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Path to Ascendancy Book 1
By Ian C. Esslemont
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Ian Cameron Esslemont
All rights reserved.
Dorin Rav walked the dusty beaten earth of Quon's storied Trunk Road. It was an ancient traders' way that crossed the midsection of Quon like a narrow belt. From great Quon and Tali in the west, it stretched to the proverbial midsection clasp of Li Heng, and from there onward to the rich vineyards and orchards of wealthy Unta in the east.
Over thousands of years countless armies had trodden this route. They came marching out of both the east and the west: Bloor and Gris nobles convening to subdue the plains and the populace to the west of them; Tali and Quon kings emptying their treasuries to assemble vast infantry hordes, and eventually succeeding in subjugating the far eastern lands beneath their Iron Legions. Meanwhile, across the central plains, generation after generation of the Seti Wolf, Eagle, and Ferret clans raided all points indifferently.
He walked at a leisurely pace. He was not worried that his quarry might have struck out in any direction other than east. To the west and north lay the vast central grasslands of the Seti. To the south it was many days to any Dal Hon settlement or coastal Kanese confederacy. No, only to the east lay any nearby haven of civilization: the greatest of the independent city states, Li Heng itself.
The Trunk Road might be storied, he reflected as he walked, but these days it certainly wasn't busy. Pedestrians such as himself consisted almost entirely of local farmers. Long distance travellers tended to band together into large caravans for protection against Seti raids – and to discourage the attentions of the great man-beast, Ryllandaras.
When he'd come down out of Tali lands, he'd hired on as a guard with just such a band of traders, religious pilgrims and wanderers. Unfortunately for him, after more than a week without a sighting of the feared Seti, the caravan-mistress had let half her guards go. And so he'd found himself unemployed and cast adrift in the empty, dusty middle of nowhere.
Unlike his brother guards, he'd not been concerned for his safety. Being mostly of Tali extraction, they'd ganged together to strike back west. He'd continued on, quickly outstripping the caravan's rather disorganized, laborious pace. He did not fear any attack from the tribesmen, nor did he expect any attention from the legendary man-beast. Alone, he knew he could hide his presence. His opinion differed from his fellow travellers' regarding strength in numbers: the great clattering mass of banging copperware, shouting drivers, bawling donkeys, and rattling bric-a-brac was to his mind nothing less than an attracter of raiders and unwanted attention.
And so now he neared Li Heng, and somewhere nearby, ahead or behind, lay his quarry. A fellow who had dared to cheat him ... Or, perhaps more to the point, had succeeded in cheating him. That was not to be borne. Not by Dorin Rav. Who had been beaten by no one.
The second day of travel revealed smoke over the prairie to the north, not so far off the trader road. He altered his path to investigate. After pushing through the tall-grass for a few leagues, he came to a wide swath of trampled and broken stalks. The first thing he found was a man's boot. When he picked it up, he found that it still held a foot.
It was a caravan, attacked and massacred in the night. By Seti tribesmen, probably. Old treaties existed – once enforced by the Tali Legions – that forbade predation on the road, but they were hardly honoured any longer. And there were always renegades and outlaws. Still, this was awfully close to Hengan lands.
Walking farther, he realized that it hadn't been the Seti at all, whether war-party or outlaws. Wagons and carts lay torn apart. Loot glittered among the trampled grass: ironware, clothes, broken chests. Corpses still wore their personal possessions. He paused and knelt at one body. A single swipe of massive claws had torn the woman across the front as deep as her spine. She had twisted as she fell, her hips no longer in line with her shoulders; her viscera lay tossed about, congealing in the dirt. The only reason the organs and intestines remained was that – for the moment – the wild dogs, jackals, and carrion crows had more than enough to eat.
Her wristlet, he noted, was of gold. This he unlatched and tucked away. Brushing his hands, he continued on. It seemed his earlier instincts regarding the curse of Li Heng, the man-eater's presence, were well founded. Ryllandaras had rampaged through this caravan like the predator of humans he was. Some named him a giant wolf, others a hyena, or a jackal. Such distinctions were meaningless as far as Dorin was concerned. Ryllandaras was a beast who ate people ... what more need one know?
He kicked his way through the wreckage. At one point he stepped over a child's severed arm. The noise of movement brought him round and his hands went to his baldric. One of the presumed corpses, a man – soldier or caravan guard – was levering himself erect from where he had lain propped up against an overturned wagon. Dorin coolly watched him do so.
Weaving, stoop-shouldered, the fellow – dark, clothes and armour rent and bloodied – staggered towards him. He was a young man, muscular, half Dal Hon perhaps. His long wavy black hair hung like a curtain of night and Dorin felt a twinge of envy – this one the girls must fawn over. 'Ryllandaras?' he called to him.
The man gave a curt nod.
Something in that casual acknowledgement irked Dorin – too self-possessed by far. On a chance he asked, 'You didn't see anyone else come by, did you?'
The youth nodded again. 'Someone passed but I did not see him.'
Now Dorin frowned. 'You speak in riddles.'
'I speak the truth. I saw no one go by but someone did. He was humming.'
That's him. Humming! Fits all too well. Li Heng for certain. He gave an answering nod. 'My thanks.'
The young soldier lurched forward, suddenly animated. Something like a cross between disbelief and disgust twisted his mahogany features. 'You are not walking away, are you?'
The youth opened his arms to gesture all about. 'But the dead ... they must be seen to.'
'See to them, then. I'll not stop you.'
Another lurched step, the lad's face hardening. A hand settled on the longsword's bloodied grip. 'You'll stay and help, or greet Hood.'
Dorin's hands went to his hips where he carried his heaviest fighting blades. What was troubling everyone lately? Was it some sort of fog of animus carried by the man-beast? 'Reconsider, friend. There is no need to start a feud. The dead are dead. The crows and jackals will take care of them.'
The lad drew and Dorin flinched backwards, actually taken by surprise – so fast!
But the youth staggered sideways, gasping his pain, one hand across his chest where the torn mail and leathers hung in tatters.
Dorin eased his hands from his knife grips, began backing away. 'Perhaps you should just rest – or join them yourself.'
'The beast might return. He said we'd meet again.'
'He said —' Dorin froze. 'You duelled the Curse of Quon? The man-eater?'
The lad's gaze was on the horizon, shadowed, as he rubbed his chest. 'We fought all through the night.'
Dorin laughed outright, sneering. To think he almost had me believing. 'Learn to temper your lies, hick. No one has ever faced him and lived.'
A sullen glance from the other. 'I care not what you think. I know the truth of it ... and that is enough for me.'
The truth of it? Smacks of religion. The lad must be an adherent. Dead on his feet now, in any case. Must have been cut down by another guard while fleeing the beast and is now trying for a cover story. Dorin continued backing away. Well, he'll have to do better than claim that he faced Ryllandaras!
'I will remember you!' the lad shouted after him. 'And this insult to the dead!'
Dorin had been pushing backwards through the tall-grass. His last glimpse of the guard was of him digging among the spilled cargo and raising a young girl to her feet.
He turned away with a shake of his head. Insult? Where was this fellow from? How provincial. He faced east. Two days' hike away lay Li Heng. Surely there, of all places, he would find a true assassins' guild where his skills would be appreciated.
And there also he would find this upstart Dal Hon mage and he would have his revenge for this ... for this ... He slowed, cast a troubled glance back to the smoking fields behind. For this insult?
* * *
Dorin had grown up in Tali, and so was no gawking farm-boy. Yet while that west coast city was far larger than Li Heng, it was a loose and sprawling collection of distinct precincts and quarters. It, and its neighbouring city and sister state of Quon, might have pressed their names upon the entire continent – though many still refused to acknowledge the claim – but it did not possess anything like Heng's titanic famous fortifications. 'Strong as the walls of Heng' was a saying common across the land.
All through the final day of his approach up the trader road, those walls reared against the surrounding Seti Plains like a distant butte or outcrop of rock. Or like a wart, Dorin appended, reluctant to grant the city any unearned regard. To either side fields hung heavy with grain, and market garden plots lay ripening for harvest. Locals pulled carts burdened with produce, while sheep and hogs jostled Dorin on their way to be butchered.
Many of the fields boasted curious stone heaps that mystified him. After noting a few, he fell in with a girl swaying beneath a burden of large wicker baskets hung from a yoke across her bare, scraped-raw shoulders. Each brimmed over with bricks of cow manure.
'Those piles of field stones,' he asked. 'What are they?' The girl flinched, peered up with scared deer-like eyes through dirty tangled hair. Young, startlingly young, for such an onerous chore.
'The stones ...?' he repeated.
'Not from around here, are you,' she said, her vowels elongated in the Hengian manner.
'No.' He did not say where he was from; in fact, he was quite pleased to be hard to place, carrying a medium hue neither so dark as Dal Hon nor the olive of Tali or the Kanese confederacy, and not so burly or wavy-haired as to be Gris or Untan.
'Bolt-holes,' she said.
He cocked his head closer, wrinkled his nose at the stink. The cow shit, one must hope. 'Pardon?'
The girl glanced fearfully about the surrounding fields. 'Run there if he comes. Hide inside.'
Ah. He. The man-beast. Ryllandaras. An entire society living under siege. Thus the walls, of course. Nothing more than one big bolt-hole. That put things into their proper perspective.
'Thanks, child.' Child? Why say that? He was barely older. 'Pray tell, why the manure? What do they do with it, there, in the city?'
The girl's thick dark brows climbed in unguarded disbelief. 'Why, they burn it a'course. Don't see too many trees around, do you?'
Burn it? For fuel? To cook? Ye Gods, how disgusting ...
He fell out of step with the girl. 'Child' may have slipped out in sympathy. He felt for her. For the dirty exhausting chore, and the probable buyer, a man he saw in his mind's eye as fat and old, leering down at her and murmuring that he'd throw in a few more coins if she'd just ... cooperate. And she, desperate to bring in more wages to ease her parents' burdens, complying.
Should he not feel sympathy for such a plight?
But another, more cynical inner voice spun a different scenario: a calculating stone-hearted mother and father who knew full well what awaited daughter number four yet urged her on regardless, looking forward to the extra coins her winsomeness would bring. Who was to say which was the more accurate reading of the truth?
Or neither. Perhaps the child schemed for the chore, and once free of her smelly burden walked the busy city streets, marvelling, inspired, dreaming of one day remaining.
Who was to say? Not he.
Not so when a not too dissimilar young lad was sold from his village to Tali to enter into apprenticeship with a man who trained him to climb walls, squeeze into narrow openings, and spin knives. A skinny ragged child, who when chased into an alley turned his rage, ferocity, and tiny knives upon the two pursuing armoured guards and that night found his true calling ...
But enough of that.
Hovels now crowded the trader way, as did corrals, market squares, and warehouses. All no doubt abandoned when night descended. The gates reared ahead, thick, three man-heights tall, and open only a slit, as if grudging, or fearful. He slowed to fall in next to a man on a wagon heaped with cheap blankets, brown earthenware pots, and copper wares.
As he expected, the two gate guards practically shoved him aside in their eagerness to extract their informal tithes and taxes from the unfortunate petty merchant. Past the guards, he helped himself to two pears from their baskets of confiscated goods and walked on, entering Heng unremarked and unmolested in the bright glaring heat of a late summer day.
He found himself in a crowded wide boulevard running more or less north–south, and bearing a slight curve to its broad course. Over the shop fronts and three storeys of tenements across the way reared another city wall. He realized he was within the bounded Outer Round, the outermost ring, or precinct, of the city proper. The air here was thick and still, redolent with cooking oils, but overlain by the stink of human sweat. Here he stopped for some time while making a great show of gawking right and left, as if having no idea where to go.
'Just in to the city, then?' someone said from behind.
He turned, smiling. 'Yes. I had no idea it'd be so ... huge.'
The man was short and very wide about the middle. His black beard was oiled and braided. Gold rings shone at his ears and fingers. He answered Dorin's smile. 'Yes, I guess it is. Where're you from, then?'
'You wouldn't know it. A village near Cullis.'
'Cullis? Tali lands? Just so happens I know a lad from there.'
Dorin smiled again. 'That so? What's his name?'
The fellow glanced about. 'I'll introduce you. Listen, you must be parched after all your walking. How 'bout a drink? My treat.'
He frowned. 'I can pay for myself.'
"Course you can, lad! No offence, please. Just trying to be welcoming.' And the man pressed a wide hand to Dorin's back urging him onward, and he allowed it.
'What are your plans, then?' the fellow asked as he guided him down ever narrower and darker side alleys. 'You have a trade?'
'I thought I'd apprentice ... weapon-smithing perhaps.'
The man pulled at his oiled beard. 'Weapon-smithing!' He whistled. 'Very difficult trade to enter, that. Start them young they do – younger than you.'
'Oh? That's ... too bad.'
The fellow had manoeuvred him into a very narrow shadowed alley that ended in a naked wall. He turned, hands at his wide leather belt. 'Here we are, lad.'
Dorin peered about. Quiet enough for my purposes as well ... 'Here?'
'Yes. Here's where you're stayin'.'
Steps behind. He turned to see four young men coming up the narrow way, all armed with short blunt sticks. No edged weapons. Just theft, then. He sidled up closer to the man while making a show of his confusion. 'I don't understand. There's nothing here.'
'You'll be stayin' here, lad, if you don't hand over those fancy leatherwork belts and those long-knives I seen. Where'd you come by them any —' and Dorin was suddenly behind him, one of those selfsame blades now pressed to his neck.
The youths pulled up, surprised. The man raised his empty hands. 'Now calm down, lad. You've some moves, I see ... maybe we can —'
Dorin pressed the blade even harder. 'Answer my questions and I'll let you live.'
'Questions? Whatever are you ...' Dorin pressed so hard the man edged up on to his toes, hissing his alarm.
'I want names. Names of those who run the black market here. And any assassins, and where to make contact.'
'Killers for hire? So that's the way of it ... Lad, you are green. The Protectress, she don't allow any killin' here in the city. An' now I'm sorry to say we're done.' The fellow waved one of his raised hands.
Dorin glanced at the four youths to ready himself for their move. But suddenly he was on the ground peering up at the clear blue sky through the narrow gap of the alleyway. The vision of one eye was a hazy bright pink. A face loomed over him – the fat fellow.
'You were watchin' the lads in the alley, weren't ya? A mistake there, my little blade. Should've been watchin' the roofs. Hengan slingers, lad. Deadly accurate. We'll have those belts and blades now. No hard feelings, hey?'
He tried to speak, to damn the fellow to Hood and beyond, but his mouth was numb and his eyes closed like heavy doors, leaving him in a black box, and he knew nothing more.
Excerpted from Dancer's Lament by Ian C. Esslemont. Copyright © 2016 Ian Cameron Esslemont. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Love all the malazan stuff and this one delivers. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is that I felt it was a little bit short, and kind of thin, especially after just finishing Fall of Light
I love the Malayan Empire! By far my favorite books of all time. Well done.
I love this world and it's characters.
I can't wait for the next. There is so much to learn about what happened before the Malazan book of the fallen.
This book is the best malaz book so far. It will be tough to wait for the rest of the series. This book spends most of the story talking about Dancer and Kallen ed before they had those names as well as others from other books.
Very different from Fall of Light, but it's of the same outstanding caliber of writing and storytelling. Highly recommend this book, and any Malazan book!