And all came to imprint
On the path,
To scent the dry winds
Their cloying claim
The Path of Hands
1164th Year of Burn's Sleep
Tenth Year of the Rule of Empress Laseen
The Sixth in the Seven Years of Dryjhna, the Apocalyptic
A corkscrew plume of dust raced across the basin, heading deeper into the trackless desert of the Pan'potsun Odhan. Though less than two thousand paces away, it seemed a plume born of nothing.
From his perch on the mesa's wind-scarred edge, Mappo Runt followed it with relentless eyes the colour of sand, eyes set deep in a robustly boned, pallid face. He held a wedge of emrag cactus in his bristle-backed hand, unmindful of the envenomed spikes as he bit into it. Juices dribbled down his chin, staining it blue. He chewed slowly, thoughtfully.
Beside him Icarium flicked a pebble over the cliff edge. It clicked and clattered on its way down to the boulder-strewn base. Under the ragged Spiritwalker robe---its orange faded to dusty rust beneath the endless sun---his grey skin had darkened into olive green, as if his father's blood had answered this wasteland's ancient call. His long, braided black hair dripped black sweat onto the bleached rock.
Mappo pulled a mangled thorn from between his front teeth. ‘Your dye's running,' he observed, eyeing the cactus blade a moment before taking another bite.
Icarium shrugged. ‘Doesn't matter any more. Not out here.'
‘My blind grandmother wouldn't have swallowed your disguise. There were narrow eyes on us in Ehrlitan. I felt them crawling on my back day and night. Tannos are mostly short and bow-legged, after all.' Mappo pulled his gaze away from the dust cloud and studied his friend. ‘Next time,' he grunted, ‘try belonging to a tribe where everyone's seven foot tall.'
Icarium's lined, weather-worn face twitched into something like a smile, just a hint, before resuming its placid expression. ‘Those who would know of us in Seven Cities, surely know of us now. Those who would not might wonder at us, but that is all they will do.' Squinting against the glare, he nodded at the plume. ‘What do you see, Mappo?'
‘Flat head, long neck, black and hairy all over. If just that, I might be describing one of my uncles.'
‘But there's more.'
‘One leg up front and two in back.'
Icarium tapped the bridge of his nose, thinking. ‘So, not one of your uncles. An aptorian?'
Mappo slowly nodded. ‘The convergence is months away. I'd guess Shadowthrone caught a whiff of what's coming, sent out a few scouts...'
‘And this one?'
Mappo grinned, exposing massive canines. ‘A tad too far afield. Sha'ik's pet now.' He finished off the cactus, wiped his spatulate hands, then rose from his crouch. Arching his back, he winced. There had been, unaccountably, a mass of roots beneath the sand under his bedroll the night just past, and now the muscles to either side of his spine matched every knot and twist of those treeless bones. He rubbed at his eyes. A quick scan down the length of his body displayed for him the tattered, dirt-crusted state of his clothes. He sighed. ‘It's said there's a waterhole out there, somewhere---'
‘With Sha'ik's army camped around it.'
Icarium also straightened, noting once again the sheer mass of his companion---big even for a Trell---the shoulders broad and maned in black hair, the sinewy muscles of his long arms, and the thousand years that capered like a gleeful goat behind Mappo's eyes. ‘Can you track it?'
‘If you like.'
Icarium grimaced. ‘How long have we known each other, friend?'
Mappo's glance was sharp, then he shrugged. ‘Long. Why do you ask?'
‘I know reluctance when I hear it. The prospect disturbs you?'
‘Any potential brush with demons disturbs me, Icarium. Shy as a hare is Mappo Trell.'
‘I am driven by curiosity.'
The unlikely pair turned back to their small campsite, tucked between two towering spires of wind-sculpted rock. There was no hurry. Icarium sat down on a flat rock and proceeded to oil his longbow, striving to keep the hornwood from drying out. Once satisfied with the weapon's condition, he turned to his single-edged long sword, sliding the ancient weapon from its bronze-banded boiled-leather scabbard, then setting an oiled whetstone to its notched edge.
Mappo struck the hide tent, folding it haphazardly before stuffing it into his large leather bag. Cooking utensils followed, as did the bedding. He tied the drawstrings and hefted the bag over one shoulder, then glanced to where Icarium waited---bow rewrapped and slung across his back.
Icarium nodded, and the two of them, half-blood Jaghut and full-blood Trell, began on the path leading down into the basin.
Overhead the stars hung radiant, casting enough light down onto the basin to tinge its cracked pan silver. The bloodflies had passed with the vanishing of the day's heat, leaving the night to the occasional swarm of capemoths and the batlike rhizan lizards that fed on them.
Mappo and Icarium paused for a rest in the courtyard of some ruins. The mudbrick walls had all but eroded away, leaving nothing but shin-high ridges laid out in a geometric pattern around an old, dried-up well. The sand covering the courtyard's tiles was fine and windblown and seemed to glow faintly to Mappo's eyes. Twisted brush clung with fisted roots along its edges.
The Pan'potsun Odhan and the Holy Desert Raraku that flanked it to the west were both home to countless such remnants from long-dead civilizations. In their travels Mappo and Icarium had found high tels---flat-topped hills built up of layer upon layer of city---situated in a rough procession over a distance of fifty leagues between the hills and the desert, clear evidence that a rich and thriving people had once lived in what was now dry, wind-blasted wasteland. From the Holy Desert had emerged the legend of Dryjhna the Apocalyptic. Mappo wondered if the calamity that had befallen the city-dwellers in this region had in some way contributed to the myth of a time of devastation and death. Apart from the occasional abandoned estate such as the one they now rested in, many ruins showed signs of a violent end.
His thoughts finding familiar ruts, Mappo grimaced. Not all pasts can be laid at our feet, and we are no closer here and now than we've ever been. Nor have I any reason to disbelieve my own words. He turned away from those thoughts as well.
Near the courtyard's centre stood a single column of pink marble, pitted and grooved on one side where the winds born out in Raraku blew unceasingly towards the Pan'potsun Hills. The pillar's opposite side still retained the spiral patterning carved there by long-dead artisans.
Upon entering the courtyard Icarium had walked directly to the six-foot-high column, examining its sides. His grunt told Mappo he'd found what he had been looking for.
‘And this one?' the Trell asked, setting his leather sack down.
Icarium came over, wiping dust from his hands. ‘Down near the base, a scattering of tiny clawed hands---the seekers are on the Trail.'
‘Rats? More than one set?'
‘D'ivers,' Icarium agreed, nodding.
‘Now who might that be, I wonder?'
Icarium studied the flat plain stretching into the west. ‘There will be others. Soletaken and D'ivers both. Those who feel near to Ascendancy, and those who are not, yet seek the Path nonetheless.'
Mappo sighed, studying his old friend. Faint dread stirred within him. D'ivers and Soletaken, the twin curses of shapeshifting, the fever for which there is no cure. Gathering...here, in this place. ‘Is this wise, Icarium?' he asked softly. ‘In seeking your eternal goal, we find ourselves walking into a most disagreeable convergence. Should the gates open, we shall find our passage contested by a host of blood-thirsty individuals all eager in their belief that the gates offer Ascendancy.'
‘If such a pathway exists,' Icarium said, his eyes still on the horizon, ‘then perhaps I shall find my answers there as well.'
Answers are no benediction, friend. Trust me in this. Please. ‘You have still not explained to me what you will do once you have found them.'
Icarium turned to him with a faint smile. ‘I am my own curse, Mappo. I have lived centuries, yet what do I know of my own past? Where are my memories? How can I judge my own life without such knowledge?'
‘Some would consider your curse a gift,' Mappo said, a flicker of sadness passing across his features.
‘I do not. I view this convergence as an opportunity. It might well provide me with answers. To achieve them, I hope to avoid drawing my weapons, but I shall if I must.'
The Trell sighed a second time and rose from his crouch. ‘You may be tested in that resolve soon, friend.' He faced southwest. ‘There are six desert wolves on our trail.'
Icarium unwrapped his antlered bow and strung it in a swift, fluid motion. ‘Desert wolves never hunt people.'
‘No,' Mappo agreed. It was another hour before the moon would rise. He watched Icarium lay out six long, stone-tipped arrows, then squinted out into the darkness. Cold fear crept along the nape of his neck. The wolves were not yet visible, but he felt them all the same. ‘They are six, but they are one. D'ivers.' Better it would have been a Soletaken. Veering into a single beast is unpleasant enough, but into many...
Icarium frowned. ‘One of power, then, to achieve the shape of six wolves. Do you know who it might be?'
‘I have a suspicion,' Mappo said quietly.
They fell silent, waiting.
Half a dozen tawny shapes appeared out of a gloom that seemed of its own making, less than thirty strides away. At twenty paces the wolves spread out into an open half-circle facing Mappo and Icarium. The spicy scent of D'ivers filled the still night air. One of the lithe beasts edged forward, then stopped as Icarium raised his bow.
‘Not six,' Icarium muttered, ‘but one.'
‘I know him,' Mappo said. ‘A shame he can't say the same of us. He is uncertain, but he's taken a blood-spilling form. Tonight, Ryllandaras hunts in the desert. Does he hunt us or something else, I wonder?'
Icarium shrugged. ‘Who shall speak first, Mappo?'
‘Me,' the Trell replied, taking a step forward. This would require guile and cunning. A mistake would prove deadly. He pitched his voice low and wry. ‘Long way from home, aren't we. Your brother Treach had it in mind that he killed you. Where was that chasm? Dal Hon? Or was it Li Heng? You were D'ivers jackals then, I seem to recall.'
Ryllandaras spoke inside their minds, a voice cracking and halting with disuse. I am tempted to match wits with you, N'Trell, before killing you.
‘Might not be worth it,' Mappo replied easily. ‘With the company I've been keeping, I'm as out of practice as you, Ryllandaras.'
The lead wolf's bright blue eyes flicked to Icarium.
‘I have little wits to match,' the Jaghut half-blood said softly, his voice barely carrying. ‘And I am losing patience.'
Foolish. Charm is all that can save you. Tell me, bowman, do you surrender your life to your companion's wiles?
Icarium shook his head. ‘Of course not. I share his opinion of himself.'
Ryllandaras seemed confused. A matter of expedience then, the two of you travelling together. Companions without trust, without confidence in each other. The stakes must be high.
‘I am getting bored, Mappo,' Icarium said.
The six wolves stiffened as one, half flinching. Mappo Runt and Icarium. Ah, we see. Know that we've no quarrel with you.
‘Wits matched,' Mappo said, his grin broadening a moment before disappearing entirely. ‘Hunt elsewhere, Ryllandaras, before Icarium does Treach a favour.' Before you unleash all that I am sworn to prevent. ‘Am I understood?'
Our trail...converges, the D'ivers said, upon the spoor of a demon of Shadow.
‘Not Shadow any longer,' Mappo replied. ‘Sha'ik's. The Holy Desert no longer sleeps.'
So it seems. Do you forbid us our hunt?
Mappo glanced at Icarium, who lowered his bow and shrugged. ‘If you wish to lock jaws with an aptorian, that is your choice. Our interest was only passing.'
Then indeed shall our jaws close upon the throat of the demon.
‘You would make Sha'ik your enemy?' Mappo asked.
The lead wolf cocked its head. The name means nothing to me.
The two travelers watched as the wolves padded off, vanishing once again into a gloom of sorcery. Mappo showed his teeth, then sighed, and Icarium nodded, giving voice to their shared thought. ‘It will, soon.'
The Wickan horsesoldiers loosed fierce cries of exultation as they led their broad-backed horses down the transport's gang-planks. The scene at the quayside of Hissar's Imperial Harbour was chaotic, a mass of unruly tribesmen and women, the flash of iron-headed lances rippling over black braided hair and spiked skullcaps. From his position on the harbour-entrance tower parapet, Duiker looked down on the wild outland company with more than a little scepticism, and with growing trepidation.
Beside the Imperial Historian stood the High Fist's representative, Mallick Rel, his fat, soft hands folded together and resting on his paunch, his skin the colour of oiled leather and smelling of Aren perfumes. Mallick Rel looked nothing like the chief adviser to the Seven Cities' commander of the Malazan armies. A Jhistal priest of the Elder god of the seas, Mael, his presence here to officially convey the High Fist's welcome to the new Fist of the 7th Army was precisely what it appeared to be: a calculated insult. Although, Duiker amended silently, the man at his side had, in a very short time, risen to a position of power among the Imperial players on this continent. A thousand rumours rode the tongues of the soldiers about the smooth, soft-spoken priest and whatever weapon he held over High Fist Pormqual---each and every rumour no louder than a whisper, for Mallick. Rel's path to Pormqual's side was a tale of mysterious misfortune befalling everyone who stood in his way, and fatal misfortune at that.
The political mire among the Malazan occupiers in Seven Cities was as obscure as it was potentially deadly. Duiker suspected that the new Fist would understand little of veiled gestures of contempt, lacking as he did the more civilized nuances of the Empire's tamed citizens. The question that remained for the historian, then, was how long Coltaine of the Crow Clan would survive his new appointment.
Mallick Rel pursed his full lips and slowly exhaled. ‘Historian,' he said softly, his Gedorian Falari accent faint in its sibilant roll. ‘Pleased by your presence. Curious as well. Long from Aren court, now...' He smiled, not showing his green-dyed teeth. ‘Caution bred of distant culling?'
Words like the lap of waves, the god Mael's formless affectation and insidious patience. This, my fourth conversation with Rel. Oh, how I dislike this creature! Duiker cleared his throat. ‘The Empress takes little heed of me, Jhistal...'
Mallick Rel's soft laugh was like the rattle of a snake's tail. ‘Unheeded historian or unheeding of history? Hint of bitterness at advice rejected or worse, ignored. Be calmed, no crimes winging back from Unta's towers.'
‘Pleased to hear it,' Duiker muttered, wondering at the priest's source. ‘I remain in Hissar as a matter of research,' he explained after a moment. ‘The precedent of shipping prisoners to the Otataral mines on the island reaches back to the Emperor's time, although he generally reserved that fate for mages.'
‘Mages? Ah, ah.'
Duiker nodded. ‘Effective, yes, although unpredictable. The specific properties of Otataral as a magic-deadening ore remain largely mysterious. Even so, madness claimed most of those sorcerers, although it is not known if that was the result of exposure to the ore dust, or the deprivation from their Warrens.'
‘Some mages among the next slave shipment?'
‘Question soon answered, then.'
‘Soon,' Duiker agreed.
The T-shaped quay was now a maelstrom of belligerent Wickans, frightened dock porters and short-tempered warhorses. A cordon of Hissar Guard provided the stopper to the bottleneck at the dock's end where it opened out onto the cobbled half-round. Of Seven Cities blood, the Guards had hitched their round shields and unsheathed their tulwars, waving the broad, curving blades threateningly at the Wickans, who answered with barking challenges.
Two men arrived on the parapet. Duiker nodded greetings. Mallick Rel did not deign to acknowledge either of them---a rough captain and the 7th's lone surviving cadre mage, both men clearly ranked too low for any worthwhile cultivation by the priest.
‘Well, Kulp,' Duiker said to the squat, white-haired wizard, ‘your arrival may prove timely.'
Kulp's narrow, sunburned face twisted into a sour scowl. ‘Came up here to keep my bones and flesh intact, Duiker. I'm not interested in becoming Coltaine's lumpy carpet in his step up to the post. They're his people, after all. That he hasn't done a damned thing to quell this brewing riot doesn't bode well, I'd say.'
The captain at his side grunted agreement. ‘Sticks in the throat,' he growled. ‘Half the officers here saw their first blood facing that bastard Coltaine, and now here he is, about to take command. Hood's knuckles,' he spat, ‘won't be any tears spilled if the Hissar Guard cuts down Coltaine and every one of his Wickan savages right here at the Quay. The Seventh don't need them.'
‘Truth,' Mallick Rel said to Duiker with veiled eyes, ‘behind the threat of uprisings. Continent here a viper nest. Coltaine an odd choice---'
‘Not so odd,' Duiker said, shrugging. He returned his attention to the scene below. The Wickans closest to the Hissar Guard had begun strutting back and forth in front of the armoured line. The situation was but moments away from a full-scale battle---the bottleneck was about to become a killing ground. The historian felt something cold clutch his stomach at seeing horn bows now strung among the Wickan soldiers. Another company of guards appeared from the avenue to the right of the main colonnade, bristling with pikes.
‘Can you explain that?' Kulp asked.
Duiker turned and was surprised to see all three men staring at him. He thought back to his last comment, then shrugged again. ‘Coltaine united the Wickan clans in an uprising against the Empire. The Emperor had a hard time bringing him to heel---as some of you know first-hand. True to he Emperor's style, he acquired Coltaine's loyalty---'
‘How?' Kulp barked.
‘No one knows.' Duiker smiled. ‘The Emperor rarely explained his successes. In any case, since Empress Laseen held no affection for her predecessor's chosen commanders, Coltaine was left to rot in some backwater on Quon Tali. Then the situation changed. Adjunct Lorn is killed in Darujhistan, High Fist Dujek and his army turn renegade, effectively surrendering the entire Genabackan Campaign, and the Year of Dryjhna approaches here in Seven Cities, prophesied as the year of rebellion. Laseen needs able commanders before it all slips from her grasp. The new Adjunct Tavore is untested. So...'
‘Coltaine,' the captain nodded, his scowl deepening. ‘Sent here to take command of the Seventh and put down the rebellion---'
‘After all,' Duiker said dryly, ‘who better to deal with insurrection than a warrior who led one himself?'
‘If mutiny occurs, scant his chances,' Mallick Rel said, his eyes on the scene below.
Duiker saw half a dozen tulwars flash, watched the Wickans recoil and then unsheathe their own long-knives. They seemed to have found a leader, a tall, fierce-looking warrior with fetishes in his long braids, who now bellowed encouragement, waving his own weapon over his head. ‘Hood!' the historian swore. ‘Where on earth is Coltaine?'
The captain laughed. ‘The tall one with the lone long-knife.'
Duiker's eyes widened. That madman is Coltaine? The Seventh's new Fist?
‘Ain't changed at all, I see,' the captain continued. ‘If you're going to keep your head as leader of all the clans, you'd better be nastier than all the rest put together. Why'd you think the old Emperor liked him so much?'
‘Beru fend,' Duiker whispered, appalled.
In the next breath an ululating scream from Coltaine brought sudden silence from the Wickan company. Weapons slid back into their sheaths, bows were lowered, arrows returned to their quivers. Even the bucking, snapping horses fell still, heads raised and ears pricked. A space cleared around Coltaine, who had turned his back on the guards. The tall warrior gestured and the four men on the parapet watched in silence as with absolute precision every horse was saddled. Less than a minute later the horsesoldiers were mounted, guiding their horses into a close parade formation that would rival the Imperial elites.
‘That,' Duiker said, ‘was superbly done.'
A soft sigh escaped Mallick Rel. ‘Savage timing, a beast's sense of challenge, then contempt. Statement for the guards. For us as well?'
‘Coltaine's a snake,' the captain said, ‘if that's what you're asking. If the High Command at Aren thinks they can dance around him, they're in for a nasty surprise.'
‘Generous advice,' Rel acknowledged.
The captain looked as if he'd just swallowed something sharp, and Duiker realized that the man had spoken without thought as to the priest's place in the High Command.
Kulp cleared his throat. ‘He's got them in troop formation---guess the ride to the barracks will be peaceful after all.'
‘I admit,' Duiker said wryly, ‘that I look forward to meeting the Seventh's new Fist.'
His heavy-lidded eyes on the scene below, Rel nodded. ‘Agreed.'
Leaving behind the Skara Isles on a heading due south, the fisherboat set out into the Kansu Sea, its triangular sail creaking and straining. If the gale held, they would reach the Ehrlitan coast in four hours. Fiddler's scowl deepened. The Ehrlitan coast, Seven Cities. I hate this damned continent. Hated it the first time, hate it even more now. He leaned over the gunnel and spat acrid bile into the warm, green waves.
‘Feeling any better?' Crokus asked from the prow, his tanned young face creased with genuine concern.
The old saboteur wanted to punch that face; instead he just growled and hunched down deeper against the barque's hull.
Kalam's laugh rumbled from where he sat at the tiller. ‘Fiddler and water don't mix, lad. Look at him, he's greener than that damned winged monkey of yours.'
A sympathetic snuffling sound breathed against Fiddler's cheek. He pried open one bloodshot eye to find a tiny, wizened face staring at him. ‘Go away, Moby,' Fiddler croaked. The familiar, once servant to Crokus's uncle Mammot, seemed to have adopted the sapper, the way stray dogs and cats often did. Kalam would say it was the other way around, of course. ‘A lie,' Fiddler whispered. ‘Kalam's good at those---' like lounging around in Rutu Jelba for a whole damn week on the off-chance that a Skrae trader would come in. ‘Book passage in comfort, eh, Fid?' Not like the damned ocean crossing, oh no---and that one was supposed to have been in comfort, too. A whole week in Rutu Jelba, a lizard-infested, orange-bricked cesspool of a city, then what? Eight jakatas for this rag-stoppered sawed-in-half ale casket.
The steady rise and fall lulled Fiddler as the hours passed. His mind drifted back to the appallingly long journey that had brought them thus far, then to the appallingly long journey that lay ahead. We never do things the easy way, do we?
He would rather that every sea dried up. Men got feet, not flippers. Even so, we're about to cross overland---over a fly-infested, waterless waste, where people smile only to announce they're about to kill you.
The day dragged on, green-tinged and shaky.
He thought back to the companions he'd left behind on Genabackis, wishing he could be marching alongside them. Into a religious war. Don't forget that, Fid. Religious wars are no fun. The faculty of reasoning that permitted surrender did not apply in such instances. Still, the squad was all he'd known for years. He felt bereft out of its shadows. Just Kalam for old company, and he calls that land ahead home. And he smiles before he kills. And what's he and Quick Ben got planned they ain't told me about yet?
‘There's more of those flying fish,' Apsalar said, her voice identifying the soft hand that had found its way to his shoulder. ‘Hundreds of them!'
‘Something big from the deep is chasing them,' Kalam said.
Groaning, Fiddler pushed himself upright. Moby took the opportunity to reveal its motivation behind the day's cooing and crawled into the sapper's lap, curling up and closing its yellow eyes. Fiddler gripped the gunnel and joined his three companions in studying the school of flying fish a hundred yards off the starboard side. The length of a man's arm, the milky white fish were clearing the waves, sailing thirty feet or so, then slipping back under the surface. In the Kansu Sea flying fish hunted like sharks, the schools capable of shredding a bull whale down to bones in minutes. They used their ability to fly to launch themselves onto the back of a whale when it broke for air. ‘What in Mael's name is hunting them?'
Kalam was frowning. ‘Shouldn't be anything here in the Kansu. Out in Seeker's Deep there's dhenrabi, of course.'
‘Dhenrabi! Oh, that comforts me, Kalam. Oh yes indeed!'
‘Some kind of sea serpent?' Crokus asked.
‘Think of a centipede eighty paces long,' Fiddler answered. ‘Wraps up whales and ships alike, blows out all the air under its armoured skin and sinks like a stone, taking its prey with it.'
‘They're rare,' Kalam said, ‘and never seen in shallow water.'
‘Until now, Crokus said, his voice rising in alarm.
The dhenrabi broke the surface in the midst of the flying fish, thrashing its head side to side, a wide razorlike mouth flensing prey by the score. The width of the creature's head was immense, as many as ten arm-spans. Its segmented armour was deep green under the encrusted barnacles, each segment revealing long chitinous limbs.
‘Eighty paces long?' Fiddler hissed. ‘Not unless it's been cut in half!'
Kalam rose at the tiller. ‘Ready with the sail, Crokus. We're going to run. Westerly.'
Fiddler pushed a squawking Moby from his lap and opened his backpack, fumbling to unwrap his crossbow. ‘If it decides we look tasty, Kalam...'
‘I know,' the assassin rumbled.
Quickly assembling the huge iron weapon, Fiddler glanced up and met Apsalar's wide eyes. Her face was white. The sapper winked. ‘Got a surprise if it comes for us, girl.'
She nodded. ‘I remember...'
The dhenrabi had seen them. Veering from the school of flying fish, it was now cutting sinuously through the waves towards them.
‘That's no ordinary beast,' Kalam muttered. ‘You smelling what I'm smelling, Fiddler?'
Spicy, bitter. ‘Hood's breath, that's a Soletaken!'
‘A what?' Crokus asked.
‘Shapeshifter,' Kalam said.
A rasping voice filled Fiddler's mind---and the expressions on his companions' faces told him they heard as well---Mortals, unfortunate for you to witness my passage.
The sapper grunted. The creature did not sound at all regretful.
It continued, For this you must all die, though I shall not dishonor your flesh by eating you.
‘Kind of you,' Fiddler muttered, setting a solid quarrel in the crossbow's slot. The iron head had been replaced with a grapefruit-sized clay ball.
Another fisherboat mysteriously lost, the Soletaken mused ironically. Alas.
Fiddler scrambled to the stern, crouching down beside Kalam. The assassin straightened to face the dhenrabi, one hand on the tiller. ‘Soletaken! Be on your way---we care nothing for your passage!'
I shall be merciful when killing you. The creature rushed the barque from directly astern, cutting through the water like a sharp-hulled ship. Its jaws opened wide.
‘You were warned,' Fiddler said as he raised the crossbow, aimed and fired. The quarrel sped for the beast's open mouth. Lightning fast, the dhenrabi snapped at the shaft, its thin, saw-edged teeth slicing through the quarrel and shattering the clay ball, releasing to the air the powdery mixture within the ball. The contact resulted in an instantaneous explosion that blew the Soletaken's head apart.
Fragments of skull and grey flesh raked the water on all sides. The incendiary powder continued to burn fiercely all it clung to, sending up hissing steam. Momentum carried the headless body to within four spans of the barque's stern before it dipped down and slid smoothly out of sight even as the last echoes of the detonation faded. Smoke drifted sideways over the waves.
‘You picked the wrong fishermen,' Fiddler said, lowering his weapon.
Kalam settled back at the tiller, returning the craft to a southerly course. A strange stillness hung in the air. Fiddler disassembled his crossbow and repacked it in oilcloth. As he resumed his seat amidships, Moby crawled back into his lap. Sighing, he scratched it behind an ear. ‘Well, Kalam?'
‘I'm not sure,' the assassin admitted. ‘What brought a Soletaken into the Kansu Sea? Why did it want its passage secret?'
‘If Quick Ben was here...'
‘But he isn't, Fid. It's a mystery we'll have to live with, and hopefully we won't run into any more.'
‘Do you think it's related to...?'
Kalam scowled. ‘No.'
‘Related to what?' Crokus demanded. ‘What are you two going on about?'
‘Just musing,' Fiddler said. ‘The Soletaken was heading south. Like us.'
Fiddler shrugged. ‘So...nothing. Just that.' He spat again over the side and slumped down. ‘The excitement made me forget my seasickness. Now the excitement's faded, dammit.'
Everyone fell silent, though the frown on the face of Crokus told the sapper that the boy wasn't about to let the issue rest for long.
The gale remained steady, pushing them hard southward. Less than three hours after that Apsalar announced that she could see land ahead, and forty minutes later Kalam directed the craft parallel to the Ehrlitan coastline half a league offshore. They tacked west, following the cedar-lined ridge as the day slowly died.
‘I think I see horsemen,' Apsalar said.
Fiddler raised his head, joining the others in studying the line of riders following a coastal track along the ridge.
‘I make them six in all,' Kalam said. ‘Second rider's---'
‘Got an Imperial pennon,' Fiddler finished, his face twisting at the taste in his mouth. ‘Messenger and Lancer guard---'
‘Heading for Ehrlitan,' Kalam added.
Fiddler turned in his seat and met his corporal's dark eyes. Trouble?
The exchange was silent, a product of years fighting side by side.
Crokus asked, ‘Something wrong? Kalam? Fiddler?'
The boy's sharp. ‘Hard to say,' Fiddler muttered. ‘They've seen us but what have they seen? Four fisherfolk in a barque, some Skrae family headed into the port for a taste of civilization.'
‘There's a village just south of the tree-line,' Kalam said. ‘Keep an eye out for a creek mouth, Crokus, and a beach with no driftwood---the houses will be tucked leeward of the ridge, meaning inland. How's my memory, Fid?'
‘Good enough for a native, which is what you are. How long out of the city?'
‘Ten hours on foot.'
Fiddler fell silent. The Imperial messenger and his horse guard had moved out of sight, leaving the ridge as they swung south towards Ehrlitan. The plan had been to sail right into the Holy City's ancient, crowded harbour, arriving anonymously. It was likely that the messenger was delivering information that had nothing to do with them---they'd given nothing away since reaching the Imperial port of Karakarang from Genabackis, arriving on a Moranth Blue trader having paid passage as crew. The overland journey from Karakarang across the Talgai Mountains and down to Rutu Jelba had been on the Tano pilgrim route---a common enough journey. And the week in Rutu Jelba had been spent inconspicuously lying low, with only Kalam making nightly excursions to the wharf district, seeking passage across the Otataral Sea to the mainland.
At worst, a report might have reached someone official, somewhere, that two possible deserters, accompanied by a Genabackan and a woman, had arrived on Malazan territory---hardly news to shake the Imperial wasp nest all the way to Ehrlitan. So, likely Kalam was being his usual paranoid self.
‘I see the stream mouth,' Crokus said, pointing to a place on the shore.
Fiddler glanced back at Kalam. Hostile land, how low do we crawl?
Looking up at grasshoppers, Fid.
Hood's breath. He looked back to the shore. ‘I hate Seven Cities,' he whispered. In his lap, Moby yawned, revealing a mouth bristling with needlelike fangs. Fiddler blanched. ‘Cuddle up whenever you want, pup,' he said, shivering.
Kalam angled the tiller. Crokus worked the sail, deft enough after a two-month voyage across Seeker's Deep to let the barque slip easily into the wind, the tattered sail barely raising a luff. Apsalar shifted on the seat, stretched her arms and flashed Fiddler a smile. The sapper scowled and looked away. Burn shake me, I've got to keep my jaw from dropping every time she does that. She was another woman, once. A killer, the knife of a god. She did things...Besides, she's with Crokus, ain't she. The boy's got all the luck and the whores in Karakarang looked like poxed sisters from some gigantic poxed family and all those poxed babies on their hips...He shook himself. Oh, Fiddler, too long at sea, way too long!
‘I don't see any boats,' Crokus said.
‘Up the creek,' Fiddler mumbled, dragging a nail through his beard in pursuit of a nit. After a moment he plucked it out and flicked it over the side. Ten hours on foot, then Ehrlitan, and a bath and a shave and a Kansuan girl with a saw-comb and the whole night free afterward.
Crokus nudged him. ‘Getting excited, Fiddler?'
‘You don't know the half of it.'
‘You were here during the conquest, weren't you? Back when Kalam was fighting for the other side---for the Seven Holy Falah'dan---and the T'lan Imass marched for the Emperor and---'
‘Enough,' Fiddler waved a hand. ‘I don't need reminding, and neither does Kalam. All wars are ugly, but that one was uglier than most.'
‘Is it true that you were in the company that chased Quick Ben across the Holy Desert Raraku, and that Kalam was your guide, only he and Quick were planning on betraying you all, but Whiskeyjack had already worked that out---'
Fiddler turned a glare on Kalam. ‘One night in Rutu Jelba with a jug of Falari rum, and this boy knows more than any Imperial historian still breathing.' He swung back to Crokus. ‘Listen, son, best you forget everything that drunken lout told you that night. The past is already hunting our tails---no point in making it any easier.'
Crokus ran a hand through his long black hair. ‘Well,' he said softly, ‘if Seven Cities is so dangerous, why didn't we just head straight down to Quon Tali, to where Apsalar lived, so we can find her father? Why all this sneaking around---and on the wrong continent at that?'
‘It's not that simple,' Kalam growled.
‘Why? I thought that was the reason for this whole journey.' Crokus reached for Apsalar's hand and clasped it in both of his, but saved his hard expression for Kalam and Fiddler. ‘You both said you owed it to her. It wasn't right and you wanted to put it right. But now I'm thinking it's only part of the reason, I'm thinking that you two have something else planned---that taking Apsalar back home was just an excuse to come back to your Empire, even though you're officially outlawed. And whatever it is you're planning, it's meant coming here, to Seven Cities, and it's also meant we have to sneak around, terrified of everything, jumping at shadows, as if the whole Malazan army was after us.' He paused, drew a deep breath, then continued. ‘We have a right to know the truth, because you're putting us in danger and we don't even know what kind, or why, or anything. So out with it. Now.'
Fiddler leaned back on the gunnel. He looked over at Kalam and raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, Corporal? It's your call.'
‘Give me a list, Fiddler,' Kalam said.
‘The Empress wants Darujhistan,' The sapper met Crokus's steady gaze. ‘Agreed?'
The boy hesitated, then nodded.
Fiddler continued. ‘What she wants she usually gets sooner or later. Call it precedent. Now, she's tried to take your city once, right, Crokus? And it cost her Adjunct Lorn, two Imperial demons, and High Fist Dujek's loyalty, not to mention the loss of the Bridgeburners. Enough to make anyone sting.'
‘Fine. But what's that got to do---'
‘Don't interrupt. Corporal said make a list. I'm making it. You've followed me so far? Good. Darujhistan eluded her once---but she'll make certain next time. Assuming there is a next time.'
‘Well,' Crokus was scowling, ‘why wouldn't there be? You said she gets what she wants.'
‘And you're loyal to your city, Crokus?'
‘So you'd do anything you could to prevent the Empress from conquering it?'
‘Well, yes but---'
‘Sir?' Fiddler turned back to Kalam.
The burly black-skinned man looked out over the waves, sighed, then nodded to himself. He faced Crokus. ‘It's this, lad. Time's come. I'm going after her.'
The Daru boy's expression was blank, but Fiddler saw Apsalar's eyes widen, her face losing its colour. She sat back suddenly, then half-smiled---and Fiddler went cold upon seeing it.
‘I don't know what you mean,' Crokus said. ‘After who? The Empress? How?'
‘He means,' Apsalar said, still smiling a smile that had belonged to her once, long ago, when she'd been...someone else, ‘that he's going to try and kill her.'
‘What?' Crokus stood, almost pitching himself over the side. ‘You? You and a seasick sapper with a broken fiddle strapped to his back? Do you think we're going to help you in this insane, suicidal---'
‘I remember,' Apsalar said suddenly, her eyes narrowing on Kalam.
Crokus turned to her. ‘Remember what?'
‘Kalam. He was a Falah'dan's Dagger, and the Claw gave him command of a Hand. Kalam's a master assassin, Crokus. And Quick Ben---'
‘Is three thousand leagues away!' Crokus shouted. ‘He's a squad mage, for Hood's sake! That's it, a squalid little squad mage!'
‘Not quite,' Fiddler said. ‘And being so far away doesn't mean a thing, son. Quick Ben's our shaved knuckle in the hole.'
‘Your what in the where?'
‘Shaved knuckle, as in the game of knuckles---a good gambler's usually using a shaved knuckle, as in cheating in the casts, if you know what I mean. As for "hole", that'd be Quick Ben's Warren---the one that can put him at Kalam's side in the space of a heartbeat, no matter how far away he happens to be. So, Crokus, there you have it: Kalam's going to give it a try, but it's going to take some planning, preparation. And that starts here, in Seven Cities. You want Darujhistan free for ever more? The Empress Laseen must die.'
Crokus slowly sat back down. ‘But why Seven Cities? Isn't the Empress in Quon Tali?'
‘Because,' Kalam said as he angled the fisherboat into the creek mouth and the oppressive heat of the land rose around them, ‘because, lad, Seven Cities is about to rise.'
‘What do you mean?'
The assassin bared his teeth. ‘Rebellion.'
Fiddler swung around and scanned the fetid undergrowth lining the banks. And that, he said to himself with a chill clutching his stomach, is the part of this plan that I hate the most. Chasing one of Quick Ben's wild ideas with the whole countryside going up in flames.
A minute later they rounded a bend and the village appeared, a scattering of wattle-and-daub huts in a broken half-circle facing a line of skiffs pulled onto a sandy beach. Kalam nudged the tiller and the fisherboat drifted towards the strand. As the keel scraped bottom, Fiddler clambered over the gunnel and stepped onto dry land, Moby now awake and clinging with all fours to the front of his tunic. Ignoring the squawking creature, Fiddler slowly straightened. ‘Well,' he sighed as the first of the village's mongrel dogs announced their arrival, ‘it's begun.'
Copyright © 2006 by Steven Erikson