Night of Knives
A Novel of the Malazan Empire
By Ian C. Esslemont
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2005 Ian Cameron Esslemont
All rights reserved.
PORTENTS AND ARRIVALS
Out amid the chopping waves of the strait of winds, the sails of an approaching message cutter burned bloody carmine in the day's last light. Temper set his spear against the battlement wall of Mock's Hold and looked out over the edge of the stone crenel. A hundred fathoms below, the cliff swept down into froth and a roll of breakers. He glanced over his shoulder to the grey barrel wall of the inner keep: its slit windows shone gold. Shadows moved within.
He muttered into the wind, 'Trapped between Hood and the damned Abyss.'
What could there possibly be for an Imperial official – a woman, an Imperial Fist – at this backwater post? He nearly jumped the first ship out when she'd arrived on the island three days ago. But he'd managed to drown that urge in the dark ale at Coop's Hanged Man Inn. None of this, he told himself, over and over, had anything more to do with him.
He stretched and winced. The surprisingly chill evening had revived the twinge of an old back injury: a javelin thrust many years past. A Seven City skirmisher had ruined the best hauberk he'd ever owned, as well as come damned close to killing him. The wound had never healed right. Perhaps it was time again to see that young army medicer, Seal. He scratched his chin and wondered whether it was bad luck to recall death's brush when the sun was lowering. He'd ask Corinn if he saw her.
Just three days ago he'd stood with hundreds of others at the harbour wall to watch the Imperial official disembark. Cries of surprise had run up and down the streets as first light revealed the blue-black sails and equally dark-tarred hull of a Malazan man-of-war anchored in the bay. Only too well did men and women of the city remember their last visitors: elements of the Third Army rendezvousing with recruits and enforcing the Imperial Regent's new edict against magery. The riots that followed engulfed a quarter of the town in flames.
News of the ship's arrival had drawn Temper up the narrow staircase at Coop's. Finished shaving, he'd tossed a towel over his shoulder and ambled down to Front Way. He squinted between warehouses to the harbour and the bay beyond. Anji, Coop's serving-girl and sometime mistress, came labouring up the Way carrying twin buckets of water. She lowered them to the cobbles, pushed her long brown hair from her flushed face and scowled in the harbour's direction. 'Gods, what is it now?'
Temper frowned. 'A man-of-war. Front-line vessel. Built for naval engagements, convoy escort, blockades. Not your usual troop transport or merchant scow.' And what in the name of Togg's teats was it doing here?
'Must be on its way south to Korel,' said Anji. A hand shading her eyes, she turned her gaze to him. 'You know, the war and all that.'
Temper hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat to one side. No one would order a man-of-war down to Korel all on its lonesome. And – from what he'd heard – Hood knew it would take more than one warship to turn the tide down south.
Skiffs bobbed into view out from the wharf. Long sweeps powered them across to the enormous vessel. Temper guessed the garrison commander, Pell, of honorary Sub-Fist rank himself, might be floundering seasick in one of them. He took a deep breath of the chill morning air. 'Guess I'll have a look.'
Anji again pushed back her long hair. 'Why bother? For certain it means more of our blood spilled.' She hefted the buckets. 'As if we haven't paid enough.'
The harbour view proved no more enlightening. At the warehouse district, Temper overheard whispers that the vessel must hold a new garrison commander, or that the Hold was being re-activated as command base for a new campaign against Korel. But he also heard the opposite: that the vessel carried Imperial Command from Korel, in full retreat. One old fisherman voiced the opinion that it might be the Emperor himself, returned. Men and women raised their hands in signs against evil and edged away. The fisherman lent Temper a wink.
Boxed cargo appeared at the vessel's high side and the crew lowered it into skiffs that rocked along its skirts like water bugs around a basking sea beast. Rumour of retreat from Korel was of interest. Word from the south was one of ferocious local resistance, casualty rates high enough for official denial, and almost no advances made since the initial landings half a decade ago.
At other campaigns on continents far away Temper had travelled on ships identical to this. All carried the emblem on this one's sails, the upright three-clawed sceptre gripping the Imperial orb. He'd witnessed port assaults during which these orbs glowed like pale suns, blasting walls and mole defences into rubble. During deep-sea engagements the orbs boiled waves, burst hulls into flame, and lashed summoned sea-demons.
Perhaps this vessel had returned from warfare at such a front. Korel was reputedly a series of archipelagos in which naval forces would make or break any campaign. That would explain its appearance here.
The first of the skiffs returned to the military wharf beneath Mock's Hold. They carried personnel only. Dark and richly cloaked figures stepped onto floating docks. Temper's eyes narrowed as he watched the men and women, hoods over heads, file from sight among the defences. He did not like the look of this – not at all. These figures were all too familiar in their dark leather boots and gloves. With a sick feeling in his gut, Temper remembered another garrison where vessels such as this could be found: at Unta across the strait; the Imperial capital.
The fisherman had lifted his chin towards the wharf. 'Y'see? I was right.' And he cackled hoarsely, then hacked into his fist.
Now, as he shivered in the cold evening air, Temper remembered watching that man-of-war and wondering: were they here for him? Had they tracked him three thousand leagues? If so, they were making quite a show of it. And that was, all things considered, careless.
Up on the battlements, the bell ending the day and Temper's watch rang brassy and deep from Mock's Tower. On its pike at Temper's side, Mock's Vane, the winged demon-shaped weathervane, shook and hummed as if caught in a steady gale. Temper frowned at the old relic; the winds were calm this evening.
Moments later he heard his superior, Lieutenant Chase, come tramping up the rampart steps. He sighed at the heavy measured pace. One of these days someone was going to have to take the young pup aside and explain that he wasn't marching up and down the parade ground anymore. Still, being as green as a spring shoot also meant being punctual – and the long afternoon does dry a man's throat.
Chase stopped directly behind. Temper ignored him. He listened to the surf, watched a lithe message cutter swoop like a gull across the whitecaps dangerously windward of the reefs at Old Lookout Isle. Wind-talent drove that navigation. That or a fiend-driven helmsman in an unholy rush to meet Hood.
A sword point dug into the small of his back. 'Turn for recognition, soldier.'
'Recognition? Chase, sometimes I wish we'd never met.' Temper turned and planted his elbows on the gritty limestone crenel.
Chase sheathed his sword and straightened to proper parade ground angle. Tall feathers of some colourful bird fluttered at the peak of his iron helm. The brass and copper gilding on the breastplate of his cuirass gleamed, freshly polished. The youth's leather boots alone looked to be worth more than Temper made in a year, and he looked down at his own patched open sandals, ragged cloth wrapping his legs, and the threadbare black and gold surcoat of a Malazan garrison regular.
'Start acting the part of a real guard, old man,' Chase warned. 'At least while the official's here. D'rek's mysteries, man. I might've been – what is it? – one of her own.' He glanced up to the keep. 'They would've handed you your heart as a warning.'
Temper stiffened at her own. Where had the lad picked that up? It'd been a long time since he last heard that old term for the Imperial security cadre, the Claws. Of course an Imperial Fist would have a detachment of Claws – for protection, intelligence gathering, and darker, unsavoury tasks. Sidelong, he studied the lieutenant and wondered: had that been a probe? But the youth's brown eyes and smooth cheeks behind his helmet's face-guards appeared no more capable of deceit than a clear grassland stream. Temper recovered, bit down on his paranoia, and thanked the twin gods of luck that Chase had missed it.
He spat onto the crumbling limestone blocks. 'First of all, lad, I heard you coming. And no one ever hears them. And second, when they do come,' Temper tapped a finger to his flattened nose, 'you can always tell by the stench.'
Chase snorted his disbelief. 'Gods, greybeard. I've heard talk of all the damned action you must've seen, but don't pretend those Claws don't curdle your blood.'
Temper clenched his teeth and quelled an urge to cuff the youth. But what could this pup know of things that turned the stomachs of even hardened veterans? Temper knew the Seven City campaigns; he'd been there when they took Ubaryd. They'd reached the Palace at night. The marble halls had been deserted but for the corpses of functionaries and guards too slow to flee the Emperor's smashing of the Falah'd's power. Upstairs they found the private chambers and the Holy One herself tied by silk ropes to a chair. Three Claws stood about her, knives out. Blood gleamed wetly on the blades and dripped from the moist bonds at the Falah'd's wrists and ankles, pooled on the coral marble. He and Point had held back, unsure, but Dassem surged ahead and thrust aside the Claw standing before the woman. Her head snapped up, long curls flying back, and though her eyes had been gouged out and her mouth hung open, tongueless, blood streaming down her chin, she seemed to address Dassem directly. The Claws, two men and a woman, eyed each other. One backed away, raised his bloodied knife at what he saw in Dassem's gaze. The Falah'd's lips moved silently, mouthing some message or a plea. The female Claw's eyes widened in sudden understanding and she opened her own mouth to shout, but too late. It happened so quickly it was as if Dassem had merely shrugged. The Falah'd's head spun away. Blood jetted from her torso. The head toppled to the marble flagging. Its long black curls tangled in blood as it rolled.
Though Temper couldn't be sure, it seemed the words she mouthed had been free me. Thus the end of the last Holy Falah'd of Ubaryd.
Temper rubbed the sickle moon scar that curved down his left temple to his chin and breathed deeply to calm himself. He forced himself to think of what Chase must see when looking at him: a broken-down veteran too incompetent or sodden to have passed corporal's rank in a lifetime of soldiering. This was, after all, exactly the role he'd created for himself. He said, low and level, 'They only disgust me.'
Chase stared, unsettled by the emotion in Temper's voice, then scowled at the implied criticism of the Imperial Throne. He pointed to a corner barbican. 'You're relieved, old man.'
Off-duty, Temper hung his spear, surcoat, and regulation boiled-leather hauberk in the barracks armoury. He adjusted the rag swathings at his legs, then rewound the leather straps of his military sandals over them.
He searched for his single extravagance, a lined and brushed felt cloak from Falar. It was in the guardroom wadded up on a bench under Larkin's wide ass. Seeing that, Temper almost turned and walked away. Larkin knew full well when the shift ended and had sat on the cloak as a challenge. Temper had no choice but to respond.
Larkin was holding court around a table, the other guards crowded close, shoulder to shoulder over the unvarnished slats where enamelled tiles – the Bones – lay arrayed in midplay. None paid the game any attention for Larkin was nearing the climax of yet another of his drawn-out stories.
Temper leaned against the squared timber that stood for the doorjamb, crossing his arms. Here was Larkin, only a month back from the Genabackan front, rotated out to garrison duty on a leg wound, and Temper believed he could already recite every one of the man's engagements.
'It was in Black Dog Forest,' he drawled, dragging out the tale – clearly one of his favourites. The guards nodded, waiting, knowing what was to come, yet still savouring the anticipation.
'The Crimson Guard ...'
The troops, young and impatient with a garrison posting so far from any action, eyed one another. Some shook their heads in awe. Even Temper had to admit he felt it – a shiver of recognition and dread at the name. The mercenary company sworn to destroy the Empire. The force that had handed Malaz its first major defeat by repulsing the invasion of Stratem, and which now opposed the Empire on four continents.
'Who'd you see?' asked one guard, Cullen, island born, who claimed to have pirated off the Stratem coast in his youth. Larkin nodded, as did Temper. It was a good question, one asked by those who knew enough to ask.
Larkin cleared his throat, eased back into his story: 'Was a general advance; a push to prise them out of the forest and open a road south to the Rhivi Plain. The commander, a Sub-Fist nobleman out of Dal Hon, had us in three columns to stretch them thin – superior numbers you see. The Guard was fleshed out by local recruits, Genabackan tribals called Barghast, townsmen, militia, foresters and other such trash. Daytime was fine, an easy campaign. For five days we advanced while they melted before us. So much for the invincible Guard! Of course a few Barghast and woodsmen potshot at us over stream crossings and uneven ground, but they ran away like cowards whenever we counterattacked. Then came the sixth night ...'
Temper could only shake his head at the staggering stupidity of an advance by columns into unsecured deep forest. Of course they were allowed to advance. Of course the Guard, outnumbered, avoided any direct engagement. And finally, once the columns were isolated, far enough apart to prevent any hope of possible reinforcement, the attack had come.
The guards nodded their outrage at this shameful strategy and Temper wanted to shout: don't listen to the damned fool! But he was a minority of one. Though a pompous ass, Larkin was popular, had seen recent action in distant lands and enjoyed being the centre of attention. Temper knew that the younger guards didn't like or understand his silence, and that because of it some even doubted he had any experience to speak of. Any complaint from him would be dismissed as sour grumbling.
'They attacked at night like plain thieves,' Larkin spat, disgusted by such underhanded tactics.
Temper stopped himself from laughing out loud – well did he remember similar moonlit engagements, but with the Malazans themselves the attackers!
'Was utter chaos. Screaming Barghast leaping out of the darkness. They were behind us, in front of us, circling our flanks. We were totally surrounded. There was nowhere to go. I joined a knot of men at a tall boulder lit by the light of brush fires. Together we held a perimeter, wounded at our rear. We repulsed three Barghast assaults.'
Larkin coughed into his fist, scowled, then fell silent. Temper gave him a hard look. Was it the horror, the memory of lost friends? Then why so eager to drag out the yarn every other night?
'I saw three Guardsmen in the distance, through the undergrowth. I didn't recognize any of them. Then Halfdan jogged past. I knew him by his size – half indeed!'
The guards chuckled at this cue. 'Once served under Skinner, they say,' added Cullen.
Larkin nodded. 'Then another Guardsman came out of the night. I'll never forget the way he stepped from the darkness ... like some fiend out of Hood's own Paths. His surcoat shone in the flames like fresh blood. Lazar it was, with his visored helm and black shield. We fought, but it was no use ...' Larkin slapped his game leg and shook his head.
Temper threw himself from the room. He cooled the back of his neck against the damp stone wall. Fener's bones! The lying bastard. Fought Lazar! Temper himself had never faced the Guard but Dassem had clashed with them for decades – and that alone was enough to give anyone pause regarding their prowess. Dassem never spoke of those engagements. It was said the Avowed were unstoppable, but Dassem had slain every one who had challenged him: Shirdar, Keal, Bartok. Only Skinner, they say, had come away alive from their clash.
Laughter brought Temper's attention around. The carved tiles of the Bones clacked against wood. He took a long breath, stepped back inside. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont. Copyright © 2005 Ian Cameron Esslemont. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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