Orb Sceptre Throne (Malazan Empire Series #4)by Ian C. Esslemont
The epic new chapter in the history of Malazthe new epic fantasy from Steven Erikson's friend and co-creator of this extraordinary and exciting imagined world.
Darujhistan, city of dreams, city of blue flames, is peaceful at last; its citizens free to return to politicking, bickering, trading and, above all, enjoying the good things in life. Yet there are
The epic new chapter in the history of Malazthe new epic fantasy from Steven Erikson's friend and co-creator of this extraordinary and exciting imagined world.
Darujhistan, city of dreams, city of blue flames, is peaceful at last; its citizens free to return to politicking, bickering, trading and, above all, enjoying the good things in life. Yet there are those who will not allow the past to remain buried. A scholar digging in the plains stumbles across an ancient sealed vault. The merchant Humble Measure schemes to drive out the remaining Malazan invaders. And the surviving agents of a long-lost power are stirring, for they sense change and so, opportunity. While, as ever at the centre of everything, a thief in a red waistcoat and of rotund proportions walks the streets, juggling in one hand custard pastries, and in the other the fate of the city itself.
Far to the south, fragments of the titanic Moon's Spawn have crashed into the Rivan Sea creating a series of isles...and a fortune hunter's dream. A Malazan veteran calling himself 'Red' ventures out to try his luckand perhaps say goodbye to old friends. But there he finds far more than he'd bargained for as the rush to claim the Spawn's treasures descends into a mad scramble of chaos and bloodshed. For powers from across the world have gathered here, searching for the legendary Throne of Night. The impact of these events are far reaching, it seems. On an unremarkable island off the coast of Genabackis, a people who had turned their backs upon all such strivings now lift their masked faces towards the mainland and recall the ancient prophesy of a return.
And what about the ex-Claw of the Malazan Empire who now walks the uttermost edge of creation? His missionthe success or failure of which the Queen of Dreams saw long agois destined to shape far more than anyone could have ever imagined.
Read an Excerpt
Orb Sceptre Throne
The problem with paths is that once you have chosen one, You cannot choose the others.
Attributed to Gothos' Folly
ON THE SOUTH COAST OF GENABACKIS THE FORMER FISHING village of Hurly was a mess. Nearly two years before, its original inhabitants had drowned without warning in tidal waves that inundated it when the last fragments of the titanic floating mountain named Moon's Spawn crashed into the Rivan Sea. Then, when the flood waters receded, a motley army of treasure-hunters, scavengers and looters had descended upon its corpse like a swarm of flies, and soon after that came an even worse plague: the thieves, conmen and other swindlers who preyed upon them.
Representatives of the Southern Confederation of Free Cities were the first to arrive at the scene of devastation. Wreckers and pirates from way back, they salvaged everything they could, namely the surviving boats of the region, and established a concession out to the newly born isles. A few months later transport fees and tariffs were settled upon and four separate armed challenges to their monopoly had been successfully put down.
Now, after more than a year of trade, the Southern Confederation had firmly established itself as the sole representative of the islands, which they named, with characteristic directness, the Spawns.
Jallin, nicknamed the Jumper for his habit of ambushing from the rear, had to admit that the good times in Hurly were officially over. He and all the other hustlers and scavengers could feel the pinch of lean times. The one-time flood of fortune-hunters had thinned toa trickle of ragged men and women no better off than those who'd already clawed out a spot in the festering town.
Jallin the Jumper knew this well. He'd seen the cycle play itself out in town after town up north, where the Malazan wars had fuelled the rabid, cannibalistic economies of scarcity and demand. He sensed that here the frenzy of fortunes won overnight and even more quickly lost would never reach the pitch it had seasons ago. And it was ending before he'd made his big strike. Just as it had at Pale, Kurl and Callows. Only this time he wouldn't let that happen. Couldn't. Because Hurly was the end of the road. As far south as all these losers and dregs could slide. Everyone's last chance.
So he paid close attention when yet another new arrival came tramping down the town's muddy main track. The newcomer was a wiry ragged veteran, a foreigner by his ruddy hair and ginger moustache - a Malazan. He wore army-standard sandals and cloak, and carried battered leather panniers over one shoulder. That the man was a veteran didn't worry Jallin; almost all the loser fortune-hunters who came down that road had once marched in any number of armies up north - and usually deserted from every damned one. To him they were pathetic in their willingness to get maimed or killed for the promise of a handful of coin or a scratch of land.
This one appeared to have fared even worse than most. A single shortsword hung at his side, but other than that all he carried was the panniers slung over a shoulder and kept tightly gripped in one scarred and sun-browned hand. Those wide bags interested Jallin. What, he wondered, would an old soldier, cashiered or deserted, think vital enough to drag with him all the way down here to the Spawns?
The veteran stopped where so many of the other hopeful Spawn-looters had halted: where the cart-track ended at the strand of slate-black gravel that sloped down to the Rivan Sea. Here, the observant among them usually noticed two important things: that the Spawn Isles were those distant faint dots far out to sea, and that there wasn't a single boat in sight.
These discoveries often left even the hardiest and most resilient feeling lost, and so here was where Jallin preferred to approach his targets. As he came alongside, the fellow was still squinting out to sea, and so he murmured: 'There they are, hey? Pay-dirt.'
The old guy grunted something, eyed the wreckage-strewn gravel beach. 'I'm lookin' for a boat.'
Jallin smiled. 'Isn't everyone here, friend? And it just so happens I know a man who might have room for one more on his.'
That got a look. He could tell from the man's blunt gaze that he'd seen a lot. Most veterans had an odd hard stare that Jallin couldn't quite understand - himself not having ever been stupid enough to set foot on a battlefield. It could make a man think twice about giving them trouble. But despite this he'd gone ahead and robbed, cheated, rolled, and even murdered some. All from behind, or from a position of trust, of course. Which was why he considered their toughness and fighting skills irrelevant. After all, peacetime was a very different sort of war.
'How much?' the fellow asked. He relaxed his grip to shade his eyes against the western sun. Whatever was in those bags, it looked heavy. Jallin wet his lips then gave his friendliest chuckle.
'How much? Oh, it'll cost. I won't insult you by pretending I can get you some kinda special deal or some such shit. It'll cost. That we got to negotiate, right?'
Another neutral grunt. Jallin pointed back up the track to where it cut between slapped-up inns, stores and taprooms. 'The Island Inn maybe, hey? What d'you say? You look like you could use a drink.'
The fellow turned, squinted up the track, even chewed at an edge of his moustache. After one last lingering stare out to sea, his tensed shoulders fell and he sighed. 'Yeah. Could use a drink.'
Jallin showed the way. He kept up a constant distracting chatter about all the adventurers he knew who'd struck it rich out at the Spawns - which in truth was no one. None who had ever returned, that is. All the while he was thinking: we'll settle a price for tonight, not too low, not too high. Nothing to arouse suspicion. Then down at the beach he'd introduce him to his 'friend'. All the razor-sharp pointed length of it. His misericorde - the weapon he used to put old soldiers where they belonged: out of their misery.
The Island Inn was unique among Hurly's new buildings in that it possessed stone walls. It occupied all that remained of a temple to Poliel, goddess of disease, pestilence and plague. It seemed the old population of Hurly had been particularly anxious to appease her. Perhaps it had to do with all the neighbouring marshes. The new owner of the structure, Akien Threw, liked to joke that they would've been far better off appeasing the cult of Elder Dark, of which the Moon's Spawn had been a holy artefact.
As Jallin entered, guiding the old soldier to a table in the rear,he caught Akien's eye. All the town's touts and hustlers had an understanding with the man: a meal and a floor to flop on in exchange for heading clients his way. Plus a percentage of any take, of course.
Two tall tankards of beer arrived almost the instant they rested their arms on the tabletop of silvery-grey driftwood slats. The veteran's eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down. 'What's this?'
In the relative darkness of the inn Jallin was struck by the scars that lined the fellow's face and how his mangy ginger hair, grey in places, grew patchily one side as if over burns. But he'd seen old soldiers before and almost all carried scars. They all parted with what little coin they'd gathered over the years as easily as anyone, and more swiftly than most. 'So what's your name then, friend?'
After a time the man growled, 'Red. Red Dog.'
Jallin raised a brow at that but said nothing: he didn't give a damn what the fellow's name was. 'Well, Red, this is Elingarth ale. The good stuff.' He touched a finger to the side of his nose. 'The owner's a friend of mine.'
'I'll bet he is,' the soldier muttered darkly. But he lifted the tankard and took a long pull. Jallin noted the nest of white scar ridges up and down the man's forearm. He decided he'd be a touch worried if the fellow wasn't obviously so far past his prime. He also noted how the fellow kept a tight grip on the panniers on his lap.
The veteran wiped his mouth and grimaced his distaste. 'I doubt that's from Elingarth.'
Jallin gave an easy shrug. 'I wouldn't know. Another?'
'Sure. It's early yet.'
In keeping with the diminishing flow of treasure-hunters, the inn's common room was deserted. A pair of guards, no more than old-hand hustlers like Jallin, sat by the door. Two men sat hunched almost head to head at a table nearby, both staring sullenly out into the day's last slanting yellow rays. One elegantly dressed young man, a scion of some aristocratic family or other, commanded another table. He was with three others, all of whom Jallin knew as local thugs and would-be guides, like himself.
The young man leaned back suddenly and announced: 'Then there's no sense heading out. It's too late by far. The place has been picked clean by now.'
The old soldier, Red, turned to watch him.
One of the local guides said something to which the noblemananswered, dismissively, 'Well, who's come back recently? Has anyone? '
Another of the companions offered, 'If I found anything out there I sure as death wouldn't come back here.' They all had a good laugh at that, except the noble youth.
Jallin leaned forward, murmured, 'That's all just sour talk. He's afraid to head out.'
'So,' the veteran drawled, 'where are all the ships?'
Two more tankards arrived care of a shuffling serving boy. 'Anchored off shore. Launches put in at dawn and you buy your berth. But,' he added, lowering his voice, 'it's possible to slip out past them at night. For a fee.'
The soldier nodded his understanding. 'At dawn, when the boats put in. Why doesn't everyone just rush 'em?'
'Southern Free Cities Confederation soldiers, my friend. They got things wrapped up.'
'So what's to stop others from showing up with their own boats?'
Jallin laughed. 'Oh, they've tried. They've tried. But these Confederation boys are pirates and wreckers like none other. Sank the lot of them.'
'But a warship maybe? Malazan?'
Jallin drained his tankard. 'Yeah. A couple months back. A Malazan warship bulled its way through. Ain't been seen since.' He grinned toothily. 'Maybe they all got done in.'
The old soldier took a long pull from his tankard. 'Just like the guy said. No one's come back. Is that right?'
Jallin did his best to laugh good-naturedly. 'What? You want someone else to get out with a boatload of loot? Listen, the main isle is damned huge. It takes a lot of time to search through all that. You don't just arrive and trip over some kinda chest of gold.' He pretended to take a deep sip of his second tankard, unconcerned, but damned the loudmouth, whoever he was. Anyway, all that mattered was that the old guy accompany him down to the shore to meet his 'friend'. He would meet him all right.
The veteran sucked his teeth then brushed at his moustache. 'Right. Well, that's about all I need to hear. Thanks for the drink.' He stood, draped the bags over one shoulder.
Jallin stood with him. 'But I could get you out tonight. My friend--'
'Would bash me over the head,' the soldier finished.
Jallin caught Akien's eye, spread his hands. 'Fine. You don't want my help? To Hood with you.'
From the bar, Akien nodded to his two guards, who stood and blocked the door. The soldier pulled up short. He glanced to the big bull-like owner who was crossing the floor, tapping a truncheon in one hand. 'What's the problem?' the old guy asked.
'The problem, sir, is of the bill.'
Jallin had kept his distance, waiting for his chance, and the veteran motioned directly to him. 'This one here. He'll pay.'
Akien stopped before his guards, which put Jallin directly to the soldier's rear. Jallin curled his fingers around his belt, close to the worn grips of his daggers. 'No,' Akien said, slow and stubborn, like the bull he resembled. 'It is plain to me that you ordered the drinks, sir.'
The old soldier bit back any further argument; everyone knew he hadn't ordered the drinks but the claim had to be made for the sake of appearances. It was the dance of the clip joint - free to enter, but damned expensive to leave. 'All right,' he growled, resigned. 'How much is it then?'
Akien raised his bows, figuring. 'Four tankards of Elingarth ale, sir? That would be two Darujhistani gold councils.'
An awed whistle sounded through the inn. Everyone looked to the young nobleman. He had an arm hooked over the rear of his chair, leaning back. 'That, good innkeeper, is a ruinous price.'
Akien hunched his fat rounded shoulders, glowering. 'Cartage.'
The nobleman eyed the veteran, cocked a brow.
The soldier grasped a nearby chair to support himself. 'I don't have that kind of money!'
Jallin touched his shoulder to indicate the bags. Akien nodded. 'Then your bags, sir, in payment.'
The soldier's other hand went to the pannier. 'No.'
The two guards started forward, their truncheons ready. At that instant the soldier exploded into action: the chair flew into one guard while a boot hammered into the second. The veteran's speed surprised Jallin but he knew he was faster. Akien's bulk in the doorway caused the man to ease his rush and Jallin had him.
A voice barked: 'Your rear!' and the veteran twisted aside. Jallin's razor-honed friend missed the artery in a shallow slice. Then a blur at the edge of Jallin's vision smacked his head backwards and he fell. The last he heard was Akien's bellow of pain and outrage as the soldier dealt with him.
'The Moranth attaché awaits you, Ambassador.'
Ambassador Aragan of the Imperial Malazan delegation in Darujhistan held his head and groaned over his steaming infusion of koru nut. 'Burn's mercy, man. Can't it wait?'
His aide, Captain Dreshen Harad 'Ul, being one of the noble houses of Unta, stood spear-straight, his maroon and black Imperial dress uniform enviably crisp. 'The attaché is most insistent.'
Aragan tossed back the thimble of black liquid and winced. Gods, I should never have tried to keep up with those visiting Barghast. They just don't know when to quit. He blinked gritty eyes at Dreshen, picked up a knife and oven-roasted flatbread. 'Invite him to breakfast, then.'
His aide saluted.
He spread Rhivi honey on the bread. Haven't even found my footing yet and I'm supposed to negotiate with the Moranth? What do they expect in Unta - bouncing me all over? Damned cock-up is what it is. I'll probably never even meet this new damned Emperor Mallick what's-his-face.
The Moranth attaché was shown into Aragan's chambers, the outer of which he chose to use as a meeting room and office. He liked the view from the terrace overlooking the estate's rear gardens. The attaché was a Red veteran. His blood-hued chitinous armour bore a skein of scars and gouges from combat. Aragan rose, dabbed at his mouth. 'Commander Torn.'
The attaché bowed stiffly. 'Ambassador.'
Aragan sat, gesturing to the chair opposite. 'To what do I owe the honour?'
The attaché declined the invitation with a small wave of a gauntleted hand. He straightened and clasped those armoured gauntlets behind his back. 'We of the Moranth delegation request a favour from our old allies.'
Aragan's brows rose. Oho! Old allies is it now? When did this come about? They've been denying troop requests for the last year. 'Yes?'
It was hard to tell with the man's full helm and body-hugging armour, but the attaché appeared uncomfortable. He paced to the threshold of the double doors that opened on to the terrace, his back to Aragan. 'We request that you press the Council into interdicting the burial grounds to the south of the city.'
Aragan choked on his mouthful of toasted flatbread. The aide rushed forward to pour a glass of watered wine, which Aragangulped down. 'Gods, man!' he gasped. 'You do not ask much!' He cleared his throat. 'I suggest you press them yourself.'
'We have been. For months. They will not listen to us. There is a ... history ... between us.'
Aragan raised the glass to his aide, who nodded and exited. He edged his chair round to face the attaché's stiff back. 'So, what is it? Why the burial grounds?'
'There are those among us--' The attaché stopped himself, shook his helmed head. 'No, that will not do.' He turned, took a long bracing breath. 'You name our colours clans, so we understand. Yet "guilds" would really be a more accurate description. In any case, among us those you name the Silvers you could think of as closest to your mages. Though they are more like mystics, in truth.'
Aragan could only stare. This was more than he'd ever heard from all the Moranth he'd ever spoken to before. There were scholars in Unta who could establish careers on the information he'd just been afforded on these ferociously secretive people.
Attaché Torn crossed his arms. 'For some time disquiet has spread among the Silver. They are anxious regarding the burial grounds - and the things that many believe they hold.'
Captain Dreshen returned with the tiny cup of koru-nut infusion. Aragan took it, then signed for privacy. 'Torn, those ruins extend for leagues across the Dwelling Plain. An area larger than the city itself! Do you have any idea how many troops it would take ...'
'I'm told to point out your garrisons and the majority of the Fifth in the north. Elements of Onearm's Host in the south--'
Aragan threw his hands in the air. 'Hold on!' Grimacing in pain, he gulped down his infusion. 'I can't bring that many troops so close to the city! Think about it. It would be seen as tantamount to a Malazan putsch! An act of war.' He waved it aside. 'No. Out of the question.'
Torn dropped his arms, the keratin plates grinding. 'I thought not.' He almost sighed. 'However, my superiors commanded that the request be made. So be it. I ask, then, that you at least gather your most skilled mages and task them to delve into any activities out on the burial grounds.'
Aragan frowned, considering. 'I can probably do that, yes. But, think of it. What your Silvers are sensing is probably just the disturbances in the Warrens from what happened here ... Anomander Rake's sword broken, so they say. Hood cultists claiming he washere and died himself - if you can credit that. My cadre mages are still groaning from those shocks.'
'Be that as it may ... will you indulge me in this?'
'Of course, Torn. Of course. As a favour to you.'
The Moranth inclined his helmed head in thanks. 'Very good. Please pass on any intelligence. Until then, Ambassador.'
Aragan crossed to the door. 'Attaché.'
Once the Moranth had gone, Aragan waved in Captain Dreshen and returned to his breakfast. He ate staring out of the open twinned doors of the terrace. When he'd finished he sat back, sipping his watered wine. He raised his gaze to his aide. 'Pass word down south to Fist ... who is it down there?'
'Yes, Steppen. Tell her to send up all the troops she can spare. And who's Central Command, the Free Cities garrisons?'
'That would be Fist K'ess, in Pale.'
'Right. He should be able to knock together at least a few companies. They can rendezvous to the west, somewhere south of Dhavran.'
Dreshen merely cocked a brow. 'And when there are questions ... ?'
'Just a training exercise, Captain. Nothing more. The usual hurry up and wait.'
'I understand. Very good, Ambassador.' He turned to go.
Aragan gulped down the last of his watered wine. 'And whom do we have in the city whom we can rely on to do some quiet work for us, off the books?'
A smile crept up Captain Dreshen's lips. 'We keep a list, Ambassador. '
She was getting used to the strangeness of this bizarre realm so far from the world she knew. And she wondered whether that was a bad sign. Her companion, Leoman of the Flails, had named it the 'Shores of Creation'.
Firstly, there was the dawn - if such a term could be applied. It seemed to emerge from beneath the sea of molten light. It began as a brightening in one direction, call that the east if you must, though any magnet and needle brought here probably would not know what to do. The glimmering sea of energy seemed to give up some of its shine and this bright wash, or wave, swelled over the dome of thestarry sky, obscuring it in a kind of daylight that, in its turn, faded back into starry night.
Of their route of entry, the Chaos Whorl, she could find only the faintest bruising against the horizon in one direction, and that fading like the last traces of twilight. Perhaps the army of Tiste Liosan with Jayashul and her brother, L'oric, had overcome the magus who sustained that gap, or tear, in creation.
Or perhaps he'd simply fled. Who knew? Not she. Not trapped here in this eternal neverplace. Which was just as well, since yet again she'd failed. Even with the help of her witch aunt Agayla and the Enchantress, the Queen of Dreams herself, she'd failed. And now it was over, everything, over and done. No more striving. No more seeking. No more self-recrimination - what was the point?
It was, she decided, in one way deliciously liberating.
She laid her head on Leoman's bare arm. Was it then desperation that finally drove them together? Or mere loneliness? They were, after all, the only man and woman in all creation. And this man: one of the Malazan Empire's deadliest enemies. He had been bodyguard to the rebel leader Sha'ik. Then he'd commanded the Seven Cities Army of the Apocalypse and delivered to the Empire one of its bloodiest maulings at the city of Y'Ghatan.
Yet no ogre. Harsh, yes. Calculating, and a survivor. In the end not too unlike her.
His breathing pattern changed and she knew he was awake. He sat up, ran his gaze down her naked flank and thigh and smiled from beneath his long moustache. 'Good morning to you.'
Gods how she ached to tell him to get rid of that moustache! 'If it is a morning.'
Grunting, he crossed his legs and set his arms on his knees. 'We can only assume.'
'So, what now? Do we build a hut from driftwood? Weave hats from leaves and raise a brood of savages?'
'There is no driftwood,' he said absently, eyes narrowed to the south.
She sifted a hand through the fine black sand they lay upon. 'I'd always wondered how those old creation of the race myths ran. Populating the land was one thing, but what about the second generation? I suppose if you're all for polygamy and incest in the first place it wouldn't strike you as a problem ...'
She glanced up: his narrowed gaze was steady on the distance. 'Burn take it! You're not ignoring me already, are you?'
His mouth quirked. 'Not yet.' He raised his chin to the south. 'Our friend is gone.'
She rolled over, scanned the sky over the shore. Gone indeed, their titanic neighbour. A being so immense it seemed as if he could hug the entire floating mountain of the Moon's Spawn within the span of his arms. Now there was no sign of him. And she hadn't heard a thing.
She sprang to her feet, began dressing. 'Why didn't you say something, dammit!'
He peered up at her, still smiling. 'I didn't want to interrupt. You don't like it when I interrupt you.'
She threw her weapon belt over a shoulder. 'Very funny. C'mon.'
He pulled on the silk shorts he wore beneath his felt trousers - for the itching, he'd explained. 'Something tells me there's no hurry,
Kiska. If there's any place to abandon haste, this is it.'
She continued arming herself. 'Your problem is you're lazy. You'd be happy just to lie here all day.'
'And make love to you? Certainly.'
'Leoman! You can turn off the charm, yes?'
He pulled his stained quilted gambeson over his head, yanked it down. 'With you, Kiska? No charm. It's the moustache - the moustache gets them every time.'
'Gods deliver me!' Kiska headed off down the beach. If he only knew.
Three rocky headlands later Kiska stood peering down on yet another long scimitar arc of black beach. The clatter of jagged volcanic rocks announced Leoman's approach. He sat with a heavy sigh, adjusted the leather wrapping over his trouser legs. 'He'd have a hard time hiding, Kiska.'
She bit back a snarl of disgust. 'Don't you want to find out what's here?'
A disinterested wave: 'There's nothing here.'
She eyed the broad smooth expanse of the beach, noted something there, something tall. 'Over there.'
Closer, she saw now why she'd missed it. The same dull black as the sands, he was. Now about her height, since he was sitting. As they approached, feet shushing through the sands, he stood, towering to twice that. He reminded her of a crude sculpture of a person carved from that fine-grained black stone, basalt. His hands were broad fingerless shovels, his head a worn stone between boulder-likeshoulders. He was identical in every detail to the mountain-sized titan they'd watched these last weeks digging in the sea of light, apparently building up the shoreline. Leoman stepped up next to her, hands near his morningstars, but those weapons still sensibly strapped to his sides. 'Greetings,' she called, her voice dry and weak. Gods, how does one address an entity such as this?
Stone grated as it cocked its head aside as if listening.
'My name is Kiska, and this is Leoman.' She waited for an answer. The entity merely regarded them - or so she imagined, as now she could see that it had no eyes, no mouth, no features at all that could be named a face. 'Do you understand--'
She flinched as a voice spoke within her mind: 'Do you hear me? For I hear you.' The wonder in Leoman's widened eyes made it clear that he had heard as well. 'Yes. I - we - can hear you.'
'Good. I am pleased. Welcome, strangers! You are most welcome. For ages none have visited. I have been alone. Now even more come! I am gladdened.'
At that she could not suppress an eager glance to Leoman. More! It said more! His answering gaze held warning and caution. She brushed them aside: if this thing wanted to kill them there was little they could do about it. She took a steadying breath. 'And your name? What should we call you?'
'No name such as I understand your term. I carry what you would call a title. I am Maker.'
She stared, speechless. All the gods above and below. Maker. The Creator? No. It did not say Creator. It said Maker. Muttering distracted her: Leoman murmuring beneath his breath. She almost laughed aloud. The Seven Cities invocation of the gods! Cynical Leoman thrown back on to his roots! Yet the prayer seemed mouthed more in wonder than devotion.
She tried to speak, couldn't force words past her dry throat. Her knees felt watery and she stepped back, blinking. Leoman's hand at her shoulder steadied her. 'There are others, you say?' she managed to force out. 'More of us?'
'One other like you. One other not.'
'I see ...' I think. 'May we meet them? Are they here?'
'One is.' An arm as thick and blocky as a stalactite gestured further down the beach. 'This way.' Maker turned, stepping, and when the slab-like foot landed the sands beneath Kiska's feet shuddered and rocks cracked and tumbled down the surrounding headlands.
Now we hear him? Perhaps he has made himself somehowdifferent in order to communicate. Walking alongside, she saw no one else on the sweep of the black sands. Yet some object did lie ahead. A flat polished flag of stone, deep blood-red veined with black. Garnet, perhaps. And on the slab what appeared no more than a wind-gathered pile of trash: a fistful of twigs and leaves. Kiska gasped and ran ahead.
She knelt at the stone. Maker towered over her, his featureless domed head bent to peer downward. Leoman came walking up behind, his hands tucked into his wide weapon belt.
'Is it ... dead?'
'For this creature, a curious distinction. What essence animated it before was not its own. And now, though that vial essence might have fled, an even greater potentiality yet remains within.'
'It was with us.'
'I thought as much. You arrived soon after.'
Kiska swept the remains into its small leather bag. Struggling to keep her voice steady, she asked, 'And the other? The one like us?'
'The other is gendered as this one,' Maker said, indicating Leoman. 'He came to me out of the Vitr.'
She blinked up at him. 'The Vitr?'
Maker's blunt head turned to the restless surging sea of light. 'The Vitr. That from which all creation comes.'
'All ... creation? Everything?'
'All that exists. All distills out of the Vitr. And all returns to dissolution. You, I. All life essence. All sentience.'
Kiska felt her brows rising higher and higher. 'All? Everything? All races? Surely not the dragons ... the Tiste ... or the Jaghut.'
Maker's shovel hands clenched into fists with a grinding and crackling of rock. The sands at his wide feet hissed and glowed, sintering into black obsidian glass. The beach shuddered and a great landslide of rocks echoed among the distant headlands. Kiska found herself on the ground, and rolled away from the searing heat surrounding Maker.
'Speak not to me of the meddling Jaghut!'
The juddering of the ground faded away. She had covered her face to shield it from the radiance and now her leather sleeve came away red and wet. She coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood. Leoman was daubing at his nose. 'My apologies, Maker,' she managed, coughing more.
The entity had raised his fists before his blank stone face andseemed to regard them as if astonished. The hands ground open. 'No - it is I who must apologize. I am sorry. My anger ... they have done me a great wound.' The arms fell to hang loose at his sides. 'As to those you name dragons, the Eleint. I myself have assisted beings who emerged fully formed from the Vitr. Some took that form. I do not know whether they were the first of their kind, or if others came into existence elsewhere. As to the Tiste ... the Andii emerged from eternal night, true, yet what of the vital essence which animates? I believe the underlying energy which moves all originates here, in the Vitr. And for that some would name it the First Light.'
Kiska regarded the great shifting sea, awed. First Light? Yet who was to say otherwise? Could this 'sea' be nothing more than a great reservoir or source of energy - power, puissance, call it what you would. It was theology, or philosophy, all far beyond her. She returned her attention to Maker. 'And this other? The one like us?'
'I aided him in his emergence from the Vitr ...'
Kiska laughed, and winced at the note of hysteria. 'Then I assure you, Maker, he is nothing like us.'
'He is. He is formed as you, and mortal.'
'Mortal? His name? Does he have a name?'
Maker shifted, glass crackling, and started a slow lumbering walk down the beach. Kiska moved alongside. 'Understand, little one, those who have experienced the Vitr first hand emerge as if freshly born. Newly formed, or re-formed. His mind carries nothing of his prior existence. And he has proved a great help in my work and a balm to my loneliness. I named him Then-aj-Ehliel, Gift of Creation.'
'Your ... work?' Leoman asked from where he trailed behind.
Stone grated as the great domed head turned to Leoman. 'Why, the bolstering and maintenance of the edge of existence, of course, against the constant erosion of the Vitr.'
Kiska found that she'd stopped walking. Her hands covered her face, where they brushed dried flakes of blood. The ground seemed to waver drunkenly and there was a roaring in her ears. Gods below! This was ... this was ... impossible! What was she doing here? What could she possibly ...
Hands supported her: Leoman. 'Kiska. You are all right?'
She laughed again. All right! 'Did you hear that? What Maker said.'
'Yes. Maintaining the shores. I understand.'
Yet the desert nomad sounded unimpressed. Queen of Dreams!Was there nothing that could ruffle this man's reserve? She brushed away the rest of the dried blood, straightened.
'Kiska,' Leoman began gently, 'the odds that this one could be ...'
She pulled away. 'Yes, yes.'
Maker raised an arm to gesture down the coast. 'Follow the shore on further. He is there, helping in my work.'
She bowed. 'Our thanks, Maker. We are in your debt.'
'Not at all. It is I who am indebted. It is good to see others. Good to speak to others.'
Bowing again, Kiska headed off. As she walked, the sands pulling at her boots, she made every effort to keep her legs from wobbling and gasps of suppressed tears from bursting forth. This was impossible. She had wandered too far. The urgent unanswerable needs that drove her on now seemed ... gods, she could hardly even recall them! Oponn's jest! Even if she found the man she no longer had anything to say to him. No compelling case to make for his return. She had nothing to offer save ... herself. And now ... now she was no longer so certain of that either.
It took nearly a month of digging. Ebbin worked entirely alone. He trusted no one else with the secret of his discovery; and, in truth, the youths and his two hired guards were quite content to spend their days lazing in the shade while he sweated underground. The dirt and stones he loosened from the blockage he pushed behind him to dump straight down to the water below.
With more funds from his backer he'd bought supplies, including two new lanterns. One lit his work now as he succeeded in clearing a narrow gap through the rockfall to peer beyond. To his enormous relief the tunnel continued onward. Ebbin wiped a grimed sleeve across his face, picked up the lantern, and wriggled ahead. He clawed his way through the dirt, then raised the light within the half-choked narrow confines. The flame burned as straight as a knife-blade. No air movement at all. He peered up the pipe-like length of the tunnel. Ruled straight, perfectly circular. Angling upwards as well. And no vermin, no detritus, no cobwebs. It was strange that the fall should have been so localized, but he shrugged off his concerns and began shuffling forward on his elbows and knees.
The tunnel debouched on to a circular chamber that in the poor light appeared smoothly domed. Shattered stone littered the floor. Hestepped in carefully over the sharp shards. As his vision adapted to the gloom, openings emerged from the dark: smaller side chambers, all broken open, circled the circumference of the main tomb.
Beaten after all! Cheated! Yet how could someone have preceded him? Not one word in the records hint at such a tomb! He wiped the cold sweat from his face. Damn them! The looting was most likely done almost immediately after completion. Cousins of workers, or sharp-eyed locals spying upon the construction. He kicked through the wreckage. Something uneven under his feet. He knelt, cupped the lamp-flame.
A skull stared back up at him. He flinched; then, recovering, brushed aside more of the pulverized stone. More. A row ... no ... a circular band of human skulls set almost flush with the floor. And more bands. Ring upon nested ring of them. Rising, he closed upon a large shadowy object ahead.
At the centre, a mystifying sculpture-like construction: twin arches intersecting to create four triangular openings. Within, resting upon an onyx plinth, a cloaked corpse. And upon that corpse, glittering amber in the lamplight, a hammered mask of gold, plain, embossed with a face. And the mouth sculpted into the faintest of smiles like an aggravating, knowing smirk of superior knowledge.
Ebbin almost stepped in to reach for that exquisite object, but something stopped him. Some instinct. And perhaps he was mistaken, but was that a ghostly, whispered not for you ... so faint he might have imagined it there in the dead silence so far underground? He pulled back his hand. Odd ... these chambers looted, yet this crowning prize untouched. Why so?
He backed away, raised his lantern to the outer walls. All of the smaller side niches broken open, their plinths empty. No, not all. One remained, its sealing door unscathed. He crossed to it. The door consisted of a single carved granite slab, unmarked, without any sigil. No hint of who, or what, lay within.
He tapped the solid rock. An aristocrat of the legendary Imperial Age? He eyed the central dais-like installation.
Or loyal retainer thereof.
He ran his hands over the cold polished slab. He did not have the chisels to cut through this. And there was no way he was going to let his cretin assistants down here. No - to do this properly would take tools and resources currently beyond his reach.
He'll have to see his backer. And with this breakthrough the man will have to grant him further monies. He's bankrolled him this far,after all. Remarkable foresight and vision this businessman from One Eye Cat has shown. Even if others murmur against the man and spread ugly rumours of criminal interests. He of the odd northern name: Humble Measure.
Returning to the tunnel an instinct, or irking detail, made him pause. Something about those sub-chambers. He counted them: twelve. Why always this mystical number? The legends? The old folk tales of the twelve fiends? Mere mythology handed down from ancient practices? Or a homage from the builders? He shook his head. Too tenuous as yet.
Perhaps an answer would be forthcoming.
Word had spread across Genabackis that the great Warlord of the north had for a time established a camp in the hills east of Darujhistan, the city that had taken his friend and sometime enemy, Anomander, Lord of Moon's Spawn and Son of Darkness. Emissaries from across the north, the Free Cities and the Rhivi Plains came and went from his tent. They came asking for adjudication of land rights issues or title inheritances, and to settle territorial disputes. The great hulking beast of a man spent his days and evenings sitting cross-legged on layered carpets, drinking interminable cups of tea while city representatives and tribal elders argued and complained.
One such night, when the issue of Sogena's unfair taxation regime had degenerated into reminiscing of the old days before the arrival of the hated Malazans, Brood arose and went from the tent. Jiwan, son of one of the Warlord's trusted old staff of Rhivi, and now making a name for himself within the great man's council, took it upon himself to follow and intrude upon the Ascendant's solitude.
He found him standing alone in the night, staring west where the blue glow of the hated city softened the night. And perhaps the great man stared even further, beyond the city, to the barrow raised by his own hands in honour of his friend.
Jiwan thought of the rumours circulating that the tomb was actually empty. After all, how could any darkness contain the one known as the Son of Mother Dark herself? But he neither knew nor cared about the truth of that. He did know that only fear of this man kept war from flaring in the north once again. A peace that held the Rhivi's place upon the plains. The peace of the Warlord.
A peace that may now be slipping. He cleared his throat to announce his presence. 'You are troubled, lord?'
The man swung his heavy beast-like gaze to him, then away, to the distant glow. 'I allowed myself the luxury of thinking it was all over, Jiwan. Yet they rest uneasy. In the south. The Great Barrow of the Redeemer. And the Lesser, his Guardian. And this one of my friend. There is a tension. A stirring. I feel it.' He voice softened almost into silence. 'I was fooling myself. Nothing is ever finished.'
'The sword is shattered, is it not?'
'Yes, it is shattered.'
'And the Lord of Moon's Spawn is gone.'
'Yes, he is gone.'
Jiwan was uncertain. 'You fear, then, the Malazans shall be emboldened? '
The Warlord glanced at him, surprise showing on his blunt, brutal features. 'The Malazans? No, not them. With Rake gone ... It is his absence that troubles me.'
Jiwan bowed, taking his leave. He knew it was right and proper that the Warlord should mourn his friend, but he, Jiwan, must think first of his people. An enemy was encamped on their borders to the north and the south, an enemy that was solid and real, not the haunted dreams of some troubled old man. The damnable Malazans. Who else would be emboldened by the fall of Anomander? They might seize this opportunity. But he was reluctant to speak of it yet. Loyalty and gratitude to the Warlord still swayed too many hearts among the elders. This too he understood. For he was not of stone; he felt it as well. Yet times move on - one must not remain a captive of the past.
He came to a decision. Changing direction, he headed instead to the corral. He would send word to the north for more warriors to gather. They must be ready should the Warlord call upon them ... or not.
The nights in Darujhistan were far more hushed now than he could ever remember. Muted. One could perhaps even call the unaccustomed mood sombre. Ill-fitting airs for the city of blue-flame, of passions, or, as that toad friend of his named it, the city of dreams.
For his part Rallick hoped the mood was not one of tensed expectation.
It was past the sixth hour of night by the Wardens' bells. He stood at an unremarkable intersection in the Gadrobi district. Unremarkable but for one very remarkable thing: here, Hood, self-appointed godhead of death, met his end. Followed shortly thereafter by his destroyer, Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon's Spawn.
Events dire enough to shake the confidence of anyone.
No second- or third-storey lights shone in any window facing this crossroads. All forsook it. Patrons refused to enter the shops facing the site, and so the surrounding blocks progressively became abandoned. For who would live overlooking such an ill-omened locale? Weeds now poked up through cobbles. Doors gaped open, the empty shop-houses looted. In the heart of the most crowded and largest metropolis of the continent lay this blot of abandonment and death.
The thought caused Rallick to shift uneasily. Dead heart.
Yet not completely lifeless; another figure came walking up, boots kicking through the litter, his hands tucked beneath his dark cloak. Rallick inclined his chin in greeting. 'Krute.'
'Survived the guild bloodletting, I see. I'm pleased.'
A soft grunt. 'Too few of us old-timers did. Gadrobi's my parish now. Shows you one way to get promoted.'
'Thanks.' The man peered about. The wrinkles framing his small eyes tightened. 'But ... I gotta wonder ... who's really in charge?'
Familiar cold fingers brushed Rallick's neck. 'Vorcan's not interested, Krute,' he said, his voice flat. 'As the guild now knows, she has a seat on the Council.'
'That talking shop? Sounds like a front to me.'
'She's moved on. As have I.'
The man gave an exaggerated nod. 'Oh, so you say. So you say.' He laughed, more like a grunt. 'There're some in the guild who say you have moved on - body and soul. Those who hold to the Rallick Nom cult.' He laughed again, as if at the stupidity of people. 'And yet ... got something to show you.' He edged his head aside. 'This way.'
After a measured glance all round, Rallick followed. To his ears his boots crackling on the gravel and debris of neglect sounded startlingly loud.
They crossed to the poorest, lowest-lying quarter, bordering on the Marsh district. Here the most squalid of what could hardly be called businesses occupied rotting row-houses and shacks. Rag andbone shops, pawnshops, manure collectors, small family tanneries. In the soggy alley of an open sewer lay two bodies.
Krute invited him to examine them. 'What do you think?'
An eye on the assassin, who backed up a reassuring distance, Rallick bent over the first. 'Professional work. Straight thrust through the back to the heart. Complete surprise - no twisting or turning in the wound.' He pushed over the second, hesitated, then studied the neck. 'First-rate cut. Thin razor blade. Straight side to side. Right-handed, with a slight upward angle - attacker was shorter than victim.'
An angry grunt from Krute. 'I missed that.'
Rallick straightened. 'What's your point?'
'What brings two ex-Warden guards down here to this shit-hole street, Rallick? You recognized them, didn't you?'
'I recognized them.'
'But you didn't say ...'
A thin shrug from Rallick. 'You're inside now, Krute.'
'Dammit, man! I'm doing you a fucking favour! Everyone's accounted for! Everyone!' He pulled savagely on his stubbled chin. 'Who could pad up on two veteran guards, take 'em both without a peep? Without even a struggle? It's a short list, Rallick. And your name's on it ... along with hers.'
'Like I said already, Krute. What's your point?'
The man let out a long tight breath, almost like a growl. 'Always gotta be the hard way with you, hey, Rallick? Well, okay. Here's my point - Vorcan's short.'
Rallick let his head fall as if studying the rank gutter, was quiet for a time, then began backing off. 'My advice to your superior is stay away. She's out of your class.'
He'd exited the alley, now ripening with something far beyond garbage, when a trick of the acoustics brought Krute's ghostly voice: 'Yours too, Rallick. Yours too.'
Impatient banging brought the new waitress, Jess, lumbering to the doors of the Phoenix Inn. She unlatched the lock to peer out, blinking and wincing, into the glaring morning light. A tall dark figure brushed round her, imperious.
'Not open, sir,' she said, surprised, still blinking. Then, eyeing the retreating back, she relaxed. 'Oh.' And she shuffled to the kitchen to wake up Chud.
Rallick peered down at the fat man sprawled in his chair, head slung back, snoring. Amazement warred with disgust. Crushed pastries littered the table along with empty bottles, smears of exotic mustards and pâté. The rotund figure snored, mouth slack. Rallick had a good view of the bristles of his unshaven bulging neck and the ridiculous vanity of the scruffy braided rat-tail beard. He gave a table leg a light kick.
The man snorted, jerking. Pudgy hands patted vested stomach, the ruffles of the silk shirt. The head rolled forward, lips smacking. Beady eyes found Rallick, widened. 'Aaii! Thought grim graven friend new apparition of death come for modest Kruppe. Most discomfiting and shocking wakening. Kruppe has not yet seen to his toilet.'
'Don't let me stop you.'
'Friend Rallick is always so civilized.' A large stained handkerchief appeared in one hand, brushed flakes of pastry from the man's wide midriff. Then he wound a fold of the cloth round one finger and daubed daintily at the corners of his mouth. 'Done!' He sighed contentedly and slipped his hands into the black silk sash that circled his crimson waistcoat. 'Now Kruppe can only respond in kind.' He raised his chin: 'Dearest Jess ... We die of famishment! Bring biscuits, tea, Elingarth blood sausages and honeyed bacon, flatbreads and Moranth cloudberry syrup.' He lowered his voice. 'Not sure how she'll fit in, you know.'
Jess's voice bellowed from the kitchen. 'Chud says we ain't got none o' that crap!'
'She'll serve just fine, I think,' Rallick murmured under his breath.
The squat man's brows wrinkled, pained. 'Oh, dear. I must have been dreaming ...' A quick shrug. 'Oh well. Biscuits and tea, then. Oh! And a crust of burnt toast for my friend here.'
Rallick could hear his clenched teeth grinding. 'Kruppe, I just--'
A raised hand forestalled him. 'Explain not, old friend! No need for explanations ... please sit!' Growling, Rallick pulled a chair out with his heel, eased down and leaned back, hands on his thighs. 'Kruppe understands. Why, it is on everyone's sighing lips these days, dear friend. The city's two most deadly killers tamed by love's soothing embrace!'
Rallick's front chair legs struck the floor with a bang. 'What?'
'Do not worry! Kruppe's feelings shall recover.' He peeled a sliver of wrinkled dried fruit from the table, sniffed it, then popped it into his mouth. 'Sustenance, Jess! We are positively expiring here!' He shook his head, sighed dreamily. 'It is an old story, yes, friend? Loveis found and old friends are forgotten. Kruppe does not wonder why you have been neglectful of us these last months. The two of you haunt the rooftops in flighty trysts, no doubt. Like bats in love.'
'Kruppe ...' Rallick ground out.
'Soon a brood of baby killers to follow. I see it now. Knives in the crib and garrottes in the playpen.'
The fat man lifted his eyes to blink innocently up at Rallick. 'Yes?'
'I just want to know if Cro--Cutter is in town.'
'Kruppe wonders ...' Something strangled the man's voice and he choked. Pudgy fingers fished in his mouth, emerging with the mangled stringy sliver of fruit, which he then carefully smeared back on to the table. 'Jess! One need not cross the Cinnamon Wastes for tea!'
The big woman emerged from the kitchen, tray in hand. Her white linen shirt had been hastily laced, revealing a great deal of flesh. She glared at Kruppe, thumped the tray down, nodded to Rallick. 'Good to see you, sir.'
'Jess. How's Meese doing these days?'
'She comes round most evenings.'
She pushed back her hair, waved to the empty tables. 'I'm worked off my feet.'
Rallick also eyed the empty common room. He frowned as if struck by a new thought. The woman walked back to the kitchen doors, her hips rolling like ships at sea. Rallick cleared his throat. 'Just who does own this place anyway, Kruppe?'
'Friend Rallick was asking after young Cutter ...'
Rallick slid his gaze back. 'Yes?'
Kruppe peered into the depths of the teapot. 'Kruppe wonders why.'
Snarling, Rallick stood, pushing back his chair. 'Is he here or not?'
Lifting a knife and a biscuit, the little man peered up with a steady gaze. 'Kruppe assures friend Rallick that equally loved young vagabond is most assuredly not in our fair city.' He raised the biscuit. 'Crumpet?'
Rallick's chest, which had been clenched in one coiled breath the inspection of certain wounds hours earlier, eased in a long exhalation, and he nodded, 'Good ... good.'
Kruppe's eyes had narrowed in their pockets of fat. 'Again - Kruppe wonders why.'
But Rallick had turned away. 'Doesn't matter.' He called to the kitchen. 'Jess.'
Kruppe threw his arms wide. 'But breakfast has only just arrived!'
Rallick pushed open the door in a bright wash of sunlight and walked out, the door swinging closed behind.
Shrugging, the fat man scooped up a smear of jam. 'And to think Kruppe named impatient friend civilized. Kruppe was egregiously in error!'
In the harsh morning light Scholar Ebbin trudged up the muddy unpaved street of the pure-gatherers in the Gadrobi district. A dusty leather bag pulled at one shoulder and he wore a wide-brimmed hat yanked down firmly on his head. He stopped at a shuttered storefront of age-gnawed wood on worn stone foundations, banged on the solid door and waited. Across the street, between the cart traffic and crowds of market-goers, he noted the blue uniform of the Wardens. The sight was a surprise to him; while crime was endemic in this district, attention from the Wardens was rare. They had a wagon with them and appeared to be moving something.
The door vibrated as bars and locks were removed. It grated in its jambs to open a sliver. Darkness lay within. 'Ah,' a thin voice breathed, 'it is you, good scholar. Enter.'
Ebbin edged in sideways and the door ground shut. In the relative dark he was blind for the moment but he could make out a hunched dark figure securing bars and bolts again. 'You are ever mindful of thieves, Aman. Yet ... rather a barrier to commerce, I would imagine.'
'Darujhistan has fallen very far, good scholar,' the bent man answered in his breathless voice. 'Very far indeed. It is not like the old days of peace and strict adherence to the laws of its rulers. As for commerce ... I service a select few who know where to find me, yes?' He chuckled drily.
The unease that his visits here always engendered within Ebbin was not relieved by these comments. He thought of how his own whispered and circumspect enquiries into the subtleties of wardings, Warren-anchored barriers and the avoidance thereof led him step by step and source by source to this one man and his seemingly unpatronised shop. Yet to maintain appearances he answered genially enough, 'Of course, Aman. Very select,' and he laughed modestly as well.
Aman ushered him into the shop proper, one foot dragging in his crippled walk, back twisted from some accident of birth. His hands too were crippled - malformed and bent as if having been caught within some mangling instrument. He shuffled behind his counter where a raised platform allowed him to peer over it, looming like some sort of gangly bird of prey.
Ebbin's vision was now adjusting to the permanent gloom in the shop, and he gently set his satchel on the counter.
'You have something for me?' Aman asked, cocking a brow already higher than its fellow.
'Yes.' He untied the leather strapping, eased out a wrapped object. 'From the lowest I've gone so far.'
Setting the package between them, Ebbin carefully parted the thick felt outer wrappings then a sheer inner layer of silk to reveal what appeared to be nothing more than a fragment of eggshell, albeit one from an egg of impossibly huge dimensions. Aman bent forward even further, his canted nose almost touching the object. Seeing him up close Ebbin was struck by the deformed shape of his knobbly skull beneath its patchy pelt of filmy grey hair. Perhaps sensing his attention, Aman pulled away.
'A magnificent specimen, good scholar. Beautiful.' The shopkeeper lit a lamp from a wall-sconced lantern, set it on the counter. 'May I?' Ebbin gestured an invitation. For all his bent root-like fingers, the man lifted the fragment smoothly, held it before the flame. Ebbin crouched to peer: the flame was visible as a blurred glow through the fragment, which was astonishing enough, but the entire piece had somehow taken up the light and now glowed, warm, soft and luminous, like the dawn in miniature.
Aman sighed, almost nostalgically it seemed. 'I invite you to imagine, if you would, good scholar, entire structures of such stone, carved and polished to near pure translucency, glowing with the cold blue flames of the city. A magnificent sight it must have been, yes?'
'Yes. Darujhistan in the great Imperial Age of the Tyrants. At least, so it has been conjectured.'
The bulbous eyes moved to his, blinked. 'Of course.'
'Is it treated?'
Aman returned the piece to its cloths and began rewrapping it. 'We shall see. It will have to be tested. Should it prove a fragment from a container utilized in certain, ah ... esoteric ... rituals from that age, then it may be resold for a great deal to those eager to reuse it for their own ... well ... similar research.'
Ebbin cleared his throat, uncomfortable. 'I see.'
Aman tucked the package under the countertop. 'And how may I help you, good scholar?'
'I've come to a chamber. One still sealed.'
The shopkeeper's fingers, which had been tapping the counter like spiders, stilled. 'In truth?' he breathed in wonder. 'Sealed as yet? Astonishing. You must take care, good scholar. The traps these ancients set upon their interred ...' He shook his misshapen head. 'Deadly.'
'Of course, Aman. I know the risks. I am no amateur.'
'Of course,' the shopkeeper echoed, smiling to reveal a mouthful of misaligned teeth. 'The barrier?'
Ebbin cleared his throat once more. 'Stone. A flat slab. Unmarked in any way.'
'Unmarked, you say? No sigils of any sort? Not even the faintest of inscriptions?'
Ebbin frowned, impatient. 'I know my work. I've been excavating for decades.'
Aman raised his hands. 'No disrespect intended, good scholar. Please. It is just very ... unusual.'
An uncomfortable shivering took Ebbin then and he rubbed his chest, nodding his agreement. 'Yes. It is ... unusual.'
'An unimportant personage, perhaps. A minor court retainer.'
Ebbin thought of the figure laid out on its onyx bier at the chamber's centre. The beaten gold mask with its eerie mocking smile, and the bands of skulls encircling the plinth. Nested councils of death. He nodded, shivering. 'Yes. My impression exactly.'
Aman appeared to be studying him somehow, his gaze weighing. Then the man quickly turned away to his shelves. 'I may have just the tools for you, good scholar. Moranth alchemicals ... acids, perhaps? Or chisels. Not your everyday sort of tool, no, not at all. Hardened iron, alloyed with that Malazan mineral otataral. If you give me a few days I will have them for you.'
'You have nothing like that here?'
A dry laugh from the man. 'Oh my goodness no. That mineral would have a most deleterious effect upon ... upon my wares.'
Ebbin could only agree. 'If you say so, sir. A few days then. I have to consult with my backer in any case.'
'Excellent, excellent.' And he bobbed his head, his knotted fingers tapping incessantly on the counter.
Once every bolt had been shut and every bar replaced, Aman shuffled back into his shop. Here he found a beautiful young woman, her long black hair braided and coiled atop her head, awaiting him. His mouth tightened into a sour pucker. 'Your intrusion into my affairs is most ill-advised. Most unwelcome.'
The girl merely cocked a shapely hip to lean against the counter where she turned the wrapped package in slow circles. 'Why are we relying on this cretin?'
'We? There is no we. You are deluded. Your uninvited meddling will complicate matters most stressfully.'
'They were watching the shop, Aman.'
The man hobbled back up on to his platform behind the counter. 'Watching the shop? Of course they were watching the shop. They are always watching the shop! These agents of my one-time allies have proved most persistent. But because I remain within, and am circumspect ... they have been none the wiser.' He gently touched his fingertips to the wood countertop. 'Needless to say, said circumspection has now been shattered ...'
'They are dead, Aman.'
The shopkeeper started to speak, caught himself, rubbed his hands over the countertop as if stroking it. He began again, slowly, 'Yes. However, the one who hired them now knows he, or she, is close to something. Best to have maintained the aura of mystery.'
The girl's pale thin shoulders lifted in an unconcerned shrug. She began unwrapping the package. 'Then I will kill whoever that person is.'
'Ah yes. Speaking of mysteries. No one knows the identity of the circle-breaker. Many poseurs have surfaced pretending to the title, but no one knows for certain. It may have even been one of my old allies - even your mother.'
The girl's coquettish gaze hardened. 'Never mention her to me, Aman.' She peered up from half-lidded eyes. 'Anyone, you say? But not you, of course.'
Aman shook a bent finger. 'You are learning.'
She made a face, then indicated the carved fragment. 'Is this thing really as valuable as you say?'
He raised it between them, his gaze holding her eyes. 'Ahh ... beautiful, yes? Slender, striking. A magnificent specimen. On the outside. But within, flawed. Worthless. A piece of useless trash.' He crushed it in his hand.
The girl flinched away as if slapped, bumping something in thedark. Her full lips tightened to a pale slash and a molten light blazed within her eyes. The man studied her quite calmly, his head cocked, fingertips lightly touching together. The golden light faded from her eyes as she stood quivering in suppressed rage. She drew a shuddering breath and raised her chin in defiance. 'You are quite finished, I hope?'
He bowed. 'Quite.'
'And what is this monstrosity?' she demanded, waving at the tall figure she'd struck.
Aman raised the lamp, revealing an armoured statue. The light reflected green and blue from an inlay of semi-precious stones. 'Magnificent, is it not? From distant Jacuruku. One of their stone soldiers.'
She peered closer in an almost professional evaluation. 'An automaton? '
'Not ... quite.' He set the lamp on the counter. 'In any case, m'lady, since you have returned, I suggest you make yourself useful and shadow our friend. Nothing untoward must happen to him. Be ready to intervene. He is close, Taya. Very close.'
'Why him? Why don't you go down?'
The man did nothing to hide the condescension in his answering chuckle. 'My dear. You are most diverting. The countless protections, wards and conditions imposed by my erstwhile allies are most exacting. Almost without openings. Only those who do not seek may pass. They must be innocent of bloodshed, possess no lust for personal gain ... the conditions go on and on. Mammotlian contrived them. And so, since Mammotlian, a scholar, built the tomb, perhaps only a fellow like-minded spirit may possess the instincts to follow. If you see my reasoning.'
'And should he fail - like all the others?'
A crooked shrug from the man. 'Well, they're nearly out of floor space down there, aren't they?'
Her eyes constricted to slits and she tilted her head, unsure of his meaning.
On the street of the whitesmiths in the Gadrobi district, Barathol Mekhar inspected his latest consignment of iron ore. It was of unusually good quality. There was a useful variation of softness and brittleness within the clumps. He closed the box and went to theforge, held a hand over the bed of coals. Still needed more time. He left the shop to cross a small open court to the rear of his row-house. Dusting his hands, he climbed the narrow stairs to his rooms above. Dawn was just brightening the sky outside the shuttered windows. For a time he stood next to the bed where his wife Scillara still slept. Then he went to the other side of the bed to the tiny crib fashioned by his own hands. Kneeling, he studied the infant within, curled and plump.
Never had he ever imagined such a treasure would be his. It seemed too defenceless for the world. Too tenuous. Its fragility terrified him. He feared even to touch it with his coarse blackened hands. He did however gently ease one into the crib to let the child's quick hot breath warm those fingers.
Smiling, he rose to see Scillara watching him. 'Not run off yet, I see,' she said, stretching.
'Not even with a squalling brat and a fat wife?'
'I guess I must have done something terrible in a prior life.'
'Musta been pretty damned awful.' She looked about as if searching for something. 'Gods, I miss my pipe.'
She pointed to the door. 'Throw me my gown. Don't you have work to do? Money to earn? Enough to hire a cook. I'm getting sick of your burnt offerings.'
'You could try lending a hand, you know.'
She laughed. 'You don't want to eat my cooking.'
'I'll be out back then.' He threw the gown. 'Could use some tea.'
'We all could.'
On the way down the stairs he looked forward to another day standing at the forge where he could look over to the courtyard and see Scillara sitting on rugs laid out on the ground there, nursing little Chaur.
Life, it seemed to him, was better than he'd ever hoped it could be.
Copyright © 2012 by Ian C. Esslemont
Meet the Author
IAN CAMERON ESSLEMONT grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has studied archaeology and creative writing, has traveled extensively in South East Asia, and lived in Thailand and Japan for several years. He now lives in Alaska with his wife and children and is currently working on another novel set in the world of Malaz, a world he co-created with Steven Erikson.
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