sounds that disturbed her so, then she moved through the flicker of shadows, reaching the steps, and made her way down.
It was late, probably well after the twelfth bell. Twenty or so patrons occupied the tavern, half of them in the livery of caravan guards. They were not regulars, given the unease with which they were regarded by the remaining denizens, and she noted, as she approached the counter, that three were Gral, whilst another pair, both women, were Pardu. Both rather unpleasant tribes, or so Cotillion’s memories informed her in a subtle rustle of disquiet. Typically raucous and overbearing, their eyes finding and tracking her progress to the bar; she elected caution and so kept her gaze averted.
The barman walked over as she arrived. ‘Was beginning to think you’d died,’ he said, as he lifted a bottle of rice wine into view and set it before her. ‘Before you dip into this, lass, I’d like to see some coin.’
‘How much do I owe you so far?’
‘Two silver crescents.’
She frowned. ‘I thought I’d paid already.’
‘For the wine, aye. But then you spent a night and a day and an evening in the room—and I have to charge you for tonight as well, since it’s too late to try renting it out now. Finally,’ he gestured, ‘there’s this bottle here.’
‘I didn’t say I wanted it,’ she replied. ‘But if you’ve any food left . . .’
She drew out her coin pouch and found two crescents. ‘Here. Assuming this is for tonight’s room as well.’
He nodded. ‘You don’t want the wine, then?’
‘No. Sawr’ak beer, if you please.’
He collected the bottle and headed off.
A figure pushed in on either side of her. The Pardu women. ‘See those Gral?’ one asked, nodding to a nearby table. ‘They want you to dance for them.’
‘No they don’t,’ Apsalar replied.
‘No,’ the other woman said, ‘they do. They’ll even pay. You walk like a dancer. We could all see that. You don’t want to upset them—’
‘Precisely. Which is why I won’t dance for them.’
The two Pardu were clearly confused by that. In the interval the barman arrived with a tankard of beer and a tin bowl of goat soup, the layer of fat on the surface sporting white hairs to give proof of its origin. He added a hunk of dark bread. ‘Good enough?’
She nodded. ‘Thank you.’ Then turned to the woman who had first spoken. ‘I am a Shadow Dancer. Tell them that, Pardu.’
Both women backed off suddenly, and Apsalar leaned on the counter, listening to the hiss of words spreading out through the tavern. All at once she found she had some space around her. Good enough.
The bartender was regarding her warily. ‘You’re full of surprises,’ he said. ‘That dance is forbidden.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘You’re from Quon Tali,’ he said in a quieter voice. ‘Itko Kan, I’d guess, by the tilt of your eyes and that black hair. Never heard of a Shadow Dancer out of Itko Kan.’ He leaned close. ‘I was born just outside Gris, you see. Was regular infantry in Dassem’s army, took a spear in the back my first battle and that was it for me. I missed Y’Ghatan, for which I daily give thanks to Oponn. You understand. Didn’t see Dassem die and glad for it.’
‘But you still have stories aplenty,’ Apsalar said.
‘That I have,’ he said with an emphatic nod. Then his gaze sharpened on her. After a moment he grunted and moved away.
She ate, sipped ale, and her headache slowly faded.
Some time later, she gestured to the barman and he approached. ‘I am going out,’ she said, ‘but I wish to keep the room so do not rent it out to anyone else.’
He shrugged. ‘You’ve paid for it. I lock up at fourth bell.’
She straightened and made her way towards the door. The caravan guards tracked her progress, but none made move to follow—at least not immediately.
She hoped they would heed the implicit warning she’d given them. She already intended to kill a man this night, and one was enough, as far as she was concerned.
Stepping outside, Apsalar paused for a moment. The wind had died. The stars were visible as blurry motes behind the veil of fine dust still settling in the storm’s wake. The air was cool and still. Drawing her cloak about her and slipping her silk scarf over the lower half of her face, Apsalar swung left down the street. At the juncture of a narrow alley, thick with shadows, she slipped suddenly into the gloom and was gone.
A few moments later the two Pardu women padded towards the alley. They paused at its mouth, looking down the twisted track, seeing no-one.
‘She spoke true,’ one hissed, making a warding sign. ‘She walks the shadows.’
The other nodded. ‘We must inform our new master.’
They headed off.
Standing within the warren of Shadow, the two Pardu looking ghostly, seeming to shiver into and out of existence as they strode up the street, Apsalar watched them for another dozen heartbeats. She was curious as to who their master might be, but that was a trail she would follow some other night. Turning away, she studied the shadow-wrought world she found herself in. On all sides, a lifeless city. Nothing like Ehrlitan, the architecture primitive and robust, with gated lintel-stone entrances to narrow passageways that ran straight and high-walled. No-one walked those cobbled paths. The buildings to either side of the passageways were all two storeys or less, flat-roofed, and no windows were visible. High narrow doorways gaped black in the grainy gloom.
Even Cotillion’s memories held no recognition of this manifestation in the Shadow Realm, but this was not unusual. There seemed to be uncounted layers, and the fragments of the shattered warren were far more extensive than one might expect. The realm was ever in motion, bound to some wayward force of migration, scudding ceaseless across the mortal world. Overhead, the sky was slate grey—what passed for night in Shadow, and the air was turgid and warm.
One of the passageways led in the direction of Ehrlitan’s central flat-topped hill, the Jen’rahb, once the site of the Falah’d Crown, now a mass of rubble. She set off down it, eyes on the looming, near-transparent wreckage of tumbled stone. The path opened out onto a square, each of the four walls lined with shackles. Two sets still held bodies. Desiccated, slumped in the dust, skin-wrapped skulls sunk low, resting on gracile-boned chests; one was at the end opposite her, the other at the back of the left-hand wall. A portal broke the line of the far wall near the right-side corner.
Curious, Apsalar approached the nearer figure. She could not be certain, but it appeared to be Tiste, either Andii or Edur. The corpse’s long straight hair was colourless, bleached by antiquity. Its accoutrements had rotted away, leaving only a few withered strips and corroded bits of metal. As she crouched before it, there was a swirl of dust beside the body, and her brows lifted as a shade slowly rose into view. Translucent flesh, the bones strangely luminescent, a skeletal face with black-pitted eyes.
‘The body’s mine,’ it whispered, bony fingers clutching the air. ‘You can’t have it.’
The language was Tiste Andii, and Apsalar was vaguely surprised that she understood it. Cotillion’s memories and the knowledge hidden within them could still startle her on occasion. ‘What would I do with the body?’ she asked. ‘I have my own, after all.’
‘Not here. I see naught but a ghost.’
‘As do I.’
It seemed startled. ‘Are you certain?’
‘You died long ago,’ she said. ‘Assuming the body in chains is your own.’
‘My own? No. At least, I don’t think so. It might be. Why not? Yes, it was me, once, long ago. I recognize it. You are the ghost, not me. I’ve never felt better, in fact. Whereas you look . . . unwell.’
‘Nonetheless,’ Apsalar said, ‘I have no interest in stealing a corpse.’
The shade reached out and brushed the corpse’s lank, pale hair. ‘I was lovely, you know. Much admired, much pursued by the young warriors of the enclave. Perhaps I still am, and it is only my spirit that has grown so . . . tattered. Which is more visible to the mortal eye? Vigour and beauty moulding flesh, or the miserable wretch hiding beneath it?’
Copyright © 2006 by Steven Erikson. All rights reserved