Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself


“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”

—Homer


For the Four Readers

You know who you are


The End

<p>The End</p>

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.

The Dogman had been with him until a moment before, he was sure, but there wasn’t any sign of him now. As for the others, there was no telling. Some leader, getting split up from his boys like that. He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them. Sounded as if there was some shouting somewhere on his left, fighting maybe. Logen crept slowly to his feet, trying to stay quiet. A twig snapped and he whipped round.

There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.

“Shit,” said Logen. He threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face, rolled away thrashing through the brush, expecting the spear through his back at any moment. He scrambled up, breathing hard. He saw the bright point poking at him again, dodged out of the way, slithered behind a big tree trunk. He peered out and the Flathead hissed and stabbed at him. He showed himself on the other side, just for a moment, then ducked away, jumped round the tree and swung the axe down, roaring loud as he could. There was a crack as the blade buried itself deep in the Shanka’s skull. Lucky that, but then Logen reckoned he was due a little luck.

The Flathead stood there, blinking at him. Then it started to sway from side to side, blood dribbling down its face. Then it dropped like a stone, dragging the axe from Logen’s fingers, thrashing around on the ground, at his feet. He tried to grab hold of his axe-handle but the Shanka still somehow had a grip on its spear and the point was flailing around in the air.

“Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm. He felt a shadow fall across his face. Another Flathead. A damn big one. Already in the air, arms outstretched. No time to get the axe. No time to get out of the way. Logen’s mouth opened, but there was no time to say anything. What do you say at a time like that?

They crashed to the wet ground together, rolled together through the dirt and the thorns and the broken branches, tearing and punching and growling at each other. A tree root hit Logen in the head, hard, and made his ears ring. He had a knife somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. They rolled on, and on, downhill, the world flipping and flipping around, Logen trying to shake the fuzz out of his head and throttle the big Flathead at the same time. There was no stopping.

It had seemed a clever notion to pitch camp near the gorge. No chance of anyone sneaking up behind. Now, as Logen slid over the edge of the cliff on his belly, the idea lost much of its appeal. His hands scrabbled at the wet earth. Only dirt and brown pine needles. His fingers clutched, clutched at nothing. He was beginning to fall. He let go a little whimper.

His hands closed around something. A tree root, sticking out from the earth at the very edge of the gorge. He swung in space, gasping, but his grip was firm.

“Hah!” he shouted. “Hah!” He was still alive. It would take more than a few Flatheads to put an end to Logen Ninefingers. He started to pull himself up onto the bank but couldn’t manage it. There was some great weight around his legs. He peered down.

The gorge was deep. Very deep with sheer, rocky sides. Here and there a tree clung to a crack, growing out into the empty air and spreading its leaves into space. The river hissed away far below, fast and angry, foaming white water fringed by jagged black stone. That was all bad, for sure, but the real problem was closer to hand. The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.

“Shit,” muttered Logen. It was quite a scrape he was in. He’d been in some bad ones alright, and lived to sing the songs, but it was hard to see how this could get much worse. That got him thinking about his life. It seemed a bitter, pointless sort of a life now. No one was any better off because of it. Full of violence and pain, with not much but disappointment and hardship in between. His hands were starting to tire now, his forearms were burning. The big Flathead didn’t look like it was going to fall off any time soon. In fact, it had dragged itself up his leg a way. It paused, glaring up at him.

If Logen had been the one clinging to the Shanka’s foot, he would most likely have thought, “My life depends on this leg I’m hanging from—best not take any chances.” A man would rather save himself than kill his enemy. Trouble was that the Shanka didn’t think that way, and Logen knew it. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when it opened its big mouth and sank its teeth into his calf.

“Aaaargh!” Logen grunted, and squealed and kicked out as hard as he could with his bare heel, kicked a bloody gash in the Shanka’s head, but it wouldn’t stop biting, and the harder he kicked, the more his hands slipped on the greasy root above. There wasn’t much root left to hold on to, now, and what there was looked like snapping off any moment. He tried to think past the pain in his hands, the pain in his arms, the Flathead’s teeth in his leg. He was going to fall. The only choice was between falling on rocks or falling on water, and that was a choice that more or less made itself.

Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than to live with the fear of it. That’s what Logen’s father would have said. So he planted his free foot firmly on the rock face, took one last deep breath, and flung himself out into empty space with all the strength he had left. He felt the biting teeth let go of him, then the grasping hands, and for a moment he was free.

Then he began to fall. Fast. The sides of the gorge flashed past—grey rock, green moss, patches of white snow, all tumbling around him.

Logen turned over slowly in the air, limbs flailing pointlessly, too scared to scream. The rushing wind whipped at his eyes, tugged at his clothes, plucked the breath out of his mouth. He saw the big Shanka hit the rock face beside him. He saw it break and bounce and flop off, dead for sure. That was a pleasing sight, but Logen’s satisfaction was short-lived.

The water came up to meet him. It hit him in the side like a charging bull, punched the air out of his lungs, knocked the sense out of his head, sucked him in and down into the cold darkness…


PART I

The Survivors

Questions

No Choice at All

Playing With Knives

Teeth and Fingers

The Wide and Barren North

Fencing Practice

The Morning Ritual

First of the Magi

The Good Man

On the List

An Offer and a Gift

The King of the Northmen

A Road Between Two Dentists

Flatheads

The Course of True Love

How Dogs are Trained

Tea and Vengeance

<p>PART I</p>

“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”

Homer
<p>The Survivors</p>

The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird.

Logen opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry bright through leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much? His whole left side was throbbing. He tried to take a proper breath, choked, coughed up water, spat out mud. He groaned, flopped over onto his hands and knees, dragged himself up out of the river, gasping through clenched teeth, rolled onto his back in the moss and slime and rotten sticks at the water’s edge.

He lay there for a moment, staring up at the grey sky beyond the black branches, breath wheezing in his raw throat.

“I am still alive,” he croaked to himself. Still alive, in spite of the best efforts of nature, Shanka, men and beasts. Soaking wet and flat on his back, he started to chuckle. Reedy, gurgling laughter. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a survivor.

A cold wind blew across the rotting river bank, and Logen’s laughter slowly died. Alive he might be, but staying alive, that was another question. He sat up, wincing at the pain. He tottered to his feet, leaning against the nearest tree trunk. He scraped the dirt out of his nose, his eyes, his ears. He pulled up his wet shirt to take a look at the damage.

His side was covered in bruises from the fall. Blue and purple stains all up his ribs. Tender to the touch, and no mistake, but it didn’t feel like anything was broken. His leg was a mess. Torn and bloody from the Shanka’s teeth. It hurt bad, but his foot still moved well enough, and that was the main thing. He’d need his foot, if he was going to get out of this.

He still had his knife in the sheath at his belt, and he was mightily glad to see it. You could never have too many knives in Logen’s experience, and this was a good one, but the outlook was still bleak. He was on his own, in woods crawling with Flatheads. He had no idea where he was, but he could follow the river. The rivers all flowed north, from the mountains to the cold sea. Follow the river southwards, against the current. Follow the river and climb up, into the High Places where the Shanka couldn’t find him. That was his only chance.

It would be cold up there, this time of year. Deadly cold. He looked down at his bare feet. It was just his luck that the Shanka had come while he had his boots off, trimming his blisters. No coat either—he’d been sitting near the fire. Like this, he wouldn’t last a day in the mountains. His hands and feet would turn black in the night, and he’d die bit by bit before he even reached the passes. If he didn’t starve first.

“Shit,” he muttered. He had to go back to the camp. He had to hope the Flatheads had moved on, hope they’d left something behind. Something he could use to survive. That was an awful lot of hoping, but he had no choice. He never had any choices.


It had started to rain by the time Logen found the place. Spitting drops that plastered his hair to his skull, kept his clothes wet through. He pressed himself against a mossy trunk and peered out towards the camp, heart pounding, fingers of his right hand curled painful tight around the slippery grip of his knife.

He saw the blackened circle where the fire had been, half-burned sticks and ash trampled round it. He saw the big log Threetrees and Dow had been sitting on when the Flatheads came. He saw odd bits of torn and broken gear scattered across the clearing. He counted three dead Shanka crumpled on the ground, one with an arrow poking out of its chest. Three dead ones, but no sign of any alive. That was lucky. Just lucky enough to survive, as always. Still, they might be back at any moment. He had to be quick.

Logen scuttled out from the trees, casting about on the ground. His boots were still there where he’d left them. He snatched them up and dragged them on to his freezing feet, hopping around, almost slipping in his haste. His coat was there too, wedged under the log, battered and scarred from ten years of weather and war, torn and stitched back together, missing half a sleeve. His pack was lying shapeless in the brush nearby, its contents strewn out down the slope. He crouched, breathless, throwing it all back inside. A length of rope, his old clay pipe, some strips of dried meat, needle and twine, a dented flask with some liquor still sloshing inside. All good. All useful.

There was a tattered blanket snagged on a branch, wet and half caked in grime. Logen pulled it up, and grinned. His old, battered cook pot was underneath. Lying on its side, kicked off the fire in the fight maybe. He grabbed hold of it with both hands. It felt safe, familiar, dented and blackened from years of hard use. He’d had that pot a long time. It had followed him all through the wars, across the North and back again. They had all cooked in it together, out on the trail, all eaten out of it. Forley, Grim, the Dogman, all of them.

Logen looked over the campsite again. Three dead Shanka, but none of his people. Maybe they were still out there. Maybe if he took a risk, tried to look—

“No.” He said it quietly, under his breath. He knew better than that. There had been a lot of Flatheads. An awful lot. He had no idea how long he’d lain on the river bank. Even if a couple of the boys had got away, the Shanka would be hunting them, hunting them down in the forests. They were nothing but corpses now, for sure, scattered across the high valleys. All Logen could do was make for the mountains, and try to save his own sorry life. You have to be realistic. Have to be, however much it hurts.

“It’s just you and me now,” said Logen as he stuffed the pot into his pack and threw it over his shoulder. He started to limp off, as fast as he could. Uphill, towards the river, towards the mountains.

Just the two of them. Him and the pot.

They were the only survivors.

<p>Questions</p>

Why do I do this? Inquisitor Glokta asked himself for the thousandth time as he limped down the corridor. The walls were rendered and whitewashed, though none too recently. There was a seedy feel to the place and a smell of damp. There were no windows, as the hallway was deep beneath the ground, and the lanterns cast slow flowing shadows into every corner.

Why would anyone want to do this? Glokta’s walking made a steady rhythm on the grimy tiles of the floor. First the confident click of his right heel, then the tap of his cane, then the endless sliding of his left foot, with the familiar stabbing pains in the ankle, knee, arse and back. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.

The dirty monotony of the corridor was broken from time to time by a heavy door, bound and studded with pitted iron. On one occasion, Glokta thought he heard a muffled cry of pain from behind one. I wonder what poor fool is being questioned in there? What crime they are guilty, or innocent of? What secrets are being picked at, what lies cut through, what treasons laid bare? He didn’t wonder long though. He was interrupted by the steps.

If Glokta had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps. When he was young and widely admired, before his misfortunes, he had never really noticed them. He had sprung down them two at a time and gone blithely on his way. No more. They’re everywhere. You really can’t change floors without them. And down is worse than up, that’s the thing people never realise. Going up, you usually don’t fall that far.

He knew this flight well. Sixteen steps, cut from smooth stone, a little worn toward the centre, slightly damp, like everything down here. There was no banister, nothing to cling to. Sixteen enemies. A challenge indeed. It had taken Glokta a long time to develop the least painful method of descending stairs. He went sideways like a crab. Cane first, then left foot, then right, with more than the usual agony as his left leg took his weight, joined by a persistent stabbing in the neck. Why should it hurt in my neck when I go down stairs? Does my neck take my weight? Does it? Yet the pain could not be denied.

Glokta paused four steps from the bottom. He had nearly beaten them. His hand was trembling on the handle of his cane, his left leg aching like fury. He tongued his gums where his front teeth used to be, took a deep breath and stepped forward. His ankle gave way with a horrifying wrench and he plunged into space, twisting, lurching, his mind a cauldron of horror and despair. He stumbled onto the next step like a drunkard, fingernails scratching at the smooth wall, giving a squeal of terror. You stupid, stupid bastard! His cane clattered to the floor, his clumsy feet wrestled with the stones and he found himself at the bottom, by some miracle still standing.

And here it is. That horrible, beautiful, stretched out moment between stubbing your toe and feeling the hurt. How long do I have before the pain comes? How bad will it be when it does? Gasping, slack-jawed at the foot of the steps, Glokta felt a tingling of anticipation. Here it comes…

The agony was unspeakable, a searing spasm up his left side from foot to jaw. He squeezed his watering eyes tight shut, clamped his right hand over his mouth so hard that the knuckles clicked. His remaining teeth grated against each other as he locked his jaws together, but a high-pitched, jagged moan still whistled from him. Am I screaming or laughing? How do I tell the difference? He breathed in heaving gasps, through his nose, snot bubbling out onto his hand, his twisted body shaking with the effort of staying upright.

The spasm passed. Glokta moved his limbs cautiously, one by one, testing the damage. His leg was on fire, his foot numb, his neck clicked with every movement, sending vicious little stings down his spine. Pretty good, considering. He bent down with an effort and snatched up his cane between two fingers, drew himself up once more, wiped the snot and tears on the back of his hand. Truly a thrill. Did I enjoy it? For most people stairs are a mundane affair. For me, an adventure! He limped off down the corridor, giggling quietly to himself. He was still smiling ever so faintly when he reached his own door and shuffled inside.

A grubby white box with two doors facing each other. The ceiling was too low for comfort, the room too brightly lit by blazing lamps. Damp was creeping out of one corner and the plaster had erupted with flaking blisters, speckled with black mould. Someone had tried to scrub a long bloodstain from one wall, but hadn’t tried nearly hard enough.

Practical Frost was standing on the other side of the room, big arms folded across his big chest. He nodded to Glokta, with all the emotion of a stone, and Glokta nodded back. Between them stood a scarred, stained wooden table, bolted to the floor and flanked by two chairs. A naked fat man sat in one of them, hands tied tightly behind him and with a brown canvas bag over his head. His quick, muffled breathing was the only sound. It was cold down here, but he was sweating. As well he should be.

Glokta limped over to the other chair, leaned his cane carefully against the edge of the table top and slowly, cautiously, painfully sat down. He stretched his neck to the left and right, then allowed his body to slump into a position approaching comfort. If Glokta had been given the opportunity to shake the hand of any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of chairs. He has made my life almost bearable.

Frost stepped silently out of the corner and took hold of the loose top of the bag between meaty, pale finger and heavy, white thumb. Glokta nodded and the Practical ripped it off, leaving Salem Rews blinking in the harsh light.

A mean, piggy, ugly little face. You mean, ugly pig, Rews. You disgusting swine. You’re ready to confess right now, I’ll bet, ready to talk and talk without interruption, until we’re all sick of it. There was a big dark bruise across his cheek and another on his jaw above his double chin. As his watering eyes adjusted to the brightness he recognised Glokta sitting opposite him, and his face suddenly filled with hope. A sadly, sadly misplaced hope.

“Glokta, you have to help me!” he squealed, leaning forward as far as his bonds would allow, words bubbling out in a desperate, mumbling mess. “I’m falsely accused, you know it, I’m innocent! You’ve come to help me, yes? You’re my friend! You have influence here. We’re friends, friends! You could say something for me! I’m an innocent man, falsely accused! I’m—”

Glokta held up his hand for silence. He stared at Rews’ familiar face for a moment, as though he had never laid eyes on him before. Then he turned to Frost. “Am I supposed to know this man?”

The albino said nothing. The bottom part of his face was hidden by his Practical’s mask, and the top half gave nothing away. He stared unblinking at the prisoner in the chair, pink eyes as dead as a corpse. He hadn’t blinked once since Glokta came into the room. How can he do that?

“It’s me, Rews!” hissed the fat man, the pitch of his voice rising steadily towards panic. “Salem Rews, you know me, Glokta! I was with you in the war, before… you know… we’re friends! We—”

Glokta held up his hand again and sat back, tapping one of his few remaining teeth with a fingernail as though deep in thought. “Rews. The name is familiar. A merchant, a member of the Guild of Mercers. A rich man by all accounts. I remember now…” Glokta leaned forward, pausing for effect. “He was a traitor! He was taken by the Inquisition, his property confiscated. You see, he had conspired to avoid the King’s taxes.” Rews’ mouth was hanging open. “The King’s taxes!” screamed Glokta, smashing his hand down on the table. The fat man stared, wide eyed, and licked at a tooth. Upper right side, second from the back.

“But where are our manners?” asked Glokta of no one in particular. “We may or may not have known each other once, but I don’t think you and my assistant have been properly introduced. Practical Frost, say hello to this fat man.”

It was an open-handed blow, but powerful enough to knock Rews clean out of his seat. The chair rattled but was otherwise unaffected. How is that done? To knock him to the ground but leave the chair standing? Rews sprawled gurgling across the floor, face flattened on the tiles.

“He reminds me of a beached whale,” said Glokta absently. The albino grabbed Rews under the arm and hauled him up, flung him back into the chair. Blood seeped from a cut on his cheek, but his piggy eyes were hard now. Blows make most men soften up, but some men harden. I never would have taken this one for a tough man, but life is full of surprises.

Rews spat blood onto the table top. “You’ve gone too far here, Glokta, oh yes! The Mercers are an honourable guild; we have influence! They won’t put up with this! I’m a known man! Even now my wife will be petitioning the King to hear my case!”

“Ah, your wife.” Glokta smiled sadly. “Your wife is a very beautiful woman. Beautiful, and young. I fear, perhaps, a little too young for you. I fear she took the opportunity to be rid of you. I fear she came forward with your books. All the books.” Rews’ face paled.

“We looked at those books,” Glokta indicated an imaginary pile of papers on his left, “we looked at the books in the treasury,” indicating another on his right. “Imagine our surprise when we could not make the numbers add up. And then there were the night-time visits by your employees to warehouses in the old quarter, the small unregistered boats, the payments to officials, the forged documentation. Must I go on?” asked Glokta, shaking his head in profound disapproval. The fat man swallowed and licked his lips.

Pen and ink were placed before the prisoner, and the paper of confession, filled out in detail in Frost’s beautiful, careful script, awaiting only the signature. I’ll get him right here and now.

“Confess, Rews,” Glokta whispered softly, “and put a painless end to this regrettable business. Confess and name your accomplices. We already know who they are. It will be easier on all of us. I don’t want to hurt you, believe me, it will give me no pleasure.” Nothing will. “Confess. Confess, and you will be spared. Exile in Angland is not so bad as they would have you believe. There is still pleasure to be had from life there, and the satisfaction of a day of honest work, in the service of your King. Confess!” Rews stared at the floor, licking at his tooth. Glokta sat back and sighed.

“Or not,” he said, “and I can come back with my instruments.” Frost moved forward, his massive shadow falling across the fat man’s face. “Body found floating by the docks,” Glokta breathed, “bloated by seawater and horribly mutilated… far… far beyond recognition.” He’s ready to talk. He’s fat and ripe and ready to burst. “Were the injuries inflicted before or after death?” he asked the ceiling breezily. “Was the mysterious deceased a man or a woman even?” Glokta shrugged. “Who can say?”

There was a sharp knock at the door. Rews’ face jerked up, filled with hope again. Not now, damn it! Frost went to the door, opened it a crack. Something was said. The door shut, Frost leaned down to whisper in Glokta’s ear.

“Ith Theverar,” came the half-tongued mumble, by which Glokta understood that Severard was at the door.

Already? Glokta smiled and nodded, as if it was good news. Rews’ face fell a little. How could a man whose business has been concealment find it impossible to hide his emotions in this room? But Glokta knew how. It’s hard to stay calm when you’re terrified, helpless, alone, at the mercy of men with no mercy at all. Who could know that better than me? He sighed, and using his most world-weary tone of voice asked, “Do you wish to confess?”

“No!” The defiance had returned to the prisoner’s piggy eyes now. He stared back, silent and watchful, and sucked. Surprising. Very surprising. But then we’re just getting started.

“Is that tooth bothering you, Rews?” There was nothing Glokta didn’t know about teeth. His own mouth had been worked on by the very best. Or the very worst, depending on how you look at it. “It seems that I must leave you now, but while I’m away, I’ll be thinking about that tooth. I’ll be considering very carefully what to do with it.” He took hold of his cane. “I want you to think about me, thinking about your tooth. And I also want you to think, very carefully, about signing your confession.”

Glokta got awkwardly to his feet, shaking out his aching leg. “I think you may respond well to a straightforward beating however, so I’m going to leave you in the company of Practical Frost for half an hour.” Rews’ mouth became a silent circle of surprise. The albino picked up the chair, fat man and all, and turned it slowly around. “He’s absolutely the best there is at this kind of thing.” Frost took out a pair of battered leather gloves and began to pull them carefully onto his big white hands, one finger at a time. “You always did like to have the very best of everything, eh, Rews?” Glokta made for the door.

“Wait! Glokta!” wailed Rews over his shoulder. “Wait I—”

Practical Frost clamped a gloved hand over the fat man’s mouth and held a finger to his mask. “Thhhhhhh,” he said. The door clicked shut.

Severard was leaning against the wall in the corridor, one foot propped on the plaster behind him, whistling tunelessly beneath his mask and running a hand through his long, lanky hair. As Glokta came through the door he straightened up and gave a little bow, and it was plain by his eyes that he was smiling. He’s always smiling.

“Superior Kalyne wants to see you,” he said in his broad, common accent, “and I’m of the opinion that I never saw him angrier.”

“Severard, you poor thing, you must be terrified. Do you have the box?”

“I do.”

“And you took something out for Frost?”

“I did.”

“And something for your wife too, I hope?”

“Oh yes,” said Severard, his eyes smiling more than ever, “My wife will be well taken care of. If I ever get one.”

“Good. I hasten to answer the call of the Superior. When I have been with him for five minutes, come in with the box.”

“Just barge into his office?”

“Barge in and stab him in the face for all I care.”

“I’d consider that done, Inquisitor.”

Glokta nodded, turned away, then turned back. “Don’t really stab him, eh, Severard?”

The Practical smiled with his eyes and sheathed his vicious-looking knife. Glokta rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, then limped off, his cane tapping on the tiles, his leg throbbing. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.


The Superior’s office was a large and richly appointed room high up in the House of Questions, a room in which everything was too big and too fancy. A huge, intricate window dominated one wood-panelled wall, offering a view over the well-tended gardens in the courtyard below. An equally huge and ornate desk stood in the centre of a richly coloured carpet from somewhere warm and exotic. The head of a fierce animal from somewhere cold and exotic was mounted above a magnificent stone fireplace with a tiny, mean fire close to burning out inside.

Superior Kalyne himself made his office look small and drab. A vast, florid man in his late fifties, he had over-compensated for his thinning hair with magnificent white side whiskers. He was considered a daunting presence even within the Inquisition, but Glokta was past scaring, and they both knew it.

There was a big, fancy chair behind the desk, but the Superior was pacing up and down while he screamed, his arms waving. Glokta was seated on something which, while doubtless expensive, had clearly been designed to make its occupant as uncomfortable as possible. It doesn’t bother me much, though. Uncomfortable is as good as I ever get.

He amused himself with the thought of Kalyne’s head mounted above the fireplace instead of that fierce animal’s, while the Superior ranted at him. He’s every bit like his fireplace, the big dolt. Looks impressive, but there’s not much going on underneath. I wonder how he’d respond to an interrogation? I’d start with those ridiculous side whiskers. But Glokta’s face was a mask of attention and respect.

“Well you’ve outdone yourself this time, Glokta, you mad cripple! When the Mercers find out about this they’ll have you flayed!”

“I’ve tried flaying, it tickles.” Damn it, keep your mouth shut and smile. Where’s that whistling fool Severard? I’ll have him flayed when I get out of here.

“Oh yes, that’s good, that’s very good, Glokta, look at me laugh! And evasion of the King’s taxes?” The Superior glowered down, whiskers bristling. “The King’s taxes?” he screamed, spraying Glokta with spit. “They’re all at it! The Mercers, the Spicers, all of them! Every damn fool with a boat!”

“But this was so open, Superior. It was an insult to us. I felt we had to—”

“You felt?” Kalyne was red-faced and vibrating with rage. “You were explicitly told to keep away from the Mercers, away from the Spicers, away from all the big guilds!” He strode up and down with ever greater speed. You’ll wear your carpet out at this rate. The big guilds will have to buy you a new one.

“You felt, did you? Well he’ll have to go back! We’ll have to release him and you’ll have to feel your way to a grovelling apology! It’s a damn disgrace! You’ve made me look ridiculous! Where is he now?”

“I left him in the company of Practical Frost.”

“With that mumbling animal?” The Superior tore at his hair in desperation. “Well that’s it then, isn’t it? He’ll be a ruin now! We can’t send him back in that condition! You’re finished here, Glokta! Finished! I’m going straight to the Arch Lector! Straight to the Arch Lector!”

The huge door was kicked open and Severard sauntered in carrying a wooden box. And not a moment too soon. The Superior stared, speechless, open-mouthed with wrath, as Severard dropped it on the desk with a thump and a jingle.

“What the hell is the meaning of…” Severard pulled open the lid, and Kalyne saw the money. All that lovely money. He stopped in mid-rant, mouth stuck forming the next sound. He looked surprised, then he looked puzzled, then he looked cautious. He pursed his lips and slowly sat down.

“Thank you, Practical Severard,” said Glokta. “You may go.” The Superior was stroking thoughtfully at his side whiskers as Severard strolled out, his face returning gradually to its usual shade of pink. “Confiscated from Rews. The property of the Crown now, of course. I thought that I should give it to you, as my direct superior, so that you could pass it on to the Treasury.” Or buy a bigger desk, you leech.

Glokta leaned forward, hands on his knees. “You could say, perhaps, that Rews went too far, that questions had been asked, that an example had to be made. We can’t be seen to do nothing, after all. It’ll make the big guilds nervous, keep them in line.” It’ll make them nervous and you can screw more out of them. “Or you could always tell them that I’m a mad cripple, and blame me for it.”

The Superior was starting to like it now, Glokta could tell. He was trying not to show it, but his whiskers were quivering at the sight of all that money. “Alright, Glokta. Alright. Very well.” He reached out and carefully shut the lid of the box. “But if you ever think of doing something like this again… talk to me first, would you? I don’t like surprises.”

Glokta struggled to his feet, limped towards the door. “Oh, and one more thing!” He turned stiffly back. Kalyne was staring at him severely from beneath his big, fancy brows. “When I go to see the Mercers, I’ll need to take Rews’ confession.”

Glokta smiled broadly, showing the yawning gap in his front teeth. “That shouldn’t be a problem, Superior.”


Kalyne had been right. There was no way that Rews could have gone back in this condition. His lips were split and bloody, his sides covered in darkening bruises, his head lolled sideways, face swollen almost past recognition. In short, he looks like a man ready to confess.

“I don’t imagine you enjoyed the last half hour, Rews, I don’t imagine you enjoyed it much at all. Perhaps it was the worst half hour of your life, I really couldn’t say. I’m thinking about what we have for you here, though, and the sad fact is… that’s about as good as it gets. That’s the high life.” Glokta leaned forward, his face just inches from the bloody pulp of Rews’ nose. “Practical Frost’s a little girl compared to me,” he whispered. “He’s a kitten. Once I get started with you, Rews, you’ll be looking back on this with nostalgia. You’ll be begging me to give you half an hour with the Practical. Do you understand?” Rews was silent, except for the air whistling through his broken nose.

“Show him the instruments,” whispered Glokta.

Frost stepped forward and opened the polished case with a theatrical flourish. It was a masterful piece of craftsmanship. As the lid was pulled back, the many trays inside lifted and fanned out, displaying Glokta’s tools in all their gruesome glory. There were blades of every size and shape, needles curved and straight, bottles of oil and acid, nails and screws, clamps and pliers, saws, hammers, chisels. Metal, wood and glass glittered in the bright lamplight, all polished to mirror brightness and honed to a murderous sharpness. A big purple swelling under Rews’ left eye had closed it completely, but the other darted over the instruments: terrified, fascinated. The functions of some were horribly obvious, the functions of others were horribly obscure. Which scare him more, I wonder?

“We were talking about your tooth, I think,” murmured Glokta. Rews’ eye flicked up to look at him. “Or would you like to confess?” I have him, here he comes. Confess, confess, confess, confess…

There was a sharp knock at the door. Damn it again! Frost opened it a crack and there was a brief whispering. Rews licked at his bloated lip. The door shut, the albino leaned to whisper in Glokta’s ear.

“Ith the Arth Ector.” Glokta froze. The money was not enough. While I was shuffling back from Kalyne’s office, the old bastard was reporting me to the Arch Lector. Am I finished then? He felt a guilty thrill at the thought. Well, I’ll see to this fat pig first.

“Tell Severard I’m on my way.” Glokta turned back to talk to his prisoner, but Frost put a big white hand on his shoulder.

“O. The Arth Ector,” Frost pointed to the door, “he’th ere. Ow.”

Here? Glokta could feel his eyelid twitching. Why? He pushed himself up using the edge of the table. Will they find me in the canal tomorrow? Dead and bloated, far… far beyond recognition? The only emotion that he felt at the idea was a flutter of mild relief. No more stairs.

The Arch Lector of His Majesty’s Inquisition was standing outside in the corridor. The grimy walls looked almost brown behind him, so brilliantly spotless were his long white coat, his white gloves, his shock of white hair. He was past sixty, but showed none of the infirmity of age. Every tall, clean-shaven, fine-boned inch of him was immaculately turned out. He looks like a man who has never once in his life been surprised by anything.

They had met once before, six years earlier when Glokta joined the Inquisition, and he hardly seemed to have changed. Arch Lector Sult. One of the most powerful men in the Union. One of the most powerful men in the world, come to that. Behind him, almost like outsized shadows, loomed two enormous, silent, black-masked Practicals.

The Arch Lector gave a thin smile when he saw Glokta shuffle out of his door. It said a lot, that smile. Mild scorn, mild pity, the very slightest touch of menace. Anything but amusement. “Inquisitor Glokta,” he said, holding out one white-gloved hand, palm down. A ring with a huge purple stone flashed on his finger.

“I serve and obey, your Eminence.” Glokta could not help grimacing as he bent slowly forward to touch his lips to the ring. A difficult and painful manoeuvre, it seemed to take forever. When he finally hoisted himself back upright, Sult was gazing at him calmly with his cool blue eyes. A look that implied he already understood Glokta completely, and was unimpressed.

“Come with me.” The Arch Lector turned and swept away down the corridor. Glokta limped along after him, the silent Practicals marching close behind. Sult moved with an effortless, languid confidence, coat tails flapping gracefully out behind him. Bastard. Soon they reached a door, much like his own. The Arch Lector unlocked it and went inside, the Practicals took up positions either side of the doorway, arms folded. A private interview then. One which I, perhaps, will never leave. Glokta stepped over the threshold.

A box of grubby white plaster too brightly lit and with a ceiling too low for comfort. It had a big crack instead of a damp patch, but was otherwise identical to his own room. It had the scarred table, the cheap chairs, it even had a poorly cleaned bloodstain. I wonder if they’re painted on, for the effect? One of the Practicals suddenly pulled the door shut with a loud bang. Glokta was intended to jump, but he couldn’t be bothered.

Arch Lector Sult lowered himself gracefully into one of the seats, drew a heavy sheaf of yellowing papers across the table towards him. He waved his hand at the other chair, the one that would be used by the prisoner. The implications were not lost on Glokta.

“I prefer to stand, your Eminence.”

Sult smiled at him. He had lovely, pointy teeth, all shiny white. “No, you don’t.”

He has me there. Glokta lowered himself ungracefully into the prisoner’s chair while the Arch Lector turned over the first page of his wedge of documents, frowned and shook his head gently as though horribly disappointed by what he saw. The details of my illustrious career, perhaps?

“I had a visit from Superior Kalyne not long ago. He was most upset.” Sult’s hard blue eyes came up from his papers. “Upset with you, Glokta. He was quite vocal on the subject. He told me that you are an uncontrollable menace, that you act without a thought for the consequences, that you are a mad cripple. He demanded that you be removed from his department.” The Arch Lector smiled, a cold, nasty smile, the kind Glokta used on his prisoners. But with more teeth. “I think he had it in mind that you be removed… altogether.” They stared at each other across the table.

Is this where I beg for mercy? Is this where I crawl on the ground and kiss your feet? Well, I don’t care enough to beg and I’m far too stiff to crawl. Your Practicals will have to kill me sitting down. Cut my throat. Bash my head in. Whatever. As long as they get on with it.

But Sult was in no rush. The white-gloved hands moved neatly, precisely, the pages hissed and crackled. “We have few men like you in the Inquisition, Glokta. A nobleman, from an excellent family. A champion swordsman, a dashing cavalry officer. A man once groomed for the very top.” Sult looked him up and down as though he could hardly believe it.

“That was before the war, Arch Lector.”

“Obviously. There was much dismay at your capture, and little hope that you would be returned alive. As the war dragged on and the months passed, hope diminished to nothing, but when the treaty was signed, you were among those prisoners returned to the Union.” He peered at Glokta through narrowed eyes. “Did you talk?”

Glokta couldn’t help himself, he spluttered with shrill laughter. It echoed strangely in the cold room. Not a sound you often heard down here. “Did I talk? I talked until my throat was raw. I told them everything I could think of. I screamed every secret I’d ever heard. I babbled like a fool. When I ran out of things to tell them I made things up. I pissed myself and cried like a girl. Everyone does.”

“But not everyone survives. Two years in the Emperor’s prisons. No one else lasted half that long. The physicians were sure you would never leave your bed again, but a year later you made your application to the Inquisition.” We both know it. We were both there. What do you want from me, and why not get on with it? I suppose some men just love the sound of their own voices.

“I was told that you were crippled, that you were broken, that you could never be mended, that you could never be trusted. But I was inclined to give you a chance. Some fool wins the Contest every year, and wars produce many promising soldiers, but your achievement in surviving those two years was unique. So you were sent to the North, and put in charge of one of our mines there. What did you make of Angland?”

A filthy sink of violence and corruption. A prison where we have made slaves of the innocent and guilty alike in the name of freedom. A stinking hole where we send those we hate and those we are ashamed of to die of hunger, and disease, and hard labour. “It was cold,” said Glokta.

“And so were you. You made few friends in Angland. Precious few among the Inquisition, and none among the exiles.” He plucked a tattered letter from among the papers and cast a critical eye over it. “Superior Goyle told me that you were a cold fish, had no blood in you at all. He thought you’d never amount to anything, that he could make no use of you.” Goyle. That bastard. That butcher. I’d rather have no blood than no brains.

“But after three years, production was up. It was doubled in fact. So you were brought back to Adua, to work under Superior Kalyne. I thought perhaps you would learn discipline with him, but it seems I was wrong. You insist on going your own way.” The Arch Lector frowned up at him. “To be frank, I think that Kalyne is afraid of you. I think they all are. They don’t like your arrogance, they don’t like your methods, they don’t like your… special insight into our work.”

“And what do you think, Arch Lector?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure I like your methods much either, and I doubt that your arrogance is entirely deserved. But I like your results. I like your results very much.” He slapped the bundle of papers closed and rested one hand on top of it, leaning across the table towards Glokta. As I might lean towards my prisoners when I ask them to confess. “I have a task for you. A task that should make better use of your talents than chasing around after petty smugglers. A task that may allow you to redeem yourself in the eyes of the Inquisition.” The Arch Lector paused for a long moment. “I want you to arrest Sepp dan Teufel.”

Glokta frowned. Teufel? “The Master of the Mints, your Eminence?”

“The very same.”

The Master of the Royal Mints. An important man from an important family. A very big fish, to be hooked in my little tank. A fish with powerful friends. It could be dangerous, arresting a man like that. It could be fatal. “May I ask why?”

“You may not. Let me worry about the whys. You concentrate on obtaining a confession.”

“A confession to what, Arch Lector?”

“Why, to corruption and high treason! It seems our friend the Master of the Mints has been most indiscreet in some of his personal dealings. It seems he has been taking bribes, conspiring with the Guild of Mercers to defraud the King. As such, it would be very useful if a ranking Mercer were to name him, in some unfortunate connection.”

It can hardly be a coincidence that I have a ranking Mercer in my interrogation room, even as we speak. Glokta shrugged. “Once people start talking, it’s shocking the names that tumble out.”

“Good.” The Arch Lector waved his hand. “You may go, Inquisitor. I will come for Teufel’s confession this time tomorrow. You had better have it.”

Glokta breathed slowly as he laboured back along the corridor.

Breath in, breath out. Calm. He had not expected to leave that room alive. And now I find myself moving in powerful circles. A personal task for the Arch Lector, squeezing a confession to high treason from one of the Unions most trusted officials. The most powerful of circles, but for how long? Why me? Because of my results? Or because I won’t be missed?


“I apologise for all the interruptions today, really I do, it’s like a brothel in here with all the coming and going.” Rews twisted his cracked and swollen lips into a sad smile. Smiling at a time like this, he’s a marvel. But all things must end. “Let us be honest, Rews. No one is coming to help you. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. You will confess. The only choices you have are when, and the state you’ll be in when you do. There’s really nothing to be gained by putting it off. Except pain. We’ve got lots of that for you.”

It was hard to read the expression on Rews’ bloody face, but his shoulders sagged. He dipped the pen in the ink with a trembling hand, wrote his name, slightly slanted, across the bottom of the paper of confession. I win again. Does my leg hurt any less? Do I have my teeth back? Has it helped me to destroy this man, who I once called a friend? Then why do I do this? The scratching of the nib on the paper was the only reply.

“Excellent,” said Glokta. Practical Frost turned the document over. “And this is the list of your accomplices?” He let his eye scan lazily over the names. A handful of junior Mercers, three ship’s captains, an officer of the city watch, a pair of minor customs officials. A tedious recipe indeed. Let us see if we can add some spice. Glokta turned it around and pushed it back across the table. “Add Sepp dan Teufel’s name to the list, Rews.”

The fat man looked confused. “The Master of the Mints?” he mumbled, through his thick lips.

“That’s the one.”

“But I never met the man.”

“So?” snapped Glokta. “Do as I tell you.” Rews paused, mouth a little open. “Write, you fat pig.” Practical Frost cracked his knuckles.

Rews licked his lips. “Sepp… dan… Teufel,” he mumbled to himself as he wrote.

“Excellent.” Glokta carefully shut the lid on his horrible, beautiful instruments. “I’m glad for both our sakes that we won’t be needing these today.”

Frost snapped the manacles shut on the prisoner’s wrists and dragged him to his feet, started to march him toward the door at the back of the room. “What now?” shouted Rews over his shoulder.

“Angland, Rews, Angland. Don’t forget to pack something warm.” The door cracked shut behind him. Glokta looked at the list of names in his hands. Sepp dan Teufel’s sat at the bottom. One name. On the face of it, just like the others. Teufel. Just one more name. But such a perilous one.

Severard was waiting outside in the corridor, smiling as always. “Shall I put the fat man in the canal?”

“No, Severard. Put him in the next boat to Angland.”

“You’re in a merciful mood today, Inquisitor.”

Glokta snorted. “Mercy would be the canal. That swine won’t last six weeks in the North. Forget him. We have to arrest Sepp dan Teufel tonight.”

Severard’s eyebrows rose. “Not the Master of the Mints?”

“None other. On the express orders of his Eminence the Arch Lector. It seems he’s been taking money from the Mercers.”

“Oh, for shame.”

“We’ll leave as soon as it gets dark. Tell Frost to be ready.”

The thin Practical nodded, his long hair swaying. Glokta turned and hobbled up the corridor, cane tapping on the grimy tiles, left leg burning.

Why do I do this? He asked himself again.

Why do I do this?

<p>No Choice at All</p>

Logen woke with a painful jolt. He was lying awkwardly, head twisted against something hard, knees drawn up towards his chest. He opened his eyes a bleary crack. It was dark, but there was a faint glow coming from somewhere. Light through snow.

Panic stabbed at him. He knew where he was now. He’d piled some snow in the entrance to the tiny cave, to try and keep in the warmth, such as it was. It must have snowed while he was sleeping, and sealed him in. If the fall had been a heavy one there could be a lot of snow out there. Drifts deeper than a man was tall. He might never get out. He could have climbed all the way up out of the high valleys just to die in a hole in the rock, too cramped for him to even stretch out his legs.

Logen twisted round in the narrow space as best he could, dug away at the snow with his numb hands, floundering at it, grappling with it, hacking through it, mouthing breathless curses to himself. Light spilled in suddenly, searing bright. He shoved the last of the snow out of the way and dragged himself through into the open air.

The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was blazing overhead. He turned his face towards it, closed his stinging eyes and let the light wash over him. The air was painful cold in his throat. Cutting cold. His mouth was dry as dust, his tongue a piece of wood, badly carved. He scooped up snow and shoved it into his mouth. It melted, he swallowed. Cold, it made his head hurt.

There was a graveyard stink coming from somewhere. Not just his own damp and sour sweat smell, though that was bad enough. It was the blanket, starting to rot. He had two pieces of it wrapped round his hands like mittens, tied round his wrists with twine, another round his head, like a dirty, foul-smelling hood. His boots were stuffed tight with it. The rest was wrapped round and round his body, under his coat. It smelled bad, but it had saved his life last night, and that was a good trade to Logen’s mind. It would stink a good deal more before he could afford to get rid of it.

He floundered to his feet and stared about. A narrow valley, steep sided and choked with snow. Three great peaks surrounded it, piles of dark grey stone and white snow against the blue sky. He knew them. Old friends, in fact. The only ones he had left. He was up in the High Places. The roof of the world. He was safe.

“Safe,” he croaked to himself, but without much joy. Safe from food, certainly. Safe from warmth, without a doubt. Neither of those things would be troubling him up here. He’d escaped the Shanka, maybe, but this was a place for the dead, and if he stayed he’d be joining them.

He was brutal hungry as it was. His belly was a great, painful hole that called to him with piercing cries. He fumbled in his pack for the last strip of meat. An old, brown, greasy thing like a dry twig. That would hardly fill the gap, but it was all he had. He tore at it with his teeth, tough as old boot leather, and choked it down with some snow.

Logen shielded his eyes with his arm and looked northward down the valley, the way he’d come the day before. The ground dropped slowly away, snow and rock giving way to the pine-covered fells of the high valleys, trees giving way to a crinkled strip of grazing land, grassy hills giving way to the sea, a sparkling line on the far horizon. Home. The thought of it made Logen feel sick.

Home. That was where his family was. His father—wise and strong, a good man, a good leader to his people. His wife, his children. They were a good family. They deserved a better son, a better husband, a better father. His friends were there too. Old and new together. It would be good to see them all again, very good. To speak to his father in the long hall. To play with his children, to sit with his wife by the river. To talk of tactics with Threetrees. To hunt with the Dogman in the high valleys, crashing through the forest with a spear, laughing like a fool.

Logen felt a sudden painful longing. He nearly choked on the pain of it. Trouble was, they were all dead. The hall was a ring of black splinters, the river a sewer. He’d never forget coming over the hill, seeing the burnt-out ruin in the valley below. Crawling through the ashes, fumbling for signs that someone got away, while the Dogman pulled at his shoulder and told him to give it up. Nothing but corpses, rotted past knowing. He was done looking for signs. They were all dead as the Shanka could make them, and that was dead for sure. He spat in the snow, brown spit from the dry meat. Dead and cold and rotted, or burned to ashes. Gone back to the mud.

Logen set his jaw and clenched his fists under the rotten shreds of blanket. He could go back to the ruins of the village by the sea, just one last time. He could charge down with a fighting roar in his throat, the way he had done at Carleon, when he’d lost a finger and won a reputation. He could put a few Shanka out of the world. Split them like he’d split Shama Heartless, shoulder to guts so his insides fell out. He could get vengeance for his father, his wife, his children, his friends. That would be a fitting end for the one they called the Bloody-Nine. To die killing. That might be a song worth the singing.

But at Carleon he’d been young and strong, and with his friends behind him. Now he was weak, and hungry, and alone as could be. He’d killed Shama Heartless with a long sword, sharp as anything. He looked down at his knife. It might be a good one, but he’d get precious little vengeance with it. And who’d sing the song anyway? The Shanka had poor singing voices and worse imaginations, if they even recognised the stinking beggar in the blanket after they’d shot him full of arrows. Perhaps the vengeance could wait, at least until he had a bigger blade to work with. You have to be realistic, after all.

South then, and become a wanderer. There was always work for a man with his skills. Hard work perhaps, and dark, but work all the same. There was an appeal in it, he had to admit. To have no one depending on him but himself, for his decisions to hold no importance, for no one’s life or death to be in his hands. He had enemies in the south, that was a fact. But the Bloody-Nine had dealt with enemies before.

He spat again. Now that he had some spit he thought he might make the most of it. It was about all he did have—spit, an old pot, and some stinking bits of blanket. Dead in the north or alive in the south. That was what it came down to, and that was no choice at all.

You carry on. That’s what he’d always done. That’s the task that comes with surviving, whether you deserve to live or not. You remember the dead as best you can. You say some words for them. Then you carry on, and you hope for better.

Logen took in a long, cold breath, and blew it out. “Fare you well, my friends,” he muttered. “Fare you well.” Then he threw his pack over his shoulder, turned, and began to flounder through the deep snow. Downwards, southwards, out of the mountains.


It was raining, still. A soft rain that coated everything in cold dew, collected on the branches, on the leaves, on the needles, and dripped off in great fat drops that soaked through Logen’s wet clothes and onto his wet skin.

He squatted, still and silent, in the damp brush, water running down his face, the bright blade of his knife glistening with wet. He felt the great motion of the forest and heard all its thousand sounds. The countless crawling of the insects, the blind scuttling of the moles, the timid rustling of the deer, the slow pulsing of the sap in the old tree trunks. Each thing alive in the forest was in search of its own kind of food, and he was the same. He let his mind settle on an animal close to him, moving cautiously through the woods to his right. Delicious. The forest grew silent but for the endless dripping of water from the branches. The world shrank down to Logen and his next meal.

When he reckoned it was close enough, he sprang forward and bore it down onto the wet ground. A young deer. It kicked and struggled but he was strong and quick, and he stabbed his knife into its neck and chopped the throat out. Hot blood surged from the wound, spilled out across Logen’s hands, onto the wet earth.

He picked up the carcass and slung it over his shoulders. That would be good in a stew, maybe with some mushrooms. Very good. Then, once he’d eaten, he would ask the spirits for guidance. Their guidance was pretty useless, but the company would be welcome.

When he reached his camp it was close to sunset. It was a dwelling fit for a hero of Logen’s stature—two big sticks holding a load of damp branches over a hollow in the dirt. Still, it was halfway dry in there, and the rain had stopped. He would have a fire tonight. It was a long time since he’d had a treat like that. A fire, and all his own.

Later, well fed and rested, Logen pressed a lump of chagga into his pipe. He’d found it growing a few days before at the base of a tree, big moist yellow discs of it. He’d broken off a good chunk for himself, but it hadn’t dried out enough to smoke until today. Now he took a burning twig from the fire and stuck it in the bowl, puffing away hard until the fungus caught and began to burn, giving off its familiar earthy-sweet smell.

Logen coughed, blew out brown smoke and stared into the shifting flames. His mind went back to other times and other campfires. The Dogman was there, grinning, the light gleaming on his pointy teeth. Tul Duru was sitting opposite, big as a mountain, laughing like thunder. Forley the Weakest too, with those nervous eyes darting around, always a little scared. Rudd Threetrees was there, and Harding Grim, saying nothing. He never did say anything. That was why they called him Grim.

They were all there. Only they weren’t. They were all dead, gone back to the mud. Logen tapped the pipe out into the fire and shoved it away. He had no taste for it now. His father had been right. You should never smoke alone.

He unscrewed the cap of the battered flask, took a mouthful, and blew it out in a spray of tiny drops. A gout of flame went up into the cold air. Logen wiped his lips, savouring the hot, bitter taste. Then he sat back against the knotted trunk of a pine, and waited.

It was a while before they came. Three of them. They came silently from the dancing shadows among the trees and made slowly for the fire, taking shape as they moved into the light.

“Ninefingers,” said the first.

“Ninefingers,” the second.

“Ninefingers,” the third, voices like the thousand sounds of the forest.

“You’re right welcome to my fire,” said Logen. The spirits squatted and stared at him without expression. “Only three tonight?”

The one on the right spoke first. “Every year fewer of us wake from the winter. We are all that remain. A few more winters will pass, and we will sleep also. There will be none of us left to answer your call.”

Logen nodded sadly. “Any news from the world?”

“We heard a man fell off a cliff but washed up alive, then crossed the High Places at the start of spring, wrapped in a rotten blanket, but we put no faith in such rumours.”

“Very wise.”

“Bethod has been making war,” said the spirit in the centre.

Logen frowned. “Bethod is always making war. That’s what he does.”

“Yes. He has won so many fights now, with your help, he has given himself a golden hat.”

“Shit on that bastard,” said Logen, spitting into the fire. “What else?”

“North of the mountains, the Shanka run around and burn things.”

“They love the fire,” said the spirit in the centre.

“They do,” said the one on the left, “even more than your kind, Ninefingers. They love and fear it.” The spirit leaned forwards. “We heard there is a man seeking for you in the moors to the south.”

“A powerful man,” said the one in the centre.

“A Magus of the Old Time,” the one on the left.

Logen frowned. He’d heard of these Magi. He met a sorcerer once, but he’d been easy to kill. No unnatural powers in particular, not that Logen had noticed. But a Magus was something else.

“We heard that the Magi are wise and strong,” said the spirit in the centre, “and that such a one could take a man far and show him many things. But they are crafty too, and have their own purposes.”

“What does he want?”

“Ask him.” Spirits cared little for the business of men, they were always weak on the details. Still, this was better than the usual talk about trees.

“What will you do, Ninefingers?”

Logen considered a moment. “I will go south and find this Magus, and ask him what he wants from me.”

The spirits nodded. They didn’t show whether they thought it was a good idea or bad. They didn’t care.

“Farewell then, Ninefingers,” said the spirit on the right, “perhaps for the last time.”

“I’ll try to struggle on without you.”

Logen’s wit was wasted on them. They rose and moved away from the fire, fading gradually into the darkness. Soon they were gone, but Logen had to admit they had been more use than he dared to hope. They had given him a purpose.

He would head south in the morning, head south and find this Magus. Who knew? He might be a good talker. Had to be better than being shot full of arrows for nothing, at least. Logen looked into the flames, nodding slowly to himself.

He remembered other times and other campfires, when he had not been alone.

<p>Playing With Knives</p>

It was a beautiful spring day in Adua, and the sun shone pleasantly through the branches of the aromatic cedar, casting a dappled shade on the players beneath. A pleasing breeze fluttered through the courtyard, so the cards were clutched tightly or weighted down with glasses or coins. Birds twittered from the trees, and the shears of a gardener clacked across from the far side of the lawn, making faint, agreeable echoes against the tall white buildings of the quadrangle. Whether or not the players found the large sum of money in the centre of the table pleasant depended, of course, on the cards they held.

Captain Jezal dan Luthar certainly liked it. He had discovered an uncanny talent for the game since he gained his commission in the King’s Own, a talent which he had used to win large sums of money from his comrades. He didn’t really need the money, of course, coming from such a wealthy family, but it had allowed him to maintain an illusion of thrift while spending like a sailor. Whenever Jezal went home, his father bored everyone on the subject of his good fiscal planning, and had rewarded him by buying his Captaincy just six months ago. His brothers had not been happy. Yes, the money was certainly useful, and there’s nothing half so amusing as humiliating one’s closest friends.

Jezal half sat, half lay back on his bench with one leg stretched out, and allowed his eyes to wander over the other players. Major West had rocked his chair so far onto its back legs that he looked in imminent danger of tipping over entirely. He was holding his glass up to the sun, admiring the way that the light filtered through the amber spirit inside. He had a faint, mysterious smile which seemed to say, “I am not a nobleman, and may be your social inferior, but I won a Contest and the King’s favour on the battlefield and that makes me the better man, so you children will damn well do as I say.” He was out of this hand though, and, in Jezal’s opinion, far too cautious with his money anyway.

Lieutenant Kaspa was sitting forward, frowning and scratching his sandy beard, staring intently at his cards as though they were sums he didn’t understand. He was a good-humoured young man but an oaf of a card player, and was always most appreciative when Jezal bought him drinks with his own money. Still, he could well afford to lose it: his father was one of the biggest landowners in the Union.

Jezal had often observed that the ever so slightly stupid will act more stupidly in clever company. Having lost the high ground already they scramble eagerly for the position of likeable idiot, stay out of arguments they will only lose, and can hence be everyone’s friend. Kaspa’s look of baffled concentration seemed to say, “I am not clever, but honest and likeable, which is much more important. Cleverness is overrated. Oh, and I’m very, very rich, so everyone likes me regardless.”

“I believe I’ll stay with you,” said Kaspa, and tossed a small stack of silver coins onto the table. They broke and flashed in the sun with a cheerful jingle. Jezal absently added up the total in his head. A new uniform perhaps? Kaspa always got a little quivery when he really held good cards, and he was not trembling now. To say that he was bluffing was to give him far too much credit; more likely he was simply bored with sitting out. Jezal had no doubt that he would fold up like a cheap tent on the next round of betting.

Lieutenant Jalenhorm scowled and tossed his cards onto the table. “I’ve had nothing but shit today!” he rumbled. He sat back in his chair and hunched his brawny shoulders with a frown that said, “I am big and manly, and have a quick temper, so I should be treated with respect by everyone.” Respect was precisely what Jezal never gave him at the card table. A bad temper might be useful in a fight, but it’s a liability where money is concerned, it was a shame his hand hadn’t been a little better, or Jezal could’ve allied him out of half his pay. Jalenhorm drained his glass and reached for the bottle.

That just left Brint, the youngest and poorest of the group. He licked his lips with an expression at once careful and slightly desperate, an expression which seemed to say, “I am not young or poor. I can afford to lose this money. I am every bit as important as the rest of you.” He had a lot of money today; perhaps his allowance had just come in. Perhaps that was all he had to live on for the next couple of months. Jezal planned to take that money away from him and waste it all on women and drink. He had to stop himself giggling at the thought. He could giggle when he’d won the hand. Brint sat back and considered carefully. He might be some time making his decision, so Jezal took his pipe from the table.

He lit it at the lamp provided especially for that purpose and blew ragged smoke rings up into the branches of the cedar. He wasn’t half as good at smoking as he was at cards, unfortunately, and most of the rings were no more than ugly puffs of yellow-brown vapour. If he was being completely honest, he didn’t really enjoy smoking. It made him feel a bit sick, but it was very fashionable and very expensive, and Jezal would be damned if he would miss out on something fashionable just because he didn’t like it. Besides, his father had bought him a beautiful ivory pipe the last time he was in the city, and it looked very well on him. His brothers had not been happy about that either, come to think of it.

“I’m in,” said Brint.

Jezal swung his leg off the bench. “Then I raise you a hundred marks or so.” He shoved his whole stack into the centre of the table. West sucked air through his teeth. A coin fell from the top of the pile, landed on its edge and rolled along the wood. It dropped to the flags beneath with the unmistakeable sound of falling money. The head of the gardener on the other side of the lawn snapped up instinctively, before he returned to his clipping of the grass.

Kaspa shoved his cards away as though they were burning his fingers and shook his head. “Damn it but I’m an oaf of a card player,” he lamented, and leaned back against the rough brown trunk of the tree.

Jezal stared straight at Lieutenant Brint, a slight smile on his face, giving nothing away. “He’s bluffing,” rumbled Jalenhorm, “don’t let him push you around, Brint.”

“Don’t do it, Lieutenant,” said West, but Jezal knew he would. He had to look as if he could afford to lose. Brint didn’t hesitate, he pushed all his own coins in with a careless flourish.

“That’s a hundred, give or take.” Brint was trying his hardest to sound masterful in front of the older officers, but his voice had a charming note of hysteria.

“Good enough,” said Jezal, “we’re all friends here. What do you have, Lieutenant?”

“I have earth.” Brint’s eyes had a slightly feverish look to them as he showed his cards to the group.

Jezal savoured the tense atmosphere. He frowned, shrugged, raised his eyebrows. He scratched his head thoughtfully. He watched Brint’s expression change as he changed his own. Hope, despair, hope, despair. At length Jezal spread his cards out on the table. “Oh look. I have suns, again.”

Brint’s face was a picture. West gave a sigh and shook his head. Jalenhorm frowned. “I was sure he was bluffing,” he said.

“How does he do it?” asked Kaspa, flicking a stray coin across the table.

Jezal shrugged. “It’s all about the players, and nothing about the cards.” He began to scoop up the heap of silver while Brint looked on, teeth gritted, face pale. The money jingled into the bag with a pleasant sound. Pleasant to Jezal, anyway. A coin dropped from the table and fell next to Brint’s boot. “You couldn’t fetch that for me could you Lieutenant?” asked Jezal, with a syrupy smile.

Brint stood up quickly, knocking into the table and making the coins and glasses jump and rattle. “I’ve things to do,” he said in a thick voice, then shouldered roughly past Jezal, barging him against the trunk of the tree, and strode off toward the edge of the courtyard. He disappeared into the officers’ quarters, head down.

“Did you see that?” Jezal was becoming ever more indignant with each passing moment. “Barging me like that, it’s damn impolite! And me his superior officer as well! I’ve a good mind to put him on report!” A chorus of disapproving sounds greeted this mention of reports. “Well, he’s a bad loser is all!”

Jalenhorm looked sternly out from beneath his brows. “You shouldn’t bite him so hard. He isn’t rich. He can’t afford to lose.”

“Well if he can’t afford to lose he shouldn’t play!” snapped Jezal, upset. “Who’s the one told him I was bluffing? You should keep your big mouth shut!”

“He’s new here,” said West, “he just wants to fit in. Weren’t you new once?”

“What are you, my father?” Jezal remembered being new with painful clarity, and the mention of it made him feel just a little ashamed.

Kaspa waved his hand. “I’ll lend him some money, don’t worry.”

“He won’t take it,” said Jalenhorm.

“Well, that’s his business.” Kaspa closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sun. “Hot. Winter is truly over. Must be getting past midday.”

“Shit!” shouted Jezal, starting up and gathering his things. The gardener paused in his trimming of the lawn and looked over at them. “Why didn’t you say something, West?”

“What am I, your father?” asked the Major. Kaspa sniggered.

“Late again,” said Jalenhorm, blowing out his cheeks. “The Lord Marshal will not be happy!”

Jezal snatched up his fencing steels and ran for the far side of the lawn. Major West ambled after him. “Come on!” shouted Jezal.

“I’m right behind you, Captain,” he said. “Right behind you.”


“Jab, jab, Jezal, jab, jab!” barked Lord Marshal Varuz, whacking him on the arm with his stick.

“Ow,” yelped Jezal, and hefted the metal bar again.

“I want to see that right arm moving, Captain, darting like a snake! I want to be blinded by the speed of those hands!”

Jezal made a couple more clumsy lunges with the unwieldy lump of iron. It was utter torture. His fingers, his wrist, his forearm, his shoulder, were burning with the effort. He was soaked to the skin with sweat; it flew from his face in big drops. Marshal Varuz flicked his feeble efforts away. “Now, cut! Cut with the left!”

Jezal swung the big smith’s hammer at the old man’s head with all the strength in his left arm. He could barely lift the damn thing on a good day. Marshal Varuz stepped effortlessly aside and whacked him in the face with the stick.

“Yow!” wailed Jezal, as he stumbled back. He fumbled the hammer and it dropped on his foot. “Aaargh!” The iron bar clanged to the floor as he bent down to grab his screaming toes. He felt a stinging pain as Varuz whacked him across the arse, the sharp smack echoing across the courtyard, and he sprawled onto his face.

“That’s pitiful!” shouted the old man. “You are embarrassing me in front of Major West!” The Major had rocked his chair back and was shaking with muffled laughter. Jezal stared at the Marshal’s immaculately polished boots, seeing no pressing need to get up.

“Up, Captain Luthar!” shouted Varuz. “My time at least is valuable!”

“Alright! Alright!” Jezal clambered wearily to his feet and stood there swaying in the hot sun, panting for air, running with sweat.

Varuz stepped close to him and sniffed at his breath. “Have you been drinking today already?” he demanded, his grey moustaches bristling. “And last night too, no doubt!” Jezal had no reply. “Well damn you, then! We have work to do, Captain Luthar, and I cannot do it alone! Four months until the Contest, four months to make a master swordsman of you!”

Varuz waited for a reply, but Jezal could not think of one. He was only really doing this to make his father happy, but somehow he didn’t think that was what the old soldier wanted to hear, and he could do without being hit again. “Bah!” Varuz barked in Jezal’s face, and turned away, stick clenched tight behind him in both hands.

“Marshal Var—” Jezal began, but before he could finish the old soldier span around and jabbed him right in the stomach.

“Gargh,” said Jezal as he sank to his knees. Varuz stood over him.

“You are going to go on a little run for me, Captain.”

“Aaaargh.”

“You are going to run from here to the Tower of Chains. You are going to run up the tower to the parapet. We will know when you have arrived, as the Major and I will be enjoying a relaxing game of squares on the roof,” he indicated the six-storey building behind him, “in plain view of the top of the tower. I will be able to see you with my eye-glass, so there will be no cheating this time!” and he whacked Jezal on the top of the head.

“Ow,” said Jezal, rubbing his scalp.

“Having shown yourself on the roof, you will run back. You will run as fast as you can, and I know this to be true, because if you have not returned by the time we have finished our game, you will go again.” Jezal winced. “Major West is an excellent hand at squares, so it should take me half an hour to beat him. I suggest you begin at once.”

Jezal lurched to his feet and jogged toward the archway at the far side of the courtyard, muttering curses.

“You’ll need to go faster than that, Captain!” Varuz called after him. Jezal’s legs were blocks of lead, but he urged them on.

“Knees up!” shouted Major West cheerily.

Jezal clattered down the passageway, past a smirking porter sitting by the door, and out onto the broad avenue beyond. He jogged past the ivy-covered walls of the University, cursing the names of Varuz and West under his heaving breath, then by the near windowless mass of the House of Questions, its heavy front gate sealed tight. He passed a few colourless clerks hurrying this way and that, but the Agriont was quiet at this time of the afternoon, and Jezal saw nobody of interest until he passed into the park.

Three fashionable young ladies were sitting in the shade of a spreading willow by the lake, accompanied by an elderly chaperone. Jezal upped his pace immediately, and replaced his tortured expression with a nonchalant smile.

“Ladies,” he said as he flashed past. He heard them giggling to one another behind him and silently congratulated himself, but slowed to half the speed as soon as he was out of sight.

“Varuz be damned,” he said to himself, nearly walking as he turned onto the Kingsway, but had to speed up again straight away. Crown Prince Ladisla was not twenty strides off, holding forth to his enormous, brightly coloured retinue.

“Captain Luthar!” shouted his Highness, sunlight flashing off his outrageous golden buttons, “run for all you’re worth! I have a thousand marks on you to win the Contest!”

Jezal had it on good authority that the Prince had backed Bremer dan Gorst to the tune of two thousand marks, but he still bowed as low as he possibly could while running. The prince’s entourage of dandies cheered and shouted half-hearted encouragements at his receding back. “Bloody idiots,” hissed Jezal under his breath, but he would have loved to be one of them.

He passed the huge stone effigies of six hundred years of High Kings on his right, the statues of their loyal retainers, slightly smaller, on his left. He nodded to the great Magus Bayaz just before he turned into the Square of Marshals, but the wizard frowned back as disapprovingly as ever, the awe-inspiring effect only slightly diminished by a streak of white pigeon shit on his stony cheek.

With the Open Council in session the square was almost empty, and Jezal was able to amble over to the gate of the Halls Martial. A thick set sergeant nodded to him as he passed through, and Jezal wondered whether he might be from his own company—the common soldiers all looked the same, after all. He ignored the man and ran on between the towering white buildings.

“Perfect,” muttered Jezal. Jalenhorm and Kaspa were sitting by the door to the Tower of Chains, smoking pipes and laughing. The bastards must have guessed that he’d be coming this way.

“For honour, and glory!” bellowed Kaspa, rattling his sword in its scabbard as Jezal ran by. “Don’t keep the Lord Marshal waiting!” he shouted from behind, and Jezal heard the big man roaring with amusement.

“Bloody idiots,” panted Jezal, shouldering open the heavy door, breath rasping as he started up the steep spiral staircase. It was one of the highest towers in the Agriont: there were two hundred and ninety-one steps in all. “Bloody steps,” he cursed to himself. By the time he reached the hundredth his legs were burning and his chest was heaving. By the time he reached the two-hundredth he was a wreck. He walked the rest of the way, every footfall torture, and eventually burst out through a turret onto the roof and leaned on the parapet, blinking in the sudden brightness.

To the south the city was spread out below him, an endless carpet of white houses stretching all around the glittering bay. In the other direction, the view over the Agriont was even more impressive. A great confusion of magnificent buildings piled one upon the other, broken up by green lawns and great trees, circled by its wide moat and its towering wall, studded with a hundred lofty towers. The Kingsway sliced straight through the centre toward the Lords’ Round, its bronze dome shining in the sunlight. The tall spires of the University stood behind, and beyond them loomed the grim immensity of the House of the Maker, rearing high over all like a dark mountain, casting its long shadow across the buildings below.

Jezal fancied that he saw the sun glint on Marshal Varuz’ eyeglass in the distance. He cursed once again and made for the stairs.


Jezal was immensely relieved when he finally made it to the roof and saw that there were still a few white pieces on the board.

Marshal Varuz frowned up at him. “You are very lucky. The Major has put up an exceptionally determined defence.” A smile broke West’s features. “You must somehow have earned his respect, even if you have yet to win mine.”

Jezal bent over with his hands on his knees, blowing hard and dripping sweat onto the floor. Varuz took the long case from the table, walked over to Jezal and flipped it open. “Show us your forms.”

Jezal took the short steel in his left hand and the long in his right. They felt light as feathers after the heavy iron. Marshal Varuz backed away a step. “Begin.”

He snapped into the first form, right arm extended, left close to the body. The blades swished and weaved through the air, glittering in the afternoon sun as Jezal moved from one familiar stance to the next with a practised smoothness. At length he was finished, and he let the steels drop to his sides.

Varuz nodded. “The Captain has fast hands, has he not?”

“Truly excellent,” said Major West, smiling broadly. “A damn sight better than ever I was.”

The Lord Marshal was less impressed. “Your knees are too far bent in the third form, and you must strive for more extension on the left arm in the fourth, but otherwise,” he paused, “passable.” Jezal breathed a sigh of relief. That was high praise indeed.

“Hah!” shouted the old man, striking him in the ribs with the end of the case. Jezal sank to the floor, hardly able to breathe. “Your reflexes need work, though, Captain. You should always be ready. Always. If you have steels in your hands, you damn well keep them up.”

“Yes, sir,” croaked Jezal.

“And your stamina is a disgrace, you are blowing like a carp. I have it on good authority that Bremer dan Gorst runs ten miles a day, and barely shows a sweat.” Marshal Varuz leaned down over him. “From now on you will do the same. Oh yes. A circuit of the wall of the Agriont every morning at six, followed by an hour of sparring with Major West, who has been kind enough to agree to act as your partner. I am confident that he will point up all the little weaknesses in your technique.”

Jezal winced and rubbed his aching ribs. “As for the carousing, I want an end to it. I am all for revelry in its proper place, but there will be time for celebration after the Contest, providing you have worked hard enough to win. Until then, clean living is what we need. Do you understand me, Captain Luthar?” He leaned down further, pronouncing every word with great care. “Clean. Living. Captain.”

“Yes, Marshal Varuz,” mumbled Jezal.


Six hours later he was drunker than shit. Laughing like a lunatic he plunged out into the street, head spinning. The cold air slapped him hard in the face, the mean little buildings weaved and swayed, the ill-lit road tipped like a sinking ship. Jezal wrestled manfully with the urge to vomit, took a swaggering step out into the street, turned to face the door. Smeary bright light and loud sounds of laughter and shouting washed out at him. A ragged shape flew from the tavern and struck him in the chest. Jezal grappled with it desperately, then fell. He hit the ground with a bone-jarring crash.

The world was dark for a moment, then he found himself squashed into the dirt with Kaspa on top of him. “Damn it!” he gurgled, tongue thick and clumsy in his mouth. He shoved the giggling Lieutenant away with his elbow, rolled over and lurched up, stumbling about as the street see-sawed around him. Kaspa lay on his back in the dirt, choking with laughter, reeking of cheap booze and sour smoke. Jezal made a lame attempt to brush the dirt from his uniform. There was a big wet patch on his chest that smelled of beer. “Damn it!” he mumbled again. “When had that happened?”

He became aware of some shouting on the other side of the road. Two men grappling in a doorway. Jezal squinted hard, strained against the gloom. A big man had hold of some well-dressed fellow, and seemed to be tying his hands behind his back. Now he was forcing some kind of bag over his head. Jezal blinked in disbelief. It was far from a reputable area, but this seemed somewhat strong.

The door of the tavern banged open and West and Jalenhorm came out, deep in drunken conversation, something about someone’s sister. Bright light cut across the street and illuminated the two struggling men starkly. The big one was dressed all in black, with a mask over the lower part of his face. He had white hair, white eyebrows, skin white as milk. Jezal stared at the white devil across the road, and he glared back with narrowed pink eyes.

“Help!” It was the fellow with the bag on his head, his voice shrill with fear. “Help, I am—” The white man dealt him a savage blow in the midriff and he folded up with a sigh.

“You there!” shouted West.

Jalenhorm was already rushing across the street.

“What?” said Kaspa, propped up on his elbows in the road.

Jezal’s mind was full of mud, but his feet seemed to be following Jalenhorm, so he stumbled along with them, feeling very sick. West came behind him. The white ghost started up and turned to stand between them and his prisoner. Another man moved briskly out of the shadows, tall and thin, dressed all in black and masked, but with long greasy hair. He held up a gloved hand.

“Gentlemen,” his whining commoner’s voice was muffled by his mask, “gentlemen please, we’re on the King’s business!”

“The King conducts his business in the day-time,” growled Jalenhorm.

The new arrival’s mask twitched slightly as he smiled. “That’s why he needs us for the night-time stuff, eh, friend?”

“Who is this man?” West was pointing at the fellow with the bag on his head.

The prisoner was struggling up again. “I am Sepp dan—oof!” The white monster silenced him with a heavy fist in the face, knocking him limp into the road.

Jalenhorm put a hand on the hilt of his sword, jaw clenching, and the white ghost loomed forward with a terrible speed. Close up he was even more massive, alien, and terrifying. Jalenhorm took an involuntary step back, stumbled on the rutted surface of the road and pitched onto his back with a crash. Jezal’s head was thumping.

“Back!” bellowed West. His sword whipped out of its scabbard with a faint ringing.

“Thaaaaah!” hissed the monster, fists clenched like two big white rocks.

“Aargh,” gurgled the man with the bag on his head.

Jezal’s heart was in his mouth. He looked at the thin man. The thin man’s eyes smiled back. How could anyone smile at a time like this? Jezal was surprised to see that he had a long, ugly knife in his hand. Where did that come from? He fumbled drunkenly for his sword.

“Major West!” came a voice from the shadows down the street, Jezal paused, uncertain, steel halfway out. Jalenhorm scrambled to his feet, the back of his uniform crusted with mud, pulled out his own sword. The pale monster stared at them unblinking, not retreating a finger’s breadth.

“Major West!” came the voice again, accompanied now by a clicking, scraping sound. West’s face had turned pale. A figure emerged from the shadows, limping badly, cane tapping on the dirt. His broad-brimmed hat obscured the upper part of his face, but his mouth was twisted into a strange smile. Jezal noticed with a sudden wave of nausea that his four front teeth were missing. He shuffled towards them, ignoring all the naked steel, and offered his free hand to West.

The Major slowly sheathed his sword, took the hand and shook it limply. “Colonel Glokta?” he asked in a husky voice.

“Your humble servant, though I’m no longer an army man. I’m with the King’s Inquisition now.” He reached up slowly and removed his hat. His face was deathly pale, deeply lined, close-cropped hair scattered with grey. His eyes stared out feverish bright from deep, dark rings, the left one noticeably narrower than the right, pink-rimmed and glistening wet. “And these are my assistants, Practicals Severard,” the lanky one gave a mockery of a bow, “and Frost.”

The white monster jerked the prisoner to his feet with one hand. “Hold on,” said Jalenhorm, stepping forward, but the Inquisitor put a gentle hand on his arm.

“This man is a prisoner of His Majesty’s Inquisition, Lieutenant Jalenhorm.” The big man paused, surprised to be called by name. “I realise your motives are of the best, but he is a criminal, a traitor. I have a warrant for him, signed by Arch Lector Sult himself. He is most unworthy of your assistance, believe me.”

Jalenhorm frowned and stared balefully at Practical Frost. The pale devil looked terrified. About as terrified as a stone. He hauled the prisoner over his shoulder without apparent effort and turned up the street. The one called Severard smiled with his eyes, sheathed his knife, bowed again and followed his companion, whistling tunelessly as he sauntered off.

The Inquisitor’s left eyelid began to flutter and tears rolled down his pale cheek. He wiped it carefully on the back of his hand. “Please forgive me. Honestly. It’s coming to something when a man can’t control his own eyes, eh? Damn weeping jelly. Sometimes I think I should just have it out, and make do with a patch.” Jezal’s stomach roiled. “How long has it been, West? Seven years? Eight?”

A muscle was working on the side of the Major’s head. “Nine.”

“Imagine that. Nine years. Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday. It was on the ridge, wasn’t it, where we parted?”

“On the ridge, yes.”

“Don’t worry, West, I don’t blame you in the least.” Glokta slapped the Major warmly on the arm. “Not for that, anyway. You tried to talk me out of it, I remember. I had time enough to think about it in Gurkhul, after all. Lots of time to think. You were always a good friend to me. And now young Collem West, a Major in the King’s Own, imagine that.” Jezal had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. He wanted only to be sick, then go to bed.

Inquisitor Glokta turned toward him with a smile, displaying once again the hideous gap in his teeth. “And this must be Captain Luthar, for whom everyone has such high hopes in the coming Contest. Marshal Varuz is a hard master, is he not?” He waved his cane weakly at Jezal. “Jab, jab, eh, Captain? Jab, jab.”

Jezal felt his bile rising. He coughed and looked down at his feet, willing the world to remain motionless. The Inquisitor looked around expectantly at each of them in turn. West looked pale. Jalenhorm mud-stained and sulky. Kaspa was still sitting in the road. None of them had anything to say.

Glokta cleared his throat. “Well, duty calls,” he bowed stiffly, “but I hope to see you all again. Very soon.” Jezal found himself hoping he never saw the man again.

“Perhaps we might fence again sometime?” muttered Major West.

Glokta gave a good natured laugh. “Oh, I would enjoy that, West, but I find that I’m ever so slightly crippled these days. If you’re after a fight, I’m sure that Practical Frost could oblige you,” he looked over at Jalenhorm, “but I must warn you, he doesn’t fight like a gentleman. I wish you all a pleasant evening.” He placed his hat back on his head then turned slowly and shuffled off down the dingy street.

The three officers watched him limp away in an interminable, awkward silence. Kaspa finally stumbled over. “What was all that about?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said West through gritted teeth. “Best we forget it ever happened.”

<p>Teeth and Fingers</p>

Time is short. We must work quickly. Glokta nodded to Severard, and he smiled and pulled the bag off Sepp dan Teufel’s head.

The Master of the Mints was a strong, noble-looking man. His face was already starting to bruise. “What is the meaning of this?” he roared, all bluster and bravado. “Do you know who I am?”

Glokta snorted. “Of course we know who you are. Do you think we are in the habit of snatching people from the streets at random?”

“I am the Master of the Royal Mints!” yelled the prisoner, struggling at his bonds. Practical Frost looked on impassively, arms folded. The irons were already glowing orange in the brazier. “How dare you…”

“We cannot have these constant interruptions!” shouted Glokta. Frost kicked Teufel savagely in the shin and he yelped with pain. “How can our prisoner sign his paper of confession if his hands are tied? Please release him.”

Teufel stared suspiciously around as the albino untied his wrists. Then he saw the cleaver. The polished blade shone mirror bright in the harsh lamp light. Truly a thing of beauty. You’d like to have that, wouldn’t you, Teufel? I bet you’d like to cut my head off with it. Glokta almost hoped that he would, his right hand seemed to be reaching for it, but he used it to shove the paper of confession away instead.

“Ah,” said Glokta, “the Master of the Mints is a right-handed gentleman.”

“A right-handed gentleman,” Severard hissed in the prisoner’s ear.

Teufel was staring across the table through narrowed eyes. “I know you! Glokta, isn’t it? The one who was captured in Gurkhul, the one they tortured. Sand dan Glokta, am I right? Well, you’re in over your head this time, I can tell you! Right in over your head! When High Justice Marovia hears about this…”

Glokta sprang to his feet, his chair screeching on the tiles. His left leg was agony, but he ignored it. “Look at this!” he hissed, then opened his mouth wide, giving the horrified prisoner a good look at his teeth. Or what’s left of them. “You see that? You see? Where they cracked out the teeth above, they left them below, and where they took them out below, they left them above, all the way to the back. See?” Glokta pulled his cheeks back with his fingers so Teufel could get a better view. “They did it with a tiny chisel. A little bit each day. It took months.” Glokta sat down stiffly, then smiled wide.

“What excellent work, eh? The irony of it! To leave you half your teeth, but not a one of ’em any use! I have soup most days.” The Master of the Mints swallowed hard. Glokta could see a drop of sweat running down his neck. “And the teeth were just the beginning. I have to piss sitting down like a woman, you know. I’m thirty-five years old, and I need help getting out of bed.” He leaned back again and stretched out his leg with a wince. “Every day is its own little hell for me. Every day. So tell me, can you seriously believe that anything you might say could scare me?”

Glokta studied his prisoner, taking his time. No longer half so sure of himself. “Confess,” he whispered. “Then we can ship you off to Angland and still get some sleep tonight.”

Teufel’s face had turned almost as pale as Practical Frost’s, but he said nothing. The Arch Lector will be here soon. Already on his way, most likely. If there is no confession when he arrives… we’ll all be off to Angland. At best. Glokta took hold of his cane and got to his feet. “I like to think of myself as an artist, but artistry takes time and we have wasted half the evening searching for you in every brothel in the city. Thankfully, Practical Frost has a keen nose and an excellent sense of direction. He can sniff out a rat in a shithouse.”

“A rat in a shithouse,” echoed Severard, eyes glittering bright in the orange glow from the brazier.

“We are on a tight schedule so let me be blunt. You will confess to me within ten minutes.”

Teufel snorted and folded his arms. “Never.”

“Hold him.” Frost seized the prisoner from behind and folded him in a vice-like grip, pinning his right arm to his side. Severard grabbed hold of his left wrist and spread his fingers out on the scarred table-top. Glokta curled his fist round the smooth grip of the cleaver, the blade scraping against the wood as he pulled it slowly towards him. He stared down at Teufel’s hand. What beautiful fingernails he has. How long and glossy. You cannot work down a mine with nails like that. Glokta raised the cleaver high.

“Wait!” screamed the prisoner.

Bang! The heavy blade bit deep into the table top, neatly paring off Teufel’s middle fingernail. He was breathing fast now, and there was a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Now we’ll see what kind of a man you really are.

“I think you can see where this is going,” said Glokta. “You know, they did it to a corporal who was captured with me, one cut a day. He was a tough man, very tough. They made it past his elbow before he died.” Glokta lifted the cleaver again. “Confess.”

“You couldn’t…”

Bang! The cleaver took off the very tip of Teufel’s middle finger. Blood bubbled out on to the table top. Severard’s eyes were smiling in the lamp light. Teufel’s jaw dropped. But the pain will be a while coming. “Confess!” bellowed Glokta.

Bang! The cleaver took off the top of Teufel’s ring finger, and a little disc out of his middle finger which rolled a short way and dropped off onto the floor. Frost’s face was carved from marble. “Confess!”

Bang! The tip of Teufel’s index finger jumped in the air. His middle finger was down to the first joint. Glokta paused, wiping the sweat from his forehead on the back of his hand. His leg was throbbing with the exertion. Blood was dripping onto the tiles with a steady tap, tap, tap. Teufel was staring wide-eyed at his shortened fingers.

Severard shook his head. “That’s excellent work, Inquisitor.” He flicked one of the discs of flesh across the table. “The precision… I’m in awe.”

“Aaaargh!” screamed the Master of the Mints. Now it dawns on him. Glokta raised the cleaver once again.

“I will confess!” shrieked Teufel, “I will confess!”

“Excellent,” said Glokta brightly.

“Excellent,” said Severard.

“Etherer,” said Practical Frost.

<p>The Wide and Barren North</p>

The Magi are an ancient and mysterious order, learned in the secrets of the world, practised in the ways of magic, wise and powerful beyond the dreams of men. That was the rumour. Such a one should have ways of finding a man, even a man alone in the wide and barren North. If that was so, then he was taking his time about it.

Logen scratched at his tangled beard and wondered what was keeping the great one. Perhaps he was lost. He asked himself again if he should have stayed in the forests, where food at least was plentiful. But to the south the spirits had said, and if you went south from the hills you came to these withered moors. So here he had waited in the briars and the mud, in bad weather, and mostly gone hungry.

His boots were worn out anyway, so he had set his miserable camp not far from the road, the better to see this wizard coming. Since the wars, the North was full of dangerous scum—deserting warriors turned bandit, peasants fled from their burned-out land, leaderless and desperate men with nothing left to lose, and so on. Logen wasn’t worried, though. No one had a reason to come to this arsehole of the world. No one but him and the Magus.

So he sat and waited, looked for food, didn’t find any, sat and waited some more. At this time of year the moors were often soaked by sudden downpours, but he would have smoky, thorny little fires by night if he could, to keep his flagging spirits up and attract any passing wizards. It had been raining this evening, but it had stopped a while before and it was dry enough for a fire. Now he had his pot over it, cooking a stew with the last of the meat he had brought with him from the forest. He would have to move on in the morning, and look for food. The Magus could catch up with him later, if he still cared.

He was stirring his meagre meal, and wondering whether to go back north or move on south tomorrow, when he heard the sound of hooves on the road. One horse, moving slowly. He sat back on his coat and waited. There was a neigh, the jingle of a harness. A rider came over the rise. With the watery sun low on the horizon behind, Logen couldn’t see him clearly, but he sat stiff and awkward in his saddle, like a man not used to the road. He urged his horse gently in the direction of the fire and reined in a few yards away.

“Good evening,” he said.

He was not in the least what Logen had been expecting. A gaunt, pale, sickly-looking young man with dark rings round his eyes, long hair plastered to his head by the drizzle and a nervous smile. He seemed more wet than wise, and certainly didn’t look powerful beyond the dreams of men. He looked mostly hungry, cold, and ill. He looked something like Logen felt, in fact.

“Shouldn’t you have a staff?”

The young man looked surprised. “I don’t… that is to say… er… I’m not a Magus.” He trailed off and licked his lips nervously.

“The spirits told me to expect a Magus, but they’re often wrong.”

“Oh… well, I’m an apprentice. But my Master, the great Bayaz,” and he bowed his head reverently, “is none other than the First of the Magi, great in High Art and learned in deep wisdom. He sent me to find you,” he looked suddenly doubtful, “and bring you… you are Logen Ninefingers?”

Logen held up his left hand and looked at the pale young man through the gap where his middle finger used to be. “Oh good.” The apprentice breathed a sigh of relief, then suddenly stopped himself. “Oh, that is to say… er… sorry about the finger.”

Logen laughed. It was the first time since he dragged himself out of the river. It wasn’t very funny but he laughed loud. It felt good. The young man smiled and slipped painfully from the saddle. “I am Malacus Quai.”

“Malacus what?”

“Quai,” he said, making for the fire.

“What kind of a name is that?”

“I am from the Old Empire.”

Logen had never heard of any such place. “An empire, eh?”

“Well, it was, once. The mightiest nation in the Circle of the World.” The young man squatted down stiffly by the fire. “But the glory of the past is long faded. It’s not much more than a huge battlefield now.” Logen nodded. He knew well enough what one of those looked like. “It’s far away. In the west of the world.” The apprentice waved his hand vaguely.

Logen laughed again. “That’s east.”

Quai smiled sadly. “I am a seer, though not, it seems, a very good one. Master Bayaz sent me to find you, but the stars have not been auspicious and I became lost in the bad weather.” He pushed his hair out of his eyes and spread his hands. “I had a packhorse, with food and supplies, and another horse for you, but I lost them in a storm. I fear I am no outdoorsman.”

“Seems not.”

Quai took a flask from his pocket and leaned across with it. Logen took it from him, opened it, took a swig. The hot liquor ran down his throat, warmed him to the roots of his hair. “Well, Malacus Quai, you lost your food but you kept hold of what really mattered. It takes an effort to make me smile these days. You’re right welcome at my fire.”

“Thank you.” The apprentice paused and held his palms out to the meagre flames. “I haven’t eaten for two days.” He shook his head, hair flapping back and forth. “It has been… a difficult time.” He licked his lips and looked at the pot.

Logen passed him the spoon. Malacus Quai stared at it with big round eyes. “Have you eaten?”

Logen nodded. He hadn’t, but the wretched apprentice looked famished and there was barely enough for one. He took another swig from the flask. That would do for him, for now. Quai attacked the stew with relish. When it was done he scraped the pot out, licked the spoon, then licked the edge of the pot for good measure. He sat back against a big rock. “I am forever in your debt, Logen Ninefingers, you’ve saved my life. I hardly dared hope you’d be so gracious a host.”

“You’re not quite what I expected either, being honest.” Logen pulled at the flask again, and licked his lips. “Who is this Bayaz?”

“The First of the Magi, great in High Art and learned in deep wisdom. I fear he will be most seriously displeased with me.”

“He’s to be feared, then?”

“Well,” replied the apprentice weakly, “he does have a bit of a temper.”

Logen took another swallow. The warmth was spreading through his body now, the first time he had felt warm in weeks. There was a pause. “What does he want from me, Quai?”

There was no reply. The soft sound of snoring came from across the fire. Logen smiled and, wrapping himself in his coat, lay down to sleep as well.


The apprentice woke with a sudden fit of coughing. It was early morning and the dingy world was thick with mist. It was probably better that way. There was nothing to see but miles of mud, rock, and miserable brown gorse. Everything was coated in cold dew, but Logen had managed to get a sad tongue of fire going. Quai’s hair was plastered to his pallid face. He rolled onto his side and coughed phlegm onto the ground.

“Aaargh,” he croaked. He coughed and spat again.

Logen secured the last of his meagre gear on the unhappy horse. “Morning,” he said, looking up at the white sky, “though not a good one.”

“I will die. I will die, and then I will not have to move.”

“We’ve got no food, so if we stay here you will die. Then I can eat you and go back over the mountains.”

The apprentice smiled weakly. “What do we do?”

What indeed? “Where do we find this Bayaz?”

“At the Great Northern Library.”

Logen had never heard of it, but then he’d never been that interested in books. “Which is where?”

“It’s south of here, about four days’ ride, beside a great lake.”

“Do you know the way?”

The apprentice tottered to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, breathing fast and shallow. He was ghostly pale and his face had a sheen of sweat. “I think so,” he muttered, but he hardly looked certain.

Neither Quai nor his horse would make four days without food, even providing they didn’t get lost. Food had to be the first thing. To follow the road through the woods to the south was the best option, despite the greater risk. They might get killed by bandits, but the forage would be better, and the hunger would likely kill them otherwise.

“You’d better ride,” said Logen.

“I lost the horses, I should be the one to walk.”

Logen put his hand on Quai’s forehead. It was hot and clammy. “You’ve a fever. You’d better ride.”

The apprentice didn’t try to argue. He looked down at Logen’s ragged boots. “Can you take my boots?”

Logen shook his head. “Too small.” He knelt down over the smouldering remains of the fire and pursed his lips.

“What are you doing?”

“Fires have spirits. I will keep this one under my tongue, and we can use it to light another fire later.” Quai looked too ill to be surprised. Logen sucked up the spirit, coughed on the smoke, shuddered at the bitter taste. “You ready to leave?”

The apprentice raised his arms in a hopeless gesture. “I am packed.”


Malacus Quai loved to talk. He talked as they made their way south across the moors, as the sun climbed into the grimy skies, as they entered the woods toward evening time. His illness did nothing to stop his chatter, but Logen didn’t mind. It was a long time since anyone had talked to him, and it helped to take his mind off his feet. He was starving and tired, but it was his feet that were the problem. His boots were tatters of old leather, his toes cut and battered, his calf was still burning from the Shanka’s teeth. Every step was an ordeal. Once they had called him the most feared man in the North. Now he was afraid of the smallest sticks and stones in the road. There was a joke in there somewhere. He winced as his foot hit a pebble.

“…so I spent seven years studying with Master Zacharus. He is great among the Magi, the fifth of Juvens’ twelve apprentices, a great man.” Everything connected with the Magi seemed to be great in Quai’s eyes. “He felt I was ready to come to the Great Northern Library and study with Master Bayaz, to earn my staff. But things have not been easy for me here. Master Bayaz is most demanding and…”

The horse stopped and snorted, shied and took a hesitant step back. Logen sniffed the air and frowned. There were men nearby, and badly washed ones. He should have noticed it sooner but his attention had been on his feet. Quai looked down at him. “What is it?”

As if in answer a man stepped out from behind a tree perhaps ten strides ahead, another a little further down the road. They were scum, without a doubt. Dirty, bearded, dressed in ragged bits of mismatched fur and leather. Not, on the whole, unlike Logen. The skinny one on the left had a spear with a barbed head. The big one on the right had a heavy sword speckled with rust, and an old dented helmet with a spike on top. They moved forward, grinning. There was a sound behind and Logen looked over his shoulder, his heart sinking. A third man, with a big boil on his face, was making his way cautiously down the road toward them, a heavy wood axe in his hands.

Quai leaned down from his saddle, eyes wide with fear. “Are they bandits?”

“You’re the fucking seer,” hissed Logen through gritted teeth.

They stopped a stride or two in front. The one with the helmet seemed to be in charge. “Nice horse,” he growled. “Would you lend it to us?” The one with the spear grinned as he took hold of the bridle.

Things had taken a turn for the worse alright. A moment ago that had hardly seemed possible, but fate had found a way. Logen doubted that Quai would be much use in a fight. That left him alone against three or more, and with only a knife. If he did nothing him and Malacus would end up robbed, and more than likely killed. You have to be realistic about these things.

He looked the three bandits over again. They didn’t expect a fight, not from two unarmed men—the spear was sideways on, the sword pointed at the ground. He didn’t know about the axe, so he’d have to trust to luck with that one. It’s a sorry fact that the man who strikes first usually strikes last, so Logen turned to the one with the helmet and spat the spirit in his face.

It ignited in the air and pounced on him hungrily. His head burst into spitting flames, the sword clattered to the ground. He clawed desperately at his face and his arms caught fire as well. He reeled screaming away.

Quai’s horse startled at the flames and reared up, snorting. The skinny man stumbled back with a gasp and Logen leaped at him, grabbed the shaft of the spear with one hand and butted him in the face. His nose crunched against Logen’s forehead and he staggered away with blood streaming down his chin. Logen jerked him back with the spear, swung his right arm round in a wide arc and punched him in the neck. He went down with a gurgle and Logen tore the spear from his hands.

He felt movement behind him and dropped to the ground, rolling away to his left. The axe whistled through the air above his head and cut a long slash in the horse’s side, spattering drops of blood across the ground and ripping the buckle on the saddle girth open. Boil-face tottered away, spinning around after his axe. Logen sprang at him but his ankle twisted on a stone and he tottered like a drunkard, yelping at the pain. An arrow hummed past his face from somewhere in the trees behind and was lost in the bushes on the other side of the road. The horse snorted and kicked, eyes rolling madly, then took off down the road at a crazy gallop. Malacus Quai wailed as the saddle slid off its back and he was flung into the bushes.

There was no time to think about him. Logen charged at the axe-man with a roar, aiming the spear at his heart. He brought his axe up in time to nudge the point away, but not far enough. The spear spitted him through the shoulder, spun him round. There was a sharp crack as the shaft snapped, Logen lost his balance and pitched forward, bearing Boil-face down into the road. The spear-point sticking out of his back cut a deep gash into Logen’s scalp as he fell on top of him. Logen seized hold of the axe-man’s matted hair with both hands, pulled his head back and mashed his face into a rock.

He lurched to his feet, head spinning, wiping blood out of his eyes just in time to see an arrow zip out of the trees and thud into a trunk a stride or two away. Logen hurtled at the archer. He saw him now, a boy no more than fourteen, reaching for another arrow. Logen pulled out his knife. The boy was nocking the arrow to his bow, but his eyes were wide with panic. He fumbled the string and drove the arrow through his hand, looking greatly surprised.

Logen was on him. The boy swung the bow at him but he ducked below it and jumped forward, driving the knife up with both hands. The blade caught the boy under the chin and lifted him into the air, then snapped off in his neck. He dropped on top of Logen, the jagged shard of the knife cutting a long gash in his arm. Blood splattered everywhere, from the cut on Logen’s head, from the cut on Logen’s arm, from the gaping wound in the boy’s throat.

He shoved the corpse away, staggered against a tree and gasped for breath. His heart was pounding, the blood roaring in his ears, his stomach turning over. “I am still alive,” he whispered, “I am still alive.” The cuts on his head and his arm were starting to throb. Two more scars. It could have been a lot worse. He scraped the blood from his eyes and limped back to the road.

Malacus Quai was standing, staring ashen-faced at the three corpses. Logen took him by the shoulders, looked him up and down. “You hurt?”

Quai only stared at the bodies. “Are they dead?” The corpse of the big one with the helmet was still smoking, making a disgustingly appetising smell. He had a good pair of boots on, Logen noticed, a lot better than his own. The one with the boil had his neck turned too far around to be alive, that and he had the broken spear through him. Logen rolled the skinny one over with his foot. He still had a look of surprise on his bloody face, eyes staring up at the sky, mouth open.

“Must’ve crushed his windpipe,” muttered Logen. His hands were covered in blood. He grabbed one with the other to stop them from trembling.

“What about the one in the trees?”

Logen nodded. “What happened to the horse?”

“Gone,” muttered Quai hopelessly. “What do we do?”

“We see if they’ve got any food.” Logen pointed to the smoking corpse. “And you help me get his boots off.”

<p>Fencing Practice</p>

“Press him, Jezal, press him! Don’t be shy!”

Jezal was only too willing to oblige. He sprang forward, lunging with his right. West was already off balance and he stumbled back, all out of form, only just managing to parry with his short steel. They were using half-edged blades today, to add a little danger to the proceedings. You couldn’t really stab a man with one, but you could give him a painful scratch or two, if you tried hard enough. Jezal intended to give the Major a scratch for yesterday’s humiliation.

“That’s it, give him hell! Jab, jab, Captain! Jab, jab!”

West made a clumsy cut, but Jezal saw it coming and swatted the steel aside, still pressing forward, jabbing for all he was worth. He slashed with the left, and again. West blocked desperately, staggered back against the wall. Jezal had him at last. He cackled with glee as he lunged forward again with the long steel, but his opponent had come suddenly and surprisingly alive. West slipped away, shoved the lunge aside with disappointing firmness. Jezal stumbled forward, off balance, gave a shocked gasp as the point of his sword found a gap between two stones and his steel was wrenched out of his numb hand, lodged there wobbling in the wall.

West darted forward, ducked inside Jezal’s remaining blade and slammed into him with his shoulder. “Ooof,” said Jezal as he staggered back and crashed to the floor, fumbling his short steel. It skittered across the stones and Lord Marshal Varuz caught it smartly under his foot. The blunted point of West’s sword hovered over Jezal’s throat.

“Damn it!” he cursed, as the grinning Major offered him his hand.

“Yes,” murmured Varuz with a deep sigh, “damn it indeed. An even more detestable performance than yesterday’s, if that’s possible! You let Major West make a fool of you again!” Jezal slapped West’s hand away with a scowl and got to his feet. “He never once lost control of that bout! You allowed yourself to be drawn in, and then disarmed! Disarmed! My grandson would not have made that mistake, and he is eight years old!” Varuz whacked at the floor with his stick. “Explain to me please, Captain Luthar, how you will win a fencing match from a prone position, and without your steels?”

Jezal sulked and rubbed the back of his head.

“No? In future, if you fall off a cliff carrying your steels, I want to see you smashed to bits at the bottom, gripping them tightly in your dead fingers, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Marshal Varuz,” mumbled a sullen Jezal, wishing the old bastard would take a tumble off a cliff himself. Or perhaps the Tower of Chains. That would be adequate. Maybe Major West could join him.

“Over-confidence is a curse to the swordsman! You must treat every opponent as though he will be your last. As for your footwork,” and Varuz curled his lip with disgust, “fine and fancy coming forward, but put you on the back foot and you quite wither away. The Major only had to tap you and you fell down like a fainting schoolgirl.”

West grinned across at him. He was loving this. Absolutely loving it, damn him.

“They say Bremer dan Gorst has a back leg like a pillar of steel. A pillar of steel they say! It would be easier to knock down the House of the Maker than him.” The Lord Marshal pointed over at the outline of the huge tower, looming up over the buildings of the courtyard. “The House of the Maker!” he shouted in disgust.

Jezal sniffed and kicked at the floor with his boot. For the hundredth time he entertained the notion of giving it up and never holding a steel again. But what would people say? His father was absurdly proud of him, always boasting about his skill to anyone who would listen. He had his heart set on seeing his son fight in the Square of Marshals before a screaming crowd. If Jezal threw it over now his father would be mortified, and he could say goodbye to his commission, goodbye to his allowance, goodbye to his ambitions. No doubt his brothers would love that.

“Balance is the key,” Varuz was spouting. “Your strength rises up through the legs! From now on we will add an hour on the beam to your training. Every day.” Jezal winced. “So: a run, exercises with the heavy bar, forms, an hour of sparring, forms again, an hour on the beam.” The Lord Marshal nodded with satisfaction. “That will suffice, for now. I will see you at six o’clock tomorrow morning, ice cold sober.” Varuz frowned. “Ice. Cold. Sober.”


“I can’t do this forever, you know,” said Jezal as he hobbled stiffly back towards his quarters. “How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take?”

West grinned. “This is nothing. I’ve never seen the old bastard so soft on anyone. He must really like you. He wasn’t half so friendly with me.”

Jezal wasn’t sure he believed it. “Worse than this?”

“I didn’t have the grounding that you’ve had. He made me hold the heavy bar over my head all afternoon until it fell on me.” The Major winced slightly, as though even the memory was painful. “He made me run up and down the Tower of Chains in full armour. He had me sparring four hours a day, every day.”

“How did you put up with it?”

“I didn’t have a choice. I’m not a nobleman. Fencing was the only way for me to get noticed. But it paid off in the end. How many commoners do you know with a commission in the King’s Own?”

Jezal shrugged. “Come to think of it, very few.” As a nobleman himself, he didn’t think there should be any.

“But you’re from a good family, and a Captain already. If you can win the Contest there’s no telling how far you could go. Hoff—the Lord Chamberlain, Marovia—the High Justice, Varuz himself for that matter, they were all champions in their day. Champions with the right blood always go on to great things.”

Jezal snorted. “Like your friend Sand dan Glokta?”

The name dropped between them like a stone. “Well… almost always.”

“Major West!” came a rough voice from behind.

A thickset sergeant with a scar down his cheek was hurrying over to them. “Sergeant Forest, how are you?” asked West, clapping the soldier warmly on the back. He had a touch with peasants, but then Jezal had to keep reminding himself that West was little better than a peasant himself. He might be educated, and an officer, and so forth, but he still had more in common with the sergeant than he did with Jezal, once you thought about it.

The sergeant beamed. “Very well, thank you, sir.” He nodded respectfully to Jezal. “Morning, Captain.”

Jezal favoured him with a terse nod and turned away to look up the avenue. He could think of no possible reason why an officer would want to be familiar with the common soldiers. Furthermore, he was scarred and ugly. Jezal had no use whatever for ugly people.

“What can I do for you?” West was asking.

“Marshal Burr wishes to see you, sir, for an urgent briefing. All senior officers are ordered to attend.”

West’s face clouded. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The sergeant saluted and strode off.

“What’s all that about?” asked Jezal carelessly, watching some clerk chase around after a paper he had dropped.

“Angland. This King of the Northmen, Bethod.” West said the name with a scowl, as though it left a bitter taste. “They say he’s defeated all his enemies in the North, and now he’s spoiling for a fight with The Union.”

“Well, if it’s a fight he wants,” said Jezal airily. Wars were a fine thing, in his opinion, an excellent opportunity for glory and advancement. The paper fluttered past his boot on the light breeze, closely followed by the puffing clerk. Jezal grinned at him as he hurried past, bent almost double in his clumsy efforts to try and grab it.

The Major snatched up the grubby document and handed it over. “Thank you, sir,” said the clerk, his sweaty face quite pitiful with gratitude, “thank you so much!”

“Think nothing of it,” murmured West, and the clerk gave a sycophantic little bow and hurried away. Jezal was disappointed. He had been rather enjoying the chase. “There could be war, but that’s the least of my troubles right now.” West breathed a heavy sigh. “My sister is in Adua.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Well I do, and she’s here.”

“So?” Jezal had little enthusiasm for hearing about the Major’s sister. West might have pulled himself up, but the rest of his family were distinctly beneath Jezal’s notice. He was interested in meeting poor, common girls he could take advantage of, and rich, noble ones he might think about marrying. Anything in between was of no importance.

“Well, my sister can be charming but she is also a little… unconventional. She can be something of a handful in the wrong mood. Truth be told, I’d prefer to take care of a pack of Northmen than her.”

“Come now, West,” said Jezal absently, hardly taking any notice of what he was saying, “I’m sure she can’t be that difficult.”

The Major brightened. “Well, I’m relieved to hear you say that. She’s always been keen to see the Agriont for herself, and I’ve been saying for years that I’d give her a tour if she ever came here. We’d arranged it for today in fact.” Jezal had a sinking feeling. “Now, with this meeting—”

“But I have so little time these days!” whinged Jezal.

“I promise I’ll make it up to you. We’ll meet you at my quarters in an hour.”

“Hold on…” But West was already striding away.


Don’t let her be too ugly, Jezal was thinking as he slowly approached the door to Major West’s quarters and raised his unwilling fist to knock. Just don’t let her be too ugly. And not too stupid either. Anything but an afternoon wasted on a stupid girl. His hand was halfway to the door when he became aware of raised voices on the other side. He stood guiltily in the corridor, his ear drawing closer and closer to the wood, hoping to hear something complimentary about himself.

“…and what about your maid?” came Major West’s muffled voice, sounding greatly annoyed.

“I had to leave her at the house, there was a lot to do. Nobody’s been there in months.” West’s sister. Jezal’s heart sank. A deep voice, she sounded like a fat one. Jezal couldn’t afford to be seen walking about the Agriont with a fat girl on his arm. It could ruin his reputation.

“But you can’t just wander about the city on your own!”

“I got here alright, didn’t I? You’re forgetting who we are, Collem. I can make do without a servant. To most of the people here I’m no better than a servant anyway. Besides, I’ll have your friend Captain Luthar to look after me.”

“That’s even worse, as you damn well know!”

“Well I wasn’t to know that you’d be busy. I would’ve thought you’d make the time to see your own sister.” She didn’t sound an idiot, which was something, but fat and now peevish too. “Aren’t I safe with your friend?”

“He’s a good enough sort, but is he safe with you?” Jezal wasn’t sure what the Major meant by that little comment. “And walking about the Agriont alone, and with a man you hardly know? Don’t play the fool, I know you better than that! What will people think?”

“Shit on what they think.” Jezal jerked away from the door. He wasn’t used to hearing ladies use that sort of language. Fat, peevish and coarse, damn it. This might be even worse than he’d feared. He looked up the corridor, considering making a run for it, already working out his excuse. Curse his bad luck, though, someone was coming up the stairs now. He couldn’t leave without being seen. He would just have to knock and get it over with. He gritted his teeth and pounded resentfully at the door.

The voices stopped suddenly, and Jezal put on an unconvincing friendly grin. Let the torture begin. The door swung open.

For some reason, he had been expecting a kind of shorter, fatter version of Major West, in a dress. He had been greatly mistaken. She was perhaps slightly fuller of figure than was strictly fashionable, since skinny girls were all the rage, but you couldn’t call her fat, not fat at all. She had dark hair, dark skin, a little darker than would generally be thought ideal. He knew that a lady should remain out of the sun whenever possible, but looking at her, he really couldn’t remember why. Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and blue eyes were turning the heads this season, but hers shone in the dim light of the doorway in a rather bewitching manner.

She smiled at him. A strange sort of smile, higher on one side than the other. It gave him a slightly uneasy feeling, as though she knew something funny that he didn’t. Still, excellent teeth, all white and shiny. Jezal’s anger was swiftly vanishing. The longer he looked at her the more her looks grew on him, and the emptier his head became of cogent thought.

“Hello,” she said.

His mouth opened slightly, as if by force of habit, but nothing came out. His mind was a blank page.

“And you must be Captain Luthar?”

“Er…”

“I’m Collem’s sister, Ardee,” she slapped her forehead. “I’m such an idiot though, Collem will have told you all about me. I know the two of you are great friends.”

Jezal glanced awkwardly at the Major, who was frowning back at him and looking somewhat put out. It would hardly do to say he had been entirely unaware of her existence until that morning. He struggled to frame even a mildly amusing reply, but nothing came to mind.

Ardee took hold of him by the elbow and drew him into the room, talking all the while. “I know you’re a great fencer, but I’ve been told your wit is even sharper than your sword. So much so in fact, that you only use your sword upon your friends, as your wit is far too deadly.” She looked at him expectantly. Silence.

“Well,” he mumbled, “I do fence a bit.” Pathetic. Utterly awful.

“Is this the right man, or do I have the gardener here?” She looked him over with a strange expression, hard to read. Perhaps it was the same sort of look Jezal would have while examining a horse he was thinking of buying: cautious, searching, intent, and ever so slightly disdainful. “Even the gardeners have splendid uniforms, it seems.”

Jezal was almost sure that had been some kind of insult, but he was too busy trying to think of something witty to pay it too much mind. He knew he would have to speak now or spend the entire day in embarrassed silence, so he opened his mouth and trusted to luck. “I’m sorry if I seem dumbfounded, but Major West is such an unattractive man. How could I have expected so beautiful a sister?”

West snorted with laughter. His sister raised an eyebrow, and counted the points off on her fingers. “Mildly offensive to my brother, which is good. Somewhat amusing, which is also good. Honest, which is refreshing, and wildly complimentary to me, which, of course, is excellent. A little late, but on the whole worth waiting for.” She looked Jezal in the eye. “The afternoon might not be a total loss.”

Jezal wasn’t sure he liked that last comment, and he wasn’t sure he liked the way she looked at him, but he was enjoying looking at her, so he was prepared to forgive a lot. The women of his acquaintance rarely said anything clever, especially the fine-looking ones. He supposed they were trained to smile and nod and listen while the men did the talking. On the whole he agreed with that way of doing things, but the cleverness sat well on West’s sister, and she had more than caught his curiosity. Fat and peevish were off the menu, of that there could be no doubt. As for coarse, well, handsome people are never coarse, are they? Just… unconventional. He was beginning to think that the afternoon, as she had said, might not be a total loss.

West made for the door. “It seems I must leave you two to make fools of one another. Lord Marshal Burr is expecting me. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t, eh?” The comment seemed to be aimed at Jezal, but West was looking at his sister.

“That would seem to allow virtually everything,” she said, catching Jezal’s eye. He was amazed to feel himself blushing like a little girl, and he coughed and looked down at his shoes.

West rolled his eyes. “Mercy,” he said, as the door clicked shut.

“Would you care for a drink?” Ardee asked, already pouring wine into a glass. Alone with a beautiful young woman. Hardly a new experience, Jezal told himself, and yet he seemed to be lacking his usual confidence.

“Yes, thank you, most kind.” Yes, a drink, a drink, just the thing to steady the nerves. She held the glass out to him and poured another for herself. He wondered if a young lady should be drinking at this time of day, but it seemed pointless to say anything. She wasn’t his sister, after all.

“Tell me, Captain, how do you know my brother?”

“Well, he’s my commanding officer, and we fence together.” His brain was beginning to function again. “But then… you know that already.”

She grinned at him. “Of course, but my governess always maintained that young men should be allowed their share of the conversation.”

Jezal gave an ungainly cough as he was swallowing and spilled some wine down his jacket. “Oh dear,” he said.

“Here, take this a moment.” She gave him her glass and he took it without thinking, but then found himself without a free hand. When she started dabbing at his chest with a white handkerchief he could hardly object, though it did seem rather forward. Being honest, he might have objected if she wasn’t so damn fine-looking. He wondered if she realised what an excellent view she was giving him down the front of her dress, but of course not, how could she? She was simply new here, unused to courtly manners, the artless ways of a country girl and so forth… nice view though, there was no denying that.

“There, that’s better,” she said, though the dabbing had made no apparent difference. Not to his uniform anyway. She took the glasses from him, drained her own quickly with a practised flick of her head and shoved them on the table. “Shall we go?”

“Yes… of course. Oh,” and he offered her his arm.

She led him out into the corridor and down the stairs, chatting freely. It was a flurry of conversational blows and, as Marshal Varuz had pointed out earlier, his defence was weak. He parried desperately as they made their way across the wide Square of Marshals, but he could barely get a word in. It seemed as though it was Ardee who had been living there for years and Jezal who was the bumpkin from the provinces.

“The Halls Martial are behind there?” She nodded over at the looming wall that separated the headquarters of the Union’s armies from the rest of the Agriont.

“Indeed they are. That is where the Lord Marshals have their offices, and so forth. And there are barracks there, and armouries, and, er…” He trailed off. He could not think of much else to say, but Ardee came to his rescue.

“So my brother must be somewhere in there. He’s quite the famous soldier, I suppose. First through the breach at Ulrioch, and so on.”

“Well, yes, Major West is very well respected here…”

“He can be such a bore, though, can’t he? He does so love to be mysterious and troubled.” She put on a faint, faraway smile and rubbed her chin thoughtfully, just as her brother might have done. She had captured the man perfectly, and Jezal had to laugh, but he was starting to wonder if she should be walking quite so close beside him, holding his arm in quite so intimate a way. Not that he objected of course. Quite the reverse, but people were looking.

“Ardee—” he said.

“So this must be the Kingsway.”

“Er, yes, Ardee—”

She was gazing up at the magnificent statue of Harod the Great, his stern eyes fixed on the middle distance. “Harod the Great?” she asked.

“Er, yes. In the dark ages, before there was a Union, he fought to bring the Three Kingdoms together. He was the first High King.” You idiot, thought Jezal, she knows that already, everyone does. “Ardee, I think your brother would not—”

“And this is Bayaz, the First of the Magi?”

“Yes, he was Harod’s most trusted adviser. Ardee—”

“Is it true they still keep a vacant seat for him in the Closed Council?”

Jezal was taken aback. “I’d heard that there’s an empty chair there, but I didn’t know that—”

“They all look so serious, don’t they?”

“Er… I suppose those were serious times,” he said, grinning lamely.

A Knight Herald thundered down the avenue on a huge, well-lathered horse, the sun glinting on the golden wings of his helmet. Secretaries scattered to let him pass, and Jezal tried to guide Ardee gently out of the way. To his great dismay she refused to be moved. The horse flashed past within a few inches of her, close enough for the wind to flick her hair in Jezal’s face. She turned to him with a flush of excitement on her cheek, otherwise utterly undaunted by her brush with severe injury.

“A Knight Herald?” she asked, taking Jezal’s arm once again and leading him off down the Kingsway.

“Yes,” squeaked Jezal, desperately trying to bring his voice under control, “the Knights Herald are entrusted with a grave responsibility. They carry messages from the King to every part of the Union.” His heart had stopped hammering. “Even across the Circle Sea to Angland, Dagoska, and Westport. They are entrusted to speak with the King’s voice, and so forbidden from speaking except on the King’s business.”

“Fedor dan Haden was on the boat on our way over, he’s a Knight Herald. We talked for hours.” Jezal attempted unsuccessfully to contain his surprise. “We talked about Adua, about the Union, about his family. Your name was mentioned, actually.” Jezal failed to look nonchalant once again. “In connection with the coming Contest.” Ardee leaned even closer to him. “Fedor was of the opinion that Bremer dan Gorst will cut you to pieces.”

Jezal gave a strangled cough, but he rallied well. “Unfortunately, that opinion seems widely held.”

“But not by you, I trust?”

“Er…”

She stopped and took him by the hand, staring earnestly into his eyes. “I’m sure that you’ll get the better of him, no matter what they say. My brother speaks very highly of you, and he’s stingy with his praise.”

“Er…” mumbled Jezal. His fingers were tingling pleasantly. Her eyes were big and dark, and he found himself greatly at a loss for words. She had this way of biting on her lower lip that made his thoughts stray. A fine, full lip. He wouldn’t have minded having a little chew on it himself. “Well, thank you.” He gave a gormless grin.

“So this is the park,” said Ardee, turning away from him to admire the greenery. “It’s even more beautiful than I’d imagined.”

“Erm… yes.”

“How wonderful, to be at the heart of things. I’ve spent so much of my life on the edge. There must be many important decisions made here, many important people.” Ardee allowed her hand to trail through the fronds of a willow tree by the road. “Collem’s worried there might be war in the North. He was worried for my safety. I think that’s why he wanted me to come here. I think he worries too much. What do you think, Captain Luthar?”

He had been in blissful ignorance of the political situation until a couple of hours before, but that would never do as a reply. “Well,” he said, straining to remember the name, and then with relief, “this Bethod could do with a rap on the knuckles.”

“They say he has twenty thousand Northmen under his banner.” She leaned towards him. “Barbarians,” she murmured. “Savages,” she whispered. “I heard he skins his captives alive.”

Jezal thought this was hardly suitable conversation for a young lady. “Ardee…” he began.

“But I’m sure with men like you and my brother to protect us, we womenfolk have nothing to worry about.” And she turned and made off up the path. Jezal had to hurry once again to catch up.

“And is that the House of the Maker?” Ardee nodded towards the grim outline of the huge tower.

“Why, yes it is.”

“Does no one go inside?”

“No one. Not in my lifetime anyway. The bridge is kept behind lock and key.” He frowned up at the tower. Seemed strange now, that he never thought about it. Living in the Agriont, it was always there. You just got used to it somehow. “The place is sealed, I believe.”

“Sealed?” Ardee moved very close to him. Jezal glanced around nervously but nobody was looking. “Isn’t it strange that nobody goes in there? Isn’t it a mystery?” He could almost feel her breath on his neck, “I mean to say, why not just break the door down?”

Jezal was finding it horribly difficult to concentrate with her so close. He wondered for a moment, both frightening and exciting, whether she might be flirting with him? No, no, of course not! Just not used to the city was all. The artless ways of a country girl… but then she was very close. If only she were a little less attractive or a little less confident. If only she were a little less… West’s sister.

He coughed and looked off down the path, hoping vainly for a distraction. There were a few people moving along it, but no one that he recognised, unless… Ardee’s spell was suddenly broken, and Jezal felt his skin go cold. A hunched figure, overdressed on this sunny day, was limping toward them, leaning heavily on a cane. He was bent over and wincing with every step, the faster-moving travellers giving him a wide berth. Jezal tried to steer Ardee away before he saw them, but she resisted gracefully and made a direct line for the shambling Inquisitor.

His head snapped up as they approached and his eyes glinted with recognition. Jezal’s heart sank. There was no avoiding him now.

“Why, Captain Luthar,” said Glokta warmly, shuffling a little too close and shaking his hand, “what a pleasure! I’m surprised that Varuz has let you go so early in the day. He must be mellowing in his old age.”

“The Lord Marshal is still most demanding,” snapped Jezal.

“I hope my Practicals didn’t inconvenience you the other night.” The Inquisitor shook his head sadly. “They have no manners. No manners at all. But they are the very best at what they do! I swear, the King doesn’t have two more valuable servants.”

“I suppose we all serve the King in our own way.” There was a little more hostility in Jezal’s voice than he had intended.

If Glokta was offended he didn’t show it. “Quite so. I don’t believe I know your friend.”

“No. This is—”

“Actually, we’ve met,” said Ardee, much to Jezal’s surprise, giving her hand to the Inquisitor. “Ardee West.”

Glokta’s eyebrows rose. “No!” He bent down stiffly to kiss the back of her hand. Jezal saw his mouth twist as he straightened up, but the toothless grin soon returned. “Collem West’s sister! But you are so much changed.”

“For the better, I hope,” she laughed. Jezal felt horribly uncomfortable.

“Why—yes indeed,” said Glokta.

“And you are changed also, Sand.” Ardee looked suddenly very sad. “We were all so worried in my family. We hoped and hoped for your safe return.” Jezal saw a spasm run over Glokta’s face. “Then when we heard you were hurt… how are you?”

The Inquisitor glanced at Jezal, his eyes cold as a slow death. Jezal stared down at his boots, a lump of fear in his throat. He had no need to be scared of this cripple, did he? But somehow he wished he was still at fencing practice. Glokta stared at Ardee, his left eye twitching slightly, and she looked back at him undaunted, her eyes full of quiet concern.

“I am well. As well as can be expected.” His expression had turned very strange. Jezal felt more uncomfortable than ever. “Thank you for asking. Truly. Nobody ever does.”

There was an awkward silence. The Inquisitor stretched his neck sideways and there was a loud click. “Ah!” he said, “that’s got it. It’s been a pleasure to see you again, both of you, but duty calls.” He treated them to another revolting smile then hobbled off, his left foot scraping in the gravel.

Ardee frowned at his twisted back as he limped slowly away. “It’s so sad,” she said under her breath.

“What?” mumbled Jezal. He was thinking about that big white bastard in the street, those narrow pink eyes. The prisoner with the bag on his head. We all serve the King in our own way. Quite so. He gave an involuntary shiver.

“He and my brother used to be quite close. He came to stay with us one summer. My family were so proud to have him it was embarrassing. He used to fence with my brother every day, and he always won. The way he moved, it was something to see. Sand dan Glokta. He was the brightest star in the sky.” She flashed her knowing half-smile again. “And now I hear you are.”

“Er…” said Jezal, not sure whether she was praising him or poking fun. He could not escape the feeling that he had been out-fenced twice that day, once by each sibling.

He rather fancied that the sister had given him the worse beating.

<p>The Morning Ritual</p>

It was a bright summers day, and the park was filled to capacity with colourful revellers. Colonel Glokta strode manfully toward some meeting of great importance, people bowing and scraping respectfully away to give him room. He ignored most, favoured the more important ones with his brilliant smile. The lucky few beamed back at him, delighted to be noticed.

“I suppose we all serve the King in our own way,” whined Captain Luthar, reaching for his steel, but Glokta was far too quick for him. His blade flashed with lightning speed, catching the sneering idiot through the neck.

Blood splattered across Ardee West’s face. She clapped her hands in delight, looking at Glokta with shining eyes.

Luthar seemed surprised to be killed. “Hah. Quite so,” said Glokta with a smile. The Captain pitched over onto his face, blood pouring from his punctured throat. The crowd roared their appreciation and Glokta indulged them with a deep, graceful bow. The cheering was redoubled.

“Oh, Colonel, you shouldn’t,” murmured Ardee as Glokta licked the blood from her cheek.

“Shouldn’t what?” he growled, tipping her back in his arms and kissing her fiercely. The crowd were in a frenzy. She gasped as he broke away, looking up at him adoringly with those big dark eyes of hers, lips slightly parted.

“The Arth Ector wanth you,” she said with a comely smile.

“What?” The crowd had fallen silent, damn them, and his left side was turning numb.

Ardee touched him tenderly on the cheek. “The Arth Ector!” she shouted.


There was a heavy knock at the door. Glokta’s eyes flicked open. Where am I? Who am I?

Oh no.

Oh yes. He realised straight away he had been sleeping badly, his body was twisted round under the blankets, his face pushed into the pillow. His whole left side was dead.

The beating on the door came heavier than before. “The Arth Ector!” came Frost’s tongueless bellow from the other side.

Pain shot through Glokta’s neck as he tried to raise his head from the pillow. Ah, there’s nothing like the first spasm of the day to get the mind working. “Alright!” he croaked, “give me a minute, damn it!”

The albino’s heavy footsteps thudded away down the corridor. Glokta lay still for a moment, then cautiously moved his right arm, ever so slowly, breath rasping with the effort, and tried to twist himself onto his back. He clenched his fist as the needling started in his left leg. If only the damn thing would stay numb. But the pain was coming on fast now. He was also becoming aware of an unpleasant smell. Damn it. I’ve shit myself again.

“Barnam!” howled Glokta, then waited, panting, left side throbbing with a vengeance. Where is the old idiot? “Barnam!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Are you alright, sir?” came the servant’s voice from beyond the door.

Alright? Alright, you old fool? Just when do you think I was last alright? “No, damn it! I’ve soiled the bed!”

“I’ve boiled water for a bath, sir. Can you get up?”

Once before Frost had had to break the door down. Maybe I should let it stand open all night, but then how could I sleep? “I think I can manage,” Glokta hissed, tongue pressed into his empty gums, arms trembling as he hauled himself out of the bed and onto the chair beside it.

His grotesque, toeless left leg twitched to itself, still beyond his control. He glared down at it with a burning hatred. Fucking horrible thing. Revolting, useless lump of flesh. Why didn’t they just cut you off? Why don’t I still? But he knew why not. With his leg still on he could at least pretend to be half a man. He punched his withered thigh, then immediately regretted it. Stupid, stupid. The pain crept up his back, a little more intense than before, and growing with every second. Come now, come now, let’s not fight. He started to rub gently at the wasted flesh. We are stuck with each other, so why torment me?

“Can you get to the door, sir?” Glokta wrinkled his nose at the smell then took hold of his cane and slowly, agonisingly, pushed himself to his feet. He hobbled across the room, almost slipping halfway there but righting himself with a searing twinge. He turned the key in the lock, leaning against the wall for balance, and hauled the door open.

Barnam was standing on the other side, his arms outstretched, ready to catch him. The ignominy of it. To think that I, Sand dan Glokta, the greatest swordsman the Union has ever seen, must be carried to my bath by an old man so that I can wash my own shit off. They must be laughing loud now, all those fools I beat, if they still remember me. I’d be laughing too, if it didn’t hurt so much. But he let the weight off his left leg and put his arm round Barnam’s shoulders without complaint. What’s the use after all? Might as well make it easy for myself. As easy as it can be.

Glokta took a deep breath. “Go gently, the leg hasn’t woken up yet.” They hopped and stumbled down the corridor, slightly too narrow for both of them together. The bathroom seemed a mile away. Or more. I’d rather walk a hundred miles as I used to be, than to the bathroom as I am. But that’s my bad luck isn’t it? You can’t go back. Not ever.

The steam felt deliciously warm on Glokta’s clammy skin. With Barnam holding him under the arms he slowly lifted his right leg and put it gingerly into the water. Damn it, that’s hot. The old servant helped him get the other leg in, then, taking him under the armpits, lowered him like a child, until he was immersed up to his neck.

“Ahhh.” Glokta cracked a toothless smile. “Hot as the Maker’s forge, Barnam, just the way I like it.” The heat was getting into the leg now, and the pain was subsiding. Not gone. Never gone. But better. A lot better. Glokta began to feel almost as if he could face another day. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like a hot bath. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.


Practical Frost was waiting for him downstairs in the tiny dining room, his bulk wedged into a low chair against the wall. Glokta sagged into the other chair and caught a whiff from the steaming porridge bowl, wooden spoon sticking up at an angle without even touching the side. His stomach rumbled and his mouth began watering fiercely. All the symptoms, in fact, of extreme nausea.

“Hurray!” shouted Glokta. “Porridge again!” He looked over at the motionless Practical. “Porridge and honey, better than money, everything’s funny, with porridge and honey!”

The pink eyes did not blink.

“It’s a rhyme for children. My mother used to sing it to me. Never actually got me to eat this slop though. But now,” and he dug the spoon in, “I can’t get enough of it.”

Frost stared back at him.

“Healthy,” said Glokta, forcing down a mouthful of sweet mush and spooning up another, “delicious,” choking down some more, “and here’s the real clincher,” he gagged slightly on the next swallow, “no chewing required.” He shoved the mostly full bowl away and tossed the spoon after it. “Mmmmm,” he hummed. “A good breakfast makes for a good day, don’t you find?”

It was like staring at a whitewashed wall, but without all the emotion.

“So the Arch Lector wants me again, does he?”

The albino nodded.

“And what might our illustrious leader desire with the likes of us, do you think?”

A shrug.

“Hmmm.” Glokta licked bits of porridge out of his empty gums. “Does he seem in a good mood, do you know?”

Another shrug.

“Come, come, Practical Frost, don’t tell me everything at once, I can’t take it in.”

Silence. Barnam entered the room and cleared away the bowl. “Do you want anything else, sir?”

“Absolutely. A big half-raw slab of meat and a nice crunchy apple.” He looked over at Practical Frost. “I used to love apples when I was a child.”

How many times have I made that joke? Frost looked back impassively, there was no laughter there. Glokta turned to Barnam, and the old man gave a tired smile.

“Oh well,” sighed Glokta. “A man has to have hope, doesn’t he?”

“Of course sir,” muttered the servant, heading for the door.

Does he?


The Arch Lector’s office was on the top floor of the House of Questions, and it was a long way up. Worse still, the corridors were busy with people. Practicals, clerks, Inquisitors, crawling like ants through a crumbling dung-hill. Whenever he felt their eyes on him Glokta would limp along, smiling, head held high. Whenever he felt himself alone he would pause and gasp, sweat and curse, and rub and slap the tenuous life back into his leg.

Why does it have to be so high? he asked himself as he shuffled up the dim halls and winding stairs of the labyrinthine building. By the time he reached the antechamber he was exhausted and blowing hard, left hand sore on the handle of his cane.

The Arch Lector’s secretary examined him suspiciously from behind a big dark desk that took up half the room. There were some chairs placed opposite for people to get nervous waiting in, and two huge Practicals flanked the great double doors to the office, so still and grim as to appear a part of the furniture.

“Do you have an appointment?” demanded the secretary in a shrill voice. You know who I am, you self-important little shit.

“Of course,” snapped Glokta, “do you think I limped all the way up here to admire your desk?”

The secretary looked down his nose at him. He was a pale, handsome young man with a mop of yellow hair. The puffed up fifth son of some minor nobleman with over-active loins, and he thinks he can patronise me? “And your name is?” he asked with a sneer.

Glokta’s patience was worn out by the climb. He smashed his cane down on the top of the desk and the secretary near jumped out of his chair. “What are you? A fucking idiot? How many crippled Inquisitors do you have here?”

“Er…” said the secretary, mouth working nervously.

“Er? Er? Is that a number? Speak up!”

“Well I—”

“I’m Glokta, you dolt! Inquisitor Glokta!”

“Yes, sir, I—”

“Get your fat arse out of that chair, fool! Don’t keep me waiting!” The secretary sprang up, hurried to the doors, pushed one open and stood aside respectfully. “That’s better,” growled Glokta, shuffling after him. He looked up at the Practicals as he hobbled past. He was almost sure one of them had a slight smile on his face.

The room had hardly changed since he was last there, six years before. It was a cavernous, round space, domed ceiling carved with gargoyle faces, its one enormous window offering a spectacular view over the spires of the University, a great section of the outer wall of the Agriont, and the looming outline of the House of the Maker beyond.

The chamber was mostly lined with shelves and cabinets, stacked high with neatly ordered files and papers. A few dark portraits peered down from the sparse white walls, including a huge one of the current King of the Union as a young man, looking wise and stern. No doubt painted before he became a senile joke. These days there’s usually a bit less authority and a bit more stray drool about him. There was a heavy round table in the centre of the room, its surface painted with a map of the Union in exquisite detail. Every city in which there was a department of the Inquisition was marked with a precious stone, and a tiny silver replica of Adua rose out of the table at its hub.

The Arch Lector was sitting in an ancient high chair at this table, deep in conversation with another man: a gaunt, balding, sour-faced old fellow in dark robes. Sult beamed up as Glokta shuffled towards them, the other man’s expression hardly changed.

“Why, Inquisitor Glokta, delighted you could join us. Do you know Surveyor General Halleck?”

“I have not had the pleasure,” said Glokta. Not that it looks like much of a pleasure, though. The old bureaucrat stood and shook Glokta’s hand without enthusiasm.

“And this is one of my Inquisitors, Sand dan Glokta.”

“Yes indeed,” murmured Halleck. “You used to be in the army, I believe. I saw you fence once.”

Glokta tapped his leg with his cane. “That can’t have been any time recently.”

“No.” There was a silence.

“The Surveyor General is likely soon to receive a most significant promotion,” said Sult. “To a chair on the Closed Council itself.” The Closed Council? Indeed? A most significant promotion.

Halleck seemed less than delighted, however. “I will consider it done when it is his Majesty’s pleasure to invite me,” he snapped, “and not before.”

Sult floated smoothly over this rocky ground. “I am sure the Council feels that you are the only candidate worth recommending, now that Sepp dan Teufel is no longer being considered.” Our old friend Teufel? No longer considered for what?

Halleck frowned and shook his head. “Teufel. I worked with the man for ten years. I never liked him,” or anyone else, by the look of you, “but I would never have thought him a traitor.”

Sult shook his head sadly. “We all feel it keenly, but here is his confession in black and white.” He held up the folded paper with a doleful frown. “I fear the roots of corruption can run very deep. Who would know that better than I, whose sorry task it is to weed the garden?”

“Indeed, indeed,” muttered Halleck, nodding grimly. “You deserve all of our thanks for that. You also, Inquisitor.”

“Oh no, not I,” said Glokta humbly. The three men looked at each other in a sham of mutual respect.

Halleck pushed back his chair. “Well, taxes do not collect themselves. I must return to my work.”

“Enjoy your last few days in the job,” said Sult. “I give you my word that the King will send for you soon!”

Halleck allowed himself the thinnest of smiles, then nodded stiffly to them and stalked away. The secretary ushered him out and pulled the heavy door shut. There was silence. But I’m damned if I’ll be the one to break it.

“I expect you’re wondering what this was all about, eh, Glokta?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, your Eminence.”

“I bet it had.” Sult swept from his chair and strode across to the window, his white-gloved hands clasped behind his back. “The world changes, Glokta, the world changes. The old order crumbles. Loyalty, duty, pride, honour. Notions that have fallen far from fashion. What has replaced them?” He glanced over his shoulder for a moment, and his lip curled. “Greed. Merchants have become the new power in the land. Bankers, shopkeepers, salesmen. Little men, with little minds and little ambitions. Men whose only loyalty is to themselves, whose only duty is to their own purses, whose only pride is in swindling their betters, whose only honour is weighed out in silver coin.” No need to ask where you stand on the merchant class.

Sult scowled out at the view, then turned back into the room. “Now it seems anyone’s son can get an education, and a business, and become rich. The merchant guilds: the Mercers, the Spicers and their like, grow steadily in wealth and influence. Jumped-up, posturing commoners dictating to their natural betters. Their fat and greedy fingers, fumbling at the strings of power. It is almost too much to stand.” He gave a shudder as he paced across the floor.

“I will speak honestly with you, Inquisitor.” The Arch Lector waved his graceful hand as though his honesty were a priceless gift. “The Union has never seemed more powerful, has never controlled more land, but beneath the façade we are weak. It is hardly a secret that the King has become entirely unable to make his own decisions. Crown Prince Ladisla is a fop, surrounded by flatterers and fools, caring for nothing but gambling and clothes. Prince Raynault is far better fitted to rule, but he is the younger brother. The Closed Council, whose task it should be to steer this leaking vessel, is packed with frauds and schemers. Some may be loyal, some are definitely not, each intent on pulling the King his own way.” How frustrating, when I suppose they should all be pulling him in yours?

“Meanwhile, the Union is beset with enemies, dangers outside our borders, and dangers within. Gurkhul has a new and vigorous Emperor, fitting his country for another war. The Northmen are up in arms as well, skulking on the borders of Angland. In the Open Council the noblemen clamour for ancient rights, while in the villages the peasants clamour for new ones.” He gave a deep sigh. “Yes, the old order crumbles, and no one has the heart or the stomach to support it.”

Sult paused, staring up at one of the portraits: a hefty, bald man dressed all in white. Glokta recognised him well enough. Zoller, the greatest of all Arch Lectors. Tireless champion of the Inquisition, hero to the torturer, scourge of the disloyal. He glared down balefully from the wall, as though even beyond death he could burn traitors with a glance.

“Zoller,” growled Sult. “Things were different in his day, I can tell you. No whinging peasants then, no swindling merchants, no sulking noblemen. If men forgot their place they were reminded with hot iron, and any carping judge who dared to whine about it was never heard from again. The Inquisition was a noble institution, filled with the best and the brightest. To serve their King and to root out disloyalty were their only desires, and their only rewards.” Oh, things were grand in the old days.

The Arch Lector slid back into his seat and leaned forward across the table. “Now we have become a place where third sons of impoverished noblemen can line their pockets with bribes, or where near-criminal scum can indulge a passion for torture. Our influence with the King has been steadily eroded, our budgets have been steadily cut. Once we were feared and respected, Glokta, but now…” We’re a miserable sham. Sult frowned, “Well, less so. Intrigues and treasons abound, and I fear that the Inquisition is no longer equal to its task. Too many of the Superiors can no longer be trusted. They are no longer concerned with the interests of the King, or of the state, or of anybody’s interests beyond their own.” The Superiors? Not to be trusted? I swoon with the shock. Sult’s frown grew still deeper. “And now Feekt is dead.”

Glokta looked up. Now that is news. “The Lord Chancellor?”

“It will become public knowledge tomorrow morning. He died suddenly a few nights ago, while you were busy with your friend Rews. There are still some questions surrounding his death, but the man was nearly ninety. The surprise is that he lasted this long. The golden Chancellor they called him, the greatest politician of his day. Even now they are setting his likeness in stone, for a statue on the Kingsway.” Sult snorted to himself. “The greatest gift that any of us can hope for.”

The Arch Lector’s eyes narrowed to blue slits. “If you have any childish notions that the Union is controlled by its King, or by those prating blue-blood fools on the Open Council, you can let them wilt now. The Closed Council is where the power lies. More than ever since the King’s illness. Twelve men, in twelve big, uncomfortable chairs, myself among them. Twelve men with very different ideas, and for twenty years, war and peace, Feekt held us in balance. He played off the Inquisition against the judges, the bankers against the military. He was the axle on which the Kingdom turned, the foundation on which it rested, and his death has left a hole. All kinds of gaping holes, and people will be rushing to fill them. I have a feeling that whining ass Marovia, that bleeding heart of a High Justice, that self-appointed champion of the common man, will be first in the queue. It is a fluid, and a dangerous, situation.” The Arch Lector planted his fists firmly on the table before him. “We must ensure that the wrong people do not take advantage of it.”

Glokta nodded. I think I take your meaning, Arch Lector. We must ensure that it is we who take advantage, and no one else.

“It need hardly be said that the post of Lord Chancellor is one of the most powerful in the realm. The gathering of taxes, the treasury, the King’s mints, all come under his auspices. Money, Glokta, money. And money is power, I need hardly tell you. A new Chancellor will be appointed tomorrow. The foremost candidate was our erstwhile Master of the Mints, Sepp dan Teufel.” I see. Something tells me he will no longer be under consideration.

Sult’s lip curled. “Teufel was closely linked with the merchant guilds, and the Mercers in particular.” His sneer became a scowl. “In addition to which he was an associate of High Justice Marovia. So, you see, he would hardly have made a suitable Lord Chancellor.” No indeed. Hardly suitable. “Surveyor General Halleck is a far better choice, in my opinion.”

Glokta looked towards the door. “Him? Lord Chancellor?”

Sult got up smiling and moved over to a cabinet against the wall. “There really is no one else. Everyone hates him, and he hates everyone, except me. Furthermore, he is a hard-nosed conservative, who despises the merchant class and everything they stand for.” He opened the cabinet and took out two glasses and an ornate decanter. “If not exactly a friendly face on the Council, he will at least be a sympathetic one, and damned hostile toward everyone else. I can hardly think of a more suitable candidate.”

Glokta nodded. “He seems honest.” But not so honest that I’d trust him to put me in the bath. Would you, your Eminence?

“Yes,” said Sult, “he will be very valuable to us.” He poured out two glasses of rich red wine. “And just as a bonus, I was able to arrange for a sympathetic new Master of the Mints as well. I hear that the Mercers are absolutely biting their tongues off with fury. Marovia’s none too happy either, the bastard.” Sult chuckled to himself. “All good news, and we have you to thank.” He held out one of the glasses.

Poison? A slow death twitching and puking on the Arch Lectors lovely mosaic floor? Or just pitching onto my face on his table? But there was really no option but to grasp the glass and take a hearty swig. The wine was unfamiliar but delicious. Probably from somewhere very beautiful and far away. At least if I die up here I wont have to make it back down all those steps. But the Arch Lector was drinking too, all smiles and good grace. So I suppose I will last out the afternoon, after all.

“Yes, we have made a good first step. These are dangerous times alright, and yet danger and opportunity often walk hand in hand.” Glokta felt a strange sensation creeping up his back. Is that fear, or ambition, or both? “I need someone to help me put matters in order. Someone who does not fear the Superiors, or the merchants, or even the Closed Council. Someone who can be relied upon to act with subtlety, and discretion, and ruthlessness. Someone whose loyalty to the Union is beyond question, but who has no friends within the government.” Someone who’s hated by everyone? Someone to take the fall if things turn sour? Someone who will have few mourners at their funeral?

“I have need of an Inquisitor Exempt, Glokta. Someone to operate beyond the Superiors’ control, but with my full authority. Someone answerable only to me.” The Arch Lector raised an eyebrow, as though the thought had only just come to him. “It strikes me that you are exceptionally well suited to this task. What do you think?”

I think the holder of such a post would have a great many enemies and only one friend. Glokta peered up at the Arch Lector. And that friend might not be so very reliable. I think the holder of such a post might not last long. “Could I have some time to consider it?”

“No.”

Danger and opportunity often walk hand in hand… “Then I accept.”

“Excellent. I do believe this is the start of a long and productive relationship.” Sult smiled at him over the rim of his glass. “You know, Glokta, of all the merchants grubbing away out there, it is the Mercers I find the most unpalatable. It was largely through their influence that Westport entered the Union, and it was because of Westport’s money that we won the Gurkish war. The King rewarded them, of course, with priceless trading rights, but ever since then their arrogance has been insufferable. Anyone would have thought they fought the battles themselves, for the airs they have put on, and the liberties they have taken. The honourable Guild of Mercers,” he sneered. “It occurs to me, now that your friend Rews has given us the means to hook them in so deeply, it would be a shame to let them wriggle free.”

Glokta was much surprised, though he thought he hid it well. To go further? Why? The Mercers wriggle free and they keep on paying, and that keeps all kinds of people happy. As things are, they’re scared and soft—wondering who Rews named, who might be next in the chair. If we go further they may be hurt, or finished entirely. Then they’ll stop paying, and a lot of people will be unhappy. Some of them in this very building. “I can easily continue my investigations, your Eminence, if you would like me to.” Glokta took another sip. It really was an excellent wine.

“We must be cautious. Cautious and very thorough. The Mercers’ money flows like milk. They have many friends, even amongst the highest circles of the nobility. Brock, Heugen, Isher, and plenty more besides. Some of the very greatest men in the land. They’ve all been known to suck at that tit, one time or another, and babies will cry when their milk is snatched away.” A cruel grin flickered across Sult’s face. “But still, if children are to learn discipline, they must sometimes be made to weep… who did that worm Rews name in his confession?”

Glokta leaned forward painfully and slid Rews’ paper of confession toward him, unfolded it and scanned the list of names from bottom to top.

“Sepp dan Teufel, we all know.”

“Oh, we know and love him, Inquisitor,” said Sult, beaming down, “but I feel we may safely cross him off the list. Who else?”

“Well, let’s see,” Glokta took a leisurely look back at the paper. “There’s Harod Polst, a Mercer.” A nobody.

Sult waved his hand impatiently. “He’s nobody.”

“Solimo Scandi, a Mercer from Westport.” Also nobody.

“No, no, Glokta, we can do better than Solimo what’s-his-name can’t we? These little Mercers are of no real interest. Pull up the root, and the leaves die by themselves.”

“Quite so, Arch Lector. We have Villem dan Robb, minor nobility, holds a junior customs post.” Sult looked thoughtful, shook his head. “Then there’s—”

“Wait! Villem dan Robb…” The Arch Lector snapped his fingers, “His brother Kiral is one of the Queen’s gentlemen. He snubbed me at a social gathering.” Sult smiled. “Yes, Villem dan Robb, bring him in.”

And so we go deeper. “I serve and obey, your Eminence. Is there anyone’s name in particular that need be mentioned?” Glokta set down his empty glass.

“No.” The Arch Lector turned away and waved his hand again. “Any of ’em, all of ’em. I don’t care.”

<p>First of the Magi</p>

The lake stretched away, fringed by steep rocks and dripping greenery, surface pricked by the rain, flat and grey as far as the eye could see. Logen’s eye couldn’t see too far in this weather, it had to be said. The opposite shore could have been a hundred strides away, but the calm waters looked deep. Very deep.

Logen had long ago given up any attempt at staying dry, and the water ran through his hair and down his face, dripped from his nose, his fingers, his chin. Being wet, tired, and hungry had become a part of life. It often had been, come to think on it. He closed his eyes and felt the rain patter against his skin, heard the water lapping on the shingle. He knelt by the lake, pulled the stopper from his flask and pushed it under the surface, watched the bubbles break as it filled up.

Malacus Quai stumbled out of the bushes, breathing fast and shallow. He sank down to his knees, crawled against the roots of a tree, coughed out phlegm onto the pebbles. His coughing sounded bad now. It came right up from his guts and made his whole rib cage rattle. He was even paler than he had been when they first met, and a lot thinner. Logen was somewhat thinner too. These were lean times, all in all. He walked over to the haggard apprentice and squatted down.

“Just give me a moment.” Quai closed his sunken eyes and tipped his head back. “Just a moment.” His mouth hung open, the tendons in his scrawny neck standing out. He looked like a corpse already.

“Don’t rest too long. You might never get up.”

Logen held out the flask. Quai didn’t even lift his arm to take it, so Logen put it against his lips and tipped it up a little. He took a wincing swallow, coughed, then his head dropped back against the tree like a stone.

“Do you know where we are?” asked Logen.

The apprentice blinked out at the water as though he’d only just noticed it. “This must be the north end of the lake… there should be a track.” His voice had sunk to a whisper. “At the southern end there’s a road with two stones.” He gave a sudden violent cough, swallowed with difficulty. “Follow the road over the bridge and you’re there,” he croaked.

Logen looked off along the beach at the dripping trees. “How far is it?” No answer. He took hold of the sick man’s bony shoulder and shook it. Quai’s eyelids flickered open, he stared up blearily, trying to focus. “How far?”

“Forty miles.”

Logen sucked his teeth. Quai wouldn’t be walking forty miles. He’d be lucky to make forty strides on his own. He knew it well enough, you could see it in his eyes. He’d be dead soon, Logen reckoned, a few days at the most. He’d seen stronger men die of a fever.

Forty miles. Logen thought about it carefully, rubbing his chin with his thumb. Forty miles.

“Shit,” he whispered.

He dragged the pack over and pulled it open. They had some food left, but not much. A few shreds of tough dried meat, a heel of mouldy black bread. He looked out over the lake, so peaceful. They wouldn’t be running out of drinking water any time soon at least. He pulled his heavy cookpot out of his pack and set it down on the shingle. They’d been together a long time, but there was nothing left to cook. You can’t become attached to things, not out here in the wild. He tossed the rope away into the bushes, then threw the lightened pack over his shoulder.

Quai’s eyes had closed again, and he was scarcely breathing. Logen still remembered the first time he had to leave someone behind, remembered it like it was yesterday. Strange how the boy’s name had gone but the face was with him still.

The Shanka had taken a piece out of his thigh. A big piece. He’d moaned all the way, he couldn’t walk. The wound was going bad, he was dying anyway. They had to leave him. No one had blamed Logen for it. The boy had been too young, he should never have gone. Bad luck was all, could happen to anyone. He’d cried after them as they made their way down the hillside in a grim, silent group, heads down. Logen seemed to hear the cries even when they’d left him far behind. He could still hear them.

In the wars it had been different. Men dropped from the columns all the time on the long marches, in the cold months. First they fell to the back, then they fell behind, then they fell over. The cold, the sick, the wounded. Logen shivered and hunched his shoulders. At first he’d tried to help them. Then he became grateful he wasn’t one of them. Then he stepped over the corpses and hardly noticed them. You learn to tell when someone isn’t getting up again. He looked at Malacus Quai. One more death in the wild was nothing to remark upon. You have to be realistic, after all.

The apprentice started from his fitful sleep and tried to push himself up. His hands were shaking bad. He looked up at Logen, eyes glittering bright. “I can’t get up,” he croaked.

“I know. I’m surprised you made it this far.” It didn’t matter so much now. Logen knew the way. If he could find that track he might make twenty miles a day.

“If you leave me some of the food… perhaps… after you get to the library… someone…”

“No,” said Logen, setting his jaw. “I need the food.”

Quai made a strange sound, somewhere between a cough and a sob.

Logen leaned down and set his right shoulder in Quai’s stomach, pushed his arm under his back. “I can’t carry you forty miles without it,” and he straightened up, hauling the apprentice over his shoulder. He set off down the shore, holding Quai in place by his jacket, his boots crunching into the wet shingle. The apprentice didn’t even move, just hung there like a sack of wet rags, his limp arms knocking against the backs of Logen’s legs.

When he’d made it thirty strides or so Logen turned around and looked back. The pot was sitting forlorn by the lake, already filling up with rainwater. They’d been through a lot together, him and that pot.

“Fare you well, old friend.”

The pot did not reply.


Logen set his shivering burden gently down at the side of the road and stretched his aching back, scratched at the dirty bandage on his arm, took a drink of water from his flask. Water was the only thing to have passed his sore lips that day, and the hunger was gnawing at his guts. At least it had stopped raining. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like dry boots. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.

Logen spat in the dirt and rubbed the life back into his fingers. There was no missing the place, that was sure. The two stones towered over the road, ancient and pitted, patched with green moss at the base and grey lichen higher up. They were covered in faded carvings, lines of letters in a script Logen couldn’t understand, didn’t even recognise. There was a forbidding feel about them though, a sense more of warning than welcome.

“The First Law…”

“What?” said Logen, surprised. Quai had been in an unpleasant place between sleep and waking ever since they left the pot behind two days before. The pot could have made more meaningful sounds in that time. That morning Logen had woken to find him scarcely breathing. He’d been sure that he was dead, to begin with, but the man was still clinging weakly to life. He didn’t give up easy, you had to give him that.

Logen knelt down and shoved the wet hair out of Quai’s face. The apprentice suddenly grabbed his wrist and started forward.

“It’s forbidden,” he whispered, staring at Logen with wide eyes, “to touch the Other Side!”

“Eh?”

“To speak with devils,” he croaked, grabbing hold of Logen’s battered coat. “The creatures of the world below are made of lies! You mustn’t do it!”

“I won’t,” muttered Logen, wondering if he’d ever know what the apprentice was talking about. “I won’t. For what that’s worth.”

It wasn’t worth much. Quai had already dropped back into his twitching half-sleep. Logen chewed at his lip. He hoped the apprentice would wake again, but he didn’t think it likely. Still, perhaps this Bayaz would be able to do something, he was the First of the Magi after all, great in high wisdom and so on. So Logen hefted Quai up onto his shoulder again and trudged between the ancient stones.

The road climbed steep into the rocks above the lake, here built up, there cut deep into the stony ground. It was worn and pitted with age, pocked with weeds. It switched back on itself again and again, and soon Logen was panting and sweating, his legs burning with the effort. His pace began to slow.

The fact was, he was getting tired. Not just tired from the climb, or from the back-breaking slog he’d walked that day with a half-dead apprentice over his shoulder, or from the slog the day before, or even from the fight in the woods. He was tired of everything. Of the Shanka, of the wars, of his whole life.

“I can’t walk for ever, Malacus, I can’t fight for ever. How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take? I need to sit down a minute. In a proper fucking chair! Is that too much to ask? Is it?” In this frame of mind, cursing and grumbling at every step, and with Quai’s head knocking against his arse, Logen came to the bridge.

It was as ancient as the road, coated with creepers, simple and slender, arching maybe twenty strides across a dizzying gorge. Far below a river surged over jagged rocks, filling the air with noise and shining spray. On the far side a high wall had been built between towering faces of mossy stone, made with such care it was difficult to say where the natural cliff ended and the man-made one began. A single ancient door was set into it, faced with beaten copper, turned streaky green by the wet and the years.

As Logen picked his way carefully across the slippery stone he found himself wondering, through force of habit, how you could storm this place. You couldn’t. Not with a thousand picked men. There was only a narrow shelf of rock before the door, no room to set a ladder or swing a ram. The wall was ten strides high at least, and the gate had a dreadful solid look. And if the defenders were to bring down the bridge… Logen peered over the edge, and swallowed. It was a long way down.

He took a deep breath and thumped on the damp green copper with his fist. Four big, booming knocks. He’d beat on the gates of Carleon like that, after the battle, and its people had rushed to surrender. No one rushed to do anything now.

He waited. He knocked again. He waited. He became wetter and wetter in the mist from the river. He ground his teeth. He raised his arm to knock again. A narrow hatch snapped open, and a pair of rheumy eyes stared at him coldly from between thick bars.

“Who’s this now?” snapped a gruff voice.

“Logen Ninefingers is my name. I’ve—”

“Never heard of you.”

Hardly the welcome Logen had been hoping for. “I’ve come to see Bayaz.” No reply. “The First of the—”

“Yes. He’s here.” But the door didn’t open. “He isn’t taking visitors. I told that to the last messenger.”

“I’m no messenger, I have Malacus Quai with me.”

“Malaca what?”

“Quai, the apprentice.”

“Apprentice?”

“He’s very ill,” said Logen slowly. “He may die.”

“Ill, you say? Die, was it?”

“Yes.”

“And what was your name again—”

“Just open the fucking door!” Logen shook his fist pointlessly at the slot. “Please.”

“We don’t let just anyone in… hold up. Show me your hands.”

“What?”

“Your hands.” Logen held his hands up. The watery eyes moved slowly across his fingers. “There are nine. There’s one missing, see?” He shoved the stump at the hatch.

“Nine, is it? You should have said.”

Bolts clanked and the door creaked slowly open. An elderly man, bent under an old-fashioned suit of armour, was staring at him suspiciously from the other side. He was holding a long sword much too heavy for him. Its point wobbled around wildly as he strained to keep it upright.

Logen held up his hands. “I surrender.”

The ancient gatekeeper was not amused. He grunted sourly as Logen stepped past him, then he wrestled the door shut and fumbled with the bolts, turned and trudged away without another word. Logen followed him up a narrow valley lined with strange houses, weathered and mossy, half dug into the steep rocks, merging with the mountainside.

A dour-faced woman was working at a spinning wheel on a doorstep, and she frowned at Logen as he walked past with the unconscious apprentice over his shoulder. Logen smiled back at her. She was no beauty, that was sure, but it had been a very long time. The woman ducked into her house and kicked the door shut, leaving the wheel spinning. Logen sighed. The old magic was still there.

The next house was a bakery with a squat, smoking chimney. The smell of baking bread made Logen’s empty stomach rumble. Further on, a couple of dark-haired children were laughing and playing, running round a scrubby old tree. They reminded Logen of his own children. They didn’t look anything like them, but he was in a morbid frame of mind.

He had to admit to being a little disappointed. He’d been expecting something cleverer-looking, and a lot more beards. These folk didn’t seem so very wise. They looked just like any other peasants. Not unlike his own village had looked before the Shanka came. He wondered if he was in the right place. Then they rounded a bend in the road.

Three great, tapering towers were built into the mountainside ahead, joined at their bases but separating higher up, covered in dark ivy. They seemed far older even than the ancient bridge and road, as old as the mountain itself. A jumbled mess of other buildings crowded around their feet, straggling around the sides of a wide courtyard in which people were busy with everyday chores. A thin woman was churning some milk on a stoop. A stocky blacksmith was trying to shoe a restless mare. An old, bald butcher in a stained apron had finished chopping up some animal and was washing his bloody forearms in a trough.

And on a set of wide steps before the tallest of the three towers sat a magnificent old man. He was dressed all in white, with a long beard, a hook nose, and white hair spilling from under a white skull-cap. Logen was impressed, finally. The First of the Magi surely looked the part. As Logen shuffled towards him he started up from the steps and hurried over, white coat flapping behind him.

“Set him down here,” he muttered, indicating a patch of grass by the well, and Logen knelt and dumped Quai on the ground, as gently as he could with his back aching so much. The old man bent over him, laid a gnarled hand on his forehead.

“I brought your apprentice back,” muttered Logen pointlessly.

“Mine?”

“Aren’t you Bayaz?”

The old man laughed. “Oh no, I am Wells, head servant here at the Library.”

“I am Bayaz,” came a voice from behind. The butcher was walking slowly toward them, wiping his hands on a cloth. He looked maybe sixty but heavily built, with a strong face, deeply lined, and a close-cropped grey beard around his mouth. He was entirely bald, and the afternoon sun shone brightly off his tanned pate. He was neither handsome nor majestic, but as he came closer there did seem to be something about him. An assurance, an air of command. A man used to giving orders, and to being obeyed.

The First of the Magi took Logen’s left hand in both of his and pressed it warmly. Then he turned it over and examined the stump of his missing finger.

“Logen Ninefingers, then. The one they call the Bloody-Nine. I have heard stories about you, even shut up here in my library.”

Logen winced. He could guess what sort of stories the old man might have heard. “That was a long time ago.”

“Of course. We all have a past, eh? I make no judgements on hearsay.” And Bayaz smiled. A broad, white, beaming smile. His face lit up with friendly creases, but a hardness lingered around his eyes, deep-set and glistening green. A stony hardness. Logen grinned back, but he reckoned already that he wouldn’t want to make an enemy of this man.

“And you have brought our missing lamb back to the fold.” Bayaz frowned down at Malacus Quai, motionless on the grass. “How is he?”

“I think he will live, sir,” said Wells, “but we should get him out of the cold.”

The First of the Magi snapped his fingers and a sharp crack echoed from the buildings. “Help him.” The smith hurried forward and took Quai’s feet, and together he and Wells carried the apprentice through the tall door into the library.

“Now, Master Ninefingers, I have called and you have answered, and that shows good manners. Manners might be out of fashion in the North, but I want you to know that I appreciate them. Courtesy should be answered with courtesy, I have always thought. But what’s this now?” The old gatekeeper was hurrying back across the yard, greatly out of breath. “Two visitors in one day? Whatever next?”

“Master Bayaz!” wheezed the gatekeeper, “there’s riders at the gate, well horsed and well armed! They say they’ve an urgent message from the King of the Northmen!”

Bethod. It had to be. The spirits had said he had given himself a golden hat, and who else would have dared to call himself King of the Northmen? Logen swallowed. He’d got away from their last meeting with his life and nothing else, and yet it was better than many had managed, far better.

“Well, master?” asked the gatekeeper, “shall I tell them to be off?”

“Who leads them?”

“A fancy lad with a sour face. Said he’s this King’s son or something.”

“Was it Calder or Scale? They’re both something sour.”

“The younger one, I reckon.”

Calder then, that was something. Either one was bad, but Scale was much the worse. Both together were an experience to be avoided. Bayaz seemed to consider a moment. “Prince Calder may enter, but his men must remain beyond the bridge.”

“Yes sir, beyond the bridge.” The gatekeeper wheezed away. He’d love that, would Calder. Logen was greatly tickled by the thought of the so-called Prince screaming uselessly through that little slot.

“The King of the Northmen now, can you imagine?” Bayaz stared absently off down the valley. “I knew Bethod when he was not so grand. And so did you, eh, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen frowned. He’d known Bethod when he was next to nothing, a little chieftain like so many others. Logen had come for help against the Shanka, and Bethod had given it, at a price. Back then, the price had seemed light, and well worth the paying. Just to fight. To kill a few men. Logen had always found killing easy, and Bethod had seemed a man well worth fighting for—bold, proud, ruthless, venomously ambitious. All qualities that Logen had admired, back then, all qualities he thought he had himself. But time had changed them both, and the price had risen.

“He used to be a better man,” Bayaz was musing, “but crowns sit badly on some people. Do you know his sons?”

“Better than I’d like.”

Bayaz nodded. “They’re absolute shit, aren’t they? And I fear now they will never improve. Imagine that pinhead Scale a king. Ugh!” The wizard shuddered. “It almost makes you want to wish his father a long life. Almost, but not quite.”

The little girl that Logen had seen playing scurried over. She had a chain of yellow flowers in her hands, and she held it up to the old wizard. “I made this,” she said. Logen could hear the rapid pounding of hooves coming up the road.

“For me? How perfectly charming.” Bayaz took the flowers from her. “Excellent work, my dear. The Master Maker himself could not have done better.”

The rider clattered out into the yard, pulled his horse up savagely and swung from the saddle. Calder. The years had been kinder to him than to Logen, that much was clear. He was dressed all in fine blacks trimmed with dark fur. A big red jewel flashed on his finger, the hilt of his sword was set with gold. He’d grown and filled out, half the size of his brother Scale, but a big man still. His pale, proud face was pretty much as Logen remembered though, thin lips twisted in a permanent sneer.

He threw his reins at the woman churning milk then strode briskly across the yard, glowering about him, his long hair flapping in the breeze. When he was about ten strides away he saw Logen. His jaw dropped. Calder took a shocked half step back and his hand twitched towards his sword. Then he smiled a cold little smile.

“So you’ve taken to keeping dogs have you, Bayaz? I’d watch this one. He’s been known to bite his master’s hand.” His lip curled further. “I could put him down for you if you’d like.”

Logen shrugged. Hard words are for fools and cowards. Calder might have been both, but Logen was neither. If you mean to kill, you’re better getting right to it than talking about it. Talk only makes the other man ready, and that’s the last thing you want. So Logen said nothing. Calder could take that for weakness if he pleased, and so much the better. Fights might find Logen depressingly often, but he was long, long past looking for them.

Bethod’s second son turned his contempt on the First of the Magi. “My father will be displeased, Bayaz! That my men must wait outside the gate shows little respect!”

“But I have so little, Prince Calder,” said the wizard calmly. “Please don’t be downhearted, though. Your last messenger wasn’t allowed over the bridge, so you see we’re making progress.”

Calder scowled. “Why have you not answered my father’s summons?”

“There are so many demands on my time.” Bayaz held up the chain of flowers. “These don’t make themselves, you know.”

The Prince was not amused. “My father,” he boomed, “Bethod, King of the Northmen, commands you to attend upon him at Carleon!” He cleared his throat. “He will not…” He coughed.

“What?” demanded Bayaz. “Speak up, child!”

“He commands…” The Prince coughed again, spluttered, choked. He put a hand to his throat. The air seemed to have become very still.

“Commands, does he?” Bayaz frowned. “Bring great Juvens back from the land of the dead. He may command me. He alone, and no other.” The frown grew deeper still, and Logen had to resist a strange desire to back away. “You may not. Nor may your father, whatever he calls himself.”

Calder sank slowly to his knees, face twisted, eyes watering. Bayaz looked him up and down. “What solemn attire, did somebody die? Here,” and he tossed the chain of flowers over the Prince’s head. “A little colour may lighten your mood. Tell your father he must come himself. I do not waste my time on fools and younger sons. I am old fashioned in this. I like to talk to the horse’s head, not the horse’s arse. Do you understand me, boy?” Calder was sagging sideways, eyes red and bulging. The First of the Magi waved his hand. “You may go.”

The Prince heaved in a ragged breath, coughed and reeled to his feet, stumbled for his horse and hauled himself up into the saddle with a deal less grace than he had got down. He shot a murderous glance over his shoulder as he made for the gate, but it didn’t have quite the same weight with his face red as a slapped arse. Logen realised he was grinning, wide. It was a long time since he’d enjoyed himself this much.

“I understand that you can speak to the spirits.”

Logen was caught off guard. “Eh?”

“To speak to the spirits.” Bayaz shook his head. “It is a rare gift in these times. How are they?”

“What, the spirits?”

“Yes.”

“Dwindling.”

“Soon they will all sleep, eh? The magic leaks out of the world. That is the set order of things. Over the years my knowledge has grown, and yet my power has diminished.”

“Calder seemed impressed.”

“Bah.” Bayaz waved his hand. “A mere nothing. A little trick of air and flesh, easily done. No, believe me, the magic ebbs away. It is a fact. A natural law. Still, there are many ways to crack an egg, eh, my friend? If one tool fails then we must try another.” Logen was no longer entirely sure what they were talking about, but he was too tired to ask.

“Yes, indeed,” murmured the First of the Magi. “There are many ways to crack an egg. Speaking of which, you look hungry.”

Logen’s mouth flooded with spit at the very mention of food. “Yes,” he mumbled. “Yes… I could eat.”

“Of course.” Bayaz clapped him warmly on the shoulder. “And then perhaps a bath? Not that we are offended of course, but I find that there is nothing more soothing than hot water after a long walk, and you, I suspect, have had a very long walk indeed. Come with me, Master Ninefingers, you’re safe here.”

Food. Bath. Safety. Logen had to stop himself from weeping as he followed the old man into the library.

<p>The Good Man</p>

It was a hot, hot day outside, and the sun shone brightly through the many-paned windows, casting criss-cross patterns on the wooden floor of the audience chamber. It was mid-afternoon, and the room was soupy warm and stuffy as a kitchen.

Fortis dan Hoff, the Lord Chamberlain, was red-faced and sweaty in his fur-trimmed robes of state, and had been in an increasingly filthy mood all afternoon. Harlen Morrow, his Under-Secretary for Audiences, looked even more uncomfortable, but then he had his terror of Hoff to contend with, in addition to the heat. Both men seemed greatly distressed in their own ways, but at least they got to sit down.

Major West was sweating steadily into his embroidered dress uniform. He had been standing in the same position, hands behind his back, teeth gritted, for nearly two hours while Lord Hoff sulked and grumbled and bellowed his way through the applicants and anyone else in view. West fervently wished, and not for the first time that afternoon, that he was lying under a tree in the park, with a strong drink. Or perhaps under a glacier, entombed within the ice. Anywhere but here.

Standing guard on these horrible audiences was hardly one of West’s more pleasant duties, but it could have been worse. You had to spare a thought for the eight soldiers stood around the walls: they were in full armour. West was waiting for one of them to pass out and crash to the floor with a sound like a cupboard full of saucepans, no doubt to the great disgust of the Lord Chamberlain, but so far they were all somehow staying upright.

“Why is this damned room always the wrong temperature?” Hoff was demanding to know, as if the heat was an insult directed solely at him. “It’s too hot half the year, too cold the other half! There’s no air in here, no air at all! Why don’t these windows open? Why can’t we have a bigger room?”

“Er…” mumbled the harassed Under-Secretary, pushing his spectacles up his sweaty nose, “requests for audiences have always been held here, my Lord Chamberlain.” He paused under the fearsome gaze of his superior. “Er… it is… traditional?”

“I know that, you dolt!” thundered Hoff, face crimson with heat and fury. “Who asked for your damn fool of an opinion anyway?”

“Yes, that is to say, no,” stuttered Morrow, “that is to say, quite so, my Lord.”

Hoff shook his head with a mighty frown, staring around the room in search of something else to displease him. “How many more must we endure today?”

“Er… four more, your Grace.”

“Damn it!” thundered the Chamberlain, shifting in his huge chair and flapping his fur-trimmed collar to let some air in. “This is intolerable!” West found himself in silent agreement. Hoff snatched up a silver goblet from the table and took a great slurp of wine. He was a great one for drinking, indeed he had been drinking all afternoon. It had not improved his temper. “Who’s the next fool?” he demanded.

“Er…” Morrow squinted at a large document through his spectacles, tracing across the crabby writing with an inky finger. “Goodman Heath is next, a farmer from—”

“A farmer? A farmer did you say? So we must sit in this ridiculous heat, listening to some damn commoner moan on about how the weather has affected his sheep?”

“Well, my Lord,” muttered Morrow, “it does seem as though, er, Goodman Heath has, er, a legitimate grievance against his, er, landlord, and—”

“Damn it all! I am sick to my stomach of other people’s grievances!” The Lord Chamberlain took another swallow of wine. “Show the idiot in!”

The doors were opened and Goodman Heath was allowed into their presence. To underline the balance of power within the room, the Lord Chamberlain’s table was raised up on a high dais, so that even standing the poor man had to look up at them. An honest face, but very gaunt. He held a battered hat before him in trembling hands. West shrugged his shoulders in discomfort as a drop of sweat ran down his back.

“You are Goodman Heath, correct?”

“Yes, my Lord,” mumbled the peasant in a broad accent, “from—”

Hoff cut him off with consummate rudeness. “And you come before us seeking an audience with his August Majesty, the High King of the Union?”

Goodman Heath licked his lips. West wondered how far he had come to be made a fool of. A very long way, most likely. “My family have been put off our land. The landlord said we had not been paying the rent but—”

The Lord Chamberlain waved a hand. “Plainly this is a matter for the Commission for Land and Agriculture. His August Majesty the King is concerned with the welfare of all his subjects, no matter how mean,” West almost winced at this slight, “but he cannot be expected to give personal attention to every trifling thing. His time is valuable, and so is mine. Good day.” And that was it. Two of the soldiers pulled the double doors open for Goodman Heath to leave.

The peasant’s face had gone very pale, his knuckles wringing at the brim of his hat. “Good my Lord,” he stammered, “I’ve already been to the Commission…”

Hoff looked up sharply, making the farmer stammer to a halt. “Good day, I said!”

The peasant’s shoulders slumped. He took a last look around the room. Morrow was examining something on the far wall with great interest and refused to meet his eye. The Lord Chamberlain stared back at him angrily, infuriated by this unforgivable waste of his time. West felt sick to be a part of it. Heath turned and shuffled away, head bowed. The doors swung shut.

Hoff bashed his fist on the table. “Did you see that?” He stared round fiercely at the sweating assembly. “The sheer gall of the man! Did you see that, Major West?”

“Yes, my Lord Chamberlain, I saw it all,” said West stiffly. “It was a disgrace.”

Fortunately, Hoff did not take his whole meaning. “A disgrace, Major West, you are quite right! Why the hell is it that all the promising young men go into the army? I want to know who is responsible for letting these beggars in here!” He glared at the Under-Secretary, who swallowed and stared at his documents. “What’s next?”

“Er,” mumbled Morrow, “Coster dan Kault, Magister of the Guild of Mercers.”

“I know who he is, damn it!” snapped Hoff, wiping a fresh sheen of sweat from his face. “If it isn’t the damn peasants it’s the damn merchants!” he roared at the soldiers by the door, his voice easily loud enough to be heard in the corridor outside. “Show the grubbing old swindler in, then!”

Magister Kault could hardly have presented a more different appearance from the previous supplicant. He was a big, plump man, with a face as soft as his eyes were hard. His purple vesture of office was embroidered with yards of golden thread, so ostentatious that the Emperor of Gurkhul himself might have been embarrassed to wear it. He was accompanied by a pair of senior Mercers, their own attire scarcely less magnificent. West wondered if Goodman Heath could earn enough in ten years to pay for one of those gowns. He decided not, even if he hadn’t been thrown off his land.

“My Lord Chamberlain,” intoned Kault with an elaborate bow. Hoff acknowledged the head of the Guild of Mercers as faintly as humanly possible, with a raised eyebrow and an almost imperceptible twist of the lip. Kault waited for a greeting which he felt more befitting of his station, but none was forthcoming. He noisily cleared his throat. “I have come to seek an audience with his August Majesty—”

The Lord Chamberlain snorted. “The purpose of this session is to decide who is worthy of his Majesty’s attention. If you aren’t seeking an audience with him you have blundered into the wrong room.” It was already clear that this interview would be every bit as unsuccessful as the last. There was a kind of horrible justice to it, West supposed. The great and the small were treated exactly alike.

Magister Kault’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he continued. “The honourable Guild of Mercers, of whom I am the humble representative…” Hoff slurped wine noisily and Kault was obliged to pause for a moment. “…have been the victims of a most malicious and mischievous attack—”

“Fill this up, would you?” yelled the Lord Chamberlain, waving his empty goblet at Morrow. The Under-Secretary slipped eagerly from his chair and seized the decanter. Kault was forced to wait, teeth gritted, while the wine gurgled out.

“Continue!” blustered Hoff, waving his hand, “we don’t have all day!”

“A most malicious and under-handed attack—”

The Lord Chamberlain squinted down. “An attack you say? A common assault is a matter for the City Watch!”

Magister Kault grimaced. He and his two companions were already starting to sweat. “Not an attack of that variety, my Lord Chamberlain, but an insidious and underhanded assault, designed to discredit the shining reputation of our Guild, and to damage our business interests in the Free Cities of Styria, and across the Union. An attack perpetrated by certain deceitful elements of his Majesty’s Inquisition, and—”

“I have heard enough!” The Lord Chamberlain jerked up his big hand for silence. “If this is a matter of trade, then it should be handled by His Majesty’s Commission for Trade and Commerce.” Hoff spoke slowly and precisely, in the manner of a school-master addressing his most disappointing pupil. “If this is a matter of law, then it should be handled by the department of High Justice Marovia. If it is a matter of the internal workings of his Majesty’s Inquisition, then you must arrange an appointment with Arch Lector Sult. In any case, it is hardly a matter for the attention of his August Majesty.”

The head of the Mercer’s Guild opened his mouth but the Lord Chamberlain spoke over him, voice louder than ever. “Your King employs a Commission, selects a High Justice, and appoints an Arch Lector, so that he need not deal with every trifling issue himself! Incidentally, that is also why he grants licences to certain merchant guilds, and not to line the pockets…” and his lip twisted into an unpleasant sneer “…of the trading class! Good day.” And the doors were opened.

Kault’s face had turned pale with anger at that last comment. “You may depend upon it, Lord Chamberlain,” he said coldly, “that we will seek redress elsewhere, and with the very greatest of persistence.”

Hoff glared back at him for a very long while. “Seek it wherever you like,” he growled, “and with as much persistence as you please. But not here. Good… day!” If you could have stabbed someone in the face with the phrase “good day”, the head of the Guild of Mercers would have lain dead on the floor.

Kault blinked a couple of times, then turned angrily and strode out with as much dignity as he could muster. His two lackeys followed close on his heels, their fabulous gowns flapping behind them. The doors were pushed shut.

Hoff smashed the table once again with his fist. “An outrage!” he spluttered. “Those arrogant swine! Do they seriously think they can flout the King’s law and still seek the King’s help when things turn sour?”

“Well, no,” said Morrow, “of course…”

The Lord Chamberlain ignored his Under-Secretary and turned to West with a sneering smile. “Still, I fancy I could see the vultures circling around them, despite the low ceiling, eh, Major West?”

“Indeed, my Lord Chamberlain,” mumbled West, thoroughly uncomfortable and wishing this torture would end. Then he could get back to his sister. His heart sank. She was even more of a handful than he remembered. She was clever alright, but he worried that she might be too clever for her own good. If only she would just marry some honest man and be happy. His position here was precarious enough, without her making a spectacle of herself.

“Vultures, vultures,” Hoff was murmuring to himself. “Nasty-looking birds, but they have their uses. What’s next?”

The sweating Under-Secretary looked even more uncomfortable than before as he fumbled for the right words. “We have a party of… diplomats?”

The Lord Chamberlain paused, goblet halfway to his mouth. “Diplomats? From whom?”

“Er… from this so-called King of the Northmen, Bethod.”

Hoff burst out laughing. “Diplomats?” he cackled, mopping his face on his sleeve. “Savages, you mean!”

The Under-Secretary chuckled unconvincingly. “Ah yes, my Lord, ha, ha! Savages, of course!”

“But dangerous, eh, Morrow?” snapped the Lord Chamberlain, his good humour evaporating instantly. The Under-Secretary’s cackling gurgled to a halt. “Very dangerous. We must be careful. Show them in!”

There were four of them. The two smallest were great big, fierce-looking men, scarred and bearded, clad in heavy battered armour. They had been disarmed at the gate of the Agriont, of course, but there was still a sense of danger about them, and West had the feeling they would have given up a lot of big, well-worn weapons. These were the sort of men who were crowded on the borders of Angland, hungry for war, not far from West’s home.

With them came an older man, also in pitted armour, and with long hair and a great white beard. There was a livid scar across his face and through his eye, which was blind white. He had a broad smile on his lips though, and his pleasant demeanour was greatly at odds with that of his two dour companions, and with the fourth man, who came behind.

He had to stoop to get under the lintel, which was a good seven feet above the floor. He was swathed and hooded in a rough brown cloak, features invisible. As he straightened up, towering over everyone else, the room began to seem absurdly cramped. His sheer bulk was intimidating, but there was something more, something that seemed to come off him in sickly waves. The soldiers around the walls felt it, and they shifted uncomfortably. The Under-Secretary for Audiences felt it, sweating and twitching and fussing with his documents. Major West certainly felt it. His skin had gone cold despite the heat, and he could feel every hair on his body standing up under his damp uniform.

Only Hoff seemed unaffected. He looked the four Northmen up and down with a deep frown on his face, no more impressed with the hooded giant than he had been with Goodman Heath. “So you are messengers from Bethod.” He rolled the words around in his mouth, then spat them out, “The King of the Northmen.”

“We are,” said the smiling old man, bowing with great reverence. “I am White-Eye Hansul.” His voice was rich, round and pleasant, without any accent, not at all what West had been expecting.

“And you are Bethod’s emissary?” asked Hoff casually, taking another swallow of wine from his goblet. For the first time ever West was pleased the Lord Chamberlain was in the room with him, but then he glanced up at the hooded man and the feeling of unease returned.

“Oh no,” said White-Eye, “I am here merely as translator. This is the emissary of the King of the Northmen,” and his good eye flicked nervously up to the dark figure in the cloak, as though even he was afraid. “Fenris.” He stretched out the “s” on the end of the name so that it hissed in the air. “Fenris the Feared.”

An apt name indeed. Major West thought back to songs he had heard in his childhood, stories of bloodthirsty giants in the mountains of the distant north. The room was silent for a moment.

“Humph,” said the Lord Chamberlain, unmoved. “And you seek an audience with his August Majesty, the High King of the Union?”

“We do indeed, my Lord Chamberlain,” said the old warrior. “Our master, Bethod, greatly regrets the hostility between our two nations. He wishes only to be on the best of terms with his southern neighbours. We bring an offer of peace from my King to yours, and a gift to show our good faith. Nothing more.”

“Well, well,” said Hoff, sitting back in his high chair with a broad smile. “A gracious request, graciously made. You may see the King in Open Council tomorrow, and present your offer, and your gift, before the foremost peers of the realm.”

White-Eye bowed respectfully. “You are most kind, my Lord Chamberlain.” He turned for the door, followed by the two dour warriors. The cloaked figure lingered for a moment, then he too slowly turned and stooped through the doorway. It wasn’t until the doors were shut that West could breathe easily again. He shook his head and shrugged his sweaty shoulders. Songs about giants indeed. A great big man in a cloak was all. But looking again, that doorway really was very high…

“There, you see, Master Morrow?” Hoff looked intensely pleased with himself. “Hardly the savages you led me to expect! I feel we are close to a resolution of our northern problems, don’t you?”

The Under-Secretary did not look in the least convinced. “Er… yes, my Lord, of course.”

“Yes indeed. A lot of fuss over nothing. A lot of pessimistic, defeatist nonsense from our jumpy citizens up north, eh? War? Bah!” Hoff whacked his hand on the table again, making wine slop out of his goblet and spatter on the wood. “These Northmen wouldn’t dare! Why, next thing you know they’ll be petitioning us for membership of the Union! You see if I’m not right, eh, Major West?”

“Er…”

“Good! Excellent! We’ve got something done today at least! One more and we can get out of this damn furnace! Who do we have, Morrow?”

The Under-Secretary frowned and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Er… we have one Yoru Sulfur,” he wrestled with the unfamiliar name.

“We have a who?”

“Er… Sulfir, or Sulfor, or something.”

“Never heard of him,” grunted the Lord Chamberlain, “what manner of a man is he? Some kind of a southerner? Not another peasant, please!”

The Under-Secretary examined his notes, and swallowed. “An emissary?”

“Yes, yes, but from whom?”

Morrow was positively cringing, like a child expecting a slap. “From the Great Order of Magi!” he blurted out.

There was a moment of stunned silence. West’s eyebrows went up and his jaw came open, and he guessed that the same was happening, unseen, behind the visors of the soldiers. He winced instinctively as he anticipated the response of the Lord Chamberlain, but Hoff surprised them all by bursting into peals of laughter. “Excellent! At last some entertainment. It’s been years since we had a Magus here! Show in the wizard! We mustn’t keep him waiting!”

Yoru Sulfur was something of a disappointment. He had simple, travel-stained clothes, was scarcely better dressed than Goodman Heath had been, in fact. His staff was not shod with gold, had no lump of shining crystal on the end. His eye did not flash with a mysterious fire. He looked a fairly ordinary sort of a man in his middle thirties, slightly tired, as though after a long journey, but otherwise well at his ease before the Lord Chamberlain.

“A good day to you, gentlemen,” he said, leaning on his staff. West was having some difficulty working out where he was from. Not the Union, because his skin was too dark, and not Gurkhul or the far south, because his skin was too light. Not from the North or from Styria. Further then, but where? Now that West looked at him more closely he noticed that his eyes were different colours: one blue, one green.

“And a good day to you, sir,” said Hoff, smiling as though he really meant it. “My door is forever open to the Great Order of Magi. Tell me, do I have the pleasure of addressing great Bayaz himself?”

Sulfur looked puzzled. “No, was I wrongly announced? I am Yoru Sulfur. Master Bayaz is a bald gentleman.” He pushed a hand through his own head of curly brown hair. “There is a statue of him outside in the avenue. But I did have the honour to study under him for several years. He is a most powerful and knowledgeable master.”

“Of course! Of course he is! And how may we be of service?”

Yoru Sulfur cleared his throat, as though to tell a story. “On the death of King Harod the Great, Bayaz, the First of the Magi, left the Union. But he swore an oath to return.”

“Yes, yes, that’s true,” chuckled Hoff. “Very true, every school-child knows it.”

“And he pronounced that, when he returned, his coming would be heralded by another.”

“True, also.”

“Well,” said Sulfur, smiling broadly, “here I am.”

The Lord Chamberlain roared with laughter. “Here you are!” he shouted, thumping the table. Harlen Morrow allowed himself a little chuckle, but shut up immediately as Hoffs smile began to fade.

“During my tenure as Lord Chamberlain, I have had three members of the Great Order of Magi apply to me for audiences with the King. Two were most clearly insane, and one was an exceptionally courageous swindler.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before him. “Tell me, Master Sulfur, which kind of Magus are you?”

“I am neither of those.”

“I see. Then you will have documents.”

“Of course.” Sulfur reached into his coat and brought out a small letter, closed with a white seal, a single strange symbol stamped into it. He placed it carelessly on the table before the Lord Chamberlain.

Hoff frowned. He picked up the document and turned it over in his hands. He examined the seal carefully, then he dabbed his face with his sleeve, broke the wax, unfolded the thick paper and began to read.

Yoru Sulfur showed no sign of nerves. He didn’t appear troubled by the heat. He strolled around the room, he nodded to the armoured soldiers, he didn’t seem upset by their lack of response. He turned suddenly to West. “It’s terribly hot in here, isn’t it? It’s a wonder these poor fellows don’t pass out, and crash to the floor with a sound like a cupboard full of saucepans.” West blinked. He had been thinking the very same thing.

The Lord Chamberlain put the letter down carefully on the table, no longer in the least amused. “It occurs to me that the Open Council would be the wrong place to discuss this matter.”

“I agree. I was hoping for a private audience with Lord Chancellor Feekt.”

“I am afraid that will not be possible.” Hoff licked his lips. “Lord Feekt is dead.”

Sulfur frowned. “That is most unfortunate.”

“Indeed, indeed. We all feel his loss most keenly. Perhaps I and certain other members of the Closed Council can assist you.”

Sulfur bowed his head. “I am guided by you, my Lord Chamberlain.”

“I will try to arrange something for later this evening. Until then we will find you some lodgings within the Agriont… suitable for your station.” He signalled to the guards, and the doors were opened.

“Thank you so much, Lord Hoff. Master Morrow. Major West.” Sulfur nodded to them graciously, each in turn, and then turned and left. The doors were closed once more, leaving West wondering how the man had known his name.

Hoff turned to his Under-Secretary for Audiences. “Go immediately to Arch Lector Sult, and tell him we must meet at once. Then fetch High Justice Marovia, and Lord Marshal Varuz. Tell them it is a matter of the very highest importance, and not a word of this to anyone beyond those three.” He shook his finger in Morrow’s sweaty face. “Not a word!”

The Under-Secretary stared back, spectacles askew. “Now!” roared Hoff. Morrow leapt to his feet, stumbled on the hem of his gown, then hurried out through a side door. West swallowed, his mouth very dry.

Hoff stared long and hard at each man in the room. “As for the rest of you, not a word to anyone about any of this, or the consequences for all of you will be most severe! Now out, everyone out!” The soldiers clanked from the room immediately. West needed no further encouragement and he hurried after them, leaving the brooding Lord Chamberlain alone in his high chair.

West’s thoughts were dark and confused as he pulled the door shut behind him. Fragments of old stories of the Magi, fears about war in the North, images of a hooded giant, towering up near the ceiling. There had been some strange and some sinister visitors to the Agriont that day, and he felt quite weighed down by worries. He tried to shrug them off, told himself it was all foolishness, but then all he could think of was his sister, cavorting about the Agriont like a fool.

He groaned to himself. She was probably with Luthar right now. Why the hell had he introduced the two of them? For some reason he had been expecting the same awkward, sickly, sharp-tongued girl he remembered from years ago. He had got quite a shock when this woman had turned up at his quarters. He had barely recognised her. Undoubtedly a woman, and a fine-looking one too. Meanwhile, Luthar was arrogant and rich and handsome and had all the self-restraint of a six-year old. He knew they had seen each other since, and more than once. Just as friends, of course. Ardee had no other friends here. Just friends.

“Shit!” he cursed. It was like putting a cat by the cream and trusting it not to stick its tongue in. Why the hell hadn’t he thought it through? It was a damn disaster in the making! But what could he do about it now? He stared off miserably down the hallway.

There’s nothing like seeing another’s misery to make you forget your own, and Goodman Heath was a sorry sight indeed. He was sitting alone on a long bench, face deathly pale, staring off into space. He must have been sitting there all this time, while the Mercers and the Northmen and the Magus came and went, waiting for nothing but with nowhere left to go. West glanced up and down the hallway. There was no one else nearby. Heath was oblivious to him, mouth open, eyes glassy, battered hat forgotten on his knees.

West couldn’t simply leave the man like this, he didn’t have it in him.

“Goodman Heath,” he said as he approached, and the peasant looked up at him, surprised. He fumbled for his hat and made to rise, muttering apologies.

“No, please, don’t get up.” West sat down on the bench. He stared at his feet, unable to look the man in the eye. There was an awkward silence. “I have a friend who sits on the Commission for Land and Agriculture. There might be something he can do for you…” He trailed off, embarrassed, squinting up the corridor.

The farmer gave a sad smile. “I’d be right grateful for anything you could do.”

“Yes, yes, of course, I’ll do what I can.” It would do no good whatsoever, and they both knew it. West grimaced and bit his lip. “You’d better take this,” and he pressed his purse into the peasant’s limp, calloused fingers. Heath looked at him, mouth slightly open. West gave a quick, awkward smile then got to his feet. He was very keen to be off.

“Sir!” called Goodman Heath after him, but West was already hurrying down the corridor, and he didn’t look back.

<p>On the List</p>

Why do I do this?

The outline of Villem dan Robb’s townhouse was cut out in black against the clear night sky. It was an unremarkable building, a two-storey-dwelling with a low wall and a gate in front, just like a hundred others in this street. Our old friend Rews used to live in a palatial great villa near the market. Robb really should have asked him for some more ambitious bribes. Still. Lucky for us he didn’t. Elsewhere in the city the fashionable avenues would be brightly lit and busy with drunken revellers right through until dawn. But this secluded side street was far from the bright lights and the prying eyes.

We can work undisturbed.

Round the side of the building, on the upper floor, a lamp was burning in a narrow window. Good. Our friend is at home. But still awake—we must tread gently. He turned to Practical Frost and pointed down the side of the house. The albino nodded and slipped away silently across the street.

Glokta waited for him to reach the wall and disappear into the shadows beside the building, then he turned to Severard and pointed at the front door. The eyes of the lanky Practical smiled at him for a moment, then he scuttled quickly away, staying low, rolled over the low wall and dropped without a sound onto the other side.

Perfect so far, but now I must move. Glokta wondered why he had come. Frost and Severard were more than capable of dealing with Robb by themselves, and he would only slow them down. I might even fall on my arse and alert the idiot to our presence. So why did I come? But Glokta knew why. The feeling of excitement was already building in his throat. It felt almost like being alive.

He had muffled the end of his cane with a bit of rag, so he was able to limp to the wall, ever so delicately, without making too much noise. By that time Severard had swung the gate open, holding the hinge with one gloved hand so that it didn’t make a noise. Nice and neat. That little wall might as well be a hundred feet high for all my chances of getting over it.

Severard was kneeling on the step against the front door, picking the lock. His ear was close to the wood, his eyes squinting with concentration, gloved hands moving deftly. Glokta’s heart was beating fast, his skin prickly with tension. Ah, the thrill of the hunt.

There was a soft click, then another. Severard slipped his glittering picks into a pocket, then reached out and slowly, carefully turned the doorknob. The door swung silently open. What a useful fellow he is. Without him and Frost I am just a cripple. They are my hands, my arms, my legs. But I am their brains. Severard slipped inside and Glokta followed him, wincing with pain every time he put his weight on his left leg.

The hallway was dark, but there was a shaft of light spilling down the stairs from above and the banisters cast strange, distorted shadows on the wooden floor. Glokta pointed up the steps, and Severard nodded and began to tiptoe toward them, keeping his feet close to the wall. It seemed to take him an age to get there.

The third step made a quiet creaking sound as he put his weight on it. Glokta winced, Severard froze in place. They waited, still as statues. There was no sound from upstairs. Glokta began to breathe again. Severard moved ever so slowly upwards, step by gentle step. As he got towards the top he peered cautiously round the corner, back pressed against the wall, then he took the last step and disappeared from view without a sound.

Practical Frost emerged from the shadows at the far end of the corridor. Glokta raised an eyebrow at him but he shook his head. Nobody downstairs. He turned to the front door and started to close it, ever so gently. Only when it was shut did he slowly, slowly release the doorknob, so the latch slid silently into place.

“You’ll want to see this.”

Glokta gave a start at the sudden sound, turning round quickly and causing a jolt of pain to shoot through his back. Severard was standing, hands on hips, at the head of the stairs. He turned and made off towards the light, and Frost bounded up the steps after him, no longer making any pretence at stealth.

Why can no one ever stay on the ground floor? Always upstairs. At least he didn’t have to try to be quiet as he struggled up the steps after his Practicals, right foot creaking, left foot scraping on the boards. Bright lamplight was flooding out into the upstairs corridor from an open door at the far end, and Glokta limped toward it. He paused as he crossed the threshold, catching his breath after the climb.

Oh dear me, what a mess. A big bookcase had been torn away from the wall, and books were scattered, open and closed, all about the floor. A glass of wine had been knocked over on the desk, making sodden red rags of the crumpled papers strewn across it. The bed was in disarray, the covers pulled half off, the pillows and the mattress slashed and spilling feathers. A wardrobe had its doors open, one of them dangling half off. A few tattered garments were hanging inside, but most were lying torn in a heap below.

A handsome young man lay on his back under the window, staring up, pale-faced and open mouthed at the ceiling. It would have been an understatement to say that his throat had been cut. It had been hacked so savagely that his head was only just still attached. There was blood splattered everywhere, on the torn clothes, on the slashed mattress, all over the body itself. There were a couple of smeared, bloody palm-prints on the wall, a great pool of blood across a good part of the floor, still wet. He was killed tonight. Perhaps only a few hours ago. Perhaps only a few minutes.

“I don’t think he’ll be answering our questions,” said Severard.

“No.” Glokta’s eyes drifted over the wreckage. “I think he might be dead. But how did it happen?”

Frost fixed him with a pink eye and raised a white eyebrow. “Poithon?”

Severard spluttered with shrill laughter under his mask. Even Glokta allowed himself a chuckle. “Clearly. But how did our poison get in?”

“Open wi’ow,” mumbled Frost, pointing at the floor.

Glokta limped into the room, careful not to let his feet or his cane touch the sticky mess of blood and feathers. “So, our poison saw the lamp burning, just as we did. He entered via the downstairs window. He climbed silently up the stairs.” Glokta turned the corpse’s hands over with the tip of his cane. A few specks of blood from the neck, but no damage to the knuckles or the fingers. He did not struggle. He was taken by surprise. He craned forward and peered at the gaping wound.

“A single, powerful cut. Probably with a knife.”

“And Villem dan Robb has sprung a most serious leak,” said Severard.

“And we are short one informant,” mused Glokta. There had been no blood in the corridor. Our man took pains not to get his feet wet while searching the room, however messy it may look. He was not angry or afraid. It was just a job.

“The killer was a professional,” murmured Glokta, “he came here with murder in mind. Then perhaps he made this little effort to give the appearance of a burglary, who can say? Either way, the Arch Lector won’t be satisfied with a corpse.” He looked up at his two Practicals. “Who’s next on the list?”


This time there had been a struggle, without a doubt. If a onesided one. Solimo Scandi was sprawled on his side, facing the wall, as though embarrassed by the state of his slashed and tattered nightshirt. There were deep cuts in his forearms. Where he struggled vainly to ward off the blade. He had crawled across the floor, leaving a bloody trail across the highly polished wood. Where he struggled vainly to get away. He had failed. The four gaping knife wounds in his back had been the end of him.

Glokta felt his face twitching as he looked down at the bloody corpse. One body might just be a coincidence. Two make a conspiracy. His eyelid fluttered. Whoever did this knew we were coming, and when, and precisely who for. They are one step ahead of us. More than likely, our list of accomplices has already become a list of corpses. There was a creaking sound behind Glokta and his head whipped round, sending shooting pains down his stiff neck. Nothing but the open window swinging in the breeze. Calm, now. Calm, and think it out.

“It would seem the honourable Guild of Mercers have been doing a little housekeeping.”

“How could they know?” muttered Severard.

How indeed? “They must have seen Rews’ list, or been told who was on it.” And that means… Glokta licked at his empty gums. “Someone inside the Inquisition has been talking.”

For once, Severard’s eyes were not smiling. “If they know who’s on the list, they know who wrote it. They know who we are.”

Three more names on the list, perhaps? Down at the bottom? Glokta grinned. How very exciting. “You scared?”

“I’m not happy, I’ll tell you that.” He nodded down at the corpse. “A knife in the back isn’t part of my plan.”

“Nor mine, Severard, believe me.” No indeed. If I die, I’ll never know who betrayed us.

And I want to know.


A bright, cloudless spring day, and the park was busy with fops and idlers of every variety. Glokta sat very still on his bench, in the merciful shade of a spreading tree, and stared out at the shimmering greenery, the sparkling water, the happy, the drunken, the colourful revellers. There were people wedged together on the benches around the lake, pairs and groups scattered around the grass, drinking and talking and basking in the sun. There seemed no space for any more.

But no one came and sat next to Glokta. Occasionally somebody would hurry up, hardly able to believe their luck in finding such a spot, then they would see him sitting there. Their faces would fall and they would swerve away, or walk right past as though they had never meant to sit. I drive them away as surely as the plague, but perhaps that’s just as well. I don’t need their company.

He watched a group of young soldiers rowing a boat on the lake. One of them stood up, wobbling around, holding forth with a bottle in his hand. The boat rocked alarmingly, and his companions shouted at him to get down. Vague gales of good-natured laughter came wafting through the air, delayed a little by the distance. Children. How young they look. How innocent. And such was I, not long ago. It seems a thousand years, though. Longer. It seems a different world.

“Glokta.”

He looked up, shading his eyes with his hand. It was Arch Lector Sult, arrived at last, a tall dark shape against the blue sky. Glokta thought he looked a little more tired, more lined, more drawn than usual as he stared coldly down.

“This had better be interesting.” Sult flicked out the tails of his long white coat and lowered himself gracefully onto the bench. “The commoners are up in arms again near Keln. Some idiot of a landowner hangs a few peasants and now we have a mess to deal with! How hard can it be to manage a field full of dirt and a couple of farmers? You don’t have to treat them well, just as long as you don’t hang them!” His mouth was a straight, hard line as he glared out across the lawns. “This had better be damned interesting.”

Then I’ll try not to disappoint you. “Villem dan Robb is dead.” As though to add emphasis to Glokta’s statement, the drunken soldier slipped and toppled over the side of the boat, splashing into the water. His friends’ screams of laughter reached Glokta a moment later. “He was murdered.”

“Huh. It happens. Pick up the next man on the list.” Sult got to his feet, frowning. “I didn’t think you’d need my approval for every little thing. That’s why I picked you for this job. Just get on with it!” he snapped as he turned away.

There’s no need to rush, Arch Lector. That’s the trouble with good legs, you tend to run around too much. If you have trouble moving, on the other hand, you don’t move until you damn well know it’s time. “The next man on the list also suffered a mishap.”

Sult turned back, one eyebrow slightly raised. “He did?”

“They all did.”

The Arch Lector pursed his lips, sat back down on the bench. “All of them?”

“All of them.”

“Hmm,” mused Sult. “That is interesting. The Mercers are cleaning up, are they? I hardly expected such ruthlessness. Times have changed, alright, times have certainly…” He trailed off, slowly starting to frown. “You think someone gave them Rews’ list, don’t you? You think one of ours has been talking. That’s why you asked me to come here, isn’t it?”

Did you think I was just avoiding the stairs? “Each one of them killed? Each and every name on our list? The very night we go to arrest them? I am not a great believer in coincidences.” Are you, Arch Lector?

He was evidently not. His face had turned very grim. “Who saw the confession?”

“Me, and my two Practicals, of course.”

“You have absolute confidence in them?”

“Absolute.” There was a pause. The boat was drifting, rudderless, as the soldiers scrambled about, oars sticking up in the air, the man in the water splashing and laughing, spraying water over his friends.

“The confession was in my office for some time,” murmured the Arch Lector. “Some members of my staff could have seen it. Could have.”

“You have absolute confidence in them, your Eminence?”

Sult stared at Glokta for a long, icy moment. “They wouldn’t dare. They know me better than that.”

“That leaves Superior Kalyne,” said Glokta quietly.

The Arch Lector’s lips hardly moved as he spoke. “You must tread carefully, Inquisitor, very carefully. The ground is not at all safe where you are walking. Fools do not become Superiors of the Inquisition, despite appearances. Kalyne has many friends, both within the House of Questions and outside it. Powerful friends. Any accusation against him must be backed up by the very strongest of proof.” Sult stopped suddenly, waiting for a small group of ladies to pass out of earshot. “The very strongest of proof,” he hissed, once they had moved away. “You must find me this assassin.”

Easier said than done. “Of course, your Eminence, but my investigation has reached something of a dead end.”

“Not quite. We still have one card left to play. Rews himself.”

Rews? “But, Arch Lector, he will be in Angland by now.” Sweating down a mine or some such. If he has even lasted this long.

“No. He is here in the Agriont, under lock and key. I thought it best to hold on to him.” Glokta did his utmost to contain his surprise. Clever. Very clever. Fools do not become Arch Lectors either, it seems. “Rews will be your bait. I will have my secretary carry a message to Kalyne, letting him know that I have relented. That I am prepared to let the Mercers continue to operate, but under tighter control. That as a gesture of goodwill I have let Rews go. If Kalyne is the source of our leak, I daresay he will let the Mercers know that Rews is free. I daresay they will send this assassin to punish him for his loose tongue. I daresay you could take him while he is trying. If the killer doesn’t come, well, we might have to look for our traitor elsewhere, and we have lost nothing.”

“An excellent plan, your Eminence.”

Sult stared at him coldly. “Of course. You will need somewhere to operate, somewhere far from the House of Questions. I will make the funds available, have Rews delivered to your Practicals, and let you know when Kalyne has the information. Find me this assassin, Glokta, and squeeze him. Squeeze him until the pips squeak.” The boat lurched wildly as the soldiers tried to haul their wet companion in, then it suddenly turned right over, dumping them all into the water.

“I want names,” hissed Sult, glowering at the splashing soldiers, “I want names, and evidence, and documents, and people who will stand up in Open Council and point fingers.” He stood up smoothly from the bench. “Keep me informed.” He strode off towards the House of Questions, feet crunching on the gravel of the path, and Glokta watched him go. An excellent plan. I’m glad you’re on my side, Arch Lector. You are on my side, aren’t you?

The soldiers had succeeded in hauling the upended boat onto the bank and were standing, dripping wet, shouting at one another, no longer so good-humoured. One of the oars was still floating, abandoned in the water, drifting gradually towards the point where the stream flowed from the lake. Soon it would pass under the bridge and be carried out, beneath the great walls of the Agriont and into the moat. Glokta watched it turning slowly round in the water. A mistake. One should attend to the details. It is easy to forget the little things, but without the oar, the boat is useless.

He let his gaze wander across some of the other faces in the park. His eye alighted on a handsome pair sitting on a bench by the lake. The young man was speaking quietly to the girl, a sad and earnest expression on his face. She got up quickly, moving away from him with her hands over her face. Ah, the pain of the jilted lover. The loss, the anger, the shame. It seems as though you’ll never recover. What poet was it who wrote there’s no pain worse than the pain of a broken heart? Sentimental shit. He should have spent more time in the Emperor’s prisons. He smiled, opening his mouth and licking the empty gums where his front teeth used to be. Broken hearts heal with time, but broken teeth never do.

Glokta looked at the young man. He had an expression of slight amusement on his face as he watched the weeping girl walk away. The young bastard. I wonder if he’s broken as many hearts as I did, in my youth? It hardly seems possible now. It takes me half an hour just to pluck up the courage to stand. The only women I’ve made cry lately have been the wives of those I’ve had exiled to Angland—

“Sand.”

Glokta turned around. “Lord Marshal Varuz, what an honour.”

“Oh no, no,” said the old soldier, sitting down on the bench with the swift, precise movements of the fencing master. “You look well,” he said, but without really looking. I look crippled, you mean. “How are you, my old friend?” I’m crippled, you pompous old ass. And friend, is it? All those years since I came back, and you have never sought me out, not once. Is that a friendship?

“Well enough, thank you, Lord Marshal.”

Varuz shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “My latest student, Captain Luthar… perhaps you know him?”

“We are acquainted.”

“You should see his forms.” Varuz shook his head sadly. “He has the talent, alright, though he will never be in your class, Sand.” I don’t know. I hope some day he’ll be just as crippled as I am. “But he has plenty of talent, enough to win. Only he’s wasting it. Throwing it away.” Oh, the tragedy of it. I am so upset I could be sick. Had I eaten anything this morning.

“He is lazy, Sand, and stubborn. He lacks courage. He lacks dedication. His heart is just not in it, and time is running out. I was wondering, if you have the time of course,” Varuz looked Glokta in the eye for just an instant, “whether you might be able to speak to him for me.”

I can hardly wait! Lecturing that whining ass would be the realisation of all my dreams. You arrogant old dolt, how dare you? You built your reputation on my successes, then when I needed your help you cut me off. And now you come to me, and seek my help, and call me friend?

“Of course, Marshal Varuz, I would be glad to speak to him. Anything for an old friend.”

“Excellent, excellent! I’m sure you’ll make all the difference! I train him every morning, in that courtyard near the House of the Maker, where I used to train you…” The old Marshal trailed off awkwardly.

“I will come as soon as my duties permit.”

“Of course, your duties…” Varuz was already getting up, evidently keen to be on his way. Glokta held out his hand, making the old soldier pause for a moment. You needn’t worry, Lord Marshal, I am not contagious. Varuz gave it a limp shake, as though worried it might snap off, then he mumbled his excuses and strode away, head held high. The dripping soldiers bowed and saluted as he walked past, somewhat embarrassed.

Glokta stretched out his leg, wondering whether to get up. And go where? The world will not end if I sit here a moment longer. There is no rush. No rush.

<p>An Offer and a Gift</p>

“And, forward!” bellowed Marshal Varuz. Jezal lurched at him, toes curling round the edges of the beam, trying desperately to keep his balance, making a clumsy lunge or two just to give the impression of his heart being in it. Four hours of training a day were taking their toll on him, and he felt beyond mere exhaustion.

Varuz frowned and flicked Jezal’s blunted steel aside, moving effortlessly along the beam as though it was a garden path. “And back!”

Jezal stumbled back on his heels, left arm waving stupidly around him in an attempt to keep his balance. Everything above his knees was aching terribly from the effort. Below the knees it was much, much worse. Varuz was over sixty, but he showed no signs of fatigue. He wasn’t even sweating as he danced forward down the beam, swishing his steels around. Jezal himself was gasping for air as he parried desperately with his left hand, badly off balance, his right foot fishing in space for the safety of the beam behind him.

“And, forward!” Jezal’s calves were agony as he stumbled to change his direction and shove a blow at the infuriating old man, but Varuz did not move back. Instead he ducked under the despairing cut and used the back of his arm to sweep Jezal’s feet away.

Jezal let out a howl as the courtyard turned over around him. His leg smacked painfully against the edge of the beam, then he sprawled on his face on the grass, chin thumping into the turf and making his teeth rattle. He rolled a short distance then lay there on his back, gasping like a fish snatched suddenly from the water, leg throbbing where it had collided with the beam on his way down. He would have yet another ugly bruise in the morning.

“Awful, Jezal, awful!” cried the old soldier as he sprang nimbly down onto the lawn. “You teeter about the beam as though it were a tightrope!” Jezal rolled over, cursing, and started to climb stiffly to his feet. “It is a solid piece of oak, wide enough to get lost in!” The Lord Marshal illustrated his point by whacking at the beam with his short steel, making splinters fly.

“I thought you said forward,” moaned Jezal.

Varuz’ eyebrows went up sharply. “Do you seriously suppose, Captain Luthar, that Bremer dan Gorst gives his opponents reliable information as to his intentions?”

“Bremer dan Gorst will be trying to beat me, you old shit! You are supposed to be helping me to beat him!” That was what Jezal thought, but he knew better than to say it. He just shook his head dumbly.

“No! No indeed he does not! He makes every effort to deceive and confuse his opponents, as all great swordsmen must!” The Lord Marshal paced up and down, shaking his head. Jezal considered again whether to give it all up. He was sick of falling into bed exhausted each night, at a time when he should have been just starting to get drunk. He was sick of waking up every morning, bruised and aching, to face another four interminable hours of running, beam, bar, forms. He was sick of being knocked on his arse by Major West. Most of all he was sick of being bullied by this old fool.

“…A depressing display, Captain, very depressing. I do believe you are actually getting worse…”

Jezal would never win the Contest. No one expected him to, himself least of all. So why not give it up, and go back to his cards and late nights? Wasn’t that all he really wanted from life? But then what would mark him out from a thousand other noble younger sons? He had decided long ago that he wanted to be something special. A Lord Marshal himself perhaps, and then Lord Chamberlain. Something big and important anyway. He wanted a big chair on the Closed Council, and to make big decisions. He wanted people to fawn and smile around him and hang on his every word. He wanted people to whisper, “There goes Lord Luthar!” as he swept past. Could he be happy being forever a richer, cleverer, better-looking version of Lieutenant Brint? Ugh! It was not to be thought of.

“…We have a terribly long way to go, and not enough time to get there, not unless you change your attitude. Your sparring is lamentable, your stamina is still weak, and as for your balance, the less said about that the better…”

And what would everyone else think if he gave up? What would his father do? What would his brothers say? What about the other officers? He would look a coward. And then there was Ardee West. She seemed to have been much on his mind during the past couple of days. Would she lean so close to him if he didn’t fence? Would she talk to him in such soft tones? Would she laugh at his jokes? Would she look up at him with those big, dark eyes, so he could almost feel her breath on his face—

“Are you listening, boy?” thundered Varuz. Jezal felt a bit of his breath on his face alright, and a deal of spit too.

“Yes, sir! Sparring lamentable, stamina weak!” Jezal swallowed nervously. “Less said about balance the better.”

“That’s right! I am beginning to think, though I can hardly believe it after the trouble you have put me to, that your heart really isn’t in this.” He glared into Jezal’s eyes. “What do you think, Major?”

There was no reply. West was slumped in his chair, arms folded, frowning grimly and staring into space.

“Major West?” snapped the Lord Marshal.

He looked up suddenly, as though he had only just become aware of their presence. “I’m sorry, sir, I had become distracted.”

“So I see.” Varuz sucked his teeth. “It seems that nobody has been concentrating this morning.” It was a great relief that some of the old man’s anger had been deflected elsewhere, but Jezal’s happiness was not long-lived.

“Very well,” snapped the old Marshal, “if that’s the way you want it. Starting tomorrow we will begin each session with a swim in the moat. A mile or two should do it.” Jezal squeezed his teeth together to keep from screaming. “Cold water has a wonderful way of sharpening the senses. And perhaps we need to start a little earlier, to catch you in your most receptive frame of mind. That means we begin at five. In the meantime, Captain Luthar, I suggest that you consider whether you are here in order to win the Contest, or simply for the pleasure of my company.” And he turned on his heel and stalked off.

Jezal waited until Varuz had left the courtyard before losing his temper, but once he was sure the old man was out of earshot he flung his steels against the wall in a fury.

“Damn it!” he shouted as the swords rattled to the ground. “Shit!” He looked around for something to kick that wouldn’t hurt too much. His eye lighted on the leg of the beam, but he misjudged the kick badly and had to stifle the urge to grab his bruised foot and hop around like an idiot. “Shit, shit!” he raged.

West was disappointingly unimpressed. He got up, frowning, and made to follow Marshal Varuz.

“Where are you off to?” asked Jezal.

“Away,” said West, over his shoulder, “I’ve seen enough.”

“What does that mean?”

West stopped and turned to face him. “Amazing though it may seem, there are bigger problems in the world than this.”

Jezal stood there open mouthed as West stalked from the courtyard. “Just who do you think you are?” he shouted after him, once he was sure he was gone. “Shit, shit!” He considered giving the beam another kick, but thought better of it.


Jezal was in a foul mood on his way back to his quarters, so he stayed away from the busier parts of the Agriont, sticking to the quieter lanes and gardens to the side of the Kingsway. He glowered down at his feet as he walked, to further discourage any social encounter. But luck was not on his side.

“Jezal!” It was Kaspa, out for a stroll with a yellow-haired girl in expensive clothes. They had a severe-looking middle-aged woman with them, no doubt the girl’s governess or some such. They had stopped to admire some piece of minor sculpture in a little-visited yard.

“Jezal!” Kaspa shouted again, waving his hat above his head. There was no avoiding them. He plastered an unconvincing smile onto his face and stalked over. The pale girl smiled at him as he approached, but if he was meant to be charmed he didn’t feel it.

“Been fencing again, Luthar?” asked Kaspa pointlessly. Jezal was sweating and holding a pair of fencing steels. It was well known that he fenced every morning. You didn’t need a fine mind to make the connection, which was fortunate, because Kaspa certainly didn’t have one.

“Yes. How did you guess?” Jezal hadn’t meant to kill the conversation quite so dead, but he passed it off with a false chuckle, and the smiles of the ladies soon returned.

“Hah, hah,” laughed Kaspa, ever willing to be the butt of a joke.

“Jezal, may I introduce my cousin, the Lady Ariss dan Kaspa? This is my superior officer, Captain Luthar.” So this was the famous cousin. One of the Unions richest heiresses and from an excellent family. Kaspa was always babbling about what a beauty she was, but to Jezal she seemed a pale, skinny, sickly-looking thing. She smiled weakly and offered out her limp, white hand.

He brushed it with the most perfunctory of kisses. “Charmed,” he muttered, without relish. “I must apologise for my appearance, I’ve just been fencing.”

“Yes,” she squeaked, in a high, piping voice, once she was sure he had finished speaking. “I have heard you are a great fencer.” There was a pause while she groped for something to say, then her eyes lit up. “Tell me Captain, is fencing really very dangerous?”

What insipid drivel. “Oh no, my lady, we only use blunted steels in the circle.” He could have said more, but he was damned if he was going to make all the effort. He gave a thin smile. So did she. The conversation hovered over the abyss.

Jezal was about to make his excuses, the subject of fencing evidently exhausted, but Ariss cut him off by blundering on to another topic. “And tell me, Captain, is there really likely to be a war in the North?” Her voice had almost entirely faded away by the end of the sentence, but the chaperone stared on approvingly, no doubt delighted by the conversational skills of her charge.

Spare us. “Well it seems to me…” Jezal began. The pale, blue eyes of Lady Ariss stared back at him expectantly. Blue eyes are absolute crap, he reflected. He wondered which subject she was more ignorant of: fencing or politics? “What do you think?”

The chaperone’s brow furrowed slightly. Lady Ariss looked somewhat taken aback, blushing slightly as she groped for words. “Well, er… that is to say… I’m sure that everything will… turn out well?”

Thank the fates! thought Jezal, we are saved! He had to get out of here. “Of course, everything will turn out well.” He forced out one more smile. “It has been a real pleasure to make your acquaintance, but I’m afraid I’m on duty shortly, so I must leave you.” He bowed with frosty formality. “Lieutenant Kaspa, Lady Ariss.”

Kaspa clapped him on the arm, as friendly as ever. His ignorant waif of a cousin smiled uncertainly. The governess frowned at him as he passed, but Jezal took no notice.


He arrived at the Lords’ Round just as the council members were returning from their lunchtime recess. He acknowledged the guards in the vestibule with a terse nod, then strode through the enormous doorway and down the central isle. A straggling column of the greatest peers of the realm were hard on his heels, and the echoing space was full of shuffling footsteps, grumblings and whisperings, as Jezal made his way around the curved wall to his place behind the high table.

“Jezal, how was fencing?” It was Jalenhorm, here early for once, and seizing on the opportunity to talk before the Lord Chamberlain arrived.

“I’ve had better mornings. Yourself?”

“Oh, I’ve been having a fine time. I met that cousin of Kaspa’s, you know,” he searched for the name.

Jezal sighed. “Lady Ariss.”

“Yes, that’s it! Have you seen her?”

“I was lucky enough to run into them just now.”

“Phew!” exclaimed Jalenhorm, pursing his lips. “Isn’t she stunning?”

“Hmm.” Jezal looked away, bored, and watched the robed and fur-trimmed worthies file slowly to their places. At least he watched a sample of their least favourite sons and paid representatives. Very few of the magnates turned up in person for Open Council these days, not unless they had something significant to complain about. A lot of them didn’t even bother to send someone in their place.

“I swear, one of the finest-looking girls I ever saw. I know Kaspa’s always raving about her, but he didn’t do her justice.”

“Hmm.” The councillors began to spread out, each man towards his own seat. The Lords’ Round was designed like a theatre, the Union’s leading noblemen sitting where the audience would be, on a great half-circle of banked benches with an aisle down the centre.

As in the theatre, some seats were better than others. The least important sat high up at the back, and the occupants’ significance increased as you came forward. The front row was reserved for the heads of the very greatest families, or whoever they sent in their stead. Representatives from the south, from Dagoska and Westport, were on the left, nearest to Jezal. On the far right were those from the north and west, from Angland and Starikland. The bulk of the seating, in between, was for the old nobility of Midderland, the heart of the Union. The Union proper, as they would have seen it. As Jezal saw it too, for that matter.

“What poise, what grace,” Jalenhorm was rhapsodising, “that wonderful fair hair, that milky-white skin, those fantastic blue eyes.”

“And all of that money.”

“Well yes, that too,” smiled the big man. “Kaspa says his uncle is even richer than his father. Imagine that! And he has just the one child. She will inherit every mark of it. Every mark!” Jalenhorm could scarcely contain his excitement. “It’s a lucky man that can bag her! What was her name again?”

“Ariss,” said Jezal sourly. The Lords, or their proxies, had all shuffled and grumbled their way to their seats. It was a poor attendance: the benches were less than half full. That was about as full as it ever got. If the Lords’ Round really had been a theatre, its owners would have been desperately in search of a new play.

“Ariss. Ariss.” Jalenhorm smacked his lips as though the name left a sweet taste. “It’s a lucky man that gets her.”

“Yes indeed. A lucky man.” Providing he prefers cash to conversation, that is. Jezal thought he might have preferred to marry the governess. At least she had seemed to have a bit of backbone.

The Lord Chamberlain had entered the hall now, and was making his way towards the dais on which the high table stood, just about where the stage would have been, had the Round been a theatre. He was followed by a gaggle of black-gowned secretaries and clerks, each man more or less encumbered with heavy books and sheaves of official-looking papers. With his crimson robes of state flapping behind him, Lord Hoff looked like nothing so much as a rare and stately gliding bird, pursued by a flock of troublesome crows.

“Here comes old vinegar,” whispered Jalenhorm, as he sidled off to find his place on the other side of the table. Jezal put his hands behind his back and struck the usual pose, feet a little spread, chin high in the air. He swept an eye over the soldiers, regularly spaced around the curved wall, but each man was motionless and perfectly presented in full armour, as always. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for several hours of the most extreme tedium.

The Lord Chamberlain threw himself into his tall chair and called for wine. The secretaries took their places around him, leaving a space in the centre for the King, who was absent as usual. Documents were rustled, great ledgers were heaved open, pens were sharpened and rattled in ink wells. The Announcer walked to the end of the table and struck his staff of office on the floor for order. The whispering of the noblemen and their proxies, and that of the few attendees in the public gallery over their heads, gradually died down, leaving the vast chamber silent.

The Announcer puffed out his chest. “I call this meeting,” he said, in slow and sonorous tones, as though he were giving the eulogy at a funeral, “of the Open Council of the Union…” he gave an unnecessarily long and significant pause. The Lord Chamberlain’s eyes flicked angrily towards him, but the Announcer was not to be robbed of his moment of glory. He made everyone wait an instant longer before finishing, “…to order!”

“Thank you,” said Hoff sourly. “I believe we were about to hear from the Lord Governor of Dagoska before we were interrupted by luncheon.” The scratching nibs of quills accompanied his voice, as two clerks recorded his every word. The faint echoes of the pens merged with the echoes of his words in the great space above.

An elderly man struggled to his feet in the front row close to Jezal, some papers clasped before him in shaky hands.

“The Open Council,” droned the Announcer, as ponderously as he dared, “recognises Rush dan Thuel, accepted proxy of Sand dan Vurms, the Lord Governor of Dagoska!”

“Thank you, sir.” Thuel’s cracking, wispy voice was absurdly small in the vast space. It barely carried as far as Jezal, and he was no more than ten strides away. “My Lords—” he began.

“Speak up!” called someone from the back. There was a ripple of laughter. The old man cleared his throat and tried again.

“My Lords, I come before you with an urgent message from the Lord Governor of Dagoska.” His voice had already faded to its original, barely audible level, each word accompanied by the persistent scratching of quills. Whispers began to emanate from the public gallery above, making it still harder to hear him. “The threat posed to that great city by the Emperor of Gurkhul increases with every passing day.”

Vague sounds of disapproval began to float up from the far side of the room, where the representatives from Angland were seated, but the bulk of the councillors simply looked bored. “Attacks on shipping, harassment of traders, and demonstrations beyond our walls, have compelled the Lord Governor to send me—”

“Lucky us!” somebody shouted. There was another wave of laughter, slightly louder this time.

“The city is built on but a narrow peninsula,” persisted the old man, straining to make himself heard over the increasing background noise, “attached to a land controlled entirely by our bitter enemies the Gurkish, and separated from Midderland by wide leagues of salt water! Our defences are not all they might be! The Lord Governor is sorely in need of more funds…”

The mention of funds brought instant uproar from the assembly. Thuel’s mouth was still moving, but there was no chance of hearing him now. The Lord Chamberlain frowned and took a swallow from his goblet. The clerk furthest from Jezal had laid down his quill and was rubbing his eyes with his inky thumb and forefinger. The clerk closest had just finished writing a line. Jezal craned forward to see. It said simply:

Some shouting here.

The Announcer thumped his staff on the tiles with a look of great self-satisfaction. The hubbub eventually died down but Thuel had now been taken with a coughing fit. He tried to speak but was unable, and eventually he waved his hand and sat down, very red in the face, while his neighbour thumped him on the back.

“If I may, Lord Chamberlain?” shouted a fashionable young man in the front row on the other side of the hall, leaping to his feet. The scratching of the quills began once again. “It seems to me—”

“The Open Council,” cut in the Announcer, “recognises Hersel dan Meed, third son and accepted proxy of Fedor dan Meed, the Lord Governor of Angland!”

“It seems to me,” continued the handsome young man, only slightly annoyed by this interruption, “that our friends in the south are forever expecting a full-scale attack by the Emperor!” Dissenting voices were now raised on the other side of the room. “An attack which never materialises! Did we not defeat the Gurkish only a few short years ago, or does my memory deceive me?” The booing increased in volume. “This scaremongering represents an unacceptable drain on the Union’s resources!” He was shouting to be heard. “In Angland we have many miles of border and too few soldiers, while the threat from Bethod and his Northmen is very real! If anyone is in need of funds…”

The shouting was instantly redoubled. Cries of “Hear, hear!”, “Nonsense!”, “True!” and “Lies!” could be vaguely made out over the hubbub. Several of the representatives were on their feet, shouting. Some vigorously nodded their agreement, some violently shook their heads in dissent. Others yawned and stared around. Jezal could see one fellow, near to the back in the centre, who was almost certainly asleep, and in imminent danger of slumping into his neighbour’s lap.

He allowed his eyes to wander up, over the faces ranged around the rail of the public gallery. He felt a strange tugging in his chest. Ardee West was up there, looking straight down at him. As their eyes met she smiled and waved. He was smiling himself, with his arm halfway up to wave, when he remembered where he was. He pushed his arm behind his back and looked around nervously, but was relieved to find that no one important had noticed his mistake. The smile would not quite leave his face though.

“My Lords!” roared the Lord Chamberlain, smashing his empty goblet down on the high table. He had the loudest voice Jezal had ever heard. Even Marshal Varuz could have learned a thing or two about shouting from Hoff. The sleeping man near the back started up, sniffing and blinking. The noise died away almost immediately. Those representatives left standing looked around guiltily, like naughty children called to account, and gradually sat down. The whispers from the public gallery went still. Order was restored.

“My Lords! I can assure you, the King has no more serious concern than the safety of his subjects, no matter where they are! The Union does not permit aggression against its people or property!” Hoff punctuated each comment by smashing his fist down in front of him. “From the Emperor of Gurkhul, from these savages in the North, or from anyone else!” He struck the table so hard on this last comment that ink splashed from a well and ran all over one of the clerks’ carefully prepared documents. Calls of agreement and support greeted the Lord Chamberlain’s patriotic display.

“As for the specific circumstance of Dagoska!” Thuel looked up hopefully, chest still shaking with suppressed coughs. “Is that city not possessed of some of the most powerful and extensive defences in the world? Did it not resist a siege by the Gurkish, less than a decade ago, for over a year? What has become of the walls, sir, the walls?” The great room fell quiet as everyone strained to hear the reply.

“Lord Chamberlain,” wheezed Thuel, his voice nearly drowned out as one of the clerks turned the crackling page of his huge book and began scratching on the next, “the defences have fallen into poor repair, and we lack the soldiers to keep them properly manned. The Emperor is not ignorant of this,” he whispered, all but inaudible, “I beg of you…” He dissolved into another fit of coughing, and dropped into his seat, accompanied by some light jeering from the Angland delegation.

Hoff frowned even more deeply. “It was my understanding that the defences of the city were to be maintained by monies raised locally, and by trade levies upon the Honourable Guild of Spicers, who have operated in Dagoska under an exclusive and highly profitable licence these past seven years. If resources cannot be found even to maintain the walls,” and he swept the assembly with a dark eye, “perhaps it is time that this licence was put out to tender.” There was a volley of angry mutterings around the public gallery.

“In any case, the Crown can spare no extra monies at present!” Jeers of dissatisfaction came from the Dagoska side of the room, hoots of agreement from the Angland side.

“As for the specific circumstance of Angland!” thundered the Lord Chamberlain, turning toward Meed. “I believe we may shortly hear some good news, for you to take back to your father the Lord Governor.” A cloud of excited whisperings rose up into the gilded dome above. The handsome young man looked pleasantly surprised, as well he might. It was rare indeed that anyone took good news away from the Open Council, or news of any kind for that matter.

Thuel had got control of his lungs once more, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he was interrupted by a great beating on the huge door behind the high table. The Lords looked up: surprised, expectant. The Lord Chamberlain smiled, in the manner of a magician who has just pulled off an exceptionally difficult trick. He signalled to the guards, the heavy iron bolts were drawn back, and the great, inlaid doors creaked slowly open.

Eight Knights of the Body, encased in glittering armour, faceless behind high, polished helmets, resplendent in purple cloaks marked on the back with a golden sun, stomped in unison down the steps and took their places to either side of the high table. They were closely followed by four trumpeters, who stepped smartly forward, raised their shining instruments to their lips and blew an ear-splitting fanfare. Jezal gritted his rattling teeth and narrowed his eyes, but eventually the ringing echoes faded. The Lord Chamberlain turned angrily toward the Announcer, who was staring at the new arrivals with his mouth open.

“Well?” hissed Hoff.

The Announcer jumped to life. “Ah… yes of course! My Lords and Ladies, I have the great honour to present…” he paused and took a huge breath, “…his Imperial Highness, the King of Angland, of Starikland, and of Midderland, the Protector of Westport and of Dagoska, his August Majesty, Guslav the Fifth, High King of the Union!” There was a great rustling noise as every man and woman in the hall shifted from their seats and down onto one knee.

The royal palanquin processed slowly through the doors, carried on the shoulders of six more faceless knights. The King was sitting in a gilded chair on top, propped up on rich cushions and swaying gently from side to side. He was staring about him with the startled expression of a man who went to sleep drunk, and has woken up in an unfamiliar room.

He looked awful. Enormously fat, lolling like a great hill swathed in fur and red silk, head squashed into his shoulders by the weight of the great, sparkling crown. His eyes were glassy and bulging, with huge dark bags hanging beneath, and the pink point of his tongue kept flicking nervously over his pale lips. He had great low jowls and a roll of fat around his neck, in fact his whole face gave the appearance of having slightly melted and started to run down off his skull. Such was the High King of the Union, but Jezal bowed his head a little lower as the palanquin approached, just the same.

“Oh,” muttered his August Majesty, as though he had forgotten something, “please rise.” The rustling noise filled the hall again as everybody rose and returned to their seats. The King turned toward Hoff, brow deeply furrowed, and Jezal heard him say, “Why am I here?”

“The Northmen, your Majesty.”

“Oh yes!” The King’s eyes lit up. He paused. “What about them?”

“Er…” but the Lord Chamberlain was saved from replying by the opening of the doors on the opposite side of the hall, the ones through which Jezal had first entered. Two strange men strode through and advanced down the aisle.

One was a grizzled old warrior with a scar and a blind eye, carrying a flat wooden box. The other was cloaked and hooded, every feature hidden, and so big that he made the whole hall seem out of proportion. The benches, the tables, even the guards, all suddenly looked like small versions designed for the use of children. As he passed, a couple of the representatives closest to the aisle cringed and shuffled away. Jezal frowned to himself. This hooded giant did not have the look of good news, whatever Lord Hoff might say. Angry and suspicious mutterings filled the echoing dome as the two Northmen took their places on the tiled floor before the high table.

“Your Majesty,” said the Announcer, bowing so ridiculously low that he had to support himself with his staff, “the Open Council recognises Fenris the Feared, the envoy of Bethod, King of the Northmen, and his translator, White-Eye Hansul!”

The King was staring off happily towards one of the great windows in the curved wall, utterly oblivious, perhaps admiring the way the light shone through the beautiful stained glass, but he looked suddenly round, jowls vibrating, as the old half-blind warrior addressed him.

“Your Majesty. I bring brotherly greetings from my master, Bethod, King of the Northmen.” The Round had fallen very still, and the clerks’ scratching nibs seemed absurdly loud. The old warrior nodded at the great hooded shape beside him with an awkward smile. “Fenris the Feared brings an offer from Bethod to yourself. From King to King. From the North to the Union. An offer, and a gift.” And he raised the wooden box.

The Lord Chamberlain gave a self-satisfied smirk. “Speak your offer first.”

“It is an offer of peace. An endless peace between our two great nations.” White-Eye bowed again. His manners were impeccable, Jezal had to admit. Not what one would expect from savages of the cold and distant North. His goodly speech would almost have been enough to put the room at ease, had it not been for the hooded man beside him, looming like a dark shadow.

The King’s face twitched into a weak smile at this mention of peace however. “Good,” he muttered. “Excellent. Peace. Capital. Peace is good.”

“He asks but one small thing in return,” said White-Eye.

The Lord Chamberlain’s face had turned suddenly dour, but it was too late. “He has but to name it,” said the King, smiling indulgently.

The hooded man stepped forward. “Angland,” he hissed.

There was a moment of stillness, then the hall exploded with noise. There was a gale of disbelieving laughter from the public gallery. Meed was on his feet, red-faced and screaming. Thuel tottered up from his bench, then fell back coughing. Angry bellows were joined by hoots of derision. The King was staring about him with all the dignity of a startled rabbit.

Jezal’s eyes were fixed on the hooded man. He saw a great hand slip out from his sleeve and reach for the clasp on his cloak. He blinked in surprise. Was the hand blue? Or was it just a trick of the light through the stained glass? The cloak dropped to the floor.

Jezal swallowed, his heart thumping loud in his ears. It was like staring at a terrible wound: the more he was revolted, the less he could look away. The laughter died, the shouting died, the great space became terribly still once more.

Fenris the Feared seemed larger yet without his cloak, towering over his cringing translator. Without any doubt, he was the biggest man that Jezal had ever seen, if man he was. His face was in constant, twisted, sneering motion. His bulging eyes twitched and blinked as they stared crazily round at the assembly. His thin lips smiled and grimaced and frowned by turns, never still. But all this seemed ordinary, by comparison with his strangest feature.

His whole left side, from head to toe, was covered in writing.

Crabby runes were scrawled across the left half of his shaven head, across his eyelid, his lips, his scalp, his ear. His huge left arm was tattooed blue with tiny writing, from bulging shoulder to the tips of his long fingers. Even his bare left foot was covered in strange letters. An enormous, inhuman, painted monster stood at the very heart of the Union’s government. Jezal’s jaw hung open.

Around the high table there were fourteen Knights of the Body, each man a hard-trained fighter of good blood. There were perhaps forty guardsmen of Jezal’s own company around the walls, each one a seasoned veteran. They outnumbered these two Northmen more than twenty to one, and were well armed with the best steel the King’s armouries could provide. Fenris the Feared carried no weapon. For all his size and strangeness, he should have been no threat to them.

But Jezal did not feel safe. He felt alone, weak, helpless, and terribly afraid. His skin was tingling, his mouth was dry. He felt a sudden urge to run, and hide, and never come out again.

And this strange effect was not limited to him, or even to those around the high table. Angry laughs turned to shocked gurgles as the painted monster turned slowly around in the centre of the circular floor, flickering eyes running over the crowd. Meed shrank back onto his bench, anger all leached out of him. A couple of worthies on the front row actually scrambled over the backs of their benches and into the row behind. Others looked away, or covered their faces with their hands. One of the soldiers dropped his spear, and it clattered loudly to the floor.

Fenris the Feared turned slowly to the high table, raising his great tattooed fist, opening his chasm of a mouth, a hideous spasm running over his face. “Angland!” he screamed, louder and more terrible by far than the Lord Chamberlain had ever been. The echoes of his voice bounced off the domed ceiling high above, resounded from the curved walls, filling the great space with piercing sound.

One of the Knights of the Body stumbled back and slipped, his armoured leg clanking against the edge of the high table.

The King shrank back and covered his face with his hand, one terrified eye staring out from between his fingers, crown teetering on his head.

The quill of one of the clerks dropped from his nerveless fingers. The hand of the other moved across the paper by habit while his mouth fell open, scrawling a messy word diagonally through the neat lines of script above.

Angland.

The Lord Chamberlain’s face had turned waxy pale. He reached slowly for his goblet, raised it to his lips. It was empty. He placed it carefully back down on the table, but his hand was trembling, and the base rattled on the wood. He paused for a moment, breathing heavily through his nose. “Plainly, this offer is not acceptable.”

“That is unfortunate,” said White-Eye Hansul, “but there is still the gift.” Every eye turned towards him. “In the North we have a tradition. On occasion, when there is bad blood between two clans, when there is the threat of war, champions come forward from each side, to fight for all their people, so that the issue might be decided… with only one death.”

He slowly opened the lid of the wooden box. There was a long knife inside, blade polished mirror-bright. “His Greatness, Bethod, sends the Feared not only as his envoy, but as his champion. He will fight for Angland, if any here will face him, and spare you a war you will not win.” He held the box up to the painted monster. “This is my master’s gift to you, and there could be none richer… your lives.”

Fenris’ right hand darted out and snatched the knife from the box. He raised it high, blade flashing in the coloured light from the great windows. The knights should have jumped forward. Jezal should have drawn his sword. All should have rushed to the defence of the King, but nobody moved. Every mouth was agape, every eye fastened on that glinting tooth of steel.

The blade flashed down. Its point drove easily through skin and flesh until it was buried right to the hilt. The point emerged, dripping blood, from the underside of Fenris’ own tattooed left arm. His face twitched, but no more than usual. The blade moved grotesquely as he stretched out his fingers, raised his left arm high for all to see. The drops of blood made a steady patter on the floor of the Lords’ Round.

“Who will fight me?” he screamed, great cords of sinew bulging from his neck. His voice was almost painful to the ear.

Utter silence. The Announcer, who was closest to the Feared, and already on his knees, swooned and collapsed on his face.

Fenris turned his goggling eyes on the biggest knight before the table, a full head shorter than he was. “You?” he hissed. The unfortunate man’s foot scraped on the floor as he backed away, no doubt wishing he had been born a dwarf.

A puddle of dark blood had spread across the floor beneath Fenris’ elbow. “You?” he snarled at Fedor dan Meed. The young man turned slightly grey, teeth rattling together, no doubt wishing he was someone else’s son.

Those blinking eyes swept across the ashen faces on the high table. Jezal’s throat constricted as Fenris’ eyes met his. “You?”

“Well I would, but I’m terribly busy this afternoon. Perhaps tomorrow?” The voice hardly sounded like his own. He certainly hadn’t meant to say any such thing. But who else’s could it be? The words floated confidently, breezily up towards the gilded dome above.

There was scattered laughter, a shout of “Bravo!” from somewhere at the back, but the eyes of the Feared did not leave Jezal’s for an instant. He waited for the sounds to die, then his mouth twisted into a hideous leer.

“Tomorrow then,” he whispered. Jezal’s guts gave a sudden painful shift. The seriousness of the situation pressed itself upon him like a ton of rocks. Him? Fight that?

“No.” It was the Lord Chamberlain. He was still pale, but his voice had regained much of its vigour. Jezal took heart, and fought manfully for control of his bowels. “No!” barked Hoff again. “There will be no duel here! There is no issue to decide! Angland is a part of the Union, by ancient law!”

White-Eye Hansul chuckled softly. “Ancient law? Angland is part of the North. Two hundred years ago there were Northmen there, living free. You wanted iron, so you crossed the sea, and slaughtered them and stole their land! It must be, then, that most ancient of laws: that the strong take what they wish from the weak?” His eyes narrowed. “We have that law also!”

Fenris the Feared ripped the knife from his arm. A few last drops of blood spattered onto the tiles, but that was all. There was no wound on the tattooed flesh. No mark at all. The knife clattered onto the tiles and lay there in the pool of blood at his feet. Fenris swept the assembly with his bulging, blinking, crazy eyes one last time, then he turned and strode across the floor and up the aisle, Lords and proxies scrambling away down their benches as he approached.

White-Eye Hansul bowed low. “Perhaps the time will come when you wish that you had accepted our offer, or our gift. You will hear from us,” he said quietly, then he held up three fingers to the Lord Chamberlain. “When it is time, we will send three signs.”

“Send three hundred if you wish,” barked Hoff, “but this pantomime is over!”

White-Eye Hansul nodded pleasantly. “You will hear from us.” And he turned and followed Fenris the Feared out of the Lords’ Round. The great doors clapped shut. The quill of the nearest clerk scratched weakly against the paper.

You will hear from us.

Fedor dan Meed turned towards the Lord Chamberlain, jaw locked tight, handsome features contorted with fury. “And this is the good news you would have me convey to my father?” he screamed. The Open Council erupted. Bellowing, shouting, abuse directed toward anyone and everyone, chaos of the worst kind.

Hoff jumped up, chair toppling over behind him, mouthing angry words, but even he was drowned out by the uproar. Meed turned his back on him and stormed out. Other delegates from the Angland side of the room rose grimly and followed the son of their Lord Governor. Hoff stared after them, livid with anger, mouth working silently.

Jezal watched the King slowly take his hand from his face and lean down toward his Lord Chamberlain. “When are the Northmen getting here?” he whispered.

<p>The King of the Northmen</p>

Logen breathed in deep, enjoying the unfamiliar feel of the cool breeze on his fresh-shaved jaw, and took in the view. It was the beginning of a clear day. The dawn mist was almost gone, and from the balcony outside Logen’s room, high up on the side of one of the towers of the library, you could see for miles. The great valley was spread out before him, split into stark layers. On top was the grey and puffy white of the cloudy sky. Then there was the ragged line of black crags that ringed the lake, and the dim brown suggestion of others beyond. Next came the dark green of the wooded slopes, then the thin, curving line of grey shingle on the beach. All was repeated in the still mirror of the lake below—another, shadowy world, upside down beneath his own.

Logen looked down at his hands, fingers spread out on the weathered stone of the parapet. There was no dirt, no dried blood under his cracked fingernails. They looked pale, soft, pinkish, strange. Even the scabs and scrapes on his knuckles were mostly healed. It was so long since Logen had been clean that he’d forgotten what it felt like. His new clothes were coarse against his skin, robbed of its usual covering of dirt and grease and dry sweat.

Looking out at the still lake, clean and well fed, he felt a different man. For a moment he wondered how this new Logen might turn out, but the bare stone of the parapet stared back at him where his missing finger used to be. That could never heal. He was Ninefingers still, the Bloody-Nine, and always would be. Unless he lost any more fingers. He did smell better though, that had to be admitted.

“Did you sleep well, Master Ninefingers?” Wells was in the doorway, peering out onto the balcony.

“Like a baby.” Logen didn’t have the heart to tell the old servant that he’d slept outside. The first night he’d tried the bed, rolling and wriggling, unable to come to terms with the strange comfort of a mattress and the unfamiliar warmth of blankets. Next he’d tried the floor. That had been an improvement. But the air had still seemed close, flat, stale. The ceiling had hung over him, seeming to creep ever lower, threatening to crush him with the weight of stone above. It was only when he’d lain down on the hard flags of the balcony, with his old coat spread over him and just the clouds and the stars above, that sleep had come. Some habits are hard to break.

“You have a visitor,” said Wells.

“Me?”

Malacus Quai’s head appeared around the door frame. His eyes were a little less sunken, the bags underneath them a little less dark. There was some colour to his skin, and some flesh on his bones. He no longer looked like a corpse, just gaunt and sick, as he had done when Logen first met him. He guessed that was about as healthy as Quai ever looked.

“Hah!” laughed Logen. “You survived!”

The apprentice gave a series of tired nods as he shambled across the room. He was swathed in a thick blanket which trailed on the floor and made it difficult for him to walk properly. He shuffled out of the door to the balcony and stood there, sniffing and blinking in the chill morning air.

Logen was more pleased to see him than he’d expected. He clapped him on the back like an old friend, perhaps a little too warmly. The apprentice stumbled, blanket tangled round his feet, and would have fallen if Logen hadn’t put out an arm to steady him.

“Still not quite in fighting shape,” muttered Quai, with a weak grin.

“You look a deal better than when I last saw you.”

“So do you. You lost the beard I see, and the smell too. A few less scars and you’d look almost civilised.”

Logen held his hands up. “Anything but that.”

Wells ducked through the doorway into the bright morning light. He had a roll of cloth and a knife in his hand. “Could I see your arm, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen had almost forgotten about the cut. There was no new blood on the bandage, and when he unwound it there was a long, red-brown scab underneath, running almost all the way from wrist to elbow, surrounded by fresh pink skin. It hardly hurt any more, just itched. It crossed two other, older scars. One, a jagged grey effort near his wrist, he thought he might have got in the duel with Threetrees, all those years ago. Logen grimaced as he remembered the battering they’d given each other. The second scar, fainter, higher up, he wasn’t sure about. Could’ve come from anywhere.

Wells bent down and tested the flesh round the wound while Quai peered cautiously over his shoulder. “It’s mending well. You’re a fast healer.”

“Lots of practice.”

Wells looked up at Logen’s face, where the cut on his forehead had already faded to one more pink line. “I can see. Would it be foolish to advise you to avoid sharp objects in the future?”

Logen laughed. “Believe it or not, I always did my best to avoid them in the past. But they seem to seek me out, despite my efforts.”

“Well,” said the old servant, cutting off a fresh length of cloth and winding it carefully round Logen’s forearm, “I hope this is the last bandage you ever need.”

“So do I,” said Logen, flexing his fingers. “So do I.” But he didn’t think it would be.

“Breakfast will be ready soon.” And Wells left the two of them alone on the balcony.

They stood there in silence for a moment, then the wind blew up cold from the valley. Quai shivered and pulled his blanket tight around him. “Out there… by the lake. You could have left me. I would have left me.”

Logen frowned. Time was he’d have done it and never given it a second thought, but things change. “I’ve left a lot of people, in my time. Reckon I’m sick of that feeling.”

The apprentice pursed his lips and looked out at the valley, the woods, the distant mountains. “I never saw a man killed before.”

“You’re lucky.”

“You’ve seen a lot of death, then?”

Logen winced. In his youth, he would have loved to answer that very question. He could have bragged, and boasted, and listed the actions he’d been in, the Named Men he’d killed. He couldn’t say now when the pride had dried up. It had happened slowly. As the wars became bloodier, as the causes became excuses, as the friends went back to the mud, one by one. Logen rubbed at his ear, felt the big notch that Tul Duru’s sword had made, long ago. He could have stayed silent. But for some reason, he felt the need to be honest.

“I’ve fought in three campaigns,” he began. “In seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I’ve fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I’ve been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I’ve known little else. I’ve seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that’s far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper.

“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.”

And that was all. Logen breathed a deep, ragged sigh and stared out at the lake. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man beside him, didn’t want to see the expression on his face. Who wants to learn he’s keeping company with the Bloody-Nine? A man who’s wrought more death than the plague, and with less regret. They could never be friends now, not with all those corpses between them.

Then he felt Quai’s hand clap him on the shoulder. “Well, there it is,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, “but you saved me, and I’m right grateful for it!”

“I’ve saved a man this year, and only killed four. I’m born again.” And they both laughed for a while, and it felt good.

“So, Malacus, I see you are back with us.”

They turned, Quai stumbling on his blanket and looking a touch sick. The First of the Magi was standing in the doorway, dressed in a long white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He still looked more like a butcher than a wizard to Logen.

“Master Bayaz… er… I was just coming to see you,” stuttered Quai.

“Indeed? How fortunate for us both then, that I have come to you.” The Magus stepped out onto the balcony. “It occurs to me that a man who is well enough to talk, and laugh, and venture out of doors, is doubtless well enough to read, and study, and expand his tiny mind. What would you say to that?”

“Doubtless…”

“Doubtless, yes! Tell me, how are your studies progressing?”

The wretched apprentice looked utterly confused. “They have been somewhat… interrupted?”

“You made no progress with Juvens’ Principles of Art while you were lost in the hills in bad weather?”

“Er… no progress… no.”

“And your knowledge of the histories. Did that develop far, while Master Ninefingers was carrying you back to the library?”

“Er… I must confess… it didn’t.”

“Your exercises and meditations though, surely you have been practising those, while unconscious this past week?”

“Well, er… no, the unconsciousness was… er…”

“So, tell me, would you say that you are ahead of the game, so to speak? Or have your studies fallen behind?”

Quai stared down at the floor. “They were behind when I left.”

“Then perhaps then you could tell me where you plan to spend the day?”

The apprentice looked up hopefully. “At my desk?”

“Excellent!” Bayaz smiled wide. “I was about to suggest it, but you have anticipated me! Your keenness to learn does you much credit!” Quai nodded furiously and hurried towards the door, the hem of his blanket trailing on the flags.

“Bethod is coming,” murmured Bayaz. “He will be here today.” Logen’s smile vanished, his throat felt suddenly tight. He remembered their last meeting well enough. Stretched out on his face on the floor of Bethod’s hall at Carleon, beaten and broken and well chained up, dribbling blood into the straw and hoping the end wouldn’t be too long coming. Then, no reason given, they’d let him go. Flung him out the gates with the Dogman, Threetrees, the Weakest and the rest, and told him never to come back. Never. The first time Bethod ever showed a grain of mercy, and the last, Logen didn’t doubt.

“Today?” he asked, trying to keep his voice even.

“Yes, and soon. The King of the Northmen. Hah! The arrogance of him!” Bayaz glanced sidelong at Logen. “He is coming to ask me for a favour, and I would like you to be there.”

“He won’t like that.”

“Exactly.”

The wind felt colder than before. If Logen never saw Bethod again it would be far too soon. But some things have to be done. It’s better to do them, than to live with the fear of them. That’s what Logen’s father would have said. So he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “I’ll be there.”

“Excellent. Then there is but one thing missing.”

“What?”

Bayaz smirked. “You need a weapon.”


It was dry in the cellars beneath the library. Dry and dark and very, very confusing. They’d gone up and down steps, around corners, past doors, taking here or there a turning to the left or right. The place was a warren. Logen hoped he didn’t lose sight of the wizard’s flickering torch, or he could easily be stuck beneath the library for ever.

“Dry down here, nice and dry,” Bayaz was saying to himself, voice echoing down the passageway and merging with their flapping footfalls. “There’s nothing worse than damp for books.” He pulled up suddenly next to a heavy door. “Or for weapons.” He gave the door a gentle shove and it swung silently open.

“Look at that! Hasn’t been opened for years, but the hinges still move smooth as butter! That’s craftsmanship for you! Why does no one care about craftsmanship anymore?” Bayaz stepped over the threshold without waiting for an answer, and Logen followed close behind.

The wizard’s torch lit up a long, low hall with walls of rough stone blocks, the far end lost in shadows. The room was lined with racks and shelves, the floor littered with boxes and stands, everything heaped and bursting with a mad array of arms and armour. Blades and spikes and polished surfaces of wood and metal caught the flickering torchlight as Bayaz paced slowly across the stone floor, weaving between the weapons and casting around.

“Quite a collection,” muttered Logen, as he followed the Magus through the clutter.

“A load of old junk mostly, but there should be a few things worth the finding.” Bayaz took a helmet from a suit of ancient, gilded plate armour and looked it over with a frown. “What do you make of that?”

“I’ve never been much for armour.”

“No, you don’t strike me as the type. All very well on horseback, I dare say, but it’s a pain in the arse when you’ve a journey to make on foot.” He tossed the helmet back onto its stand, then stood there staring at the armour, lost in thought. “Once you’ve got it on, how do you piss?”

Logen frowned. “Er…” he said, but Bayaz was already moving off down the room, and taking the light with him.

“You must have used a few weapons in your time, Master Ninefingers. What’s your preference for?”

“I’ve never really had one,” said Logen, ducking under a rusty halberd leaning out from a rack. “A champion never knows what he might be called on to fight with.”

“Of course, of course.” Bayaz took up a long spear with a vicious barbed head, and wafted it around a bit. Logen stepped back cautiously. “Deadly enough. You could keep a man at bay with one of these. But a man with a spear needs a lot of friends, and they all need spears as well.” Bayaz shoved it back on the rack and moved on.

“This looks fearsome.” The Magus took hold of the gnarled shaft of a huge double-bladed axe. “Shit!” he said as he lifted it up, veins bulging out of his neck. “It’s heavy enough!” He set it down with a thump, making the rack wobble. “You could kill a man with that! You could cut him clean in half! If he was standing still.”

“This is better,” said Logen. It was a simple, solid-looking sword, in a scabbard of weathered brown leather.

“Oh, yes indeed. Much, much better. That blade is the work of Kanedias, the Master Maker himself.” Bayaz handed his torch to Logen and took the long sword from the rack.

“Has it ever occurred to you, Master Ninefingers, that a sword is different from other weapons? Axes and maces and so forth are lethal enough, but they hang on the belt like dumb brutes.” He ran an eye over the hilt, plain cold metal scored with faint grooves for a good grip, glinting in the torchlight. “But a sword… a sword has a voice.”

“Eh?”

“Sheathed it has little to say, to be sure, but you need only put your hand on the hilt and it begins to whisper in your enemy’s ear.” He wrapped his fingers tightly round the grip. “A gentle warning. A word of caution. Do you hear it?”

Logen nodded slowly. “Now,” murmured Bayaz, “compare it to the sword half drawn.” A foot length of metal hissed out of the sheath, a single silver letter shining near the hilt. The blade itself was dull, but its edge had a cold and frosty glint. “It speaks louder, does it not? It hisses a dire threat. It makes a deadly promise. Do you hear it?”

Logen nodded again, his eye fastened on that glittering edge. “Now compare it to the sword full drawn.” Bayaz whipped the long blade from its sheath with a faint ringing sound, brought it up so that the point hovered inches from Logen’s face. “It shouts now, does it not? It screams defiance! It bellows a challenge! Do you hear it?”

“Mmm,” said Logen, leaning back and staring slightly crosseyed at the shining point of the sword.

Bayaz let it drop and slid it gently back into its scabbard, something to Logen’s relief. “Yes, a sword has a voice. Axes and maces and so forth are lethal enough, but a sword is a subtle weapon, and suited to a subtle man. You I think, Master Ninefingers, are subtler than you appear.” Logen frowned as Bayaz held the sword out to him. He had been accused of many things in his life, but never subtlety. “Consider it a gift. My thanks for your good manners.”

Logen thought about it a moment. He hadn’t owned a proper weapon since before he crossed the mountains, and he wasn’t keen to take one up again. But Bethod was coming, and soon. Better to have it, and not want it, than to want it, and not have it. Far, far better. You have to be realistic about these things.

“Thank you,” said Logen, taking the sword from Bayaz and handing him back the torch. “I think.”


A small fire crackled in the grate, and the room was warm, and homely, and comfortable.

But Logen didn’t feel comfortable. He stood by the window, staring down into the courtyard below, nervous and twitchy and scared, like he used to be before a fight. Bethod was coming. He was somewhere out there. On the road through the woods, or passing between the stones, or across the bridge, or through the gate.

The First of the Magi didn’t seem tense. He sat comfortably in his chair, his feet up on the table next to a long wooden pipe, leafing through a small white-bound book with a faint smile on his face. No one had ever looked calmer, and that only made Logen feel worse.

“Is it good?” asked Logen.

“Is what good?”

“The book.”

“Oh yes. It is the best of books. It is Juvens’ Principles of Art, the very cornerstone of my order.” Bayaz waved his free hand at the shelves which covered two walls, and the hundreds of other identical books lined neatly upon them. “It’s all the same. One book.”

“One?” Logen’s eyes scanned across the thick, white spines. “That’s a pretty damn long book. Have you read it all?”

Bayaz chuckled. “Oh yes, many times. Every one of my order must read it, and eventually make their own copy.” He turned the book around, so that Logen could see. The pages were thickly covered with lines of neat, but unintelligible symbols. “I wrote these, long ago. You should read it too.”

“I’m really not much of a reader.”

“No?” asked Bayaz. “Shame.” He flicked over the page and carried on.

“What about that one?” There was another book, sat alone on its side on the very top of one of the shelves, a large, black book, scarred and battered-looking. “That written by this Juvens as well?”

Bayaz frowned up at it. “No. His brother wrote that.” He got up from his chair, stretched up and pulled it down. “This is a different kind of knowledge.” He dragged open his desk drawer, slid the black book inside and slammed it shut. “Best left alone,” he muttered, sitting back down and opening up the Principles of Art again.

Logen took a deep breath, put his left hand on the hilt of the sword, felt the cold metal pressing into his palm. The feel of it was anything but reassuring. He let go and turned back to the window, frowning down into the courtyard. He felt his breath catch in his throat.

“Bethod. He’s here.”

“Good, good,” muttered Bayaz absently. “Who does he have with him?”

Logen peered at the three figures in the courtyard. “Scale,” he said with a scowl. “And a woman. I don’t recognise her. They’re dismounting.” Logen licked his dry lips. “They’re coming in.”

“Yes, yes,” murmured Bayaz, “that is how one gets to a meeting. Try to calm yourself, my friend. Breathe.”

Logen leaned back against the whitewashed plaster, arms folded, and took a deep breath. It didn’t help. The hard knot of worry in his chest only pressed harder. He could hear heavy footsteps in the corridor outside. The doorknob turned.

Scale was the first into the room. Bethod’s eldest son had always been burly, even as a boy, but since Logen last saw him he’d grown monstrous. His rock of a head seemed almost an afterthought on top of all that brawn, his skull a good deal narrower than his neck. He had a great block of jaw, a flat stub of a nose, and furious, bulging, arrogant little eyes. His thin mouth was twisted in a constant sneer, much like his younger brother Calder’s, but there was less guile here and a lot more violence. He had a heavy broadsword on his hip, and his meaty hand was never far from it as he glowered at Logen, oozing malice from every pore.

The woman came next. She was very tall, slender and pale, almost ill-looking. Her slanting eyes were as narrow and cold as Scale’s were bulging and wrathful, and were surrounded with a quantity of dark paint, which made them look narrower and colder still. There were golden rings on her long fingers, golden bracelets on her thin arms, golden chains around her white neck. She swept the room with her frosty blue eyes, each thing she noticed seeming to lift her to new heights of disgust and contempt. First the furniture, then the books, particularly Logen, and Bayaz most of all.

The self-styled King of the Northmen came last, and more magnificent than ever, robed in rich, coloured cloth and rare white furs. He wore a heavy golden chain across his shoulders, a golden circlet round his head, set with a single diamond, big as a bird’s egg. His smiling face was more deeply lined than Logen remembered, his hair and beard touched with grey, but he was no less tall, no less vigorous, no less handsome, and he’d gained much of authority and wisdom—of majesty even. He looked every inch a great man, a wise man, a just man. He looked every inch a King. But Logen knew better.

“Bethod!” said Bayaz, warmly, snapping his book shut. “My old friend! You can hardly imagine what a joy it is to see you again.” He swung his feet off the table, and gestured at the golden chain, the flashing diamond. “And to see you so hugely advanced in the world! I remember the time was you were happy to visit me alone. But I suppose great men must be attended on, and I see you have brought some… other people. Your charming son I know, of course. I see that you’ve been eating well at least, eh, Scale?”

Prince Scale,” rumbled Bethod’s monstrous son, his eyes popping out even more.

“Hmm,” said Bayaz, with an eyebrow raised. “I have not had the pleasure of meeting your other companion before.”

“I am Caurib.” Logen blinked. The woman’s voice was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. Calming, soothing, intoxicating. “I am a sorceress,” she sang, tossing her head with a scornful smile. “A sorceress, from the utmost north.” Logen stood frozen, his mouth half open. His hatred seeped away. They were all friends here. More than friends. He couldn’t take his eyes from her, didn’t want to. The others in the room had faded. It was as if she was speaking only to him, and the fondest wish of his heart was that she should never stop—

But Bayaz only laughed. “A real sorceress, and you have the golden voice! How wonderful! It’s a long time since I heard that one, but it will not serve you here.” Logen shook his head clear and his hatred rushed back in, hot and reassuring. “Tell me, does one have to study, to become a sorceress? Or is it simply a question of jewellery, and a deal of paint about the face?” Caurib’s eyes narrowed to deadly blue slits, but the First of the Magi didn’t give her time to speak. “And from the utmost north, imagine that!” He shivered slightly. “It must be cold up there, this time of year. Rough on the nipples, eh? Have you come to us for the warm weather, or is there something else?”

“I go where my King commands,” she hissed, pointed chin lifting a little higher.

“Your King?” asked Bayaz, staring about the room as though there must be someone else there, hiding in the corner.

“My father is King of the Northmen now!” snarled Scale. He sneered at Logen. “You should kneel to him, Bloody-Nine!” He sneered at Bayaz. “And so should you, old man!”

The First of the Magi spread his hands in apology. “Oh I’m afraid I don’t kneel to anyone. Too old for it. Stiffness in the joints, you see.”

Scale’s boot thumped heavy on the floor as he began to move forward, a curse half out of his mouth, but his father placed a gentle hand on his arm. “Come now, my son, there is no need for kneeling here.” His voice was cold and even as freshly fallen snow. “It is not fitting that we bicker. Are our interests not the same? Peace? Peace in the North? I have come only to ask for your wisdom, Bayaz, as I did in days past. Is it so wrong, to seek the help of an old friend?” No one had ever sounded more genuine, more reasonable, more trustworthy. But Logen knew better.

“But do we not have peace in the North already?” Bayaz leaned back in his chair, hands clasped before him. “Are the feuds not all ended? Were you not the victor? Do you not have everything you wanted, and more? King of the Northmen, eh? What help could I possibly offer you?”

“I only share my counsel with friends, Bayaz, and you have been no friend to me of late. You turn away my messengers, my son even. You play host to my sworn enemies.” He frowned towards Logen, and his lip curled. “Do you know what manner of thing this is? The Bloody-Nine? An animal! A coward! An oath-breaker! Is that the kind of company that you prefer?”

Bethod smiled a friendly smile as he turned back to Bayaz, but there was no missing the threat in his words. “I fear the time has come for you to decide whether you are with me, or against me. There can be no middle ground in this. Either you are a part of my future, or a relic of the past. Yours is the choice, my friend.” Logen had seen Bethod give such choices before. Some men had yielded. The rest had gone back to the mud.

But Bayaz, it seemed, was not to be rushed. “Which shall it be?” He reached forward slowly and took his pipe from the table. “The future, or the past?” He strolled over to the fire and squatted down, back turned to his three guests, took a stick from the grate, set it to the bowl, and puffed slowly away. It seemed to take an age for him to get the damn thing lit. “With, or against?” he mused as he returned to his chair.

“Well?” demanded Bethod.

Bayaz stared up at the ceiling and blew out a thin stream of yellow smoke. Caurib looked the old Magus up and down with icy contempt, Scale twitched with impatience, Bethod waited, eyes a little narrowed. Finally, Bayaz gave a heavy sigh. “Very well. I am with you.”

Bethod smiled wide, and Logen felt a lurch of terrible disappointment. He had hoped for better from the First of the Magi. Damn foolish, how he never learned to stop hoping.

“Good,” murmured the King of the Northmen. “I knew you would see my way of thinking, in the end.” He slowly licked his lips, like a hungry man watching good food brought in. “I mean to invade Angland.”

Bayaz raised an eyebrow, then he started to chuckle, then he thumped the table with his fist. “Oh that’s good, that’s very good! You find peace does not suit your kingdom, eh, Bethod? The clans are not used to being friends, are they? They hate each other and they hate you, am I right?”

“Well,” smiled Bethod, “they are somewhat restive.”

“I bet they are! But send them to war with the Union, then they will be a nation, eh? United against the common enemy, to be sure. And if you win? You’ll be the man who did the impossible! The man who drove the damn southerners out of the North! You’ll be loved, or at any rate, more feared than ever. If you lose, well, at least you keep the clans busy a while, and sap their strength in the process. I remember now why I used to like you! An excellent plan!”

Bethod looked smug. “Of course. And we will not lose. The Union is soft, arrogant, unprepared. With your help—”

“My help?” interrupted Bayaz. “You presume too much.”

“But you—”

“Oh, that.” The Magus shrugged. “I am a liar.”

Bayaz lifted his pipe to his mouth. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Bethod’s eyes narrowed. Caurib’s widened. Scale’s heavy brow crinkled with confusion. Logen’s smile slowly returned.

“A liar?” hissed the sorceress. “And more besides, say I!” Her voice still had the singing note about it, but it was a different song now—hard, shrill, murderous sharp. “You old worm! Hiding here behind your walls, and your servants, and your books! Your time is long past, fool! You are nothing but words and dust!” The First of the Magi calmly pursed his lips and blew out smoke. “Words and dust, old worm! Well, we shall see. We will come to your library!” The wizard set his pipe carefully down on the table, a little smoke still curling up out of the bowl. “We will come back to your library, and put your walls to the hammer, your servants to the sword, and your books to the fire! To the—”

“Silence.” Bayaz was frowning now, deeper even than he had at Calder, days before in the yard outside. Again Logen felt the desire to step away, but stronger by far. He found himself glancing around the room for a place to hide. Caurib’s lips still moved, but only a meaningless croak came out.

“Break my walls, would you?” murmured Bayaz. His grey brows drew inwards, deep, hard grooves cutting into the bridge of his nose.

“Kill my servants, will you?” asked Bayaz. The room had turned very chill, despite the logs on the fire.

“Burn my books, say you?” thundered Bayaz. “You say too much, witch!” Caurib’s knees buckled. Her white hand clawed at the door-frame, chains and bangles jingling together as she slumped against the wall.

“Words and dust, am I?” Bayaz thrust up four fingers. “Four gifts you had of me, Bethod—the sun in winter, a storm in summer, and two things you could never have known, but for my Art. What have you given me in return, eh? This lake and this valley, which were mine already, and but one other thing.” Bethod’s eyes flicked across to Logen, then back. “You owe me still, yet you send messengers to me, you make demands, you presume to command me? That is not my idea of manners.”

Scale had caught up now, and his eyes were near popping out of his head. “Manners? What does a King need with manners? A King takes what he wants!” And he took a heavy step towards the table.

Now Scale was big enough and cruel enough, to be sure. Most likely you could never find a better man for kicking someone once he was down. But Logen wasn’t down, not yet, and he was good and sick of listening to this bloated fool. He stepped forward to block Scale’s path, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Far enough.”

The Prince looked Logen over with his bulging eyes, held up his meaty fist, squeezing his great fingers so the knuckles turned white. “Don’t tempt me Ninefingers, you broken cur! Your day’s long past! I could crush you like an egg!”

“You can try it, but I’ve no mind to let you. You know my work. One step more and I’ll set to work on you, you fucking swollen pig.”

“Scale!” snapped Bethod. “There is nothing for us here, that much is plain. We are leaving.” The hulking prince locked his great lump of a jaw, his huge hands clenching and unclenching by his sides, glowering at Logen with the most bestial hatred imaginable. Then he sneered, and slowly backed away.

Bayaz leaned forward. “You said you would bring peace to the North, Bethod, and what have you done? You have piled war on war! The land is bled white with your pride and your brutality! King of the Northmen? Hah! You’re not worth the helping! And to think, I had such high hopes for you!”

Bethod only frowned, his eyes as cold as the diamond on his forehead. “You have made an enemy of me, Bayaz, and I am a bad enemy to have. The very worst. You will yet regret this day’s work.” He turned his scorn on Logen. “As for you, Ninefingers, you will have no more mercy from me! Every man in the North will be your enemy now! You will be hated, and hunted, and cursed, wherever you go! I will see to it!”

Logen shrugged. There was nothing new there. Bayaz stood up from his chair. “You’ve said your piece, now take your witch and get you gone!”

Caurib stumbled from the room first, still gasping for air. Scale gave Logen one last scowl, then he turned and lumbered away. The so-called King of the Northmen was the last to leave, nodding slowly and sweeping the room with a deadly glare. As their footsteps faded down the corridor Logen took a deep breath, steadied himself, and let his hand drop from the hilt of the sword.

“So,” said Bayaz brightly, “that went well.”

<p>A Road Between Two Dentists</p>

Past midnight, and it was dark in the Middleway. Dark and it smelled bad. It always smelled bad down by the docks: old salt water, rotten fish, tar and sweat and horse shit. In a few hours time this street would be thronging with noise and activity. Tradesmen shouting, labourers cursing under their loads, merchants hurrying to and fro, a hundred carts and wagons rumbling over the dirty cobbles. There would be an endless tide of people, thronging off the ships and thronging on, people from every part of the world, words shouted in every language under the sun. But at night it was still. Still and silent. Silent as the grave, and even worse smelling.

“It’s down here,” said Severard, strolling towards the shadowy mouth of a narrow alley, wedged in between two looming warehouses.

“Did he give you much trouble?” asked Glokta as he shuffled painfully after.

“Not too much.” The Practical adjusted his mask, letting some air in behind. Must get very clammy under there, all that breath and sweat. No wonder Practicals tend to have bad tempers. “He gave Rews’ mattress some trouble, stabbed it all to bits. Then Frost knocked him on the head. Funny thing. When that boy knocks a man on the head, the trouble all goes out of him.”

“What about Rews?”

“Still alive.” The light from Severard’s lamp passed over a pile of putrid rubbish. Glokta heard rats squeaking in the darkness as they scurried away.

“You know all the best neighbourhoods, don’t you Severard?”

“That’s what you pay me for, Inquisitor.” His dirty black boot squelched, heedless, into the stinking mush. Glokta limped gingerly around it, holding the hem of his coat up in his free hand. “I grew up round here,” continued the Practical. “Folk don’t ask questions.”

“Except for us.” We always have questions.

“Course.” Severard gave a muffled giggle. “We’re the Inquisition.” His lamp picked out a dented iron gate, the high wall above topped with rusty spikes. “This is it.” Indeed, and what an auspicious-looking address it is. The gate evidently didn’t see much use, its brown hinges squealed in protest as the Practical unlocked it and heaved it open. Glokta stepped awkwardly over a puddle that had built up in a rut in the ground, cursing as his coat trailed in the foul water.

The hinges screamed again as Severard wrestled the heavy gate shut, forehead creasing with the effort, then he lifted the hood on his lantern, lighting up a wide ornamental courtyard, choked with rubble and weeds and broken wood.

“And here we are,” said Severard.

It must once have been a magnificent building, in its way. How much would all those windows have cost? How much all that decorative stonework? Visitors must have been awed by its owners wealth, if not his good taste. But no more. The windows were blinded with rotting boards, the swirls of masonry were choked with moss and caked with bird droppings. The thin layer of green marble on the pillars was cracked and flaking, exposing the rotten plaster underneath. All was crumbled, broken and decayed. Fallen lumps of the façade were strewn everywhere, casting long shadows on the high walls of the yard. Half the head of a broken cherub stared mournfully up at Glokta as he limped past.

He had been expecting some dingy warehouse, some dank cellar near the water. “What is this place?” he asked, staring up at the rotting palace.

“Some merchant built it, years ago.” Severard kicked a lump of broken sculpture out of his way and it clattered off into the darkness. “A rich man, very rich. Wanted to live near his warehouses and his wharves, keep one eye on business.” He strolled up the cracked and mossy steps to the huge, flaking front door. “He thought the idea might catch on, but how could it? Who’d want to live round here if they didn’t have to? Then he lost all his money, as merchants do. His creditors have had trouble finding a buyer.”

Glokta stared at a broken fountain, leaning at an angle and half filled with stagnant water. “Hardly surprising.”

Severard’s lamp barely lit the cavernous space of the entrance lull. Two enormous, curved, slumping staircases loomed out of the gloom opposite them. A wide balcony ran around the walls at first floor level, but a great section of it had collapsed and crashed through the damp floorboards below, so that one of the stairways ended, amputated, hanging in the empty air. The damp floor was strewn with lumps of broken plaster, fallen roofing slates, shattered timbers and a spattering of grey bird droppings. The night sky peered in through several yawning holes in the roof. Glokta could hear the vague sound of pigeons cooing in amongst the shadowy rafters, and somewhere the slow dripping of water.

What a place. Glokta stifled a smile. It reminds me of myself, in a way. We both were magnificent once, and we both have our best days far behind us.

“It’s big enough, wouldn’t you say?” asked Severard, picking his way in amongst the rubble towards a yawning doorway under the broken staircase, his lamp casting strange, slanting shadows as he moved.

“Oh, I’d have thought so, unless we get more than a thousand prisoners at once.” Glokta shuffled after him, leaning heavily on his cane, worried about his footing on the slimy floor. I’ll slip and fall right on my arse, right here in all this bird shit. That would be perfect.

The arch opened into a crumbling hall, rotten plaster falling away in sheets, showing the damp bricks beneath. Gloomy doorways passed by on either side. The sort of place that would make a man nervous, if he was prone to nervousness. He might imagine unpleasant things in these chambers, just beyond the lamp light, and horrible acts taking place in the darkness. He looked up at Severard, ambling jauntily along in front, tuneless whistling vaguely audible from behind his mask, and frowned. But we are not prone to nervousness. Perhaps we are the unpleasant things. Perhaps the acts are ours.

“How big is this place?” asked Glokta as he hobbled along.

“Thirty-five rooms, not counting the servant’s quarters.”

“A palace. How the hell did you find it?”

“I used to sleep here, some nights. After my mother died. I found a way in. The roof was still mostly on back then, and it was a dry place to sleep. Dry and safe. More or less.” Ah, what a hard life it’s been. Thug and torturer is a real step up for you, isn’t it? Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?

“Ever resourceful, eh, Severard?”

“That’s what you pay me for, Inquisitor.”

They passed into a wide space: a drawing room, a study, a ball-room even, it was big enough. Once beautiful panels were sagging from the walls, covered in mould and flaking gilt paint. Severard moved over to one, still attached, and pushed it firmly at one side. There was a soft click as it swung open, revealing a dark archway beyond. A hidden door? How delightful. How sinister. How very appropriate.

“This place is as full of surprises as you are,” said Glokta, limping painfully towards the opening.

“And you wouldn’t believe the price I got.”

“We bought this?”

“Oh no. I did. With Rews’ money. And now I’m renting it to you.” Severard’s eyes sparkled in the lamplight. “It’s a gold mine!”

“Hah!” laughed Glokta, as he shuffled carefully down the steps. All this, and a head for business too. Perhaps I’ll be working for Arch Lector Severard one of these days. Stranger things have happened. Glokta’s shadow loomed out ahead of him into the darkness as he laboured crab-like down the steps, his right hand feeling out the gaps between the rough stone blocks to lend him some support.

“The cellars go on for miles,” muttered Severard from behind. “We have our own private access to the canals, and to the sewers too, if you’re interested in sewers.” They passed a dark opening on their left, then another on their right, always going slowly downwards. “Frost tells me you can get all the way from here to the Agriont, without once coming up for air.”

“That could be useful.”

“I’d say so, if you can stand the smell.”

Severard’s lamp found a heavy door with a small, barred opening. “Home again,” he said, and gave four quick knocks. A moment later Practical Frost’s masked face loomed abruptly out of the darkness at the little window. “Only us.” The albino’s eyes showed no sign of warmth or recognition. But then they never do. Heavy bolts slid back on the other side of the door, and it swung smoothly open.

There was a table and chair, and fresh torches on the walls, but they were unlit. It must have been pitch black in here until our little lamp arrived. Glokta looked over at the albino. “Have you just been sitting here in the dark?” The hulking Practical shrugged, and Glokta shook his head. “Sometimes I worry about you, Practical Frost, I really do.”

“He’s down here,” said Severard, ambling off down the hall, heels making clicking echoes on the stone flags of the floor. This must once have been a wine cellar: there were several barrel-vaulted chambers leading off to either side, sealed with heavy gratings.

“Glokta!” Salem Rews’ fingers were gripped tightly round the bars, his face pressed up between them.

Glokta stopped in front of the cell and rested his throbbing leg. “Rews, how are you? I hardly expected to see you again so soon.” He had lost weight already, his skin was slack and pale, still marked with fading bruises. He does not look well, not well at all.

“What’s happening, Glokta? Please, why am I here?”

Well, where’s the harm? “It seems the Arch Lector still has a use for you. He wants you to give evidence.” Glokta leaned towards the bars. “Before the Open Council,” he whispered.

Rews grew paler still. “Then what?”

“We’ll see.” Angland, Rews, Angland.

“What if I refuse?”

“Refuse the Arch Lector?” Glokta chuckled. “No, no, no, Rews. You don’t want to do a thing like that.” He turned away and shuffled after Severard.

“For pity’s sake! It’s dark down here!”

“You’ll get used to it!” Glokta called over his shoulder. Amazing, what one can get used to.

The last of the chambers held their latest prisoner. Chained up to a bracket in the wall, naked and bagged of course. He was short and stocky, tending slightly to fat, with fresh grazes on his knees, no doubt from being flung into the rough stone cell.

“So this is our killer, eh?” The man rolled himself up onto his knees when he heard Glokta’s voice, straining forward against his chains. A little blood had soaked through the front of the bag and dried there, making a brown stain on the canvas.

“A very unsavoury character indeed,” said Severard. “Doesn’t look too fearsome now, though, does he?”

“They never do, once they’re brought to this. Where do we work?”

Severard’s eyes smiled even more. “Oh, you’re going to like this, Inquisitor.”


“It’s a touch theatrical,” said Glokta, “but none the worse for that.”

The room was large and circular with a domed ceiling, painted with a curious mural that ran all the way round the curved walls. The body of a man lay on the grass, bleeding from many wounds, with a forest behind him. Eleven other figures walked away, six on one side, five on the other, painted in profile, awkwardly posed, dressed in white but their features indistinct. They faced another man, arms stretched out, all in black and with a sea of colourfully daubed fire behind him. The harsh light from six bright lamps didn’t make the work look any better. Hardly of the highest quality, more decoration than art, but the effect is quite striking, nonetheless.

“No idea what it’s supposed to be,” said Severard.

“The Mather Ma’er,” mumbled Practical Frost.

“Of course,” said Glokta, staring up at the dark figure on the wall, and the flames behind. “You should study your history, Practical Severard. This is the Master Maker, Kanedias.” He turned and pointed to the dying man on the opposite wall. “And this is great Juvens, whom he has killed.” He swept his hand over the figures in white. “And these are Juvens’ apprentices, the Magi, marching to avenge him.” Ghost stories, fit to scare children with.

“What kind of man pays to have shit like this on the walls of his cellar?” asked Severard, shaking his head.

“Oh, this sort of thing was quite popular at one time. There’s a room painted like this in the palace. This is a copy, and a cheap one.” Glokta looked up at the shadowed face of Kanedias, staring grimly down into the room, and the bleeding corpse on the opposite wall. “Still, there’s something quite unsettling about it, isn’t there?” Or there would be, if I gave a damn. “Blood, fire, death, vengeance. No idea why you’d want it in the cellar. Perhaps there was something dark about our friend the merchant.”

“There’s always something dark about a man with money,” said Severard. “Who are these two?”

Glokta frowned, peering forward. Two small, vague figures could be seen under the arms of the Maker, one on each side. “Who knows?” asked Glokta, “maybe they’re his Practicals.”

Severard laughed. A vague exhalation of air even came from behind Frost’s mask, though his eyes showed no sign of amusement. My, my, he must be thoroughly tickled.

Glokta shuffled toward the table in the centre of the room. Two chairs faced each other across the smooth, polished surface. One was a spare, hard affair of the sort you found in the cellars of the House of Questions, but the other was altogether more impressive, throne-like almost, with sweeping arms and a high back, upholstered in brown leather.

Glokta placed his cane against the table and lowered himself carefully, back aching. “Oh, this is an excellent chair,” he breathed, sinking slowly back into the soft leather, stretching out his leg, throbbing from the long walk here. There was a slight resistance. He looked beneath the table. There was a matching footstool there.

Glokta tipped his head back and laughed. “Oh this is fine! You shouldn’t have!” He settled his leg down on the stool with a comfortable sigh.

“It was the least we could do,” said Severard, folding his arms and leaning against the wall next to the bleeding body of Juvens. “We did well from your friend Rews, very well. You’ve always seen us right, and we don’t forget that.”

“Unhhh,” said Frost, nodding his head.

“You spoil me.” Glokta stroked the polished wood on the arm of the chair. My boys. Where would I be without you? Back home in bed with mother fussing over me, I suppose, wondering how she’ll ever find a nice girl to marry me now. He glanced over the instruments on the table. His case was there, of course, and a few other things, well-used, but still highly serviceable. A pair of long-handled tongs particularly caught his eye. He glanced up at Severard. “Teeth?”

“Seemed a good place to start.”

“Fair enough.” Glokta licked at his own empty gums then cracked his knuckles, one by one. “Teeth, it is.”


As soon as the gag was off the assassin started screaming at them in Styrian, spitting and cursing, struggling pointlessly at his chains. Glokta didn’t understand a word of it. But I think I catch the meaning, more or less. Something very offensive indeed, I imagine. Something about our mothers, and so on. But I am not easily offended. He was a rough looking sort, face pockmarked with acne scars, nose broken more than once and bent out of shape. How disappointing. I was hoping the Mercers might have gone up-market on this occasion at least, but that’s merchants for you. Always looking for the bargain.

Practical Frost ended the torrent of unintelligible abuse by punching the man heavily in the stomach. That’ll take his breath away for a moment. Long enough to get the first word in.

“Now then,” said Glokta, “we’ll have none of that nonsense here. We know you’re a professional, sent to blend in and do a job. You wouldn’t blend in too well if you couldn’t even speak the language, now would you?”

The prisoner had got his breath back. “Pox on all of you, you bastards!” he gasped.

“Excellent! The common tongue will do nicely for our little chats. I have a feeling we may end up having several. Is there anything you would like to know about us before we begin? Or shall we get straight to it?”

The prisoner stared up suspiciously at the painted figure of the Master Maker, looming over Glokta’s head. “Where am I?”

“We’re just off the Middleway, down near the water.” Glokta winced as the muscles in his leg suddenly convulsed. He stretched it out cautiously, waiting until he heard the knee click before he carried on. “You know, the Middleway is one of the very arteries of the city, it runs straight through its heart, from the Agriont to the sea. It passes through many different districts, has all manner of notable buildings. Some of the most fashionable addresses in the whole city are just up the lane. To me though, it’s nothing but a road between two dentists.”

The prisoner’s eyes narrowed, then darted over the instruments on the table. But no more cursing. It seems the mention of dentistry has got his attention.

“Up at the other end of the avenue,” and Glokta pointed roughly northwards, “in one of the most expensive parts of town, opposite the public gardens, in a beautiful white house in the very shadow of the Agriont, is the establishment of Master Farrad. You might have heard of him?”

“Get fucked!”

Glokta raised his eyebrows. If only. “They say that Master Farrad is the finest dentist in the world. I believe he came from Gurkhul originally, but he escaped the tyranny of the Emperor to join us in the Union and make a better life for himself, saving our wealthiest citizens from the terrors of bad teeth. When I came back from my own little visit to the South, my family sent me to him, to see if there was anything he could do for me.” Glokta smiled wide, showing the assassin the nature of the problem. “Of course there wasn’t. The Emperor’s torturers saw to that. But he’s a damn fine dentist, everyone says so.”

“So what?”

Glokta let his smile fade. “Down at the other end of the Middleway, down near the sea, in amongst the filth and the scum and the slime of the docks, am I. The rents may be cheap hereabouts, but I feel confident that, once we have spent some time together, you will not think me any less talented than the esteemed Master Farrad. It is simply that my talents lie in a different direction. The good Master eases the pain of his patients, while I am a dentist…” and Glokta leaned slowly forward “…of a different sort.”

The assassin laughed in his face. “Do you think you can scare me with a bag on the head and a nasty painting?” He looked round at Frost and Severard. “You crowd of freaks?”

“Do I think we scare you? The three of us?” Glokta allowed himself a chuckle at that. “Here you sit, alone, unarmed and thoroughly restrained. Who knows where you are but us, or cares to know? You have no hope of deliverance, or of escape. We’re all professionals here. I think you can guess what’s coming, more or less.” Glokta grinned a sickly grin. “Of course we scare you, don’t play the fool. You hide it well, I’ll admit, but that can’t last. The time will come, soon enough, when you’ll be begging to go back in the bag.”

“You’ll get nothing from me,” growled the assassin, staring him straight in the eye. “Nothing.” Tough. A tough man. But it’s easy to act tough before the work begins. I should know.

Glokta rubbed his leg gently. The blood was flowing nicely now, the pain almost gone. “We’ll keep it simple to begin with. Names, that’s all I want, for now. Just names. Why don’t we start with yours? At least you can’t tell us you don’t know the answer.”

They waited. Severard and Frost stared down at the prisoner, the green eyes smiling, the pink ones not. Silence.

Glokta sighed. “Right then.” Frost planted his fists on either side of the assassins jaw, started to squeeze until his teeth were forced apart. Severard shoved the ends of the tongs in between and forced his jaws open, much too wide for comfort. The assassin’s eyes bulged. Hurts, doesn’t it? But that’s nothing, believe me.

“Watch his tongue,” said Glokta, “we want him talking.”

“Don’t worry,” muttered Severard, peering into the assassin’s mouth. He ducked back suddenly. “Ugh! His breath smells like shit!”

A shame, but I am hardly surprised. Clean living is rarely a priority for hired killers. Glokta got slowly to his feet, limped round the table. “Now then,” he murmured, one hand hovering over his instruments, “where to begin?” He picked up a mounted needle and craned forward, his other hand gripped tight around the top of his cane, probing carefully at the killer’s teeth. Not a pretty set, to be sure. I do believe I’d rather have my teeth than his.

“Dear me, these are in a terrible state. Rotten through and through. That’s why your breath stinks so badly. There’s no excuse for it, a man of your age.”

“Haah!” yelped the prisoner as Glokta touched a nerve. He tried to speak, but with the tongs in place he made less sense than Practical Frost.

“Quiet now, you’ve had your chance to talk. Perhaps you’ll get another later, I haven’t decided.” Glokta put the needle back down on the table, shaking his head sadly. “Your teeth are a fucking disgrace. Revolting. I do declare, they’re just about falling out on their own. Do you know,” he said, as he took the little hammer and chisel from the table, “I do believe you’d be better off without them.”

<p>Flatheads</p>

Grey morning time, out in the cold, wet woods, and the Dogman was just sat there, thinking about how things used to be better. Sat there, minding the spit, turning it round every once in a while and trying not to get too nervous with the waiting. Tul Duru wasn’t helping any with that. He was striding up and down the grass, round the old stones and back, wearing his great boots out, about as patient as a wolf on heat. Dogman watched him stomping—clomp, clomp, clomp. He’d learned a long time ago that great fighters are only good for one thing. Fighting. At pretty much everything else, and at waiting in particular, they’re fucking useless.

“Why don’t you sit yourself down, Tul?” muttered Dogman. “There’s stones aplenty for the purpose. Warmer here by the fire and all. Rest those flapping feet o’ yours, you’re getting me twitchy.”

“Sit me down?” rumbled the giant, coming up and looming over the Dogman like a great bloody house. “How can I sit, or you either?” He frowned across the ruins and into the trees from under his great, heavy brows. “You sure this is the place?”

“This is the place.” Dogman stared round at the broken stones, hoping like hell that it was. He couldn’t deny there was no sign of ’em yet. “They’ll be here, don’t you worry.” So long as they ain’t all got themselves killed, he thought, but he had the sense not to say it. He’d spent enough time marching with Tul Duru Thunderhead to know—you don’t get that man stirred up. Unless you want a broken head, o’ course.

“They better be here soon is all.” Tul’s bloody great hands curled up into fists fit to break rocks with. “I got no taste for just sitting here, arse in the wind!”

“Nor do I, neither,” said the Dogman, showing his palms and doing his best to keep everything gentle, “but don’t you fret on it, big lad. They’ll be along soon enough, just the way we planned. This is the place.” He eyed the hog crackling away, dripping some nice gravy in the fire. His mouth was watering good now, his nose was full of the smell of meat… and something else beside. Just a whiff. He looked up, sniffing.

“You smell something?” asked Tul, peering into the woods.

“Something, maybe.” The Dogman leaned down and took a hold on his bow.

“What is it? Shanka?”

“Not sure, could be.” He sniffed the air again. Smelled like a man, and a mighty sour-smelling one at that.

“I could have killed the fucking pair o’ you!”

Dogman span about, half falling over and near fumbling his bow while he did it. Black Dow wasn’t ten strides behind him, down wind, creeping over to the fire with a nasty grin. Grim was at his shoulder, face blank as a wall, as always.

“You bastards!” bellowed Tul. “You near made me shit with your sneaking around!”

“Good,” sneered Dow. “You could lose some fucking lard.”

Dogman took a long breath and tossed his bow back down. Some relief to know they were in the right spot after all, but he could’ve done without the scare. He’d been jumpy since he saw Logen go over the edge of that cliff. Roll right on over and not a thing anyone could do about it. Could happen to anyone any time, death, and that was a fact.

Grim clambered over the broken stones and sat himself down on one next to the Dogman, gave him the barest of nods. “Meat?” barked Dow, shoving past Tul and flopping down beside the fire, ripping a leg off the carcass and tearing into it with his teeth.

And that was it. That was all the greeting, after a month or more apart. “A man with friends is rich indeed,” muttered the Dogman out the corner of his mouth.

“Whatsay?” spat Dow, cold eyes sliding round, his mouth full of pig, his dirty, stubbly chin all shiny with grease.

Dogman showed his palms again. “Nothing to take offence at.” He’d spent enough time marching with Black Dow to know—you might as well cut your own neck as make that evil bastard angry. “Any trouble while we was split up?” he asked, looking to change the subject.

Grim nodded. “Some.”

“Fucking Flatheads!” snarled Dow, spraying bits of meat in Dogman’s face. “They’re bloody everywhere!” He pointed the hog’s leg across the fire like it was a blade. “I’ve taken enough of this shit! I’m going back south. It’s too bloody cold by half, and fucking Flatheads everywhere! Bastards! I’m going south!”

“You scared?” asked Tul.

Dow turned to look up at him with a big yellow grin, and the Dogman winced. It was a damn fool of a question, that. He’d never been scared in his life, Black Dow. Didn’t know what it was to be scared. “Feared of a few Shanka? Me?” He gave a nasty laugh. “We done some work on them, while you two been snoring. Gave some of ’em warm beds to sleep in. Too warm by half.”

“Burned ’em,” muttered Grim. That was a full day’s talk out of him already.

“Burned a whole fucking pile of ’em,” hissed Dow, grinning like he never heard such a joke as corpses on fire. “They don’t scare me, big lad, no more’n you do, but I don’t plan to sit here waiting for ’em neither, just so Threetrees has time to haul his flabby old arse out of bed. I’m going south!” And he tore off another mouthful of meat.

“Who’s got the flabby arse now?”

Dogman cracked a grin as he saw Threetrees striding over towards the fire, and he started up and grabbed the old boy by the hand. He had Forley the Weakest with him and all, and Dogman clapped the little man on the back as he came past. Nearly knocked him over, he was that pleased to see they were all alive and made it through another month. Didn’t hurt to have some leadership round the fire, neither. Everyone looked happy for once, smiling and pressing hands and all the rest. Everyone but Dow, o’ course. He just sat there, staring at the fire, sucking on his bone, face sour as old milk.

“Right good to see you again, lads, and all in one piece.” Threetrees hefted his big round shield off his shoulder and leant it up against a broken old bit of wall. “How’ve you been?”

“Fucking cold,” said Dow, not even looking up. “We’re going south.”

Dogman sighed. Back together for ten heartbeats and the bickering was already started. It was going to be a tough crowd now, without Logen to keep things settled. A tough crowd, and apt to get bloody. Threetrees wasn’t rushing into anything, though. He took a moment to think on it, like always. He loved to take his moment, that one. That was what made him so dangerous. “Going south, eh?” said Threetrees, after he’d chewed it over for a minute. “And just when did all this get decided?”

“Nothing’s decided,” said the Dogman, showing his palms one more time. He reckoned he might be doing that a lot from now on.

Tul Duru frowned down at Dow’s back. “Nothing at all,” he rumbled, mightily annoyed at having his mind made up for him.

“Nothing is right,” said Threetrees, slow and steady as the grass growing. “I don’t recall this being no voting band.”

Dow took no time at all to think about that. He never took time, that one. That was what made him so dangerous. He leaped up, flinging the bone onto the ground, squaring up to Threetrees with a fighting look. “I… say… south!” he snarled, eyes bulging like bubbles on a stew.

Threetrees didn’t back down a step. That wouldn’t have been his way at all. He took his moment to think on it, course, then he took a step forward of his own, so his nose and Dow’s were almost touching. “If you wanted a say, you should have beaten Ninefingers,” he growled, “instead of losing like the rest of us.”

Black Dow’s face turned dark as tar at that. He didn’t like being reminded of losing. “The Bloody-Nine’s gone back to the mud!” he snarled. “Dogman seen it, didn’t you?”

Dogman had to nod. “Aye,” he muttered.

“So that’s the end of that! There’s no reason for us to be pissing around here, North of the mountains, with Flatheads crawling up our arses! I say south!”

“Ninefingers may be dead,” said Threetrees in Dow’s face, “but your debt ain’t. Why he saw fit to spare a man as worthless as you I’ll never know, but he named me as second,” and he tapped his big chest, “and that means I’m the one with the say! Me and no other!”

Dogman took a careful step back. The two of ’em were shaping up for blows alright, and he’d no wish to get a bloody nose in all the confusion. It would hardly have been the first time. Forley took a stab at keeping the peace. “Come on boys,” he said, all nice and soft, “there’s no need for this.” He might not have been much at killing, Forley, but he was a damn good boy for stopping those that were from killing each other. Dogman wished him luck with it. “Come on, why don’t you—”

“Shut your fucking hole, you!” growled Dow, one dirty finger stabbing savage in Forley’s face. “What’s your fucking say worth, Weakest?”

“Leave him be!” rumbled Tul, holding his great fist up under Dow’s chin, “or I’ll give you something to shout about!”

The Dogman could hardly look. Dow and Threetrees were always picking at each other. They got fired up quick and damped down quick. The Thunderhead was a different animal. Once that big ox got properly riled there was no calming him. Not without ten strong men and a lot of rope. Dogman tried to think what Logen would have done. He’d have known how to stop ’em fighting, if he hadn’t been dead.

“Shit!” shouted Dogman, jumping up from the fire all of a sudden. “There’s fucking Shanka crawling all over us! And if we get through with them there’s always Bethod to think on! We’ve a world full of scores to settle without making more ourselves! Logen’s gone and Threetrees is second, and that’s the only say I’ll hear!” He did some jabbing with his own finger, at no one in particular, then he waited, hoping like hell that it had done the trick.

“Aye,” grunted Grim.

Forley started nodding like a woodpecker. “Dogman’s right! We need to fight each other like we need the cock-rot! Threetrees is second. He’s the chief now.”

It was quiet for a moment, and Dow fixed the Dogman with that cold, empty, killing look, like the cat with the mouse between its paws. Dogman swallowed. A lot of men, most men even, wouldn’t have dared meet no look like that from Black Dow. He got the name from having the blackest reputation in the North, with coming sudden in the black of night, and leaving the villages behind him black from fire. That was the rumour. That was the fact.

It took all the bones Dogman had not to stare at his boots. He was just ready to do it when Dow looked away, eyed the others, one at a time. Most men wouldn’t have met that look, but these here weren’t most men. You could never have hoped to meet a bloodier crowd, not anywhere under the sun. Not a one of them backed down, or even seemed to consider it. Apart from Forley the Weakest, of course, he was staring at the grass before his turn even came.

Once Dow saw they were all against him he cracked a happy smile, just as if there never was a problem. “Fair enough,” he said to Threetrees, the anger all seeming to drain away in an instant. “What’s it to be then, chief?”

Threetrees looked over at the woods. He sniffed and sucked at his teeth. He scratched at his beard, taking his moment to think on it. He looked each one of them over, considering. “We go south,” he said.


He smelled ’em before he saw ’em, but that was always the way with him. He had a good nose, did the Dogman, that’s how he got the name after all. Being honest though, anyone could have smelled ’em. They fucking stank.

There were twelve down in the clearing. Sitting, eating, grunting to each other in their nasty, dirty tongue, big yellow teeth sticking out everywhere, dressed in lumps of smelly fur and reeking hide and odd bits of rusty armour. Shanka.

“Fucking Flatheads,” Dogman muttered to himself. He heard a soft hiss behind, turned round to see Grim peering up from behind a bush. He held out his open hand to say stop, tapped the top of his skull to say Flatheads, held up his fist, then two fingers to say twelve, and pointed back down the track towards the others. Grim nodded and faded away into the woods.

The Dogman took one last look at the Shanka, just to make sure they were all still unwary. They were, so he slipped back down the tree and off.

“They’re camped round the road, twelve that I saw, maybe more.”

“They looking for us?” asked Threetrees.

“Maybe, but they ain’t looking too hard.”

“Could we get around them?” asked Forley, always looking to miss out on a fight.

Dow spat onto the ground, always looking to get into one. “Twelve is nothing! We can do them alright!”

The Dogman looked over at Threetrees, thinking it out, taking his moment. Twelve wasn’t nothing, and they all knew it, but it might be better to deal with them than leave them free and easy behind.

“What’s it to be, chief?” asked Tul.

Threetrees set his jaw. “Weapons.”

A fighting man’s a fool that don’t keep his weapons clean and ready. Dogman had been over his no more’n an hour before. Still, you won’t be killed for checking ’em, while you might be for not doing it.

There was the hissing of steel on leather, the clicking of wood and the clanking of metal. Dogman watched Grim twang at his bowstring, check over the feathers on his shafts. He watched Tul Duru run his thumb down the edge of his big heavy sword, almost as tall as Forley was, clucking like a chicken at a spot of rust. He watched Black Dow rubbing a rag on the head of his axe, looking at the blade with eyes soft as a lover’s. He watched Threetrees tugging at the buckles on his shield straps, swishing his blade through the air, bright metal glinting.

The Dogman gave a sigh, pulled the straps on his guard tighter round his left wrist, checked the wood of his bow for cracks. He made sure all his knives were where they should be. You can never have too many knives, Logen had told him once, and he’d taken it right to heart. He watched Forley checking his short-sword with clumsy hands, his mouth chewing away, eyes all wet with fear. That got his own nerves jumping, and he glanced round at the others. Dirty, scarred, frowns’ and lots of beard. There was no fear there, no fear at all, but that was nothing to be shamed at. Different men have different ways, Logen had told him once, and you have to have fear to have courage. He’d taken that right to heart as well.

He walked over to Forley and gave him a clap on the shoulder. “You have to have fear to have courage,” he said.

“That so?”

“So they say, and it’s a good thing too.” The Dogman leaned close so no one else could hear. “Cause I’m about ready to shit.” He reckoned that’s what Logen would have done, and now that Logen had gone back to the mud it fell to him. Forley gave half a smile, but it slumped pretty fast, and he looked more scared then ever. There’s only so much you can do.

“Right, boys,” said Threetrees, once the gear was all checked and stowed in its proper places, “here’s how we’ll get it done. Grim, Dogman, opposite sides of their camp, out in the trees. Wait for the signal, then shoot any Flathead with a bow. Failing that, whatever’s closest.”

“Right you are, chief,” said the Dogman. Grim gave a nod.

“Tul, you and me’ll take the front, but wait for the signal, eh?”

“Aye,” rumbled the giant.

“Dow, you and Forley at the back. You come on when you see us go. But this time you wait for us to go!” hissed Threetrees, stabbing with his thick finger.

“Course, chief.” Dow shrugged his shoulders, just as though he always did as he was told.

“Right then, there it is,” said Threetrees, “anyone still confused? Any empty heads round the fire?” The Dogman mumbled and shook his head. They all did. “Fair enough. Just one more thing.” The old boy leaned forward, looking at each of them one by one. “Wait… for… the… fucking… signal!”

It wasn’t ’til the Dogman was hid behind a bush with his bow in his hand and a shaft at the ready that he realised. He’d no idea what the signal was. He looked down at the Shanka, still sat there all unwary, grunting and shouting and banging about. By the dead he needed to piss. Always needed to piss before a fight. Had anyone said the signal? He couldn’t remember.

“Shit,” he whispered, and just then Dow came hurtling out from the trees, axe in one hand, sword in the other.

“Fucking Flatheads!” he screamed, giving the nearest a fearsome big blow in the head and splattering blood across the clearing. In so far as you could tell what a Shanka was thinking, these ones looked greatly surprised. Dogman reckoned that would have to do for a signal.

He let loose his shaft at the nearest Flathead, just reaching for a big club and watched it catch it through the armpit with a satisfying thunk. “Hah!” he shouted. He saw Dow spit another through the back with his sword, but there was a big Shanka now with a spear ready to throw. An arrow came looping out of the trees and stuck it through the neck, and it let go a squeal and sprawled out backwards. That Grim was a damn good shot.

Now Threetrees came roaring from the scrub on the other side of the clearing, catching them off guard. He barged one Flathead in the back with his shield and it sprawled face-first into the fire, he hacked at another with his sword. The Dogman let go a shaft and it stuck a Shanka in its gut. It dropped down on its knees and a moment later Tul took its head off with a great swing of his sword.

The fight was joined and moving quick—chop, grunt, scrape, rattle. There was blood flying and weapons swinging and bodies dropping too fast for the Dogman to try an arrow at. The three of them had the last few hemmed in, squawking and gibbering. Tul Duru was swinging his big sword around, keeping them at bay. Threetrees darted in and chopped the legs out from under one, and Dow cut another down as it looked round.

The last one squawked and made a run for the trees. Dogman shot at it, but he was hurrying and he missed. The arrow almost hit Dow in the leg, but luckily he didn’t notice. It had almost got away into the bushes, then it squealed and fell back, thrashing. Forley had stabbed it, hiding in the scrub. “I got one!” he yelled.

It was quiet for a moment, while the Dogman scrambled down toward the clearing and they all looked round to see if there was anything left to fight, then Black Dow gave a great bellow, shaking his bloody weapons over his head. “We fucking killed ’em!”

“You nearly killed us all, you damn fool!” shouted Threetrees.

“Eh?”

“What about the fucking signal?”

“I thought I heard you shout!”

“I never!”

“Did you not?” asked Dow, looking greatly puzzled. “What was the signal anyhow?”

Threetrees gave a sigh and put his head in his hands.

Forley was still staring down at his sword. “I got one!” he said again. Now that the fight was over, the Dogman was about ready to burst, so he turned round and pissed against a tree.

“We killed ’em!” shouted Tul, clapping him on the back.

“Watch out!” yelled Dogman as piss went all down his leg. They all had a laugh at him over that. Even Grim had himself a little chuckle.

Tul shook Threetrees by the shoulder. “We killed ’em, chief!”

“We killed these, aye,” he said, looking sour, “but there’ll be plenty more. Thousands of ’em. They won’t be happy staying up here neither, up here beyond the mountains. Sooner or later they’ll be going south. Maybe in the summer, when the passes clear, maybe later. But it’s not long off.”

The Dogman glanced at the others, all shifty and worried after that little speech. The glow of victory hadn’t lasted too long. It never did. He looked round at the dead Flatheads on the ground, broken and bloody, sprawled and crumpled. It seemed a hollow little victory they’d had now. “Shouldn’t we try and tell ’em, Threetrees?” he asked. “Shouldn’t we try and warn someone?”

“Aye.” Threetrees gave a sad little smile. “But who?”

<p>The Course of True Love</p>

Jezal trudged miserably across the grey Agriont with his fencing steels in his hand: yawning, stumbling, grumbling, still horribly sore from his endless run the day before. He hardly saw anyone as he dragged himself to his daily bullying from Lord Marshal Varuz. Apart from the odd premature tweeting of some bird in amongst the gables and the tired scraping of his own reluctant boots, all was quiet. No one was up at this time. No one should be up at this time. Him least of all.

He hauled his aching legs through the archway and up the tunnel. The sun was barely above the horizon and the courtyard beyond was full of deep shadows. Squinting into the darkness he could see Varuz sat at the table, waiting for him. Damn it. He had hoped to be early for once. Did the old bastard sleep at all?

“Lord Marshal!” shouted Jezal, breaking into a half-hearted jog.

“No. Not today.” A shiver crept up Jezal’s neck. It was not the voice of his fencing master, but there was something unpleasantly familiar about it. “Marshal Varuz is busy with more important matters this morning.” Inquisitor Glokta was sitting in the shadows by the table and smiling up with his revolting gap-toothed grin. Jezal’s skin prickled with disgust. It was hardly what one needed first thing in the morning.

He slowed to a reluctant walk and stopped next to the table. “You will doubtless be pleased to learn that there will be no running, or swimming, or beam, or heavy bar today,” said the cripple. “You won’t even be needing those.” He waved his cane at Jezal’s fencing steels. “We will just be having a little chat. That is all.”

The idea of five punishing hours with Varuz seemed suddenly very appealing, but Jezal was not about to show his discomfort. He tossed his steels onto the table with a loud rattle and sat down carelessly in the other chair, Glokta regarding him from the shadows all the while. Jezal had it in mind to stare him into some kind of submission, but it proved a vain attempt. After a couple of seconds looking at that wasted face, that empty grin, those fever-bright sunken eyes, he began to find the table top most interesting.

“So tell me, Captain, why did you take up fencing?”

A game then. A private hand of cards with only two players. And everything that was said would get back to Varuz, that was sure. Jezal would have to play his hand carefully, keep his cards close and his wits about him. “For my own honour, for that of my family, for that of my King,” he said coldly. The cripple could try and find fault with that answer.

“Ah, so it’s for the benefit of your nation that you put yourself through this. What a fine citizen you must be. What selflessness. What an example to us all.” Glokta snorted. “Please! If you must lie, at least pick a lie that you yourself find convincing. That answer is an insult to us both.”

How dare this toothless has-been take that tone with him? Jezal’s legs gave a twitch: he was right on the point of getting up and walking away, Varuz and his hideous stooge be damned. But he caught the cripple’s eye as he put his hands on the arms of the chair to push himself up. Glokta was smiling at him, a mocking sort of smile. To leave would be to admit defeat somehow. Why did he take up fencing anyway? “My father wanted me to do it.”

“So, so. My heart brims with sympathy. The loyal son, bound by his strong sense of duty, is forced to fulfil his father’s ambitions. A familiar tale, like a comfortable old chair we all love to sit in. Tell ’em what they want to hear, eh? A better answer, but just as far from the truth.”

“Why don’t you tell me then?” snapped Jezal sulkily, “since you seem to know so much about it!”

“Alright, I will. Men don’t fence for their King, or for their families, or for the exercise either, before you try that one on me. They fence for the recognition, for the glory. They fence for their own advancement. They fence for themselves. I should know.”

“You should know?” Jezal snorted. “It hardly seems to have worked in your case.” He regretted it immediately. Damn his mouth, it got him in all kinds of trouble.

But Glokta only flashed his disgusting smile again. “It was working well enough, until I found my way into the Emperor’s prisons. What’s your excuse, liar?”

Jezal didn’t like the way this conversation was going. He was too used to easy victories at the card table, and poor players. His skills had dulled. Better to sit this one out until he got the measure of his new opponent. He clamped his jaw shut and said nothing.

“It takes hard work, of course, winning a Contest. You should have seen our mutual friend Collem West working. He sweated at it for months, running around while the rest of us laughed at him. A jumped-up, idiot commoner competing with his betters, that’s what we all thought. Blundering through his forms, stumbling about on the beam, being made a fool of, again and again, day after day. But look at him now.” Glokta tapped his cane with a finger. “And look at me. Seems he had the last laugh, eh, Captain? Just shows what you can achieve with a little hard work. You’ve twice the talent he had, and the right blood. You don’t have to work one tenth so hard, but you refuse to work at all.”

Jezal wasn’t about to let that one past. “Not work at all? Don’t I put myself through this torture every day—”

“Torture?” asked Glokta sharply.

Jezal realised too late his unfortunate choice of words. “Well,” he mumbled, “I meant.”

“I know more than a little about both fencing and torture. Believe me when I say,” and the Inquisitor’s grotesque grin grew wider still, “that they’re two quite different things.”

“Er…” said Jezal, still off balance.

“You have the ambitions, and the means to realise them. A little effort would do it. A few months’ hard work, then you would probably never need to try at anything again in your life, if that’s what you want. A few short months, and you’re set.” Glokta licked at his empty gums. “Barring accidents of course. It’s a great chance you’ve been offered. I’d take it; if I was you, but I don’t know. Maybe you’re a fool as well as a liar.”

“I’m no fool,” said Jezal coldly. It was the best he could do.

Glokta raised an eyebrow, then winced, leaning heavily on his cane as he slowly pushed himself to his feet. “Give it up if you like, by all means. Sit around for the rest of your days and drink and talk shit with the rest of the junior officers. There are a lot of people who’d be more than happy to live that life. A lot of people who haven’t had the chances you’ve had. Give it up. Lord Marshal Varuz will be disappointed, and Major West, and your father, and so on, but please believe me when I say,” and he leaned down, still smiling his horrible smile, “that I couldn’t care less. Good day, Captain Luthar.” And Glokta limped off toward the archway.


After that less than delightful interview, Jezal found himself with a few hours of unexpected free time on his hands—but he was scarcely in the frame of mind to enjoy it. He wandered the empty streets, squares and gardens of the Agriont, thinking grimly on what the cripple had said to him, cursing the name of Glokta, but unable to quite push the conversation from his mind. He turned it over and over, every phrase, constantly coming up with new things that he should have said. If only he had thought of them at the time.

“Ah, Captain Luthar!” Jezal started and looked up. A man he did not recognise was sitting on the dewy grass beneath a tree, smiling up at him, a half-eaten apple in his hand. “The early morning is the perfect time for a stroll, I find. Calm and grey and clean and empty. It’s nothing like the gaudy pinkness of evening time. All that clutter, all those people coming and going. How can one think in amongst all that nonsense? And now I see you are of the same mind. How delightful.” He took a big, crunching bite out of the apple.

“Do I know you?”

“Oh no, no,” said the stranger, getting to his feet and brushing some dirt from the seat of his trousers, “not yet. My name is Sulfur, Yoru Sulfur.”

“Really? And what brings you to the Agriont?”

“You might say I have come on a diplomatic mission.”

Jezal looked him over, trying to place his origin. “A mission from?”

“From my master, of course,” said Sulfur unhelpfully. His eyes were different colours, Jezal noticed. An ugly and off-putting characteristic, he rather thought.

“And your master is?”

“A very wise and powerful man.” He stripped the core with his teeth and tossed it away into the bushes, wiping his hands on the front of his shirt. “I see you’ve been fencing.”

Jezal glanced down at his steels. “Yes,” he said, realising that he had finally come to a decision, “but for the last time. I’m giving it up.”

“Oh dear me, no!” The strange man seized Jezal by the shoulder. “Oh dear me, no you mustn’t!”

“What?”

“No, no! My master would be horrified if he knew. Horrified! Give up fencing and you give up more than that! This is how one comes to the notice of the public, you see? They decide, in the end. There’s no nobility without the commoners, no nobility at all! They decide!”

“What?” Jezal glanced around the park, hoping to catch sight of a guard so he could notify him that a dangerous madman was loose in the Agriont.

“No, you mustn’t give it up! I won’t hear of it! No indeed! I’m sure that you’ll stick with it after all! You must!”

Jezal shook Sulfur’s hand off his shoulder. “Who are you?”

“Sulfur, Yoru Sulfur, at your service. See you again, Captain, at the Contest, if not before!” And he waved over his shoulder as he strolled off.

Jezal stared after him, mouth slightly open. “Damn it!” he shouted, throwing his steels down on the grass. Everyone seemed to want to take a hand in his business today, even crazy strangers in the park.


As soon as he thought it was late enough, Jezal went to call on Major West. You could always be sure of a sympathetic ear with him, and Jezal was hoping that he might be able to manipulate his friend into breaking the bad news to Lord Marshal Varuz. That was a scene that he wanted no part of, if he could possibly avoid it. He knocked on the door and waited, he knocked again. The door opened.

“Captain Luthar! What an almost unbearable honour!”

“Ardee,” muttered Jezal, somewhat surprised to find her here, “it’s good to see you again.” For once he actually meant it. She was interesting, is what she was. It was a new and refreshing thing for him to actually be interested in what a woman had to say. And she was damn good-looking too, there was no denying it, and seemed prettier every time he saw her. Nothing could ever happen between them, of course, what with West being his friend and all, but there was no harm in looking, was there? “Er… is your brother around?”

She threw herself carelessly down onto the settle against the wall, one leg stretched out, looking very sour. “He’s out. Gone out. Always busy. Much too busy for me.” There was a definite flush to her cheek. Jezal’s eye lighted on the decanter. The stopper was out and the wine was halfway down.

“Are you drunk?”

“Somewhat,” she squinted at a half-full wine glass at her elbow, “but mostly I’m just bored.”

“It’s not even ten.”

“Can’t I be bored before ten?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Leave the moralising to my brother. It suits him better. And have a drink.” She waved her hand at the bottle. “You look like you need one.”

Well, that was true enough. He poured himself a glass and sat down in a chair facing Ardee, while she regarded him with heavy-lidded eyes. She took her own glass from the table. There was a thick book lying next to it, face down.

“How’s the book?” asked Jezal.

The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it’s one of the great classics of history. Lot of boring rubbish,” she snorted derisively. “Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit.” She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping.

“There must be something you can find to keep busy?”

“Really? What would you suggest?”

“My cousins do a lot of embroidery.”

“Fuck yourself.”

“Hmm,” said Jezal, smiling. The swearing no longer seemed half so offensive as it had done when they first met. “What did you do at home, in Angland?”

“Oh, home,” her head dropped against the back of the settle. “I thought I was bored there. I could hardly wait to come here to the bright centre of things. Now I can hardly wait to go back. Marry some farmer. Have a dozen brats. At least I’d get some conversation that way.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “But Collem won’t let me. He feels responsible, now that our father’s dead. Thinks it’s too dangerous. He’d rather I didn’t get slaughtered by the Northmen, but that’s about where his sense of responsibility ends. It certainly doesn’t extend to spending ten minutes together with me. So it looks like I’m stuck here, with all you arrogant snobs.”

Jezal shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “He seems to manage.”

“Oh yes,” snorted Ardee, “Collem West, he’s a damn fine fellow! Won a Contest don’t you know? First through the breach at Ulrioch, wasn’t he? No breeding at all, never be one of us, but a damn fine fellow, for a commoner! Shame about that upstart sister of his though, too clever by half. And they say she drinks,” she whispered. “Doesn’t know her place. Total disgrace. Best just to ignore her.” She sighed again. “Yes, the sooner I go home, the happier everyone will be.”

“I won’t be happier.” Damn, did he say that out loud?

Ardee laughed, none too pleasantly. “Well, it’s enormously noble of you to say so. Why aren’t you fencing anyway?”

“Marshal Varuz was busy today.” He paused for a moment. “In fact, I had your friend Sand dan Glokta as fencing master this morning.”

“Really? What did he have to say for himself?”

“Various things. He called me a fool.”

“Imagine that.”

Jezal frowned. “Yes, well. I’m as bored with fencing as you are with that book. That was what I wanted to talk to your brother about. I’m thinking of giving it up.”

She burst out laughing. Snorting, gurgling peals of it. Her whole body was shaking. Wine sloshed out of her glass and splattered across the floor. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.

“It’s just,” she wiped a tear from her eye, “I had a bet with Collem. He was sure you’d stick at it. And now I’m ten marks richer.”

“I’m not sure that I like being the subject of your bet,” said Jezal sharply.

“I’m not sure I give a damn.”

“This is serious.”

“No it isn’t!” she snapped. “For my brother it was serious, he had to do it! No one even notices you if you don’t have a ‘dan’ in your name, and who’d know better than me? You’re the only person who’s given me the time of day since I got here, and then only because Collem made you. I’ve precious little money and no blood at all, and that makes me less than nothing to the likes of you. The men ignore me and the women cut me dead. I’ve got nothing here, nothing and no one, and you think you’ve got the hard life? Please! I might take up fencing,” she said bitterly. “Ask the Lord Marshal if he has space for a pupil, would you? At least then I’d have someone to talk to!”

Jezal blinked. That wasn’t interesting. That was rude. “Hold on, you’ve no idea what it’s like to—”

“Oh stop whinging! How old are you? Five? Why don’t you go back to sucking on your mother’s tit, infant?”

He could hardly believe what he was hearing. How dare she? “My mother’s dead,” he said. Hah. That should make her feel guilty, squeeze an apology out of her. It didn’t.

“Dead? Lucky her, at least she doesn’t have to listen to your damn whining! You spoiled little rich boys are all the same. You get everything you could possibly want, then throw a tantrum because you have to pick it up yourself! You’re pathetic! You make me fucking sick!”

Jezal goggled. His face was burning, stinging, as if he’d been slapped. He’d rather have been slapped. He had never been spoken to like that in his life. Never! It was worse than Glokta. Much worse, and far more unexpected. He realised his mouth was hanging half open. He snapped it shut, grinding his teeth together, slapped his glass down on the table, and got up to leave. He was turning to the door when it suddenly opened, leaving him and Major West staring at each other.

“Jezal,” said West, looking at first simply surprised and then, as he glanced over at his sister, sprawling on the settle, slightly suspicious. “What are you doing here?”

“Er… I came to see you actually.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes. But it can wait. I’ve things to do.” And Jezal pushed past his friend and out into the corridor.

“What was all that about?” He heard West saying as he strode away from the room. “Are you drunk?”

With every step Jezal’s fury mounted until he was halfway to being strangled by it. He had been the victim of an assault! A savage and undeserved attack! He stopped in the corridor, trembling with rage, his breath snorting in his nose like he’d run ten miles, his fists clenched painfully tight. And from a woman too! A woman! And a bloody commoner! How dare she? He had wasted time on her, and laughed at her jokes, and found her attractive! She should have been honoured to be noticed!

“That fucking bitch!” he snarled to himself. He had half a mind to go back and say it to her face, but it was too late. He stared around for something to hit. How to pay her back? How? Then it came to him.

Prove her wrong.

That would do it. Prove her wrong, and that crippled bastard Glokta too. He’d show them how hard he could work. He’d show them he was no fool, no liar, no spoiled child. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He’d win this damn Contest, is what he’d do! That’d wipe the smiles off their faces! He set off briskly down the corridor, with a strange new feeling building in his chest.

A sense of purpose. That was what it was. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for a run.

<p>How Dogs are Trained</p>

Practical Frost stood by the wall, utterly motionless, utterly silent, barely visible in the deep shadows, a part of the building. The albino hadn’t moved an inch in an hour or more, hadn’t shifted his feet, hadn’t blinked, hadn’t breathed that Glokta had noticed, his eyes fixed on the street before them.

Glokta himself cursed, shifted uncomfortably, winced, scratched his face, sucked at his empty gums. What’s keeping them? A few minutes more and I might fall asleep, drop into that stinking canal and drown. How very apt that would be. He watched the oily, smelly water below him flap and ripple. Body found floating by the docks, bloated by seawater and far, far beyond recognition…

Frost touched his arm in the darkness, pointed down the street with a big white finger. Three men were moving slowly toward them, walking with the slightly bow-legged stance of men who spend a lot of time aboard ship, keeping their balance on a swaying deck. So that’s one half of our little party. Better late than never. The three sailors came halfway across the bridge over the canal then stopped and waited, no more than twenty strides away. Glokta could hear the tone of their conversation: brash, confident, common accents. He shuffled slightly further into the shadows clinging to the building.

Now footsteps came from the opposite direction, hurried footsteps. Two more men appeared, walking quickly down the street. One, a very tall, thin fellow in an expensive-looking fur coat was glancing suspiciously around him. That must be Gofred Hornlach, senior Mercer. Our man. His companion had a sword at his hip, and was struggling with a big wooden trunk over one shoulder. Servant, or bodyguard, or both. He is of no interest. Glokta felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling as they neared the bridge. Hornlach exchanged a few quick words with one of the sailors, a man with a big brown beard.

“Ready?” he whispered to Frost. The Practical nodded.

“Hold!” shouted Glokta at the top of his voice, “in the name of his Majesty!” Hornlach’s servant spun round, dropping the trunk onto the bridge with a bang, hand moving toward his sword. There was a soft twang from the shadows on the other side of the road. The servant looked surprised, gave a snort, then toppled onto his face. Practical Frost strode swiftly out of the shadows, feet padding on the road.

Hornlach stared down, wide-eyed, at the corpse of his bodyguard, then across at the hulking albino. He turned to the sailors. “Help me!” he cried. “Stop him!”

Their leader smiled back. “I don’t think so.” His two companions moved without hurry to block the bridge. The Mercer stumbled away, took a faltering step toward the shadows by the canal on the other side. Severard appeared from a doorway before him, flatbow rested across his shoulder. Replace the bow with a bunch of flowers and he’d look as if he was on his way to a wedding. You’d never think that he just killed a man.

Surrounded, Hornlach could only look around dumbly, eyes wide with fear and surprise, as the two Practicals approached, Glokta limping up behind them. “But I paid you!” Hornlach shouted desperately at the sailors.

“You paid me for a berth,” said their Captain. “Loyalty is extra.”

Practical Frost’s big white hand slapped down on the merchant’s shoulder, forced him onto his knees. Severard strolled over to the bodyguard, wedged the dirty toe of his boot under the body and rolled it over. The corpse stared up at the night sky, eyes glassy, the feathers of the flatbow bolt sticking out from his neck. The blood round his mouth looked black in the moonlight.

“Dead,” grunted Severard, most unnecessarily.

“A bolt through the neck will do that,” said Glokta. “Clean him up, would you?”

“Right you are.” Severard grabbed the bodyguard’s feet and hauled them over the parapet of the bridge, then he took him under the armpits and heaved the body straight over the side with a grunt. So smooth, so clean, so practised. You can tell he’s done it before. There was a splash as the corpse hit the slimy water below. Frost had Hornlach’s hands tied firmly behind him now, and the bag on. The prisoner squawked through the canvas as he was dragged to his feet. Glokta himself shuffled over to the three sailors, his legs numb after all that time spent standing still in the alley.

“And here we are,” he said, pulling a heavy purse from his inside coat pocket. He held it swinging just above the Captain’s waiting palm. “Tell me, what happened tonight?”

The old sailor smiled, weathered face crinkling up like boot leather. “My cargo was spoiling and we had to be away on the first tide, I told him that. We waited and waited, half the night down by that stinking canal, but would you believe it? The bastard never showed.”

“Very good. That’s the story I’d tell in Westport, if anyone should ask.”

The Captain looked hurt. “That’s how it happened, Inquisitor. What other story could there be?”

Glokta let the purse drop and the money jingled inside. “With the compliments of his Majesty.”

The Captain weighed the purse in his hand. “Always pleased to do his Majesty a favour!” And he and his two companions turned, all yellow smiles, and made off toward the quay.

“Right then,” said Glokta, “let’s get on with it.”


“Where are my clothes?” shouted Hornlach, wriggling in his chair.

“I do apologise for that. I know it’s quite uncomfortable, but clothes can hide things. Leave a man his clothes and you leave him pride, and dignity, and all kinds of things it’s better not to have in here. I never question a prisoner with their clothes on. Do you remember Salem Rews?”

“Who?”

“Salem Rews. One of your people. A Mercer. We caught him dodging the King’s taxes. He made a confession, named a few people. I wanted to talk to them, but they all died.”

The merchants eyes flickered left and right. Thinking about his options, trying to guess what we might know. “People die all the time.”

Glokta stared at the painted corpse of Juvens behind his prisoner, bleeding bright red paint all over the wall. People die all the time. “Of course, but not quite so violently. I have a notion that someone wanted them dead, that someone ordered them dead. I have a notion it was you.”

“You’ve got no proof! No proof! You won’t get away with this!”

“Proof means nothing, Hornlach, but I’ll indulge you. Rews survived. He’s just down the hall, as it goes, no friends left, blubbering away, naming every Mercer he can think of, or that we can think of, for that matter.” Narrowed eyes, but no reply. “We used him to catch Carpi.”

“Carpi?” asked the merchant, trying to look nonchalant.

“Surely you remember your assassin? Slightly flabby Styrian? Acne scars? Swears a lot? We have him too. He told us the whole story. How you hired him, how much you paid him, what you asked him to do. The whole story.” Glokta smiled. “He has an excellent memory, for a killer, very detailed.”

The fear was showing now, just a trace of it, but Hornlach rallied well. “This is an affront to my Guild!” he shouted, with as much authority as he could muster, naked and tied to a chair. “My master, Coster dan Kault, will never allow this, and he’s a close friend of Superior Kalyne!”

“Shit on Kalyne, he’s finished. Besides, Kault thinks you’re tucked up safe aboard that ship, bound for Westport and far beyond our reach. I don’t think you’ll be missed for several weeks.” The merchant’s face had gone slack. “A great deal could happen in that time… a very great deal.”

Hornlach’s tongue darted over his lips. He glanced furtively up at Frost and Severard, leaned slightly forward. So. Now comes the bargaining. “Inquisitor,” he said in a wheedling tone, “if I’ve learned one thing from life, it’s that every man wants something. Every man has his price, yes? And we have deep pockets. You have only to name it. Only name it! What do you want?”

“What do I want?” asked Glokta, leaning in to a more conspiratorial distance.

“Yes. What’s this all about? What do you want?” Hornlach was smiling now, a coy, clever little smile. How quaint, but you won’t buy your way out of this.

“I want my teeth back.”

The merchant’s smile began to fade.

“I want my leg back.”

Hornlach swallowed.

“I want my life back.”

The prisoner had turned very pale.

“No? Then perhaps I’ll settle for your head on a stick. You’ve nothing else I want, no matter how deep your pockets are.” Hornlach was trembling slightly now. No more bluster? No more deals? Then we can begin. Glokta picked up the paper in front of him, and read the first question. “What is your name?”

“Look, Inquisitor, I…” Frost smashed the table with his fist and Hornlach cowered in his chair.

“Answer his fucking question!” screamed Severard in his face.

“Gofred Hornlach,” squealed the merchant.

Glokta nodded. “Good. You are a senior member of the Guild of Mercers?”

“Yes, yes!”

“One of Magister Kault’s deputies, in fact?”

“You know I am!”

“Have you conspired with other Mercers to defraud his Majesty the King? Did you hire an assassin to wilfully murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects? Were you ordered so to do by Magister Coster dan Kault, the head of the Guild of Mercers?”

“No!” shouted Hornlach, voice squeaky with panic. That is not the answer we need. Glokta glanced up at Practical Frost. The big white fist sank into the merchants gut, and he gave a gentle sigh and slid sideways.

“My mother keeps dogs, you know,” said Glokta.

“Dogs,” hissed Severard in the gasping merchant’s ear, as he shoved him back into the chair.

“She loves them. Trains them to do all manner of tricks.” Glokta pursed his lips. “Do you know how dogs are trained?”

Hornlach was still winded, lolling in his chair with watering eyes, some way from being able to speak. Still at that stage of a fish pulled suddenly from the water. Mouth opening and closing, but no sound.

“Repetition,” said Glokta. “Repeat, repeat, repeat. You must have that dog perform his tricks one hundred times the same, and then you must do it all again. It’s all about repetition. And if you want that dog to bark on cue, you mustn’t be shy with the whip. You’re going to bark for me, Hornlach, in front of the Open Council.”

“You’re mad,” cried the Mercer, staring around at them, “you’re all mad!”

Glokta flashed his empty smile. “If you like. If it helps.” He glanced back at the paper in his hand. “What is your name?”

The prisoner swallowed. “Gofred Hornlach.”

“You are a senior member of the Guild of Mercers?”

“Yes.”

“One of Magister Kault’s deputies, in fact?”

“Yes!”

“Have you conspired with other Mercers to defraud his Majesty the King? Did you hire an assassin to wilfully murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects? Were you ordered so to do by Magister Coster dan Kault, the head of the Guild of Mercers?”

Hornlach cast desperately around him. Frost stared back, Severard stared back.

“Well?” demanded Glokta.

The merchant closed his eyes. “Yes,” he whimpered.

“What’s that?”

“Yes!”

Glokta smiled. “Excellent. Now tell me. What is your name?”

<p>Tea and Vengeance</p>

“It’s a beautiful country, isn’t it?” asked Bayaz, staring up at the rugged fells on either side of the road.

Their horses’ hooves thumped slowly along the track, the steady sound at odds with Logen’s unease. “Is it?”

“Well, it’s a hard country, of course, to those who don’t know its ways. A tough country, and unforgiving. But there’s something noble there too.” The First of the Magi swept his arm across the view, breathed in the cold air with relish. “It has honesty, integrity. The best steel doesn’t always shine the brightest.” He glanced over, swaying gently in his saddle. “You should know that.”

“I can’t say I see the beauty of it.”

“No? What do you see?”

Logen let his eyes wander over the steep, grassy slopes, spotted with patches of sedge and brown gorse, studded with outcrops of grey rock and stands of trees. “I see good ground for a battle. Provided you got here first.”

“Really? How so?”

Logen pointed at a knobbly hilltop. “Archers on the bluff there couldn’t be seen from the road, and you could hide most of your foot in these rocks. A few of the lightest armoured left on the slopes, just to draw the enemy on up the steepest ground there.”

He pointed to the thorny bushes that covered the lower slopes. “You’d let them come on a way, then when they were struggling through that gorse, you’d give them the arrows. Shafts falling on you from above like that, that’s no fun at all. They come quicker and further, and they bite deeper. That’d break them up. By the time they got to the rocks they’d be dog-tired and running short on discipline. That would be the time to charge. A bunch of Carls, leaping out of those stones, charging down from above, fresh and keen and screaming like devils, that could break ’em right there.”

Logen narrowed his eyes at the hillside. He’d been on both sides of a surprise like that, and in neither case was the memory a pleasant one. “But if they had a mind to hold, a few horsemen in those trees could finish it up. A few Named Men, a few hard fighters, bearing down on you from a place you never expected them, that’s a terrifying thing. That’d make them run. But tired as they’d be, they wouldn’t run too fast. That means prisoners, and prisoners might mean ransoms, or at least enemies cheaply killed. I see a slaughter, or a victory worth the singing, depending which side you’re on. That’s what I see.”

Bayaz smiled, head nodding with the slow movement of his horse. “Was it Stolicus who said the ground must be a general’s best friend, or it becomes his worst enemy?”

“I never heard of him, but he was right enough. This is good ground for an army, providing you got here first. Getting there first is the trick.”

“Indeed. We don’t have an army, however.”

“These trees could hide a few horsemen even better than a lot.” Logen glanced sidelong at the wizard. He was slouched happily in the saddle, enjoying a pleasant ride in the country. “I don’t think Bethod will have appreciated your advice, and I had scores enough with him already. He got wounded where he feels it most, in his pride. He’ll want vengeance. Want it badly.”

“Ah yes, vengeance, that most widespread of Northern pastimes. Its popularity never seems to wane.”

Logen stared grimly around at the trees, the rocks, the folds in the valley’s sides, the many hiding places. “There’ll be men out in these hills, looking for us. Small bands of skilled and battle-hardened men, well mounted and well armed, familiar with the land. Now Bethod has finished all his enemies there’s nowhere in the North out of his reach. They might be waiting there,” he pointed off towards some rocks by the road, “or in those trees, or those.” Malacus Quai, riding up ahead with the packhorse, glanced nervously around. “They could be anywhere.”

“Does that frighten you?” asked Bayaz.

“Everything frightens me, and it’s well that it does. Fear is a good friend to the hunted, it’s kept me alive this long. The dead are fearless, and I don’t care to join them. He’ll send men to the library too.”

“Oh yes, to burn my books and so on.”

“Does that frighten you?”

“Not much. The stones by the gate have the word of Juvens on them, and that is not to be denied, even now. No one with violence in mind can come near. I imagine Bethod’s men will wander around the lake in the rain until they run out of food, all the while thinking how very strange it is that they cannot find so large a thing as a library. No,” said the wizard happily, scratching at his beard. “I would concentrate on our own predicament. What happens, do you think, if we’re caught?”

“Bethod will kill us, and in the most unpleasant manner he can think of. Unless he has it in mind to be merciful, and let us off with a warning.”

“That doesn’t seem likely.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing. Our best chance is to make for the Whiteflow, try to get across the river into Angland, and trust to luck we aren’t seen.” Logen didn’t like trusting to luck, the very word left a sour taste. He peered up at the cloudy sky. “We could do with some bad weather. A healthy downpour could hide us nicely.” The skies had been pissing on him for weeks, but now that he needed rain they refused to produce a drop.

Malacus Quai was looking over his shoulder at them, his eyes big and round with worry. “Shouldn’t we try to move faster?”

“Perhaps,” said Logen, patting the neck of his horse, “but that would tire the horses, and we may need all the speed we can get later. We could hide in the day and travel by night, but then we risk getting lost. We’re better as we are. Move slowly and hope we aren’t seen.” He frowned at the hilltop. “Hope we haven’t been seen already.”

“Hmm,” said Bayaz, “then this might be the best time to tell you. That witch Caurib isn’t half the fool I pretended she was.”

Logen felt a sinking sensation. “No?”

“No, for all her paint and gold and chat about the utmost north, she knows what she is about. The long eye, they call it. An old trick, but effective. She has been watching us.”

“She knows where we are?”

“She knows when we left, more than likely, and in what direction we were heading.”

“That does nothing for our chances.”

“I should say not.”

“Shit.” Logen caught some movement in the trees to their left, and he snatched hold of the hilt of his sword. A couple of birds took to the skies. He waited, heart in his mouth. Nothing. He let his hand drop back. “We should have killed them while we had the chance. All three of them.”

“But we didn’t, and there it is.” Bayaz looked over at Logen. “If they do catch us, what’s your plan?”

“Run. And hope our horses are the faster.”


“And this one?” asked Bayaz.

The wind blew keenly through the hollow in spite of the trees, making the flames of the campfire flicker and dance. Malacus Quai hunched his shoulders and drew his blanket tight around them. He peered at the short stem that Bayaz was holding up to him, forehead crinkled with concentration.

“Erm…” This was the fifth plant, and the miserable apprentice had yet to get one of them right. “Is that… er… Ilyith?”

“Ilyith?” echoed the wizard, his face giving no clue as to whether it was the right answer. He was merciless as Bethod where his apprentice was concerned.

“Perhaps?”

“Hardly.” The apprentice closed his eyes and sighed for the fifth time that evening. Logen felt for him, he really did, but there was nothing to be done. “Ursilum, in the old tongue, the round-leafed kind.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Ursilum, it was at the end of my tongue the whole time.”

“If the name was at the end of your tongue, then the uses of the plant cannot be far behind, eh?”

The apprentice narrowed his eyes and looked hopefully up towards the night sky, as though the answer might be written in the stars. “Is it… for aches in the joints?”

“No, it is decidedly not. I am afraid your aching joints will still be troubling you.” Bayaz turned the stem slowly round in his fingers. “Ursilum has no uses, not that I know of. It’s just a plant.” And he tossed it away into the bushes.

“Just a plant,” echoed Quai, shaking his head. Logen sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.

“I’m sorry, Master Ninefingers, are we boring you?”

“What does it matter?” asked Logen, throwing his hands up in the air. “Who cares about the name of a plant with no use?”

Bayaz smiled. “A fair point. Tell us, Malacus, what does it matter?”

“If a man seeks to change the world, he should first understand it.” The apprentice trotted the words out as if by rote, evidently relieved to be asked a question he knew the answer to. “The smith must learn the ways of metals, the carpenter the ways of wood, or their work will be of but little worth. Base magic is wild and dangerous, for it comes from the Other Side, and to draw from the world below is fraught with peril. The Magus tempers magic with knowledge, and thus produces High Art, but like the smith or the carpenter, he should only seek to change that which he understands. With each thing he learns, his power is increased. So must the Magus strive to learn all, to understand the world entire. The tree is only as strong as its root, and knowledge is the root of power.”

“Don’t tell me, Juvens’ Principles of Art?”

“The very first lines,” said Bayaz.

“Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve been on this world for more than thirty years, and I’ve yet to understand a single thing that’s happened. To know the world completely? To understand everything? That’s quite a task.”

The Magus chuckled. “An impossible one, to be sure. To truly know and understand even a blade of grass is the study of a lifetime, and the world is ever changing. That is why we tend to specialise.”

“So what did you choose?”

“Fire,” said Bayaz, gazing happily into the flames, the light dancing on his bald head. “Fire, and force, and will. But even in my chosen fields, after countless long years of study, I remain a novice. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. Still, the struggle itself is worthwhile. Knowledge is the root of power, after all.”

“So with enough knowledge, you Magi can do anything?”

Bayaz frowned. “There are limits. And there are rules.”

“Like the First Law?” Master and apprentice glanced up at Logen as one. “It’s forbidden to speak with devils, am I right?” It was plain that Quai didn’t remember his fevered outburst, his mouth was open with surprise. Bayaz’ eyes only narrowed a little, with the faintest trace of suspicion.

“Why, yes you are,” said the First of the Magi. “It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct. The First Law must apply to all, without exception. As must the Second.”

“Which is?”

“It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men.”

Logen raised an eyebrow. “You wizards get up to some strange stuff.”

Bayaz smiled. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it.” He turned to his apprentice, holding up a lumpy brown root. “And now, Master Quai, would you be good enough to tell me the name of this?”

Logen couldn’t help grinning to himself. He knew this one.

“Come, come, Master Quai, we don’t have all night.”

Logen wasn’t able to stand the apprentice’s misery any longer. He leaned toward him, pretending to poke at the fire with a stick, coughed to conceal his words and whispered, “Crow’s Foot,” under his breath. Bayaz was a good distance away, and the wind was still rustling in the trees. There was no way the Magus could have heard him.

Quai played his part well. He continued to peer at the root, brow knitted in thought. “Is it Crow’s Foot?” he ventured.

Bayaz raised an eyebrow. “Why, yes it is. Well done, Malacus. And can you tell me its uses?”

Logen coughed again. “Wounds,” he whispered, looking carelessly off into the bushes, one hand shielding his mouth. He might not know too much about plants, but on the subject of wounds he had a wealth of experience.

“I believe it’s good for wounds,” said Quai slowly.

“Excellent, Master Quai. Crow’s Foot is correct. And it is good for wounds. I am glad to see we are making some progress after all.” He cleared his throat. “It does seem curious that you should use that name however. They only call this Crow’s Foot north of the mountains. I certainly never taught you that name. I wonder who it is you know, from that part of the world?” He glanced over at Logen. “Have you ever considered a career in the magical arts, Master Ninefingers?” He narrowed his eyes at Quai once more. “I may have space for an apprentice.”

Malacus hung his head. “Sorry, Master Bayaz.”

“You are indeed. Perhaps you could clean the pots for us. That task may be better suited to your talents.”

Quai reluctantly shrugged off his blanket, collected the dirty bowls and shuffled off through the brush towards the stream. Bayaz bent over the pot on the fire, adding some dried-up leaves to the bubbling water. The flickering light of the flames caught the underside of his face, the steam curled around his bald head. All in all, he looked quite the part.

“What is that?” asked Logen, reaching for his pipe. “Some spell? Some potion? Some great work of High Art?”

“Tea.”

“Eh?”

“Leaves of a certain plant, boiled up in water. It is considered quite a luxury in Gurkhul.” He poured some of the brew out into a cup. “Would you like to try it?”

Logen sniffed at it suspiciously. “Smells like feet.”

“Suit yourself.” Bayaz shook his head and sat back down beside the fire, wrapping both hands around the steaming cup. “But you’re missing out on one of nature’s greatest gifts to man.” He took a sip and smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Calming to the mind, invigorating to the body. There are few ills a good cup of tea won’t help with.”

Logen pressed a lump of chagga into the bowl of his pipe. “How about an axe in the head?”

“That’s one of them,” admitted Bayaz with a grin. “Tell me, Master Ninefingers, why all the blood between you and Bethod? Did you not fight for him many times? Why do you hate each other so?”

Logen paused as he was sucking smoke from the pipe, let his breath out. “There are reasons,” he said stiffly. The wounds of that time were still raw. He didn’t like anyone picking at them.

“Ah, reasons.” Bayaz looked down at his tea-cup. “And what of your reasons? Does this feud not cut both ways?”

“Perhaps.”

“But you are willing to wait?”

“I’ll have to be.”

“Hmm. You are very patient, for a Northman.”

Logen thought of Bethod, and his loathsome sons, and the many good men they’d killed for their ambitions. The men he’d killed for their ambitions. He thought of the Shanka, and his family, and the ruins of the village by the sea. He thought of all his dead friends. He sucked at his teeth and stared at the fire.

“I’ve settled a few scores in my time, but it only led to more. Vengeance can feel fine, but it’s a luxury. It doesn’t fill your belly, or keep the rain off. To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends. You have to be realistic. It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.”

Bayaz laughed, his eyes glittering in the firelight. “What?” asked Logen, handing the pipe across to him.

“No offence, but you are an endless source of surprises. Not at all what I was expecting. You are quite the riddle.”

“Me?”

“Oh yes! The Bloody-Nine,” he whispered, opening his eyes up wide. “That’s one bastard of a reputation you’re carrying, my friend. The stories they tell! One bastard of a name! Why, mothers scare their children with it!” Logen said nothing. There was no denying it. Bayaz sucked slowly on the pipe, then blew out a long plume of smoke. “I’ve been thinking about the day that Prince Calder paid us a visit.”

Logen snorted. “I try not to spare him too much thought.”

“Nor I, but it wasn’t his behaviour that interested me, it was yours.”

“It was? I don’t remember doing a thing.”

Bayaz pointed the stem of the pipe at Logen from across the fire. “Ah, but that is my point exactly. I have known many fighting men, soldiers and generals and champions and whatnot. A great fighter must act quickly, decisively, whether with his own arm or with an army, for he who strikes first often strikes last. So fighters come to rely on their baser instincts, to answer always with violence, to become proud and brutal.” Bayaz passed the pipe back to Logen. “But whatever the stories, you are not such a one.”

“I know plenty who’d disagree.”

“Perhaps, but the fact remains, Calder slighted you, and you did nothing. So you know when you should act, and act quickly, but you also know when not to. That shows restraint, and a calculating mind.”

“Perhaps I was just afraid.”

“Of him? Come now. You didn’t seem afraid of Scale and he’s a deal more worrying. And you walked forty miles with my apprentice over your back, and that shows courage, and compassion too. A rare combination, indeed. Violence and restraint, calculation and compassion—and you speak to the spirits too.”

Logen raised an eyebrow. “Not often, and only when there’s no one else around. Their talk is dull, and not half so flattering as yours.”

“Hah. That’s true. The spirits have little to say to men, I understand, though I have never spoken with them; I have not the gift. Few have these days.” He took another swallow from his cup, peering at Logen over the rim. “I can scarcely think of another one alive.”

Malacus stumbled from the trees, shivering, and set the wet bowls down. He grabbed his blanket, wrapped it tightly around him, then peered hopefully at the steaming pot on the fire. “Is that tea?”

Bayaz ignored him. “Tell me, Master Ninefingers, in all the time since you arrived at my library, you have never once asked me why I sent for you, or why now we are wandering through the North in peril of our lives. That strikes me as odd.”

“Not really. I don’t want to know.”

“Don’t want to?”

“All my life I’ve sought to know things. What’s on the other side of the mountains? What are my enemies thinking? What weapons will they use against me? What friends can I trust?” Logen shrugged. “Knowledge may be the root of power, but each new thing I’ve learned has left me worse off.” He sucked again on the pipe, but it was finished. He tapped the ashes out onto the ground. “Whatever it is you want from me I will try to do, but I don’t want to know until it’s time. I’m sick of making my own decisions. They’re never the right ones. Ignorance is the sweetest medicine, my father used to say. I don’t want to know.”

Bayaz stared at him. It was the first time Logen had seen the First of the Magi look at all surprised. Malacus Quai cleared his throat. “I’d like to know,” he said in a small voice, looking hopefully up at his master.

“Yes,” murmured Bayaz, “but you don’t get to ask.”


It was around midday that it all went wrong. Logen was just starting to think that they might make it to the Whiteflow, maybe even live out the week. It felt as if he lost his concentration for just a moment. Unfortunately, it was the one moment that mattered.

Still, it was well done, you had to give them that. They’d chosen their spot carefully, and tied rags around their horse’s hooves, to muffle the sound. Threetrees might have seen it coming, if he’d been with them, but he had an eye for the ground like no other. The Dogman might have smelled them, if he’d been there, but he had the nose for it. The fact was, neither of them were there. The dead are no help at all.

There were three horsemen, waiting for them as they rounded a blind corner, well armed and armoured, dirty faces but clean weapons, veterans each man. The one on the right was thickset and powerful-looking, with almost no neck. The one on the left was tall and gaunt with small, hard eyes. Both of them had round helmets, coats of weathered mail, and long spears lowered and ready. Their leader sat on his horse like a bag of turnips, slouched in the saddle with the ease of the expert horseman. He nodded to Logen. “Ninefingers! The Brynn! The Bloody-Nine! It’s right good to see you again.”

“Blacktoe,” muttered Logen, forcing a friendly smile onto his face. “It’d warm my heart to see you too, if things were different.”

“But they are as they are.” The old warrior’s eyes moved slowly over Bayaz, Quai, and Logen as he spoke, taking in their weapons, or the lack of them, working out his game. A stupider opponent could have evened up the odds, but Blacktoe was a Named Man, and no fool. His eyes came to rest on Logen’s hand as it crept slowly across his body towards the hilt of his sword, and he shook his head slowly. “None of your tricks, Bloody-Nine. You can see we’ve got you.” And he nodded over at the trees behind them.

Logen’s heart sank even lower. Two more riders had appeared and were trotting forwards to complete the trap, their muffled hooves barely making a sound on the soft ground by the road. Logen chewed his lip. Blacktoe was right, damn him. The four horsemen closed in, lowered spear-points swaying, faces cold, minds set to the task. Malacus Quai stared at them with frightened eyes, his horse shying back. Bayaz smiled pleasantly as though they were his oldest friends. Logen would have liked a touch of the wizard’s composure. His own heart was hammering, his mouth was sour.

Blacktoe nudged his horse forward, one hand gripping the shaft of his axe, the other resting on his knee, not even using the reins. He was a masterful horseman, famous for it. That’s what happens when a man loses all his toes to the frost. Riding is quicker than walking, that has to be admitted, but when it came to fighting Logen preferred to keep his feet firmly on the ground. “Better be coming with us now,” said the old warrior, “better all round.”

Logen could hardly agree, but the odds were stacked high against him. A sword may have a voice, as Bayaz had said, but a spear is a damn good thing for poking a man off a horse, and there were four of them closing in around him. He was caught—outnumbered, off-guard, and with the wrong tools for the task. Yet again. Best to play for time, and hope some chance might show itself. Logen cleared his throat, doing his best to take the fear out of his voice. “Never thought you’d make your peace with Bethod, Blacktoe, not you.”

The old warrior scratched at his long, matted beard. “I was one of the last, truth be told, but I knelt in the end, same as all the rest. Can’t say I liked it any, but there it is. Best let me have the blade, Ninefingers.”

“What about Old Man Yawl? You telling me he bows to Bethod? Or did you just find a master to suit you better?”

Blacktoe didn’t get upset by the jibe, not in the least. He just looked sad, and tired. “Yawl’s dead, as though you didn’t know. Most of ’em are. Bethod doesn’t suit me much at all as a master, and nor do his sons. No man likes licking Scales fat arse, or Calder’s skinny one, you should know that. Now give up the sword, the day’s wasting and we’ve ground to cover. We can talk just as well with you unarmed.”

“Yawl’s dead?”

“Aye,” said Blacktoe suspiciously. “He offered Bethod a duel. Didn’t you hear? The Feared done for him.”

“Feared?”

“Where’ve you been, under a mountain?”

“More or less. What’s this Feared?”

“I don’t know what he is.” Blacktoe leaned from his saddle and spat in the grass. “I heard he’s not a man at all. They say that bitch Caurib dug him out from under a hill. Who knows? Leastways, he’s Bethod’s new champion, and far nastier even than the last, no offence.”

“None at all,” said Logen. The man with no neck had moved in close. A little too close perhaps, the point of his spear was hovering only a foot or two away. Close enough for Logen to grab a hold of. Maybe. “Old Man Yawl was a strong hand.”

“Aye. That’s why we followed him. But it done him no good. This Feared broke him. Broke him bad, like he was no more’n a dog. Left him alive, if you could call it that, so we could learn from his mistake, but he didn’t live long. Most of us knelt right then, those with wives and sons to think on. No sense in putting it off. There’s a few of them still, up in the mountains, who won’t bow to Bethod. That moon-worshipping madman Crummock-i-Phail and his hillmen, and a few beside. But not many. And those there are, Bethod’s got plans for.” Blacktoe held out a big, calloused hand. “Better let me have the blade, Bloody-Nine. Left hand only, if you please, slow as slow and none of your tricks. Better all round.”

So that was it. Out of time. Logen wrapped the three fingers of his left hand round the hilt of his sword, the cold metal pressing into his palm. The big man’s spear point edged a little closer. The tall one had relaxed a little, confident they had him. His spear was pointing up into the air, unready. There was no telling what the two behind were doing. The desire to glance over his shoulder was almost irresistible, but Logen forced himself to look ahead.

“I always had respect for you, Ninefingers, even though we stood on different sides. I’ve no feud with you. But Bethod wants vengeance, he’s drunk on it, and I swore to serve.” Blacktoe looked him sadly in the eye. “I’m sorry it’s me. For what it’s worth.”

“Likewise,” muttered Logen, “I’m sorry it’s you.” He slid the sword slowly from the scabbard. “For what it’s worth,” and he snapped his arm out, smashing the sword’s pommel into Blacktoe’s mouth. The old warrior gave a squawk as the dull metal crunched into his teeth and tumbled backwards out of the saddle, his axe flying from his hand and clattering into the road. Logen grabbed hold of the shaft of the big man’s spear, just below the blade.

“Go!” he bellowed at Quai, but the apprentice only stared back, blinking. The man with no neck pulled hard at the spear, nearly jerking Logen out of the saddle, but he kept his grip. He reared up in the stirrups, raising the sword high above his head. Neckless took one hand from his spear, his eyes going wide, and held it up on an instinct. Logen swung the sword down with all his strength.

He was shocked by the sharpness of it. It took the big man’s arm off just below the elbow then struck into his shoulder, cleaving through the fur and the mail beneath and splitting him to his stomach, near in half. Blood showered across the road, spattering in the face of Logen’s horse. It was trained for riding but not for war and it reared and span around, kicking and plunging in a panic. It was the best Logen could do to stay on top of the damn thing. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bayaz smack Quai’s horse on the rump, and it sped off with the apprentice bouncing in the saddle, the packhorse galloping along behind.

Then everything was a mess of plunging and snorting beasts, clashing and scraping metal, curses and cries. Battle. A familiar place, but no less terrifying for that. Logen clung to the reins with his right hand as his horse bucked and thrashed, swinging the sword wildly round his head, more to scare his enemies than hurt them. Every moment he expected the jolt and searing pain as he was stuck through with a spear, then the ground to rush up and smack him in the face.

He saw Quai and Bayaz galloping away down the road, hotly pursued by the tall man, his spear couched under his arm. He saw Blacktoe rolling to his feet, spitting blood, scrambling for his axe. He saw the two men who’d come from behind fighting for control of their own twisting horses, spears waving in their hands. He saw the body of the one he’d just killed loll in half and topple slowly out of the saddle, blood pouring out over the muddy ground.

Logen squawked as he felt a spear-point dig into the back of his shoulder, and he was shoved forward, almost over his horse’s head. Then he realised he was facing down the road, and still alive. He dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and it sped away, sending mud flying from its hooves and into the faces of the men behind. He fumbled the sword across into his right hand, nearly dropping the reins and falling into the road. He shrugged his shoulder but the wound didn’t feel too bad—he could still move the arm alright.

“I’m still alive. Still alive.” The road flashed by beneath him, the wind stinging his eyes. He was making ground on the tall man—the rags on his horse’s hooves were slowing him down now, slipping on the muddy ground. Logen gripped the hilt of the sword as hard as he could, raised it behind him. The head of his enemy snapped round, but too late. There was a hollow bonk of metal on metal as sword smashed into helmet, leaving a deep dent and sending the tall man sprawling. His head bounced once against the road, foot still caught in one stirrup, then he came free and tumbled over and over on the grass, arms and legs flopping. His riderless horse galloped on, eyes rolling at Logen as he passed.

“Still alive.” Logen looked over his shoulder. Blacktoe was back in the saddle and galloping after him, axe raised above his head, tangled hair flying out behind. The two other spearmen were with him, urging their horses forwards, but there was still some distance between them. Logen laughed. Perhaps he’d make it after all. He waved his sword at Blacktoe as the road entered a wood in the valley’s bottom.

“I’m still alive!” he screamed at the top of his voice, and then his horse pulled up so suddenly that Logen was almost flung over its head. It was only by throwing one arm round its neck that he kept his seat at all. As soon as he fell back into the saddle he saw the problem, and it was a bad one.

Several tree trunks had been hauled across the road, their branches chopped off and the stumps filed down to vicious points, sticking out in all directions. Two more mailed Carls stood in front, spears at the ready. Even the best of horsemen couldn’t have jumped that barrier, and Logen wasn’t the best of horsemen. Bayaz and his apprentice had reached the same decision. Both sat still on their horses before the barricade, the old man looking puzzled, the young one simply scared.

Logen fingered the grip of his sword and cast desperately around, peering into the trees for some way out. He saw more men now. Archers. One, then two, then three of them, creeping slowly forward on both sides of the road, arrows nocked and strings drawn back.

Logen turned round in the saddle, but Blacktoe and his two companions were trotting up, there was no escape that way. They reined in a few strides away, well out of reach of Logen’s sword. His shoulders slumped. The chase was done. Blacktoe leaned over and spat some blood onto the ground. “Alright, Bloody-Nine, that’s as far as you go.”

“Funny thing,” muttered Logen, looking down at the long grey blade of the sword, dashed and spattered with red. “All that time I fought for Bethod against you, and now you fight for him against me. Seems we’re never on the same side, and he’s the only winner. Funny thing.”

“Aye,” mumbled Blacktoe through his bloody lips, “funny.” But no one was laughing. Blacktoe and his Carls had faces hard as death, Quai looked on the verge of tears. Only Bayaz, for reasons beyond understanding, still had his customary good humour. “Alright, Ninefingers, get off the horse. Bethod wants you alive, but he’ll take you dead, if he has to. Down! Now!”

Logen’s thoughts began to turn to how they might escape, once he’d given up. Blacktoe wasn’t like to make a mistake once he had them. Logen would likely be kicked half to death for the fight he’d given them already, if they didn’t take his kneecaps off. They’d be trussed up tight like chickens for the slaughter. He pictured himself flung down on the stones with half a mile of chain around him, Bethod smiling down from his throne, Calder and Scale laughing, probably poking at him with something sharp.

Logen looked around. He looked at the cold arrowheads and the cold spear-points, and the cold eyes of the men pointing them. There was no way out of this little spot.

“Alright, you win.” Logen threw his sword down, point first. He had it in mind that it would bite into the soil and stand there, swaying back and forth, but it toppled over and clattered against the dirt. It was that sort of day. He slowly swung one leg over the saddle and slid down into the road.

“That’s better. Now the rest of you.” Quai instantly slithered off his horse and stood there, glancing nervously up at Bayaz, but the Magus made no move. Blacktoe frowned and hefted his axe. “You too, old man.”

“I prefer to ride.” Logen winced. That was not the right answer. Any moment now Blacktoe would give the order. The bowstrings would sing and the First of the Magi would drop into the road, stuck full of arrows, probably still with that infuriating smile on his dead face.

But the order never came. There was no word of command, no strange incantation, no arcane gestures. The air around Bayaz’ shoulders seemed to shimmer, like the air above the land on a hot day, and Logen felt a strange tugging at his guts.

Then the trees exploded in a wall of searing, blinding, white hot flame. Trunks burst and branches snapped with deafening cracks, venting plumes of brilliant fire and scalding steam. One burning arrow shot high up into the air over Logen’s head, and then the archers were gone, boiled away into the furnace.

Logen choked and gasped, reeled back in shock and terror, arm up to ward his face from the blistering heat. The barricade was sending up great gouts of fire and blinding sparks, the two men who had been standing near were rolling and thrashing, wreathed in hungry flames, their screams lost in the deafening roar.

The horses plunged and reeled, snorting with mad fear. Blacktoe was flung to the ground for the second time, his flaming axe flying from his hands, and his horse stumbled and fell, crashing down on top of him. One of his companions was even less lucky—thrown straight into the sheets of fire by the road, his despairing cry quickly cut off. Only one stayed upright, and he was lucky enough to be wearing gloves. By some miracle he kept hold of the burning shaft of his spear.

How he had the presence of mind to charge with the world on fire around him, Logen would never know. Strange things can happen in a fight. He chose Quai as his target, bearing down on him with a snarl, the flaming spear aimed at his chest. The witless apprentice stood there helpless, rooted to the spot. Logen barrelled into him, snatching up his sword, sending Quai rolling across the road with his hands over his head, then he chopped mindlessly at the horse’s legs as it flashed past him.

The blade was torn from his fingers and went skittering away, then a hoof slammed into Logen’s injured shoulder and clubbed him into the dirt. The breath was knocked from him and the burning world span crazily around. His blow had its effect though. A few strides further down the road the horses hacked front legs gave way and it stumbled, carried helplessly forward, tumbled and pitched into the flames, horse and rider vanishing together.

Logen cast about on the ground for the sword. Sizzling leaves whipped across the road, stinging his face and his hands. The heat was a great weight pressing down on him, pulling the sweat out of his skin. He found the bloody grip of the sword, seized hold of it with his torn fingers. He lurched up, staggered round, shouting meaningless sounds of fury, but there was no one left to fight. The flames were gone, as suddenly as they’d arrived, leaving Logen coughing and blinking in the curling smoke.

The silence seemed complete after the roaring noise, the gentle breeze felt icy cold. A wide circle of the trees around them had been reduced to charred and shattered stumps, as though they had burned for hours. The barricade was a sagging heap of grey ash and black splinters. Two corpses lay sprawled nearby, barely recognisable as men, burned down to the bones. The blackened blades of their spears lay in the road, the shafts vanished. Of the archers there was no sign at all. They were soot blown away on the wind. Quai lay motionless on his face with his hands over his head, and beyond him Blacktoe’s horse lay sprawled out on its side, one leg silently twitching, the others still.

“Well,” said Bayaz, the muffled noise making Logen jump. He’d somehow expected there would never be another sound again. “That’s that.” The First of the Magi swung a leg over his saddle and slid down into the road. His horse stood there, calm and obedient. It hadn’t moved the whole time. “There now, Master Quai, do you see what can be achieved with a proper understanding of plants?”

Bayaz sounded calm, but his hands were trembling. Trembling badly. He looked haggard, ill, old, like a man who’d dragged a cart ten miles. Logen stared at him, swaying silently back and forth, the sword dangling from his hand.

“So that’s Art, is it?” His voice sounded very small and far away.

Bayaz wiped the sweat from his face. “Of a sort. Hardly very subtle. Still,” and he poked at one of the charred bodies with his boot, “subtlety is wasted on the Northmen.” He grimaced, rubbed at his sunken eyes and peered up the road. “Where the hell did those horses get to?”

Logen heard a ragged groan from the direction of Blacktoe’s fallen mount. He stumbled towards it, tripped and fell to his knees, stumbled towards it again. His shoulder was a ball of pain, his left arm numb, his fingers ripped and bleeding, but Blacktoe was in worse shape. Much worse. He was propped up on his elbows, legs crushed under his horse right to the hips, hands burned to swollen tatters. He had a look of profound puzzlement on his bloody face as he tried, unsuccessfully, to drag himself from under the horse.

“You’ve fucking killed me,” he whispered, staring open-mouthed at the wreckage of his hands. “I’m all done. I’ll never make it back, and even if I could, what for?” He gave a despairing laugh. “Bethod ain’t half so merciful as he used to be. Better you kill me now, before it starts to hurt. Better all round.” And he slumped back and lay in the road.

Logen looked up at Bayaz, but there was no help there. “I’m not much at healing,” snapped the wizard, glancing round at the circle of blasted stumps. “I told you we tend to specialise.” He closed his eyes and bent over, hands resting on his knees, breathing hard.

Logen thought of the floor in Bethod’s hall, and the two princes, laughing and poking. “Alright,” he muttered, standing up and hefting the sword. “Alright.”

Blacktoe smiled. “You were right, Ninefingers. I never should have knelt to Bethod. Never. Shit on him and his Feared. It would have been better to die up in the mountains, fighting him to the last. There might have been something fine in that. I just had enough. You can see that, can’t you?”

“I can see that,” muttered Logen. “I’ve had enough myself.”

“Something fine,” said Blacktoe, staring far up into the grey skies, “I just had enough. So I reckon I earned this. Fair is fair.” He lifted his chin. “Well then. Get it done, lad.”

Logen raised the sword.

“I’m glad it’s you, Ninefingers,” hissed Blacktoe through gritted teeth, “for what it’s worth.”

“I’m not.” Logen swung the blade down.

The scorched stumps were still smouldering, smoke curling up into the air, but all was cold now. Logen’s mouth tasted salty, like blood. Perhaps he bit his tongue somewhere. Perhaps it was someone else’s. He threw the sword down and it bounced and clattered, shedding red specks across the dirt. Quai gaped around for a moment, then he folded up and coughed puke into the road. Logen stared down at Blacktoe’s headless corpse. “That was a good man. Better than me.”

“History is littered with dead good men.” Bayaz knelt stiffly and picked up the sword, wiped the blade on Blacktoe’s coat, then he squinted up the road, peering through the haze of smoke. “We should be moving. Others might be on their way.”

Logen looked at his bloody hands, slowly turning them over and over. They were his hands, no doubt. There was the missing finger. “Nothing’s changed,” he mumbled to himself.

Bayaz straightened up, brushing the dirt from his knees. “When has it ever?” He held out the sword out to Logen, hilt first. “I think you’ll still be needing this.”

Logen stared at the blade for a moment. It was clean, dull grey, just as it had always been. Unlike him, it showed not so much as a scratch from the hard use it had seen that day. He didn’t want it back. Not ever.

But he took it anyway.


The Survivors

<p>The Survivors</p>

The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird.

Logen opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry bright through leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much? His whole left side was throbbing. He tried to take a proper breath, choked, coughed up water, spat out mud. He groaned, flopped over onto his hands and knees, dragged himself up out of the river, gasping through clenched teeth, rolled onto his back in the moss and slime and rotten sticks at the water’s edge.

He lay there for a moment, staring up at the grey sky beyond the black branches, breath wheezing in his raw throat.

“I am still alive,” he croaked to himself. Still alive, in spite of the best efforts of nature, Shanka, men and beasts. Soaking wet and flat on his back, he started to chuckle. Reedy, gurgling laughter. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s a survivor.

A cold wind blew across the rotting river bank, and Logen’s laughter slowly died. Alive he might be, but staying alive, that was another question. He sat up, wincing at the pain. He tottered to his feet, leaning against the nearest tree trunk. He scraped the dirt out of his nose, his eyes, his ears. He pulled up his wet shirt to take a look at the damage.

His side was covered in bruises from the fall. Blue and purple stains all up his ribs. Tender to the touch, and no mistake, but it didn’t feel like anything was broken. His leg was a mess. Torn and bloody from the Shanka’s teeth. It hurt bad, but his foot still moved well enough, and that was the main thing. He’d need his foot, if he was going to get out of this.

He still had his knife in the sheath at his belt, and he was mightily glad to see it. You could never have too many knives in Logen’s experience, and this was a good one, but the outlook was still bleak. He was on his own, in woods crawling with Flatheads. He had no idea where he was, but he could follow the river. The rivers all flowed north, from the mountains to the cold sea. Follow the river southwards, against the current. Follow the river and climb up, into the High Places where the Shanka couldn’t find him. That was his only chance.

It would be cold up there, this time of year. Deadly cold. He looked down at his bare feet. It was just his luck that the Shanka had come while he had his boots off, trimming his blisters. No coat either—he’d been sitting near the fire. Like this, he wouldn’t last a day in the mountains. His hands and feet would turn black in the night, and he’d die bit by bit before he even reached the passes. If he didn’t starve first.

“Shit,” he muttered. He had to go back to the camp. He had to hope the Flatheads had moved on, hope they’d left something behind. Something he could use to survive. That was an awful lot of hoping, but he had no choice. He never had any choices.


It had started to rain by the time Logen found the place. Spitting drops that plastered his hair to his skull, kept his clothes wet through. He pressed himself against a mossy trunk and peered out towards the camp, heart pounding, fingers of his right hand curled painful tight around the slippery grip of his knife.

He saw the blackened circle where the fire had been, half-burned sticks and ash trampled round it. He saw the big log Threetrees and Dow had been sitting on when the Flatheads came. He saw odd bits of torn and broken gear scattered across the clearing. He counted three dead Shanka crumpled on the ground, one with an arrow poking out of its chest. Three dead ones, but no sign of any alive. That was lucky. Just lucky enough to survive, as always. Still, they might be back at any moment. He had to be quick.

Logen scuttled out from the trees, casting about on the ground. His boots were still there where he’d left them. He snatched them up and dragged them on to his freezing feet, hopping around, almost slipping in his haste. His coat was there too, wedged under the log, battered and scarred from ten years of weather and war, torn and stitched back together, missing half a sleeve. His pack was lying shapeless in the brush nearby, its contents strewn out down the slope. He crouched, breathless, throwing it all back inside. A length of rope, his old clay pipe, some strips of dried meat, needle and twine, a dented flask with some liquor still sloshing inside. All good. All useful.

There was a tattered blanket snagged on a branch, wet and half caked in grime. Logen pulled it up, and grinned. His old, battered cook pot was underneath. Lying on its side, kicked off the fire in the fight maybe. He grabbed hold of it with both hands. It felt safe, familiar, dented and blackened from years of hard use. He’d had that pot a long time. It had followed him all through the wars, across the North and back again. They had all cooked in it together, out on the trail, all eaten out of it. Forley, Grim, the Dogman, all of them.

Logen looked over the campsite again. Three dead Shanka, but none of his people. Maybe they were still out there. Maybe if he took a risk, tried to look—

“No.” He said it quietly, under his breath. He knew better than that. There had been a lot of Flatheads. An awful lot. He had no idea how long he’d lain on the river bank. Even if a couple of the boys had got away, the Shanka would be hunting them, hunting them down in the forests. They were nothing but corpses now, for sure, scattered across the high valleys. All Logen could do was make for the mountains, and try to save his own sorry life. You have to be realistic. Have to be, however much it hurts.

“It’s just you and me now,” said Logen as he stuffed the pot into his pack and threw it over his shoulder. He started to limp off, as fast as he could. Uphill, towards the river, towards the mountains.

Just the two of them. Him and the pot.

They were the only survivors.


Questions

<p>Questions</p>

Why do I do this? Inquisitor Glokta asked himself for the thousandth time as he limped down the corridor. The walls were rendered and whitewashed, though none too recently. There was a seedy feel to the place and a smell of damp. There were no windows, as the hallway was deep beneath the ground, and the lanterns cast slow flowing shadows into every corner.

Why would anyone want to do this? Glokta’s walking made a steady rhythm on the grimy tiles of the floor. First the confident click of his right heel, then the tap of his cane, then the endless sliding of his left foot, with the familiar stabbing pains in the ankle, knee, arse and back. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.

The dirty monotony of the corridor was broken from time to time by a heavy door, bound and studded with pitted iron. On one occasion, Glokta thought he heard a muffled cry of pain from behind one. I wonder what poor fool is being questioned in there? What crime they are guilty, or innocent of? What secrets are being picked at, what lies cut through, what treasons laid bare? He didn’t wonder long though. He was interrupted by the steps.

If Glokta had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps. When he was young and widely admired, before his misfortunes, he had never really noticed them. He had sprung down them two at a time and gone blithely on his way. No more. They’re everywhere. You really can’t change floors without them. And down is worse than up, that’s the thing people never realise. Going up, you usually don’t fall that far.

He knew this flight well. Sixteen steps, cut from smooth stone, a little worn toward the centre, slightly damp, like everything down here. There was no banister, nothing to cling to. Sixteen enemies. A challenge indeed. It had taken Glokta a long time to develop the least painful method of descending stairs. He went sideways like a crab. Cane first, then left foot, then right, with more than the usual agony as his left leg took his weight, joined by a persistent stabbing in the neck. Why should it hurt in my neck when I go down stairs? Does my neck take my weight? Does it? Yet the pain could not be denied.

Glokta paused four steps from the bottom. He had nearly beaten them. His hand was trembling on the handle of his cane, his left leg aching like fury. He tongued his gums where his front teeth used to be, took a deep breath and stepped forward. His ankle gave way with a horrifying wrench and he plunged into space, twisting, lurching, his mind a cauldron of horror and despair. He stumbled onto the next step like a drunkard, fingernails scratching at the smooth wall, giving a squeal of terror. You stupid, stupid bastard! His cane clattered to the floor, his clumsy feet wrestled with the stones and he found himself at the bottom, by some miracle still standing.

And here it is. That horrible, beautiful, stretched out moment between stubbing your toe and feeling the hurt. How long do I have before the pain comes? How bad will it be when it does? Gasping, slack-jawed at the foot of the steps, Glokta felt a tingling of anticipation. Here it comes…

The agony was unspeakable, a searing spasm up his left side from foot to jaw. He squeezed his watering eyes tight shut, clamped his right hand over his mouth so hard that the knuckles clicked. His remaining teeth grated against each other as he locked his jaws together, but a high-pitched, jagged moan still whistled from him. Am I screaming or laughing? How do I tell the difference? He breathed in heaving gasps, through his nose, snot bubbling out onto his hand, his twisted body shaking with the effort of staying upright.

The spasm passed. Glokta moved his limbs cautiously, one by one, testing the damage. His leg was on fire, his foot numb, his neck clicked with every movement, sending vicious little stings down his spine. Pretty good, considering. He bent down with an effort and snatched up his cane between two fingers, drew himself up once more, wiped the snot and tears on the back of his hand. Truly a thrill. Did I enjoy it? For most people stairs are a mundane affair. For me, an adventure! He limped off down the corridor, giggling quietly to himself. He was still smiling ever so faintly when he reached his own door and shuffled inside.

A grubby white box with two doors facing each other. The ceiling was too low for comfort, the room too brightly lit by blazing lamps. Damp was creeping out of one corner and the plaster had erupted with flaking blisters, speckled with black mould. Someone had tried to scrub a long bloodstain from one wall, but hadn’t tried nearly hard enough.

Practical Frost was standing on the other side of the room, big arms folded across his big chest. He nodded to Glokta, with all the emotion of a stone, and Glokta nodded back. Between them stood a scarred, stained wooden table, bolted to the floor and flanked by two chairs. A naked fat man sat in one of them, hands tied tightly behind him and with a brown canvas bag over his head. His quick, muffled breathing was the only sound. It was cold down here, but he was sweating. As well he should be.

Glokta limped over to the other chair, leaned his cane carefully against the edge of the table top and slowly, cautiously, painfully sat down. He stretched his neck to the left and right, then allowed his body to slump into a position approaching comfort. If Glokta had been given the opportunity to shake the hand of any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of chairs. He has made my life almost bearable.

Frost stepped silently out of the corner and took hold of the loose top of the bag between meaty, pale finger and heavy, white thumb. Glokta nodded and the Practical ripped it off, leaving Salem Rews blinking in the harsh light.

A mean, piggy, ugly little face. You mean, ugly pig, Rews. You disgusting swine. You’re ready to confess right now, I’ll bet, ready to talk and talk without interruption, until we’re all sick of it. There was a big dark bruise across his cheek and another on his jaw above his double chin. As his watering eyes adjusted to the brightness he recognised Glokta sitting opposite him, and his face suddenly filled with hope. A sadly, sadly misplaced hope.

“Glokta, you have to help me!” he squealed, leaning forward as far as his bonds would allow, words bubbling out in a desperate, mumbling mess. “I’m falsely accused, you know it, I’m innocent! You’ve come to help me, yes? You’re my friend! You have influence here. We’re friends, friends! You could say something for me! I’m an innocent man, falsely accused! I’m—”

Glokta held up his hand for silence. He stared at Rews’ familiar face for a moment, as though he had never laid eyes on him before. Then he turned to Frost. “Am I supposed to know this man?”

The albino said nothing. The bottom part of his face was hidden by his Practical’s mask, and the top half gave nothing away. He stared unblinking at the prisoner in the chair, pink eyes as dead as a corpse. He hadn’t blinked once since Glokta came into the room. How can he do that?

“It’s me, Rews!” hissed the fat man, the pitch of his voice rising steadily towards panic. “Salem Rews, you know me, Glokta! I was with you in the war, before… you know… we’re friends! We—”

Glokta held up his hand again and sat back, tapping one of his few remaining teeth with a fingernail as though deep in thought. “Rews. The name is familiar. A merchant, a member of the Guild of Mercers. A rich man by all accounts. I remember now…” Glokta leaned forward, pausing for effect. “He was a traitor! He was taken by the Inquisition, his property confiscated. You see, he had conspired to avoid the King’s taxes.” Rews’ mouth was hanging open. “The King’s taxes!” screamed Glokta, smashing his hand down on the table. The fat man stared, wide eyed, and licked at a tooth. Upper right side, second from the back.

“But where are our manners?” asked Glokta of no one in particular. “We may or may not have known each other once, but I don’t think you and my assistant have been properly introduced. Practical Frost, say hello to this fat man.”

It was an open-handed blow, but powerful enough to knock Rews clean out of his seat. The chair rattled but was otherwise unaffected. How is that done? To knock him to the ground but leave the chair standing? Rews sprawled gurgling across the floor, face flattened on the tiles.

“He reminds me of a beached whale,” said Glokta absently. The albino grabbed Rews under the arm and hauled him up, flung him back into the chair. Blood seeped from a cut on his cheek, but his piggy eyes were hard now. Blows make most men soften up, but some men harden. I never would have taken this one for a tough man, but life is full of surprises.

Rews spat blood onto the table top. “You’ve gone too far here, Glokta, oh yes! The Mercers are an honourable guild; we have influence! They won’t put up with this! I’m a known man! Even now my wife will be petitioning the King to hear my case!”

“Ah, your wife.” Glokta smiled sadly. “Your wife is a very beautiful woman. Beautiful, and young. I fear, perhaps, a little too young for you. I fear she took the opportunity to be rid of you. I fear she came forward with your books. All the books.” Rews’ face paled.

“We looked at those books,” Glokta indicated an imaginary pile of papers on his left, “we looked at the books in the treasury,” indicating another on his right. “Imagine our surprise when we could not make the numbers add up. And then there were the night-time visits by your employees to warehouses in the old quarter, the small unregistered boats, the payments to officials, the forged documentation. Must I go on?” asked Glokta, shaking his head in profound disapproval. The fat man swallowed and licked his lips.

Pen and ink were placed before the prisoner, and the paper of confession, filled out in detail in Frost’s beautiful, careful script, awaiting only the signature. I’ll get him right here and now.

“Confess, Rews,” Glokta whispered softly, “and put a painless end to this regrettable business. Confess and name your accomplices. We already know who they are. It will be easier on all of us. I don’t want to hurt you, believe me, it will give me no pleasure.” Nothing will. “Confess. Confess, and you will be spared. Exile in Angland is not so bad as they would have you believe. There is still pleasure to be had from life there, and the satisfaction of a day of honest work, in the service of your King. Confess!” Rews stared at the floor, licking at his tooth. Glokta sat back and sighed.

“Or not,” he said, “and I can come back with my instruments.” Frost moved forward, his massive shadow falling across the fat man’s face. “Body found floating by the docks,” Glokta breathed, “bloated by seawater and horribly mutilated… far… far beyond recognition.” He’s ready to talk. He’s fat and ripe and ready to burst. “Were the injuries inflicted before or after death?” he asked the ceiling breezily. “Was the mysterious deceased a man or a woman even?” Glokta shrugged. “Who can say?”

There was a sharp knock at the door. Rews’ face jerked up, filled with hope again. Not now, damn it! Frost went to the door, opened it a crack. Something was said. The door shut, Frost leaned down to whisper in Glokta’s ear.

“Ith Theverar,” came the half-tongued mumble, by which Glokta understood that Severard was at the door.

Already? Glokta smiled and nodded, as if it was good news. Rews’ face fell a little. How could a man whose business has been concealment find it impossible to hide his emotions in this room? But Glokta knew how. It’s hard to stay calm when you’re terrified, helpless, alone, at the mercy of men with no mercy at all. Who could know that better than me? He sighed, and using his most world-weary tone of voice asked, “Do you wish to confess?”

“No!” The defiance had returned to the prisoner’s piggy eyes now. He stared back, silent and watchful, and sucked. Surprising. Very surprising. But then we’re just getting started.

“Is that tooth bothering you, Rews?” There was nothing Glokta didn’t know about teeth. His own mouth had been worked on by the very best. Or the very worst, depending on how you look at it. “It seems that I must leave you now, but while I’m away, I’ll be thinking about that tooth. I’ll be considering very carefully what to do with it.” He took hold of his cane. “I want you to think about me, thinking about your tooth. And I also want you to think, very carefully, about signing your confession.”

Glokta got awkwardly to his feet, shaking out his aching leg. “I think you may respond well to a straightforward beating however, so I’m going to leave you in the company of Practical Frost for half an hour.” Rews’ mouth became a silent circle of surprise. The albino picked up the chair, fat man and all, and turned it slowly around. “He’s absolutely the best there is at this kind of thing.” Frost took out a pair of battered leather gloves and began to pull them carefully onto his big white hands, one finger at a time. “You always did like to have the very best of everything, eh, Rews?” Glokta made for the door.

“Wait! Glokta!” wailed Rews over his shoulder. “Wait I—”

Practical Frost clamped a gloved hand over the fat man’s mouth and held a finger to his mask. “Thhhhhhh,” he said. The door clicked shut.

Severard was leaning against the wall in the corridor, one foot propped on the plaster behind him, whistling tunelessly beneath his mask and running a hand through his long, lanky hair. As Glokta came through the door he straightened up and gave a little bow, and it was plain by his eyes that he was smiling. He’s always smiling.

“Superior Kalyne wants to see you,” he said in his broad, common accent, “and I’m of the opinion that I never saw him angrier.”

“Severard, you poor thing, you must be terrified. Do you have the box?”

“I do.”

“And you took something out for Frost?”

“I did.”

“And something for your wife too, I hope?”

“Oh yes,” said Severard, his eyes smiling more than ever, “My wife will be well taken care of. If I ever get one.”

“Good. I hasten to answer the call of the Superior. When I have been with him for five minutes, come in with the box.”

“Just barge into his office?”

“Barge in and stab him in the face for all I care.”

“I’d consider that done, Inquisitor.”

Glokta nodded, turned away, then turned back. “Don’t really stab him, eh, Severard?”

The Practical smiled with his eyes and sheathed his vicious-looking knife. Glokta rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, then limped off, his cane tapping on the tiles, his leg throbbing. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.


The Superior’s office was a large and richly appointed room high up in the House of Questions, a room in which everything was too big and too fancy. A huge, intricate window dominated one wood-panelled wall, offering a view over the well-tended gardens in the courtyard below. An equally huge and ornate desk stood in the centre of a richly coloured carpet from somewhere warm and exotic. The head of a fierce animal from somewhere cold and exotic was mounted above a magnificent stone fireplace with a tiny, mean fire close to burning out inside.

Superior Kalyne himself made his office look small and drab. A vast, florid man in his late fifties, he had over-compensated for his thinning hair with magnificent white side whiskers. He was considered a daunting presence even within the Inquisition, but Glokta was past scaring, and they both knew it.

There was a big, fancy chair behind the desk, but the Superior was pacing up and down while he screamed, his arms waving. Glokta was seated on something which, while doubtless expensive, had clearly been designed to make its occupant as uncomfortable as possible. It doesn’t bother me much, though. Uncomfortable is as good as I ever get.

He amused himself with the thought of Kalyne’s head mounted above the fireplace instead of that fierce animal’s, while the Superior ranted at him. He’s every bit like his fireplace, the big dolt. Looks impressive, but there’s not much going on underneath. I wonder how he’d respond to an interrogation? I’d start with those ridiculous side whiskers. But Glokta’s face was a mask of attention and respect.

“Well you’ve outdone yourself this time, Glokta, you mad cripple! When the Mercers find out about this they’ll have you flayed!”

“I’ve tried flaying, it tickles.” Damn it, keep your mouth shut and smile. Where’s that whistling fool Severard? I’ll have him flayed when I get out of here.

“Oh yes, that’s good, that’s very good, Glokta, look at me laugh! And evasion of the King’s taxes?” The Superior glowered down, whiskers bristling. “The King’s taxes?” he screamed, spraying Glokta with spit. “They’re all at it! The Mercers, the Spicers, all of them! Every damn fool with a boat!”

“But this was so open, Superior. It was an insult to us. I felt we had to—”

“You felt?” Kalyne was red-faced and vibrating with rage. “You were explicitly told to keep away from the Mercers, away from the Spicers, away from all the big guilds!” He strode up and down with ever greater speed. You’ll wear your carpet out at this rate. The big guilds will have to buy you a new one.

“You felt, did you? Well he’ll have to go back! We’ll have to release him and you’ll have to feel your way to a grovelling apology! It’s a damn disgrace! You’ve made me look ridiculous! Where is he now?”

“I left him in the company of Practical Frost.”

“With that mumbling animal?” The Superior tore at his hair in desperation. “Well that’s it then, isn’t it? He’ll be a ruin now! We can’t send him back in that condition! You’re finished here, Glokta! Finished! I’m going straight to the Arch Lector! Straight to the Arch Lector!”

The huge door was kicked open and Severard sauntered in carrying a wooden box. And not a moment too soon. The Superior stared, speechless, open-mouthed with wrath, as Severard dropped it on the desk with a thump and a jingle.

“What the hell is the meaning of…” Severard pulled open the lid, and Kalyne saw the money. All that lovely money. He stopped in mid-rant, mouth stuck forming the next sound. He looked surprised, then he looked puzzled, then he looked cautious. He pursed his lips and slowly sat down.

“Thank you, Practical Severard,” said Glokta. “You may go.” The Superior was stroking thoughtfully at his side whiskers as Severard strolled out, his face returning gradually to its usual shade of pink. “Confiscated from Rews. The property of the Crown now, of course. I thought that I should give it to you, as my direct superior, so that you could pass it on to the Treasury.” Or buy a bigger desk, you leech.

Glokta leaned forward, hands on his knees. “You could say, perhaps, that Rews went too far, that questions had been asked, that an example had to be made. We can’t be seen to do nothing, after all. It’ll make the big guilds nervous, keep them in line.” It’ll make them nervous and you can screw more out of them. “Or you could always tell them that I’m a mad cripple, and blame me for it.”

The Superior was starting to like it now, Glokta could tell. He was trying not to show it, but his whiskers were quivering at the sight of all that money. “Alright, Glokta. Alright. Very well.” He reached out and carefully shut the lid of the box. “But if you ever think of doing something like this again… talk to me first, would you? I don’t like surprises.”

Glokta struggled to his feet, limped towards the door. “Oh, and one more thing!” He turned stiffly back. Kalyne was staring at him severely from beneath his big, fancy brows. “When I go to see the Mercers, I’ll need to take Rews’ confession.”

Glokta smiled broadly, showing the yawning gap in his front teeth. “That shouldn’t be a problem, Superior.”


Kalyne had been right. There was no way that Rews could have gone back in this condition. His lips were split and bloody, his sides covered in darkening bruises, his head lolled sideways, face swollen almost past recognition. In short, he looks like a man ready to confess.

“I don’t imagine you enjoyed the last half hour, Rews, I don’t imagine you enjoyed it much at all. Perhaps it was the worst half hour of your life, I really couldn’t say. I’m thinking about what we have for you here, though, and the sad fact is… that’s about as good as it gets. That’s the high life.” Glokta leaned forward, his face just inches from the bloody pulp of Rews’ nose. “Practical Frost’s a little girl compared to me,” he whispered. “He’s a kitten. Once I get started with you, Rews, you’ll be looking back on this with nostalgia. You’ll be begging me to give you half an hour with the Practical. Do you understand?” Rews was silent, except for the air whistling through his broken nose.

“Show him the instruments,” whispered Glokta.

Frost stepped forward and opened the polished case with a theatrical flourish. It was a masterful piece of craftsmanship. As the lid was pulled back, the many trays inside lifted and fanned out, displaying Glokta’s tools in all their gruesome glory. There were blades of every size and shape, needles curved and straight, bottles of oil and acid, nails and screws, clamps and pliers, saws, hammers, chisels. Metal, wood and glass glittered in the bright lamplight, all polished to mirror brightness and honed to a murderous sharpness. A big purple swelling under Rews’ left eye had closed it completely, but the other darted over the instruments: terrified, fascinated. The functions of some were horribly obvious, the functions of others were horribly obscure. Which scare him more, I wonder?

“We were talking about your tooth, I think,” murmured Glokta. Rews’ eye flicked up to look at him. “Or would you like to confess?” I have him, here he comes. Confess, confess, confess, confess…

There was a sharp knock at the door. Damn it again! Frost opened it a crack and there was a brief whispering. Rews licked at his bloated lip. The door shut, the albino leaned to whisper in Glokta’s ear.

“Ith the Arth Ector.” Glokta froze. The money was not enough. While I was shuffling back from Kalyne’s office, the old bastard was reporting me to the Arch Lector. Am I finished then? He felt a guilty thrill at the thought. Well, I’ll see to this fat pig first.

“Tell Severard I’m on my way.” Glokta turned back to talk to his prisoner, but Frost put a big white hand on his shoulder.

“O. The Arth Ector,” Frost pointed to the door, “he’th ere. Ow.”

Here? Glokta could feel his eyelid twitching. Why? He pushed himself up using the edge of the table. Will they find me in the canal tomorrow? Dead and bloated, far… far beyond recognition? The only emotion that he felt at the idea was a flutter of mild relief. No more stairs.

The Arch Lector of His Majesty’s Inquisition was standing outside in the corridor. The grimy walls looked almost brown behind him, so brilliantly spotless were his long white coat, his white gloves, his shock of white hair. He was past sixty, but showed none of the infirmity of age. Every tall, clean-shaven, fine-boned inch of him was immaculately turned out. He looks like a man who has never once in his life been surprised by anything.

They had met once before, six years earlier when Glokta joined the Inquisition, and he hardly seemed to have changed. Arch Lector Sult. One of the most powerful men in the Union. One of the most powerful men in the world, come to that. Behind him, almost like outsized shadows, loomed two enormous, silent, black-masked Practicals.

The Arch Lector gave a thin smile when he saw Glokta shuffle out of his door. It said a lot, that smile. Mild scorn, mild pity, the very slightest touch of menace. Anything but amusement. “Inquisitor Glokta,” he said, holding out one white-gloved hand, palm down. A ring with a huge purple stone flashed on his finger.

“I serve and obey, your Eminence.” Glokta could not help grimacing as he bent slowly forward to touch his lips to the ring. A difficult and painful manoeuvre, it seemed to take forever. When he finally hoisted himself back upright, Sult was gazing at him calmly with his cool blue eyes. A look that implied he already understood Glokta completely, and was unimpressed.

“Come with me.” The Arch Lector turned and swept away down the corridor. Glokta limped along after him, the silent Practicals marching close behind. Sult moved with an effortless, languid confidence, coat tails flapping gracefully out behind him. Bastard. Soon they reached a door, much like his own. The Arch Lector unlocked it and went inside, the Practicals took up positions either side of the doorway, arms folded. A private interview then. One which I, perhaps, will never leave. Glokta stepped over the threshold.

A box of grubby white plaster too brightly lit and with a ceiling too low for comfort. It had a big crack instead of a damp patch, but was otherwise identical to his own room. It had the scarred table, the cheap chairs, it even had a poorly cleaned bloodstain. I wonder if they’re painted on, for the effect? One of the Practicals suddenly pulled the door shut with a loud bang. Glokta was intended to jump, but he couldn’t be bothered.

Arch Lector Sult lowered himself gracefully into one of the seats, drew a heavy sheaf of yellowing papers across the table towards him. He waved his hand at the other chair, the one that would be used by the prisoner. The implications were not lost on Glokta.

“I prefer to stand, your Eminence.”

Sult smiled at him. He had lovely, pointy teeth, all shiny white. “No, you don’t.”

He has me there. Glokta lowered himself ungracefully into the prisoner’s chair while the Arch Lector turned over the first page of his wedge of documents, frowned and shook his head gently as though horribly disappointed by what he saw. The details of my illustrious career, perhaps?

“I had a visit from Superior Kalyne not long ago. He was most upset.” Sult’s hard blue eyes came up from his papers. “Upset with you, Glokta. He was quite vocal on the subject. He told me that you are an uncontrollable menace, that you act without a thought for the consequences, that you are a mad cripple. He demanded that you be removed from his department.” The Arch Lector smiled, a cold, nasty smile, the kind Glokta used on his prisoners. But with more teeth. “I think he had it in mind that you be removed… altogether.” They stared at each other across the table.

Is this where I beg for mercy? Is this where I crawl on the ground and kiss your feet? Well, I don’t care enough to beg and I’m far too stiff to crawl. Your Practicals will have to kill me sitting down. Cut my throat. Bash my head in. Whatever. As long as they get on with it.

But Sult was in no rush. The white-gloved hands moved neatly, precisely, the pages hissed and crackled. “We have few men like you in the Inquisition, Glokta. A nobleman, from an excellent family. A champion swordsman, a dashing cavalry officer. A man once groomed for the very top.” Sult looked him up and down as though he could hardly believe it.

“That was before the war, Arch Lector.”

“Obviously. There was much dismay at your capture, and little hope that you would be returned alive. As the war dragged on and the months passed, hope diminished to nothing, but when the treaty was signed, you were among those prisoners returned to the Union.” He peered at Glokta through narrowed eyes. “Did you talk?”

Glokta couldn’t help himself, he spluttered with shrill laughter. It echoed strangely in the cold room. Not a sound you often heard down here. “Did I talk? I talked until my throat was raw. I told them everything I could think of. I screamed every secret I’d ever heard. I babbled like a fool. When I ran out of things to tell them I made things up. I pissed myself and cried like a girl. Everyone does.”

“But not everyone survives. Two years in the Emperor’s prisons. No one else lasted half that long. The physicians were sure you would never leave your bed again, but a year later you made your application to the Inquisition.” We both know it. We were both there. What do you want from me, and why not get on with it? I suppose some men just love the sound of their own voices.

“I was told that you were crippled, that you were broken, that you could never be mended, that you could never be trusted. But I was inclined to give you a chance. Some fool wins the Contest every year, and wars produce many promising soldiers, but your achievement in surviving those two years was unique. So you were sent to the North, and put in charge of one of our mines there. What did you make of Angland?”

A filthy sink of violence and corruption. A prison where we have made slaves of the innocent and guilty alike in the name of freedom. A stinking hole where we send those we hate and those we are ashamed of to die of hunger, and disease, and hard labour. “It was cold,” said Glokta.

“And so were you. You made few friends in Angland. Precious few among the Inquisition, and none among the exiles.” He plucked a tattered letter from among the papers and cast a critical eye over it. “Superior Goyle told me that you were a cold fish, had no blood in you at all. He thought you’d never amount to anything, that he could make no use of you.” Goyle. That bastard. That butcher. I’d rather have no blood than no brains.

“But after three years, production was up. It was doubled in fact. So you were brought back to Adua, to work under Superior Kalyne. I thought perhaps you would learn discipline with him, but it seems I was wrong. You insist on going your own way.” The Arch Lector frowned up at him. “To be frank, I think that Kalyne is afraid of you. I think they all are. They don’t like your arrogance, they don’t like your methods, they don’t like your… special insight into our work.”

“And what do you think, Arch Lector?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure I like your methods much either, and I doubt that your arrogance is entirely deserved. But I like your results. I like your results very much.” He slapped the bundle of papers closed and rested one hand on top of it, leaning across the table towards Glokta. As I might lean towards my prisoners when I ask them to confess. “I have a task for you. A task that should make better use of your talents than chasing around after petty smugglers. A task that may allow you to redeem yourself in the eyes of the Inquisition.” The Arch Lector paused for a long moment. “I want you to arrest Sepp dan Teufel.”

Glokta frowned. Teufel? “The Master of the Mints, your Eminence?”

“The very same.”

The Master of the Royal Mints. An important man from an important family. A very big fish, to be hooked in my little tank. A fish with powerful friends. It could be dangerous, arresting a man like that. It could be fatal. “May I ask why?”

“You may not. Let me worry about the whys. You concentrate on obtaining a confession.”

“A confession to what, Arch Lector?”

“Why, to corruption and high treason! It seems our friend the Master of the Mints has been most indiscreet in some of his personal dealings. It seems he has been taking bribes, conspiring with the Guild of Mercers to defraud the King. As such, it would be very useful if a ranking Mercer were to name him, in some unfortunate connection.”

It can hardly be a coincidence that I have a ranking Mercer in my interrogation room, even as we speak. Glokta shrugged. “Once people start talking, it’s shocking the names that tumble out.”

“Good.” The Arch Lector waved his hand. “You may go, Inquisitor. I will come for Teufel’s confession this time tomorrow. You had better have it.”

Glokta breathed slowly as he laboured back along the corridor.

Breath in, breath out. Calm. He had not expected to leave that room alive. And now I find myself moving in powerful circles. A personal task for the Arch Lector, squeezing a confession to high treason from one of the Unions most trusted officials. The most powerful of circles, but for how long? Why me? Because of my results? Or because I won’t be missed?


“I apologise for all the interruptions today, really I do, it’s like a brothel in here with all the coming and going.” Rews twisted his cracked and swollen lips into a sad smile. Smiling at a time like this, he’s a marvel. But all things must end. “Let us be honest, Rews. No one is coming to help you. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. You will confess. The only choices you have are when, and the state you’ll be in when you do. There’s really nothing to be gained by putting it off. Except pain. We’ve got lots of that for you.”

It was hard to read the expression on Rews’ bloody face, but his shoulders sagged. He dipped the pen in the ink with a trembling hand, wrote his name, slightly slanted, across the bottom of the paper of confession. I win again. Does my leg hurt any less? Do I have my teeth back? Has it helped me to destroy this man, who I once called a friend? Then why do I do this? The scratching of the nib on the paper was the only reply.

“Excellent,” said Glokta. Practical Frost turned the document over. “And this is the list of your accomplices?” He let his eye scan lazily over the names. A handful of junior Mercers, three ship’s captains, an officer of the city watch, a pair of minor customs officials. A tedious recipe indeed. Let us see if we can add some spice. Glokta turned it around and pushed it back across the table. “Add Sepp dan Teufel’s name to the list, Rews.”

The fat man looked confused. “The Master of the Mints?” he mumbled, through his thick lips.

“That’s the one.”

“But I never met the man.”

“So?” snapped Glokta. “Do as I tell you.” Rews paused, mouth a little open. “Write, you fat pig.” Practical Frost cracked his knuckles.

Rews licked his lips. “Sepp… dan… Teufel,” he mumbled to himself as he wrote.

“Excellent.” Glokta carefully shut the lid on his horrible, beautiful instruments. “I’m glad for both our sakes that we won’t be needing these today.”

Frost snapped the manacles shut on the prisoner’s wrists and dragged him to his feet, started to march him toward the door at the back of the room. “What now?” shouted Rews over his shoulder.

“Angland, Rews, Angland. Don’t forget to pack something warm.” The door cracked shut behind him. Glokta looked at the list of names in his hands. Sepp dan Teufel’s sat at the bottom. One name. On the face of it, just like the others. Teufel. Just one more name. But such a perilous one.

Severard was waiting outside in the corridor, smiling as always. “Shall I put the fat man in the canal?”

“No, Severard. Put him in the next boat to Angland.”

“You’re in a merciful mood today, Inquisitor.”

Glokta snorted. “Mercy would be the canal. That swine won’t last six weeks in the North. Forget him. We have to arrest Sepp dan Teufel tonight.”

Severard’s eyebrows rose. “Not the Master of the Mints?”

“None other. On the express orders of his Eminence the Arch Lector. It seems he’s been taking money from the Mercers.”

“Oh, for shame.”

“We’ll leave as soon as it gets dark. Tell Frost to be ready.”

The thin Practical nodded, his long hair swaying. Glokta turned and hobbled up the corridor, cane tapping on the grimy tiles, left leg burning.

Why do I do this? He asked himself again.

Why do I do this?


No Choice at All

<p>No Choice at All</p>

Logen woke with a painful jolt. He was lying awkwardly, head twisted against something hard, knees drawn up towards his chest. He opened his eyes a bleary crack. It was dark, but there was a faint glow coming from somewhere. Light through snow.

Panic stabbed at him. He knew where he was now. He’d piled some snow in the entrance to the tiny cave, to try and keep in the warmth, such as it was. It must have snowed while he was sleeping, and sealed him in. If the fall had been a heavy one there could be a lot of snow out there. Drifts deeper than a man was tall. He might never get out. He could have climbed all the way up out of the high valleys just to die in a hole in the rock, too cramped for him to even stretch out his legs.

Logen twisted round in the narrow space as best he could, dug away at the snow with his numb hands, floundering at it, grappling with it, hacking through it, mouthing breathless curses to himself. Light spilled in suddenly, searing bright. He shoved the last of the snow out of the way and dragged himself through into the open air.

The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was blazing overhead. He turned his face towards it, closed his stinging eyes and let the light wash over him. The air was painful cold in his throat. Cutting cold. His mouth was dry as dust, his tongue a piece of wood, badly carved. He scooped up snow and shoved it into his mouth. It melted, he swallowed. Cold, it made his head hurt.

There was a graveyard stink coming from somewhere. Not just his own damp and sour sweat smell, though that was bad enough. It was the blanket, starting to rot. He had two pieces of it wrapped round his hands like mittens, tied round his wrists with twine, another round his head, like a dirty, foul-smelling hood. His boots were stuffed tight with it. The rest was wrapped round and round his body, under his coat. It smelled bad, but it had saved his life last night, and that was a good trade to Logen’s mind. It would stink a good deal more before he could afford to get rid of it.

He floundered to his feet and stared about. A narrow valley, steep sided and choked with snow. Three great peaks surrounded it, piles of dark grey stone and white snow against the blue sky. He knew them. Old friends, in fact. The only ones he had left. He was up in the High Places. The roof of the world. He was safe.

“Safe,” he croaked to himself, but without much joy. Safe from food, certainly. Safe from warmth, without a doubt. Neither of those things would be troubling him up here. He’d escaped the Shanka, maybe, but this was a place for the dead, and if he stayed he’d be joining them.

He was brutal hungry as it was. His belly was a great, painful hole that called to him with piercing cries. He fumbled in his pack for the last strip of meat. An old, brown, greasy thing like a dry twig. That would hardly fill the gap, but it was all he had. He tore at it with his teeth, tough as old boot leather, and choked it down with some snow.

Logen shielded his eyes with his arm and looked northward down the valley, the way he’d come the day before. The ground dropped slowly away, snow and rock giving way to the pine-covered fells of the high valleys, trees giving way to a crinkled strip of grazing land, grassy hills giving way to the sea, a sparkling line on the far horizon. Home. The thought of it made Logen feel sick.

Home. That was where his family was. His father—wise and strong, a good man, a good leader to his people. His wife, his children. They were a good family. They deserved a better son, a better husband, a better father. His friends were there too. Old and new together. It would be good to see them all again, very good. To speak to his father in the long hall. To play with his children, to sit with his wife by the river. To talk of tactics with Threetrees. To hunt with the Dogman in the high valleys, crashing through the forest with a spear, laughing like a fool.

Logen felt a sudden painful longing. He nearly choked on the pain of it. Trouble was, they were all dead. The hall was a ring of black splinters, the river a sewer. He’d never forget coming over the hill, seeing the burnt-out ruin in the valley below. Crawling through the ashes, fumbling for signs that someone got away, while the Dogman pulled at his shoulder and told him to give it up. Nothing but corpses, rotted past knowing. He was done looking for signs. They were all dead as the Shanka could make them, and that was dead for sure. He spat in the snow, brown spit from the dry meat. Dead and cold and rotted, or burned to ashes. Gone back to the mud.

Logen set his jaw and clenched his fists under the rotten shreds of blanket. He could go back to the ruins of the village by the sea, just one last time. He could charge down with a fighting roar in his throat, the way he had done at Carleon, when he’d lost a finger and won a reputation. He could put a few Shanka out of the world. Split them like he’d split Shama Heartless, shoulder to guts so his insides fell out. He could get vengeance for his father, his wife, his children, his friends. That would be a fitting end for the one they called the Bloody-Nine. To die killing. That might be a song worth the singing.

But at Carleon he’d been young and strong, and with his friends behind him. Now he was weak, and hungry, and alone as could be. He’d killed Shama Heartless with a long sword, sharp as anything. He looked down at his knife. It might be a good one, but he’d get precious little vengeance with it. And who’d sing the song anyway? The Shanka had poor singing voices and worse imaginations, if they even recognised the stinking beggar in the blanket after they’d shot him full of arrows. Perhaps the vengeance could wait, at least until he had a bigger blade to work with. You have to be realistic, after all.

South then, and become a wanderer. There was always work for a man with his skills. Hard work perhaps, and dark, but work all the same. There was an appeal in it, he had to admit. To have no one depending on him but himself, for his decisions to hold no importance, for no one’s life or death to be in his hands. He had enemies in the south, that was a fact. But the Bloody-Nine had dealt with enemies before.

He spat again. Now that he had some spit he thought he might make the most of it. It was about all he did have—spit, an old pot, and some stinking bits of blanket. Dead in the north or alive in the south. That was what it came down to, and that was no choice at all.

You carry on. That’s what he’d always done. That’s the task that comes with surviving, whether you deserve to live or not. You remember the dead as best you can. You say some words for them. Then you carry on, and you hope for better.

Logen took in a long, cold breath, and blew it out. “Fare you well, my friends,” he muttered. “Fare you well.” Then he threw his pack over his shoulder, turned, and began to flounder through the deep snow. Downwards, southwards, out of the mountains.


It was raining, still. A soft rain that coated everything in cold dew, collected on the branches, on the leaves, on the needles, and dripped off in great fat drops that soaked through Logen’s wet clothes and onto his wet skin.

He squatted, still and silent, in the damp brush, water running down his face, the bright blade of his knife glistening with wet. He felt the great motion of the forest and heard all its thousand sounds. The countless crawling of the insects, the blind scuttling of the moles, the timid rustling of the deer, the slow pulsing of the sap in the old tree trunks. Each thing alive in the forest was in search of its own kind of food, and he was the same. He let his mind settle on an animal close to him, moving cautiously through the woods to his right. Delicious. The forest grew silent but for the endless dripping of water from the branches. The world shrank down to Logen and his next meal.

When he reckoned it was close enough, he sprang forward and bore it down onto the wet ground. A young deer. It kicked and struggled but he was strong and quick, and he stabbed his knife into its neck and chopped the throat out. Hot blood surged from the wound, spilled out across Logen’s hands, onto the wet earth.

He picked up the carcass and slung it over his shoulders. That would be good in a stew, maybe with some mushrooms. Very good. Then, once he’d eaten, he would ask the spirits for guidance. Their guidance was pretty useless, but the company would be welcome.

When he reached his camp it was close to sunset. It was a dwelling fit for a hero of Logen’s stature—two big sticks holding a load of damp branches over a hollow in the dirt. Still, it was halfway dry in there, and the rain had stopped. He would have a fire tonight. It was a long time since he’d had a treat like that. A fire, and all his own.

Later, well fed and rested, Logen pressed a lump of chagga into his pipe. He’d found it growing a few days before at the base of a tree, big moist yellow discs of it. He’d broken off a good chunk for himself, but it hadn’t dried out enough to smoke until today. Now he took a burning twig from the fire and stuck it in the bowl, puffing away hard until the fungus caught and began to burn, giving off its familiar earthy-sweet smell.

Logen coughed, blew out brown smoke and stared into the shifting flames. His mind went back to other times and other campfires. The Dogman was there, grinning, the light gleaming on his pointy teeth. Tul Duru was sitting opposite, big as a mountain, laughing like thunder. Forley the Weakest too, with those nervous eyes darting around, always a little scared. Rudd Threetrees was there, and Harding Grim, saying nothing. He never did say anything. That was why they called him Grim.

They were all there. Only they weren’t. They were all dead, gone back to the mud. Logen tapped the pipe out into the fire and shoved it away. He had no taste for it now. His father had been right. You should never smoke alone.

He unscrewed the cap of the battered flask, took a mouthful, and blew it out in a spray of tiny drops. A gout of flame went up into the cold air. Logen wiped his lips, savouring the hot, bitter taste. Then he sat back against the knotted trunk of a pine, and waited.

It was a while before they came. Three of them. They came silently from the dancing shadows among the trees and made slowly for the fire, taking shape as they moved into the light.

“Ninefingers,” said the first.

“Ninefingers,” the second.

“Ninefingers,” the third, voices like the thousand sounds of the forest.

“You’re right welcome to my fire,” said Logen. The spirits squatted and stared at him without expression. “Only three tonight?”

The one on the right spoke first. “Every year fewer of us wake from the winter. We are all that remain. A few more winters will pass, and we will sleep also. There will be none of us left to answer your call.”

Logen nodded sadly. “Any news from the world?”

“We heard a man fell off a cliff but washed up alive, then crossed the High Places at the start of spring, wrapped in a rotten blanket, but we put no faith in such rumours.”

“Very wise.”

“Bethod has been making war,” said the spirit in the centre.

Logen frowned. “Bethod is always making war. That’s what he does.”

“Yes. He has won so many fights now, with your help, he has given himself a golden hat.”

“Shit on that bastard,” said Logen, spitting into the fire. “What else?”

“North of the mountains, the Shanka run around and burn things.”

“They love the fire,” said the spirit in the centre.

“They do,” said the one on the left, “even more than your kind, Ninefingers. They love and fear it.” The spirit leaned forwards. “We heard there is a man seeking for you in the moors to the south.”

“A powerful man,” said the one in the centre.

“A Magus of the Old Time,” the one on the left.

Logen frowned. He’d heard of these Magi. He met a sorcerer once, but he’d been easy to kill. No unnatural powers in particular, not that Logen had noticed. But a Magus was something else.

“We heard that the Magi are wise and strong,” said the spirit in the centre, “and that such a one could take a man far and show him many things. But they are crafty too, and have their own purposes.”

“What does he want?”

“Ask him.” Spirits cared little for the business of men, they were always weak on the details. Still, this was better than the usual talk about trees.

“What will you do, Ninefingers?”

Logen considered a moment. “I will go south and find this Magus, and ask him what he wants from me.”

The spirits nodded. They didn’t show whether they thought it was a good idea or bad. They didn’t care.

“Farewell then, Ninefingers,” said the spirit on the right, “perhaps for the last time.”

“I’ll try to struggle on without you.”

Logen’s wit was wasted on them. They rose and moved away from the fire, fading gradually into the darkness. Soon they were gone, but Logen had to admit they had been more use than he dared to hope. They had given him a purpose.

He would head south in the morning, head south and find this Magus. Who knew? He might be a good talker. Had to be better than being shot full of arrows for nothing, at least. Logen looked into the flames, nodding slowly to himself.

He remembered other times and other campfires, when he had not been alone.


Playing With Knives

<p>Playing With Knives</p>

It was a beautiful spring day in Adua, and the sun shone pleasantly through the branches of the aromatic cedar, casting a dappled shade on the players beneath. A pleasing breeze fluttered through the courtyard, so the cards were clutched tightly or weighted down with glasses or coins. Birds twittered from the trees, and the shears of a gardener clacked across from the far side of the lawn, making faint, agreeable echoes against the tall white buildings of the quadrangle. Whether or not the players found the large sum of money in the centre of the table pleasant depended, of course, on the cards they held.

Captain Jezal dan Luthar certainly liked it. He had discovered an uncanny talent for the game since he gained his commission in the King’s Own, a talent which he had used to win large sums of money from his comrades. He didn’t really need the money, of course, coming from such a wealthy family, but it had allowed him to maintain an illusion of thrift while spending like a sailor. Whenever Jezal went home, his father bored everyone on the subject of his good fiscal planning, and had rewarded him by buying his Captaincy just six months ago. His brothers had not been happy. Yes, the money was certainly useful, and there’s nothing half so amusing as humiliating one’s closest friends.

Jezal half sat, half lay back on his bench with one leg stretched out, and allowed his eyes to wander over the other players. Major West had rocked his chair so far onto its back legs that he looked in imminent danger of tipping over entirely. He was holding his glass up to the sun, admiring the way that the light filtered through the amber spirit inside. He had a faint, mysterious smile which seemed to say, “I am not a nobleman, and may be your social inferior, but I won a Contest and the King’s favour on the battlefield and that makes me the better man, so you children will damn well do as I say.” He was out of this hand though, and, in Jezal’s opinion, far too cautious with his money anyway.

Lieutenant Kaspa was sitting forward, frowning and scratching his sandy beard, staring intently at his cards as though they were sums he didn’t understand. He was a good-humoured young man but an oaf of a card player, and was always most appreciative when Jezal bought him drinks with his own money. Still, he could well afford to lose it: his father was one of the biggest landowners in the Union.

Jezal had often observed that the ever so slightly stupid will act more stupidly in clever company. Having lost the high ground already they scramble eagerly for the position of likeable idiot, stay out of arguments they will only lose, and can hence be everyone’s friend. Kaspa’s look of baffled concentration seemed to say, “I am not clever, but honest and likeable, which is much more important. Cleverness is overrated. Oh, and I’m very, very rich, so everyone likes me regardless.”

“I believe I’ll stay with you,” said Kaspa, and tossed a small stack of silver coins onto the table. They broke and flashed in the sun with a cheerful jingle. Jezal absently added up the total in his head. A new uniform perhaps? Kaspa always got a little quivery when he really held good cards, and he was not trembling now. To say that he was bluffing was to give him far too much credit; more likely he was simply bored with sitting out. Jezal had no doubt that he would fold up like a cheap tent on the next round of betting.

Lieutenant Jalenhorm scowled and tossed his cards onto the table. “I’ve had nothing but shit today!” he rumbled. He sat back in his chair and hunched his brawny shoulders with a frown that said, “I am big and manly, and have a quick temper, so I should be treated with respect by everyone.” Respect was precisely what Jezal never gave him at the card table. A bad temper might be useful in a fight, but it’s a liability where money is concerned, it was a shame his hand hadn’t been a little better, or Jezal could’ve allied him out of half his pay. Jalenhorm drained his glass and reached for the bottle.

That just left Brint, the youngest and poorest of the group. He licked his lips with an expression at once careful and slightly desperate, an expression which seemed to say, “I am not young or poor. I can afford to lose this money. I am every bit as important as the rest of you.” He had a lot of money today; perhaps his allowance had just come in. Perhaps that was all he had to live on for the next couple of months. Jezal planned to take that money away from him and waste it all on women and drink. He had to stop himself giggling at the thought. He could giggle when he’d won the hand. Brint sat back and considered carefully. He might be some time making his decision, so Jezal took his pipe from the table.

He lit it at the lamp provided especially for that purpose and blew ragged smoke rings up into the branches of the cedar. He wasn’t half as good at smoking as he was at cards, unfortunately, and most of the rings were no more than ugly puffs of yellow-brown vapour. If he was being completely honest, he didn’t really enjoy smoking. It made him feel a bit sick, but it was very fashionable and very expensive, and Jezal would be damned if he would miss out on something fashionable just because he didn’t like it. Besides, his father had bought him a beautiful ivory pipe the last time he was in the city, and it looked very well on him. His brothers had not been happy about that either, come to think of it.

“I’m in,” said Brint.

Jezal swung his leg off the bench. “Then I raise you a hundred marks or so.” He shoved his whole stack into the centre of the table. West sucked air through his teeth. A coin fell from the top of the pile, landed on its edge and rolled along the wood. It dropped to the flags beneath with the unmistakeable sound of falling money. The head of the gardener on the other side of the lawn snapped up instinctively, before he returned to his clipping of the grass.

Kaspa shoved his cards away as though they were burning his fingers and shook his head. “Damn it but I’m an oaf of a card player,” he lamented, and leaned back against the rough brown trunk of the tree.

Jezal stared straight at Lieutenant Brint, a slight smile on his face, giving nothing away. “He’s bluffing,” rumbled Jalenhorm, “don’t let him push you around, Brint.”

“Don’t do it, Lieutenant,” said West, but Jezal knew he would. He had to look as if he could afford to lose. Brint didn’t hesitate, he pushed all his own coins in with a careless flourish.

“That’s a hundred, give or take.” Brint was trying his hardest to sound masterful in front of the older officers, but his voice had a charming note of hysteria.

“Good enough,” said Jezal, “we’re all friends here. What do you have, Lieutenant?”

“I have earth.” Brint’s eyes had a slightly feverish look to them as he showed his cards to the group.

Jezal savoured the tense atmosphere. He frowned, shrugged, raised his eyebrows. He scratched his head thoughtfully. He watched Brint’s expression change as he changed his own. Hope, despair, hope, despair. At length Jezal spread his cards out on the table. “Oh look. I have suns, again.”

Brint’s face was a picture. West gave a sigh and shook his head. Jalenhorm frowned. “I was sure he was bluffing,” he said.

“How does he do it?” asked Kaspa, flicking a stray coin across the table.

Jezal shrugged. “It’s all about the players, and nothing about the cards.” He began to scoop up the heap of silver while Brint looked on, teeth gritted, face pale. The money jingled into the bag with a pleasant sound. Pleasant to Jezal, anyway. A coin dropped from the table and fell next to Brint’s boot. “You couldn’t fetch that for me could you Lieutenant?” asked Jezal, with a syrupy smile.

Brint stood up quickly, knocking into the table and making the coins and glasses jump and rattle. “I’ve things to do,” he said in a thick voice, then shouldered roughly past Jezal, barging him against the trunk of the tree, and strode off toward the edge of the courtyard. He disappeared into the officers’ quarters, head down.

“Did you see that?” Jezal was becoming ever more indignant with each passing moment. “Barging me like that, it’s damn impolite! And me his superior officer as well! I’ve a good mind to put him on report!” A chorus of disapproving sounds greeted this mention of reports. “Well, he’s a bad loser is all!”

Jalenhorm looked sternly out from beneath his brows. “You shouldn’t bite him so hard. He isn’t rich. He can’t afford to lose.”

“Well if he can’t afford to lose he shouldn’t play!” snapped Jezal, upset. “Who’s the one told him I was bluffing? You should keep your big mouth shut!”

“He’s new here,” said West, “he just wants to fit in. Weren’t you new once?”

“What are you, my father?” Jezal remembered being new with painful clarity, and the mention of it made him feel just a little ashamed.

Kaspa waved his hand. “I’ll lend him some money, don’t worry.”

“He won’t take it,” said Jalenhorm.

“Well, that’s his business.” Kaspa closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sun. “Hot. Winter is truly over. Must be getting past midday.”

“Shit!” shouted Jezal, starting up and gathering his things. The gardener paused in his trimming of the lawn and looked over at them. “Why didn’t you say something, West?”

“What am I, your father?” asked the Major. Kaspa sniggered.

“Late again,” said Jalenhorm, blowing out his cheeks. “The Lord Marshal will not be happy!”

Jezal snatched up his fencing steels and ran for the far side of the lawn. Major West ambled after him. “Come on!” shouted Jezal.

“I’m right behind you, Captain,” he said. “Right behind you.”


“Jab, jab, Jezal, jab, jab!” barked Lord Marshal Varuz, whacking him on the arm with his stick.

“Ow,” yelped Jezal, and hefted the metal bar again.

“I want to see that right arm moving, Captain, darting like a snake! I want to be blinded by the speed of those hands!”

Jezal made a couple more clumsy lunges with the unwieldy lump of iron. It was utter torture. His fingers, his wrist, his forearm, his shoulder, were burning with the effort. He was soaked to the skin with sweat; it flew from his face in big drops. Marshal Varuz flicked his feeble efforts away. “Now, cut! Cut with the left!”

Jezal swung the big smith’s hammer at the old man’s head with all the strength in his left arm. He could barely lift the damn thing on a good day. Marshal Varuz stepped effortlessly aside and whacked him in the face with the stick.

“Yow!” wailed Jezal, as he stumbled back. He fumbled the hammer and it dropped on his foot. “Aaargh!” The iron bar clanged to the floor as he bent down to grab his screaming toes. He felt a stinging pain as Varuz whacked him across the arse, the sharp smack echoing across the courtyard, and he sprawled onto his face.

“That’s pitiful!” shouted the old man. “You are embarrassing me in front of Major West!” The Major had rocked his chair back and was shaking with muffled laughter. Jezal stared at the Marshal’s immaculately polished boots, seeing no pressing need to get up.

“Up, Captain Luthar!” shouted Varuz. “My time at least is valuable!”

“Alright! Alright!” Jezal clambered wearily to his feet and stood there swaying in the hot sun, panting for air, running with sweat.

Varuz stepped close to him and sniffed at his breath. “Have you been drinking today already?” he demanded, his grey moustaches bristling. “And last night too, no doubt!” Jezal had no reply. “Well damn you, then! We have work to do, Captain Luthar, and I cannot do it alone! Four months until the Contest, four months to make a master swordsman of you!”

Varuz waited for a reply, but Jezal could not think of one. He was only really doing this to make his father happy, but somehow he didn’t think that was what the old soldier wanted to hear, and he could do without being hit again. “Bah!” Varuz barked in Jezal’s face, and turned away, stick clenched tight behind him in both hands.

“Marshal Var—” Jezal began, but before he could finish the old soldier span around and jabbed him right in the stomach.

“Gargh,” said Jezal as he sank to his knees. Varuz stood over him.

“You are going to go on a little run for me, Captain.”

“Aaaargh.”

“You are going to run from here to the Tower of Chains. You are going to run up the tower to the parapet. We will know when you have arrived, as the Major and I will be enjoying a relaxing game of squares on the roof,” he indicated the six-storey building behind him, “in plain view of the top of the tower. I will be able to see you with my eye-glass, so there will be no cheating this time!” and he whacked Jezal on the top of the head.

“Ow,” said Jezal, rubbing his scalp.

“Having shown yourself on the roof, you will run back. You will run as fast as you can, and I know this to be true, because if you have not returned by the time we have finished our game, you will go again.” Jezal winced. “Major West is an excellent hand at squares, so it should take me half an hour to beat him. I suggest you begin at once.”

Jezal lurched to his feet and jogged toward the archway at the far side of the courtyard, muttering curses.

“You’ll need to go faster than that, Captain!” Varuz called after him. Jezal’s legs were blocks of lead, but he urged them on.

“Knees up!” shouted Major West cheerily.

Jezal clattered down the passageway, past a smirking porter sitting by the door, and out onto the broad avenue beyond. He jogged past the ivy-covered walls of the University, cursing the names of Varuz and West under his heaving breath, then by the near windowless mass of the House of Questions, its heavy front gate sealed tight. He passed a few colourless clerks hurrying this way and that, but the Agriont was quiet at this time of the afternoon, and Jezal saw nobody of interest until he passed into the park.

Three fashionable young ladies were sitting in the shade of a spreading willow by the lake, accompanied by an elderly chaperone. Jezal upped his pace immediately, and replaced his tortured expression with a nonchalant smile.

“Ladies,” he said as he flashed past. He heard them giggling to one another behind him and silently congratulated himself, but slowed to half the speed as soon as he was out of sight.

“Varuz be damned,” he said to himself, nearly walking as he turned onto the Kingsway, but had to speed up again straight away. Crown Prince Ladisla was not twenty strides off, holding forth to his enormous, brightly coloured retinue.

“Captain Luthar!” shouted his Highness, sunlight flashing off his outrageous golden buttons, “run for all you’re worth! I have a thousand marks on you to win the Contest!”

Jezal had it on good authority that the Prince had backed Bremer dan Gorst to the tune of two thousand marks, but he still bowed as low as he possibly could while running. The prince’s entourage of dandies cheered and shouted half-hearted encouragements at his receding back. “Bloody idiots,” hissed Jezal under his breath, but he would have loved to be one of them.

He passed the huge stone effigies of six hundred years of High Kings on his right, the statues of their loyal retainers, slightly smaller, on his left. He nodded to the great Magus Bayaz just before he turned into the Square of Marshals, but the wizard frowned back as disapprovingly as ever, the awe-inspiring effect only slightly diminished by a streak of white pigeon shit on his stony cheek.

With the Open Council in session the square was almost empty, and Jezal was able to amble over to the gate of the Halls Martial. A thick set sergeant nodded to him as he passed through, and Jezal wondered whether he might be from his own company—the common soldiers all looked the same, after all. He ignored the man and ran on between the towering white buildings.

“Perfect,” muttered Jezal. Jalenhorm and Kaspa were sitting by the door to the Tower of Chains, smoking pipes and laughing. The bastards must have guessed that he’d be coming this way.

“For honour, and glory!” bellowed Kaspa, rattling his sword in its scabbard as Jezal ran by. “Don’t keep the Lord Marshal waiting!” he shouted from behind, and Jezal heard the big man roaring with amusement.

“Bloody idiots,” panted Jezal, shouldering open the heavy door, breath rasping as he started up the steep spiral staircase. It was one of the highest towers in the Agriont: there were two hundred and ninety-one steps in all. “Bloody steps,” he cursed to himself. By the time he reached the hundredth his legs were burning and his chest was heaving. By the time he reached the two-hundredth he was a wreck. He walked the rest of the way, every footfall torture, and eventually burst out through a turret onto the roof and leaned on the parapet, blinking in the sudden brightness.

To the south the city was spread out below him, an endless carpet of white houses stretching all around the glittering bay. In the other direction, the view over the Agriont was even more impressive. A great confusion of magnificent buildings piled one upon the other, broken up by green lawns and great trees, circled by its wide moat and its towering wall, studded with a hundred lofty towers. The Kingsway sliced straight through the centre toward the Lords’ Round, its bronze dome shining in the sunlight. The tall spires of the University stood behind, and beyond them loomed the grim immensity of the House of the Maker, rearing high over all like a dark mountain, casting its long shadow across the buildings below.

Jezal fancied that he saw the sun glint on Marshal Varuz’ eyeglass in the distance. He cursed once again and made for the stairs.


Jezal was immensely relieved when he finally made it to the roof and saw that there were still a few white pieces on the board.

Marshal Varuz frowned up at him. “You are very lucky. The Major has put up an exceptionally determined defence.” A smile broke West’s features. “You must somehow have earned his respect, even if you have yet to win mine.”

Jezal bent over with his hands on his knees, blowing hard and dripping sweat onto the floor. Varuz took the long case from the table, walked over to Jezal and flipped it open. “Show us your forms.”

Jezal took the short steel in his left hand and the long in his right. They felt light as feathers after the heavy iron. Marshal Varuz backed away a step. “Begin.”

He snapped into the first form, right arm extended, left close to the body. The blades swished and weaved through the air, glittering in the afternoon sun as Jezal moved from one familiar stance to the next with a practised smoothness. At length he was finished, and he let the steels drop to his sides.

Varuz nodded. “The Captain has fast hands, has he not?”

“Truly excellent,” said Major West, smiling broadly. “A damn sight better than ever I was.”

The Lord Marshal was less impressed. “Your knees are too far bent in the third form, and you must strive for more extension on the left arm in the fourth, but otherwise,” he paused, “passable.” Jezal breathed a sigh of relief. That was high praise indeed.

“Hah!” shouted the old man, striking him in the ribs with the end of the case. Jezal sank to the floor, hardly able to breathe. “Your reflexes need work, though, Captain. You should always be ready. Always. If you have steels in your hands, you damn well keep them up.”

“Yes, sir,” croaked Jezal.

“And your stamina is a disgrace, you are blowing like a carp. I have it on good authority that Bremer dan Gorst runs ten miles a day, and barely shows a sweat.” Marshal Varuz leaned down over him. “From now on you will do the same. Oh yes. A circuit of the wall of the Agriont every morning at six, followed by an hour of sparring with Major West, who has been kind enough to agree to act as your partner. I am confident that he will point up all the little weaknesses in your technique.”

Jezal winced and rubbed his aching ribs. “As for the carousing, I want an end to it. I am all for revelry in its proper place, but there will be time for celebration after the Contest, providing you have worked hard enough to win. Until then, clean living is what we need. Do you understand me, Captain Luthar?” He leaned down further, pronouncing every word with great care. “Clean. Living. Captain.”

“Yes, Marshal Varuz,” mumbled Jezal.


Six hours later he was drunker than shit. Laughing like a lunatic he plunged out into the street, head spinning. The cold air slapped him hard in the face, the mean little buildings weaved and swayed, the ill-lit road tipped like a sinking ship. Jezal wrestled manfully with the urge to vomit, took a swaggering step out into the street, turned to face the door. Smeary bright light and loud sounds of laughter and shouting washed out at him. A ragged shape flew from the tavern and struck him in the chest. Jezal grappled with it desperately, then fell. He hit the ground with a bone-jarring crash.

The world was dark for a moment, then he found himself squashed into the dirt with Kaspa on top of him. “Damn it!” he gurgled, tongue thick and clumsy in his mouth. He shoved the giggling Lieutenant away with his elbow, rolled over and lurched up, stumbling about as the street see-sawed around him. Kaspa lay on his back in the dirt, choking with laughter, reeking of cheap booze and sour smoke. Jezal made a lame attempt to brush the dirt from his uniform. There was a big wet patch on his chest that smelled of beer. “Damn it!” he mumbled again. “When had that happened?”

He became aware of some shouting on the other side of the road. Two men grappling in a doorway. Jezal squinted hard, strained against the gloom. A big man had hold of some well-dressed fellow, and seemed to be tying his hands behind his back. Now he was forcing some kind of bag over his head. Jezal blinked in disbelief. It was far from a reputable area, but this seemed somewhat strong.

The door of the tavern banged open and West and Jalenhorm came out, deep in drunken conversation, something about someone’s sister. Bright light cut across the street and illuminated the two struggling men starkly. The big one was dressed all in black, with a mask over the lower part of his face. He had white hair, white eyebrows, skin white as milk. Jezal stared at the white devil across the road, and he glared back with narrowed pink eyes.

“Help!” It was the fellow with the bag on his head, his voice shrill with fear. “Help, I am—” The white man dealt him a savage blow in the midriff and he folded up with a sigh.

“You there!” shouted West.

Jalenhorm was already rushing across the street.

“What?” said Kaspa, propped up on his elbows in the road.

Jezal’s mind was full of mud, but his feet seemed to be following Jalenhorm, so he stumbled along with them, feeling very sick. West came behind him. The white ghost started up and turned to stand between them and his prisoner. Another man moved briskly out of the shadows, tall and thin, dressed all in black and masked, but with long greasy hair. He held up a gloved hand.

“Gentlemen,” his whining commoner’s voice was muffled by his mask, “gentlemen please, we’re on the King’s business!”

“The King conducts his business in the day-time,” growled Jalenhorm.

The new arrival’s mask twitched slightly as he smiled. “That’s why he needs us for the night-time stuff, eh, friend?”

“Who is this man?” West was pointing at the fellow with the bag on his head.

The prisoner was struggling up again. “I am Sepp dan—oof!” The white monster silenced him with a heavy fist in the face, knocking him limp into the road.

Jalenhorm put a hand on the hilt of his sword, jaw clenching, and the white ghost loomed forward with a terrible speed. Close up he was even more massive, alien, and terrifying. Jalenhorm took an involuntary step back, stumbled on the rutted surface of the road and pitched onto his back with a crash. Jezal’s head was thumping.

“Back!” bellowed West. His sword whipped out of its scabbard with a faint ringing.

“Thaaaaah!” hissed the monster, fists clenched like two big white rocks.

“Aargh,” gurgled the man with the bag on his head.

Jezal’s heart was in his mouth. He looked at the thin man. The thin man’s eyes smiled back. How could anyone smile at a time like this? Jezal was surprised to see that he had a long, ugly knife in his hand. Where did that come from? He fumbled drunkenly for his sword.

“Major West!” came a voice from the shadows down the street, Jezal paused, uncertain, steel halfway out. Jalenhorm scrambled to his feet, the back of his uniform crusted with mud, pulled out his own sword. The pale monster stared at them unblinking, not retreating a finger’s breadth.

“Major West!” came the voice again, accompanied now by a clicking, scraping sound. West’s face had turned pale. A figure emerged from the shadows, limping badly, cane tapping on the dirt. His broad-brimmed hat obscured the upper part of his face, but his mouth was twisted into a strange smile. Jezal noticed with a sudden wave of nausea that his four front teeth were missing. He shuffled towards them, ignoring all the naked steel, and offered his free hand to West.

The Major slowly sheathed his sword, took the hand and shook it limply. “Colonel Glokta?” he asked in a husky voice.

“Your humble servant, though I’m no longer an army man. I’m with the King’s Inquisition now.” He reached up slowly and removed his hat. His face was deathly pale, deeply lined, close-cropped hair scattered with grey. His eyes stared out feverish bright from deep, dark rings, the left one noticeably narrower than the right, pink-rimmed and glistening wet. “And these are my assistants, Practicals Severard,” the lanky one gave a mockery of a bow, “and Frost.”

The white monster jerked the prisoner to his feet with one hand. “Hold on,” said Jalenhorm, stepping forward, but the Inquisitor put a gentle hand on his arm.

“This man is a prisoner of His Majesty’s Inquisition, Lieutenant Jalenhorm.” The big man paused, surprised to be called by name. “I realise your motives are of the best, but he is a criminal, a traitor. I have a warrant for him, signed by Arch Lector Sult himself. He is most unworthy of your assistance, believe me.”

Jalenhorm frowned and stared balefully at Practical Frost. The pale devil looked terrified. About as terrified as a stone. He hauled the prisoner over his shoulder without apparent effort and turned up the street. The one called Severard smiled with his eyes, sheathed his knife, bowed again and followed his companion, whistling tunelessly as he sauntered off.

The Inquisitor’s left eyelid began to flutter and tears rolled down his pale cheek. He wiped it carefully on the back of his hand. “Please forgive me. Honestly. It’s coming to something when a man can’t control his own eyes, eh? Damn weeping jelly. Sometimes I think I should just have it out, and make do with a patch.” Jezal’s stomach roiled. “How long has it been, West? Seven years? Eight?”

A muscle was working on the side of the Major’s head. “Nine.”

“Imagine that. Nine years. Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday. It was on the ridge, wasn’t it, where we parted?”

“On the ridge, yes.”

“Don’t worry, West, I don’t blame you in the least.” Glokta slapped the Major warmly on the arm. “Not for that, anyway. You tried to talk me out of it, I remember. I had time enough to think about it in Gurkhul, after all. Lots of time to think. You were always a good friend to me. And now young Collem West, a Major in the King’s Own, imagine that.” Jezal had not the slightest idea what they were talking about. He wanted only to be sick, then go to bed.

Inquisitor Glokta turned toward him with a smile, displaying once again the hideous gap in his teeth. “And this must be Captain Luthar, for whom everyone has such high hopes in the coming Contest. Marshal Varuz is a hard master, is he not?” He waved his cane weakly at Jezal. “Jab, jab, eh, Captain? Jab, jab.”

Jezal felt his bile rising. He coughed and looked down at his feet, willing the world to remain motionless. The Inquisitor looked around expectantly at each of them in turn. West looked pale. Jalenhorm mud-stained and sulky. Kaspa was still sitting in the road. None of them had anything to say.

Glokta cleared his throat. “Well, duty calls,” he bowed stiffly, “but I hope to see you all again. Very soon.” Jezal found himself hoping he never saw the man again.

“Perhaps we might fence again sometime?” muttered Major West.

Glokta gave a good natured laugh. “Oh, I would enjoy that, West, but I find that I’m ever so slightly crippled these days. If you’re after a fight, I’m sure that Practical Frost could oblige you,” he looked over at Jalenhorm, “but I must warn you, he doesn’t fight like a gentleman. I wish you all a pleasant evening.” He placed his hat back on his head then turned slowly and shuffled off down the dingy street.

The three officers watched him limp away in an interminable, awkward silence. Kaspa finally stumbled over. “What was all that about?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said West through gritted teeth. “Best we forget it ever happened.”


Teeth and Fingers

<p>Teeth and Fingers</p>

Time is short. We must work quickly. Glokta nodded to Severard, and he smiled and pulled the bag off Sepp dan Teufel’s head.

The Master of the Mints was a strong, noble-looking man. His face was already starting to bruise. “What is the meaning of this?” he roared, all bluster and bravado. “Do you know who I am?”

Glokta snorted. “Of course we know who you are. Do you think we are in the habit of snatching people from the streets at random?”

“I am the Master of the Royal Mints!” yelled the prisoner, struggling at his bonds. Practical Frost looked on impassively, arms folded. The irons were already glowing orange in the brazier. “How dare you…”

“We cannot have these constant interruptions!” shouted Glokta. Frost kicked Teufel savagely in the shin and he yelped with pain. “How can our prisoner sign his paper of confession if his hands are tied? Please release him.”

Teufel stared suspiciously around as the albino untied his wrists. Then he saw the cleaver. The polished blade shone mirror bright in the harsh lamp light. Truly a thing of beauty. You’d like to have that, wouldn’t you, Teufel? I bet you’d like to cut my head off with it. Glokta almost hoped that he would, his right hand seemed to be reaching for it, but he used it to shove the paper of confession away instead.

“Ah,” said Glokta, “the Master of the Mints is a right-handed gentleman.”

“A right-handed gentleman,” Severard hissed in the prisoner’s ear.

Teufel was staring across the table through narrowed eyes. “I know you! Glokta, isn’t it? The one who was captured in Gurkhul, the one they tortured. Sand dan Glokta, am I right? Well, you’re in over your head this time, I can tell you! Right in over your head! When High Justice Marovia hears about this…”

Glokta sprang to his feet, his chair screeching on the tiles. His left leg was agony, but he ignored it. “Look at this!” he hissed, then opened his mouth wide, giving the horrified prisoner a good look at his teeth. Or what’s left of them. “You see that? You see? Where they cracked out the teeth above, they left them below, and where they took them out below, they left them above, all the way to the back. See?” Glokta pulled his cheeks back with his fingers so Teufel could get a better view. “They did it with a tiny chisel. A little bit each day. It took months.” Glokta sat down stiffly, then smiled wide.

“What excellent work, eh? The irony of it! To leave you half your teeth, but not a one of ’em any use! I have soup most days.” The Master of the Mints swallowed hard. Glokta could see a drop of sweat running down his neck. “And the teeth were just the beginning. I have to piss sitting down like a woman, you know. I’m thirty-five years old, and I need help getting out of bed.” He leaned back again and stretched out his leg with a wince. “Every day is its own little hell for me. Every day. So tell me, can you seriously believe that anything you might say could scare me?”

Glokta studied his prisoner, taking his time. No longer half so sure of himself. “Confess,” he whispered. “Then we can ship you off to Angland and still get some sleep tonight.”

Teufel’s face had turned almost as pale as Practical Frost’s, but he said nothing. The Arch Lector will be here soon. Already on his way, most likely. If there is no confession when he arrives… we’ll all be off to Angland. At best. Glokta took hold of his cane and got to his feet. “I like to think of myself as an artist, but artistry takes time and we have wasted half the evening searching for you in every brothel in the city. Thankfully, Practical Frost has a keen nose and an excellent sense of direction. He can sniff out a rat in a shithouse.”

“A rat in a shithouse,” echoed Severard, eyes glittering bright in the orange glow from the brazier.

“We are on a tight schedule so let me be blunt. You will confess to me within ten minutes.”

Teufel snorted and folded his arms. “Never.”

“Hold him.” Frost seized the prisoner from behind and folded him in a vice-like grip, pinning his right arm to his side. Severard grabbed hold of his left wrist and spread his fingers out on the scarred table-top. Glokta curled his fist round the smooth grip of the cleaver, the blade scraping against the wood as he pulled it slowly towards him. He stared down at Teufel’s hand. What beautiful fingernails he has. How long and glossy. You cannot work down a mine with nails like that. Glokta raised the cleaver high.

“Wait!” screamed the prisoner.

Bang! The heavy blade bit deep into the table top, neatly paring off Teufel’s middle fingernail. He was breathing fast now, and there was a sheen of sweat on his forehead. Now we’ll see what kind of a man you really are.

“I think you can see where this is going,” said Glokta. “You know, they did it to a corporal who was captured with me, one cut a day. He was a tough man, very tough. They made it past his elbow before he died.” Glokta lifted the cleaver again. “Confess.”

“You couldn’t…”

Bang! The cleaver took off the very tip of Teufel’s middle finger. Blood bubbled out on to the table top. Severard’s eyes were smiling in the lamp light. Teufel’s jaw dropped. But the pain will be a while coming. “Confess!” bellowed Glokta.

Bang! The cleaver took off the top of Teufel’s ring finger, and a little disc out of his middle finger which rolled a short way and dropped off onto the floor. Frost’s face was carved from marble. “Confess!”

Bang! The tip of Teufel’s index finger jumped in the air. His middle finger was down to the first joint. Glokta paused, wiping the sweat from his forehead on the back of his hand. His leg was throbbing with the exertion. Blood was dripping onto the tiles with a steady tap, tap, tap. Teufel was staring wide-eyed at his shortened fingers.

Severard shook his head. “That’s excellent work, Inquisitor.” He flicked one of the discs of flesh across the table. “The precision… I’m in awe.”

“Aaaargh!” screamed the Master of the Mints. Now it dawns on him. Glokta raised the cleaver once again.

“I will confess!” shrieked Teufel, “I will confess!”

“Excellent,” said Glokta brightly.

“Excellent,” said Severard.

“Etherer,” said Practical Frost.


The Wide and Barren North

<p>The Wide and Barren North</p>

The Magi are an ancient and mysterious order, learned in the secrets of the world, practised in the ways of magic, wise and powerful beyond the dreams of men. That was the rumour. Such a one should have ways of finding a man, even a man alone in the wide and barren North. If that was so, then he was taking his time about it.

Logen scratched at his tangled beard and wondered what was keeping the great one. Perhaps he was lost. He asked himself again if he should have stayed in the forests, where food at least was plentiful. But to the south the spirits had said, and if you went south from the hills you came to these withered moors. So here he had waited in the briars and the mud, in bad weather, and mostly gone hungry.

His boots were worn out anyway, so he had set his miserable camp not far from the road, the better to see this wizard coming. Since the wars, the North was full of dangerous scum—deserting warriors turned bandit, peasants fled from their burned-out land, leaderless and desperate men with nothing left to lose, and so on. Logen wasn’t worried, though. No one had a reason to come to this arsehole of the world. No one but him and the Magus.

So he sat and waited, looked for food, didn’t find any, sat and waited some more. At this time of year the moors were often soaked by sudden downpours, but he would have smoky, thorny little fires by night if he could, to keep his flagging spirits up and attract any passing wizards. It had been raining this evening, but it had stopped a while before and it was dry enough for a fire. Now he had his pot over it, cooking a stew with the last of the meat he had brought with him from the forest. He would have to move on in the morning, and look for food. The Magus could catch up with him later, if he still cared.

He was stirring his meagre meal, and wondering whether to go back north or move on south tomorrow, when he heard the sound of hooves on the road. One horse, moving slowly. He sat back on his coat and waited. There was a neigh, the jingle of a harness. A rider came over the rise. With the watery sun low on the horizon behind, Logen couldn’t see him clearly, but he sat stiff and awkward in his saddle, like a man not used to the road. He urged his horse gently in the direction of the fire and reined in a few yards away.

“Good evening,” he said.

He was not in the least what Logen had been expecting. A gaunt, pale, sickly-looking young man with dark rings round his eyes, long hair plastered to his head by the drizzle and a nervous smile. He seemed more wet than wise, and certainly didn’t look powerful beyond the dreams of men. He looked mostly hungry, cold, and ill. He looked something like Logen felt, in fact.

“Shouldn’t you have a staff?”

The young man looked surprised. “I don’t… that is to say… er… I’m not a Magus.” He trailed off and licked his lips nervously.

“The spirits told me to expect a Magus, but they’re often wrong.”

“Oh… well, I’m an apprentice. But my Master, the great Bayaz,” and he bowed his head reverently, “is none other than the First of the Magi, great in High Art and learned in deep wisdom. He sent me to find you,” he looked suddenly doubtful, “and bring you… you are Logen Ninefingers?”

Logen held up his left hand and looked at the pale young man through the gap where his middle finger used to be. “Oh good.” The apprentice breathed a sigh of relief, then suddenly stopped himself. “Oh, that is to say… er… sorry about the finger.”

Logen laughed. It was the first time since he dragged himself out of the river. It wasn’t very funny but he laughed loud. It felt good. The young man smiled and slipped painfully from the saddle. “I am Malacus Quai.”

“Malacus what?”

“Quai,” he said, making for the fire.

“What kind of a name is that?”

“I am from the Old Empire.”

Logen had never heard of any such place. “An empire, eh?”

“Well, it was, once. The mightiest nation in the Circle of the World.” The young man squatted down stiffly by the fire. “But the glory of the past is long faded. It’s not much more than a huge battlefield now.” Logen nodded. He knew well enough what one of those looked like. “It’s far away. In the west of the world.” The apprentice waved his hand vaguely.

Logen laughed again. “That’s east.”

Quai smiled sadly. “I am a seer, though not, it seems, a very good one. Master Bayaz sent me to find you, but the stars have not been auspicious and I became lost in the bad weather.” He pushed his hair out of his eyes and spread his hands. “I had a packhorse, with food and supplies, and another horse for you, but I lost them in a storm. I fear I am no outdoorsman.”

“Seems not.”

Quai took a flask from his pocket and leaned across with it. Logen took it from him, opened it, took a swig. The hot liquor ran down his throat, warmed him to the roots of his hair. “Well, Malacus Quai, you lost your food but you kept hold of what really mattered. It takes an effort to make me smile these days. You’re right welcome at my fire.”

“Thank you.” The apprentice paused and held his palms out to the meagre flames. “I haven’t eaten for two days.” He shook his head, hair flapping back and forth. “It has been… a difficult time.” He licked his lips and looked at the pot.

Logen passed him the spoon. Malacus Quai stared at it with big round eyes. “Have you eaten?”

Logen nodded. He hadn’t, but the wretched apprentice looked famished and there was barely enough for one. He took another swig from the flask. That would do for him, for now. Quai attacked the stew with relish. When it was done he scraped the pot out, licked the spoon, then licked the edge of the pot for good measure. He sat back against a big rock. “I am forever in your debt, Logen Ninefingers, you’ve saved my life. I hardly dared hope you’d be so gracious a host.”

“You’re not quite what I expected either, being honest.” Logen pulled at the flask again, and licked his lips. “Who is this Bayaz?”

“The First of the Magi, great in High Art and learned in deep wisdom. I fear he will be most seriously displeased with me.”

“He’s to be feared, then?”

“Well,” replied the apprentice weakly, “he does have a bit of a temper.”

Logen took another swallow. The warmth was spreading through his body now, the first time he had felt warm in weeks. There was a pause. “What does he want from me, Quai?”

There was no reply. The soft sound of snoring came from across the fire. Logen smiled and, wrapping himself in his coat, lay down to sleep as well.


The apprentice woke with a sudden fit of coughing. It was early morning and the dingy world was thick with mist. It was probably better that way. There was nothing to see but miles of mud, rock, and miserable brown gorse. Everything was coated in cold dew, but Logen had managed to get a sad tongue of fire going. Quai’s hair was plastered to his pallid face. He rolled onto his side and coughed phlegm onto the ground.

“Aaargh,” he croaked. He coughed and spat again.

Logen secured the last of his meagre gear on the unhappy horse. “Morning,” he said, looking up at the white sky, “though not a good one.”

“I will die. I will die, and then I will not have to move.”

“We’ve got no food, so if we stay here you will die. Then I can eat you and go back over the mountains.”

The apprentice smiled weakly. “What do we do?”

What indeed? “Where do we find this Bayaz?”

“At the Great Northern Library.”

Logen had never heard of it, but then he’d never been that interested in books. “Which is where?”

“It’s south of here, about four days’ ride, beside a great lake.”

“Do you know the way?”

The apprentice tottered to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, breathing fast and shallow. He was ghostly pale and his face had a sheen of sweat. “I think so,” he muttered, but he hardly looked certain.

Neither Quai nor his horse would make four days without food, even providing they didn’t get lost. Food had to be the first thing. To follow the road through the woods to the south was the best option, despite the greater risk. They might get killed by bandits, but the forage would be better, and the hunger would likely kill them otherwise.

“You’d better ride,” said Logen.

“I lost the horses, I should be the one to walk.”

Logen put his hand on Quai’s forehead. It was hot and clammy. “You’ve a fever. You’d better ride.”

The apprentice didn’t try to argue. He looked down at Logen’s ragged boots. “Can you take my boots?”

Logen shook his head. “Too small.” He knelt down over the smouldering remains of the fire and pursed his lips.

“What are you doing?”

“Fires have spirits. I will keep this one under my tongue, and we can use it to light another fire later.” Quai looked too ill to be surprised. Logen sucked up the spirit, coughed on the smoke, shuddered at the bitter taste. “You ready to leave?”

The apprentice raised his arms in a hopeless gesture. “I am packed.”


Malacus Quai loved to talk. He talked as they made their way south across the moors, as the sun climbed into the grimy skies, as they entered the woods toward evening time. His illness did nothing to stop his chatter, but Logen didn’t mind. It was a long time since anyone had talked to him, and it helped to take his mind off his feet. He was starving and tired, but it was his feet that were the problem. His boots were tatters of old leather, his toes cut and battered, his calf was still burning from the Shanka’s teeth. Every step was an ordeal. Once they had called him the most feared man in the North. Now he was afraid of the smallest sticks and stones in the road. There was a joke in there somewhere. He winced as his foot hit a pebble.

“…so I spent seven years studying with Master Zacharus. He is great among the Magi, the fifth of Juvens’ twelve apprentices, a great man.” Everything connected with the Magi seemed to be great in Quai’s eyes. “He felt I was ready to come to the Great Northern Library and study with Master Bayaz, to earn my staff. But things have not been easy for me here. Master Bayaz is most demanding and…”

The horse stopped and snorted, shied and took a hesitant step back. Logen sniffed the air and frowned. There were men nearby, and badly washed ones. He should have noticed it sooner but his attention had been on his feet. Quai looked down at him. “What is it?”

As if in answer a man stepped out from behind a tree perhaps ten strides ahead, another a little further down the road. They were scum, without a doubt. Dirty, bearded, dressed in ragged bits of mismatched fur and leather. Not, on the whole, unlike Logen. The skinny one on the left had a spear with a barbed head. The big one on the right had a heavy sword speckled with rust, and an old dented helmet with a spike on top. They moved forward, grinning. There was a sound behind and Logen looked over his shoulder, his heart sinking. A third man, with a big boil on his face, was making his way cautiously down the road toward them, a heavy wood axe in his hands.

Quai leaned down from his saddle, eyes wide with fear. “Are they bandits?”

“You’re the fucking seer,” hissed Logen through gritted teeth.

They stopped a stride or two in front. The one with the helmet seemed to be in charge. “Nice horse,” he growled. “Would you lend it to us?” The one with the spear grinned as he took hold of the bridle.

Things had taken a turn for the worse alright. A moment ago that had hardly seemed possible, but fate had found a way. Logen doubted that Quai would be much use in a fight. That left him alone against three or more, and with only a knife. If he did nothing him and Malacus would end up robbed, and more than likely killed. You have to be realistic about these things.

He looked the three bandits over again. They didn’t expect a fight, not from two unarmed men—the spear was sideways on, the sword pointed at the ground. He didn’t know about the axe, so he’d have to trust to luck with that one. It’s a sorry fact that the man who strikes first usually strikes last, so Logen turned to the one with the helmet and spat the spirit in his face.

It ignited in the air and pounced on him hungrily. His head burst into spitting flames, the sword clattered to the ground. He clawed desperately at his face and his arms caught fire as well. He reeled screaming away.

Quai’s horse startled at the flames and reared up, snorting. The skinny man stumbled back with a gasp and Logen leaped at him, grabbed the shaft of the spear with one hand and butted him in the face. His nose crunched against Logen’s forehead and he staggered away with blood streaming down his chin. Logen jerked him back with the spear, swung his right arm round in a wide arc and punched him in the neck. He went down with a gurgle and Logen tore the spear from his hands.

He felt movement behind him and dropped to the ground, rolling away to his left. The axe whistled through the air above his head and cut a long slash in the horse’s side, spattering drops of blood across the ground and ripping the buckle on the saddle girth open. Boil-face tottered away, spinning around after his axe. Logen sprang at him but his ankle twisted on a stone and he tottered like a drunkard, yelping at the pain. An arrow hummed past his face from somewhere in the trees behind and was lost in the bushes on the other side of the road. The horse snorted and kicked, eyes rolling madly, then took off down the road at a crazy gallop. Malacus Quai wailed as the saddle slid off its back and he was flung into the bushes.

There was no time to think about him. Logen charged at the axe-man with a roar, aiming the spear at his heart. He brought his axe up in time to nudge the point away, but not far enough. The spear spitted him through the shoulder, spun him round. There was a sharp crack as the shaft snapped, Logen lost his balance and pitched forward, bearing Boil-face down into the road. The spear-point sticking out of his back cut a deep gash into Logen’s scalp as he fell on top of him. Logen seized hold of the axe-man’s matted hair with both hands, pulled his head back and mashed his face into a rock.

He lurched to his feet, head spinning, wiping blood out of his eyes just in time to see an arrow zip out of the trees and thud into a trunk a stride or two away. Logen hurtled at the archer. He saw him now, a boy no more than fourteen, reaching for another arrow. Logen pulled out his knife. The boy was nocking the arrow to his bow, but his eyes were wide with panic. He fumbled the string and drove the arrow through his hand, looking greatly surprised.

Logen was on him. The boy swung the bow at him but he ducked below it and jumped forward, driving the knife up with both hands. The blade caught the boy under the chin and lifted him into the air, then snapped off in his neck. He dropped on top of Logen, the jagged shard of the knife cutting a long gash in his arm. Blood splattered everywhere, from the cut on Logen’s head, from the cut on Logen’s arm, from the gaping wound in the boy’s throat.

He shoved the corpse away, staggered against a tree and gasped for breath. His heart was pounding, the blood roaring in his ears, his stomach turning over. “I am still alive,” he whispered, “I am still alive.” The cuts on his head and his arm were starting to throb. Two more scars. It could have been a lot worse. He scraped the blood from his eyes and limped back to the road.

Malacus Quai was standing, staring ashen-faced at the three corpses. Logen took him by the shoulders, looked him up and down. “You hurt?”

Quai only stared at the bodies. “Are they dead?” The corpse of the big one with the helmet was still smoking, making a disgustingly appetising smell. He had a good pair of boots on, Logen noticed, a lot better than his own. The one with the boil had his neck turned too far around to be alive, that and he had the broken spear through him. Logen rolled the skinny one over with his foot. He still had a look of surprise on his bloody face, eyes staring up at the sky, mouth open.

“Must’ve crushed his windpipe,” muttered Logen. His hands were covered in blood. He grabbed one with the other to stop them from trembling.

“What about the one in the trees?”

Logen nodded. “What happened to the horse?”

“Gone,” muttered Quai hopelessly. “What do we do?”

“We see if they’ve got any food.” Logen pointed to the smoking corpse. “And you help me get his boots off.”


Fencing Practice

<p>Fencing Practice</p>

“Press him, Jezal, press him! Don’t be shy!”

Jezal was only too willing to oblige. He sprang forward, lunging with his right. West was already off balance and he stumbled back, all out of form, only just managing to parry with his short steel. They were using half-edged blades today, to add a little danger to the proceedings. You couldn’t really stab a man with one, but you could give him a painful scratch or two, if you tried hard enough. Jezal intended to give the Major a scratch for yesterday’s humiliation.

“That’s it, give him hell! Jab, jab, Captain! Jab, jab!”

West made a clumsy cut, but Jezal saw it coming and swatted the steel aside, still pressing forward, jabbing for all he was worth. He slashed with the left, and again. West blocked desperately, staggered back against the wall. Jezal had him at last. He cackled with glee as he lunged forward again with the long steel, but his opponent had come suddenly and surprisingly alive. West slipped away, shoved the lunge aside with disappointing firmness. Jezal stumbled forward, off balance, gave a shocked gasp as the point of his sword found a gap between two stones and his steel was wrenched out of his numb hand, lodged there wobbling in the wall.

West darted forward, ducked inside Jezal’s remaining blade and slammed into him with his shoulder. “Ooof,” said Jezal as he staggered back and crashed to the floor, fumbling his short steel. It skittered across the stones and Lord Marshal Varuz caught it smartly under his foot. The blunted point of West’s sword hovered over Jezal’s throat.

“Damn it!” he cursed, as the grinning Major offered him his hand.

“Yes,” murmured Varuz with a deep sigh, “damn it indeed. An even more detestable performance than yesterday’s, if that’s possible! You let Major West make a fool of you again!” Jezal slapped West’s hand away with a scowl and got to his feet. “He never once lost control of that bout! You allowed yourself to be drawn in, and then disarmed! Disarmed! My grandson would not have made that mistake, and he is eight years old!” Varuz whacked at the floor with his stick. “Explain to me please, Captain Luthar, how you will win a fencing match from a prone position, and without your steels?”

Jezal sulked and rubbed the back of his head.

“No? In future, if you fall off a cliff carrying your steels, I want to see you smashed to bits at the bottom, gripping them tightly in your dead fingers, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Marshal Varuz,” mumbled a sullen Jezal, wishing the old bastard would take a tumble off a cliff himself. Or perhaps the Tower of Chains. That would be adequate. Maybe Major West could join him.

“Over-confidence is a curse to the swordsman! You must treat every opponent as though he will be your last. As for your footwork,” and Varuz curled his lip with disgust, “fine and fancy coming forward, but put you on the back foot and you quite wither away. The Major only had to tap you and you fell down like a fainting schoolgirl.”

West grinned across at him. He was loving this. Absolutely loving it, damn him.

“They say Bremer dan Gorst has a back leg like a pillar of steel. A pillar of steel they say! It would be easier to knock down the House of the Maker than him.” The Lord Marshal pointed over at the outline of the huge tower, looming up over the buildings of the courtyard. “The House of the Maker!” he shouted in disgust.

Jezal sniffed and kicked at the floor with his boot. For the hundredth time he entertained the notion of giving it up and never holding a steel again. But what would people say? His father was absurdly proud of him, always boasting about his skill to anyone who would listen. He had his heart set on seeing his son fight in the Square of Marshals before a screaming crowd. If Jezal threw it over now his father would be mortified, and he could say goodbye to his commission, goodbye to his allowance, goodbye to his ambitions. No doubt his brothers would love that.

“Balance is the key,” Varuz was spouting. “Your strength rises up through the legs! From now on we will add an hour on the beam to your training. Every day.” Jezal winced. “So: a run, exercises with the heavy bar, forms, an hour of sparring, forms again, an hour on the beam.” The Lord Marshal nodded with satisfaction. “That will suffice, for now. I will see you at six o’clock tomorrow morning, ice cold sober.” Varuz frowned. “Ice. Cold. Sober.”


“I can’t do this forever, you know,” said Jezal as he hobbled stiffly back towards his quarters. “How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take?”

West grinned. “This is nothing. I’ve never seen the old bastard so soft on anyone. He must really like you. He wasn’t half so friendly with me.”

Jezal wasn’t sure he believed it. “Worse than this?”

“I didn’t have the grounding that you’ve had. He made me hold the heavy bar over my head all afternoon until it fell on me.” The Major winced slightly, as though even the memory was painful. “He made me run up and down the Tower of Chains in full armour. He had me sparring four hours a day, every day.”

“How did you put up with it?”

“I didn’t have a choice. I’m not a nobleman. Fencing was the only way for me to get noticed. But it paid off in the end. How many commoners do you know with a commission in the King’s Own?”

Jezal shrugged. “Come to think of it, very few.” As a nobleman himself, he didn’t think there should be any.

“But you’re from a good family, and a Captain already. If you can win the Contest there’s no telling how far you could go. Hoff—the Lord Chamberlain, Marovia—the High Justice, Varuz himself for that matter, they were all champions in their day. Champions with the right blood always go on to great things.”

Jezal snorted. “Like your friend Sand dan Glokta?”

The name dropped between them like a stone. “Well… almost always.”

“Major West!” came a rough voice from behind.

A thickset sergeant with a scar down his cheek was hurrying over to them. “Sergeant Forest, how are you?” asked West, clapping the soldier warmly on the back. He had a touch with peasants, but then Jezal had to keep reminding himself that West was little better than a peasant himself. He might be educated, and an officer, and so forth, but he still had more in common with the sergeant than he did with Jezal, once you thought about it.

The sergeant beamed. “Very well, thank you, sir.” He nodded respectfully to Jezal. “Morning, Captain.”

Jezal favoured him with a terse nod and turned away to look up the avenue. He could think of no possible reason why an officer would want to be familiar with the common soldiers. Furthermore, he was scarred and ugly. Jezal had no use whatever for ugly people.

“What can I do for you?” West was asking.

“Marshal Burr wishes to see you, sir, for an urgent briefing. All senior officers are ordered to attend.”

West’s face clouded. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The sergeant saluted and strode off.

“What’s all that about?” asked Jezal carelessly, watching some clerk chase around after a paper he had dropped.

“Angland. This King of the Northmen, Bethod.” West said the name with a scowl, as though it left a bitter taste. “They say he’s defeated all his enemies in the North, and now he’s spoiling for a fight with The Union.”

“Well, if it’s a fight he wants,” said Jezal airily. Wars were a fine thing, in his opinion, an excellent opportunity for glory and advancement. The paper fluttered past his boot on the light breeze, closely followed by the puffing clerk. Jezal grinned at him as he hurried past, bent almost double in his clumsy efforts to try and grab it.

The Major snatched up the grubby document and handed it over. “Thank you, sir,” said the clerk, his sweaty face quite pitiful with gratitude, “thank you so much!”

“Think nothing of it,” murmured West, and the clerk gave a sycophantic little bow and hurried away. Jezal was disappointed. He had been rather enjoying the chase. “There could be war, but that’s the least of my troubles right now.” West breathed a heavy sigh. “My sister is in Adua.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Well I do, and she’s here.”

“So?” Jezal had little enthusiasm for hearing about the Major’s sister. West might have pulled himself up, but the rest of his family were distinctly beneath Jezal’s notice. He was interested in meeting poor, common girls he could take advantage of, and rich, noble ones he might think about marrying. Anything in between was of no importance.

“Well, my sister can be charming but she is also a little… unconventional. She can be something of a handful in the wrong mood. Truth be told, I’d prefer to take care of a pack of Northmen than her.”

“Come now, West,” said Jezal absently, hardly taking any notice of what he was saying, “I’m sure she can’t be that difficult.”

The Major brightened. “Well, I’m relieved to hear you say that. She’s always been keen to see the Agriont for herself, and I’ve been saying for years that I’d give her a tour if she ever came here. We’d arranged it for today in fact.” Jezal had a sinking feeling. “Now, with this meeting—”

“But I have so little time these days!” whinged Jezal.

“I promise I’ll make it up to you. We’ll meet you at my quarters in an hour.”

“Hold on…” But West was already striding away.


Don’t let her be too ugly, Jezal was thinking as he slowly approached the door to Major West’s quarters and raised his unwilling fist to knock. Just don’t let her be too ugly. And not too stupid either. Anything but an afternoon wasted on a stupid girl. His hand was halfway to the door when he became aware of raised voices on the other side. He stood guiltily in the corridor, his ear drawing closer and closer to the wood, hoping to hear something complimentary about himself.

“…and what about your maid?” came Major West’s muffled voice, sounding greatly annoyed.

“I had to leave her at the house, there was a lot to do. Nobody’s been there in months.” West’s sister. Jezal’s heart sank. A deep voice, she sounded like a fat one. Jezal couldn’t afford to be seen walking about the Agriont with a fat girl on his arm. It could ruin his reputation.

“But you can’t just wander about the city on your own!”

“I got here alright, didn’t I? You’re forgetting who we are, Collem. I can make do without a servant. To most of the people here I’m no better than a servant anyway. Besides, I’ll have your friend Captain Luthar to look after me.”

“That’s even worse, as you damn well know!”

“Well I wasn’t to know that you’d be busy. I would’ve thought you’d make the time to see your own sister.” She didn’t sound an idiot, which was something, but fat and now peevish too. “Aren’t I safe with your friend?”

“He’s a good enough sort, but is he safe with you?” Jezal wasn’t sure what the Major meant by that little comment. “And walking about the Agriont alone, and with a man you hardly know? Don’t play the fool, I know you better than that! What will people think?”

“Shit on what they think.” Jezal jerked away from the door. He wasn’t used to hearing ladies use that sort of language. Fat, peevish and coarse, damn it. This might be even worse than he’d feared. He looked up the corridor, considering making a run for it, already working out his excuse. Curse his bad luck, though, someone was coming up the stairs now. He couldn’t leave without being seen. He would just have to knock and get it over with. He gritted his teeth and pounded resentfully at the door.

The voices stopped suddenly, and Jezal put on an unconvincing friendly grin. Let the torture begin. The door swung open.

For some reason, he had been expecting a kind of shorter, fatter version of Major West, in a dress. He had been greatly mistaken. She was perhaps slightly fuller of figure than was strictly fashionable, since skinny girls were all the rage, but you couldn’t call her fat, not fat at all. She had dark hair, dark skin, a little darker than would generally be thought ideal. He knew that a lady should remain out of the sun whenever possible, but looking at her, he really couldn’t remember why. Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and blue eyes were turning the heads this season, but hers shone in the dim light of the doorway in a rather bewitching manner.

She smiled at him. A strange sort of smile, higher on one side than the other. It gave him a slightly uneasy feeling, as though she knew something funny that he didn’t. Still, excellent teeth, all white and shiny. Jezal’s anger was swiftly vanishing. The longer he looked at her the more her looks grew on him, and the emptier his head became of cogent thought.

“Hello,” she said.

His mouth opened slightly, as if by force of habit, but nothing came out. His mind was a blank page.

“And you must be Captain Luthar?”

“Er…”

“I’m Collem’s sister, Ardee,” she slapped her forehead. “I’m such an idiot though, Collem will have told you all about me. I know the two of you are great friends.”

Jezal glanced awkwardly at the Major, who was frowning back at him and looking somewhat put out. It would hardly do to say he had been entirely unaware of her existence until that morning. He struggled to frame even a mildly amusing reply, but nothing came to mind.

Ardee took hold of him by the elbow and drew him into the room, talking all the while. “I know you’re a great fencer, but I’ve been told your wit is even sharper than your sword. So much so in fact, that you only use your sword upon your friends, as your wit is far too deadly.” She looked at him expectantly. Silence.

“Well,” he mumbled, “I do fence a bit.” Pathetic. Utterly awful.

“Is this the right man, or do I have the gardener here?” She looked him over with a strange expression, hard to read. Perhaps it was the same sort of look Jezal would have while examining a horse he was thinking of buying: cautious, searching, intent, and ever so slightly disdainful. “Even the gardeners have splendid uniforms, it seems.”

Jezal was almost sure that had been some kind of insult, but he was too busy trying to think of something witty to pay it too much mind. He knew he would have to speak now or spend the entire day in embarrassed silence, so he opened his mouth and trusted to luck. “I’m sorry if I seem dumbfounded, but Major West is such an unattractive man. How could I have expected so beautiful a sister?”

West snorted with laughter. His sister raised an eyebrow, and counted the points off on her fingers. “Mildly offensive to my brother, which is good. Somewhat amusing, which is also good. Honest, which is refreshing, and wildly complimentary to me, which, of course, is excellent. A little late, but on the whole worth waiting for.” She looked Jezal in the eye. “The afternoon might not be a total loss.”

Jezal wasn’t sure he liked that last comment, and he wasn’t sure he liked the way she looked at him, but he was enjoying looking at her, so he was prepared to forgive a lot. The women of his acquaintance rarely said anything clever, especially the fine-looking ones. He supposed they were trained to smile and nod and listen while the men did the talking. On the whole he agreed with that way of doing things, but the cleverness sat well on West’s sister, and she had more than caught his curiosity. Fat and peevish were off the menu, of that there could be no doubt. As for coarse, well, handsome people are never coarse, are they? Just… unconventional. He was beginning to think that the afternoon, as she had said, might not be a total loss.

West made for the door. “It seems I must leave you two to make fools of one another. Lord Marshal Burr is expecting me. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t, eh?” The comment seemed to be aimed at Jezal, but West was looking at his sister.

“That would seem to allow virtually everything,” she said, catching Jezal’s eye. He was amazed to feel himself blushing like a little girl, and he coughed and looked down at his shoes.

West rolled his eyes. “Mercy,” he said, as the door clicked shut.

“Would you care for a drink?” Ardee asked, already pouring wine into a glass. Alone with a beautiful young woman. Hardly a new experience, Jezal told himself, and yet he seemed to be lacking his usual confidence.

“Yes, thank you, most kind.” Yes, a drink, a drink, just the thing to steady the nerves. She held the glass out to him and poured another for herself. He wondered if a young lady should be drinking at this time of day, but it seemed pointless to say anything. She wasn’t his sister, after all.

“Tell me, Captain, how do you know my brother?”

“Well, he’s my commanding officer, and we fence together.” His brain was beginning to function again. “But then… you know that already.”

She grinned at him. “Of course, but my governess always maintained that young men should be allowed their share of the conversation.”

Jezal gave an ungainly cough as he was swallowing and spilled some wine down his jacket. “Oh dear,” he said.

“Here, take this a moment.” She gave him her glass and he took it without thinking, but then found himself without a free hand. When she started dabbing at his chest with a white handkerchief he could hardly object, though it did seem rather forward. Being honest, he might have objected if she wasn’t so damn fine-looking. He wondered if she realised what an excellent view she was giving him down the front of her dress, but of course not, how could she? She was simply new here, unused to courtly manners, the artless ways of a country girl and so forth… nice view though, there was no denying that.

“There, that’s better,” she said, though the dabbing had made no apparent difference. Not to his uniform anyway. She took the glasses from him, drained her own quickly with a practised flick of her head and shoved them on the table. “Shall we go?”

“Yes… of course. Oh,” and he offered her his arm.

She led him out into the corridor and down the stairs, chatting freely. It was a flurry of conversational blows and, as Marshal Varuz had pointed out earlier, his defence was weak. He parried desperately as they made their way across the wide Square of Marshals, but he could barely get a word in. It seemed as though it was Ardee who had been living there for years and Jezal who was the bumpkin from the provinces.

“The Halls Martial are behind there?” She nodded over at the looming wall that separated the headquarters of the Union’s armies from the rest of the Agriont.

“Indeed they are. That is where the Lord Marshals have their offices, and so forth. And there are barracks there, and armouries, and, er…” He trailed off. He could not think of much else to say, but Ardee came to his rescue.

“So my brother must be somewhere in there. He’s quite the famous soldier, I suppose. First through the breach at Ulrioch, and so on.”

“Well, yes, Major West is very well respected here…”

“He can be such a bore, though, can’t he? He does so love to be mysterious and troubled.” She put on a faint, faraway smile and rubbed her chin thoughtfully, just as her brother might have done. She had captured the man perfectly, and Jezal had to laugh, but he was starting to wonder if she should be walking quite so close beside him, holding his arm in quite so intimate a way. Not that he objected of course. Quite the reverse, but people were looking.

“Ardee—” he said.

“So this must be the Kingsway.”

“Er, yes, Ardee—”

She was gazing up at the magnificent statue of Harod the Great, his stern eyes fixed on the middle distance. “Harod the Great?” she asked.

“Er, yes. In the dark ages, before there was a Union, he fought to bring the Three Kingdoms together. He was the first High King.” You idiot, thought Jezal, she knows that already, everyone does. “Ardee, I think your brother would not—”

“And this is Bayaz, the First of the Magi?”

“Yes, he was Harod’s most trusted adviser. Ardee—”

“Is it true they still keep a vacant seat for him in the Closed Council?”

Jezal was taken aback. “I’d heard that there’s an empty chair there, but I didn’t know that—”

“They all look so serious, don’t they?”

“Er… I suppose those were serious times,” he said, grinning lamely.

A Knight Herald thundered down the avenue on a huge, well-lathered horse, the sun glinting on the golden wings of his helmet. Secretaries scattered to let him pass, and Jezal tried to guide Ardee gently out of the way. To his great dismay she refused to be moved. The horse flashed past within a few inches of her, close enough for the wind to flick her hair in Jezal’s face. She turned to him with a flush of excitement on her cheek, otherwise utterly undaunted by her brush with severe injury.

“A Knight Herald?” she asked, taking Jezal’s arm once again and leading him off down the Kingsway.

“Yes,” squeaked Jezal, desperately trying to bring his voice under control, “the Knights Herald are entrusted with a grave responsibility. They carry messages from the King to every part of the Union.” His heart had stopped hammering. “Even across the Circle Sea to Angland, Dagoska, and Westport. They are entrusted to speak with the King’s voice, and so forbidden from speaking except on the King’s business.”

“Fedor dan Haden was on the boat on our way over, he’s a Knight Herald. We talked for hours.” Jezal attempted unsuccessfully to contain his surprise. “We talked about Adua, about the Union, about his family. Your name was mentioned, actually.” Jezal failed to look nonchalant once again. “In connection with the coming Contest.” Ardee leaned even closer to him. “Fedor was of the opinion that Bremer dan Gorst will cut you to pieces.”

Jezal gave a strangled cough, but he rallied well. “Unfortunately, that opinion seems widely held.”

“But not by you, I trust?”

“Er…”

She stopped and took him by the hand, staring earnestly into his eyes. “I’m sure that you’ll get the better of him, no matter what they say. My brother speaks very highly of you, and he’s stingy with his praise.”

“Er…” mumbled Jezal. His fingers were tingling pleasantly. Her eyes were big and dark, and he found himself greatly at a loss for words. She had this way of biting on her lower lip that made his thoughts stray. A fine, full lip. He wouldn’t have minded having a little chew on it himself. “Well, thank you.” He gave a gormless grin.

“So this is the park,” said Ardee, turning away from him to admire the greenery. “It’s even more beautiful than I’d imagined.”

“Erm… yes.”

“How wonderful, to be at the heart of things. I’ve spent so much of my life on the edge. There must be many important decisions made here, many important people.” Ardee allowed her hand to trail through the fronds of a willow tree by the road. “Collem’s worried there might be war in the North. He was worried for my safety. I think that’s why he wanted me to come here. I think he worries too much. What do you think, Captain Luthar?”

He had been in blissful ignorance of the political situation until a couple of hours before, but that would never do as a reply. “Well,” he said, straining to remember the name, and then with relief, “this Bethod could do with a rap on the knuckles.”

“They say he has twenty thousand Northmen under his banner.” She leaned towards him. “Barbarians,” she murmured. “Savages,” she whispered. “I heard he skins his captives alive.”

Jezal thought this was hardly suitable conversation for a young lady. “Ardee…” he began.

“But I’m sure with men like you and my brother to protect us, we womenfolk have nothing to worry about.” And she turned and made off up the path. Jezal had to hurry once again to catch up.

“And is that the House of the Maker?” Ardee nodded towards the grim outline of the huge tower.

“Why, yes it is.”

“Does no one go inside?”

“No one. Not in my lifetime anyway. The bridge is kept behind lock and key.” He frowned up at the tower. Seemed strange now, that he never thought about it. Living in the Agriont, it was always there. You just got used to it somehow. “The place is sealed, I believe.”

“Sealed?” Ardee moved very close to him. Jezal glanced around nervously but nobody was looking. “Isn’t it strange that nobody goes in there? Isn’t it a mystery?” He could almost feel her breath on his neck, “I mean to say, why not just break the door down?”

Jezal was finding it horribly difficult to concentrate with her so close. He wondered for a moment, both frightening and exciting, whether she might be flirting with him? No, no, of course not! Just not used to the city was all. The artless ways of a country girl… but then she was very close. If only she were a little less attractive or a little less confident. If only she were a little less… West’s sister.

He coughed and looked off down the path, hoping vainly for a distraction. There were a few people moving along it, but no one that he recognised, unless… Ardee’s spell was suddenly broken, and Jezal felt his skin go cold. A hunched figure, overdressed on this sunny day, was limping toward them, leaning heavily on a cane. He was bent over and wincing with every step, the faster-moving travellers giving him a wide berth. Jezal tried to steer Ardee away before he saw them, but she resisted gracefully and made a direct line for the shambling Inquisitor.

His head snapped up as they approached and his eyes glinted with recognition. Jezal’s heart sank. There was no avoiding him now.

“Why, Captain Luthar,” said Glokta warmly, shuffling a little too close and shaking his hand, “what a pleasure! I’m surprised that Varuz has let you go so early in the day. He must be mellowing in his old age.”

“The Lord Marshal is still most demanding,” snapped Jezal.

“I hope my Practicals didn’t inconvenience you the other night.” The Inquisitor shook his head sadly. “They have no manners. No manners at all. But they are the very best at what they do! I swear, the King doesn’t have two more valuable servants.”

“I suppose we all serve the King in our own way.” There was a little more hostility in Jezal’s voice than he had intended.

If Glokta was offended he didn’t show it. “Quite so. I don’t believe I know your friend.”

“No. This is—”

“Actually, we’ve met,” said Ardee, much to Jezal’s surprise, giving her hand to the Inquisitor. “Ardee West.”

Glokta’s eyebrows rose. “No!” He bent down stiffly to kiss the back of her hand. Jezal saw his mouth twist as he straightened up, but the toothless grin soon returned. “Collem West’s sister! But you are so much changed.”

“For the better, I hope,” she laughed. Jezal felt horribly uncomfortable.

“Why—yes indeed,” said Glokta.

“And you are changed also, Sand.” Ardee looked suddenly very sad. “We were all so worried in my family. We hoped and hoped for your safe return.” Jezal saw a spasm run over Glokta’s face. “Then when we heard you were hurt… how are you?”

The Inquisitor glanced at Jezal, his eyes cold as a slow death. Jezal stared down at his boots, a lump of fear in his throat. He had no need to be scared of this cripple, did he? But somehow he wished he was still at fencing practice. Glokta stared at Ardee, his left eye twitching slightly, and she looked back at him undaunted, her eyes full of quiet concern.

“I am well. As well as can be expected.” His expression had turned very strange. Jezal felt more uncomfortable than ever. “Thank you for asking. Truly. Nobody ever does.”

There was an awkward silence. The Inquisitor stretched his neck sideways and there was a loud click. “Ah!” he said, “that’s got it. It’s been a pleasure to see you again, both of you, but duty calls.” He treated them to another revolting smile then hobbled off, his left foot scraping in the gravel.

Ardee frowned at his twisted back as he limped slowly away. “It’s so sad,” she said under her breath.

“What?” mumbled Jezal. He was thinking about that big white bastard in the street, those narrow pink eyes. The prisoner with the bag on his head. We all serve the King in our own way. Quite so. He gave an involuntary shiver.

“He and my brother used to be quite close. He came to stay with us one summer. My family were so proud to have him it was embarrassing. He used to fence with my brother every day, and he always won. The way he moved, it was something to see. Sand dan Glokta. He was the brightest star in the sky.” She flashed her knowing half-smile again. “And now I hear you are.”

“Er…” said Jezal, not sure whether she was praising him or poking fun. He could not escape the feeling that he had been out-fenced twice that day, once by each sibling.

He rather fancied that the sister had given him the worse beating.


The Morning Ritual

<p>The Morning Ritual</p>

It was a bright summers day, and the park was filled to capacity with colourful revellers. Colonel Glokta strode manfully toward some meeting of great importance, people bowing and scraping respectfully away to give him room. He ignored most, favoured the more important ones with his brilliant smile. The lucky few beamed back at him, delighted to be noticed.

“I suppose we all serve the King in our own way,” whined Captain Luthar, reaching for his steel, but Glokta was far too quick for him. His blade flashed with lightning speed, catching the sneering idiot through the neck.

Blood splattered across Ardee West’s face. She clapped her hands in delight, looking at Glokta with shining eyes.

Luthar seemed surprised to be killed. “Hah. Quite so,” said Glokta with a smile. The Captain pitched over onto his face, blood pouring from his punctured throat. The crowd roared their appreciation and Glokta indulged them with a deep, graceful bow. The cheering was redoubled.

“Oh, Colonel, you shouldn’t,” murmured Ardee as Glokta licked the blood from her cheek.

“Shouldn’t what?” he growled, tipping her back in his arms and kissing her fiercely. The crowd were in a frenzy. She gasped as he broke away, looking up at him adoringly with those big dark eyes of hers, lips slightly parted.

“The Arth Ector wanth you,” she said with a comely smile.

“What?” The crowd had fallen silent, damn them, and his left side was turning numb.

Ardee touched him tenderly on the cheek. “The Arth Ector!” she shouted.


There was a heavy knock at the door. Glokta’s eyes flicked open. Where am I? Who am I?

Oh no.

Oh yes. He realised straight away he had been sleeping badly, his body was twisted round under the blankets, his face pushed into the pillow. His whole left side was dead.

The beating on the door came heavier than before. “The Arth Ector!” came Frost’s tongueless bellow from the other side.

Pain shot through Glokta’s neck as he tried to raise his head from the pillow. Ah, there’s nothing like the first spasm of the day to get the mind working. “Alright!” he croaked, “give me a minute, damn it!”

The albino’s heavy footsteps thudded away down the corridor. Glokta lay still for a moment, then cautiously moved his right arm, ever so slowly, breath rasping with the effort, and tried to twist himself onto his back. He clenched his fist as the needling started in his left leg. If only the damn thing would stay numb. But the pain was coming on fast now. He was also becoming aware of an unpleasant smell. Damn it. I’ve shit myself again.

“Barnam!” howled Glokta, then waited, panting, left side throbbing with a vengeance. Where is the old idiot? “Barnam!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Are you alright, sir?” came the servant’s voice from beyond the door.

Alright? Alright, you old fool? Just when do you think I was last alright? “No, damn it! I’ve soiled the bed!”

“I’ve boiled water for a bath, sir. Can you get up?”

Once before Frost had had to break the door down. Maybe I should let it stand open all night, but then how could I sleep? “I think I can manage,” Glokta hissed, tongue pressed into his empty gums, arms trembling as he hauled himself out of the bed and onto the chair beside it.

His grotesque, toeless left leg twitched to itself, still beyond his control. He glared down at it with a burning hatred. Fucking horrible thing. Revolting, useless lump of flesh. Why didn’t they just cut you off? Why don’t I still? But he knew why not. With his leg still on he could at least pretend to be half a man. He punched his withered thigh, then immediately regretted it. Stupid, stupid. The pain crept up his back, a little more intense than before, and growing with every second. Come now, come now, let’s not fight. He started to rub gently at the wasted flesh. We are stuck with each other, so why torment me?

“Can you get to the door, sir?” Glokta wrinkled his nose at the smell then took hold of his cane and slowly, agonisingly, pushed himself to his feet. He hobbled across the room, almost slipping halfway there but righting himself with a searing twinge. He turned the key in the lock, leaning against the wall for balance, and hauled the door open.

Barnam was standing on the other side, his arms outstretched, ready to catch him. The ignominy of it. To think that I, Sand dan Glokta, the greatest swordsman the Union has ever seen, must be carried to my bath by an old man so that I can wash my own shit off. They must be laughing loud now, all those fools I beat, if they still remember me. I’d be laughing too, if it didn’t hurt so much. But he let the weight off his left leg and put his arm round Barnam’s shoulders without complaint. What’s the use after all? Might as well make it easy for myself. As easy as it can be.

Glokta took a deep breath. “Go gently, the leg hasn’t woken up yet.” They hopped and stumbled down the corridor, slightly too narrow for both of them together. The bathroom seemed a mile away. Or more. I’d rather walk a hundred miles as I used to be, than to the bathroom as I am. But that’s my bad luck isn’t it? You can’t go back. Not ever.

The steam felt deliciously warm on Glokta’s clammy skin. With Barnam holding him under the arms he slowly lifted his right leg and put it gingerly into the water. Damn it, that’s hot. The old servant helped him get the other leg in, then, taking him under the armpits, lowered him like a child, until he was immersed up to his neck.

“Ahhh.” Glokta cracked a toothless smile. “Hot as the Maker’s forge, Barnam, just the way I like it.” The heat was getting into the leg now, and the pain was subsiding. Not gone. Never gone. But better. A lot better. Glokta began to feel almost as if he could face another day. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like a hot bath. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.


Practical Frost was waiting for him downstairs in the tiny dining room, his bulk wedged into a low chair against the wall. Glokta sagged into the other chair and caught a whiff from the steaming porridge bowl, wooden spoon sticking up at an angle without even touching the side. His stomach rumbled and his mouth began watering fiercely. All the symptoms, in fact, of extreme nausea.

“Hurray!” shouted Glokta. “Porridge again!” He looked over at the motionless Practical. “Porridge and honey, better than money, everything’s funny, with porridge and honey!”

The pink eyes did not blink.

“It’s a rhyme for children. My mother used to sing it to me. Never actually got me to eat this slop though. But now,” and he dug the spoon in, “I can’t get enough of it.”

Frost stared back at him.

“Healthy,” said Glokta, forcing down a mouthful of sweet mush and spooning up another, “delicious,” choking down some more, “and here’s the real clincher,” he gagged slightly on the next swallow, “no chewing required.” He shoved the mostly full bowl away and tossed the spoon after it. “Mmmmm,” he hummed. “A good breakfast makes for a good day, don’t you find?”

It was like staring at a whitewashed wall, but without all the emotion.

“So the Arch Lector wants me again, does he?”

The albino nodded.

“And what might our illustrious leader desire with the likes of us, do you think?”

A shrug.

“Hmmm.” Glokta licked bits of porridge out of his empty gums. “Does he seem in a good mood, do you know?”

Another shrug.

“Come, come, Practical Frost, don’t tell me everything at once, I can’t take it in.”

Silence. Barnam entered the room and cleared away the bowl. “Do you want anything else, sir?”

“Absolutely. A big half-raw slab of meat and a nice crunchy apple.” He looked over at Practical Frost. “I used to love apples when I was a child.”

How many times have I made that joke? Frost looked back impassively, there was no laughter there. Glokta turned to Barnam, and the old man gave a tired smile.

“Oh well,” sighed Glokta. “A man has to have hope, doesn’t he?”

“Of course sir,” muttered the servant, heading for the door.

Does he?


The Arch Lector’s office was on the top floor of the House of Questions, and it was a long way up. Worse still, the corridors were busy with people. Practicals, clerks, Inquisitors, crawling like ants through a crumbling dung-hill. Whenever he felt their eyes on him Glokta would limp along, smiling, head held high. Whenever he felt himself alone he would pause and gasp, sweat and curse, and rub and slap the tenuous life back into his leg.

Why does it have to be so high? he asked himself as he shuffled up the dim halls and winding stairs of the labyrinthine building. By the time he reached the antechamber he was exhausted and blowing hard, left hand sore on the handle of his cane.

The Arch Lector’s secretary examined him suspiciously from behind a big dark desk that took up half the room. There were some chairs placed opposite for people to get nervous waiting in, and two huge Practicals flanked the great double doors to the office, so still and grim as to appear a part of the furniture.

“Do you have an appointment?” demanded the secretary in a shrill voice. You know who I am, you self-important little shit.

“Of course,” snapped Glokta, “do you think I limped all the way up here to admire your desk?”

The secretary looked down his nose at him. He was a pale, handsome young man with a mop of yellow hair. The puffed up fifth son of some minor nobleman with over-active loins, and he thinks he can patronise me? “And your name is?” he asked with a sneer.

Glokta’s patience was worn out by the climb. He smashed his cane down on the top of the desk and the secretary near jumped out of his chair. “What are you? A fucking idiot? How many crippled Inquisitors do you have here?”

“Er…” said the secretary, mouth working nervously.

“Er? Er? Is that a number? Speak up!”

“Well I—”

“I’m Glokta, you dolt! Inquisitor Glokta!”

“Yes, sir, I—”

“Get your fat arse out of that chair, fool! Don’t keep me waiting!” The secretary sprang up, hurried to the doors, pushed one open and stood aside respectfully. “That’s better,” growled Glokta, shuffling after him. He looked up at the Practicals as he hobbled past. He was almost sure one of them had a slight smile on his face.

The room had hardly changed since he was last there, six years before. It was a cavernous, round space, domed ceiling carved with gargoyle faces, its one enormous window offering a spectacular view over the spires of the University, a great section of the outer wall of the Agriont, and the looming outline of the House of the Maker beyond.

The chamber was mostly lined with shelves and cabinets, stacked high with neatly ordered files and papers. A few dark portraits peered down from the sparse white walls, including a huge one of the current King of the Union as a young man, looking wise and stern. No doubt painted before he became a senile joke. These days there’s usually a bit less authority and a bit more stray drool about him. There was a heavy round table in the centre of the room, its surface painted with a map of the Union in exquisite detail. Every city in which there was a department of the Inquisition was marked with a precious stone, and a tiny silver replica of Adua rose out of the table at its hub.

The Arch Lector was sitting in an ancient high chair at this table, deep in conversation with another man: a gaunt, balding, sour-faced old fellow in dark robes. Sult beamed up as Glokta shuffled towards them, the other man’s expression hardly changed.

“Why, Inquisitor Glokta, delighted you could join us. Do you know Surveyor General Halleck?”

“I have not had the pleasure,” said Glokta. Not that it looks like much of a pleasure, though. The old bureaucrat stood and shook Glokta’s hand without enthusiasm.

“And this is one of my Inquisitors, Sand dan Glokta.”

“Yes indeed,” murmured Halleck. “You used to be in the army, I believe. I saw you fence once.”

Glokta tapped his leg with his cane. “That can’t have been any time recently.”

“No.” There was a silence.

“The Surveyor General is likely soon to receive a most significant promotion,” said Sult. “To a chair on the Closed Council itself.” The Closed Council? Indeed? A most significant promotion.

Halleck seemed less than delighted, however. “I will consider it done when it is his Majesty’s pleasure to invite me,” he snapped, “and not before.”

Sult floated smoothly over this rocky ground. “I am sure the Council feels that you are the only candidate worth recommending, now that Sepp dan Teufel is no longer being considered.” Our old friend Teufel? No longer considered for what?

Halleck frowned and shook his head. “Teufel. I worked with the man for ten years. I never liked him,” or anyone else, by the look of you, “but I would never have thought him a traitor.”

Sult shook his head sadly. “We all feel it keenly, but here is his confession in black and white.” He held up the folded paper with a doleful frown. “I fear the roots of corruption can run very deep. Who would know that better than I, whose sorry task it is to weed the garden?”

“Indeed, indeed,” muttered Halleck, nodding grimly. “You deserve all of our thanks for that. You also, Inquisitor.”

“Oh no, not I,” said Glokta humbly. The three men looked at each other in a sham of mutual respect.

Halleck pushed back his chair. “Well, taxes do not collect themselves. I must return to my work.”

“Enjoy your last few days in the job,” said Sult. “I give you my word that the King will send for you soon!”

Halleck allowed himself the thinnest of smiles, then nodded stiffly to them and stalked away. The secretary ushered him out and pulled the heavy door shut. There was silence. But I’m damned if I’ll be the one to break it.

“I expect you’re wondering what this was all about, eh, Glokta?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, your Eminence.”

“I bet it had.” Sult swept from his chair and strode across to the window, his white-gloved hands clasped behind his back. “The world changes, Glokta, the world changes. The old order crumbles. Loyalty, duty, pride, honour. Notions that have fallen far from fashion. What has replaced them?” He glanced over his shoulder for a moment, and his lip curled. “Greed. Merchants have become the new power in the land. Bankers, shopkeepers, salesmen. Little men, with little minds and little ambitions. Men whose only loyalty is to themselves, whose only duty is to their own purses, whose only pride is in swindling their betters, whose only honour is weighed out in silver coin.” No need to ask where you stand on the merchant class.

Sult scowled out at the view, then turned back into the room. “Now it seems anyone’s son can get an education, and a business, and become rich. The merchant guilds: the Mercers, the Spicers and their like, grow steadily in wealth and influence. Jumped-up, posturing commoners dictating to their natural betters. Their fat and greedy fingers, fumbling at the strings of power. It is almost too much to stand.” He gave a shudder as he paced across the floor.

“I will speak honestly with you, Inquisitor.” The Arch Lector waved his graceful hand as though his honesty were a priceless gift. “The Union has never seemed more powerful, has never controlled more land, but beneath the façade we are weak. It is hardly a secret that the King has become entirely unable to make his own decisions. Crown Prince Ladisla is a fop, surrounded by flatterers and fools, caring for nothing but gambling and clothes. Prince Raynault is far better fitted to rule, but he is the younger brother. The Closed Council, whose task it should be to steer this leaking vessel, is packed with frauds and schemers. Some may be loyal, some are definitely not, each intent on pulling the King his own way.” How frustrating, when I suppose they should all be pulling him in yours?

“Meanwhile, the Union is beset with enemies, dangers outside our borders, and dangers within. Gurkhul has a new and vigorous Emperor, fitting his country for another war. The Northmen are up in arms as well, skulking on the borders of Angland. In the Open Council the noblemen clamour for ancient rights, while in the villages the peasants clamour for new ones.” He gave a deep sigh. “Yes, the old order crumbles, and no one has the heart or the stomach to support it.”

Sult paused, staring up at one of the portraits: a hefty, bald man dressed all in white. Glokta recognised him well enough. Zoller, the greatest of all Arch Lectors. Tireless champion of the Inquisition, hero to the torturer, scourge of the disloyal. He glared down balefully from the wall, as though even beyond death he could burn traitors with a glance.

“Zoller,” growled Sult. “Things were different in his day, I can tell you. No whinging peasants then, no swindling merchants, no sulking noblemen. If men forgot their place they were reminded with hot iron, and any carping judge who dared to whine about it was never heard from again. The Inquisition was a noble institution, filled with the best and the brightest. To serve their King and to root out disloyalty were their only desires, and their only rewards.” Oh, things were grand in the old days.

The Arch Lector slid back into his seat and leaned forward across the table. “Now we have become a place where third sons of impoverished noblemen can line their pockets with bribes, or where near-criminal scum can indulge a passion for torture. Our influence with the King has been steadily eroded, our budgets have been steadily cut. Once we were feared and respected, Glokta, but now…” We’re a miserable sham. Sult frowned, “Well, less so. Intrigues and treasons abound, and I fear that the Inquisition is no longer equal to its task. Too many of the Superiors can no longer be trusted. They are no longer concerned with the interests of the King, or of the state, or of anybody’s interests beyond their own.” The Superiors? Not to be trusted? I swoon with the shock. Sult’s frown grew still deeper. “And now Feekt is dead.”

Glokta looked up. Now that is news. “The Lord Chancellor?”

“It will become public knowledge tomorrow morning. He died suddenly a few nights ago, while you were busy with your friend Rews. There are still some questions surrounding his death, but the man was nearly ninety. The surprise is that he lasted this long. The golden Chancellor they called him, the greatest politician of his day. Even now they are setting his likeness in stone, for a statue on the Kingsway.” Sult snorted to himself. “The greatest gift that any of us can hope for.”

The Arch Lector’s eyes narrowed to blue slits. “If you have any childish notions that the Union is controlled by its King, or by those prating blue-blood fools on the Open Council, you can let them wilt now. The Closed Council is where the power lies. More than ever since the King’s illness. Twelve men, in twelve big, uncomfortable chairs, myself among them. Twelve men with very different ideas, and for twenty years, war and peace, Feekt held us in balance. He played off the Inquisition against the judges, the bankers against the military. He was the axle on which the Kingdom turned, the foundation on which it rested, and his death has left a hole. All kinds of gaping holes, and people will be rushing to fill them. I have a feeling that whining ass Marovia, that bleeding heart of a High Justice, that self-appointed champion of the common man, will be first in the queue. It is a fluid, and a dangerous, situation.” The Arch Lector planted his fists firmly on the table before him. “We must ensure that the wrong people do not take advantage of it.”

Glokta nodded. I think I take your meaning, Arch Lector. We must ensure that it is we who take advantage, and no one else.

“It need hardly be said that the post of Lord Chancellor is one of the most powerful in the realm. The gathering of taxes, the treasury, the King’s mints, all come under his auspices. Money, Glokta, money. And money is power, I need hardly tell you. A new Chancellor will be appointed tomorrow. The foremost candidate was our erstwhile Master of the Mints, Sepp dan Teufel.” I see. Something tells me he will no longer be under consideration.

Sult’s lip curled. “Teufel was closely linked with the merchant guilds, and the Mercers in particular.” His sneer became a scowl. “In addition to which he was an associate of High Justice Marovia. So, you see, he would hardly have made a suitable Lord Chancellor.” No indeed. Hardly suitable. “Surveyor General Halleck is a far better choice, in my opinion.”

Glokta looked towards the door. “Him? Lord Chancellor?”

Sult got up smiling and moved over to a cabinet against the wall. “There really is no one else. Everyone hates him, and he hates everyone, except me. Furthermore, he is a hard-nosed conservative, who despises the merchant class and everything they stand for.” He opened the cabinet and took out two glasses and an ornate decanter. “If not exactly a friendly face on the Council, he will at least be a sympathetic one, and damned hostile toward everyone else. I can hardly think of a more suitable candidate.”

Glokta nodded. “He seems honest.” But not so honest that I’d trust him to put me in the bath. Would you, your Eminence?

“Yes,” said Sult, “he will be very valuable to us.” He poured out two glasses of rich red wine. “And just as a bonus, I was able to arrange for a sympathetic new Master of the Mints as well. I hear that the Mercers are absolutely biting their tongues off with fury. Marovia’s none too happy either, the bastard.” Sult chuckled to himself. “All good news, and we have you to thank.” He held out one of the glasses.

Poison? A slow death twitching and puking on the Arch Lectors lovely mosaic floor? Or just pitching onto my face on his table? But there was really no option but to grasp the glass and take a hearty swig. The wine was unfamiliar but delicious. Probably from somewhere very beautiful and far away. At least if I die up here I wont have to make it back down all those steps. But the Arch Lector was drinking too, all smiles and good grace. So I suppose I will last out the afternoon, after all.

“Yes, we have made a good first step. These are dangerous times alright, and yet danger and opportunity often walk hand in hand.” Glokta felt a strange sensation creeping up his back. Is that fear, or ambition, or both? “I need someone to help me put matters in order. Someone who does not fear the Superiors, or the merchants, or even the Closed Council. Someone who can be relied upon to act with subtlety, and discretion, and ruthlessness. Someone whose loyalty to the Union is beyond question, but who has no friends within the government.” Someone who’s hated by everyone? Someone to take the fall if things turn sour? Someone who will have few mourners at their funeral?

“I have need of an Inquisitor Exempt, Glokta. Someone to operate beyond the Superiors’ control, but with my full authority. Someone answerable only to me.” The Arch Lector raised an eyebrow, as though the thought had only just come to him. “It strikes me that you are exceptionally well suited to this task. What do you think?”

I think the holder of such a post would have a great many enemies and only one friend. Glokta peered up at the Arch Lector. And that friend might not be so very reliable. I think the holder of such a post might not last long. “Could I have some time to consider it?”

“No.”

Danger and opportunity often walk hand in hand… “Then I accept.”

“Excellent. I do believe this is the start of a long and productive relationship.” Sult smiled at him over the rim of his glass. “You know, Glokta, of all the merchants grubbing away out there, it is the Mercers I find the most unpalatable. It was largely through their influence that Westport entered the Union, and it was because of Westport’s money that we won the Gurkish war. The King rewarded them, of course, with priceless trading rights, but ever since then their arrogance has been insufferable. Anyone would have thought they fought the battles themselves, for the airs they have put on, and the liberties they have taken. The honourable Guild of Mercers,” he sneered. “It occurs to me, now that your friend Rews has given us the means to hook them in so deeply, it would be a shame to let them wriggle free.”

Glokta was much surprised, though he thought he hid it well. To go further? Why? The Mercers wriggle free and they keep on paying, and that keeps all kinds of people happy. As things are, they’re scared and soft—wondering who Rews named, who might be next in the chair. If we go further they may be hurt, or finished entirely. Then they’ll stop paying, and a lot of people will be unhappy. Some of them in this very building. “I can easily continue my investigations, your Eminence, if you would like me to.” Glokta took another sip. It really was an excellent wine.

“We must be cautious. Cautious and very thorough. The Mercers’ money flows like milk. They have many friends, even amongst the highest circles of the nobility. Brock, Heugen, Isher, and plenty more besides. Some of the very greatest men in the land. They’ve all been known to suck at that tit, one time or another, and babies will cry when their milk is snatched away.” A cruel grin flickered across Sult’s face. “But still, if children are to learn discipline, they must sometimes be made to weep… who did that worm Rews name in his confession?”

Glokta leaned forward painfully and slid Rews’ paper of confession toward him, unfolded it and scanned the list of names from bottom to top.

“Sepp dan Teufel, we all know.”

“Oh, we know and love him, Inquisitor,” said Sult, beaming down, “but I feel we may safely cross him off the list. Who else?”

“Well, let’s see,” Glokta took a leisurely look back at the paper. “There’s Harod Polst, a Mercer.” A nobody.

Sult waved his hand impatiently. “He’s nobody.”

“Solimo Scandi, a Mercer from Westport.” Also nobody.

“No, no, Glokta, we can do better than Solimo what’s-his-name can’t we? These little Mercers are of no real interest. Pull up the root, and the leaves die by themselves.”

“Quite so, Arch Lector. We have Villem dan Robb, minor nobility, holds a junior customs post.” Sult looked thoughtful, shook his head. “Then there’s—”

“Wait! Villem dan Robb…” The Arch Lector snapped his fingers, “His brother Kiral is one of the Queen’s gentlemen. He snubbed me at a social gathering.” Sult smiled. “Yes, Villem dan Robb, bring him in.”

And so we go deeper. “I serve and obey, your Eminence. Is there anyone’s name in particular that need be mentioned?” Glokta set down his empty glass.

“No.” The Arch Lector turned away and waved his hand again. “Any of ’em, all of ’em. I don’t care.”


First of the Magi

<p>First of the Magi</p>

The lake stretched away, fringed by steep rocks and dripping greenery, surface pricked by the rain, flat and grey as far as the eye could see. Logen’s eye couldn’t see too far in this weather, it had to be said. The opposite shore could have been a hundred strides away, but the calm waters looked deep. Very deep.

Logen had long ago given up any attempt at staying dry, and the water ran through his hair and down his face, dripped from his nose, his fingers, his chin. Being wet, tired, and hungry had become a part of life. It often had been, come to think on it. He closed his eyes and felt the rain patter against his skin, heard the water lapping on the shingle. He knelt by the lake, pulled the stopper from his flask and pushed it under the surface, watched the bubbles break as it filled up.

Malacus Quai stumbled out of the bushes, breathing fast and shallow. He sank down to his knees, crawled against the roots of a tree, coughed out phlegm onto the pebbles. His coughing sounded bad now. It came right up from his guts and made his whole rib cage rattle. He was even paler than he had been when they first met, and a lot thinner. Logen was somewhat thinner too. These were lean times, all in all. He walked over to the haggard apprentice and squatted down.

“Just give me a moment.” Quai closed his sunken eyes and tipped his head back. “Just a moment.” His mouth hung open, the tendons in his scrawny neck standing out. He looked like a corpse already.

“Don’t rest too long. You might never get up.”

Logen held out the flask. Quai didn’t even lift his arm to take it, so Logen put it against his lips and tipped it up a little. He took a wincing swallow, coughed, then his head dropped back against the tree like a stone.

“Do you know where we are?” asked Logen.

The apprentice blinked out at the water as though he’d only just noticed it. “This must be the north end of the lake… there should be a track.” His voice had sunk to a whisper. “At the southern end there’s a road with two stones.” He gave a sudden violent cough, swallowed with difficulty. “Follow the road over the bridge and you’re there,” he croaked.

Logen looked off along the beach at the dripping trees. “How far is it?” No answer. He took hold of the sick man’s bony shoulder and shook it. Quai’s eyelids flickered open, he stared up blearily, trying to focus. “How far?”

“Forty miles.”

Logen sucked his teeth. Quai wouldn’t be walking forty miles. He’d be lucky to make forty strides on his own. He knew it well enough, you could see it in his eyes. He’d be dead soon, Logen reckoned, a few days at the most. He’d seen stronger men die of a fever.

Forty miles. Logen thought about it carefully, rubbing his chin with his thumb. Forty miles.

“Shit,” he whispered.

He dragged the pack over and pulled it open. They had some food left, but not much. A few shreds of tough dried meat, a heel of mouldy black bread. He looked out over the lake, so peaceful. They wouldn’t be running out of drinking water any time soon at least. He pulled his heavy cookpot out of his pack and set it down on the shingle. They’d been together a long time, but there was nothing left to cook. You can’t become attached to things, not out here in the wild. He tossed the rope away into the bushes, then threw the lightened pack over his shoulder.

Quai’s eyes had closed again, and he was scarcely breathing. Logen still remembered the first time he had to leave someone behind, remembered it like it was yesterday. Strange how the boy’s name had gone but the face was with him still.

The Shanka had taken a piece out of his thigh. A big piece. He’d moaned all the way, he couldn’t walk. The wound was going bad, he was dying anyway. They had to leave him. No one had blamed Logen for it. The boy had been too young, he should never have gone. Bad luck was all, could happen to anyone. He’d cried after them as they made their way down the hillside in a grim, silent group, heads down. Logen seemed to hear the cries even when they’d left him far behind. He could still hear them.

In the wars it had been different. Men dropped from the columns all the time on the long marches, in the cold months. First they fell to the back, then they fell behind, then they fell over. The cold, the sick, the wounded. Logen shivered and hunched his shoulders. At first he’d tried to help them. Then he became grateful he wasn’t one of them. Then he stepped over the corpses and hardly noticed them. You learn to tell when someone isn’t getting up again. He looked at Malacus Quai. One more death in the wild was nothing to remark upon. You have to be realistic, after all.

The apprentice started from his fitful sleep and tried to push himself up. His hands were shaking bad. He looked up at Logen, eyes glittering bright. “I can’t get up,” he croaked.

“I know. I’m surprised you made it this far.” It didn’t matter so much now. Logen knew the way. If he could find that track he might make twenty miles a day.

“If you leave me some of the food… perhaps… after you get to the library… someone…”

“No,” said Logen, setting his jaw. “I need the food.”

Quai made a strange sound, somewhere between a cough and a sob.

Logen leaned down and set his right shoulder in Quai’s stomach, pushed his arm under his back. “I can’t carry you forty miles without it,” and he straightened up, hauling the apprentice over his shoulder. He set off down the shore, holding Quai in place by his jacket, his boots crunching into the wet shingle. The apprentice didn’t even move, just hung there like a sack of wet rags, his limp arms knocking against the backs of Logen’s legs.

When he’d made it thirty strides or so Logen turned around and looked back. The pot was sitting forlorn by the lake, already filling up with rainwater. They’d been through a lot together, him and that pot.

“Fare you well, old friend.”

The pot did not reply.


Logen set his shivering burden gently down at the side of the road and stretched his aching back, scratched at the dirty bandage on his arm, took a drink of water from his flask. Water was the only thing to have passed his sore lips that day, and the hunger was gnawing at his guts. At least it had stopped raining. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like dry boots. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.

Logen spat in the dirt and rubbed the life back into his fingers. There was no missing the place, that was sure. The two stones towered over the road, ancient and pitted, patched with green moss at the base and grey lichen higher up. They were covered in faded carvings, lines of letters in a script Logen couldn’t understand, didn’t even recognise. There was a forbidding feel about them though, a sense more of warning than welcome.

“The First Law…”

“What?” said Logen, surprised. Quai had been in an unpleasant place between sleep and waking ever since they left the pot behind two days before. The pot could have made more meaningful sounds in that time. That morning Logen had woken to find him scarcely breathing. He’d been sure that he was dead, to begin with, but the man was still clinging weakly to life. He didn’t give up easy, you had to give him that.

Logen knelt down and shoved the wet hair out of Quai’s face. The apprentice suddenly grabbed his wrist and started forward.

“It’s forbidden,” he whispered, staring at Logen with wide eyes, “to touch the Other Side!”

“Eh?”

“To speak with devils,” he croaked, grabbing hold of Logen’s battered coat. “The creatures of the world below are made of lies! You mustn’t do it!”

“I won’t,” muttered Logen, wondering if he’d ever know what the apprentice was talking about. “I won’t. For what that’s worth.”

It wasn’t worth much. Quai had already dropped back into his twitching half-sleep. Logen chewed at his lip. He hoped the apprentice would wake again, but he didn’t think it likely. Still, perhaps this Bayaz would be able to do something, he was the First of the Magi after all, great in high wisdom and so on. So Logen hefted Quai up onto his shoulder again and trudged between the ancient stones.

The road climbed steep into the rocks above the lake, here built up, there cut deep into the stony ground. It was worn and pitted with age, pocked with weeds. It switched back on itself again and again, and soon Logen was panting and sweating, his legs burning with the effort. His pace began to slow.

The fact was, he was getting tired. Not just tired from the climb, or from the back-breaking slog he’d walked that day with a half-dead apprentice over his shoulder, or from the slog the day before, or even from the fight in the woods. He was tired of everything. Of the Shanka, of the wars, of his whole life.

“I can’t walk for ever, Malacus, I can’t fight for ever. How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take? I need to sit down a minute. In a proper fucking chair! Is that too much to ask? Is it?” In this frame of mind, cursing and grumbling at every step, and with Quai’s head knocking against his arse, Logen came to the bridge.

It was as ancient as the road, coated with creepers, simple and slender, arching maybe twenty strides across a dizzying gorge. Far below a river surged over jagged rocks, filling the air with noise and shining spray. On the far side a high wall had been built between towering faces of mossy stone, made with such care it was difficult to say where the natural cliff ended and the man-made one began. A single ancient door was set into it, faced with beaten copper, turned streaky green by the wet and the years.

As Logen picked his way carefully across the slippery stone he found himself wondering, through force of habit, how you could storm this place. You couldn’t. Not with a thousand picked men. There was only a narrow shelf of rock before the door, no room to set a ladder or swing a ram. The wall was ten strides high at least, and the gate had a dreadful solid look. And if the defenders were to bring down the bridge… Logen peered over the edge, and swallowed. It was a long way down.

He took a deep breath and thumped on the damp green copper with his fist. Four big, booming knocks. He’d beat on the gates of Carleon like that, after the battle, and its people had rushed to surrender. No one rushed to do anything now.

He waited. He knocked again. He waited. He became wetter and wetter in the mist from the river. He ground his teeth. He raised his arm to knock again. A narrow hatch snapped open, and a pair of rheumy eyes stared at him coldly from between thick bars.

“Who’s this now?” snapped a gruff voice.

“Logen Ninefingers is my name. I’ve—”

“Never heard of you.”

Hardly the welcome Logen had been hoping for. “I’ve come to see Bayaz.” No reply. “The First of the—”

“Yes. He’s here.” But the door didn’t open. “He isn’t taking visitors. I told that to the last messenger.”

“I’m no messenger, I have Malacus Quai with me.”

“Malaca what?”

“Quai, the apprentice.”

“Apprentice?”

“He’s very ill,” said Logen slowly. “He may die.”

“Ill, you say? Die, was it?”

“Yes.”

“And what was your name again—”

“Just open the fucking door!” Logen shook his fist pointlessly at the slot. “Please.”

“We don’t let just anyone in… hold up. Show me your hands.”

“What?”

“Your hands.” Logen held his hands up. The watery eyes moved slowly across his fingers. “There are nine. There’s one missing, see?” He shoved the stump at the hatch.

“Nine, is it? You should have said.”

Bolts clanked and the door creaked slowly open. An elderly man, bent under an old-fashioned suit of armour, was staring at him suspiciously from the other side. He was holding a long sword much too heavy for him. Its point wobbled around wildly as he strained to keep it upright.

Logen held up his hands. “I surrender.”

The ancient gatekeeper was not amused. He grunted sourly as Logen stepped past him, then he wrestled the door shut and fumbled with the bolts, turned and trudged away without another word. Logen followed him up a narrow valley lined with strange houses, weathered and mossy, half dug into the steep rocks, merging with the mountainside.

A dour-faced woman was working at a spinning wheel on a doorstep, and she frowned at Logen as he walked past with the unconscious apprentice over his shoulder. Logen smiled back at her. She was no beauty, that was sure, but it had been a very long time. The woman ducked into her house and kicked the door shut, leaving the wheel spinning. Logen sighed. The old magic was still there.

The next house was a bakery with a squat, smoking chimney. The smell of baking bread made Logen’s empty stomach rumble. Further on, a couple of dark-haired children were laughing and playing, running round a scrubby old tree. They reminded Logen of his own children. They didn’t look anything like them, but he was in a morbid frame of mind.

He had to admit to being a little disappointed. He’d been expecting something cleverer-looking, and a lot more beards. These folk didn’t seem so very wise. They looked just like any other peasants. Not unlike his own village had looked before the Shanka came. He wondered if he was in the right place. Then they rounded a bend in the road.

Three great, tapering towers were built into the mountainside ahead, joined at their bases but separating higher up, covered in dark ivy. They seemed far older even than the ancient bridge and road, as old as the mountain itself. A jumbled mess of other buildings crowded around their feet, straggling around the sides of a wide courtyard in which people were busy with everyday chores. A thin woman was churning some milk on a stoop. A stocky blacksmith was trying to shoe a restless mare. An old, bald butcher in a stained apron had finished chopping up some animal and was washing his bloody forearms in a trough.

And on a set of wide steps before the tallest of the three towers sat a magnificent old man. He was dressed all in white, with a long beard, a hook nose, and white hair spilling from under a white skull-cap. Logen was impressed, finally. The First of the Magi surely looked the part. As Logen shuffled towards him he started up from the steps and hurried over, white coat flapping behind him.

“Set him down here,” he muttered, indicating a patch of grass by the well, and Logen knelt and dumped Quai on the ground, as gently as he could with his back aching so much. The old man bent over him, laid a gnarled hand on his forehead.

“I brought your apprentice back,” muttered Logen pointlessly.

“Mine?”

“Aren’t you Bayaz?”

The old man laughed. “Oh no, I am Wells, head servant here at the Library.”

“I am Bayaz,” came a voice from behind. The butcher was walking slowly toward them, wiping his hands on a cloth. He looked maybe sixty but heavily built, with a strong face, deeply lined, and a close-cropped grey beard around his mouth. He was entirely bald, and the afternoon sun shone brightly off his tanned pate. He was neither handsome nor majestic, but as he came closer there did seem to be something about him. An assurance, an air of command. A man used to giving orders, and to being obeyed.

The First of the Magi took Logen’s left hand in both of his and pressed it warmly. Then he turned it over and examined the stump of his missing finger.

“Logen Ninefingers, then. The one they call the Bloody-Nine. I have heard stories about you, even shut up here in my library.”

Logen winced. He could guess what sort of stories the old man might have heard. “That was a long time ago.”

“Of course. We all have a past, eh? I make no judgements on hearsay.” And Bayaz smiled. A broad, white, beaming smile. His face lit up with friendly creases, but a hardness lingered around his eyes, deep-set and glistening green. A stony hardness. Logen grinned back, but he reckoned already that he wouldn’t want to make an enemy of this man.

“And you have brought our missing lamb back to the fold.” Bayaz frowned down at Malacus Quai, motionless on the grass. “How is he?”

“I think he will live, sir,” said Wells, “but we should get him out of the cold.”

The First of the Magi snapped his fingers and a sharp crack echoed from the buildings. “Help him.” The smith hurried forward and took Quai’s feet, and together he and Wells carried the apprentice through the tall door into the library.

“Now, Master Ninefingers, I have called and you have answered, and that shows good manners. Manners might be out of fashion in the North, but I want you to know that I appreciate them. Courtesy should be answered with courtesy, I have always thought. But what’s this now?” The old gatekeeper was hurrying back across the yard, greatly out of breath. “Two visitors in one day? Whatever next?”

“Master Bayaz!” wheezed the gatekeeper, “there’s riders at the gate, well horsed and well armed! They say they’ve an urgent message from the King of the Northmen!”

Bethod. It had to be. The spirits had said he had given himself a golden hat, and who else would have dared to call himself King of the Northmen? Logen swallowed. He’d got away from their last meeting with his life and nothing else, and yet it was better than many had managed, far better.

“Well, master?” asked the gatekeeper, “shall I tell them to be off?”

“Who leads them?”

“A fancy lad with a sour face. Said he’s this King’s son or something.”

“Was it Calder or Scale? They’re both something sour.”

“The younger one, I reckon.”

Calder then, that was something. Either one was bad, but Scale was much the worse. Both together were an experience to be avoided. Bayaz seemed to consider a moment. “Prince Calder may enter, but his men must remain beyond the bridge.”

“Yes sir, beyond the bridge.” The gatekeeper wheezed away. He’d love that, would Calder. Logen was greatly tickled by the thought of the so-called Prince screaming uselessly through that little slot.

“The King of the Northmen now, can you imagine?” Bayaz stared absently off down the valley. “I knew Bethod when he was not so grand. And so did you, eh, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen frowned. He’d known Bethod when he was next to nothing, a little chieftain like so many others. Logen had come for help against the Shanka, and Bethod had given it, at a price. Back then, the price had seemed light, and well worth the paying. Just to fight. To kill a few men. Logen had always found killing easy, and Bethod had seemed a man well worth fighting for—bold, proud, ruthless, venomously ambitious. All qualities that Logen had admired, back then, all qualities he thought he had himself. But time had changed them both, and the price had risen.

“He used to be a better man,” Bayaz was musing, “but crowns sit badly on some people. Do you know his sons?”

“Better than I’d like.”

Bayaz nodded. “They’re absolute shit, aren’t they? And I fear now they will never improve. Imagine that pinhead Scale a king. Ugh!” The wizard shuddered. “It almost makes you want to wish his father a long life. Almost, but not quite.”

The little girl that Logen had seen playing scurried over. She had a chain of yellow flowers in her hands, and she held it up to the old wizard. “I made this,” she said. Logen could hear the rapid pounding of hooves coming up the road.

“For me? How perfectly charming.” Bayaz took the flowers from her. “Excellent work, my dear. The Master Maker himself could not have done better.”

The rider clattered out into the yard, pulled his horse up savagely and swung from the saddle. Calder. The years had been kinder to him than to Logen, that much was clear. He was dressed all in fine blacks trimmed with dark fur. A big red jewel flashed on his finger, the hilt of his sword was set with gold. He’d grown and filled out, half the size of his brother Scale, but a big man still. His pale, proud face was pretty much as Logen remembered though, thin lips twisted in a permanent sneer.

He threw his reins at the woman churning milk then strode briskly across the yard, glowering about him, his long hair flapping in the breeze. When he was about ten strides away he saw Logen. His jaw dropped. Calder took a shocked half step back and his hand twitched towards his sword. Then he smiled a cold little smile.

“So you’ve taken to keeping dogs have you, Bayaz? I’d watch this one. He’s been known to bite his master’s hand.” His lip curled further. “I could put him down for you if you’d like.”

Logen shrugged. Hard words are for fools and cowards. Calder might have been both, but Logen was neither. If you mean to kill, you’re better getting right to it than talking about it. Talk only makes the other man ready, and that’s the last thing you want. So Logen said nothing. Calder could take that for weakness if he pleased, and so much the better. Fights might find Logen depressingly often, but he was long, long past looking for them.

Bethod’s second son turned his contempt on the First of the Magi. “My father will be displeased, Bayaz! That my men must wait outside the gate shows little respect!”

“But I have so little, Prince Calder,” said the wizard calmly. “Please don’t be downhearted, though. Your last messenger wasn’t allowed over the bridge, so you see we’re making progress.”

Calder scowled. “Why have you not answered my father’s summons?”

“There are so many demands on my time.” Bayaz held up the chain of flowers. “These don’t make themselves, you know.”

The Prince was not amused. “My father,” he boomed, “Bethod, King of the Northmen, commands you to attend upon him at Carleon!” He cleared his throat. “He will not…” He coughed.

“What?” demanded Bayaz. “Speak up, child!”

“He commands…” The Prince coughed again, spluttered, choked. He put a hand to his throat. The air seemed to have become very still.

“Commands, does he?” Bayaz frowned. “Bring great Juvens back from the land of the dead. He may command me. He alone, and no other.” The frown grew deeper still, and Logen had to resist a strange desire to back away. “You may not. Nor may your father, whatever he calls himself.”

Calder sank slowly to his knees, face twisted, eyes watering. Bayaz looked him up and down. “What solemn attire, did somebody die? Here,” and he tossed the chain of flowers over the Prince’s head. “A little colour may lighten your mood. Tell your father he must come himself. I do not waste my time on fools and younger sons. I am old fashioned in this. I like to talk to the horse’s head, not the horse’s arse. Do you understand me, boy?” Calder was sagging sideways, eyes red and bulging. The First of the Magi waved his hand. “You may go.”

The Prince heaved in a ragged breath, coughed and reeled to his feet, stumbled for his horse and hauled himself up into the saddle with a deal less grace than he had got down. He shot a murderous glance over his shoulder as he made for the gate, but it didn’t have quite the same weight with his face red as a slapped arse. Logen realised he was grinning, wide. It was a long time since he’d enjoyed himself this much.

“I understand that you can speak to the spirits.”

Logen was caught off guard. “Eh?”

“To speak to the spirits.” Bayaz shook his head. “It is a rare gift in these times. How are they?”

“What, the spirits?”

“Yes.”

“Dwindling.”

“Soon they will all sleep, eh? The magic leaks out of the world. That is the set order of things. Over the years my knowledge has grown, and yet my power has diminished.”

“Calder seemed impressed.”

“Bah.” Bayaz waved his hand. “A mere nothing. A little trick of air and flesh, easily done. No, believe me, the magic ebbs away. It is a fact. A natural law. Still, there are many ways to crack an egg, eh, my friend? If one tool fails then we must try another.” Logen was no longer entirely sure what they were talking about, but he was too tired to ask.

“Yes, indeed,” murmured the First of the Magi. “There are many ways to crack an egg. Speaking of which, you look hungry.”

Logen’s mouth flooded with spit at the very mention of food. “Yes,” he mumbled. “Yes… I could eat.”

“Of course.” Bayaz clapped him warmly on the shoulder. “And then perhaps a bath? Not that we are offended of course, but I find that there is nothing more soothing than hot water after a long walk, and you, I suspect, have had a very long walk indeed. Come with me, Master Ninefingers, you’re safe here.”

Food. Bath. Safety. Logen had to stop himself from weeping as he followed the old man into the library.


The Good Man

<p>The Good Man</p>

It was a hot, hot day outside, and the sun shone brightly through the many-paned windows, casting criss-cross patterns on the wooden floor of the audience chamber. It was mid-afternoon, and the room was soupy warm and stuffy as a kitchen.

Fortis dan Hoff, the Lord Chamberlain, was red-faced and sweaty in his fur-trimmed robes of state, and had been in an increasingly filthy mood all afternoon. Harlen Morrow, his Under-Secretary for Audiences, looked even more uncomfortable, but then he had his terror of Hoff to contend with, in addition to the heat. Both men seemed greatly distressed in their own ways, but at least they got to sit down.

Major West was sweating steadily into his embroidered dress uniform. He had been standing in the same position, hands behind his back, teeth gritted, for nearly two hours while Lord Hoff sulked and grumbled and bellowed his way through the applicants and anyone else in view. West fervently wished, and not for the first time that afternoon, that he was lying under a tree in the park, with a strong drink. Or perhaps under a glacier, entombed within the ice. Anywhere but here.

Standing guard on these horrible audiences was hardly one of West’s more pleasant duties, but it could have been worse. You had to spare a thought for the eight soldiers stood around the walls: they were in full armour. West was waiting for one of them to pass out and crash to the floor with a sound like a cupboard full of saucepans, no doubt to the great disgust of the Lord Chamberlain, but so far they were all somehow staying upright.

“Why is this damned room always the wrong temperature?” Hoff was demanding to know, as if the heat was an insult directed solely at him. “It’s too hot half the year, too cold the other half! There’s no air in here, no air at all! Why don’t these windows open? Why can’t we have a bigger room?”

“Er…” mumbled the harassed Under-Secretary, pushing his spectacles up his sweaty nose, “requests for audiences have always been held here, my Lord Chamberlain.” He paused under the fearsome gaze of his superior. “Er… it is… traditional?”

“I know that, you dolt!” thundered Hoff, face crimson with heat and fury. “Who asked for your damn fool of an opinion anyway?”

“Yes, that is to say, no,” stuttered Morrow, “that is to say, quite so, my Lord.”

Hoff shook his head with a mighty frown, staring around the room in search of something else to displease him. “How many more must we endure today?”

“Er… four more, your Grace.”

“Damn it!” thundered the Chamberlain, shifting in his huge chair and flapping his fur-trimmed collar to let some air in. “This is intolerable!” West found himself in silent agreement. Hoff snatched up a silver goblet from the table and took a great slurp of wine. He was a great one for drinking, indeed he had been drinking all afternoon. It had not improved his temper. “Who’s the next fool?” he demanded.

“Er…” Morrow squinted at a large document through his spectacles, tracing across the crabby writing with an inky finger. “Goodman Heath is next, a farmer from—”

“A farmer? A farmer did you say? So we must sit in this ridiculous heat, listening to some damn commoner moan on about how the weather has affected his sheep?”

“Well, my Lord,” muttered Morrow, “it does seem as though, er, Goodman Heath has, er, a legitimate grievance against his, er, landlord, and—”

“Damn it all! I am sick to my stomach of other people’s grievances!” The Lord Chamberlain took another swallow of wine. “Show the idiot in!”

The doors were opened and Goodman Heath was allowed into their presence. To underline the balance of power within the room, the Lord Chamberlain’s table was raised up on a high dais, so that even standing the poor man had to look up at them. An honest face, but very gaunt. He held a battered hat before him in trembling hands. West shrugged his shoulders in discomfort as a drop of sweat ran down his back.

“You are Goodman Heath, correct?”

“Yes, my Lord,” mumbled the peasant in a broad accent, “from—”

Hoff cut him off with consummate rudeness. “And you come before us seeking an audience with his August Majesty, the High King of the Union?”

Goodman Heath licked his lips. West wondered how far he had come to be made a fool of. A very long way, most likely. “My family have been put off our land. The landlord said we had not been paying the rent but—”

The Lord Chamberlain waved a hand. “Plainly this is a matter for the Commission for Land and Agriculture. His August Majesty the King is concerned with the welfare of all his subjects, no matter how mean,” West almost winced at this slight, “but he cannot be expected to give personal attention to every trifling thing. His time is valuable, and so is mine. Good day.” And that was it. Two of the soldiers pulled the double doors open for Goodman Heath to leave.

The peasant’s face had gone very pale, his knuckles wringing at the brim of his hat. “Good my Lord,” he stammered, “I’ve already been to the Commission…”

Hoff looked up sharply, making the farmer stammer to a halt. “Good day, I said!”

The peasant’s shoulders slumped. He took a last look around the room. Morrow was examining something on the far wall with great interest and refused to meet his eye. The Lord Chamberlain stared back at him angrily, infuriated by this unforgivable waste of his time. West felt sick to be a part of it. Heath turned and shuffled away, head bowed. The doors swung shut.

Hoff bashed his fist on the table. “Did you see that?” He stared round fiercely at the sweating assembly. “The sheer gall of the man! Did you see that, Major West?”

“Yes, my Lord Chamberlain, I saw it all,” said West stiffly. “It was a disgrace.”

Fortunately, Hoff did not take his whole meaning. “A disgrace, Major West, you are quite right! Why the hell is it that all the promising young men go into the army? I want to know who is responsible for letting these beggars in here!” He glared at the Under-Secretary, who swallowed and stared at his documents. “What’s next?”

“Er,” mumbled Morrow, “Coster dan Kault, Magister of the Guild of Mercers.”

“I know who he is, damn it!” snapped Hoff, wiping a fresh sheen of sweat from his face. “If it isn’t the damn peasants it’s the damn merchants!” he roared at the soldiers by the door, his voice easily loud enough to be heard in the corridor outside. “Show the grubbing old swindler in, then!”

Magister Kault could hardly have presented a more different appearance from the previous supplicant. He was a big, plump man, with a face as soft as his eyes were hard. His purple vesture of office was embroidered with yards of golden thread, so ostentatious that the Emperor of Gurkhul himself might have been embarrassed to wear it. He was accompanied by a pair of senior Mercers, their own attire scarcely less magnificent. West wondered if Goodman Heath could earn enough in ten years to pay for one of those gowns. He decided not, even if he hadn’t been thrown off his land.

“My Lord Chamberlain,” intoned Kault with an elaborate bow. Hoff acknowledged the head of the Guild of Mercers as faintly as humanly possible, with a raised eyebrow and an almost imperceptible twist of the lip. Kault waited for a greeting which he felt more befitting of his station, but none was forthcoming. He noisily cleared his throat. “I have come to seek an audience with his August Majesty—”

The Lord Chamberlain snorted. “The purpose of this session is to decide who is worthy of his Majesty’s attention. If you aren’t seeking an audience with him you have blundered into the wrong room.” It was already clear that this interview would be every bit as unsuccessful as the last. There was a kind of horrible justice to it, West supposed. The great and the small were treated exactly alike.

Magister Kault’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he continued. “The honourable Guild of Mercers, of whom I am the humble representative…” Hoff slurped wine noisily and Kault was obliged to pause for a moment. “…have been the victims of a most malicious and mischievous attack—”

“Fill this up, would you?” yelled the Lord Chamberlain, waving his empty goblet at Morrow. The Under-Secretary slipped eagerly from his chair and seized the decanter. Kault was forced to wait, teeth gritted, while the wine gurgled out.

“Continue!” blustered Hoff, waving his hand, “we don’t have all day!”

“A most malicious and under-handed attack—”

The Lord Chamberlain squinted down. “An attack you say? A common assault is a matter for the City Watch!”

Magister Kault grimaced. He and his two companions were already starting to sweat. “Not an attack of that variety, my Lord Chamberlain, but an insidious and underhanded assault, designed to discredit the shining reputation of our Guild, and to damage our business interests in the Free Cities of Styria, and across the Union. An attack perpetrated by certain deceitful elements of his Majesty’s Inquisition, and—”

“I have heard enough!” The Lord Chamberlain jerked up his big hand for silence. “If this is a matter of trade, then it should be handled by His Majesty’s Commission for Trade and Commerce.” Hoff spoke slowly and precisely, in the manner of a school-master addressing his most disappointing pupil. “If this is a matter of law, then it should be handled by the department of High Justice Marovia. If it is a matter of the internal workings of his Majesty’s Inquisition, then you must arrange an appointment with Arch Lector Sult. In any case, it is hardly a matter for the attention of his August Majesty.”

The head of the Mercer’s Guild opened his mouth but the Lord Chamberlain spoke over him, voice louder than ever. “Your King employs a Commission, selects a High Justice, and appoints an Arch Lector, so that he need not deal with every trifling issue himself! Incidentally, that is also why he grants licences to certain merchant guilds, and not to line the pockets…” and his lip twisted into an unpleasant sneer “…of the trading class! Good day.” And the doors were opened.

Kault’s face had turned pale with anger at that last comment. “You may depend upon it, Lord Chamberlain,” he said coldly, “that we will seek redress elsewhere, and with the very greatest of persistence.”

Hoff glared back at him for a very long while. “Seek it wherever you like,” he growled, “and with as much persistence as you please. But not here. Good… day!” If you could have stabbed someone in the face with the phrase “good day”, the head of the Guild of Mercers would have lain dead on the floor.

Kault blinked a couple of times, then turned angrily and strode out with as much dignity as he could muster. His two lackeys followed close on his heels, their fabulous gowns flapping behind them. The doors were pushed shut.

Hoff smashed the table once again with his fist. “An outrage!” he spluttered. “Those arrogant swine! Do they seriously think they can flout the King’s law and still seek the King’s help when things turn sour?”

“Well, no,” said Morrow, “of course…”

The Lord Chamberlain ignored his Under-Secretary and turned to West with a sneering smile. “Still, I fancy I could see the vultures circling around them, despite the low ceiling, eh, Major West?”

“Indeed, my Lord Chamberlain,” mumbled West, thoroughly uncomfortable and wishing this torture would end. Then he could get back to his sister. His heart sank. She was even more of a handful than he remembered. She was clever alright, but he worried that she might be too clever for her own good. If only she would just marry some honest man and be happy. His position here was precarious enough, without her making a spectacle of herself.

“Vultures, vultures,” Hoff was murmuring to himself. “Nasty-looking birds, but they have their uses. What’s next?”

The sweating Under-Secretary looked even more uncomfortable than before as he fumbled for the right words. “We have a party of… diplomats?”

The Lord Chamberlain paused, goblet halfway to his mouth. “Diplomats? From whom?”

“Er… from this so-called King of the Northmen, Bethod.”

Hoff burst out laughing. “Diplomats?” he cackled, mopping his face on his sleeve. “Savages, you mean!”

The Under-Secretary chuckled unconvincingly. “Ah yes, my Lord, ha, ha! Savages, of course!”

“But dangerous, eh, Morrow?” snapped the Lord Chamberlain, his good humour evaporating instantly. The Under-Secretary’s cackling gurgled to a halt. “Very dangerous. We must be careful. Show them in!”

There were four of them. The two smallest were great big, fierce-looking men, scarred and bearded, clad in heavy battered armour. They had been disarmed at the gate of the Agriont, of course, but there was still a sense of danger about them, and West had the feeling they would have given up a lot of big, well-worn weapons. These were the sort of men who were crowded on the borders of Angland, hungry for war, not far from West’s home.

With them came an older man, also in pitted armour, and with long hair and a great white beard. There was a livid scar across his face and through his eye, which was blind white. He had a broad smile on his lips though, and his pleasant demeanour was greatly at odds with that of his two dour companions, and with the fourth man, who came behind.

He had to stoop to get under the lintel, which was a good seven feet above the floor. He was swathed and hooded in a rough brown cloak, features invisible. As he straightened up, towering over everyone else, the room began to seem absurdly cramped. His sheer bulk was intimidating, but there was something more, something that seemed to come off him in sickly waves. The soldiers around the walls felt it, and they shifted uncomfortably. The Under-Secretary for Audiences felt it, sweating and twitching and fussing with his documents. Major West certainly felt it. His skin had gone cold despite the heat, and he could feel every hair on his body standing up under his damp uniform.

Only Hoff seemed unaffected. He looked the four Northmen up and down with a deep frown on his face, no more impressed with the hooded giant than he had been with Goodman Heath. “So you are messengers from Bethod.” He rolled the words around in his mouth, then spat them out, “The King of the Northmen.”

“We are,” said the smiling old man, bowing with great reverence. “I am White-Eye Hansul.” His voice was rich, round and pleasant, without any accent, not at all what West had been expecting.

“And you are Bethod’s emissary?” asked Hoff casually, taking another swallow of wine from his goblet. For the first time ever West was pleased the Lord Chamberlain was in the room with him, but then he glanced up at the hooded man and the feeling of unease returned.

“Oh no,” said White-Eye, “I am here merely as translator. This is the emissary of the King of the Northmen,” and his good eye flicked nervously up to the dark figure in the cloak, as though even he was afraid. “Fenris.” He stretched out the “s” on the end of the name so that it hissed in the air. “Fenris the Feared.”

An apt name indeed. Major West thought back to songs he had heard in his childhood, stories of bloodthirsty giants in the mountains of the distant north. The room was silent for a moment.

“Humph,” said the Lord Chamberlain, unmoved. “And you seek an audience with his August Majesty, the High King of the Union?”

“We do indeed, my Lord Chamberlain,” said the old warrior. “Our master, Bethod, greatly regrets the hostility between our two nations. He wishes only to be on the best of terms with his southern neighbours. We bring an offer of peace from my King to yours, and a gift to show our good faith. Nothing more.”

“Well, well,” said Hoff, sitting back in his high chair with a broad smile. “A gracious request, graciously made. You may see the King in Open Council tomorrow, and present your offer, and your gift, before the foremost peers of the realm.”

White-Eye bowed respectfully. “You are most kind, my Lord Chamberlain.” He turned for the door, followed by the two dour warriors. The cloaked figure lingered for a moment, then he too slowly turned and stooped through the doorway. It wasn’t until the doors were shut that West could breathe easily again. He shook his head and shrugged his sweaty shoulders. Songs about giants indeed. A great big man in a cloak was all. But looking again, that doorway really was very high…

“There, you see, Master Morrow?” Hoff looked intensely pleased with himself. “Hardly the savages you led me to expect! I feel we are close to a resolution of our northern problems, don’t you?”

The Under-Secretary did not look in the least convinced. “Er… yes, my Lord, of course.”

“Yes indeed. A lot of fuss over nothing. A lot of pessimistic, defeatist nonsense from our jumpy citizens up north, eh? War? Bah!” Hoff whacked his hand on the table again, making wine slop out of his goblet and spatter on the wood. “These Northmen wouldn’t dare! Why, next thing you know they’ll be petitioning us for membership of the Union! You see if I’m not right, eh, Major West?”

“Er…”

“Good! Excellent! We’ve got something done today at least! One more and we can get out of this damn furnace! Who do we have, Morrow?”

The Under-Secretary frowned and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Er… we have one Yoru Sulfur,” he wrestled with the unfamiliar name.

“We have a who?”

“Er… Sulfir, or Sulfor, or something.”

“Never heard of him,” grunted the Lord Chamberlain, “what manner of a man is he? Some kind of a southerner? Not another peasant, please!”

The Under-Secretary examined his notes, and swallowed. “An emissary?”

“Yes, yes, but from whom?”

Morrow was positively cringing, like a child expecting a slap. “From the Great Order of Magi!” he blurted out.

There was a moment of stunned silence. West’s eyebrows went up and his jaw came open, and he guessed that the same was happening, unseen, behind the visors of the soldiers. He winced instinctively as he anticipated the response of the Lord Chamberlain, but Hoff surprised them all by bursting into peals of laughter. “Excellent! At last some entertainment. It’s been years since we had a Magus here! Show in the wizard! We mustn’t keep him waiting!”

Yoru Sulfur was something of a disappointment. He had simple, travel-stained clothes, was scarcely better dressed than Goodman Heath had been, in fact. His staff was not shod with gold, had no lump of shining crystal on the end. His eye did not flash with a mysterious fire. He looked a fairly ordinary sort of a man in his middle thirties, slightly tired, as though after a long journey, but otherwise well at his ease before the Lord Chamberlain.

“A good day to you, gentlemen,” he said, leaning on his staff. West was having some difficulty working out where he was from. Not the Union, because his skin was too dark, and not Gurkhul or the far south, because his skin was too light. Not from the North or from Styria. Further then, but where? Now that West looked at him more closely he noticed that his eyes were different colours: one blue, one green.

“And a good day to you, sir,” said Hoff, smiling as though he really meant it. “My door is forever open to the Great Order of Magi. Tell me, do I have the pleasure of addressing great Bayaz himself?”

Sulfur looked puzzled. “No, was I wrongly announced? I am Yoru Sulfur. Master Bayaz is a bald gentleman.” He pushed a hand through his own head of curly brown hair. “There is a statue of him outside in the avenue. But I did have the honour to study under him for several years. He is a most powerful and knowledgeable master.”

“Of course! Of course he is! And how may we be of service?”

Yoru Sulfur cleared his throat, as though to tell a story. “On the death of King Harod the Great, Bayaz, the First of the Magi, left the Union. But he swore an oath to return.”

“Yes, yes, that’s true,” chuckled Hoff. “Very true, every school-child knows it.”

“And he pronounced that, when he returned, his coming would be heralded by another.”

“True, also.”

“Well,” said Sulfur, smiling broadly, “here I am.”

The Lord Chamberlain roared with laughter. “Here you are!” he shouted, thumping the table. Harlen Morrow allowed himself a little chuckle, but shut up immediately as Hoffs smile began to fade.

“During my tenure as Lord Chamberlain, I have had three members of the Great Order of Magi apply to me for audiences with the King. Two were most clearly insane, and one was an exceptionally courageous swindler.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before him. “Tell me, Master Sulfur, which kind of Magus are you?”

“I am neither of those.”

“I see. Then you will have documents.”

“Of course.” Sulfur reached into his coat and brought out a small letter, closed with a white seal, a single strange symbol stamped into it. He placed it carelessly on the table before the Lord Chamberlain.

Hoff frowned. He picked up the document and turned it over in his hands. He examined the seal carefully, then he dabbed his face with his sleeve, broke the wax, unfolded the thick paper and began to read.

Yoru Sulfur showed no sign of nerves. He didn’t appear troubled by the heat. He strolled around the room, he nodded to the armoured soldiers, he didn’t seem upset by their lack of response. He turned suddenly to West. “It’s terribly hot in here, isn’t it? It’s a wonder these poor fellows don’t pass out, and crash to the floor with a sound like a cupboard full of saucepans.” West blinked. He had been thinking the very same thing.

The Lord Chamberlain put the letter down carefully on the table, no longer in the least amused. “It occurs to me that the Open Council would be the wrong place to discuss this matter.”

“I agree. I was hoping for a private audience with Lord Chancellor Feekt.”

“I am afraid that will not be possible.” Hoff licked his lips. “Lord Feekt is dead.”

Sulfur frowned. “That is most unfortunate.”

“Indeed, indeed. We all feel his loss most keenly. Perhaps I and certain other members of the Closed Council can assist you.”

Sulfur bowed his head. “I am guided by you, my Lord Chamberlain.”

“I will try to arrange something for later this evening. Until then we will find you some lodgings within the Agriont… suitable for your station.” He signalled to the guards, and the doors were opened.

“Thank you so much, Lord Hoff. Master Morrow. Major West.” Sulfur nodded to them graciously, each in turn, and then turned and left. The doors were closed once more, leaving West wondering how the man had known his name.

Hoff turned to his Under-Secretary for Audiences. “Go immediately to Arch Lector Sult, and tell him we must meet at once. Then fetch High Justice Marovia, and Lord Marshal Varuz. Tell them it is a matter of the very highest importance, and not a word of this to anyone beyond those three.” He shook his finger in Morrow’s sweaty face. “Not a word!”

The Under-Secretary stared back, spectacles askew. “Now!” roared Hoff. Morrow leapt to his feet, stumbled on the hem of his gown, then hurried out through a side door. West swallowed, his mouth very dry.

Hoff stared long and hard at each man in the room. “As for the rest of you, not a word to anyone about any of this, or the consequences for all of you will be most severe! Now out, everyone out!” The soldiers clanked from the room immediately. West needed no further encouragement and he hurried after them, leaving the brooding Lord Chamberlain alone in his high chair.

West’s thoughts were dark and confused as he pulled the door shut behind him. Fragments of old stories of the Magi, fears about war in the North, images of a hooded giant, towering up near the ceiling. There had been some strange and some sinister visitors to the Agriont that day, and he felt quite weighed down by worries. He tried to shrug them off, told himself it was all foolishness, but then all he could think of was his sister, cavorting about the Agriont like a fool.

He groaned to himself. She was probably with Luthar right now. Why the hell had he introduced the two of them? For some reason he had been expecting the same awkward, sickly, sharp-tongued girl he remembered from years ago. He had got quite a shock when this woman had turned up at his quarters. He had barely recognised her. Undoubtedly a woman, and a fine-looking one too. Meanwhile, Luthar was arrogant and rich and handsome and had all the self-restraint of a six-year old. He knew they had seen each other since, and more than once. Just as friends, of course. Ardee had no other friends here. Just friends.

“Shit!” he cursed. It was like putting a cat by the cream and trusting it not to stick its tongue in. Why the hell hadn’t he thought it through? It was a damn disaster in the making! But what could he do about it now? He stared off miserably down the hallway.

There’s nothing like seeing another’s misery to make you forget your own, and Goodman Heath was a sorry sight indeed. He was sitting alone on a long bench, face deathly pale, staring off into space. He must have been sitting there all this time, while the Mercers and the Northmen and the Magus came and went, waiting for nothing but with nowhere left to go. West glanced up and down the hallway. There was no one else nearby. Heath was oblivious to him, mouth open, eyes glassy, battered hat forgotten on his knees.

West couldn’t simply leave the man like this, he didn’t have it in him.

“Goodman Heath,” he said as he approached, and the peasant looked up at him, surprised. He fumbled for his hat and made to rise, muttering apologies.

“No, please, don’t get up.” West sat down on the bench. He stared at his feet, unable to look the man in the eye. There was an awkward silence. “I have a friend who sits on the Commission for Land and Agriculture. There might be something he can do for you…” He trailed off, embarrassed, squinting up the corridor.

The farmer gave a sad smile. “I’d be right grateful for anything you could do.”

“Yes, yes, of course, I’ll do what I can.” It would do no good whatsoever, and they both knew it. West grimaced and bit his lip. “You’d better take this,” and he pressed his purse into the peasant’s limp, calloused fingers. Heath looked at him, mouth slightly open. West gave a quick, awkward smile then got to his feet. He was very keen to be off.

“Sir!” called Goodman Heath after him, but West was already hurrying down the corridor, and he didn’t look back.


On the List

<p>On the List</p>

Why do I do this?

The outline of Villem dan Robb’s townhouse was cut out in black against the clear night sky. It was an unremarkable building, a two-storey-dwelling with a low wall and a gate in front, just like a hundred others in this street. Our old friend Rews used to live in a palatial great villa near the market. Robb really should have asked him for some more ambitious bribes. Still. Lucky for us he didn’t. Elsewhere in the city the fashionable avenues would be brightly lit and busy with drunken revellers right through until dawn. But this secluded side street was far from the bright lights and the prying eyes.

We can work undisturbed.

Round the side of the building, on the upper floor, a lamp was burning in a narrow window. Good. Our friend is at home. But still awake—we must tread gently. He turned to Practical Frost and pointed down the side of the house. The albino nodded and slipped away silently across the street.

Glokta waited for him to reach the wall and disappear into the shadows beside the building, then he turned to Severard and pointed at the front door. The eyes of the lanky Practical smiled at him for a moment, then he scuttled quickly away, staying low, rolled over the low wall and dropped without a sound onto the other side.

Perfect so far, but now I must move. Glokta wondered why he had come. Frost and Severard were more than capable of dealing with Robb by themselves, and he would only slow them down. I might even fall on my arse and alert the idiot to our presence. So why did I come? But Glokta knew why. The feeling of excitement was already building in his throat. It felt almost like being alive.

He had muffled the end of his cane with a bit of rag, so he was able to limp to the wall, ever so delicately, without making too much noise. By that time Severard had swung the gate open, holding the hinge with one gloved hand so that it didn’t make a noise. Nice and neat. That little wall might as well be a hundred feet high for all my chances of getting over it.

Severard was kneeling on the step against the front door, picking the lock. His ear was close to the wood, his eyes squinting with concentration, gloved hands moving deftly. Glokta’s heart was beating fast, his skin prickly with tension. Ah, the thrill of the hunt.

There was a soft click, then another. Severard slipped his glittering picks into a pocket, then reached out and slowly, carefully turned the doorknob. The door swung silently open. What a useful fellow he is. Without him and Frost I am just a cripple. They are my hands, my arms, my legs. But I am their brains. Severard slipped inside and Glokta followed him, wincing with pain every time he put his weight on his left leg.

The hallway was dark, but there was a shaft of light spilling down the stairs from above and the banisters cast strange, distorted shadows on the wooden floor. Glokta pointed up the steps, and Severard nodded and began to tiptoe toward them, keeping his feet close to the wall. It seemed to take him an age to get there.

The third step made a quiet creaking sound as he put his weight on it. Glokta winced, Severard froze in place. They waited, still as statues. There was no sound from upstairs. Glokta began to breathe again. Severard moved ever so slowly upwards, step by gentle step. As he got towards the top he peered cautiously round the corner, back pressed against the wall, then he took the last step and disappeared from view without a sound.

Practical Frost emerged from the shadows at the far end of the corridor. Glokta raised an eyebrow at him but he shook his head. Nobody downstairs. He turned to the front door and started to close it, ever so gently. Only when it was shut did he slowly, slowly release the doorknob, so the latch slid silently into place.

“You’ll want to see this.”

Glokta gave a start at the sudden sound, turning round quickly and causing a jolt of pain to shoot through his back. Severard was standing, hands on hips, at the head of the stairs. He turned and made off towards the light, and Frost bounded up the steps after him, no longer making any pretence at stealth.

Why can no one ever stay on the ground floor? Always upstairs. At least he didn’t have to try to be quiet as he struggled up the steps after his Practicals, right foot creaking, left foot scraping on the boards. Bright lamplight was flooding out into the upstairs corridor from an open door at the far end, and Glokta limped toward it. He paused as he crossed the threshold, catching his breath after the climb.

Oh dear me, what a mess. A big bookcase had been torn away from the wall, and books were scattered, open and closed, all about the floor. A glass of wine had been knocked over on the desk, making sodden red rags of the crumpled papers strewn across it. The bed was in disarray, the covers pulled half off, the pillows and the mattress slashed and spilling feathers. A wardrobe had its doors open, one of them dangling half off. A few tattered garments were hanging inside, but most were lying torn in a heap below.

A handsome young man lay on his back under the window, staring up, pale-faced and open mouthed at the ceiling. It would have been an understatement to say that his throat had been cut. It had been hacked so savagely that his head was only just still attached. There was blood splattered everywhere, on the torn clothes, on the slashed mattress, all over the body itself. There were a couple of smeared, bloody palm-prints on the wall, a great pool of blood across a good part of the floor, still wet. He was killed tonight. Perhaps only a few hours ago. Perhaps only a few minutes.

“I don’t think he’ll be answering our questions,” said Severard.

“No.” Glokta’s eyes drifted over the wreckage. “I think he might be dead. But how did it happen?”

Frost fixed him with a pink eye and raised a white eyebrow. “Poithon?”

Severard spluttered with shrill laughter under his mask. Even Glokta allowed himself a chuckle. “Clearly. But how did our poison get in?”

“Open wi’ow,” mumbled Frost, pointing at the floor.

Glokta limped into the room, careful not to let his feet or his cane touch the sticky mess of blood and feathers. “So, our poison saw the lamp burning, just as we did. He entered via the downstairs window. He climbed silently up the stairs.” Glokta turned the corpse’s hands over with the tip of his cane. A few specks of blood from the neck, but no damage to the knuckles or the fingers. He did not struggle. He was taken by surprise. He craned forward and peered at the gaping wound.

“A single, powerful cut. Probably with a knife.”

“And Villem dan Robb has sprung a most serious leak,” said Severard.

“And we are short one informant,” mused Glokta. There had been no blood in the corridor. Our man took pains not to get his feet wet while searching the room, however messy it may look. He was not angry or afraid. It was just a job.

“The killer was a professional,” murmured Glokta, “he came here with murder in mind. Then perhaps he made this little effort to give the appearance of a burglary, who can say? Either way, the Arch Lector won’t be satisfied with a corpse.” He looked up at his two Practicals. “Who’s next on the list?”


This time there had been a struggle, without a doubt. If a onesided one. Solimo Scandi was sprawled on his side, facing the wall, as though embarrassed by the state of his slashed and tattered nightshirt. There were deep cuts in his forearms. Where he struggled vainly to ward off the blade. He had crawled across the floor, leaving a bloody trail across the highly polished wood. Where he struggled vainly to get away. He had failed. The four gaping knife wounds in his back had been the end of him.

Glokta felt his face twitching as he looked down at the bloody corpse. One body might just be a coincidence. Two make a conspiracy. His eyelid fluttered. Whoever did this knew we were coming, and when, and precisely who for. They are one step ahead of us. More than likely, our list of accomplices has already become a list of corpses. There was a creaking sound behind Glokta and his head whipped round, sending shooting pains down his stiff neck. Nothing but the open window swinging in the breeze. Calm, now. Calm, and think it out.

“It would seem the honourable Guild of Mercers have been doing a little housekeeping.”

“How could they know?” muttered Severard.

How indeed? “They must have seen Rews’ list, or been told who was on it.” And that means… Glokta licked at his empty gums. “Someone inside the Inquisition has been talking.”

For once, Severard’s eyes were not smiling. “If they know who’s on the list, they know who wrote it. They know who we are.”

Three more names on the list, perhaps? Down at the bottom? Glokta grinned. How very exciting. “You scared?”

“I’m not happy, I’ll tell you that.” He nodded down at the corpse. “A knife in the back isn’t part of my plan.”

“Nor mine, Severard, believe me.” No indeed. If I die, I’ll never know who betrayed us.

And I want to know.


A bright, cloudless spring day, and the park was busy with fops and idlers of every variety. Glokta sat very still on his bench, in the merciful shade of a spreading tree, and stared out at the shimmering greenery, the sparkling water, the happy, the drunken, the colourful revellers. There were people wedged together on the benches around the lake, pairs and groups scattered around the grass, drinking and talking and basking in the sun. There seemed no space for any more.

But no one came and sat next to Glokta. Occasionally somebody would hurry up, hardly able to believe their luck in finding such a spot, then they would see him sitting there. Their faces would fall and they would swerve away, or walk right past as though they had never meant to sit. I drive them away as surely as the plague, but perhaps that’s just as well. I don’t need their company.

He watched a group of young soldiers rowing a boat on the lake. One of them stood up, wobbling around, holding forth with a bottle in his hand. The boat rocked alarmingly, and his companions shouted at him to get down. Vague gales of good-natured laughter came wafting through the air, delayed a little by the distance. Children. How young they look. How innocent. And such was I, not long ago. It seems a thousand years, though. Longer. It seems a different world.

“Glokta.”

He looked up, shading his eyes with his hand. It was Arch Lector Sult, arrived at last, a tall dark shape against the blue sky. Glokta thought he looked a little more tired, more lined, more drawn than usual as he stared coldly down.

“This had better be interesting.” Sult flicked out the tails of his long white coat and lowered himself gracefully onto the bench. “The commoners are up in arms again near Keln. Some idiot of a landowner hangs a few peasants and now we have a mess to deal with! How hard can it be to manage a field full of dirt and a couple of farmers? You don’t have to treat them well, just as long as you don’t hang them!” His mouth was a straight, hard line as he glared out across the lawns. “This had better be damned interesting.”

Then I’ll try not to disappoint you. “Villem dan Robb is dead.” As though to add emphasis to Glokta’s statement, the drunken soldier slipped and toppled over the side of the boat, splashing into the water. His friends’ screams of laughter reached Glokta a moment later. “He was murdered.”

“Huh. It happens. Pick up the next man on the list.” Sult got to his feet, frowning. “I didn’t think you’d need my approval for every little thing. That’s why I picked you for this job. Just get on with it!” he snapped as he turned away.

There’s no need to rush, Arch Lector. That’s the trouble with good legs, you tend to run around too much. If you have trouble moving, on the other hand, you don’t move until you damn well know it’s time. “The next man on the list also suffered a mishap.”

Sult turned back, one eyebrow slightly raised. “He did?”

“They all did.”

The Arch Lector pursed his lips, sat back down on the bench. “All of them?”

“All of them.”

“Hmm,” mused Sult. “That is interesting. The Mercers are cleaning up, are they? I hardly expected such ruthlessness. Times have changed, alright, times have certainly…” He trailed off, slowly starting to frown. “You think someone gave them Rews’ list, don’t you? You think one of ours has been talking. That’s why you asked me to come here, isn’t it?”

Did you think I was just avoiding the stairs? “Each one of them killed? Each and every name on our list? The very night we go to arrest them? I am not a great believer in coincidences.” Are you, Arch Lector?

He was evidently not. His face had turned very grim. “Who saw the confession?”

“Me, and my two Practicals, of course.”

“You have absolute confidence in them?”

“Absolute.” There was a pause. The boat was drifting, rudderless, as the soldiers scrambled about, oars sticking up in the air, the man in the water splashing and laughing, spraying water over his friends.

“The confession was in my office for some time,” murmured the Arch Lector. “Some members of my staff could have seen it. Could have.”

“You have absolute confidence in them, your Eminence?”

Sult stared at Glokta for a long, icy moment. “They wouldn’t dare. They know me better than that.”

“That leaves Superior Kalyne,” said Glokta quietly.

The Arch Lector’s lips hardly moved as he spoke. “You must tread carefully, Inquisitor, very carefully. The ground is not at all safe where you are walking. Fools do not become Superiors of the Inquisition, despite appearances. Kalyne has many friends, both within the House of Questions and outside it. Powerful friends. Any accusation against him must be backed up by the very strongest of proof.” Sult stopped suddenly, waiting for a small group of ladies to pass out of earshot. “The very strongest of proof,” he hissed, once they had moved away. “You must find me this assassin.”

Easier said than done. “Of course, your Eminence, but my investigation has reached something of a dead end.”

“Not quite. We still have one card left to play. Rews himself.”

Rews? “But, Arch Lector, he will be in Angland by now.” Sweating down a mine or some such. If he has even lasted this long.

“No. He is here in the Agriont, under lock and key. I thought it best to hold on to him.” Glokta did his utmost to contain his surprise. Clever. Very clever. Fools do not become Arch Lectors either, it seems. “Rews will be your bait. I will have my secretary carry a message to Kalyne, letting him know that I have relented. That I am prepared to let the Mercers continue to operate, but under tighter control. That as a gesture of goodwill I have let Rews go. If Kalyne is the source of our leak, I daresay he will let the Mercers know that Rews is free. I daresay they will send this assassin to punish him for his loose tongue. I daresay you could take him while he is trying. If the killer doesn’t come, well, we might have to look for our traitor elsewhere, and we have lost nothing.”

“An excellent plan, your Eminence.”

Sult stared at him coldly. “Of course. You will need somewhere to operate, somewhere far from the House of Questions. I will make the funds available, have Rews delivered to your Practicals, and let you know when Kalyne has the information. Find me this assassin, Glokta, and squeeze him. Squeeze him until the pips squeak.” The boat lurched wildly as the soldiers tried to haul their wet companion in, then it suddenly turned right over, dumping them all into the water.

“I want names,” hissed Sult, glowering at the splashing soldiers, “I want names, and evidence, and documents, and people who will stand up in Open Council and point fingers.” He stood up smoothly from the bench. “Keep me informed.” He strode off towards the House of Questions, feet crunching on the gravel of the path, and Glokta watched him go. An excellent plan. I’m glad you’re on my side, Arch Lector. You are on my side, aren’t you?

The soldiers had succeeded in hauling the upended boat onto the bank and were standing, dripping wet, shouting at one another, no longer so good-humoured. One of the oars was still floating, abandoned in the water, drifting gradually towards the point where the stream flowed from the lake. Soon it would pass under the bridge and be carried out, beneath the great walls of the Agriont and into the moat. Glokta watched it turning slowly round in the water. A mistake. One should attend to the details. It is easy to forget the little things, but without the oar, the boat is useless.

He let his gaze wander across some of the other faces in the park. His eye alighted on a handsome pair sitting on a bench by the lake. The young man was speaking quietly to the girl, a sad and earnest expression on his face. She got up quickly, moving away from him with her hands over her face. Ah, the pain of the jilted lover. The loss, the anger, the shame. It seems as though you’ll never recover. What poet was it who wrote there’s no pain worse than the pain of a broken heart? Sentimental shit. He should have spent more time in the Emperor’s prisons. He smiled, opening his mouth and licking the empty gums where his front teeth used to be. Broken hearts heal with time, but broken teeth never do.

Glokta looked at the young man. He had an expression of slight amusement on his face as he watched the weeping girl walk away. The young bastard. I wonder if he’s broken as many hearts as I did, in my youth? It hardly seems possible now. It takes me half an hour just to pluck up the courage to stand. The only women I’ve made cry lately have been the wives of those I’ve had exiled to Angland—

“Sand.”

Glokta turned around. “Lord Marshal Varuz, what an honour.”

“Oh no, no,” said the old soldier, sitting down on the bench with the swift, precise movements of the fencing master. “You look well,” he said, but without really looking. I look crippled, you mean. “How are you, my old friend?” I’m crippled, you pompous old ass. And friend, is it? All those years since I came back, and you have never sought me out, not once. Is that a friendship?

“Well enough, thank you, Lord Marshal.”

Varuz shifted uncomfortably on the bench. “My latest student, Captain Luthar… perhaps you know him?”

“We are acquainted.”

“You should see his forms.” Varuz shook his head sadly. “He has the talent, alright, though he will never be in your class, Sand.” I don’t know. I hope some day he’ll be just as crippled as I am. “But he has plenty of talent, enough to win. Only he’s wasting it. Throwing it away.” Oh, the tragedy of it. I am so upset I could be sick. Had I eaten anything this morning.

“He is lazy, Sand, and stubborn. He lacks courage. He lacks dedication. His heart is just not in it, and time is running out. I was wondering, if you have the time of course,” Varuz looked Glokta in the eye for just an instant, “whether you might be able to speak to him for me.”

I can hardly wait! Lecturing that whining ass would be the realisation of all my dreams. You arrogant old dolt, how dare you? You built your reputation on my successes, then when I needed your help you cut me off. And now you come to me, and seek my help, and call me friend?

“Of course, Marshal Varuz, I would be glad to speak to him. Anything for an old friend.”

“Excellent, excellent! I’m sure you’ll make all the difference! I train him every morning, in that courtyard near the House of the Maker, where I used to train you…” The old Marshal trailed off awkwardly.

“I will come as soon as my duties permit.”

“Of course, your duties…” Varuz was already getting up, evidently keen to be on his way. Glokta held out his hand, making the old soldier pause for a moment. You needn’t worry, Lord Marshal, I am not contagious. Varuz gave it a limp shake, as though worried it might snap off, then he mumbled his excuses and strode away, head held high. The dripping soldiers bowed and saluted as he walked past, somewhat embarrassed.

Glokta stretched out his leg, wondering whether to get up. And go where? The world will not end if I sit here a moment longer. There is no rush. No rush.


An Offer and a Gift

<p>An Offer and a Gift</p>

“And, forward!” bellowed Marshal Varuz. Jezal lurched at him, toes curling round the edges of the beam, trying desperately to keep his balance, making a clumsy lunge or two just to give the impression of his heart being in it. Four hours of training a day were taking their toll on him, and he felt beyond mere exhaustion.

Varuz frowned and flicked Jezal’s blunted steel aside, moving effortlessly along the beam as though it was a garden path. “And back!”

Jezal stumbled back on his heels, left arm waving stupidly around him in an attempt to keep his balance. Everything above his knees was aching terribly from the effort. Below the knees it was much, much worse. Varuz was over sixty, but he showed no signs of fatigue. He wasn’t even sweating as he danced forward down the beam, swishing his steels around. Jezal himself was gasping for air as he parried desperately with his left hand, badly off balance, his right foot fishing in space for the safety of the beam behind him.

“And, forward!” Jezal’s calves were agony as he stumbled to change his direction and shove a blow at the infuriating old man, but Varuz did not move back. Instead he ducked under the despairing cut and used the back of his arm to sweep Jezal’s feet away.

Jezal let out a howl as the courtyard turned over around him. His leg smacked painfully against the edge of the beam, then he sprawled on his face on the grass, chin thumping into the turf and making his teeth rattle. He rolled a short distance then lay there on his back, gasping like a fish snatched suddenly from the water, leg throbbing where it had collided with the beam on his way down. He would have yet another ugly bruise in the morning.

“Awful, Jezal, awful!” cried the old soldier as he sprang nimbly down onto the lawn. “You teeter about the beam as though it were a tightrope!” Jezal rolled over, cursing, and started to climb stiffly to his feet. “It is a solid piece of oak, wide enough to get lost in!” The Lord Marshal illustrated his point by whacking at the beam with his short steel, making splinters fly.

“I thought you said forward,” moaned Jezal.

Varuz’ eyebrows went up sharply. “Do you seriously suppose, Captain Luthar, that Bremer dan Gorst gives his opponents reliable information as to his intentions?”

“Bremer dan Gorst will be trying to beat me, you old shit! You are supposed to be helping me to beat him!” That was what Jezal thought, but he knew better than to say it. He just shook his head dumbly.

“No! No indeed he does not! He makes every effort to deceive and confuse his opponents, as all great swordsmen must!” The Lord Marshal paced up and down, shaking his head. Jezal considered again whether to give it all up. He was sick of falling into bed exhausted each night, at a time when he should have been just starting to get drunk. He was sick of waking up every morning, bruised and aching, to face another four interminable hours of running, beam, bar, forms. He was sick of being knocked on his arse by Major West. Most of all he was sick of being bullied by this old fool.

“…A depressing display, Captain, very depressing. I do believe you are actually getting worse…”

Jezal would never win the Contest. No one expected him to, himself least of all. So why not give it up, and go back to his cards and late nights? Wasn’t that all he really wanted from life? But then what would mark him out from a thousand other noble younger sons? He had decided long ago that he wanted to be something special. A Lord Marshal himself perhaps, and then Lord Chamberlain. Something big and important anyway. He wanted a big chair on the Closed Council, and to make big decisions. He wanted people to fawn and smile around him and hang on his every word. He wanted people to whisper, “There goes Lord Luthar!” as he swept past. Could he be happy being forever a richer, cleverer, better-looking version of Lieutenant Brint? Ugh! It was not to be thought of.

“…We have a terribly long way to go, and not enough time to get there, not unless you change your attitude. Your sparring is lamentable, your stamina is still weak, and as for your balance, the less said about that the better…”

And what would everyone else think if he gave up? What would his father do? What would his brothers say? What about the other officers? He would look a coward. And then there was Ardee West. She seemed to have been much on his mind during the past couple of days. Would she lean so close to him if he didn’t fence? Would she talk to him in such soft tones? Would she laugh at his jokes? Would she look up at him with those big, dark eyes, so he could almost feel her breath on his face—

“Are you listening, boy?” thundered Varuz. Jezal felt a bit of his breath on his face alright, and a deal of spit too.

“Yes, sir! Sparring lamentable, stamina weak!” Jezal swallowed nervously. “Less said about balance the better.”

“That’s right! I am beginning to think, though I can hardly believe it after the trouble you have put me to, that your heart really isn’t in this.” He glared into Jezal’s eyes. “What do you think, Major?”

There was no reply. West was slumped in his chair, arms folded, frowning grimly and staring into space.

“Major West?” snapped the Lord Marshal.

He looked up suddenly, as though he had only just become aware of their presence. “I’m sorry, sir, I had become distracted.”

“So I see.” Varuz sucked his teeth. “It seems that nobody has been concentrating this morning.” It was a great relief that some of the old man’s anger had been deflected elsewhere, but Jezal’s happiness was not long-lived.

“Very well,” snapped the old Marshal, “if that’s the way you want it. Starting tomorrow we will begin each session with a swim in the moat. A mile or two should do it.” Jezal squeezed his teeth together to keep from screaming. “Cold water has a wonderful way of sharpening the senses. And perhaps we need to start a little earlier, to catch you in your most receptive frame of mind. That means we begin at five. In the meantime, Captain Luthar, I suggest that you consider whether you are here in order to win the Contest, or simply for the pleasure of my company.” And he turned on his heel and stalked off.

Jezal waited until Varuz had left the courtyard before losing his temper, but once he was sure the old man was out of earshot he flung his steels against the wall in a fury.

“Damn it!” he shouted as the swords rattled to the ground. “Shit!” He looked around for something to kick that wouldn’t hurt too much. His eye lighted on the leg of the beam, but he misjudged the kick badly and had to stifle the urge to grab his bruised foot and hop around like an idiot. “Shit, shit!” he raged.

West was disappointingly unimpressed. He got up, frowning, and made to follow Marshal Varuz.

“Where are you off to?” asked Jezal.

“Away,” said West, over his shoulder, “I’ve seen enough.”

“What does that mean?”

West stopped and turned to face him. “Amazing though it may seem, there are bigger problems in the world than this.”

Jezal stood there open mouthed as West stalked from the courtyard. “Just who do you think you are?” he shouted after him, once he was sure he was gone. “Shit, shit!” He considered giving the beam another kick, but thought better of it.


Jezal was in a foul mood on his way back to his quarters, so he stayed away from the busier parts of the Agriont, sticking to the quieter lanes and gardens to the side of the Kingsway. He glowered down at his feet as he walked, to further discourage any social encounter. But luck was not on his side.

“Jezal!” It was Kaspa, out for a stroll with a yellow-haired girl in expensive clothes. They had a severe-looking middle-aged woman with them, no doubt the girl’s governess or some such. They had stopped to admire some piece of minor sculpture in a little-visited yard.

“Jezal!” Kaspa shouted again, waving his hat above his head. There was no avoiding them. He plastered an unconvincing smile onto his face and stalked over. The pale girl smiled at him as he approached, but if he was meant to be charmed he didn’t feel it.

“Been fencing again, Luthar?” asked Kaspa pointlessly. Jezal was sweating and holding a pair of fencing steels. It was well known that he fenced every morning. You didn’t need a fine mind to make the connection, which was fortunate, because Kaspa certainly didn’t have one.

“Yes. How did you guess?” Jezal hadn’t meant to kill the conversation quite so dead, but he passed it off with a false chuckle, and the smiles of the ladies soon returned.

“Hah, hah,” laughed Kaspa, ever willing to be the butt of a joke.

“Jezal, may I introduce my cousin, the Lady Ariss dan Kaspa? This is my superior officer, Captain Luthar.” So this was the famous cousin. One of the Unions richest heiresses and from an excellent family. Kaspa was always babbling about what a beauty she was, but to Jezal she seemed a pale, skinny, sickly-looking thing. She smiled weakly and offered out her limp, white hand.

He brushed it with the most perfunctory of kisses. “Charmed,” he muttered, without relish. “I must apologise for my appearance, I’ve just been fencing.”

“Yes,” she squeaked, in a high, piping voice, once she was sure he had finished speaking. “I have heard you are a great fencer.” There was a pause while she groped for something to say, then her eyes lit up. “Tell me Captain, is fencing really very dangerous?”

What insipid drivel. “Oh no, my lady, we only use blunted steels in the circle.” He could have said more, but he was damned if he was going to make all the effort. He gave a thin smile. So did she. The conversation hovered over the abyss.

Jezal was about to make his excuses, the subject of fencing evidently exhausted, but Ariss cut him off by blundering on to another topic. “And tell me, Captain, is there really likely to be a war in the North?” Her voice had almost entirely faded away by the end of the sentence, but the chaperone stared on approvingly, no doubt delighted by the conversational skills of her charge.

Spare us. “Well it seems to me…” Jezal began. The pale, blue eyes of Lady Ariss stared back at him expectantly. Blue eyes are absolute crap, he reflected. He wondered which subject she was more ignorant of: fencing or politics? “What do you think?”

The chaperone’s brow furrowed slightly. Lady Ariss looked somewhat taken aback, blushing slightly as she groped for words. “Well, er… that is to say… I’m sure that everything will… turn out well?”

Thank the fates! thought Jezal, we are saved! He had to get out of here. “Of course, everything will turn out well.” He forced out one more smile. “It has been a real pleasure to make your acquaintance, but I’m afraid I’m on duty shortly, so I must leave you.” He bowed with frosty formality. “Lieutenant Kaspa, Lady Ariss.”

Kaspa clapped him on the arm, as friendly as ever. His ignorant waif of a cousin smiled uncertainly. The governess frowned at him as he passed, but Jezal took no notice.


He arrived at the Lords’ Round just as the council members were returning from their lunchtime recess. He acknowledged the guards in the vestibule with a terse nod, then strode through the enormous doorway and down the central isle. A straggling column of the greatest peers of the realm were hard on his heels, and the echoing space was full of shuffling footsteps, grumblings and whisperings, as Jezal made his way around the curved wall to his place behind the high table.

“Jezal, how was fencing?” It was Jalenhorm, here early for once, and seizing on the opportunity to talk before the Lord Chamberlain arrived.

“I’ve had better mornings. Yourself?”

“Oh, I’ve been having a fine time. I met that cousin of Kaspa’s, you know,” he searched for the name.

Jezal sighed. “Lady Ariss.”

“Yes, that’s it! Have you seen her?”

“I was lucky enough to run into them just now.”

“Phew!” exclaimed Jalenhorm, pursing his lips. “Isn’t she stunning?”

“Hmm.” Jezal looked away, bored, and watched the robed and fur-trimmed worthies file slowly to their places. At least he watched a sample of their least favourite sons and paid representatives. Very few of the magnates turned up in person for Open Council these days, not unless they had something significant to complain about. A lot of them didn’t even bother to send someone in their place.

“I swear, one of the finest-looking girls I ever saw. I know Kaspa’s always raving about her, but he didn’t do her justice.”

“Hmm.” The councillors began to spread out, each man towards his own seat. The Lords’ Round was designed like a theatre, the Union’s leading noblemen sitting where the audience would be, on a great half-circle of banked benches with an aisle down the centre.

As in the theatre, some seats were better than others. The least important sat high up at the back, and the occupants’ significance increased as you came forward. The front row was reserved for the heads of the very greatest families, or whoever they sent in their stead. Representatives from the south, from Dagoska and Westport, were on the left, nearest to Jezal. On the far right were those from the north and west, from Angland and Starikland. The bulk of the seating, in between, was for the old nobility of Midderland, the heart of the Union. The Union proper, as they would have seen it. As Jezal saw it too, for that matter.

“What poise, what grace,” Jalenhorm was rhapsodising, “that wonderful fair hair, that milky-white skin, those fantastic blue eyes.”

“And all of that money.”

“Well yes, that too,” smiled the big man. “Kaspa says his uncle is even richer than his father. Imagine that! And he has just the one child. She will inherit every mark of it. Every mark!” Jalenhorm could scarcely contain his excitement. “It’s a lucky man that can bag her! What was her name again?”

“Ariss,” said Jezal sourly. The Lords, or their proxies, had all shuffled and grumbled their way to their seats. It was a poor attendance: the benches were less than half full. That was about as full as it ever got. If the Lords’ Round really had been a theatre, its owners would have been desperately in search of a new play.

“Ariss. Ariss.” Jalenhorm smacked his lips as though the name left a sweet taste. “It’s a lucky man that gets her.”

“Yes indeed. A lucky man.” Providing he prefers cash to conversation, that is. Jezal thought he might have preferred to marry the governess. At least she had seemed to have a bit of backbone.

The Lord Chamberlain had entered the hall now, and was making his way towards the dais on which the high table stood, just about where the stage would have been, had the Round been a theatre. He was followed by a gaggle of black-gowned secretaries and clerks, each man more or less encumbered with heavy books and sheaves of official-looking papers. With his crimson robes of state flapping behind him, Lord Hoff looked like nothing so much as a rare and stately gliding bird, pursued by a flock of troublesome crows.

“Here comes old vinegar,” whispered Jalenhorm, as he sidled off to find his place on the other side of the table. Jezal put his hands behind his back and struck the usual pose, feet a little spread, chin high in the air. He swept an eye over the soldiers, regularly spaced around the curved wall, but each man was motionless and perfectly presented in full armour, as always. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for several hours of the most extreme tedium.

The Lord Chamberlain threw himself into his tall chair and called for wine. The secretaries took their places around him, leaving a space in the centre for the King, who was absent as usual. Documents were rustled, great ledgers were heaved open, pens were sharpened and rattled in ink wells. The Announcer walked to the end of the table and struck his staff of office on the floor for order. The whispering of the noblemen and their proxies, and that of the few attendees in the public gallery over their heads, gradually died down, leaving the vast chamber silent.

The Announcer puffed out his chest. “I call this meeting,” he said, in slow and sonorous tones, as though he were giving the eulogy at a funeral, “of the Open Council of the Union…” he gave an unnecessarily long and significant pause. The Lord Chamberlain’s eyes flicked angrily towards him, but the Announcer was not to be robbed of his moment of glory. He made everyone wait an instant longer before finishing, “…to order!”

“Thank you,” said Hoff sourly. “I believe we were about to hear from the Lord Governor of Dagoska before we were interrupted by luncheon.” The scratching nibs of quills accompanied his voice, as two clerks recorded his every word. The faint echoes of the pens merged with the echoes of his words in the great space above.

An elderly man struggled to his feet in the front row close to Jezal, some papers clasped before him in shaky hands.

“The Open Council,” droned the Announcer, as ponderously as he dared, “recognises Rush dan Thuel, accepted proxy of Sand dan Vurms, the Lord Governor of Dagoska!”

“Thank you, sir.” Thuel’s cracking, wispy voice was absurdly small in the vast space. It barely carried as far as Jezal, and he was no more than ten strides away. “My Lords—” he began.

“Speak up!” called someone from the back. There was a ripple of laughter. The old man cleared his throat and tried again.

“My Lords, I come before you with an urgent message from the Lord Governor of Dagoska.” His voice had already faded to its original, barely audible level, each word accompanied by the persistent scratching of quills. Whispers began to emanate from the public gallery above, making it still harder to hear him. “The threat posed to that great city by the Emperor of Gurkhul increases with every passing day.”

Vague sounds of disapproval began to float up from the far side of the room, where the representatives from Angland were seated, but the bulk of the councillors simply looked bored. “Attacks on shipping, harassment of traders, and demonstrations beyond our walls, have compelled the Lord Governor to send me—”

“Lucky us!” somebody shouted. There was another wave of laughter, slightly louder this time.

“The city is built on but a narrow peninsula,” persisted the old man, straining to make himself heard over the increasing background noise, “attached to a land controlled entirely by our bitter enemies the Gurkish, and separated from Midderland by wide leagues of salt water! Our defences are not all they might be! The Lord Governor is sorely in need of more funds…”

The mention of funds brought instant uproar from the assembly. Thuel’s mouth was still moving, but there was no chance of hearing him now. The Lord Chamberlain frowned and took a swallow from his goblet. The clerk furthest from Jezal had laid down his quill and was rubbing his eyes with his inky thumb and forefinger. The clerk closest had just finished writing a line. Jezal craned forward to see. It said simply:

Some shouting here.

The Announcer thumped his staff on the tiles with a look of great self-satisfaction. The hubbub eventually died down but Thuel had now been taken with a coughing fit. He tried to speak but was unable, and eventually he waved his hand and sat down, very red in the face, while his neighbour thumped him on the back.

“If I may, Lord Chamberlain?” shouted a fashionable young man in the front row on the other side of the hall, leaping to his feet. The scratching of the quills began once again. “It seems to me—”

“The Open Council,” cut in the Announcer, “recognises Hersel dan Meed, third son and accepted proxy of Fedor dan Meed, the Lord Governor of Angland!”

“It seems to me,” continued the handsome young man, only slightly annoyed by this interruption, “that our friends in the south are forever expecting a full-scale attack by the Emperor!” Dissenting voices were now raised on the other side of the room. “An attack which never materialises! Did we not defeat the Gurkish only a few short years ago, or does my memory deceive me?” The booing increased in volume. “This scaremongering represents an unacceptable drain on the Union’s resources!” He was shouting to be heard. “In Angland we have many miles of border and too few soldiers, while the threat from Bethod and his Northmen is very real! If anyone is in need of funds…”

The shouting was instantly redoubled. Cries of “Hear, hear!”, “Nonsense!”, “True!” and “Lies!” could be vaguely made out over the hubbub. Several of the representatives were on their feet, shouting. Some vigorously nodded their agreement, some violently shook their heads in dissent. Others yawned and stared around. Jezal could see one fellow, near to the back in the centre, who was almost certainly asleep, and in imminent danger of slumping into his neighbour’s lap.

He allowed his eyes to wander up, over the faces ranged around the rail of the public gallery. He felt a strange tugging in his chest. Ardee West was up there, looking straight down at him. As their eyes met she smiled and waved. He was smiling himself, with his arm halfway up to wave, when he remembered where he was. He pushed his arm behind his back and looked around nervously, but was relieved to find that no one important had noticed his mistake. The smile would not quite leave his face though.

“My Lords!” roared the Lord Chamberlain, smashing his empty goblet down on the high table. He had the loudest voice Jezal had ever heard. Even Marshal Varuz could have learned a thing or two about shouting from Hoff. The sleeping man near the back started up, sniffing and blinking. The noise died away almost immediately. Those representatives left standing looked around guiltily, like naughty children called to account, and gradually sat down. The whispers from the public gallery went still. Order was restored.

“My Lords! I can assure you, the King has no more serious concern than the safety of his subjects, no matter where they are! The Union does not permit aggression against its people or property!” Hoff punctuated each comment by smashing his fist down in front of him. “From the Emperor of Gurkhul, from these savages in the North, or from anyone else!” He struck the table so hard on this last comment that ink splashed from a well and ran all over one of the clerks’ carefully prepared documents. Calls of agreement and support greeted the Lord Chamberlain’s patriotic display.

“As for the specific circumstance of Dagoska!” Thuel looked up hopefully, chest still shaking with suppressed coughs. “Is that city not possessed of some of the most powerful and extensive defences in the world? Did it not resist a siege by the Gurkish, less than a decade ago, for over a year? What has become of the walls, sir, the walls?” The great room fell quiet as everyone strained to hear the reply.

“Lord Chamberlain,” wheezed Thuel, his voice nearly drowned out as one of the clerks turned the crackling page of his huge book and began scratching on the next, “the defences have fallen into poor repair, and we lack the soldiers to keep them properly manned. The Emperor is not ignorant of this,” he whispered, all but inaudible, “I beg of you…” He dissolved into another fit of coughing, and dropped into his seat, accompanied by some light jeering from the Angland delegation.

Hoff frowned even more deeply. “It was my understanding that the defences of the city were to be maintained by monies raised locally, and by trade levies upon the Honourable Guild of Spicers, who have operated in Dagoska under an exclusive and highly profitable licence these past seven years. If resources cannot be found even to maintain the walls,” and he swept the assembly with a dark eye, “perhaps it is time that this licence was put out to tender.” There was a volley of angry mutterings around the public gallery.

“In any case, the Crown can spare no extra monies at present!” Jeers of dissatisfaction came from the Dagoska side of the room, hoots of agreement from the Angland side.

“As for the specific circumstance of Angland!” thundered the Lord Chamberlain, turning toward Meed. “I believe we may shortly hear some good news, for you to take back to your father the Lord Governor.” A cloud of excited whisperings rose up into the gilded dome above. The handsome young man looked pleasantly surprised, as well he might. It was rare indeed that anyone took good news away from the Open Council, or news of any kind for that matter.

Thuel had got control of his lungs once more, and he opened his mouth to speak, but he was interrupted by a great beating on the huge door behind the high table. The Lords looked up: surprised, expectant. The Lord Chamberlain smiled, in the manner of a magician who has just pulled off an exceptionally difficult trick. He signalled to the guards, the heavy iron bolts were drawn back, and the great, inlaid doors creaked slowly open.

Eight Knights of the Body, encased in glittering armour, faceless behind high, polished helmets, resplendent in purple cloaks marked on the back with a golden sun, stomped in unison down the steps and took their places to either side of the high table. They were closely followed by four trumpeters, who stepped smartly forward, raised their shining instruments to their lips and blew an ear-splitting fanfare. Jezal gritted his rattling teeth and narrowed his eyes, but eventually the ringing echoes faded. The Lord Chamberlain turned angrily toward the Announcer, who was staring at the new arrivals with his mouth open.

“Well?” hissed Hoff.

The Announcer jumped to life. “Ah… yes of course! My Lords and Ladies, I have the great honour to present…” he paused and took a huge breath, “…his Imperial Highness, the King of Angland, of Starikland, and of Midderland, the Protector of Westport and of Dagoska, his August Majesty, Guslav the Fifth, High King of the Union!” There was a great rustling noise as every man and woman in the hall shifted from their seats and down onto one knee.

The royal palanquin processed slowly through the doors, carried on the shoulders of six more faceless knights. The King was sitting in a gilded chair on top, propped up on rich cushions and swaying gently from side to side. He was staring about him with the startled expression of a man who went to sleep drunk, and has woken up in an unfamiliar room.

He looked awful. Enormously fat, lolling like a great hill swathed in fur and red silk, head squashed into his shoulders by the weight of the great, sparkling crown. His eyes were glassy and bulging, with huge dark bags hanging beneath, and the pink point of his tongue kept flicking nervously over his pale lips. He had great low jowls and a roll of fat around his neck, in fact his whole face gave the appearance of having slightly melted and started to run down off his skull. Such was the High King of the Union, but Jezal bowed his head a little lower as the palanquin approached, just the same.

“Oh,” muttered his August Majesty, as though he had forgotten something, “please rise.” The rustling noise filled the hall again as everybody rose and returned to their seats. The King turned toward Hoff, brow deeply furrowed, and Jezal heard him say, “Why am I here?”

“The Northmen, your Majesty.”

“Oh yes!” The King’s eyes lit up. He paused. “What about them?”

“Er…” but the Lord Chamberlain was saved from replying by the opening of the doors on the opposite side of the hall, the ones through which Jezal had first entered. Two strange men strode through and advanced down the aisle.

One was a grizzled old warrior with a scar and a blind eye, carrying a flat wooden box. The other was cloaked and hooded, every feature hidden, and so big that he made the whole hall seem out of proportion. The benches, the tables, even the guards, all suddenly looked like small versions designed for the use of children. As he passed, a couple of the representatives closest to the aisle cringed and shuffled away. Jezal frowned to himself. This hooded giant did not have the look of good news, whatever Lord Hoff might say. Angry and suspicious mutterings filled the echoing dome as the two Northmen took their places on the tiled floor before the high table.

“Your Majesty,” said the Announcer, bowing so ridiculously low that he had to support himself with his staff, “the Open Council recognises Fenris the Feared, the envoy of Bethod, King of the Northmen, and his translator, White-Eye Hansul!”

The King was staring off happily towards one of the great windows in the curved wall, utterly oblivious, perhaps admiring the way the light shone through the beautiful stained glass, but he looked suddenly round, jowls vibrating, as the old half-blind warrior addressed him.

“Your Majesty. I bring brotherly greetings from my master, Bethod, King of the Northmen.” The Round had fallen very still, and the clerks’ scratching nibs seemed absurdly loud. The old warrior nodded at the great hooded shape beside him with an awkward smile. “Fenris the Feared brings an offer from Bethod to yourself. From King to King. From the North to the Union. An offer, and a gift.” And he raised the wooden box.

The Lord Chamberlain gave a self-satisfied smirk. “Speak your offer first.”

“It is an offer of peace. An endless peace between our two great nations.” White-Eye bowed again. His manners were impeccable, Jezal had to admit. Not what one would expect from savages of the cold and distant North. His goodly speech would almost have been enough to put the room at ease, had it not been for the hooded man beside him, looming like a dark shadow.

The King’s face twitched into a weak smile at this mention of peace however. “Good,” he muttered. “Excellent. Peace. Capital. Peace is good.”

“He asks but one small thing in return,” said White-Eye.

The Lord Chamberlain’s face had turned suddenly dour, but it was too late. “He has but to name it,” said the King, smiling indulgently.

The hooded man stepped forward. “Angland,” he hissed.

There was a moment of stillness, then the hall exploded with noise. There was a gale of disbelieving laughter from the public gallery. Meed was on his feet, red-faced and screaming. Thuel tottered up from his bench, then fell back coughing. Angry bellows were joined by hoots of derision. The King was staring about him with all the dignity of a startled rabbit.

Jezal’s eyes were fixed on the hooded man. He saw a great hand slip out from his sleeve and reach for the clasp on his cloak. He blinked in surprise. Was the hand blue? Or was it just a trick of the light through the stained glass? The cloak dropped to the floor.

Jezal swallowed, his heart thumping loud in his ears. It was like staring at a terrible wound: the more he was revolted, the less he could look away. The laughter died, the shouting died, the great space became terribly still once more.

Fenris the Feared seemed larger yet without his cloak, towering over his cringing translator. Without any doubt, he was the biggest man that Jezal had ever seen, if man he was. His face was in constant, twisted, sneering motion. His bulging eyes twitched and blinked as they stared crazily round at the assembly. His thin lips smiled and grimaced and frowned by turns, never still. But all this seemed ordinary, by comparison with his strangest feature.

His whole left side, from head to toe, was covered in writing.

Crabby runes were scrawled across the left half of his shaven head, across his eyelid, his lips, his scalp, his ear. His huge left arm was tattooed blue with tiny writing, from bulging shoulder to the tips of his long fingers. Even his bare left foot was covered in strange letters. An enormous, inhuman, painted monster stood at the very heart of the Union’s government. Jezal’s jaw hung open.

Around the high table there were fourteen Knights of the Body, each man a hard-trained fighter of good blood. There were perhaps forty guardsmen of Jezal’s own company around the walls, each one a seasoned veteran. They outnumbered these two Northmen more than twenty to one, and were well armed with the best steel the King’s armouries could provide. Fenris the Feared carried no weapon. For all his size and strangeness, he should have been no threat to them.

But Jezal did not feel safe. He felt alone, weak, helpless, and terribly afraid. His skin was tingling, his mouth was dry. He felt a sudden urge to run, and hide, and never come out again.

And this strange effect was not limited to him, or even to those around the high table. Angry laughs turned to shocked gurgles as the painted monster turned slowly around in the centre of the circular floor, flickering eyes running over the crowd. Meed shrank back onto his bench, anger all leached out of him. A couple of worthies on the front row actually scrambled over the backs of their benches and into the row behind. Others looked away, or covered their faces with their hands. One of the soldiers dropped his spear, and it clattered loudly to the floor.

Fenris the Feared turned slowly to the high table, raising his great tattooed fist, opening his chasm of a mouth, a hideous spasm running over his face. “Angland!” he screamed, louder and more terrible by far than the Lord Chamberlain had ever been. The echoes of his voice bounced off the domed ceiling high above, resounded from the curved walls, filling the great space with piercing sound.

One of the Knights of the Body stumbled back and slipped, his armoured leg clanking against the edge of the high table.

The King shrank back and covered his face with his hand, one terrified eye staring out from between his fingers, crown teetering on his head.

The quill of one of the clerks dropped from his nerveless fingers. The hand of the other moved across the paper by habit while his mouth fell open, scrawling a messy word diagonally through the neat lines of script above.

Angland.

The Lord Chamberlain’s face had turned waxy pale. He reached slowly for his goblet, raised it to his lips. It was empty. He placed it carefully back down on the table, but his hand was trembling, and the base rattled on the wood. He paused for a moment, breathing heavily through his nose. “Plainly, this offer is not acceptable.”

“That is unfortunate,” said White-Eye Hansul, “but there is still the gift.” Every eye turned towards him. “In the North we have a tradition. On occasion, when there is bad blood between two clans, when there is the threat of war, champions come forward from each side, to fight for all their people, so that the issue might be decided… with only one death.”

He slowly opened the lid of the wooden box. There was a long knife inside, blade polished mirror-bright. “His Greatness, Bethod, sends the Feared not only as his envoy, but as his champion. He will fight for Angland, if any here will face him, and spare you a war you will not win.” He held the box up to the painted monster. “This is my master’s gift to you, and there could be none richer… your lives.”

Fenris’ right hand darted out and snatched the knife from the box. He raised it high, blade flashing in the coloured light from the great windows. The knights should have jumped forward. Jezal should have drawn his sword. All should have rushed to the defence of the King, but nobody moved. Every mouth was agape, every eye fastened on that glinting tooth of steel.

The blade flashed down. Its point drove easily through skin and flesh until it was buried right to the hilt. The point emerged, dripping blood, from the underside of Fenris’ own tattooed left arm. His face twitched, but no more than usual. The blade moved grotesquely as he stretched out his fingers, raised his left arm high for all to see. The drops of blood made a steady patter on the floor of the Lords’ Round.

“Who will fight me?” he screamed, great cords of sinew bulging from his neck. His voice was almost painful to the ear.

Utter silence. The Announcer, who was closest to the Feared, and already on his knees, swooned and collapsed on his face.

Fenris turned his goggling eyes on the biggest knight before the table, a full head shorter than he was. “You?” he hissed. The unfortunate man’s foot scraped on the floor as he backed away, no doubt wishing he had been born a dwarf.

A puddle of dark blood had spread across the floor beneath Fenris’ elbow. “You?” he snarled at Fedor dan Meed. The young man turned slightly grey, teeth rattling together, no doubt wishing he was someone else’s son.

Those blinking eyes swept across the ashen faces on the high table. Jezal’s throat constricted as Fenris’ eyes met his. “You?”

“Well I would, but I’m terribly busy this afternoon. Perhaps tomorrow?” The voice hardly sounded like his own. He certainly hadn’t meant to say any such thing. But who else’s could it be? The words floated confidently, breezily up towards the gilded dome above.

There was scattered laughter, a shout of “Bravo!” from somewhere at the back, but the eyes of the Feared did not leave Jezal’s for an instant. He waited for the sounds to die, then his mouth twisted into a hideous leer.

“Tomorrow then,” he whispered. Jezal’s guts gave a sudden painful shift. The seriousness of the situation pressed itself upon him like a ton of rocks. Him? Fight that?

“No.” It was the Lord Chamberlain. He was still pale, but his voice had regained much of its vigour. Jezal took heart, and fought manfully for control of his bowels. “No!” barked Hoff again. “There will be no duel here! There is no issue to decide! Angland is a part of the Union, by ancient law!”

White-Eye Hansul chuckled softly. “Ancient law? Angland is part of the North. Two hundred years ago there were Northmen there, living free. You wanted iron, so you crossed the sea, and slaughtered them and stole their land! It must be, then, that most ancient of laws: that the strong take what they wish from the weak?” His eyes narrowed. “We have that law also!”

Fenris the Feared ripped the knife from his arm. A few last drops of blood spattered onto the tiles, but that was all. There was no wound on the tattooed flesh. No mark at all. The knife clattered onto the tiles and lay there in the pool of blood at his feet. Fenris swept the assembly with his bulging, blinking, crazy eyes one last time, then he turned and strode across the floor and up the aisle, Lords and proxies scrambling away down their benches as he approached.

White-Eye Hansul bowed low. “Perhaps the time will come when you wish that you had accepted our offer, or our gift. You will hear from us,” he said quietly, then he held up three fingers to the Lord Chamberlain. “When it is time, we will send three signs.”

“Send three hundred if you wish,” barked Hoff, “but this pantomime is over!”

White-Eye Hansul nodded pleasantly. “You will hear from us.” And he turned and followed Fenris the Feared out of the Lords’ Round. The great doors clapped shut. The quill of the nearest clerk scratched weakly against the paper.

You will hear from us.

Fedor dan Meed turned towards the Lord Chamberlain, jaw locked tight, handsome features contorted with fury. “And this is the good news you would have me convey to my father?” he screamed. The Open Council erupted. Bellowing, shouting, abuse directed toward anyone and everyone, chaos of the worst kind.

Hoff jumped up, chair toppling over behind him, mouthing angry words, but even he was drowned out by the uproar. Meed turned his back on him and stormed out. Other delegates from the Angland side of the room rose grimly and followed the son of their Lord Governor. Hoff stared after them, livid with anger, mouth working silently.

Jezal watched the King slowly take his hand from his face and lean down toward his Lord Chamberlain. “When are the Northmen getting here?” he whispered.


The King of the Northmen

<p>The King of the Northmen</p>

Logen breathed in deep, enjoying the unfamiliar feel of the cool breeze on his fresh-shaved jaw, and took in the view. It was the beginning of a clear day. The dawn mist was almost gone, and from the balcony outside Logen’s room, high up on the side of one of the towers of the library, you could see for miles. The great valley was spread out before him, split into stark layers. On top was the grey and puffy white of the cloudy sky. Then there was the ragged line of black crags that ringed the lake, and the dim brown suggestion of others beyond. Next came the dark green of the wooded slopes, then the thin, curving line of grey shingle on the beach. All was repeated in the still mirror of the lake below—another, shadowy world, upside down beneath his own.

Logen looked down at his hands, fingers spread out on the weathered stone of the parapet. There was no dirt, no dried blood under his cracked fingernails. They looked pale, soft, pinkish, strange. Even the scabs and scrapes on his knuckles were mostly healed. It was so long since Logen had been clean that he’d forgotten what it felt like. His new clothes were coarse against his skin, robbed of its usual covering of dirt and grease and dry sweat.

Looking out at the still lake, clean and well fed, he felt a different man. For a moment he wondered how this new Logen might turn out, but the bare stone of the parapet stared back at him where his missing finger used to be. That could never heal. He was Ninefingers still, the Bloody-Nine, and always would be. Unless he lost any more fingers. He did smell better though, that had to be admitted.

“Did you sleep well, Master Ninefingers?” Wells was in the doorway, peering out onto the balcony.

“Like a baby.” Logen didn’t have the heart to tell the old servant that he’d slept outside. The first night he’d tried the bed, rolling and wriggling, unable to come to terms with the strange comfort of a mattress and the unfamiliar warmth of blankets. Next he’d tried the floor. That had been an improvement. But the air had still seemed close, flat, stale. The ceiling had hung over him, seeming to creep ever lower, threatening to crush him with the weight of stone above. It was only when he’d lain down on the hard flags of the balcony, with his old coat spread over him and just the clouds and the stars above, that sleep had come. Some habits are hard to break.

“You have a visitor,” said Wells.

“Me?”

Malacus Quai’s head appeared around the door frame. His eyes were a little less sunken, the bags underneath them a little less dark. There was some colour to his skin, and some flesh on his bones. He no longer looked like a corpse, just gaunt and sick, as he had done when Logen first met him. He guessed that was about as healthy as Quai ever looked.

“Hah!” laughed Logen. “You survived!”

The apprentice gave a series of tired nods as he shambled across the room. He was swathed in a thick blanket which trailed on the floor and made it difficult for him to walk properly. He shuffled out of the door to the balcony and stood there, sniffing and blinking in the chill morning air.

Logen was more pleased to see him than he’d expected. He clapped him on the back like an old friend, perhaps a little too warmly. The apprentice stumbled, blanket tangled round his feet, and would have fallen if Logen hadn’t put out an arm to steady him.

“Still not quite in fighting shape,” muttered Quai, with a weak grin.

“You look a deal better than when I last saw you.”

“So do you. You lost the beard I see, and the smell too. A few less scars and you’d look almost civilised.”

Logen held his hands up. “Anything but that.”

Wells ducked through the doorway into the bright morning light. He had a roll of cloth and a knife in his hand. “Could I see your arm, Master Ninefingers?”

Logen had almost forgotten about the cut. There was no new blood on the bandage, and when he unwound it there was a long, red-brown scab underneath, running almost all the way from wrist to elbow, surrounded by fresh pink skin. It hardly hurt any more, just itched. It crossed two other, older scars. One, a jagged grey effort near his wrist, he thought he might have got in the duel with Threetrees, all those years ago. Logen grimaced as he remembered the battering they’d given each other. The second scar, fainter, higher up, he wasn’t sure about. Could’ve come from anywhere.

Wells bent down and tested the flesh round the wound while Quai peered cautiously over his shoulder. “It’s mending well. You’re a fast healer.”

“Lots of practice.”

Wells looked up at Logen’s face, where the cut on his forehead had already faded to one more pink line. “I can see. Would it be foolish to advise you to avoid sharp objects in the future?”

Logen laughed. “Believe it or not, I always did my best to avoid them in the past. But they seem to seek me out, despite my efforts.”

“Well,” said the old servant, cutting off a fresh length of cloth and winding it carefully round Logen’s forearm, “I hope this is the last bandage you ever need.”

“So do I,” said Logen, flexing his fingers. “So do I.” But he didn’t think it would be.

“Breakfast will be ready soon.” And Wells left the two of them alone on the balcony.

They stood there in silence for a moment, then the wind blew up cold from the valley. Quai shivered and pulled his blanket tight around him. “Out there… by the lake. You could have left me. I would have left me.”

Logen frowned. Time was he’d have done it and never given it a second thought, but things change. “I’ve left a lot of people, in my time. Reckon I’m sick of that feeling.”

The apprentice pursed his lips and looked out at the valley, the woods, the distant mountains. “I never saw a man killed before.”

“You’re lucky.”

“You’ve seen a lot of death, then?”

Logen winced. In his youth, he would have loved to answer that very question. He could have bragged, and boasted, and listed the actions he’d been in, the Named Men he’d killed. He couldn’t say now when the pride had dried up. It had happened slowly. As the wars became bloodier, as the causes became excuses, as the friends went back to the mud, one by one. Logen rubbed at his ear, felt the big notch that Tul Duru’s sword had made, long ago. He could have stayed silent. But for some reason, he felt the need to be honest.

“I’ve fought in three campaigns,” he began. “In seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I’ve fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I’ve been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I’ve known little else. I’ve seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that’s far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper.

“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.”

And that was all. Logen breathed a deep, ragged sigh and stared out at the lake. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man beside him, didn’t want to see the expression on his face. Who wants to learn he’s keeping company with the Bloody-Nine? A man who’s wrought more death than the plague, and with less regret. They could never be friends now, not with all those corpses between them.

Then he felt Quai’s hand clap him on the shoulder. “Well, there it is,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, “but you saved me, and I’m right grateful for it!”

“I’ve saved a man this year, and only killed four. I’m born again.” And they both laughed for a while, and it felt good.

“So, Malacus, I see you are back with us.”

They turned, Quai stumbling on his blanket and looking a touch sick. The First of the Magi was standing in the doorway, dressed in a long white shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He still looked more like a butcher than a wizard to Logen.

“Master Bayaz… er… I was just coming to see you,” stuttered Quai.

“Indeed? How fortunate for us both then, that I have come to you.” The Magus stepped out onto the balcony. “It occurs to me that a man who is well enough to talk, and laugh, and venture out of doors, is doubtless well enough to read, and study, and expand his tiny mind. What would you say to that?”

“Doubtless…”

“Doubtless, yes! Tell me, how are your studies progressing?”

The wretched apprentice looked utterly confused. “They have been somewhat… interrupted?”

“You made no progress with Juvens’ Principles of Art while you were lost in the hills in bad weather?”

“Er… no progress… no.”

“And your knowledge of the histories. Did that develop far, while Master Ninefingers was carrying you back to the library?”

“Er… I must confess… it didn’t.”

“Your exercises and meditations though, surely you have been practising those, while unconscious this past week?”

“Well, er… no, the unconsciousness was… er…”

“So, tell me, would you say that you are ahead of the game, so to speak? Or have your studies fallen behind?”

Quai stared down at the floor. “They were behind when I left.”

“Then perhaps then you could tell me where you plan to spend the day?”

The apprentice looked up hopefully. “At my desk?”

“Excellent!” Bayaz smiled wide. “I was about to suggest it, but you have anticipated me! Your keenness to learn does you much credit!” Quai nodded furiously and hurried towards the door, the hem of his blanket trailing on the flags.

“Bethod is coming,” murmured Bayaz. “He will be here today.” Logen’s smile vanished, his throat felt suddenly tight. He remembered their last meeting well enough. Stretched out on his face on the floor of Bethod’s hall at Carleon, beaten and broken and well chained up, dribbling blood into the straw and hoping the end wouldn’t be too long coming. Then, no reason given, they’d let him go. Flung him out the gates with the Dogman, Threetrees, the Weakest and the rest, and told him never to come back. Never. The first time Bethod ever showed a grain of mercy, and the last, Logen didn’t doubt.

“Today?” he asked, trying to keep his voice even.

“Yes, and soon. The King of the Northmen. Hah! The arrogance of him!” Bayaz glanced sidelong at Logen. “He is coming to ask me for a favour, and I would like you to be there.”

“He won’t like that.”

“Exactly.”

The wind felt colder than before. If Logen never saw Bethod again it would be far too soon. But some things have to be done. It’s better to do them, than to live with the fear of them. That’s what Logen’s father would have said. So he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “I’ll be there.”

“Excellent. Then there is but one thing missing.”

“What?”

Bayaz smirked. “You need a weapon.”


It was dry in the cellars beneath the library. Dry and dark and very, very confusing. They’d gone up and down steps, around corners, past doors, taking here or there a turning to the left or right. The place was a warren. Logen hoped he didn’t lose sight of the wizard’s flickering torch, or he could easily be stuck beneath the library for ever.

“Dry down here, nice and dry,” Bayaz was saying to himself, voice echoing down the passageway and merging with their flapping footfalls. “There’s nothing worse than damp for books.” He pulled up suddenly next to a heavy door. “Or for weapons.” He gave the door a gentle shove and it swung silently open.

“Look at that! Hasn’t been opened for years, but the hinges still move smooth as butter! That’s craftsmanship for you! Why does no one care about craftsmanship anymore?” Bayaz stepped over the threshold without waiting for an answer, and Logen followed close behind.

The wizard’s torch lit up a long, low hall with walls of rough stone blocks, the far end lost in shadows. The room was lined with racks and shelves, the floor littered with boxes and stands, everything heaped and bursting with a mad array of arms and armour. Blades and spikes and polished surfaces of wood and metal caught the flickering torchlight as Bayaz paced slowly across the stone floor, weaving between the weapons and casting around.

“Quite a collection,” muttered Logen, as he followed the Magus through the clutter.

“A load of old junk mostly, but there should be a few things worth the finding.” Bayaz took a helmet from a suit of ancient, gilded plate armour and looked it over with a frown. “What do you make of that?”

“I’ve never been much for armour.”

“No, you don’t strike me as the type. All very well on horseback, I dare say, but it’s a pain in the arse when you’ve a journey to make on foot.” He tossed the helmet back onto its stand, then stood there staring at the armour, lost in thought. “Once you’ve got it on, how do you piss?”

Logen frowned. “Er…” he said, but Bayaz was already moving off down the room, and taking the light with him.

“You must have used a few weapons in your time, Master Ninefingers. What’s your preference for?”

“I’ve never really had one,” said Logen, ducking under a rusty halberd leaning out from a rack. “A champion never knows what he might be called on to fight with.”

“Of course, of course.” Bayaz took up a long spear with a vicious barbed head, and wafted it around a bit. Logen stepped back cautiously. “Deadly enough. You could keep a man at bay with one of these. But a man with a spear needs a lot of friends, and they all need spears as well.” Bayaz shoved it back on the rack and moved on.

“This looks fearsome.” The Magus took hold of the gnarled shaft of a huge double-bladed axe. “Shit!” he said as he lifted it up, veins bulging out of his neck. “It’s heavy enough!” He set it down with a thump, making the rack wobble. “You could kill a man with that! You could cut him clean in half! If he was standing still.”

“This is better,” said Logen. It was a simple, solid-looking sword, in a scabbard of weathered brown leather.

“Oh, yes indeed. Much, much better. That blade is the work of Kanedias, the Master Maker himself.” Bayaz handed his torch to Logen and took the long sword from the rack.

“Has it ever occurred to you, Master Ninefingers, that a sword is different from other weapons? Axes and maces and so forth are lethal enough, but they hang on the belt like dumb brutes.” He ran an eye over the hilt, plain cold metal scored with faint grooves for a good grip, glinting in the torchlight. “But a sword… a sword has a voice.”

“Eh?”

“Sheathed it has little to say, to be sure, but you need only put your hand on the hilt and it begins to whisper in your enemy’s ear.” He wrapped his fingers tightly round the grip. “A gentle warning. A word of caution. Do you hear it?”

Logen nodded slowly. “Now,” murmured Bayaz, “compare it to the sword half drawn.” A foot length of metal hissed out of the sheath, a single silver letter shining near the hilt. The blade itself was dull, but its edge had a cold and frosty glint. “It speaks louder, does it not? It hisses a dire threat. It makes a deadly promise. Do you hear it?”

Logen nodded again, his eye fastened on that glittering edge. “Now compare it to the sword full drawn.” Bayaz whipped the long blade from its sheath with a faint ringing sound, brought it up so that the point hovered inches from Logen’s face. “It shouts now, does it not? It screams defiance! It bellows a challenge! Do you hear it?”

“Mmm,” said Logen, leaning back and staring slightly crosseyed at the shining point of the sword.

Bayaz let it drop and slid it gently back into its scabbard, something to Logen’s relief. “Yes, a sword has a voice. Axes and maces and so forth are lethal enough, but a sword is a subtle weapon, and suited to a subtle man. You I think, Master Ninefingers, are subtler than you appear.” Logen frowned as Bayaz held the sword out to him. He had been accused of many things in his life, but never subtlety. “Consider it a gift. My thanks for your good manners.”

Logen thought about it a moment. He hadn’t owned a proper weapon since before he crossed the mountains, and he wasn’t keen to take one up again. But Bethod was coming, and soon. Better to have it, and not want it, than to want it, and not have it. Far, far better. You have to be realistic about these things.

“Thank you,” said Logen, taking the sword from Bayaz and handing him back the torch. “I think.”


A small fire crackled in the grate, and the room was warm, and homely, and comfortable.

But Logen didn’t feel comfortable. He stood by the window, staring down into the courtyard below, nervous and twitchy and scared, like he used to be before a fight. Bethod was coming. He was somewhere out there. On the road through the woods, or passing between the stones, or across the bridge, or through the gate.

The First of the Magi didn’t seem tense. He sat comfortably in his chair, his feet up on the table next to a long wooden pipe, leafing through a small white-bound book with a faint smile on his face. No one had ever looked calmer, and that only made Logen feel worse.

“Is it good?” asked Logen.

“Is what good?”

“The book.”

“Oh yes. It is the best of books. It is Juvens’ Principles of Art, the very cornerstone of my order.” Bayaz waved his free hand at the shelves which covered two walls, and the hundreds of other identical books lined neatly upon them. “It’s all the same. One book.”

“One?” Logen’s eyes scanned across the thick, white spines. “That’s a pretty damn long book. Have you read it all?”

Bayaz chuckled. “Oh yes, many times. Every one of my order must read it, and eventually make their own copy.” He turned the book around, so that Logen could see. The pages were thickly covered with lines of neat, but unintelligible symbols. “I wrote these, long ago. You should read it too.”

“I’m really not much of a reader.”

“No?” asked Bayaz. “Shame.” He flicked over the page and carried on.

“What about that one?” There was another book, sat alone on its side on the very top of one of the shelves, a large, black book, scarred and battered-looking. “That written by this Juvens as well?”

Bayaz frowned up at it. “No. His brother wrote that.” He got up from his chair, stretched up and pulled it down. “This is a different kind of knowledge.” He dragged open his desk drawer, slid the black book inside and slammed it shut. “Best left alone,” he muttered, sitting back down and opening up the Principles of Art again.

Logen took a deep breath, put his left hand on the hilt of the sword, felt the cold metal pressing into his palm. The feel of it was anything but reassuring. He let go and turned back to the window, frowning down into the courtyard. He felt his breath catch in his throat.

“Bethod. He’s here.”

“Good, good,” muttered Bayaz absently. “Who does he have with him?”

Logen peered at the three figures in the courtyard. “Scale,” he said with a scowl. “And a woman. I don’t recognise her. They’re dismounting.” Logen licked his dry lips. “They’re coming in.”

“Yes, yes,” murmured Bayaz, “that is how one gets to a meeting. Try to calm yourself, my friend. Breathe.”

Logen leaned back against the whitewashed plaster, arms folded, and took a deep breath. It didn’t help. The hard knot of worry in his chest only pressed harder. He could hear heavy footsteps in the corridor outside. The doorknob turned.

Scale was the first into the room. Bethod’s eldest son had always been burly, even as a boy, but since Logen last saw him he’d grown monstrous. His rock of a head seemed almost an afterthought on top of all that brawn, his skull a good deal narrower than his neck. He had a great block of jaw, a flat stub of a nose, and furious, bulging, arrogant little eyes. His thin mouth was twisted in a constant sneer, much like his younger brother Calder’s, but there was less guile here and a lot more violence. He had a heavy broadsword on his hip, and his meaty hand was never far from it as he glowered at Logen, oozing malice from every pore.

The woman came next. She was very tall, slender and pale, almost ill-looking. Her slanting eyes were as narrow and cold as Scale’s were bulging and wrathful, and were surrounded with a quantity of dark paint, which made them look narrower and colder still. There were golden rings on her long fingers, golden bracelets on her thin arms, golden chains around her white neck. She swept the room with her frosty blue eyes, each thing she noticed seeming to lift her to new heights of disgust and contempt. First the furniture, then the books, particularly Logen, and Bayaz most of all.

The self-styled King of the Northmen came last, and more magnificent than ever, robed in rich, coloured cloth and rare white furs. He wore a heavy golden chain across his shoulders, a golden circlet round his head, set with a single diamond, big as a bird’s egg. His smiling face was more deeply lined than Logen remembered, his hair and beard touched with grey, but he was no less tall, no less vigorous, no less handsome, and he’d gained much of authority and wisdom—of majesty even. He looked every inch a great man, a wise man, a just man. He looked every inch a King. But Logen knew better.

“Bethod!” said Bayaz, warmly, snapping his book shut. “My old friend! You can hardly imagine what a joy it is to see you again.” He swung his feet off the table, and gestured at the golden chain, the flashing diamond. “And to see you so hugely advanced in the world! I remember the time was you were happy to visit me alone. But I suppose great men must be attended on, and I see you have brought some… other people. Your charming son I know, of course. I see that you’ve been eating well at least, eh, Scale?”

Prince Scale,” rumbled Bethod’s monstrous son, his eyes popping out even more.

“Hmm,” said Bayaz, with an eyebrow raised. “I have not had the pleasure of meeting your other companion before.”

“I am Caurib.” Logen blinked. The woman’s voice was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. Calming, soothing, intoxicating. “I am a sorceress,” she sang, tossing her head with a scornful smile. “A sorceress, from the utmost north.” Logen stood frozen, his mouth half open. His hatred seeped away. They were all friends here. More than friends. He couldn’t take his eyes from her, didn’t want to. The others in the room had faded. It was as if she was speaking only to him, and the fondest wish of his heart was that she should never stop—

But Bayaz only laughed. “A real sorceress, and you have the golden voice! How wonderful! It’s a long time since I heard that one, but it will not serve you here.” Logen shook his head clear and his hatred rushed back in, hot and reassuring. “Tell me, does one have to study, to become a sorceress? Or is it simply a question of jewellery, and a deal of paint about the face?” Caurib’s eyes narrowed to deadly blue slits, but the First of the Magi didn’t give her time to speak. “And from the utmost north, imagine that!” He shivered slightly. “It must be cold up there, this time of year. Rough on the nipples, eh? Have you come to us for the warm weather, or is there something else?”

“I go where my King commands,” she hissed, pointed chin lifting a little higher.

“Your King?” asked Bayaz, staring about the room as though there must be someone else there, hiding in the corner.

“My father is King of the Northmen now!” snarled Scale. He sneered at Logen. “You should kneel to him, Bloody-Nine!” He sneered at Bayaz. “And so should you, old man!”

The First of the Magi spread his hands in apology. “Oh I’m afraid I don’t kneel to anyone. Too old for it. Stiffness in the joints, you see.”

Scale’s boot thumped heavy on the floor as he began to move forward, a curse half out of his mouth, but his father placed a gentle hand on his arm. “Come now, my son, there is no need for kneeling here.” His voice was cold and even as freshly fallen snow. “It is not fitting that we bicker. Are our interests not the same? Peace? Peace in the North? I have come only to ask for your wisdom, Bayaz, as I did in days past. Is it so wrong, to seek the help of an old friend?” No one had ever sounded more genuine, more reasonable, more trustworthy. But Logen knew better.

“But do we not have peace in the North already?” Bayaz leaned back in his chair, hands clasped before him. “Are the feuds not all ended? Were you not the victor? Do you not have everything you wanted, and more? King of the Northmen, eh? What help could I possibly offer you?”

“I only share my counsel with friends, Bayaz, and you have been no friend to me of late. You turn away my messengers, my son even. You play host to my sworn enemies.” He frowned towards Logen, and his lip curled. “Do you know what manner of thing this is? The Bloody-Nine? An animal! A coward! An oath-breaker! Is that the kind of company that you prefer?”

Bethod smiled a friendly smile as he turned back to Bayaz, but there was no missing the threat in his words. “I fear the time has come for you to decide whether you are with me, or against me. There can be no middle ground in this. Either you are a part of my future, or a relic of the past. Yours is the choice, my friend.” Logen had seen Bethod give such choices before. Some men had yielded. The rest had gone back to the mud.

But Bayaz, it seemed, was not to be rushed. “Which shall it be?” He reached forward slowly and took his pipe from the table. “The future, or the past?” He strolled over to the fire and squatted down, back turned to his three guests, took a stick from the grate, set it to the bowl, and puffed slowly away. It seemed to take an age for him to get the damn thing lit. “With, or against?” he mused as he returned to his chair.

“Well?” demanded Bethod.

Bayaz stared up at the ceiling and blew out a thin stream of yellow smoke. Caurib looked the old Magus up and down with icy contempt, Scale twitched with impatience, Bethod waited, eyes a little narrowed. Finally, Bayaz gave a heavy sigh. “Very well. I am with you.”

Bethod smiled wide, and Logen felt a lurch of terrible disappointment. He had hoped for better from the First of the Magi. Damn foolish, how he never learned to stop hoping.

“Good,” murmured the King of the Northmen. “I knew you would see my way of thinking, in the end.” He slowly licked his lips, like a hungry man watching good food brought in. “I mean to invade Angland.”

Bayaz raised an eyebrow, then he started to chuckle, then he thumped the table with his fist. “Oh that’s good, that’s very good! You find peace does not suit your kingdom, eh, Bethod? The clans are not used to being friends, are they? They hate each other and they hate you, am I right?”

“Well,” smiled Bethod, “they are somewhat restive.”

“I bet they are! But send them to war with the Union, then they will be a nation, eh? United against the common enemy, to be sure. And if you win? You’ll be the man who did the impossible! The man who drove the damn southerners out of the North! You’ll be loved, or at any rate, more feared than ever. If you lose, well, at least you keep the clans busy a while, and sap their strength in the process. I remember now why I used to like you! An excellent plan!”

Bethod looked smug. “Of course. And we will not lose. The Union is soft, arrogant, unprepared. With your help—”

“My help?” interrupted Bayaz. “You presume too much.”

“But you—”

“Oh, that.” The Magus shrugged. “I am a liar.”

Bayaz lifted his pipe to his mouth. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Bethod’s eyes narrowed. Caurib’s widened. Scale’s heavy brow crinkled with confusion. Logen’s smile slowly returned.

“A liar?” hissed the sorceress. “And more besides, say I!” Her voice still had the singing note about it, but it was a different song now—hard, shrill, murderous sharp. “You old worm! Hiding here behind your walls, and your servants, and your books! Your time is long past, fool! You are nothing but words and dust!” The First of the Magi calmly pursed his lips and blew out smoke. “Words and dust, old worm! Well, we shall see. We will come to your library!” The wizard set his pipe carefully down on the table, a little smoke still curling up out of the bowl. “We will come back to your library, and put your walls to the hammer, your servants to the sword, and your books to the fire! To the—”

“Silence.” Bayaz was frowning now, deeper even than he had at Calder, days before in the yard outside. Again Logen felt the desire to step away, but stronger by far. He found himself glancing around the room for a place to hide. Caurib’s lips still moved, but only a meaningless croak came out.

“Break my walls, would you?” murmured Bayaz. His grey brows drew inwards, deep, hard grooves cutting into the bridge of his nose.

“Kill my servants, will you?” asked Bayaz. The room had turned very chill, despite the logs on the fire.

“Burn my books, say you?” thundered Bayaz. “You say too much, witch!” Caurib’s knees buckled. Her white hand clawed at the door-frame, chains and bangles jingling together as she slumped against the wall.

“Words and dust, am I?” Bayaz thrust up four fingers. “Four gifts you had of me, Bethod—the sun in winter, a storm in summer, and two things you could never have known, but for my Art. What have you given me in return, eh? This lake and this valley, which were mine already, and but one other thing.” Bethod’s eyes flicked across to Logen, then back. “You owe me still, yet you send messengers to me, you make demands, you presume to command me? That is not my idea of manners.”

Scale had caught up now, and his eyes were near popping out of his head. “Manners? What does a King need with manners? A King takes what he wants!” And he took a heavy step towards the table.

Now Scale was big enough and cruel enough, to be sure. Most likely you could never find a better man for kicking someone once he was down. But Logen wasn’t down, not yet, and he was good and sick of listening to this bloated fool. He stepped forward to block Scale’s path, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Far enough.”

The Prince looked Logen over with his bulging eyes, held up his meaty fist, squeezing his great fingers so the knuckles turned white. “Don’t tempt me Ninefingers, you broken cur! Your day’s long past! I could crush you like an egg!”

“You can try it, but I’ve no mind to let you. You know my work. One step more and I’ll set to work on you, you fucking swollen pig.”

“Scale!” snapped Bethod. “There is nothing for us here, that much is plain. We are leaving.” The hulking prince locked his great lump of a jaw, his huge hands clenching and unclenching by his sides, glowering at Logen with the most bestial hatred imaginable. Then he sneered, and slowly backed away.

Bayaz leaned forward. “You said you would bring peace to the North, Bethod, and what have you done? You have piled war on war! The land is bled white with your pride and your brutality! King of the Northmen? Hah! You’re not worth the helping! And to think, I had such high hopes for you!”

Bethod only frowned, his eyes as cold as the diamond on his forehead. “You have made an enemy of me, Bayaz, and I am a bad enemy to have. The very worst. You will yet regret this day’s work.” He turned his scorn on Logen. “As for you, Ninefingers, you will have no more mercy from me! Every man in the North will be your enemy now! You will be hated, and hunted, and cursed, wherever you go! I will see to it!”

Logen shrugged. There was nothing new there. Bayaz stood up from his chair. “You’ve said your piece, now take your witch and get you gone!”

Caurib stumbled from the room first, still gasping for air. Scale gave Logen one last scowl, then he turned and lumbered away. The so-called King of the Northmen was the last to leave, nodding slowly and sweeping the room with a deadly glare. As their footsteps faded down the corridor Logen took a deep breath, steadied himself, and let his hand drop from the hilt of the sword.

“So,” said Bayaz brightly, “that went well.”


A Road Between Two Dentists

<p>A Road Between Two Dentists</p>

Past midnight, and it was dark in the Middleway. Dark and it smelled bad. It always smelled bad down by the docks: old salt water, rotten fish, tar and sweat and horse shit. In a few hours time this street would be thronging with noise and activity. Tradesmen shouting, labourers cursing under their loads, merchants hurrying to and fro, a hundred carts and wagons rumbling over the dirty cobbles. There would be an endless tide of people, thronging off the ships and thronging on, people from every part of the world, words shouted in every language under the sun. But at night it was still. Still and silent. Silent as the grave, and even worse smelling.

“It’s down here,” said Severard, strolling towards the shadowy mouth of a narrow alley, wedged in between two looming warehouses.

“Did he give you much trouble?” asked Glokta as he shuffled painfully after.

“Not too much.” The Practical adjusted his mask, letting some air in behind. Must get very clammy under there, all that breath and sweat. No wonder Practicals tend to have bad tempers. “He gave Rews’ mattress some trouble, stabbed it all to bits. Then Frost knocked him on the head. Funny thing. When that boy knocks a man on the head, the trouble all goes out of him.”

“What about Rews?”

“Still alive.” The light from Severard’s lamp passed over a pile of putrid rubbish. Glokta heard rats squeaking in the darkness as they scurried away.

“You know all the best neighbourhoods, don’t you Severard?”

“That’s what you pay me for, Inquisitor.” His dirty black boot squelched, heedless, into the stinking mush. Glokta limped gingerly around it, holding the hem of his coat up in his free hand. “I grew up round here,” continued the Practical. “Folk don’t ask questions.”

“Except for us.” We always have questions.

“Course.” Severard gave a muffled giggle. “We’re the Inquisition.” His lamp picked out a dented iron gate, the high wall above topped with rusty spikes. “This is it.” Indeed, and what an auspicious-looking address it is. The gate evidently didn’t see much use, its brown hinges squealed in protest as the Practical unlocked it and heaved it open. Glokta stepped awkwardly over a puddle that had built up in a rut in the ground, cursing as his coat trailed in the foul water.

The hinges screamed again as Severard wrestled the heavy gate shut, forehead creasing with the effort, then he lifted the hood on his lantern, lighting up a wide ornamental courtyard, choked with rubble and weeds and broken wood.

“And here we are,” said Severard.

It must once have been a magnificent building, in its way. How much would all those windows have cost? How much all that decorative stonework? Visitors must have been awed by its owners wealth, if not his good taste. But no more. The windows were blinded with rotting boards, the swirls of masonry were choked with moss and caked with bird droppings. The thin layer of green marble on the pillars was cracked and flaking, exposing the rotten plaster underneath. All was crumbled, broken and decayed. Fallen lumps of the façade were strewn everywhere, casting long shadows on the high walls of the yard. Half the head of a broken cherub stared mournfully up at Glokta as he limped past.

He had been expecting some dingy warehouse, some dank cellar near the water. “What is this place?” he asked, staring up at the rotting palace.

“Some merchant built it, years ago.” Severard kicked a lump of broken sculpture out of his way and it clattered off into the darkness. “A rich man, very rich. Wanted to live near his warehouses and his wharves, keep one eye on business.” He strolled up the cracked and mossy steps to the huge, flaking front door. “He thought the idea might catch on, but how could it? Who’d want to live round here if they didn’t have to? Then he lost all his money, as merchants do. His creditors have had trouble finding a buyer.”

Glokta stared at a broken fountain, leaning at an angle and half filled with stagnant water. “Hardly surprising.”

Severard’s lamp barely lit the cavernous space of the entrance lull. Two enormous, curved, slumping staircases loomed out of the gloom opposite them. A wide balcony ran around the walls at first floor level, but a great section of it had collapsed and crashed through the damp floorboards below, so that one of the stairways ended, amputated, hanging in the empty air. The damp floor was strewn with lumps of broken plaster, fallen roofing slates, shattered timbers and a spattering of grey bird droppings. The night sky peered in through several yawning holes in the roof. Glokta could hear the vague sound of pigeons cooing in amongst the shadowy rafters, and somewhere the slow dripping of water.

What a place. Glokta stifled a smile. It reminds me of myself, in a way. We both were magnificent once, and we both have our best days far behind us.

“It’s big enough, wouldn’t you say?” asked Severard, picking his way in amongst the rubble towards a yawning doorway under the broken staircase, his lamp casting strange, slanting shadows as he moved.

“Oh, I’d have thought so, unless we get more than a thousand prisoners at once.” Glokta shuffled after him, leaning heavily on his cane, worried about his footing on the slimy floor. I’ll slip and fall right on my arse, right here in all this bird shit. That would be perfect.

The arch opened into a crumbling hall, rotten plaster falling away in sheets, showing the damp bricks beneath. Gloomy doorways passed by on either side. The sort of place that would make a man nervous, if he was prone to nervousness. He might imagine unpleasant things in these chambers, just beyond the lamp light, and horrible acts taking place in the darkness. He looked up at Severard, ambling jauntily along in front, tuneless whistling vaguely audible from behind his mask, and frowned. But we are not prone to nervousness. Perhaps we are the unpleasant things. Perhaps the acts are ours.

“How big is this place?” asked Glokta as he hobbled along.

“Thirty-five rooms, not counting the servant’s quarters.”

“A palace. How the hell did you find it?”

“I used to sleep here, some nights. After my mother died. I found a way in. The roof was still mostly on back then, and it was a dry place to sleep. Dry and safe. More or less.” Ah, what a hard life it’s been. Thug and torturer is a real step up for you, isn’t it? Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?

“Ever resourceful, eh, Severard?”

“That’s what you pay me for, Inquisitor.”

They passed into a wide space: a drawing room, a study, a ball-room even, it was big enough. Once beautiful panels were sagging from the walls, covered in mould and flaking gilt paint. Severard moved over to one, still attached, and pushed it firmly at one side. There was a soft click as it swung open, revealing a dark archway beyond. A hidden door? How delightful. How sinister. How very appropriate.

“This place is as full of surprises as you are,” said Glokta, limping painfully towards the opening.

“And you wouldn’t believe the price I got.”

“We bought this?”

“Oh no. I did. With Rews’ money. And now I’m renting it to you.” Severard’s eyes sparkled in the lamplight. “It’s a gold mine!”

“Hah!” laughed Glokta, as he shuffled carefully down the steps. All this, and a head for business too. Perhaps I’ll be working for Arch Lector Severard one of these days. Stranger things have happened. Glokta’s shadow loomed out ahead of him into the darkness as he laboured crab-like down the steps, his right hand feeling out the gaps between the rough stone blocks to lend him some support.

“The cellars go on for miles,” muttered Severard from behind. “We have our own private access to the canals, and to the sewers too, if you’re interested in sewers.” They passed a dark opening on their left, then another on their right, always going slowly downwards. “Frost tells me you can get all the way from here to the Agriont, without once coming up for air.”

“That could be useful.”

“I’d say so, if you can stand the smell.”

Severard’s lamp found a heavy door with a small, barred opening. “Home again,” he said, and gave four quick knocks. A moment later Practical Frost’s masked face loomed abruptly out of the darkness at the little window. “Only us.” The albino’s eyes showed no sign of warmth or recognition. But then they never do. Heavy bolts slid back on the other side of the door, and it swung smoothly open.

There was a table and chair, and fresh torches on the walls, but they were unlit. It must have been pitch black in here until our little lamp arrived. Glokta looked over at the albino. “Have you just been sitting here in the dark?” The hulking Practical shrugged, and Glokta shook his head. “Sometimes I worry about you, Practical Frost, I really do.”

“He’s down here,” said Severard, ambling off down the hall, heels making clicking echoes on the stone flags of the floor. This must once have been a wine cellar: there were several barrel-vaulted chambers leading off to either side, sealed with heavy gratings.

“Glokta!” Salem Rews’ fingers were gripped tightly round the bars, his face pressed up between them.

Glokta stopped in front of the cell and rested his throbbing leg. “Rews, how are you? I hardly expected to see you again so soon.” He had lost weight already, his skin was slack and pale, still marked with fading bruises. He does not look well, not well at all.

“What’s happening, Glokta? Please, why am I here?”

Well, where’s the harm? “It seems the Arch Lector still has a use for you. He wants you to give evidence.” Glokta leaned towards the bars. “Before the Open Council,” he whispered.

Rews grew paler still. “Then what?”

“We’ll see.” Angland, Rews, Angland.

“What if I refuse?”

“Refuse the Arch Lector?” Glokta chuckled. “No, no, no, Rews. You don’t want to do a thing like that.” He turned away and shuffled after Severard.

“For pity’s sake! It’s dark down here!”

“You’ll get used to it!” Glokta called over his shoulder. Amazing, what one can get used to.

The last of the chambers held their latest prisoner. Chained up to a bracket in the wall, naked and bagged of course. He was short and stocky, tending slightly to fat, with fresh grazes on his knees, no doubt from being flung into the rough stone cell.

“So this is our killer, eh?” The man rolled himself up onto his knees when he heard Glokta’s voice, straining forward against his chains. A little blood had soaked through the front of the bag and dried there, making a brown stain on the canvas.

“A very unsavoury character indeed,” said Severard. “Doesn’t look too fearsome now, though, does he?”

“They never do, once they’re brought to this. Where do we work?”

Severard’s eyes smiled even more. “Oh, you’re going to like this, Inquisitor.”


“It’s a touch theatrical,” said Glokta, “but none the worse for that.”

The room was large and circular with a domed ceiling, painted with a curious mural that ran all the way round the curved walls. The body of a man lay on the grass, bleeding from many wounds, with a forest behind him. Eleven other figures walked away, six on one side, five on the other, painted in profile, awkwardly posed, dressed in white but their features indistinct. They faced another man, arms stretched out, all in black and with a sea of colourfully daubed fire behind him. The harsh light from six bright lamps didn’t make the work look any better. Hardly of the highest quality, more decoration than art, but the effect is quite striking, nonetheless.

“No idea what it’s supposed to be,” said Severard.

“The Mather Ma’er,” mumbled Practical Frost.

“Of course,” said Glokta, staring up at the dark figure on the wall, and the flames behind. “You should study your history, Practical Severard. This is the Master Maker, Kanedias.” He turned and pointed to the dying man on the opposite wall. “And this is great Juvens, whom he has killed.” He swept his hand over the figures in white. “And these are Juvens’ apprentices, the Magi, marching to avenge him.” Ghost stories, fit to scare children with.

“What kind of man pays to have shit like this on the walls of his cellar?” asked Severard, shaking his head.

“Oh, this sort of thing was quite popular at one time. There’s a room painted like this in the palace. This is a copy, and a cheap one.” Glokta looked up at the shadowed face of Kanedias, staring grimly down into the room, and the bleeding corpse on the opposite wall. “Still, there’s something quite unsettling about it, isn’t there?” Or there would be, if I gave a damn. “Blood, fire, death, vengeance. No idea why you’d want it in the cellar. Perhaps there was something dark about our friend the merchant.”

“There’s always something dark about a man with money,” said Severard. “Who are these two?”

Glokta frowned, peering forward. Two small, vague figures could be seen under the arms of the Maker, one on each side. “Who knows?” asked Glokta, “maybe they’re his Practicals.”

Severard laughed. A vague exhalation of air even came from behind Frost’s mask, though his eyes showed no sign of amusement. My, my, he must be thoroughly tickled.

Glokta shuffled toward the table in the centre of the room. Two chairs faced each other across the smooth, polished surface. One was a spare, hard affair of the sort you found in the cellars of the House of Questions, but the other was altogether more impressive, throne-like almost, with sweeping arms and a high back, upholstered in brown leather.

Glokta placed his cane against the table and lowered himself carefully, back aching. “Oh, this is an excellent chair,” he breathed, sinking slowly back into the soft leather, stretching out his leg, throbbing from the long walk here. There was a slight resistance. He looked beneath the table. There was a matching footstool there.

Glokta tipped his head back and laughed. “Oh this is fine! You shouldn’t have!” He settled his leg down on the stool with a comfortable sigh.

“It was the least we could do,” said Severard, folding his arms and leaning against the wall next to the bleeding body of Juvens. “We did well from your friend Rews, very well. You’ve always seen us right, and we don’t forget that.”

“Unhhh,” said Frost, nodding his head.

“You spoil me.” Glokta stroked the polished wood on the arm of the chair. My boys. Where would I be without you? Back home in bed with mother fussing over me, I suppose, wondering how she’ll ever find a nice girl to marry me now. He glanced over the instruments on the table. His case was there, of course, and a few other things, well-used, but still highly serviceable. A pair of long-handled tongs particularly caught his eye. He glanced up at Severard. “Teeth?”

“Seemed a good place to start.”

“Fair enough.” Glokta licked at his own empty gums then cracked his knuckles, one by one. “Teeth, it is.”


As soon as the gag was off the assassin started screaming at them in Styrian, spitting and cursing, struggling pointlessly at his chains. Glokta didn’t understand a word of it. But I think I catch the meaning, more or less. Something very offensive indeed, I imagine. Something about our mothers, and so on. But I am not easily offended. He was a rough looking sort, face pockmarked with acne scars, nose broken more than once and bent out of shape. How disappointing. I was hoping the Mercers might have gone up-market on this occasion at least, but that’s merchants for you. Always looking for the bargain.

Practical Frost ended the torrent of unintelligible abuse by punching the man heavily in the stomach. That’ll take his breath away for a moment. Long enough to get the first word in.

“Now then,” said Glokta, “we’ll have none of that nonsense here. We know you’re a professional, sent to blend in and do a job. You wouldn’t blend in too well if you couldn’t even speak the language, now would you?”

The prisoner had got his breath back. “Pox on all of you, you bastards!” he gasped.

“Excellent! The common tongue will do nicely for our little chats. I have a feeling we may end up having several. Is there anything you would like to know about us before we begin? Or shall we get straight to it?”

The prisoner stared up suspiciously at the painted figure of the Master Maker, looming over Glokta’s head. “Where am I?”

“We’re just off the Middleway, down near the water.” Glokta winced as the muscles in his leg suddenly convulsed. He stretched it out cautiously, waiting until he heard the knee click before he carried on. “You know, the Middleway is one of the very arteries of the city, it runs straight through its heart, from the Agriont to the sea. It passes through many different districts, has all manner of notable buildings. Some of the most fashionable addresses in the whole city are just up the lane. To me though, it’s nothing but a road between two dentists.”

The prisoner’s eyes narrowed, then darted over the instruments on the table. But no more cursing. It seems the mention of dentistry has got his attention.

“Up at the other end of the avenue,” and Glokta pointed roughly northwards, “in one of the most expensive parts of town, opposite the public gardens, in a beautiful white house in the very shadow of the Agriont, is the establishment of Master Farrad. You might have heard of him?”

“Get fucked!”

Glokta raised his eyebrows. If only. “They say that Master Farrad is the finest dentist in the world. I believe he came from Gurkhul originally, but he escaped the tyranny of the Emperor to join us in the Union and make a better life for himself, saving our wealthiest citizens from the terrors of bad teeth. When I came back from my own little visit to the South, my family sent me to him, to see if there was anything he could do for me.” Glokta smiled wide, showing the assassin the nature of the problem. “Of course there wasn’t. The Emperor’s torturers saw to that. But he’s a damn fine dentist, everyone says so.”

“So what?”

Glokta let his smile fade. “Down at the other end of the Middleway, down near the sea, in amongst the filth and the scum and the slime of the docks, am I. The rents may be cheap hereabouts, but I feel confident that, once we have spent some time together, you will not think me any less talented than the esteemed Master Farrad. It is simply that my talents lie in a different direction. The good Master eases the pain of his patients, while I am a dentist…” and Glokta leaned slowly forward “…of a different sort.”

The assassin laughed in his face. “Do you think you can scare me with a bag on the head and a nasty painting?” He looked round at Frost and Severard. “You crowd of freaks?”

“Do I think we scare you? The three of us?” Glokta allowed himself a chuckle at that. “Here you sit, alone, unarmed and thoroughly restrained. Who knows where you are but us, or cares to know? You have no hope of deliverance, or of escape. We’re all professionals here. I think you can guess what’s coming, more or less.” Glokta grinned a sickly grin. “Of course we scare you, don’t play the fool. You hide it well, I’ll admit, but that can’t last. The time will come, soon enough, when you’ll be begging to go back in the bag.”

“You’ll get nothing from me,” growled the assassin, staring him straight in the eye. “Nothing.” Tough. A tough man. But it’s easy to act tough before the work begins. I should know.

Glokta rubbed his leg gently. The blood was flowing nicely now, the pain almost gone. “We’ll keep it simple to begin with. Names, that’s all I want, for now. Just names. Why don’t we start with yours? At least you can’t tell us you don’t know the answer.”

They waited. Severard and Frost stared down at the prisoner, the green eyes smiling, the pink ones not. Silence.

Glokta sighed. “Right then.” Frost planted his fists on either side of the assassins jaw, started to squeeze until his teeth were forced apart. Severard shoved the ends of the tongs in between and forced his jaws open, much too wide for comfort. The assassin’s eyes bulged. Hurts, doesn’t it? But that’s nothing, believe me.

“Watch his tongue,” said Glokta, “we want him talking.”

“Don’t worry,” muttered Severard, peering into the assassin’s mouth. He ducked back suddenly. “Ugh! His breath smells like shit!”

A shame, but I am hardly surprised. Clean living is rarely a priority for hired killers. Glokta got slowly to his feet, limped round the table. “Now then,” he murmured, one hand hovering over his instruments, “where to begin?” He picked up a mounted needle and craned forward, his other hand gripped tight around the top of his cane, probing carefully at the killer’s teeth. Not a pretty set, to be sure. I do believe I’d rather have my teeth than his.

“Dear me, these are in a terrible state. Rotten through and through. That’s why your breath stinks so badly. There’s no excuse for it, a man of your age.”

“Haah!” yelped the prisoner as Glokta touched a nerve. He tried to speak, but with the tongs in place he made less sense than Practical Frost.

“Quiet now, you’ve had your chance to talk. Perhaps you’ll get another later, I haven’t decided.” Glokta put the needle back down on the table, shaking his head sadly. “Your teeth are a fucking disgrace. Revolting. I do declare, they’re just about falling out on their own. Do you know,” he said, as he took the little hammer and chisel from the table, “I do believe you’d be better off without them.”


Flatheads

<p>Flatheads</p>

Grey morning time, out in the cold, wet woods, and the Dogman was just sat there, thinking about how things used to be better. Sat there, minding the spit, turning it round every once in a while and trying not to get too nervous with the waiting. Tul Duru wasn’t helping any with that. He was striding up and down the grass, round the old stones and back, wearing his great boots out, about as patient as a wolf on heat. Dogman watched him stomping—clomp, clomp, clomp. He’d learned a long time ago that great fighters are only good for one thing. Fighting. At pretty much everything else, and at waiting in particular, they’re fucking useless.

“Why don’t you sit yourself down, Tul?” muttered Dogman. “There’s stones aplenty for the purpose. Warmer here by the fire and all. Rest those flapping feet o’ yours, you’re getting me twitchy.”

“Sit me down?” rumbled the giant, coming up and looming over the Dogman like a great bloody house. “How can I sit, or you either?” He frowned across the ruins and into the trees from under his great, heavy brows. “You sure this is the place?”

“This is the place.” Dogman stared round at the broken stones, hoping like hell that it was. He couldn’t deny there was no sign of ’em yet. “They’ll be here, don’t you worry.” So long as they ain’t all got themselves killed, he thought, but he had the sense not to say it. He’d spent enough time marching with Tul Duru Thunderhead to know—you don’t get that man stirred up. Unless you want a broken head, o’ course.

“They better be here soon is all.” Tul’s bloody great hands curled up into fists fit to break rocks with. “I got no taste for just sitting here, arse in the wind!”

“Nor do I, neither,” said the Dogman, showing his palms and doing his best to keep everything gentle, “but don’t you fret on it, big lad. They’ll be along soon enough, just the way we planned. This is the place.” He eyed the hog crackling away, dripping some nice gravy in the fire. His mouth was watering good now, his nose was full of the smell of meat… and something else beside. Just a whiff. He looked up, sniffing.

“You smell something?” asked Tul, peering into the woods.

“Something, maybe.” The Dogman leaned down and took a hold on his bow.

“What is it? Shanka?”

“Not sure, could be.” He sniffed the air again. Smelled like a man, and a mighty sour-smelling one at that.

“I could have killed the fucking pair o’ you!”

Dogman span about, half falling over and near fumbling his bow while he did it. Black Dow wasn’t ten strides behind him, down wind, creeping over to the fire with a nasty grin. Grim was at his shoulder, face blank as a wall, as always.

“You bastards!” bellowed Tul. “You near made me shit with your sneaking around!”

“Good,” sneered Dow. “You could lose some fucking lard.”

Dogman took a long breath and tossed his bow back down. Some relief to know they were in the right spot after all, but he could’ve done without the scare. He’d been jumpy since he saw Logen go over the edge of that cliff. Roll right on over and not a thing anyone could do about it. Could happen to anyone any time, death, and that was a fact.

Grim clambered over the broken stones and sat himself down on one next to the Dogman, gave him the barest of nods. “Meat?” barked Dow, shoving past Tul and flopping down beside the fire, ripping a leg off the carcass and tearing into it with his teeth.

And that was it. That was all the greeting, after a month or more apart. “A man with friends is rich indeed,” muttered the Dogman out the corner of his mouth.

“Whatsay?” spat Dow, cold eyes sliding round, his mouth full of pig, his dirty, stubbly chin all shiny with grease.

Dogman showed his palms again. “Nothing to take offence at.” He’d spent enough time marching with Black Dow to know—you might as well cut your own neck as make that evil bastard angry. “Any trouble while we was split up?” he asked, looking to change the subject.

Grim nodded. “Some.”

“Fucking Flatheads!” snarled Dow, spraying bits of meat in Dogman’s face. “They’re bloody everywhere!” He pointed the hog’s leg across the fire like it was a blade. “I’ve taken enough of this shit! I’m going back south. It’s too bloody cold by half, and fucking Flatheads everywhere! Bastards! I’m going south!”

“You scared?” asked Tul.

Dow turned to look up at him with a big yellow grin, and the Dogman winced. It was a damn fool of a question, that. He’d never been scared in his life, Black Dow. Didn’t know what it was to be scared. “Feared of a few Shanka? Me?” He gave a nasty laugh. “We done some work on them, while you two been snoring. Gave some of ’em warm beds to sleep in. Too warm by half.”

“Burned ’em,” muttered Grim. That was a full day’s talk out of him already.

“Burned a whole fucking pile of ’em,” hissed Dow, grinning like he never heard such a joke as corpses on fire. “They don’t scare me, big lad, no more’n you do, but I don’t plan to sit here waiting for ’em neither, just so Threetrees has time to haul his flabby old arse out of bed. I’m going south!” And he tore off another mouthful of meat.

“Who’s got the flabby arse now?”

Dogman cracked a grin as he saw Threetrees striding over towards the fire, and he started up and grabbed the old boy by the hand. He had Forley the Weakest with him and all, and Dogman clapped the little man on the back as he came past. Nearly knocked him over, he was that pleased to see they were all alive and made it through another month. Didn’t hurt to have some leadership round the fire, neither. Everyone looked happy for once, smiling and pressing hands and all the rest. Everyone but Dow, o’ course. He just sat there, staring at the fire, sucking on his bone, face sour as old milk.

“Right good to see you again, lads, and all in one piece.” Threetrees hefted his big round shield off his shoulder and leant it up against a broken old bit of wall. “How’ve you been?”

“Fucking cold,” said Dow, not even looking up. “We’re going south.”

Dogman sighed. Back together for ten heartbeats and the bickering was already started. It was going to be a tough crowd now, without Logen to keep things settled. A tough crowd, and apt to get bloody. Threetrees wasn’t rushing into anything, though. He took a moment to think on it, like always. He loved to take his moment, that one. That was what made him so dangerous. “Going south, eh?” said Threetrees, after he’d chewed it over for a minute. “And just when did all this get decided?”

“Nothing’s decided,” said the Dogman, showing his palms one more time. He reckoned he might be doing that a lot from now on.

Tul Duru frowned down at Dow’s back. “Nothing at all,” he rumbled, mightily annoyed at having his mind made up for him.

“Nothing is right,” said Threetrees, slow and steady as the grass growing. “I don’t recall this being no voting band.”

Dow took no time at all to think about that. He never took time, that one. That was what made him so dangerous. He leaped up, flinging the bone onto the ground, squaring up to Threetrees with a fighting look. “I… say… south!” he snarled, eyes bulging like bubbles on a stew.

Threetrees didn’t back down a step. That wouldn’t have been his way at all. He took his moment to think on it, course, then he took a step forward of his own, so his nose and Dow’s were almost touching. “If you wanted a say, you should have beaten Ninefingers,” he growled, “instead of losing like the rest of us.”

Black Dow’s face turned dark as tar at that. He didn’t like being reminded of losing. “The Bloody-Nine’s gone back to the mud!” he snarled. “Dogman seen it, didn’t you?”

Dogman had to nod. “Aye,” he muttered.

“So that’s the end of that! There’s no reason for us to be pissing around here, North of the mountains, with Flatheads crawling up our arses! I say south!”

“Ninefingers may be dead,” said Threetrees in Dow’s face, “but your debt ain’t. Why he saw fit to spare a man as worthless as you I’ll never know, but he named me as second,” and he tapped his big chest, “and that means I’m the one with the say! Me and no other!”

Dogman took a careful step back. The two of ’em were shaping up for blows alright, and he’d no wish to get a bloody nose in all the confusion. It would hardly have been the first time. Forley took a stab at keeping the peace. “Come on boys,” he said, all nice and soft, “there’s no need for this.” He might not have been much at killing, Forley, but he was a damn good boy for stopping those that were from killing each other. Dogman wished him luck with it. “Come on, why don’t you—”

“Shut your fucking hole, you!” growled Dow, one dirty finger stabbing savage in Forley’s face. “What’s your fucking say worth, Weakest?”

“Leave him be!” rumbled Tul, holding his great fist up under Dow’s chin, “or I’ll give you something to shout about!”

The Dogman could hardly look. Dow and Threetrees were always picking at each other. They got fired up quick and damped down quick. The Thunderhead was a different animal. Once that big ox got properly riled there was no calming him. Not without ten strong men and a lot of rope. Dogman tried to think what Logen would have done. He’d have known how to stop ’em fighting, if he hadn’t been dead.

“Shit!” shouted Dogman, jumping up from the fire all of a sudden. “There’s fucking Shanka crawling all over us! And if we get through with them there’s always Bethod to think on! We’ve a world full of scores to settle without making more ourselves! Logen’s gone and Threetrees is second, and that’s the only say I’ll hear!” He did some jabbing with his own finger, at no one in particular, then he waited, hoping like hell that it had done the trick.

“Aye,” grunted Grim.

Forley started nodding like a woodpecker. “Dogman’s right! We need to fight each other like we need the cock-rot! Threetrees is second. He’s the chief now.”

It was quiet for a moment, and Dow fixed the Dogman with that cold, empty, killing look, like the cat with the mouse between its paws. Dogman swallowed. A lot of men, most men even, wouldn’t have dared meet no look like that from Black Dow. He got the name from having the blackest reputation in the North, with coming sudden in the black of night, and leaving the villages behind him black from fire. That was the rumour. That was the fact.

It took all the bones Dogman had not to stare at his boots. He was just ready to do it when Dow looked away, eyed the others, one at a time. Most men wouldn’t have met that look, but these here weren’t most men. You could never have hoped to meet a bloodier crowd, not anywhere under the sun. Not a one of them backed down, or even seemed to consider it. Apart from Forley the Weakest, of course, he was staring at the grass before his turn even came.

Once Dow saw they were all against him he cracked a happy smile, just as if there never was a problem. “Fair enough,” he said to Threetrees, the anger all seeming to drain away in an instant. “What’s it to be then, chief?”

Threetrees looked over at the woods. He sniffed and sucked at his teeth. He scratched at his beard, taking his moment to think on it. He looked each one of them over, considering. “We go south,” he said.


He smelled ’em before he saw ’em, but that was always the way with him. He had a good nose, did the Dogman, that’s how he got the name after all. Being honest though, anyone could have smelled ’em. They fucking stank.

There were twelve down in the clearing. Sitting, eating, grunting to each other in their nasty, dirty tongue, big yellow teeth sticking out everywhere, dressed in lumps of smelly fur and reeking hide and odd bits of rusty armour. Shanka.

“Fucking Flatheads,” Dogman muttered to himself. He heard a soft hiss behind, turned round to see Grim peering up from behind a bush. He held out his open hand to say stop, tapped the top of his skull to say Flatheads, held up his fist, then two fingers to say twelve, and pointed back down the track towards the others. Grim nodded and faded away into the woods.

The Dogman took one last look at the Shanka, just to make sure they were all still unwary. They were, so he slipped back down the tree and off.

“They’re camped round the road, twelve that I saw, maybe more.”

“They looking for us?” asked Threetrees.

“Maybe, but they ain’t looking too hard.”

“Could we get around them?” asked Forley, always looking to miss out on a fight.

Dow spat onto the ground, always looking to get into one. “Twelve is nothing! We can do them alright!”

The Dogman looked over at Threetrees, thinking it out, taking his moment. Twelve wasn’t nothing, and they all knew it, but it might be better to deal with them than leave them free and easy behind.

“What’s it to be, chief?” asked Tul.

Threetrees set his jaw. “Weapons.”

A fighting man’s a fool that don’t keep his weapons clean and ready. Dogman had been over his no more’n an hour before. Still, you won’t be killed for checking ’em, while you might be for not doing it.

There was the hissing of steel on leather, the clicking of wood and the clanking of metal. Dogman watched Grim twang at his bowstring, check over the feathers on his shafts. He watched Tul Duru run his thumb down the edge of his big heavy sword, almost as tall as Forley was, clucking like a chicken at a spot of rust. He watched Black Dow rubbing a rag on the head of his axe, looking at the blade with eyes soft as a lover’s. He watched Threetrees tugging at the buckles on his shield straps, swishing his blade through the air, bright metal glinting.

The Dogman gave a sigh, pulled the straps on his guard tighter round his left wrist, checked the wood of his bow for cracks. He made sure all his knives were where they should be. You can never have too many knives, Logen had told him once, and he’d taken it right to heart. He watched Forley checking his short-sword with clumsy hands, his mouth chewing away, eyes all wet with fear. That got his own nerves jumping, and he glanced round at the others. Dirty, scarred, frowns’ and lots of beard. There was no fear there, no fear at all, but that was nothing to be shamed at. Different men have different ways, Logen had told him once, and you have to have fear to have courage. He’d taken that right to heart as well.

He walked over to Forley and gave him a clap on the shoulder. “You have to have fear to have courage,” he said.

“That so?”

“So they say, and it’s a good thing too.” The Dogman leaned close so no one else could hear. “Cause I’m about ready to shit.” He reckoned that’s what Logen would have done, and now that Logen had gone back to the mud it fell to him. Forley gave half a smile, but it slumped pretty fast, and he looked more scared then ever. There’s only so much you can do.

“Right, boys,” said Threetrees, once the gear was all checked and stowed in its proper places, “here’s how we’ll get it done. Grim, Dogman, opposite sides of their camp, out in the trees. Wait for the signal, then shoot any Flathead with a bow. Failing that, whatever’s closest.”

“Right you are, chief,” said the Dogman. Grim gave a nod.

“Tul, you and me’ll take the front, but wait for the signal, eh?”

“Aye,” rumbled the giant.

“Dow, you and Forley at the back. You come on when you see us go. But this time you wait for us to go!” hissed Threetrees, stabbing with his thick finger.

“Course, chief.” Dow shrugged his shoulders, just as though he always did as he was told.

“Right then, there it is,” said Threetrees, “anyone still confused? Any empty heads round the fire?” The Dogman mumbled and shook his head. They all did. “Fair enough. Just one more thing.” The old boy leaned forward, looking at each of them one by one. “Wait… for… the… fucking… signal!”

It wasn’t ’til the Dogman was hid behind a bush with his bow in his hand and a shaft at the ready that he realised. He’d no idea what the signal was. He looked down at the Shanka, still sat there all unwary, grunting and shouting and banging about. By the dead he needed to piss. Always needed to piss before a fight. Had anyone said the signal? He couldn’t remember.

“Shit,” he whispered, and just then Dow came hurtling out from the trees, axe in one hand, sword in the other.

“Fucking Flatheads!” he screamed, giving the nearest a fearsome big blow in the head and splattering blood across the clearing. In so far as you could tell what a Shanka was thinking, these ones looked greatly surprised. Dogman reckoned that would have to do for a signal.

He let loose his shaft at the nearest Flathead, just reaching for a big club and watched it catch it through the armpit with a satisfying thunk. “Hah!” he shouted. He saw Dow spit another through the back with his sword, but there was a big Shanka now with a spear ready to throw. An arrow came looping out of the trees and stuck it through the neck, and it let go a squeal and sprawled out backwards. That Grim was a damn good shot.

Now Threetrees came roaring from the scrub on the other side of the clearing, catching them off guard. He barged one Flathead in the back with his shield and it sprawled face-first into the fire, he hacked at another with his sword. The Dogman let go a shaft and it stuck a Shanka in its gut. It dropped down on its knees and a moment later Tul took its head off with a great swing of his sword.

The fight was joined and moving quick—chop, grunt, scrape, rattle. There was blood flying and weapons swinging and bodies dropping too fast for the Dogman to try an arrow at. The three of them had the last few hemmed in, squawking and gibbering. Tul Duru was swinging his big sword around, keeping them at bay. Threetrees darted in and chopped the legs out from under one, and Dow cut another down as it looked round.

The last one squawked and made a run for the trees. Dogman shot at it, but he was hurrying and he missed. The arrow almost hit Dow in the leg, but luckily he didn’t notice. It had almost got away into the bushes, then it squealed and fell back, thrashing. Forley had stabbed it, hiding in the scrub. “I got one!” he yelled.

It was quiet for a moment, while the Dogman scrambled down toward the clearing and they all looked round to see if there was anything left to fight, then Black Dow gave a great bellow, shaking his bloody weapons over his head. “We fucking killed ’em!”

“You nearly killed us all, you damn fool!” shouted Threetrees.

“Eh?”

“What about the fucking signal?”

“I thought I heard you shout!”

“I never!”

“Did you not?” asked Dow, looking greatly puzzled. “What was the signal anyhow?”

Threetrees gave a sigh and put his head in his hands.

Forley was still staring down at his sword. “I got one!” he said again. Now that the fight was over, the Dogman was about ready to burst, so he turned round and pissed against a tree.

“We killed ’em!” shouted Tul, clapping him on the back.

“Watch out!” yelled Dogman as piss went all down his leg. They all had a laugh at him over that. Even Grim had himself a little chuckle.

Tul shook Threetrees by the shoulder. “We killed ’em, chief!”

“We killed these, aye,” he said, looking sour, “but there’ll be plenty more. Thousands of ’em. They won’t be happy staying up here neither, up here beyond the mountains. Sooner or later they’ll be going south. Maybe in the summer, when the passes clear, maybe later. But it’s not long off.”

The Dogman glanced at the others, all shifty and worried after that little speech. The glow of victory hadn’t lasted too long. It never did. He looked round at the dead Flatheads on the ground, broken and bloody, sprawled and crumpled. It seemed a hollow little victory they’d had now. “Shouldn’t we try and tell ’em, Threetrees?” he asked. “Shouldn’t we try and warn someone?”

“Aye.” Threetrees gave a sad little smile. “But who?”


The Course of True Love

<p>The Course of True Love</p>

Jezal trudged miserably across the grey Agriont with his fencing steels in his hand: yawning, stumbling, grumbling, still horribly sore from his endless run the day before. He hardly saw anyone as he dragged himself to his daily bullying from Lord Marshal Varuz. Apart from the odd premature tweeting of some bird in amongst the gables and the tired scraping of his own reluctant boots, all was quiet. No one was up at this time. No one should be up at this time. Him least of all.

He hauled his aching legs through the archway and up the tunnel. The sun was barely above the horizon and the courtyard beyond was full of deep shadows. Squinting into the darkness he could see Varuz sat at the table, waiting for him. Damn it. He had hoped to be early for once. Did the old bastard sleep at all?

“Lord Marshal!” shouted Jezal, breaking into a half-hearted jog.

“No. Not today.” A shiver crept up Jezal’s neck. It was not the voice of his fencing master, but there was something unpleasantly familiar about it. “Marshal Varuz is busy with more important matters this morning.” Inquisitor Glokta was sitting in the shadows by the table and smiling up with his revolting gap-toothed grin. Jezal’s skin prickled with disgust. It was hardly what one needed first thing in the morning.

He slowed to a reluctant walk and stopped next to the table. “You will doubtless be pleased to learn that there will be no running, or swimming, or beam, or heavy bar today,” said the cripple. “You won’t even be needing those.” He waved his cane at Jezal’s fencing steels. “We will just be having a little chat. That is all.”

The idea of five punishing hours with Varuz seemed suddenly very appealing, but Jezal was not about to show his discomfort. He tossed his steels onto the table with a loud rattle and sat down carelessly in the other chair, Glokta regarding him from the shadows all the while. Jezal had it in mind to stare him into some kind of submission, but it proved a vain attempt. After a couple of seconds looking at that wasted face, that empty grin, those fever-bright sunken eyes, he began to find the table top most interesting.

“So tell me, Captain, why did you take up fencing?”

A game then. A private hand of cards with only two players. And everything that was said would get back to Varuz, that was sure. Jezal would have to play his hand carefully, keep his cards close and his wits about him. “For my own honour, for that of my family, for that of my King,” he said coldly. The cripple could try and find fault with that answer.

“Ah, so it’s for the benefit of your nation that you put yourself through this. What a fine citizen you must be. What selflessness. What an example to us all.” Glokta snorted. “Please! If you must lie, at least pick a lie that you yourself find convincing. That answer is an insult to us both.”

How dare this toothless has-been take that tone with him? Jezal’s legs gave a twitch: he was right on the point of getting up and walking away, Varuz and his hideous stooge be damned. But he caught the cripple’s eye as he put his hands on the arms of the chair to push himself up. Glokta was smiling at him, a mocking sort of smile. To leave would be to admit defeat somehow. Why did he take up fencing anyway? “My father wanted me to do it.”

“So, so. My heart brims with sympathy. The loyal son, bound by his strong sense of duty, is forced to fulfil his father’s ambitions. A familiar tale, like a comfortable old chair we all love to sit in. Tell ’em what they want to hear, eh? A better answer, but just as far from the truth.”

“Why don’t you tell me then?” snapped Jezal sulkily, “since you seem to know so much about it!”

“Alright, I will. Men don’t fence for their King, or for their families, or for the exercise either, before you try that one on me. They fence for the recognition, for the glory. They fence for their own advancement. They fence for themselves. I should know.”

“You should know?” Jezal snorted. “It hardly seems to have worked in your case.” He regretted it immediately. Damn his mouth, it got him in all kinds of trouble.

But Glokta only flashed his disgusting smile again. “It was working well enough, until I found my way into the Emperor’s prisons. What’s your excuse, liar?”

Jezal didn’t like the way this conversation was going. He was too used to easy victories at the card table, and poor players. His skills had dulled. Better to sit this one out until he got the measure of his new opponent. He clamped his jaw shut and said nothing.

“It takes hard work, of course, winning a Contest. You should have seen our mutual friend Collem West working. He sweated at it for months, running around while the rest of us laughed at him. A jumped-up, idiot commoner competing with his betters, that’s what we all thought. Blundering through his forms, stumbling about on the beam, being made a fool of, again and again, day after day. But look at him now.” Glokta tapped his cane with a finger. “And look at me. Seems he had the last laugh, eh, Captain? Just shows what you can achieve with a little hard work. You’ve twice the talent he had, and the right blood. You don’t have to work one tenth so hard, but you refuse to work at all.”

Jezal wasn’t about to let that one past. “Not work at all? Don’t I put myself through this torture every day—”

“Torture?” asked Glokta sharply.

Jezal realised too late his unfortunate choice of words. “Well,” he mumbled, “I meant.”

“I know more than a little about both fencing and torture. Believe me when I say,” and the Inquisitor’s grotesque grin grew wider still, “that they’re two quite different things.”

“Er…” said Jezal, still off balance.

“You have the ambitions, and the means to realise them. A little effort would do it. A few months’ hard work, then you would probably never need to try at anything again in your life, if that’s what you want. A few short months, and you’re set.” Glokta licked at his empty gums. “Barring accidents of course. It’s a great chance you’ve been offered. I’d take it; if I was you, but I don’t know. Maybe you’re a fool as well as a liar.”

“I’m no fool,” said Jezal coldly. It was the best he could do.

Glokta raised an eyebrow, then winced, leaning heavily on his cane as he slowly pushed himself to his feet. “Give it up if you like, by all means. Sit around for the rest of your days and drink and talk shit with the rest of the junior officers. There are a lot of people who’d be more than happy to live that life. A lot of people who haven’t had the chances you’ve had. Give it up. Lord Marshal Varuz will be disappointed, and Major West, and your father, and so on, but please believe me when I say,” and he leaned down, still smiling his horrible smile, “that I couldn’t care less. Good day, Captain Luthar.” And Glokta limped off toward the archway.


After that less than delightful interview, Jezal found himself with a few hours of unexpected free time on his hands—but he was scarcely in the frame of mind to enjoy it. He wandered the empty streets, squares and gardens of the Agriont, thinking grimly on what the cripple had said to him, cursing the name of Glokta, but unable to quite push the conversation from his mind. He turned it over and over, every phrase, constantly coming up with new things that he should have said. If only he had thought of them at the time.

“Ah, Captain Luthar!” Jezal started and looked up. A man he did not recognise was sitting on the dewy grass beneath a tree, smiling up at him, a half-eaten apple in his hand. “The early morning is the perfect time for a stroll, I find. Calm and grey and clean and empty. It’s nothing like the gaudy pinkness of evening time. All that clutter, all those people coming and going. How can one think in amongst all that nonsense? And now I see you are of the same mind. How delightful.” He took a big, crunching bite out of the apple.

“Do I know you?”

“Oh no, no,” said the stranger, getting to his feet and brushing some dirt from the seat of his trousers, “not yet. My name is Sulfur, Yoru Sulfur.”

“Really? And what brings you to the Agriont?”

“You might say I have come on a diplomatic mission.”

Jezal looked him over, trying to place his origin. “A mission from?”

“From my master, of course,” said Sulfur unhelpfully. His eyes were different colours, Jezal noticed. An ugly and off-putting characteristic, he rather thought.

“And your master is?”

“A very wise and powerful man.” He stripped the core with his teeth and tossed it away into the bushes, wiping his hands on the front of his shirt. “I see you’ve been fencing.”

Jezal glanced down at his steels. “Yes,” he said, realising that he had finally come to a decision, “but for the last time. I’m giving it up.”

“Oh dear me, no!” The strange man seized Jezal by the shoulder. “Oh dear me, no you mustn’t!”

“What?”

“No, no! My master would be horrified if he knew. Horrified! Give up fencing and you give up more than that! This is how one comes to the notice of the public, you see? They decide, in the end. There’s no nobility without the commoners, no nobility at all! They decide!”

“What?” Jezal glanced around the park, hoping to catch sight of a guard so he could notify him that a dangerous madman was loose in the Agriont.

“No, you mustn’t give it up! I won’t hear of it! No indeed! I’m sure that you’ll stick with it after all! You must!”

Jezal shook Sulfur’s hand off his shoulder. “Who are you?”

“Sulfur, Yoru Sulfur, at your service. See you again, Captain, at the Contest, if not before!” And he waved over his shoulder as he strolled off.

Jezal stared after him, mouth slightly open. “Damn it!” he shouted, throwing his steels down on the grass. Everyone seemed to want to take a hand in his business today, even crazy strangers in the park.


As soon as he thought it was late enough, Jezal went to call on Major West. You could always be sure of a sympathetic ear with him, and Jezal was hoping that he might be able to manipulate his friend into breaking the bad news to Lord Marshal Varuz. That was a scene that he wanted no part of, if he could possibly avoid it. He knocked on the door and waited, he knocked again. The door opened.

“Captain Luthar! What an almost unbearable honour!”

“Ardee,” muttered Jezal, somewhat surprised to find her here, “it’s good to see you again.” For once he actually meant it. She was interesting, is what she was. It was a new and refreshing thing for him to actually be interested in what a woman had to say. And she was damn good-looking too, there was no denying it, and seemed prettier every time he saw her. Nothing could ever happen between them, of course, what with West being his friend and all, but there was no harm in looking, was there? “Er… is your brother around?”

She threw herself carelessly down onto the settle against the wall, one leg stretched out, looking very sour. “He’s out. Gone out. Always busy. Much too busy for me.” There was a definite flush to her cheek. Jezal’s eye lighted on the decanter. The stopper was out and the wine was halfway down.

“Are you drunk?”

“Somewhat,” she squinted at a half-full wine glass at her elbow, “but mostly I’m just bored.”

“It’s not even ten.”

“Can’t I be bored before ten?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Leave the moralising to my brother. It suits him better. And have a drink.” She waved her hand at the bottle. “You look like you need one.”

Well, that was true enough. He poured himself a glass and sat down in a chair facing Ardee, while she regarded him with heavy-lidded eyes. She took her own glass from the table. There was a thick book lying next to it, face down.

“How’s the book?” asked Jezal.

The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it’s one of the great classics of history. Lot of boring rubbish,” she snorted derisively. “Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit.” She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping.

“There must be something you can find to keep busy?”

“Really? What would you suggest?”

“My cousins do a lot of embroidery.”

“Fuck yourself.”

“Hmm,” said Jezal, smiling. The swearing no longer seemed half so offensive as it had done when they first met. “What did you do at home, in Angland?”

“Oh, home,” her head dropped against the back of the settle. “I thought I was bored there. I could hardly wait to come here to the bright centre of things. Now I can hardly wait to go back. Marry some farmer. Have a dozen brats. At least I’d get some conversation that way.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “But Collem won’t let me. He feels responsible, now that our father’s dead. Thinks it’s too dangerous. He’d rather I didn’t get slaughtered by the Northmen, but that’s about where his sense of responsibility ends. It certainly doesn’t extend to spending ten minutes together with me. So it looks like I’m stuck here, with all you arrogant snobs.”

Jezal shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “He seems to manage.”

“Oh yes,” snorted Ardee, “Collem West, he’s a damn fine fellow! Won a Contest don’t you know? First through the breach at Ulrioch, wasn’t he? No breeding at all, never be one of us, but a damn fine fellow, for a commoner! Shame about that upstart sister of his though, too clever by half. And they say she drinks,” she whispered. “Doesn’t know her place. Total disgrace. Best just to ignore her.” She sighed again. “Yes, the sooner I go home, the happier everyone will be.”

“I won’t be happier.” Damn, did he say that out loud?

Ardee laughed, none too pleasantly. “Well, it’s enormously noble of you to say so. Why aren’t you fencing anyway?”

“Marshal Varuz was busy today.” He paused for a moment. “In fact, I had your friend Sand dan Glokta as fencing master this morning.”

“Really? What did he have to say for himself?”

“Various things. He called me a fool.”

“Imagine that.”

Jezal frowned. “Yes, well. I’m as bored with fencing as you are with that book. That was what I wanted to talk to your brother about. I’m thinking of giving it up.”

She burst out laughing. Snorting, gurgling peals of it. Her whole body was shaking. Wine sloshed out of her glass and splattered across the floor. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.

“It’s just,” she wiped a tear from her eye, “I had a bet with Collem. He was sure you’d stick at it. And now I’m ten marks richer.”

“I’m not sure that I like being the subject of your bet,” said Jezal sharply.

“I’m not sure I give a damn.”

“This is serious.”

“No it isn’t!” she snapped. “For my brother it was serious, he had to do it! No one even notices you if you don’t have a ‘dan’ in your name, and who’d know better than me? You’re the only person who’s given me the time of day since I got here, and then only because Collem made you. I’ve precious little money and no blood at all, and that makes me less than nothing to the likes of you. The men ignore me and the women cut me dead. I’ve got nothing here, nothing and no one, and you think you’ve got the hard life? Please! I might take up fencing,” she said bitterly. “Ask the Lord Marshal if he has space for a pupil, would you? At least then I’d have someone to talk to!”

Jezal blinked. That wasn’t interesting. That was rude. “Hold on, you’ve no idea what it’s like to—”

“Oh stop whinging! How old are you? Five? Why don’t you go back to sucking on your mother’s tit, infant?”

He could hardly believe what he was hearing. How dare she? “My mother’s dead,” he said. Hah. That should make her feel guilty, squeeze an apology out of her. It didn’t.

“Dead? Lucky her, at least she doesn’t have to listen to your damn whining! You spoiled little rich boys are all the same. You get everything you could possibly want, then throw a tantrum because you have to pick it up yourself! You’re pathetic! You make me fucking sick!”

Jezal goggled. His face was burning, stinging, as if he’d been slapped. He’d rather have been slapped. He had never been spoken to like that in his life. Never! It was worse than Glokta. Much worse, and far more unexpected. He realised his mouth was hanging half open. He snapped it shut, grinding his teeth together, slapped his glass down on the table, and got up to leave. He was turning to the door when it suddenly opened, leaving him and Major West staring at each other.

“Jezal,” said West, looking at first simply surprised and then, as he glanced over at his sister, sprawling on the settle, slightly suspicious. “What are you doing here?”

“Er… I came to see you actually.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes. But it can wait. I’ve things to do.” And Jezal pushed past his friend and out into the corridor.

“What was all that about?” He heard West saying as he strode away from the room. “Are you drunk?”

With every step Jezal’s fury mounted until he was halfway to being strangled by it. He had been the victim of an assault! A savage and undeserved attack! He stopped in the corridor, trembling with rage, his breath snorting in his nose like he’d run ten miles, his fists clenched painfully tight. And from a woman too! A woman! And a bloody commoner! How dare she? He had wasted time on her, and laughed at her jokes, and found her attractive! She should have been honoured to be noticed!

“That fucking bitch!” he snarled to himself. He had half a mind to go back and say it to her face, but it was too late. He stared around for something to hit. How to pay her back? How? Then it came to him.

Prove her wrong.

That would do it. Prove her wrong, and that crippled bastard Glokta too. He’d show them how hard he could work. He’d show them he was no fool, no liar, no spoiled child. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He’d win this damn Contest, is what he’d do! That’d wipe the smiles off their faces! He set off briskly down the corridor, with a strange new feeling building in his chest.

A sense of purpose. That was what it was. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for a run.


How Dogs are Trained

<p>How Dogs are Trained</p>

Practical Frost stood by the wall, utterly motionless, utterly silent, barely visible in the deep shadows, a part of the building. The albino hadn’t moved an inch in an hour or more, hadn’t shifted his feet, hadn’t blinked, hadn’t breathed that Glokta had noticed, his eyes fixed on the street before them.

Glokta himself cursed, shifted uncomfortably, winced, scratched his face, sucked at his empty gums. What’s keeping them? A few minutes more and I might fall asleep, drop into that stinking canal and drown. How very apt that would be. He watched the oily, smelly water below him flap and ripple. Body found floating by the docks, bloated by seawater and far, far beyond recognition…

Frost touched his arm in the darkness, pointed down the street with a big white finger. Three men were moving slowly toward them, walking with the slightly bow-legged stance of men who spend a lot of time aboard ship, keeping their balance on a swaying deck. So that’s one half of our little party. Better late than never. The three sailors came halfway across the bridge over the canal then stopped and waited, no more than twenty strides away. Glokta could hear the tone of their conversation: brash, confident, common accents. He shuffled slightly further into the shadows clinging to the building.

Now footsteps came from the opposite direction, hurried footsteps. Two more men appeared, walking quickly down the street. One, a very tall, thin fellow in an expensive-looking fur coat was glancing suspiciously around him. That must be Gofred Hornlach, senior Mercer. Our man. His companion had a sword at his hip, and was struggling with a big wooden trunk over one shoulder. Servant, or bodyguard, or both. He is of no interest. Glokta felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickling as they neared the bridge. Hornlach exchanged a few quick words with one of the sailors, a man with a big brown beard.

“Ready?” he whispered to Frost. The Practical nodded.

“Hold!” shouted Glokta at the top of his voice, “in the name of his Majesty!” Hornlach’s servant spun round, dropping the trunk onto the bridge with a bang, hand moving toward his sword. There was a soft twang from the shadows on the other side of the road. The servant looked surprised, gave a snort, then toppled onto his face. Practical Frost strode swiftly out of the shadows, feet padding on the road.

Hornlach stared down, wide-eyed, at the corpse of his bodyguard, then across at the hulking albino. He turned to the sailors. “Help me!” he cried. “Stop him!”

Their leader smiled back. “I don’t think so.” His two companions moved without hurry to block the bridge. The Mercer stumbled away, took a faltering step toward the shadows by the canal on the other side. Severard appeared from a doorway before him, flatbow rested across his shoulder. Replace the bow with a bunch of flowers and he’d look as if he was on his way to a wedding. You’d never think that he just killed a man.

Surrounded, Hornlach could only look around dumbly, eyes wide with fear and surprise, as the two Practicals approached, Glokta limping up behind them. “But I paid you!” Hornlach shouted desperately at the sailors.

“You paid me for a berth,” said their Captain. “Loyalty is extra.”

Practical Frost’s big white hand slapped down on the merchant’s shoulder, forced him onto his knees. Severard strolled over to the bodyguard, wedged the dirty toe of his boot under the body and rolled it over. The corpse stared up at the night sky, eyes glassy, the feathers of the flatbow bolt sticking out from his neck. The blood round his mouth looked black in the moonlight.

“Dead,” grunted Severard, most unnecessarily.

“A bolt through the neck will do that,” said Glokta. “Clean him up, would you?”

“Right you are.” Severard grabbed the bodyguard’s feet and hauled them over the parapet of the bridge, then he took him under the armpits and heaved the body straight over the side with a grunt. So smooth, so clean, so practised. You can tell he’s done it before. There was a splash as the corpse hit the slimy water below. Frost had Hornlach’s hands tied firmly behind him now, and the bag on. The prisoner squawked through the canvas as he was dragged to his feet. Glokta himself shuffled over to the three sailors, his legs numb after all that time spent standing still in the alley.

“And here we are,” he said, pulling a heavy purse from his inside coat pocket. He held it swinging just above the Captain’s waiting palm. “Tell me, what happened tonight?”

The old sailor smiled, weathered face crinkling up like boot leather. “My cargo was spoiling and we had to be away on the first tide, I told him that. We waited and waited, half the night down by that stinking canal, but would you believe it? The bastard never showed.”

“Very good. That’s the story I’d tell in Westport, if anyone should ask.”

The Captain looked hurt. “That’s how it happened, Inquisitor. What other story could there be?”

Glokta let the purse drop and the money jingled inside. “With the compliments of his Majesty.”

The Captain weighed the purse in his hand. “Always pleased to do his Majesty a favour!” And he and his two companions turned, all yellow smiles, and made off toward the quay.

“Right then,” said Glokta, “let’s get on with it.”


“Where are my clothes?” shouted Hornlach, wriggling in his chair.

“I do apologise for that. I know it’s quite uncomfortable, but clothes can hide things. Leave a man his clothes and you leave him pride, and dignity, and all kinds of things it’s better not to have in here. I never question a prisoner with their clothes on. Do you remember Salem Rews?”

“Who?”

“Salem Rews. One of your people. A Mercer. We caught him dodging the King’s taxes. He made a confession, named a few people. I wanted to talk to them, but they all died.”

The merchants eyes flickered left and right. Thinking about his options, trying to guess what we might know. “People die all the time.”

Glokta stared at the painted corpse of Juvens behind his prisoner, bleeding bright red paint all over the wall. People die all the time. “Of course, but not quite so violently. I have a notion that someone wanted them dead, that someone ordered them dead. I have a notion it was you.”

“You’ve got no proof! No proof! You won’t get away with this!”

“Proof means nothing, Hornlach, but I’ll indulge you. Rews survived. He’s just down the hall, as it goes, no friends left, blubbering away, naming every Mercer he can think of, or that we can think of, for that matter.” Narrowed eyes, but no reply. “We used him to catch Carpi.”

“Carpi?” asked the merchant, trying to look nonchalant.

“Surely you remember your assassin? Slightly flabby Styrian? Acne scars? Swears a lot? We have him too. He told us the whole story. How you hired him, how much you paid him, what you asked him to do. The whole story.” Glokta smiled. “He has an excellent memory, for a killer, very detailed.”

The fear was showing now, just a trace of it, but Hornlach rallied well. “This is an affront to my Guild!” he shouted, with as much authority as he could muster, naked and tied to a chair. “My master, Coster dan Kault, will never allow this, and he’s a close friend of Superior Kalyne!”

“Shit on Kalyne, he’s finished. Besides, Kault thinks you’re tucked up safe aboard that ship, bound for Westport and far beyond our reach. I don’t think you’ll be missed for several weeks.” The merchant’s face had gone slack. “A great deal could happen in that time… a very great deal.”

Hornlach’s tongue darted over his lips. He glanced furtively up at Frost and Severard, leaned slightly forward. So. Now comes the bargaining. “Inquisitor,” he said in a wheedling tone, “if I’ve learned one thing from life, it’s that every man wants something. Every man has his price, yes? And we have deep pockets. You have only to name it. Only name it! What do you want?”

“What do I want?” asked Glokta, leaning in to a more conspiratorial distance.

“Yes. What’s this all about? What do you want?” Hornlach was smiling now, a coy, clever little smile. How quaint, but you won’t buy your way out of this.

“I want my teeth back.”

The merchant’s smile began to fade.

“I want my leg back.”

Hornlach swallowed.

“I want my life back.”

The prisoner had turned very pale.

“No? Then perhaps I’ll settle for your head on a stick. You’ve nothing else I want, no matter how deep your pockets are.” Hornlach was trembling slightly now. No more bluster? No more deals? Then we can begin. Glokta picked up the paper in front of him, and read the first question. “What is your name?”

“Look, Inquisitor, I…” Frost smashed the table with his fist and Hornlach cowered in his chair.

“Answer his fucking question!” screamed Severard in his face.

“Gofred Hornlach,” squealed the merchant.

Glokta nodded. “Good. You are a senior member of the Guild of Mercers?”

“Yes, yes!”

“One of Magister Kault’s deputies, in fact?”

“You know I am!”

“Have you conspired with other Mercers to defraud his Majesty the King? Did you hire an assassin to wilfully murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects? Were you ordered so to do by Magister Coster dan Kault, the head of the Guild of Mercers?”

“No!” shouted Hornlach, voice squeaky with panic. That is not the answer we need. Glokta glanced up at Practical Frost. The big white fist sank into the merchants gut, and he gave a gentle sigh and slid sideways.

“My mother keeps dogs, you know,” said Glokta.

“Dogs,” hissed Severard in the gasping merchant’s ear, as he shoved him back into the chair.

“She loves them. Trains them to do all manner of tricks.” Glokta pursed his lips. “Do you know how dogs are trained?”

Hornlach was still winded, lolling in his chair with watering eyes, some way from being able to speak. Still at that stage of a fish pulled suddenly from the water. Mouth opening and closing, but no sound.

“Repetition,” said Glokta. “Repeat, repeat, repeat. You must have that dog perform his tricks one hundred times the same, and then you must do it all again. It’s all about repetition. And if you want that dog to bark on cue, you mustn’t be shy with the whip. You’re going to bark for me, Hornlach, in front of the Open Council.”

“You’re mad,” cried the Mercer, staring around at them, “you’re all mad!”

Glokta flashed his empty smile. “If you like. If it helps.” He glanced back at the paper in his hand. “What is your name?”

The prisoner swallowed. “Gofred Hornlach.”

“You are a senior member of the Guild of Mercers?”

“Yes.”

“One of Magister Kault’s deputies, in fact?”

“Yes!”

“Have you conspired with other Mercers to defraud his Majesty the King? Did you hire an assassin to wilfully murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects? Were you ordered so to do by Magister Coster dan Kault, the head of the Guild of Mercers?”

Hornlach cast desperately around him. Frost stared back, Severard stared back.

“Well?” demanded Glokta.

The merchant closed his eyes. “Yes,” he whimpered.

“What’s that?”

“Yes!”

Glokta smiled. “Excellent. Now tell me. What is your name?”


Tea and Vengeance

<p>Tea and Vengeance</p>

“It’s a beautiful country, isn’t it?” asked Bayaz, staring up at the rugged fells on either side of the road.

Their horses’ hooves thumped slowly along the track, the steady sound at odds with Logen’s unease. “Is it?”

“Well, it’s a hard country, of course, to those who don’t know its ways. A tough country, and unforgiving. But there’s something noble there too.” The First of the Magi swept his arm across the view, breathed in the cold air with relish. “It has honesty, integrity. The best steel doesn’t always shine the brightest.” He glanced over, swaying gently in his saddle. “You should know that.”

“I can’t say I see the beauty of it.”

“No? What do you see?”

Logen let his eyes wander over the steep, grassy slopes, spotted with patches of sedge and brown gorse, studded with outcrops of grey rock and stands of trees. “I see good ground for a battle. Provided you got here first.”

“Really? How so?”

Logen pointed at a knobbly hilltop. “Archers on the bluff there couldn’t be seen from the road, and you could hide most of your foot in these rocks. A few of the lightest armoured left on the slopes, just to draw the enemy on up the steepest ground there.”

He pointed to the thorny bushes that covered the lower slopes. “You’d let them come on a way, then when they were struggling through that gorse, you’d give them the arrows. Shafts falling on you from above like that, that’s no fun at all. They come quicker and further, and they bite deeper. That’d break them up. By the time they got to the rocks they’d be dog-tired and running short on discipline. That would be the time to charge. A bunch of Carls, leaping out of those stones, charging down from above, fresh and keen and screaming like devils, that could break ’em right there.”

Logen narrowed his eyes at the hillside. He’d been on both sides of a surprise like that, and in neither case was the memory a pleasant one. “But if they had a mind to hold, a few horsemen in those trees could finish it up. A few Named Men, a few hard fighters, bearing down on you from a place you never expected them, that’s a terrifying thing. That’d make them run. But tired as they’d be, they wouldn’t run too fast. That means prisoners, and prisoners might mean ransoms, or at least enemies cheaply killed. I see a slaughter, or a victory worth the singing, depending which side you’re on. That’s what I see.”

Bayaz smiled, head nodding with the slow movement of his horse. “Was it Stolicus who said the ground must be a general’s best friend, or it becomes his worst enemy?”

“I never heard of him, but he was right enough. This is good ground for an army, providing you got here first. Getting there first is the trick.”

“Indeed. We don’t have an army, however.”

“These trees could hide a few horsemen even better than a lot.” Logen glanced sidelong at the wizard. He was slouched happily in the saddle, enjoying a pleasant ride in the country. “I don’t think Bethod will have appreciated your advice, and I had scores enough with him already. He got wounded where he feels it most, in his pride. He’ll want vengeance. Want it badly.”

“Ah yes, vengeance, that most widespread of Northern pastimes. Its popularity never seems to wane.”

Logen stared grimly around at the trees, the rocks, the folds in the valley’s sides, the many hiding places. “There’ll be men out in these hills, looking for us. Small bands of skilled and battle-hardened men, well mounted and well armed, familiar with the land. Now Bethod has finished all his enemies there’s nowhere in the North out of his reach. They might be waiting there,” he pointed off towards some rocks by the road, “or in those trees, or those.” Malacus Quai, riding up ahead with the packhorse, glanced nervously around. “They could be anywhere.”

“Does that frighten you?” asked Bayaz.

“Everything frightens me, and it’s well that it does. Fear is a good friend to the hunted, it’s kept me alive this long. The dead are fearless, and I don’t care to join them. He’ll send men to the library too.”

“Oh yes, to burn my books and so on.”

“Does that frighten you?”

“Not much. The stones by the gate have the word of Juvens on them, and that is not to be denied, even now. No one with violence in mind can come near. I imagine Bethod’s men will wander around the lake in the rain until they run out of food, all the while thinking how very strange it is that they cannot find so large a thing as a library. No,” said the wizard happily, scratching at his beard. “I would concentrate on our own predicament. What happens, do you think, if we’re caught?”

“Bethod will kill us, and in the most unpleasant manner he can think of. Unless he has it in mind to be merciful, and let us off with a warning.”

“That doesn’t seem likely.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing. Our best chance is to make for the Whiteflow, try to get across the river into Angland, and trust to luck we aren’t seen.” Logen didn’t like trusting to luck, the very word left a sour taste. He peered up at the cloudy sky. “We could do with some bad weather. A healthy downpour could hide us nicely.” The skies had been pissing on him for weeks, but now that he needed rain they refused to produce a drop.

Malacus Quai was looking over his shoulder at them, his eyes big and round with worry. “Shouldn’t we try to move faster?”

“Perhaps,” said Logen, patting the neck of his horse, “but that would tire the horses, and we may need all the speed we can get later. We could hide in the day and travel by night, but then we risk getting lost. We’re better as we are. Move slowly and hope we aren’t seen.” He frowned at the hilltop. “Hope we haven’t been seen already.”

“Hmm,” said Bayaz, “then this might be the best time to tell you. That witch Caurib isn’t half the fool I pretended she was.”

Logen felt a sinking sensation. “No?”

“No, for all her paint and gold and chat about the utmost north, she knows what she is about. The long eye, they call it. An old trick, but effective. She has been watching us.”

“She knows where we are?”

“She knows when we left, more than likely, and in what direction we were heading.”

“That does nothing for our chances.”

“I should say not.”

“Shit.” Logen caught some movement in the trees to their left, and he snatched hold of the hilt of his sword. A couple of birds took to the skies. He waited, heart in his mouth. Nothing. He let his hand drop back. “We should have killed them while we had the chance. All three of them.”

“But we didn’t, and there it is.” Bayaz looked over at Logen. “If they do catch us, what’s your plan?”

“Run. And hope our horses are the faster.”


“And this one?” asked Bayaz.

The wind blew keenly through the hollow in spite of the trees, making the flames of the campfire flicker and dance. Malacus Quai hunched his shoulders and drew his blanket tight around them. He peered at the short stem that Bayaz was holding up to him, forehead crinkled with concentration.

“Erm…” This was the fifth plant, and the miserable apprentice had yet to get one of them right. “Is that… er… Ilyith?”

“Ilyith?” echoed the wizard, his face giving no clue as to whether it was the right answer. He was merciless as Bethod where his apprentice was concerned.

“Perhaps?”

“Hardly.” The apprentice closed his eyes and sighed for the fifth time that evening. Logen felt for him, he really did, but there was nothing to be done. “Ursilum, in the old tongue, the round-leafed kind.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Ursilum, it was at the end of my tongue the whole time.”

“If the name was at the end of your tongue, then the uses of the plant cannot be far behind, eh?”

The apprentice narrowed his eyes and looked hopefully up towards the night sky, as though the answer might be written in the stars. “Is it… for aches in the joints?”

“No, it is decidedly not. I am afraid your aching joints will still be troubling you.” Bayaz turned the stem slowly round in his fingers. “Ursilum has no uses, not that I know of. It’s just a plant.” And he tossed it away into the bushes.

“Just a plant,” echoed Quai, shaking his head. Logen sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.

“I’m sorry, Master Ninefingers, are we boring you?”

“What does it matter?” asked Logen, throwing his hands up in the air. “Who cares about the name of a plant with no use?”

Bayaz smiled. “A fair point. Tell us, Malacus, what does it matter?”

“If a man seeks to change the world, he should first understand it.” The apprentice trotted the words out as if by rote, evidently relieved to be asked a question he knew the answer to. “The smith must learn the ways of metals, the carpenter the ways of wood, or their work will be of but little worth. Base magic is wild and dangerous, for it comes from the Other Side, and to draw from the world below is fraught with peril. The Magus tempers magic with knowledge, and thus produces High Art, but like the smith or the carpenter, he should only seek to change that which he understands. With each thing he learns, his power is increased. So must the Magus strive to learn all, to understand the world entire. The tree is only as strong as its root, and knowledge is the root of power.”

“Don’t tell me, Juvens’ Principles of Art?”

“The very first lines,” said Bayaz.

“Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve been on this world for more than thirty years, and I’ve yet to understand a single thing that’s happened. To know the world completely? To understand everything? That’s quite a task.”

The Magus chuckled. “An impossible one, to be sure. To truly know and understand even a blade of grass is the study of a lifetime, and the world is ever changing. That is why we tend to specialise.”

“So what did you choose?”

“Fire,” said Bayaz, gazing happily into the flames, the light dancing on his bald head. “Fire, and force, and will. But even in my chosen fields, after countless long years of study, I remain a novice. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. Still, the struggle itself is worthwhile. Knowledge is the root of power, after all.”

“So with enough knowledge, you Magi can do anything?”

Bayaz frowned. “There are limits. And there are rules.”

“Like the First Law?” Master and apprentice glanced up at Logen as one. “It’s forbidden to speak with devils, am I right?” It was plain that Quai didn’t remember his fevered outburst, his mouth was open with surprise. Bayaz’ eyes only narrowed a little, with the faintest trace of suspicion.

“Why, yes you are,” said the First of the Magi. “It is forbidden to touch the Other Side direct. The First Law must apply to all, without exception. As must the Second.”

“Which is?”

“It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men.”

Logen raised an eyebrow. “You wizards get up to some strange stuff.”

Bayaz smiled. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it.” He turned to his apprentice, holding up a lumpy brown root. “And now, Master Quai, would you be good enough to tell me the name of this?”

Logen couldn’t help grinning to himself. He knew this one.

“Come, come, Master Quai, we don’t have all night.”

Logen wasn’t able to stand the apprentice’s misery any longer. He leaned toward him, pretending to poke at the fire with a stick, coughed to conceal his words and whispered, “Crow’s Foot,” under his breath. Bayaz was a good distance away, and the wind was still rustling in the trees. There was no way the Magus could have heard him.

Quai played his part well. He continued to peer at the root, brow knitted in thought. “Is it Crow’s Foot?” he ventured.

Bayaz raised an eyebrow. “Why, yes it is. Well done, Malacus. And can you tell me its uses?”

Logen coughed again. “Wounds,” he whispered, looking carelessly off into the bushes, one hand shielding his mouth. He might not know too much about plants, but on the subject of wounds he had a wealth of experience.

“I believe it’s good for wounds,” said Quai slowly.

“Excellent, Master Quai. Crow’s Foot is correct. And it is good for wounds. I am glad to see we are making some progress after all.” He cleared his throat. “It does seem curious that you should use that name however. They only call this Crow’s Foot north of the mountains. I certainly never taught you that name. I wonder who it is you know, from that part of the world?” He glanced over at Logen. “Have you ever considered a career in the magical arts, Master Ninefingers?” He narrowed his eyes at Quai once more. “I may have space for an apprentice.”

Malacus hung his head. “Sorry, Master Bayaz.”

“You are indeed. Perhaps you could clean the pots for us. That task may be better suited to your talents.”

Quai reluctantly shrugged off his blanket, collected the dirty bowls and shuffled off through the brush towards the stream. Bayaz bent over the pot on the fire, adding some dried-up leaves to the bubbling water. The flickering light of the flames caught the underside of his face, the steam curled around his bald head. All in all, he looked quite the part.

“What is that?” asked Logen, reaching for his pipe. “Some spell? Some potion? Some great work of High Art?”

“Tea.”

“Eh?”

“Leaves of a certain plant, boiled up in water. It is considered quite a luxury in Gurkhul.” He poured some of the brew out into a cup. “Would you like to try it?”

Logen sniffed at it suspiciously. “Smells like feet.”

“Suit yourself.” Bayaz shook his head and sat back down beside the fire, wrapping both hands around the steaming cup. “But you’re missing out on one of nature’s greatest gifts to man.” He took a sip and smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Calming to the mind, invigorating to the body. There are few ills a good cup of tea won’t help with.”

Logen pressed a lump of chagga into the bowl of his pipe. “How about an axe in the head?”

“That’s one of them,” admitted Bayaz with a grin. “Tell me, Master Ninefingers, why all the blood between you and Bethod? Did you not fight for him many times? Why do you hate each other so?”

Logen paused as he was sucking smoke from the pipe, let his breath out. “There are reasons,” he said stiffly. The wounds of that time were still raw. He didn’t like anyone picking at them.

“Ah, reasons.” Bayaz looked down at his tea-cup. “And what of your reasons? Does this feud not cut both ways?”

“Perhaps.”

“But you are willing to wait?”

“I’ll have to be.”

“Hmm. You are very patient, for a Northman.”

Logen thought of Bethod, and his loathsome sons, and the many good men they’d killed for their ambitions. The men he’d killed for their ambitions. He thought of the Shanka, and his family, and the ruins of the village by the sea. He thought of all his dead friends. He sucked at his teeth and stared at the fire.

“I’ve settled a few scores in my time, but it only led to more. Vengeance can feel fine, but it’s a luxury. It doesn’t fill your belly, or keep the rain off. To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends. You have to be realistic. It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.”

Bayaz laughed, his eyes glittering in the firelight. “What?” asked Logen, handing the pipe across to him.

“No offence, but you are an endless source of surprises. Not at all what I was expecting. You are quite the riddle.”

“Me?”

“Oh yes! The Bloody-Nine,” he whispered, opening his eyes up wide. “That’s one bastard of a reputation you’re carrying, my friend. The stories they tell! One bastard of a name! Why, mothers scare their children with it!” Logen said nothing. There was no denying it. Bayaz sucked slowly on the pipe, then blew out a long plume of smoke. “I’ve been thinking about the day that Prince Calder paid us a visit.”

Logen snorted. “I try not to spare him too much thought.”

“Nor I, but it wasn’t his behaviour that interested me, it was yours.”

“It was? I don’t remember doing a thing.”

Bayaz pointed the stem of the pipe at Logen from across the fire. “Ah, but that is my point exactly. I have known many fighting men, soldiers and generals and champions and whatnot. A great fighter must act quickly, decisively, whether with his own arm or with an army, for he who strikes first often strikes last. So fighters come to rely on their baser instincts, to answer always with violence, to become proud and brutal.” Bayaz passed the pipe back to Logen. “But whatever the stories, you are not such a one.”

“I know plenty who’d disagree.”

“Perhaps, but the fact remains, Calder slighted you, and you did nothing. So you know when you should act, and act quickly, but you also know when not to. That shows restraint, and a calculating mind.”

“Perhaps I was just afraid.”

“Of him? Come now. You didn’t seem afraid of Scale and he’s a deal more worrying. And you walked forty miles with my apprentice over your back, and that shows courage, and compassion too. A rare combination, indeed. Violence and restraint, calculation and compassion—and you speak to the spirits too.”

Logen raised an eyebrow. “Not often, and only when there’s no one else around. Their talk is dull, and not half so flattering as yours.”

“Hah. That’s true. The spirits have little to say to men, I understand, though I have never spoken with them; I have not the gift. Few have these days.” He took another swallow from his cup, peering at Logen over the rim. “I can scarcely think of another one alive.”

Malacus stumbled from the trees, shivering, and set the wet bowls down. He grabbed his blanket, wrapped it tightly around him, then peered hopefully at the steaming pot on the fire. “Is that tea?”

Bayaz ignored him. “Tell me, Master Ninefingers, in all the time since you arrived at my library, you have never once asked me why I sent for you, or why now we are wandering through the North in peril of our lives. That strikes me as odd.”

“Not really. I don’t want to know.”

“Don’t want to?”

“All my life I’ve sought to know things. What’s on the other side of the mountains? What are my enemies thinking? What weapons will they use against me? What friends can I trust?” Logen shrugged. “Knowledge may be the root of power, but each new thing I’ve learned has left me worse off.” He sucked again on the pipe, but it was finished. He tapped the ashes out onto the ground. “Whatever it is you want from me I will try to do, but I don’t want to know until it’s time. I’m sick of making my own decisions. They’re never the right ones. Ignorance is the sweetest medicine, my father used to say. I don’t want to know.”

Bayaz stared at him. It was the first time Logen had seen the First of the Magi look at all surprised. Malacus Quai cleared his throat. “I’d like to know,” he said in a small voice, looking hopefully up at his master.

“Yes,” murmured Bayaz, “but you don’t get to ask.”


It was around midday that it all went wrong. Logen was just starting to think that they might make it to the Whiteflow, maybe even live out the week. It felt as if he lost his concentration for just a moment. Unfortunately, it was the one moment that mattered.

Still, it was well done, you had to give them that. They’d chosen their spot carefully, and tied rags around their horse’s hooves, to muffle the sound. Threetrees might have seen it coming, if he’d been with them, but he had an eye for the ground like no other. The Dogman might have smelled them, if he’d been there, but he had the nose for it. The fact was, neither of them were there. The dead are no help at all.

There were three horsemen, waiting for them as they rounded a blind corner, well armed and armoured, dirty faces but clean weapons, veterans each man. The one on the right was thickset and powerful-looking, with almost no neck. The one on the left was tall and gaunt with small, hard eyes. Both of them had round helmets, coats of weathered mail, and long spears lowered and ready. Their leader sat on his horse like a bag of turnips, slouched in the saddle with the ease of the expert horseman. He nodded to Logen. “Ninefingers! The Brynn! The Bloody-Nine! It’s right good to see you again.”

“Blacktoe,” muttered Logen, forcing a friendly smile onto his face. “It’d warm my heart to see you too, if things were different.”

“But they are as they are.” The old warrior’s eyes moved slowly over Bayaz, Quai, and Logen as he spoke, taking in their weapons, or the lack of them, working out his game. A stupider opponent could have evened up the odds, but Blacktoe was a Named Man, and no fool. His eyes came to rest on Logen’s hand as it crept slowly across his body towards the hilt of his sword, and he shook his head slowly. “None of your tricks, Bloody-Nine. You can see we’ve got you.” And he nodded over at the trees behind them.

Logen’s heart sank even lower. Two more riders had appeared and were trotting forwards to complete the trap, their muffled hooves barely making a sound on the soft ground by the road. Logen chewed his lip. Blacktoe was right, damn him. The four horsemen closed in, lowered spear-points swaying, faces cold, minds set to the task. Malacus Quai stared at them with frightened eyes, his horse shying back. Bayaz smiled pleasantly as though they were his oldest friends. Logen would have liked a touch of the wizard’s composure. His own heart was hammering, his mouth was sour.

Blacktoe nudged his horse forward, one hand gripping the shaft of his axe, the other resting on his knee, not even using the reins. He was a masterful horseman, famous for it. That’s what happens when a man loses all his toes to the frost. Riding is quicker than walking, that has to be admitted, but when it came to fighting Logen preferred to keep his feet firmly on the ground. “Better be coming with us now,” said the old warrior, “better all round.”

Logen could hardly agree, but the odds were stacked high against him. A sword may have a voice, as Bayaz had said, but a spear is a damn good thing for poking a man off a horse, and there were four of them closing in around him. He was caught—outnumbered, off-guard, and with the wrong tools for the task. Yet again. Best to play for time, and hope some chance might show itself. Logen cleared his throat, doing his best to take the fear out of his voice. “Never thought you’d make your peace with Bethod, Blacktoe, not you.”

The old warrior scratched at his long, matted beard. “I was one of the last, truth be told, but I knelt in the end, same as all the rest. Can’t say I liked it any, but there it is. Best let me have the blade, Ninefingers.”

“What about Old Man Yawl? You telling me he bows to Bethod? Or did you just find a master to suit you better?”

Blacktoe didn’t get upset by the jibe, not in the least. He just looked sad, and tired. “Yawl’s dead, as though you didn’t know. Most of ’em are. Bethod doesn’t suit me much at all as a master, and nor do his sons. No man likes licking Scales fat arse, or Calder’s skinny one, you should know that. Now give up the sword, the day’s wasting and we’ve ground to cover. We can talk just as well with you unarmed.”

“Yawl’s dead?”

“Aye,” said Blacktoe suspiciously. “He offered Bethod a duel. Didn’t you hear? The Feared done for him.”

“Feared?”

“Where’ve you been, under a mountain?”

“More or less. What’s this Feared?”

“I don’t know what he is.” Blacktoe leaned from his saddle and spat in the grass. “I heard he’s not a man at all. They say that bitch Caurib dug him out from under a hill. Who knows? Leastways, he’s Bethod’s new champion, and far nastier even than the last, no offence.”

“None at all,” said Logen. The man with no neck had moved in close. A little too close perhaps, the point of his spear was hovering only a foot or two away. Close enough for Logen to grab a hold of. Maybe. “Old Man Yawl was a strong hand.”

“Aye. That’s why we followed him. But it done him no good. This Feared broke him. Broke him bad, like he was no more’n a dog. Left him alive, if you could call it that, so we could learn from his mistake, but he didn’t live long. Most of us knelt right then, those with wives and sons to think on. No sense in putting it off. There’s a few of them still, up in the mountains, who won’t bow to Bethod. That moon-worshipping madman Crummock-i-Phail and his hillmen, and a few beside. But not many. And those there are, Bethod’s got plans for.” Blacktoe held out a big, calloused hand. “Better let me have the blade, Bloody-Nine. Left hand only, if you please, slow as slow and none of your tricks. Better all round.”

So that was it. Out of time. Logen wrapped the three fingers of his left hand round the hilt of his sword, the cold metal pressing into his palm. The big man’s spear point edged a little closer. The tall one had relaxed a little, confident they had him. His spear was pointing up into the air, unready. There was no telling what the two behind were doing. The desire to glance over his shoulder was almost irresistible, but Logen forced himself to look ahead.

“I always had respect for you, Ninefingers, even though we stood on different sides. I’ve no feud with you. But Bethod wants vengeance, he’s drunk on it, and I swore to serve.” Blacktoe looked him sadly in the eye. “I’m sorry it’s me. For what it’s worth.”

“Likewise,” muttered Logen, “I’m sorry it’s you.” He slid the sword slowly from the scabbard. “For what it’s worth,” and he snapped his arm out, smashing the sword’s pommel into Blacktoe’s mouth. The old warrior gave a squawk as the dull metal crunched into his teeth and tumbled backwards out of the saddle, his axe flying from his hand and clattering into the road. Logen grabbed hold of the shaft of the big man’s spear, just below the blade.

“Go!” he bellowed at Quai, but the apprentice only stared back, blinking. The man with no neck pulled hard at the spear, nearly jerking Logen out of the saddle, but he kept his grip. He reared up in the stirrups, raising the sword high above his head. Neckless took one hand from his spear, his eyes going wide, and held it up on an instinct. Logen swung the sword down with all his strength.

He was shocked by the sharpness of it. It took the big man’s arm off just below the elbow then struck into his shoulder, cleaving through the fur and the mail beneath and splitting him to his stomach, near in half. Blood showered across the road, spattering in the face of Logen’s horse. It was trained for riding but not for war and it reared and span around, kicking and plunging in a panic. It was the best Logen could do to stay on top of the damn thing. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bayaz smack Quai’s horse on the rump, and it sped off with the apprentice bouncing in the saddle, the packhorse galloping along behind.

Then everything was a mess of plunging and snorting beasts, clashing and scraping metal, curses and cries. Battle. A familiar place, but no less terrifying for that. Logen clung to the reins with his right hand as his horse bucked and thrashed, swinging the sword wildly round his head, more to scare his enemies than hurt them. Every moment he expected the jolt and searing pain as he was stuck through with a spear, then the ground to rush up and smack him in the face.

He saw Quai and Bayaz galloping away down the road, hotly pursued by the tall man, his spear couched under his arm. He saw Blacktoe rolling to his feet, spitting blood, scrambling for his axe. He saw the two men who’d come from behind fighting for control of their own twisting horses, spears waving in their hands. He saw the body of the one he’d just killed loll in half and topple slowly out of the saddle, blood pouring out over the muddy ground.

Logen squawked as he felt a spear-point dig into the back of his shoulder, and he was shoved forward, almost over his horse’s head. Then he realised he was facing down the road, and still alive. He dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and it sped away, sending mud flying from its hooves and into the faces of the men behind. He fumbled the sword across into his right hand, nearly dropping the reins and falling into the road. He shrugged his shoulder but the wound didn’t feel too bad—he could still move the arm alright.

“I’m still alive. Still alive.” The road flashed by beneath him, the wind stinging his eyes. He was making ground on the tall man—the rags on his horse’s hooves were slowing him down now, slipping on the muddy ground. Logen gripped the hilt of the sword as hard as he could, raised it behind him. The head of his enemy snapped round, but too late. There was a hollow bonk of metal on metal as sword smashed into helmet, leaving a deep dent and sending the tall man sprawling. His head bounced once against the road, foot still caught in one stirrup, then he came free and tumbled over and over on the grass, arms and legs flopping. His riderless horse galloped on, eyes rolling at Logen as he passed.

“Still alive.” Logen looked over his shoulder. Blacktoe was back in the saddle and galloping after him, axe raised above his head, tangled hair flying out behind. The two other spearmen were with him, urging their horses forwards, but there was still some distance between them. Logen laughed. Perhaps he’d make it after all. He waved his sword at Blacktoe as the road entered a wood in the valley’s bottom.

“I’m still alive!” he screamed at the top of his voice, and then his horse pulled up so suddenly that Logen was almost flung over its head. It was only by throwing one arm round its neck that he kept his seat at all. As soon as he fell back into the saddle he saw the problem, and it was a bad one.

Several tree trunks had been hauled across the road, their branches chopped off and the stumps filed down to vicious points, sticking out in all directions. Two more mailed Carls stood in front, spears at the ready. Even the best of horsemen couldn’t have jumped that barrier, and Logen wasn’t the best of horsemen. Bayaz and his apprentice had reached the same decision. Both sat still on their horses before the barricade, the old man looking puzzled, the young one simply scared.

Logen fingered the grip of his sword and cast desperately around, peering into the trees for some way out. He saw more men now. Archers. One, then two, then three of them, creeping slowly forward on both sides of the road, arrows nocked and strings drawn back.

Logen turned round in the saddle, but Blacktoe and his two companions were trotting up, there was no escape that way. They reined in a few strides away, well out of reach of Logen’s sword. His shoulders slumped. The chase was done. Blacktoe leaned over and spat some blood onto the ground. “Alright, Bloody-Nine, that’s as far as you go.”

“Funny thing,” muttered Logen, looking down at the long grey blade of the sword, dashed and spattered with red. “All that time I fought for Bethod against you, and now you fight for him against me. Seems we’re never on the same side, and he’s the only winner. Funny thing.”

“Aye,” mumbled Blacktoe through his bloody lips, “funny.” But no one was laughing. Blacktoe and his Carls had faces hard as death, Quai looked on the verge of tears. Only Bayaz, for reasons beyond understanding, still had his customary good humour. “Alright, Ninefingers, get off the horse. Bethod wants you alive, but he’ll take you dead, if he has to. Down! Now!”

Logen’s thoughts began to turn to how they might escape, once he’d given up. Blacktoe wasn’t like to make a mistake once he had them. Logen would likely be kicked half to death for the fight he’d given them already, if they didn’t take his kneecaps off. They’d be trussed up tight like chickens for the slaughter. He pictured himself flung down on the stones with half a mile of chain around him, Bethod smiling down from his throne, Calder and Scale laughing, probably poking at him with something sharp.

Logen looked around. He looked at the cold arrowheads and the cold spear-points, and the cold eyes of the men pointing them. There was no way out of this little spot.

“Alright, you win.” Logen threw his sword down, point first. He had it in mind that it would bite into the soil and stand there, swaying back and forth, but it toppled over and clattered against the dirt. It was that sort of day. He slowly swung one leg over the saddle and slid down into the road.

“That’s better. Now the rest of you.” Quai instantly slithered off his horse and stood there, glancing nervously up at Bayaz, but the Magus made no move. Blacktoe frowned and hefted his axe. “You too, old man.”

“I prefer to ride.” Logen winced. That was not the right answer. Any moment now Blacktoe would give the order. The bowstrings would sing and the First of the Magi would drop into the road, stuck full of arrows, probably still with that infuriating smile on his dead face.

But the order never came. There was no word of command, no strange incantation, no arcane gestures. The air around Bayaz’ shoulders seemed to shimmer, like the air above the land on a hot day, and Logen felt a strange tugging at his guts.

Then the trees exploded in a wall of searing, blinding, white hot flame. Trunks burst and branches snapped with deafening cracks, venting plumes of brilliant fire and scalding steam. One burning arrow shot high up into the air over Logen’s head, and then the archers were gone, boiled away into the furnace.

Logen choked and gasped, reeled back in shock and terror, arm up to ward his face from the blistering heat. The barricade was sending up great gouts of fire and blinding sparks, the two men who had been standing near were rolling and thrashing, wreathed in hungry flames, their screams lost in the deafening roar.

The horses plunged and reeled, snorting with mad fear. Blacktoe was flung to the ground for the second time, his flaming axe flying from his hands, and his horse stumbled and fell, crashing down on top of him. One of his companions was even less lucky—thrown straight into the sheets of fire by the road, his despairing cry quickly cut off. Only one stayed upright, and he was lucky enough to be wearing gloves. By some miracle he kept hold of the burning shaft of his spear.

How he had the presence of mind to charge with the world on fire around him, Logen would never know. Strange things can happen in a fight. He chose Quai as his target, bearing down on him with a snarl, the flaming spear aimed at his chest. The witless apprentice stood there helpless, rooted to the spot. Logen barrelled into him, snatching up his sword, sending Quai rolling across the road with his hands over his head, then he chopped mindlessly at the horse’s legs as it flashed past him.

The blade was torn from his fingers and went skittering away, then a hoof slammed into Logen’s injured shoulder and clubbed him into the dirt. The breath was knocked from him and the burning world span crazily around. His blow had its effect though. A few strides further down the road the horses hacked front legs gave way and it stumbled, carried helplessly forward, tumbled and pitched into the flames, horse and rider vanishing together.

Logen cast about on the ground for the sword. Sizzling leaves whipped across the road, stinging his face and his hands. The heat was a great weight pressing down on him, pulling the sweat out of his skin. He found the bloody grip of the sword, seized hold of it with his torn fingers. He lurched up, staggered round, shouting meaningless sounds of fury, but there was no one left to fight. The flames were gone, as suddenly as they’d arrived, leaving Logen coughing and blinking in the curling smoke.

The silence seemed complete after the roaring noise, the gentle breeze felt icy cold. A wide circle of the trees around them had been reduced to charred and shattered stumps, as though they had burned for hours. The barricade was a sagging heap of grey ash and black splinters. Two corpses lay sprawled nearby, barely recognisable as men, burned down to the bones. The blackened blades of their spears lay in the road, the shafts vanished. Of the archers there was no sign at all. They were soot blown away on the wind. Quai lay motionless on his face with his hands over his head, and beyond him Blacktoe’s horse lay sprawled out on its side, one leg silently twitching, the others still.

“Well,” said Bayaz, the muffled noise making Logen jump. He’d somehow expected there would never be another sound again. “That’s that.” The First of the Magi swung a leg over his saddle and slid down into the road. His horse stood there, calm and obedient. It hadn’t moved the whole time. “There now, Master Quai, do you see what can be achieved with a proper understanding of plants?”

Bayaz sounded calm, but his hands were trembling. Trembling badly. He looked haggard, ill, old, like a man who’d dragged a cart ten miles. Logen stared at him, swaying silently back and forth, the sword dangling from his hand.

“So that’s Art, is it?” His voice sounded very small and far away.

Bayaz wiped the sweat from his face. “Of a sort. Hardly very subtle. Still,” and he poked at one of the charred bodies with his boot, “subtlety is wasted on the Northmen.” He grimaced, rubbed at his sunken eyes and peered up the road. “Where the hell did those horses get to?”

Logen heard a ragged groan from the direction of Blacktoe’s fallen mount. He stumbled towards it, tripped and fell to his knees, stumbled towards it again. His shoulder was a ball of pain, his left arm numb, his fingers ripped and bleeding, but Blacktoe was in worse shape. Much worse. He was propped up on his elbows, legs crushed under his horse right to the hips, hands burned to swollen tatters. He had a look of profound puzzlement on his bloody face as he tried, unsuccessfully, to drag himself from under the horse.

“You’ve fucking killed me,” he whispered, staring open-mouthed at the wreckage of his hands. “I’m all done. I’ll never make it back, and even if I could, what for?” He gave a despairing laugh. “Bethod ain’t half so merciful as he used to be. Better you kill me now, before it starts to hurt. Better all round.” And he slumped back and lay in the road.

Logen looked up at Bayaz, but there was no help there. “I’m not much at healing,” snapped the wizard, glancing round at the circle of blasted stumps. “I told you we tend to specialise.” He closed his eyes and bent over, hands resting on his knees, breathing hard.

Logen thought of the floor in Bethod’s hall, and the two princes, laughing and poking. “Alright,” he muttered, standing up and hefting the sword. “Alright.”

Blacktoe smiled. “You were right, Ninefingers. I never should have knelt to Bethod. Never. Shit on him and his Feared. It would have been better to die up in the mountains, fighting him to the last. There might have been something fine in that. I just had enough. You can see that, can’t you?”

“I can see that,” muttered Logen. “I’ve had enough myself.”

“Something fine,” said Blacktoe, staring far up into the grey skies, “I just had enough. So I reckon I earned this. Fair is fair.” He lifted his chin. “Well then. Get it done, lad.”

Logen raised the sword.

“I’m glad it’s you, Ninefingers,” hissed Blacktoe through gritted teeth, “for what it’s worth.”

“I’m not.” Logen swung the blade down.

The scorched stumps were still smouldering, smoke curling up into the air, but all was cold now. Logen’s mouth tasted salty, like blood. Perhaps he bit his tongue somewhere. Perhaps it was someone else’s. He threw the sword down and it bounced and clattered, shedding red specks across the dirt. Quai gaped around for a moment, then he folded up and coughed puke into the road. Logen stared down at Blacktoe’s headless corpse. “That was a good man. Better than me.”

“History is littered with dead good men.” Bayaz knelt stiffly and picked up the sword, wiped the blade on Blacktoe’s coat, then he squinted up the road, peering through the haze of smoke. “We should be moving. Others might be on their way.”

Logen looked at his bloody hands, slowly turning them over and over. They were his hands, no doubt. There was the missing finger. “Nothing’s changed,” he mumbled to himself.

Bayaz straightened up, brushing the dirt from his knees. “When has it ever?” He held out the sword out to Logen, hilt first. “I think you’ll still be needing this.”

Logen stared at the blade for a moment. It was clean, dull grey, just as it had always been. Unlike him, it showed not so much as a scratch from the hard use it had seen that day. He didn’t want it back. Not ever.

But he took it anyway.


PART II

What Freedom Looks Like

The King’s Justice

Means of Escape

Three Signs

The Theatrical Outfitter’s

Barbarians at the Gate

Next

Better than Death

Sore Thumb

Questions

Nobility

Dark Work

Words and Dust

The Remarkable Talents of Brother Longfoot

Her Kind Fight Everything

She Loves Me… Not

The Seed

Never Bet Against a Magus

The Ideal Audience

The House of the Maker

Nobody’s Dog

Each Man Worships Himself

Old Friends

Back to the Mud

Misery

The Bloody-Nine

The Tools we Have

<p>PART II</p>

“Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.”

Joseph Brodsky
<p>What Freedom Looks Like</p>

The point of the shovel bit into the ground with the sharp scrape of metal on earth. An all too familiar sound. It didn’t bite in far, for all the effort put behind it, as the soil was rocky hard and baked by the sun.

But she wasn’t to be deterred by a little hard soil.

She had dug too many holes, and in ground worse for digging than this.

When the fighting is over, you dig, if you’re still alive. You dig graves for your dead comrades. A last mark of respect, however little you might have had for them. You dig as deep as you can be bothered, you dump them in, you cover them up, they rot away and are forgotten. That’s the way it’s always been.

She flicked her shoulder and a sent a shovelful of sandy soil flying. Her eyes followed the grains of dirt and little stones as they broke apart in the air, then fell across the face of one of the soldiers. One eye stared at her reproachfully. The other had one of her arrows snapped off in it. A couple of flies were buzzing lazily around his face. There would be no burial for him, the graves were for her people. He and his bastard friends could lie out in the merciless sun.

After all, the vultures have to eat.

The blade of the shovel swished through the air and bit again into the soil. Another clump of dirt tumbled away. She straightened up and wiped the sweat from her face. She squinted up at the sky. The sun was blazing, straight above, sucking whatever moisture remained out of the dusty landscape, drying the blood on the rocks. She looked at the two graves beside her. One more to go. She would finish this one, throw the earth on top of those three fools, rest for a moment, then away.

Others would be coming for her soon enough.

She stuck the shovel into the earth, took hold of the water skin and pulled the stopper out. She took a few lukewarm swallows, even allowed herself the luxury of pouring a trickle out into her grimy hand and splashing it on her face. The early deaths of her comrades had at least put a stop to the endless squabbling over water.

There would be plenty to go round now.

“Water…” gasped the soldier by the rocks. It was surprising, but he was still alive. Her arrow had missed his heart but it had killed him still—just a little less quickly than she had intended. He had managed to drag himself as far as the rocks, but his crawling days were over. The stones around him were coated in dark blood. The heat and that arrow would do for him soon, however tough he was.

She wasn’t thirsty, but there was water to spare and she wouldn’t be able to carry it all. She took a few more swallows, letting it slosh out of her mouth and down her neck. A rare treat out here in the Badlands, to let water fall. Shining drops spattered onto the dry earth, turning it dark. She splashed some more on her face, licked her lips, and looked over at the soldier.

“Mercy…” he croaked, one hand clasped to his chest where the arrow was sticking out of it, the other stretched weakly towards her.

“Mercy? Hah!” She pushed the stopper back into the skin, then tossed it down next to the grave. “Don’t you know who I am?” She grabbed hold of the handle of the shovel, the point of its blade bit once more into the earth.

“Ferro Maljinn!” came a voice from somewhere behind her, “I know who you are!”

A most unwelcome development.

She swung the shovel again, mind racing. Her bow was lying just out of reach on the ground by the first grave she had dug. She threw some dirt away, her sweating shoulders prickling at the unseen presence. She glanced over at the dying soldier. He was staring at a point behind her, and that gave her a good idea where this new arrival was standing.

She dug the point of the shovel in again, then let go and sprang forward out of the hole, rolling across the dirt, snatching up her bow as she moved, notching an arrow, drawing back the string in one smooth motion. An old man was standing about ten strides away. He was making no move forward, was holding no weapon. He was just standing, looking at her with a benign smile.

She let the arrow fly.

Now Ferro was about as deadly with a bow as it’s possible to be. The ten dead soldiers could have testified to that, if they’d been able. Six of them had her arrows sticking out of them, and in that fight she hadn’t missed once. She couldn’t remember missing at close range, however quickly the shot had been taken, and she’d killed men ten times further away than this smiling old bastard was now.

But this time she missed.

The arrow seemed to curve in the air. A bad feather maybe, but it still didn’t seem quite right. The old man didn’t flinch, not even a hair. He simply stood, smiling, exactly where he’d always stood, and the arrow missed him by a few inches and disappeared off down the hillside.

And that gave everyone time to consider the situation.

He was a strange one, this old man. Very dark-skinned, black as coal, which meant he was from the far south, across the wide and shelterless desert. That’s a journey not lightly taken, and Ferro had rarely seen such people. Tall and thin with long, sinewy arms and a simple robe wrapped round him. There were strange bangles round his wrists, stacked up so they covered half his forearms, glittering dark and light in the savage sun.

His hair was a mass of grey ropes about his face, some hanging down as low as his waist, and there was a grey stubble on his lean, pointed jaw. He had a big water skin wrapped around his chest, and a bunch of leather bags hanging from a belt around his waist. Nothing else. No weapon. That was the strangest thing of all, for a man out here in the Badlands. No one came to this god-forsaken place except those who were running, and those sent to hunt them. In either case, they should be well armed.

He was no soldier of Gurkhul, he was no scum come looking for the money on her head. He was no bandit, no escaped slave. What was he then? And why was he here? He must have come for her. He could be one of them.

An Eater.

Who else would wander the Badlands without a weapon? She hadn’t realised they wanted her that badly.

He stood there motionless, the old man, smiling at her. She reached slowly for another arrow, and his eyes followed her without any worry.

“That really isn’t necessary,” he said, in a slow, deep voice.

She nocked the arrow to her bow. The old man didn’t move. She shrugged her shoulders and took her time aiming. The old man smiled on, not a care in the world. She let the arrow fly. It missed him by a few inches again, this time on the other side, and shot off down the hillside.

Once was a possibility, she had to admit that, but twice was wrong. If Ferro knew one thing, and one thing only, she knew how to kill. The old fool should have been stuck through and bleeding out his last into the stony soil. Now, simply by standing still and smiling, he seemed to be saying, “You know less than you think. I know more.”

That was very galling.

“Who are you, you old bastard?”

“They call me Yulwei.”

“Old bastard will do for you!” She tossed her bow down on the ground, let her arms drop to her sides so that her right hand was hidden from him by her body. She twisted her wrist and the curved knife dropped out of her sleeve and into her waiting palm. There are many ways to kill a man, and if one way fails you must try another.

Ferro had never been one to give up at the first stumble.

Yulwei began to move slowly towards her, his bare feet padding on the rocks, bangles jingling softly together. That was very strange, now she thought about it. If he made a noise every time he moved, how had he managed to sneak up on her?

“What do you want?”

“I want to help you.” He came forward, until he was just over an arm’s length away, then he stopped and stood, grinning at her.

Now Ferro was fast as a snake with a knife and twice as deadly, as the last of those soldiers could have testified, had he been able. The blade was a shining blur in the air, swung with all her strength and all her fury behind it. If he had been standing where she thought he was, his head would have been hanging off. Only he wasn’t. He was standing about a stride to the left.

She threw herself at him with a fighting scream, ramming the glittering point of the knife into his heart. But she stabbed only air. He was back where he had been before, motionless and smiling all the while. Very strange. She padded round him, cautious, sandaled feet scuffing in the dust, left hand circling in the air in front of her, right hand gripped tight round the handle of the knife. She had to be careful—there was magic here.

“There is no need to get angry. I am here to help.”

“Fuck your help,” she hissed back at him.

“But you need it, and badly. They are coming for you, Ferro. There are soldiers in the hills, many soldiers.”

“I’ll outrun them.”

“There are too many. You cannot outrun them all.”

She glanced round at the punctured bodies. “Then I’ll give them to the vultures.”

“Not this time. They are not alone. They have help.” On the word “help” his deep voice dropped even lower.

Ferro frowned. “Priests?”

“Yes, and more besides.” His eyes went very wide. “An Eater,” he whispered. “They mean to take you alive. The Emperor wants to make an example of you. He has it in mind to put you on display.”

She snorted. “Fuck the Emperor.”

“I heard you already did.”

She growled and raised the knife again, but it was not a knife. There was a hissing snake in her hand, a deadly snake, with its mouth open to bite. “Ugh!” She threw it on the ground, stamped her foot down on its head, but she stamped on her knife instead. The blade snapped with a sharp crack.

“They will catch you,” said the old man. “They will catch you, and they will break your legs with hammers in the city square, so you can never run again. Then they will parade you through the streets of Shaffa, naked, sitting backwards on an ass, with your hair shaved off, while the people line the streets and shout insults at you.”

She frowned at him, but Yulwei did not stop. “They will starve you to death in a cage before the palace, cooking in the hot sun, while the good people of Gurkhul taunt you and spit on you and throw dung at you through the bars. Perhaps they will give you piss to drink, if you are lucky. When you finally die they will let you rot, and the flies will eat you bit by bit, and all the other slaves will see what freedom looks like, and decide they are better off as they are.”

Ferro was bored with this. Let them come, and the Eater too. She wouldn’t die in a cage. She would cut her own throat, if it came to that. She turned her back on him with a scowl and snatched up the shovel, started digging away furiously at the last grave. Soon it was deep enough.

Deep enough for the scum who’d be rotting in it.

She turned around. Yulwei was kneeling down by the dying soldier, giving him water from the skin round his chest.

“Fuck!” she shouted, striding over, her fingers locked around the handle of the shovel.

The old man got to his feet as she came close. “Mercy…” croaked the soldier, stretching out his hand.

“I’ll give you mercy!” The edge of the shovel bit deep into the soldier’s skull. The body twitched briefly then was still. She turned to the old man with a look of triumph. He stared back sadly. There was something in his eyes. Pity, maybe.

“What do you want, Ferro Maljinn?”

“What?”

“Why did you do that?” Yulwei pointed down at the dead man. “What do you want?”

“Vengeance.” She spat out the word.

“On all of them? On the whole nation of Gurkhul? Every man, woman and child?”

“All of them!”

The old man looked round the corpses. “Then you must be very happy with today’s work.”

She forced a smile onto her face. “Yes.” But she wasn’t very happy. She couldn’t remember what it felt like. The smile seemed strange, unfamiliar, all lop-sided.

“And is vengeance all you think of, every minute of every day, your only desire?”

“Yes.”

“Hurting them? Killing them? Ending them?”

“Yes!”

“You want nothing for yourself?”

She paused. “What?”

“For yourself. What do you want?”

She stared at the old man suspiciously, but no reply came to her. Yulwei shook his head sadly. “It seems to me, Ferro Maljinn, that you are as much a slave as you ever were. Or ever could be.” He sat down, cross-legged on a rock.

She stared at him for a moment, confused. Then the anger bubbled up again, hot and reassuring. “If you came to help me, you can help me bury them!” She pointed over at the three bloody corpses, lined up next to the graves.

“Oh no. That is your work.”

She turned away from the old man, cursing under her breath, and moved over to her one-time companions. She took Shebed’s corpse under the arms and hauled him over to the first grave, his heels making two little grooves in the dust. When she made it to the hole she rolled him in. Alugai was next. A stream of dry soil ran over him as he came to rest in the bottom of his grave.

She turned to Nasar’s carcass. He had been killed by a sword cut across the face. Ferro thought it was something of an improvement to his looks.

“That one looks a good sort,” said Yulwei.

“Nasar.” She laughed without amusement. “A raper, a thief, a coward.” She hawked up some phlegm and spat into his dead face. It splattered softly against his forehead. “Much the worst of the three.” She looked down at the graves. “But they were all of them shit.”

“Nice company you keep.”

“The hunted don’t have the luxury of choosing their companions.” She stared at Nasar’s bloody face. “You take what’s offered.”

“If you disliked them so much, why don’t you leave them for the vultures, like you have these others?” Yulwei swept his arm over the broken soldiers on the ground.

“You bury your own.” She kicked Nasar into the hole. He rolled forward, arms flopping, and dropped into the grave face down. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

She grabbed hold of the shovel and started to heap the stony earth onto his back. She worked in silence, the sweat building up on her face, then dripping off onto the ground. Yulwei watched her as the holes filled up. Three more piles of dirt in the wasteland. She threw the shovel away and it bounced off one of the corpses and clattered among the stones. A small cloud of black flies buzzed angrily off the body, then returned.

Ferro picked up her bow and arrows and slung them over her shoulder. She took the water skin, checked its weight carefully, then shouldered that also. Then she picked over the bodies of the soldiers. One of them, he looked like the leader, had a fine curved sword. He hadn’t even managed to draw it before her arrow had caught him in the throat. Ferro drew it now, and she tested it with a couple of sweeps through the air. It was very good: well balanced, the long blade glittering deadly sharp, bright metal on the hilt catching the sun. He had a knife as well that matched it. She took the weapons and stuck them through her belt.

She picked over the other bodies, but there wasn’t much to take. She cut her arrows from the corpses where she could. She found some coins and tossed them away. They would only weigh her down, and what would she buy out here in the Badlands? Dirt?

That was all there was, and it was free.

They had a few scraps of food with them, but not enough even for another day. That meant there must be others, probably lots of them, and not far away. Yulwei was telling the truth, but it made no difference to her.

She turned and started to walk southward, down off the hill and towards the great desert, leaving the old man behind.

“That’s the wrong way,” he said.

She stopped, squinting at him in the bright sun. “Aren’t the soldiers coming?”

Yulwei’s eyes sparkled. “There are many ways of staying unnoticed, even out here in the Badlands.”

She looked to the north, out over the featureless plain below. Out towards Gurkhul. There wasn’t a hill, or a tree, or scarcely a bush for miles. Nowhere to hide. “Unnoticed, even by an Eater?”

The old man laughed. “Especially by those arrogant swine. They’re not half as clever as they think they are. How do you think I got here? I came through them, between them, around them. I go where I please, and I take who I please with me.”

She shaded her eyes with her hand, and squinted southward. The desert stretched away into the far distance, and beyond. Ferro could survive here in the wilderness, just about, but out there in that crucible of changing sands and merciless heat?

The old man seemed to read her thoughts. “There are always the endless sands. I have crossed them before. It can be done. But not by you.”

He was right, damn him. Ferro was lean and tough as a bowstring, but that just meant she would walk in circles a little longer before pitching on her face. The desert was preferable to the cage before the palace as a place to die, but not by much. She wanted to stay alive.

There were still things to do.

The old man sat there, cross-legged, smiling. What was he? Ferro trusted no one, but if he meant to deliver her to the Emperor, he could have knocked her on the head while she was digging, instead of announcing his arrival. He had magic, she had seen that for herself, and some chance was better than none.

But what would he want in return? The world had never given Ferro anything for free, and she didn’t expect it to begin now. She narrowed her eyes. “What do you want from me, Yulwei?”

The old man laughed. That laugh was becoming very annoying. “Let us just say that I will have done you a favour. Later on, you can do me one in return.”

That answer was horribly thin on the details, but when your life’s on the table you have to take whatever’s offered. She hated to place herself in the power of another, but it seemed she had no choice.

Not if she wanted to live out the week, that is.

“What do we do?”

“We must wait for nightfall.” Yulwei glanced at the twisted bodies scattered about the ground, and wrinkled his nose. “But perhaps not here.”

Ferro shrugged and sat herself down on the middle grave. “Here will do,” she said, “I’ve a mind to watch the vultures eat.”


Overhead the clear night sky was scattered with bright stars, and the air had turned cool, cold even. Down on the dark and dusty plain below, fires were burning, a curved line of fires that seemed to hem them in against the edge of the desert. She, Yulwei, the ten corpses and the three graves were trapped on the hillside. Tomorrow, as the first light crept over the arid land, the soldiers would leave those fires and creep carefully towards the hills. If Ferro was still there when they arrived, she would be killed for sure, or worse still captured. She could not fight that many on her own, even supposing there was no Eater with them.

She hated to admit it, but her life was in Yulweis hands now.

He squinted up at the starry sky. “It is time,” he said.

They scrambled down the rocky hillside in the darkness, picking their way carefully among the boulders and the odd, scrubby, half-dead bush. Northward, towards Gurkhul. Yulwei moved surprisingly fast and she was forced to half-run to keep up, eyes fixed on the ground to find her footing among the dry rocks. When they finally reached the base of the hill and she looked up, she saw that Yulwei was leading her toward the left hand edge of the line, where the fires were most numerous.

“Wait,” she whispered, grabbing his shoulder. She pointed over to the right hand side. There were fewer fires there, and it would be easier to slip between them. “What about that way?”

She could just see Yulwei’s teeth smiling white in the starlight. “Oh no, Ferro Maljinn. That is where most of the soldiers are… and our other friend.” He was making no attempt to keep his voice down, and it was making her jumpy. “That is where they expect you to come through, if you choose to go north. But they do not expect you. They think you will go south into the desert to die, rather than risk being captured, as indeed you would have done, had I not been here.”

Yulwei turned and moved off and she crept after him, keeping low to the ground. As they drew nearer to the fires she saw that the old man had been right. There were figures sitting around some of them, but they were thinly spread. The old man strode confidently toward four fires on the far left, only one of them manned. He made no effort to stay low, his bangles jingled softly together, his bare feet flapped loud on the dry earth. They were almost close enough to see the features of the three men round the fire. Yulwei would surely be seen at any moment. She hissed at him to grab his attention, sure that she would be heard.

Yulwei turned round, looking puzzled in the faint light from the flames. “What?” he said. She winced, waiting for the soldiers to leap up, but they chattered on regardless. Yulwei looked over at them. “They will not see us, nor hear us either, unless you start shouting in their ears. We are safe.” He turned and walked on, giving the soldiers a wide berth. Ferro followed, still keeping low and quiet, if only out of habit.

As Ferro came closer she began to make out the words of the soldier’s conversation. She slowed, listening. She turned. She started to move towards the fire. Yulwei looked round. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Ferro looked at the three of them. A big, tough-looking veteran, a thin, weaselly type, and an honest-seeming young man, who didn’t look much like a soldier. Their weapons were lying around, sheathed, wrapped up, unready. She circled them warily, listening.

“They say she’s not right in the head,” the thin one was whispering at the young one, trying to scare him, “they say she’s killed a hundred men, or more. If you’re a good looking fella, she cuts your fruits off while you’re still alive,” he grabbed hold of his crotch, “and eats them in front of you!”

“Ah, stop your mouth,” said the big one, “she won’t be coming near us.” He pointed over to where the fires were sparser, his voice dropping to a whisper. “She’ll be going to him, if she comes this way at all.”

“Well, I hope she doesn’t,” said the young one, “live and let live, say I.”

The thin man frowned. “And what about all the good men she’s killed? And women and children too? Shouldn’t they have been let live?” Ferro’s teeth ground together. She’d never killed children, that she could think of.

“Well, it’s a shame for them, of course. I’m not saying she shouldn’t be caught.” The young soldier glanced around nervously. “Just maybe not by us.”

The big man let go a laugh at that, but the thin one didn’t look amused. “You a coward?”

“No!” said the young man, angrily, “but I got a wife and a family depending on me, and I could do without being killed out here, that’s all.” He grinned. “We’re expecting another child. Hoping for a son this time.”

The big man nodded. “My son’s nearly grown now. They get old so quick.”

Talk of children, and families, and hopes only made the fury in Ferro’s chest squeeze harder. Why should they be allowed a life, when she had nothing? When them and their kind had taken everything from her? She slid the curved knife out of its sheath.

“What are you doing, Ferro?” hissed Yulwei.

The young man looked round. “Did you hear something?”

The big one laughed. “I think I heard you shit yourself.” The thin one chuckled to himself, the young man smiled, embarrassed. Ferro crept right up behind him. She was just a foot or two away, brightly lit by the fire, but none of the soldiers even glanced at her. She raised the knife.

“Ferro!” shouted Yulwei. The young man sprang to his feet, he peered out across the dark plain, squinting, brow furrowed. He looked Ferro right in the face, but his eyes were focused far behind her. She could smell his breath. The blade of the knife glittered an inch or less from his stubbly throat.

Now. Now was the time. She could kill him quickly, and take the other two as well before the alarm was raised. She knew she could do it. They were unprepared, and she was ready. Now was the time.

But her hand didn’t move.

“What’s got up your arse?” asked the big soldier. “There’s nothing out there.”

“Could’ve sworn I heard something,” said the young man, still looking right in her face.

“Wait!” shouted the thin one, jumping to his feet and pointing. “There she is! Right in front of you!” Ferro froze for an instant, staring at him, then he and the big man started to laugh. The young soldier looked sheepish, turned around and sat down.

“I thought I heard something, that’s all.”

“There’s no one out there,” said the big man. Ferro began to back slowly away. She felt sick, her mouth full of sour spit, her head thumping. She pushed the knife back into its sheath, turned and stumbled off with Yulwei following silently behind.

When the light of the fires and the sound of the talking had faded into the distance she stopped and dropped down on the hard ground. A cold wind blew up across the barren plain. It blew stinging dust in her face, but she hardly noticed. The hate and the fury were gone, for the time being, but they had left a hole, and she had nothing else to fill it with. She felt empty and cold and sick and alone. She hugged herself, rocking slowly back and forth, and closed her eyes. But the darkness held no comfort.

Then she felt the old man’s hand press onto her shoulder.

Now normally she would have twisted away, thrown him off, killed him if she could. But the strength was all gone. She looked up, blinking. “There’s nothing left of me. What am I?” She pressed one hand on her chest, but she barely felt it. “I have nothing inside.”

“Well. It’s strange that you should say that.” Yulwei smiled up at the starry sky. “I was just starting to think there might be something in there worth saving.”

<p>The King’s Justice</p>

As soon as he reached the Square of Marshals, Jezal realised there was something wrong. It was never half this busy for a meeting of the Open Council. He glanced over the knots of finely dressed people as he hurried by, slightly late and out of breath from his long training session: voices were hushed, faces tense and expectant.

He shouldered his way through the crowd to the Lord’s Round, glancing suspiciously up at the guards flanking the inlaid doors. They at least seemed the same as ever, their heavy visors giving nothing away. He crossed the ante-chamber, vivid tapestries flapping slightly in the draught, slipped through the inner doors and passed into the vast, cool space beyond. His footsteps made tapping echoes in the gilded dome as he hurried down the aisle towards the high table. Jalenhorm was standing beneath one of the tall windows, face splashed with coloured light from the stained glass, frowning at a bench with a metal rail along its base which had been placed to one side of the floor.

“What’s going on?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Jalenhorm’s voice was whispery with excitement. “Hoffs let it be known there’ll be some great matter to discuss.”

“What is it? Angland? The Northmen?”

The big man shook his head. “Don’t know, but we’ll soon see.”

Jezal frowned. “I don’t like surprises.” His eye came to rest on the mysterious bench. “What’s that for?”

At that moment the great doors were swung open and a stream of councillors began to flood down the aisle. The usual mixture, Jezal supposed, if a little more purposeful. The younger sons, the paid representatives… he caught his breath. There was a tall man at the front, richly dressed even in this august company, with a weighty golden chain across his shoulders and a weighty frown across his face.

“Lord Brock himself,” whispered Jezal.

“And there’s Lord Isher.” Jalenhorm nodded at a sedate old man just behind Brock, “and Heugen, and Barezin. It’s something big. It has to be.”

Jezal took a deep breath as four of the Union’s most powerful noblemen arranged themselves on the front row. He had never seen the Open Council half so well attended. On the councillors’ half-circle of benches there was barely an empty seat. High above them, the public gallery was an unbroken ring of nervous faces.

Now Hoff blustered through the doors and down the aisle, and he was not alone. On his right a tall man flowed along, slender and proud-looking with a long, spotless white coat and a shock of white hair. Arch Lector Sult. On his left walked another man, leaning heavily on a stick, slightly bent in a robe of black and gold with a long grey beard. High Justice Marovia. Jezal could hardly believe his eyes. Three members of the Closed Council, here.

Jalenhorm hurried to take his place as the clerks deposited their burdens of ledgers and papers on the polished tabletop. The Lord Chamberlain threw himself down in their midst and immediately called for wine. The head of his Majesty’s Inquisition swept into a high chair on one side of him, smiling faintly to himself. High Justice Marovia lowered himself slowly into another, frowning all the while. The volume of the anxious whispering in the hall rose a step, the faces of the great magnates on the front row were grim and suspicious. The Announcer took his place before the table, not the usual brightly dressed imbecile, but a dark, bearded man with a barrel chest. He lifted his staff high, then beat it against the tiles, fit to wake the dead.

“I call this meeting of the Open Council of the Union to order!” he bellowed. The hubbub gradually died away.

“There is but one matter for discussion this morning,” said the Lord Chamberlain, peering sternly at the house from beneath his heavy brows, “a matter of the King’s Justice.” There were scattered mutterings. “A matter concerning the royal licence for trade in the city of Westport.” The noise increased: angry whispers, uncomfortable shufflings of noble arses on their benches, the familiar scratching of quills on the great ledgers. Jezal saw Lord Brock’s brows draw together, the corners of Lord Heugen’s mouth turn down. They did not seem to like the taste of this. The Lord Chamberlain sniffed and took a swig of wine, waiting for the muttering to die away. “I am not best qualified to speak on this matter, however—”

“No indeed!” snapped Lord Isher sharply, shifting in his seat on the front row with a scowl.

Hoff fixed the old man with his eye. “So I call on a man who is! My colleague from the Closed Council, Arch Lector Sult.”

“The Open Council recognises Arch Lector Sult!” thundered the Announcer, as the head of the Inquisition made his graceful way down the steps of the dais and onto the tiled floor, smiling pleasantly at the angry faces turned towards him.

“My Lords,” he began, in a slow, musical voice, ushering his words out into space with smooth movements of his hands, “for the past seven years, ever since our glorious victory in the war with Gurkhul, an exclusive royal licence for trade in the city of Westport has been in the hands of the honourable Guild of Mercers.”

“And a fine job they’ve done of it!” shouted Lord Heugen.

“They won us that war!” growled Barezin, pounding the bench beside him with a meaty fist.

“A fine job!”

“Fine!” came the cries.

The Arch Lector nodded as he waited for the noise to fade. “Indeed they have,” he said, pacing across the tiles like a dancer, his words scratching their way across the pages of the books. “I would be the last to deny it. A fine job.” He spun suddenly around, the tails of his white coat snapping, his face twisted into a brutal snarl. “A fine job of dodging the Kings taxes!” he screamed. There was a collective gasp.

“A fine job of slighting the King’s law!” Another gasp, louder. “A fine job of high treason!” There was a storm of protest, of fists shaken in the air and papers thrown to the floor. Livid faces stared down from the public gallery, florid ones ranted and bellowed from the benches before the high table. Jezal stared about him, unsure if he could have heard correctly.

“How dare you, Sult!” Lord Brock roared at the Arch Lector as he swished back up the steps of the dais, a faint smile clinging to his lips.

“We demand proof!” bellowed Lord Heugen. “We demand justice!”

“The King’s Justice!” came cries from the back.

“You must supply us with proof!” shouted Isher, as the noise began to fade.

The Arch Lector twitched out his white gown, the fine material billowing around him as he swung himself smoothly back into his chair. “Oh but that is our intention, Lord Isher!”

The heavy bolt of a small side door was flung back with an echoing bang. There was a rustling as Lords and proxies twisted round, stood up, squinted over to see what was happening. People in the public gallery peered out over the parapet, leaning dangerously far in their eagerness to see. The hall fell quiet. Jezal swallowed. There was a scraping, tapping, clinking sound beyond the doorway, then a strange and sinister procession emerged from the darkness.

Sand dan Glokta came first, limping as always and leaning heavily on his cane, but with his head held high and a twisted, toothless grin on his hollow face. Three men shuffled behind him, chained together by their hands and bare feet, clinking and rattling their way towards the high table. Their heads were shaved bare and they were dressed in brown sackcloth. The clothing of the penitent. Confessed traitors.

The first of the prisoners was licking his lips, eyes darting here and there, pale with terror. The second, shorter and thicker-set, was stumbling, dragging his left leg behind him, hunched over with his mouth hanging open. As Jezal watched, a thin line of pink drool dangled from his lip and spattered on the tiles. The third man, painfully thin and with huge dark rings round his eyes, stared slowly around, blinking, eyes wide but apparently taking nothing in. Jezal recognised the man behind the three prisoners straight away: the big albino from that night in the street. Jezal rocked his weight from one foot to the other, feeling suddenly cold and uncomfortable.

The purpose of the bench was now made clear. The three prisoners slumped down on it, the albino knelt and snapped their manacles shut around the rail along its base. The chamber was entirely silent. Every eye was fixed on the crippled Inquisitor, and his three prisoners.

“Our investigation began some months ago,” said Arch Lector Sult, immensely smug at having the assembly so completely under his control. “A simple matter of some irregular accounting, I won’t bore you with the details.” He smiled at Brock, at Isher, at Barezin. “I know you all are very busy men. Who could have thought then, that such a little matter would lead us here? Who would suppose that the roots of treason could run so very deep?”

“Indeed,” said the Lord Chamberlain impatiently, looking up from his goblet. “Inquisitor Glokta, the floor is yours.”

The Announcer struck his staff on the tiles. “The Open Council of the Union recognises Sand dan Glokta, Inquisitor Exempt!”

The cripple waited politely for the scratching of the clerk’s quills to finish, leaning on his cane in the centre of the floor, seemingly unmoved by the importance of the occasion. “Rise and face the Open Council,” he said, turning to the first of his prisoners.

The terrified man sprang up, his chains rattling, licking his pale lips, goggling at the faces of the Lords in the front row. “Your name?” demanded Glokta.

“Salem Rews.”

Jezal felt a catch in his throat. Salem Rews? He knew the man! His father had had dealings with him in the past, at one time he had been a regular visitor to their estate! Jezal studied the terrified, shaven-headed traitor with increasing horror. He cast his mind back to the plump, well-dressed merchant, always ready with a joke. It was him, no doubt. Their eyes met for an instant and Jezal looked anxiously away. His father had talked with that man in their hallway! Had shaken hands with him! Accusations of treason are like illnesses—you can catch them just by being in the same room! His eyes were drawn inevitably back to that unfamiliar, yet horribly familiar face. How dare he be a traitor, the bastard?

“You are a member of the honourable Guild of Mercers?” continued Glokta, putting a sneering accent into the word “honourable”.

“I was,” mumbled Rews.

“What was your role within the Guild?” The shaven-headed Mercer stared desperately about him. “Your role?” demanded Glokta, his voice taking on a hard edge.

“I conspired to defraud the King!” cried the merchant, wringing his hands. A wave of shock ran round the hall. Jezal swallowed sour spit. He saw Sult smirking across at High Justice Marovia. The old man’s face was stony blank, but his fists were clenched tight on the table before him. “I committed treason! For money! I smuggled, and I bribed, and I lied… we were all at it!”

“All at it!” Glokta leered round at the assembly. “And if any of you should doubt it, we have ledgers, and we have documents, and we have numbers. There is a room in the House of Questions stuffed with them. A room full of secrets, and guilt, and lies.” He slowly shook his head. “Sorry reading, I can tell you.”

“I had to do it!” screamed Rews. “They made me! I had no choice!”

The crippled Inquisitor frowned at his audience. “Of course they made you. We realise you were but a single brick in this house of infamy. An attempt was made on your life recently, was it not?”

“They tried to kill me!”

“Who tried?”

“It was this man!” wailed Rews, voice cracking, pointing a trembling finger at the prisoner next to him, pulling away as far as the chains that linked them would allow. “It was him! Him!” The manacles rattled as he waved his arm, spit flying from his mouth. There was another surge of angry voices, louder this time. Jezal watched the head of the middle prisoner sag and he slumped sideways, but the hulking albino grabbed him and hauled him back upright.

“Wake up, Master Carpi!” shouted Glokta. The lolling head came slowly up. An unfamiliar face, strangely swollen and badly pocked with acne-scars. Jezal noticed with disgust that his four front teeth were missing. Just like Glokta’s.

“You are from Talins, yes, in Styria?” The man nodded slowly, stupidly, like someone half asleep. “You are paid to kill people, yes?” He nodded again. “And you were hired to murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects, among them this confessed traitor, Salem Rews?” A trickle of blood ran slowly out from the man’s nose and his eyes started to roll back in his head. The albino shook him by the shoulder and he came round, nodding groggily. “What became of the other nine?” Silence. “You killed them, did you not?” Another nod, a strange clicking sound coming from the prisoner’s throat.

Glokta frowned slowly around the rapt faces of the Council. “Villem dan Robb, customs official, throat cut ear to ear.” He slid a finger across his neck and a woman in the gallery squealed. “Solimo Scandi, Mercer, stabbed in the back four times.” He thrust up four fingers, then pressed them to his stomach as though sickened. “The bloody list goes on. All murdered, for nothing but a bigger profit. Who hired you?”

“Him,” croaked the killer, turning his swollen face to look at the gaunt man with the glassy eyes, slumped on the bench next to him, heedless of his surroundings. Glokta limped over, cane tapping on the tiles.

“What is your name?”

The prisoner’s head snapped up, his eyes focusing on the twisted face of the Inquisitor above him. “Gofred Hornlach!” he answered instantly, voice shrill.

“You are a senior member of the Guild of Mercers?”

“Yes!” he barked, blinking mindlessly up at Glokta.

“One of Magister Kault’s deputies, in fact?”

“Yes!”

“Have you conspired with other Mercers to defraud his Majesty the King? Did you hire an assassin to murder ten of his Majesty’s subjects?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“Why?”

“We were worried they would tell what they knew… tell what they knew… tell…” Hornlach’s empty eyes stared off towards one of the coloured windows. His mouth slowly stopped moving.

“Tell what they knew?” prompted the Inquisitor.

“About the treasonous activities of the Guild!” the Mercer blurted, “about our treasons! About the activities of the guild… treasonous… activities…”

Glokta cut in sharply. “Were you acting alone?”

“No! No!”

The Inquisitor rapped his cane down before him and leaned forward. “Who gave the orders?” he hissed.

“Magister Kault!” shouted Hornlach instantly, “he gave the orders!” The audience gasped. Arch Lector Sult smirked a little wider. “It was the Magister!” The quills scratched mercilessly. “It was Kault! He gave the orders! All the orders! Magister Kault!”

“Thank you, Master Hornlach.”

“The Magister! He gave the orders! Magister Kault! Kault! Kault!”

“Enough!” snarled Glokta. His prisoner fell silent. The room was still.

Arch Lector Sult lifted his arm and pointed towards the three prisoners. “There is your proof, my Lords!”

“This is a sham!” bellowed Lord Brock, leaping to his feet. “This is an insult!” Few voices joined him in support however, and those that did were half-hearted. Lord Heugen was notable for his careful silence, keenly studying the fine leather of his shoes. Barezin had shrunk back into his seat, looking half the size he had been a minute before. Lord Isher was staring off at the wall, fingering his heavy, golden chain, looking bored, as though the fate of the Guild of Mercers was of interest to him no longer.

Brock appealed to the High Justice himself, motionless in his tall chair at the high table. “Lord Marovia, I beg of you! You are a reasonable man! Do not allow this… travesty!”

The hall fell silent, waiting for the old man’s reply. He frowned and stroked his long beard. He glanced across at the grinning Arch Lector. He cleared his throat. “I feel your pain, Lord Brock, indeed I do, but it seems that this is not a day for reasonable men. The Closed Council has examined the case and is well satisfied. My hands are tied.”

Brock worked his mouth, tasting defeat. “This is not justice!” he shouted, turning round to address his peers. “These men have plainly been tortured!”

Arch Lector Sult’s mouth twisted with scorn. “How would you have us deal with traitors and criminals?” he cried in a piercing voice. “Would you raise a shield, Lord Brock, for the disloyal to hide behind?” He thumped the table, as if it too might be guilty of high treason. “I for one will not see our great nation handed over to its enemies! Neither enemies without, nor enemies within!”

“Down with the Mercers!” came a cry from the public balcony.

“Hard justice for traitors!”

“The King’s Justice!” bellowed a fat man near the back. There was a surge of anger and agreement from the floor, and calls for harsh measures and stiff penalties.

Brock looked round for his allies on the front row, but found none. He bunched his fists. “This is no justice!” he shouted, pointing at the three prisoners. “This is no proof!”

“His Majesty disagrees!” bellowed Hoff, “and does not require your permission!” He held up a large document. “The Guild of Mercers is hereby dissolved! Their licence revoked by Royal decree! His Majesty’s Commission for Trade and Commerce will, over the coming months, review applications for trade rights with the city of Westport. Until such time as suitable candidates are found, the routes will be managed by capable, loyal, hands. The hands of His Majesty’s Inquisition.”

Arch Lector Sult humbly inclined his head, oblivious to the furious cries from representatives and public gallery alike.

“Inquisitor Glokta!” continued the Lord Chamberlain, “the Open Council thanks you for your diligence, and asks that you perform one more service in this matter.” Hoff held out a smaller paper. “This is a warrant for the arrest of Magister Kault, bearing the King’s own signature. We would ask that you serve it forthwith.” Glokta bowed stiffly and took the paper from the Lord Chamberlain’s outstretched hand. “You,” said Hoff, turning his eye on Jalenhorm.

“Lieutenant Jalenhorm, my Lord!” shouted the big man, stepping smartly forward.

“Whatever,” snapped Hoff impatiently, “take twenty of the King’s Own and escort Inquisitor Glokta to the Mercers’ Guildhall. Ensure that nothing and no one leaves the building without his orders!”

“At once, my Lord!” Jalenhorm crossed the floor and ran up the aisle toward the exit, holding the hilt of his sword in one hand to stop it knocking against his leg. Glokta limped after him, cane tapping on the steps, the warrant for the arrest of Magister Kault crumpled in his tightly clenched fist. The monstrous albino had pulled the prisoners to their feet meanwhile, and was leading them, rattling and lolling, off towards the door by which they had entered.

“Lord Chamberlain!” shouted Brock, with one last effort. Jezal wondered how much money he must have made from the Mercers. How much he had hoped still to make. A very great deal, evidently.

But Hoff was unmoved. “That concludes our business for today, my Lords!” Marovia was on his feet before the Lord Chamberlain had finished speaking, evidently keen to be away. The great ledgers were thumped shut. The fate of the honourable Guild of Mercers was sealed. Excited babbling filled the air once more, gradually rising in volume and soon joined by clattering and stamping as the representatives began to rise and leave the room. Arch Lector Sult remained seated, watching his beaten adversaries file reluctantly off the front row. Jezal met the desperate eyes of Salem Rews one last time as he was led towards the small door, then Practical Frost jerked at the chain and he was lost in the darkness beyond.


Outside, the square was even busier than before, the dense throng growing ever more excited as the news of the dissolution of the Guild of Mercers spread to those who had not been within. People stood, disbelieving, or hurried here and there: scared, surprised, confused. Jezal saw one man staring at him, staring at anyone, face pale, hands trembling. A Mercer perhaps, or a man in too deep with the Mercers, deep enough to be ruined along with them. There would be many such men.

Jezal felt a sudden tingling. Ardee West was leaning casually against the stones a little further on. They had not met in some time, not since that drunken outburst of hers, and he was surprised how pleased he was to see her. Probably she had been punished long enough, he told himself. Everyone deserved the chance to apologise. He hastened towards her with a broad smile on his lips. Then he noticed who she was with.

“That little bastard!” he muttered under his breath.

Lieutenant Brint was chatting freely in his cheap uniform, leaning closer to Ardee than Jezal thought was appropriate, underlining his tedious points with flamboyant gestures of his arms. She was nodding, smiling, then she tipped her head back and laughed, slapping the Lieutenant playfully on the chest. Brint laughed as well, the ugly little shit. They laughed together. For some reason Jezal felt a sharp pang of fury.

“Jezal, how are you!” shouted Brint, still giggling.

He stepped up close. “That’s Captain Luthar!” he spat, “and how I am is none of your concern! Don’t you have a job to do?”

Brint’s mouth hung stupidly open for a moment, then his brows drew into a surly frown. “Yes, sir,” he muttered, turning and stalking off. Jezal watched him go with a contempt even more intense than usual.

“Well that was charming,” said Ardee. “Are those the manners you should use before a lady?”

“I really couldn’t say. Why? Was there one watching?”

He turned to look at her and caught, just for a moment, a self-satisfied smirk. Quite a nasty expression, as though she had enjoyed his outburst. He wondered for a silly instant whether she might have arranged the meeting, have placed herself and that idiot where Jezal would see them, hoping to arouse his jealousy… then she smiled at him, and laughed, and Jezal felt his anger fading. She looked very fine, he thought, tanned and vibrant in the sunlight, laughing out loud, not caring who heard. Very fine. Better than ever, in fact. A chance meeting was all, what else could it be? She fixed him with those dark eyes and his suspicions vanished. “Did you have to be so hard on him?” she asked.

Jezal fixed his jaw. “Jumped-up, arrogant nobody, he’s probably nothing more than some rich man’s bastard. No blood, no money, no manners—”

“More than me, of all three.”

Jezal cursed his big mouth. Rather than dragging an apology from her he was now in need of giving one himself. He sought desperately for some way out of this self-made trap. “Oh, but he’s an absolute moron!” he whined.

“Well,” and Jezal was relieved to see one corner of Ardee’s mouth curl up in a sly smile, “he is at that. Shall we walk?” She slipped her hand through his arm before he had the chance to answer, and started to lead him off towards the Kingsway. Jezal allowed himself to be guided between the frightened, the angry, the excited people.

“So is it true?” she asked.

“Is what true?”

“That the Mercers are finished?”

“So it seems. Your old friend Sand dan Glokta was in the thick of it. He gave quite the performance, for a cripple.”

Ardee looked down at the floor. “You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him, crippled or no.”

“No.” Jezal’s mind went back to Salem Rews’ terrified eyes, staring desperately at him as he vanished into the darkness of the archway. “No, you wouldn’t.”

A silence descended on them as they strolled down the avenue, but it was a comfortable one. He liked walking with her. It no longer seemed important whether anyone apologised. Perhaps she had been right about the fencing anyway, just a little. Ardee seemed to read his thoughts. “How’s the swordplay going?” she asked.

“Not bad. How’s the drinking going?”

She raised a dark eyebrow. “Excellent well. If only there was a Contest for that every year, I’d soon come to the attention of the public.” Jezal laughed, looking down at her as she walked beside him, and she smiled back. So clever, so sharp, so fearless. So damn fine looking. Jezal wondered if there had ever been a woman quite like her. If only she had the right blood, he thought to himself, and some money. A lot of money.

<p>Means of Escape</p>

“Open the door, in the name of His Majesty!” thundered Lieutenant Jalenhorm for the third time, hammering at the wood with his meaty fist. The great oaf. Why do big men tend to have such little brains? Perhaps they get by on brawn too often, and their minds dry up like plums in the sun.

The Mercers’ Guildhall was an impressive building in a busy square not far from the Agriont. A substantial crowd of onlookers had already gathered around Glokta and his armed escort: curious, fearful, fascinated, growing all the time. They can smell blood, it seems. Glokta’s leg was throbbing from the effort of hurrying down here, but he doubted that the Mercers would be taken entirely by surprise. He glanced round impatiently at the armoured guardsmen, at the masked Practicals, at the hard eyes of Frost, at the young officer beating on the door.

“Open the—”

Enough of this foolishness. “I think they heard you, Lieutenant,” said Glokta crisply, “but are choosing not to answer. Would you be so kind as to break the door down?”

“What?” Jalenhorm gawped at him, and then at the heavy double doors, firmly secured. “How will I—”

Practical Frost hurtled past. There was a deafening crack and a tearing of wood as he crashed into one of the doors with his burly shoulder, tearing it off its hinges and sending it crashing onto the floor of the room beyond.

“Like so,” muttered Glokta as he stepped through the archway, the splinters still settling. Jalenhorm followed him, looking dazed, a dozen armoured soldiers clattering behind.

An outraged clerk blocked the corridor beyond. “You can’t just—oof!” he cried, as Frost flung him out of the way and his face crunched into the wall.

“Arrest that man!” shouted Glokta, waving his cane at the dumbstruck clerk. One of the soldiers grabbed him roughly with gauntleted fists and shoved him tumbling out into the daylight. Practicals began to pour through the broken doors, heavy sticks in their hands, eyes fierce above their masks. “Arrest everyone!” shouted Glokta over his shoulder, limping down the corridor as fast as he could, following Frost’s broad back into the bowels of the building.

Through an open door Glokta saw a merchant in colourful robes, face covered with a sheen of sweat as he desperately heaped documents onto a blazing fire. “Seize him!” screamed Glokta. A pair of Practicals leaped past into the room and began clubbing the man with their sticks. He fell with a cry, upsetting a table and kicking over a pile of ledgers. Loose papers and bits of burning ash fluttered through the air as the sticks rose and fell.

Glokta hurried on, crashes and cries spreading out into the building around him. The place was full of the smell of smoke, and sweat, and fear. The doors are all guarded, but Kault might have a secret means of escape. He’s a slippery one. We must hope we are not too late. Curse this leg of mine! Not too late…

Glokta gasped and winced in pain, tottering as someone clutched at his coat. “Help me!” shrieked the man, “I am innocent!” Blood on a plump face. Fingers clutched at Glokta’s clothes, threatening to drag him to the floor.

“Get him off me!” shouted Glokta, beating at him weakly with his cane, clawing at the wall in his efforts to stay upright. One of the Practicals leaped forward and clubbed the man across the back.

“I confess!” the merchant whimpered as the stick rose again, then it cracked down on his head. The Practical caught hold of his slumping body under the arms and dragged him back towards the door. Glokta hurried on, Lieutenant Jalenhorm wide-eyed at his shoulder. They reached a broad staircase, and Glokta eyed it with hatred. My old enemies, always here ahead of me. He laboured up as best he could, waving Practical Frost forward with his free hand. A baffled merchant was dragged past them and away, squawking something about his rights, heels kicking against the stairs.

Glokta slipped and nearly fell on his face, but someone caught him by the elbow and kept him upright. It was Jalenhorm, a look of confusion still splattered across his heavy, honest face. So big men have their uses after all. The young officer helped him up the rest of the steps. Glokta did not have the energy to refuse him. Why bother? A man should know his limitations. There’s nothing noble in falling on your face. I should know that.

There was a large ante-chamber at the top of the stairs, richly decorated with a thick carpet and colourful hangings on the walls. Two guards stood before a large door with their swords drawn, dressed in the livery of the Guild of Mercers. Frost was facing them, hands rolled into white fists. Jalenhorm pulled out his own sword as he reached the landing, stepping forward to stand next to the albino. Glokta had to smile. The tongueless torturer and the flower of chivalry. An unlikely alliance.

“I have a warrant for Kault, signed by the King himself.” Glokta held out the paper so the guards could see it. “The Mercers are finished. You have nothing to gain by getting in our way. Put up your swords! You have my word, you will not be harmed!”

The two guards glanced at each other uncertainly. “Put them up!” shouted Jalenhorm, edging a little closer.

“Alright!” One of the men bent down and slid his sword along the boards. Frost caught it under one foot.

“And you!” shouted Glokta to the other one. “Now!” The guard obeyed, throwing his sword to the floor and putting up his hands. A moment later Frost’s fist crunched into the point of his jaw, knocking him cold and sending him crashing into the wall.

“But—” shouted the first guard. Frost grabbed him by the shirt and flung him down the stairs. He turned over and over, banging on the steps, flopping to the bottom, lying still. I know what that feels like.

Jalenhorm was standing motionless and blinking, his sword still raised. “I thought you said—”

“Never mind about that. Frost, look for another way in.”

“Thhh.” The albino padded away down the corridor. Glokta gave him a moment, then he edged forward and tried the door. The handle turned, much to his surprise, and the door swung open.

The room was opulence itself, near as big as a barn. The carving on the high ceiling was caked in gold leaf, the spines of the books on the shelves were studded with precious stones, the monstrous furniture was polished to a mirror shine. All was over-sized, over-embellished, over-expensive. But who needs taste when you have money? There were several big windows of the new design, large panes with little lead between them, offering a splendid view of the city, the bay, the ships within it. Magister Kault sat smiling at his vast gilt desk before the middle window in his fabulous robes of office, partly overshadowed by an enormous cabinet, the arms of the honourable Guild of Mercers etched into its doors.

Then he has not got away. I have him. I… Tied around the thick leg of the cabinet was a rope. Glokta followed it with his eyes as it snaked across the floor. The other end was tied around the Magister’s neck. Ah. So he does have a means of escape, after all.

“Inquisitor Glokta!” Kault gave a squeaky, nervous laugh. “What a pleasure to finally meet you! I’ve been hearing all about your investigations!” His fingers twitched at the knot on the rope, making sure it was tied securely.

“Is your collar too tight, Magister? Perhaps you should remove it?”

Another squeak of merriment. “Oh, I don’t think so! I don’t intend to be answering any of your questions, thank you!” Out of the corner of his eye, Glokta saw a side door edging open. A big white hand appeared, fingers curling slowly round the door frame. Frost. There is still hope of catching him, then. I must keep him talking.

“There are no questions left to answer. We know it all.”

“Do you indeed?” giggled the Magister. The albino edged silently into the room, keeping to the shadows near the wall, hidden from Kault by the bulk of the cabinet.

“We know about Kalyne. About your little arrangement.”

“Imbecile! We had no arrangement! He was far too honourable to be bought! He would never take a mark from me!” Then how… Kault smiled a sick little smile. “Sult’s secretary,” he said, giggling again. “Right under his nose, and yours too, cripple!” Fool, fool—the secretary carried the messages, he saw the confession, he knew everything! I never trusted that smarmy shit. Kalyne was loyal, then.

Glokta shrugged. “We all make mistakes.”

The Magister gave a withering sneer. “Mistakes? That’s all you’ve made, dolt! The world is nothing like you think it is! You don’t even know what side you’re on! You don’t even know what the sides are!”

“I am on the side of the King, and you are not. That is all I need to know.” Frost had made it to the cabinet and was pressed against it, pink eyes staring intently, trying to see round the corner without being seen. Just a little longer, just a little further…

“You know nothing, cripple! Some small business with tax, some petty bribery, that’s all we were guilty of!”

“And the trifling matter of nine murders.”

“We had no choice!” screamed Kault. “We never had any choices! We had to pay the bankers! They loaned us the money, and we had to pay! We’ve been paying them for years! Valint and Balk, the bloodsuckers! We gave them everything, but they always wanted more!”

Valint and Balk? Bankers? Glokta threw an eye over the ridiculous opulence. “You seem to be keeping your head above water.”

“Seem! Seem! All dust! All lies! The bankers own it all! They own us all! We owe them thousands! Millions!” Kault giggled to himself. “But I don’t suppose they’ll ever get it now, will they?”

“No. I don’t suppose they will.”

Kault leaned across the desk, the rope hanging down and brushing the leather top. “You want criminals, Glokta? You want traitors? Enemies of King and state? Look in the Closed Council. Look in the House of Questions. Look in the University. Look in the banks, Glokta!” He saw Frost, edging round the cabinet no more than four strides away. His eyes went wide and he started up from his chair.

“Get him!” screamed Glokta. Frost sprang forward, lunged across the desk, caught hold of the flicking hem of Kault’s robe of office as the Magister span round and hurled himself at the window. We have him!

There was a sickening rip as the robe tore in Frost’s white fist. Kault seemed frozen in space for a moment as all that expensive glass shattered around him, shards and splinters glittering through the air, then he was gone. The rope snapped taut.

“Thhhhh!” hissed Frost, glaring at the broken window.

“He jumped!” gasped Jalenhorm, his mouth hanging open.

“Clearly.” Glokta limped over to the desk and took the ripped strip of cloth from Frost’s hands. Close up it scarcely seemed magnificent at al brightly coloured but badly woven.

“Who would have thought?” muttered Glokta to himself. “Poor quality.” He limped to the window and peered through the shattered hole. The head of the honourable Guild of Mercers was swinging slowly back and forth, twenty feet below, his torn, gold-embroidered gown flapping around him in the breeze. Cheap clothes and expensive windows. If the cloth had been stronger we would have got him. If the window had more lead, we would have got him. Lives hinge on such chances. Beneath him in the street a horrified crowd was already gathering: pointing, babbling, staring up at the hanging body. A woman screamed. Fear, or excitement? They sound the same.

“Lieutenant, would you be so good as to go down and disperse that crowd? Then we can cut our friend loose and take him back with us.” Jalenhorm looked at him blankly. “Dead or alive, the King’s warrant must be served.”

“Yes, of course.” The burly officer wiped sweat from his forehead and made, somewhat unsteadily, for the door.

Glokta turned back to the window and peered down at the slowly swinging corpse. Magister Kault’s last words echoed in his mind.

Look in the Closed Council. Look in the House of Questions. Look in the University. Look in the banks, Glokta!

<p>Three Signs</p>

West crashed onto his arse, one of his steels skittering out of his hands and across the cobbles. “That’s a touch!” shouted Marshal Varuz, “A definite touch! Well fought, Jezal, well fought!”

West was starting to tire of losing. He was stronger than Jezal, and taller, with a better reach, but the cocky little bastard was quick. Damn quick, and getting quicker. He knew all of West’s tricks now, more or less, and if he kept improving at this rate he’d soon be beating him every time. Jezal knew it too. He had a smile of infuriating smugness on his face as he offered his hand to West and helped him up from the ground.

“We’re getting somewhere now!” Varuz slapped his stick against his leg in delight. “We may even have ourselves a champion, eh, Major?”

“Very likely, sir,” said West, rubbing at his elbow, bruised and throbbing from his fall. He looked sidelong at Jezal, basking in the warmth of the Marshal’s praise.

“But we must not grow complacent!”

“No, sir!” said Jezal emphatically.

“No indeed,” said Varuz, “Major West is a capable fencer, of course, and you are privileged to have him as a partner but, well,” and he grinned at West, “fencing is a young man’s game, eh, Major?”

“Of course it is, sir,” muttered West. “A young man’s game.”

“Bremer dan Gorst, I expect, will be a different sort of opponent, as will the others at this year’s Contest. Less of the veteran’s cunning, perhaps, but more of the vigour of youth, eh West?” West, at thirty, was still feeling somewhat vigorous, but there was no purpose in arguing. He knew he’d never been the most gifted swordsman in the world. “We have made great progress this past month, great progress. You have a chance, if you can maintain your focus. A definite chance! Well done! I will see you both tomorrow.” And the old Marshal strutted from the sunny courtyard.

West walked over to his fumbled steel, lying on the cobbles by the wall. His side was still aching from the fall, and he had to bend awkwardly to get it. “I have to be going, myself,” he grunted as he straightened up, trying to hide his discomfort as best he could.

“Important business?”

“Marshal Burr has asked to see me.”

“Is it to be war then?”

“Perhaps. I don’t know.” West looked Jezal up and down. He was avoiding West’s eye for some reason. “And you? What have you got in mind for today?”

Jezal fiddled with his steels. “Er, nothing planned… not really.” He glanced up furtively. For such a good card player, the man was a useless liar.

West felt a niggling of worry. “Ardee wouldn’t be involved in your lack of plans, would she?”

“Erm…”

The niggling became a cold throbbing. “Well?”

“Maybe,” snapped Jezal, “well… yes.”

West stepped right up to the younger man. “Jezal,” he heard himself saying, slowly through gritted teeth, “I hope you’re not planning to fuck my sister.”

“Now look here—”

The throbbing boiled over. West’s hands gripped hold of Jezal by his shoulders. “No, you look!” he snarled. “I’ll not have her trifled with, you understand? She’s been hurt before, and I’ll not see her hurt any more! Not by you, not by anyone! I won’t stand for it! She’s not one of your games, you hear me?”

“Alright,” said Jezal, face suddenly pale. “Alright! I’ve no designs on her! We’re just friends is all. I like her! She doesn’t know anyone here and… you can trust me… there’s no harm in it! Ah! Get off me!”

West realised he was squeezing Jezal’s arms with all his strength. How had that happened? He’d only meant to have a quiet word, and now he’d gone way too far. Hurt before… damn it! He should never have said that! He let go suddenly, drew back, swallowing his fury. “I don’t want you seeing her any more, do you hear me?”

“Now hold on West, who are you to—”

West’s anger began to pulse again. “Jezal,” he growled, “I’m your friend, so I’m asking you.” He stepped forward again, closer than ever. “And I’m her brother, so I’m warning you. Stay away! No good can come of it!”

Jezal shrank back against the wall. “Alright… alright! She’s your sister!”

West turned and stalked towards the archway, rubbing the back of his neck, his head thumping.


Lord Marshal Burr was sitting and staring out of the window when West arrived at his offices. A big, grim, beefy man with a thick brown beard and a simple uniform. West wondered how bad the news would be. If the Marshal’s face was anything to go by it was very bad indeed.

“Major West,” he said, glaring up from under his heavy brows. “Thank you for coming.”

“Of course, sir.” West noticed three roughly-made wooden boxes on a table by the wall. Burr saw him looking at them.

“Gifts,” he said sourly, “from our friend in the north, Bethod.”

“Gifts?”

“For the King, it seems.” The Marshal scowled and sucked at his teeth. “Why don’t you have a look at what he sent us, Major?”

West walked over to the table, reached out and cautiously opened the lid of one of the boxes. An unpleasant smell flowed out, like well-rotted meat, but there was nothing inside but some brown dirt. He opened the next box. The smell was worse. More brown dirt, caked around the inside, and some hair, some strands of yellow hair. West swallowed, looked up at the frowning Lord Marshal. “Is this all, sir?”

Burr snorted. “If only. The rest we had to bury.”

“Bury?”

The Marshal picked up a sheet of paper from his desk. “Captain Silber, Captain Hoss, Colonel Arinhorm. Those names mean anything to you?”

West felt sick. That smell. It reminded him of Gurkhul somehow, of the battlefield. “Colonel Arinhorm, I know,” he mumbled, staring at the three boxes, “by reputation. He’s commander of the garrison at Dunbrec.”

“Was,” corrected Burr, “and the other two commanded small outposts nearby, on the frontier.”

“The frontier?” mumbled West, but he already guessed what was coming.

“Their heads, Major. The Northmen sent us their heads.” West swallowed, looking at the yellow hairs stuck to the inside of the box. “Three signs, they said, when it was time.” Burr got up from his chair and stood, looking out of the window. “The outposts were nothing: wooden buildings mostly, a palisade wall, ditches and so on, lightly manned. Little strategic importance. Dunbrec is another matter.”

“It commands the fords on the Whiteflow,” said West numbly, “the best way out of Angland.”

“Or in. A vital point. Considerable time and resources were spent on the defences there. The very latest designs were used, our finest architects. A garrison of three hundred men, with stores of weapons and food to stand a year of siege. It was considered impregnable, the lynchpin of our plans for the defence of the frontier.” Burr frowned, deep grooves appearing across the bridge of his nose. “Gone.”

West’s head had started hurting again. “When, sir?”

“When is the question. It must have been at least two weeks ago, for these “gifts” to have reached us. I am being called defeatist,” said Burr sourly, “but I guess that the Northmen are loose and that, by now, they have overrun half of northern Angland. A mining community or two, several penal colonies, nothing so far of major importance, no towns to speak of, but they are coming, West, and fast, you may be sure of that. You don’t send heads to your enemy, then wait politely for a reply.”

“What is being done?”

“Precious little! Angland is in uproar, of course. Lord Governor Meed is raising every man, determined to march out and beat Bethod on his own, the idiot. Varying reports place the Northmen anywhere and everywhere, with a thousand men or a hundred thousand. The ports are choked with civilians desperate to escape, rumours are rife of spies and murderers loose in the country, and mobs seek out citizens with Northern blood and beat them, rob them, or worse. Put simply, it is chaos. Meanwhile we sit here on our fat arses, waiting.”

“But… weren’t we warned? Didn’t we know?”

“Of course!” Burr threw his broad hand up in the air, “but no one took it very seriously, would you believe! Damn painted savage stabs himself on the floor of the Open Council, challengess us before the King, and nothing is done! Government by committee! Everyone pulling their own way! You can only react, never prepare!” The Marshal coughed and burped, spat on the floor. “Gah! Damn it! Damn indigestion!” He sat back in his chair, rubbing his stomach unhappily.

West hardly knew what to say. “How do we proceed?” he mumbled.

“We’ve been ordered north immediately, meaning as soon as anyone can be bothered to supply me with men and arms. The King, meaning that drunkard Hoff, has commanded me to bring these Northmen to heel. Twelve regiments of the King’s Own—seven of foot and five of horse, to be fleshed out with levies from the aristocracy, and whatever the Anglanders haven’t squandered before we get there.”

West shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “That should be an overwhelming force.”

“Huh,” grunted the Marshal. “It better be. It’s everything we have, more or less, and that worries me.” West frowned. “Dagoska, Major. We cannot fight the Gurkish and the Northmen both at once.”

“But surely, sir, the Gurkish, they wouldn’t risk another war so soon? I thought it was all idle talk?”

“I hope so, I hope so.” Burr pushed some papers absently around his desk. “But this new Emperor, Uthman, is not what we were expecting. He was the youngest son, but when he heard of his father’s death… he had all his brothers strangled. Strangled them himself, some say. Uthman-ul-Dosht, they are calling him. Uthman the Merciless. He has already declared his intention to recapture Dagoska. Empty talk, perhaps. Perhaps not.” Burr pursed his lips. “They say he has spies everywhere. He might even now be learning of our troubles in Angland, might even now be preparing to take advantage of our weakness. We must be done quickly with these Northmen. Very quickly. Twelve regiments and levies from the noblemen. And from that point of view it could not be a worse time.”

“Sir?”

“This business with the Mercers. A bad business. Some of the big noblemen got stung. Brock, Isher, Barezin, and others. Now they’re dragging their feet with the levies. Who knows what they’ll send us, or when? Bunch of half-starved, unarmed beggars probably, an excuse to clean the scrapings from their land. A useless crowd of extra mouths to feed, and clothe, and arm, and we are desperately short of good officers.”

“I have some good men in my battalion.”

Burr twitched impatiently. “Good men, yes! Honest men, enthusiastic men, but not experienced! Most of those who fought in the South did not enjoy it. They have left the army, and have no intention of returning. Have you seen how young the officers are these days? We’re a damn finishing school! And now His Highness the Prince has expressed his interest in a command. He doesn’t even know which end of a sword to hold, but he is set on glory and I cannot refuse him!”

“Prince Raynault?”

“If only!” shouted Burr. “Raynault might actually be of some use! It’s Ladisla I’m talking of! Commanding a division! A man who spends a thousand marks a month on clothes! His lack of discipline is notorious! I’ve heard it said that he’s forced himself on more than one servant in the palace, but that the Arch Lector was able to silence the girls.”

“Surely not,” said West, although he had actually heard such a rumour himself.

“The heir to the throne, in harm’s way, when the King is in poor health? A ludicrous notion!” Burr got up, burping and wincing. “Damn this stomach!” He stalked over to the window and frowned out across the Agriont.

“They think it will be easily settled,” he said quietly. “The Closed Council. A little jaunt in Angland, done with before the first snow falls. In spite of this shock with Dunbrec. They never learn. They said the same about our war with the Gurkish, and that nearly finished us. These Northmen are not the primitives they think. I fought with Northern mercenaries in Starikland: hard men used to hard lives, raised on warfare, fearless and stubborn, expert at fighting in the hills, in the forests, in the cold. They do not follow our rules, or even understand them. They will bring a violence and a savagery to the battlefield that would make the Gurkish blush.” Burr turned away from the window, back to West. “You were born in Angland, weren’t you, Major?”

“Yes, sir, in the south, near Ostenhorm. My family’s farm was there, before my father died…” He trailed off.

“You were raised there?”

“Yes.”

“You know the land then?”

West frowned. “In that region, sir, but I have not been back for—”

“Do you know these Northmen?”

“Some. There are still many living in Angland.”

“You speak their tongue?”

“Yes, a little, but they speak many—”

“Good. I am putting together a staff, good men I can rely on to carry out my orders, and see to it that this army of ours does not fall apart before it even comes into contact with the enemy.”

“Of course, sir.” West racked his brains. “Captain Luthar is a capable and intelligent officer, Lieutenant Jalenhorm—”

“Bah!” shouted Burr, waving his hand in frustration, “I know Luthar, the boy’s a cretin! Just the sort of bright-eyed child that I was talking about! It’s you I need, West.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! Marshal Varuz, the Union’s most famous soldier no less, has given you a glowing report. He says you are a most committed, tenacious, and hard-working officer. The very qualities I need! As a Lieutenant you fought in Gurkhul under Colonel Glokta, did you not?”

West swallowed. “Well, yes.”

“And it is well known you were first through the breach at Ulrioch.”

“Well, among the first, I was—”

“You have led men in the field, and your personal courage is beyond question! There is no need to be modest, Major, you are the man for me!” Burr sat back, a smile on his face, confident he had made his point. He burped again, holding up his hand. “My apologies… damn indigestion!”

“Sir, may I be blunt?”

“I am no courtier, West. You must always be blunt with me. I demand it!”

“An appointment on a Lord Marshal’s staff, sir, you must understand. I am a gentleman’s son. A commoner. As commander of a battalion, I already have difficulty gaining the respect of the junior officers. The men I would have to give orders to if I were on your staff, sir, senior men with good blood…” He paused, exasperated. The Marshal gazed blankly at him. “They will not permit it!”

Burr’s eyebrows drew together. “Permit it?”

“Their pride will not allow it, sir, their—”

“Damn their pride!” Burr leaned forward, his dark eyes fixed on West’s face. “Now listen to me, and listen carefully. Times are changing. I don’t need men with good blood. I need men who can plan, and organise, give orders, and follow them. There will lie no room in my army for those who cannot do as they are told, I don’t care how noble they are. As a member of my staff you represent me, and I will not be slighted or ignored.” He burped suddenly, and smashed the table with his fist. “I will see to it!” he roared. “Times are changing! They may not smell it yet, but they soon will!”

West stared dumbly back. “In any case,” and Burr waved a dismissive hand, “I am not consulting with you, I am informing you. This is your new assignment. Your King needs you, your country needs you, and that is all. You have five days to hand over command of your battalion.” And the Lord Marshal turned back to his papers.

“Yes, sir,” muttered West.

He fumbled the door shut behind him with numb fingers, walked slowly down the hallway, staring at the floor. War. War in the North. Dunbrec fallen, the Northmen loose in Angland. Officers hurried around him. Someone brushed past, but he hardly noticed. There were people in danger, mortal danger! People he knew maybe, neighbours from home. There was fighting even now, inside the Union’s borders! He rubbed his jaw. This war could be a terrible thing. Worse than Gurkhul had been, even, and he would be at the heart of it. A place on a Lord Marshal’s staff. Him? Collem West? A commoner? He still could hardly believe it.

West felt a sneaking, guilty glow of satisfaction. It was for just such an appointment that he had been working like a dog all these years. If he did well there was no telling where he might go. This war was a bad thing, a terrible thing, no doubt. He felt himself grinning. A terrible thing. But it just might be the making of him.

<p>The Theatrical Outfitter’s</p>

The deck creaked and shifted beneath his feet, the sail-cloth flapped gently, sea birds crowed and called in the salty air above.

“I never thought to see such a thing,” muttered Logen.

The city was a huge white crescent, stretching all round the wide blue bay, sprawling across many bridges, tiny in the distance, and onto rocky islands in the sea. Here and there green parks stood out from the confusion of buildings, the thin grey lines of rivers and canals shone in the sun. There were walls too, studded with towers, skirting the distant edge of the city and striking boldly through the jumble of houses. Logen’s jaw hung stupidly open, his eyes darted here and there, unable to take in the whole.

“Adua,” murmured Bayaz. “The centre of the world. The poets call her the city of white towers. Beautiful, isn’t she, from a distance?” The Magus leaned towards him. “Believe me, though, she stinks when you get close.”

A vast fortress rose up from within the city, its sheer white walls towering above the carpet of buildings outside, bright sunlight glinting on shining domes within. Logen had never dreamed of a man-made thing so great, so proud, so strong. One tower in particular rose high, high over all the others, a tapering cluster of smooth, dark pillars, seeming to support the very sky.

“And Bethod means to make war on this?” he whispered. “He must be mad.”

“Perhaps. Bethod, for all his waste and pride, understands the Union.” Bayaz nodded towards the city. “They are jealous of one another, all those people. It may be a union in name, but they fight each other tooth and nail. The lowly squabble over trifles. The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government. Wars of words, and tricks, and guile, but no less bloody for that. The casualties are many.” The Magus sighed. “Behind those walls they shout and argue and endlessly bite one another’s backs. Old squabbles are never settled, but thrive, and put down roots, and the roots grow deeper with the passing years. It has always been so. They are not like you, Logen. A man here can smile, and fawn, and call you friend, give you gifts with one hand and stab you with the other. You will find this a strange place.”

Logen already found it the strangest thing he had ever seen. There was no end to it. As their boat slipped into the bay the city seemed to grow more vast than ever. A forest of white buildings, speckled with dark windows, embracing them on all sides, covering the hills in roofs and towers, crowding together, wall squashed to wall, pressing up against the water on the shoreline.

Ships and boats of all designs vied with each other in the bay, sails billowing, crewmen crying out over the noise of the spray, hurrying about the decks and crawling through the rigging. Some were smaller even than their own little two-sailed boat. Some were far larger. Logen gawped, amazed, as a huge vessel ploughed through the water towards them, shining spray flying from its prow. A mountain of wood, floating by some magic in the sea. The ship passed, leaving them rocking in its wake, but there were more, many more, tethered to the countless wharves along the shore.

Logen, shielding his eyes against the bright sun with one hand, began to make out people on the sprawling docks. He began to hear them too, a faint din of voices crying and carts rattling and cargoes clattering to the ground. There were hundreds of tiny figures, swarming among the ships and buildings like black ants. “How many live here?” he whispered.

“Thousands.” Bayaz shrugged. “Hundreds of thousands. People from every land within the Circle of the World. There are Northmen here, and dark-skinned Kantics from Gurkhul and beyond. People from the Old Empire, far to the west, and merchants of the Free Cities of Styria. Others too, from still further away—the Thousand Islands, distant Suljuk, and Thond, where they worship the sun. More people than can be counted—living, dying, working, breeding, climbing one upon the other. Welcome,” and Bayaz spread his arms wide to encompass the monstrous, the beautiful, the endless city, “to civilisation!”

Hundreds of thousands. Logen struggled to understand it. Hundreds… of thousands. Could there be so many people in the world? He stared at the city, all around him, wondering, rubbing his aching eyes. What might a hundred thousand people look like?

An hour later he knew.

Only in battle had Logen ever been so squashed, hemmed, pressed by other people. It was like a battle, here on the docks—the cries, the anger, the crush, the fear and confusion. A battle in which no mercy was shown, and which had no end and no winners. Logen was used to the open sky, the air around him, his own company. On the road, when Bayaz and Quai had ridden close beside him, he’d felt squeezed. Now there were people on every side, pushing, jostling, shouting. Hundreds of them! Thousands! Hundreds of thousands! Could they really all be people? People like him with thoughts and moods and dreams? Faces loomed up and flashed by—surly, anxious, frowning, gone in a sickening whirl of colour. Logen swallowed, blinked. His throat was painfully dry. His head span. Surely this was hell. He knew he deserved to be here, but he didn’t remember dying.

“Malacus!” he hissed desperately. The apprentice looked round. “Stop a moment!” Logen pulled at his collar, trying to let some air in. “I can’t breathe!”

Quai grinned. “It might just be the smell.”

It might at that. The docks smelled like hell, and no mistake. The reek of stinking fish, sickly spices, rotting fruit, fresh dung, sweating horses and mules and people, mingled and bred under the hot sun and became worse by far than any one alone.

“Move!” A shoulder knocked Logen roughly aside and was gone. He leaned against a grimy wall and wiped sweat from his face.

Bayaz was smiling. “Not like the wide and barren North, eh, Ninefingers?”

“No.” Logen watched the people milling past—the horses, the carts, the endless faces. A man stared suspiciously at him as he passed. A boy pointed at him and shouted something. A woman with a basket gave him a wide berth, staring fearfully up as she hurried by. Now he had a moment to think, they were all looking, and pointing, and staring, and they didn’t look happy.

Logen leaned down to Malacus. “I am feared and hated throughout the North. I don’t like it, but I know why.” A sullen group of sailors stared at him with hard eyes, muttering to each other under their breath. He watched them, puzzled, until they disappeared behind a rumbling wagon. “Why do they hate me here?”

“Bethod has moved quickly,” muttered Bayaz, frowning out at the crowds. “His war with the Union has already begun. We will not find the North too popular in Adua, I fear.”

“How do they know where I’m from?”

Malacus raised an eyebrow. “You stick out somewhat.”

Logen flinched as a pair of laughing youths flashed by him. “I do? Among all this?”

“Only like a huge, scarred, dirty gatepost.”

“Ah.” He looked down at himself. “I see.”


Away from the docks the crowds grew sparser, the air cleaner, the noise faded. It was still teeming, stinking, and noisy, but at least Logen could take a breath.

They passed across wide paved squares, decorated with plants and statues, where brightly-painted wooden signs hung over doors—blue fish, pink pigs, purple bunches of grapes, brown loaves of bread. There were tables and chairs out in the sun where people sat and ate from flat pots, drank from green glass cups. They threaded through narrow alleys, where rickety-looking wood and plaster buildings leaned out over them, almost meeting above their heads, leaving only a thin strip of blue sky between. They wandered down wide, cobbled roads, busy with people and lined with monstrous white buildings. Logen blinked and gaped at all of it.

On no moor, however foggy, in no forest, however dense, had Logen ever felt so completely lost. He had no idea now in what direction the boat was, though they’d left it no more than half an hour ago. The sun was hidden behind the towering buildings and everything looked the same. He was terrified he’d lose track of Bayaz and Quai in the crowds, and be lost forever. He hurried after the back of the wizard’s bald head, following him into an open space. A great road, bigger than any they’d seen so far, bounded on either side by white palaces behind high walls and fences, lined with ancient trees.

The people here were different. Their clothes were bright and gaudy, cut in strange styles that served no purpose. The women hardly seemed like people at all—pale and bony, swaddled in shining fabric, flapping at themselves in the hot sun with pieces of cloth stretched over sticks.

“Where are we?” he shouted at Bayaz. If the wizard had answered that they were on the moon, Logen would not have been surprised.

“This is the Middleway, one of the city’s main thoroughfares! It cuts through the very centre of the city to the Agriont!”

“Agriont?”

“Fortress, palace, barracks, seat of government. A city within the city. The heart of the Union. That’s where we’re going.”

“We are?” A group of sour young men stared suspiciously at Logen as he passed them. “Will they let us in?”

“Oh yes. But they won’t like it.”

Logen struggled on through the crowds. Everywhere the sun twinkled on the panes of glass windows, hundreds of them. Carleon had a few glass windows in the grandest buildings, at least before they’d sacked the city. Precious few afterwards, it had to be admitted. Precious little of anything. The Dogman had loved the sound the glass made as it broke. He’d prodded at the windows with a spear, a great big smile on his face, delighted by the crash and tinkle.

That had hardly been the worst of it. Bethod had given the city to his Carls for three days. That was his custom, and they loved him for it. Logen had lost his finger in the battle the day before, and they’d closed the wound with hot iron. It throbbed, and throbbed, and the pain had made him savage. As though he’d needed an excuse for violence back then. He remembered the stink of blood, and sweat, and smoke. The sounds of screaming, and crashing, and laughter.

“Please…” Logen tripped, nearly fell. There was something clinging to his leg. A woman, sitting on the ground beside a wall. Her clothes were dirty, ragged, her face was pale, pinched with hunger. She had something in her arms. A bundle of rags. A child. “Please…” Nothing else. The people laughed and chattered and surged around them, just as if they weren’t there. “Please…”

“I don’t have anything,” he muttered. No more than five strides away a man in a tall hat sat at a table and chuckled with a friend as he tucked into a steaming plate of meat and vegetables. Logen looked at the plate of food, at the starving woman.

“Logen! Come on!” Bayaz had taken him by the elbow and was drawing him away.

“But shouldn’t we—”

“Haven’t you noticed? They’re everywhere! The King needs money, so he squeezes the nobles. The nobles squeeze their tenants, the tenants squeeze the peasants. Some of them, the old, the weak, the extra sons and daughters, they get squeezed right out the bottom. Too many mouths to feed. The lucky ones make thieves or whores, the rest end up begging.”

“But—”

“Clear the road!” Logen stumbled to the wall and pressed himself against it, Malacus and Bayaz beside him. The crowds parted and a long column of men tramped by, shepherded by armoured guards. Some were young, mere boys, some were very old. All were dirty and ragged, and few of them looked healthy. A couple were clearly lame, hobbling along as best they could. One near the front had only one arm. A passer-by in a fabulous crimson jacket held a square of cloth over his wrinkled nose as the beggars shuffled past.

“What are these?” Logen whispered to Bayaz. “Law-breakers?”

The Magus chuckled. “Soldiers.”

Logen stared at them—filthy, coughing, limping, some without boots. “Soldiers? These?”

“Oh yes. They go to fight Bethod.”

Logen rubbed at his temples. “A clan once sent their poorest warrior, a man called Forley the Weakest, to fight me in a duel. They meant it by way of surrender. Why does this Union send their weakest?” Logen shook his head grimly. “They won’t beat Bethod with such as these.”

“They will send others.” Bayaz pointed out another, smaller gathering. “Those are soldiers too.”

“Those?” A group of tall youths, dressed in gaudy suits of red or bright green cloth, a couple with outsize hats. They were at least wearing swords, of a kind, but they hardly looked like fighting men. Fighting women, maybe. Logen frowned, staring from one group to the other. The dirty beggars, the gaudy lads. It was hard for him to say which were the stranger.


A tiny bell jingled as the door opened, and Logen followed Bayaz through the low archway, Malacus behind him. The shop was dim after the bright street and it took Logen’s eyes a moment to adjust. Leaning against a wall were sheets of wood, childishly daubed with pictures of buildings, forests, mountains. Strange clothes were draped over stands beside them—flowing robes, lurid gowns, suits of armour, enormous hats and helmets, rings and jewellery, even a heavy crown. Weapons occupied a small rack, swords and spears richly decorated. Logen stepped closer, frowning. They were fakes. Nothing was real. The weapons were painted wood, the crown was made of flaking tin, the jewels were coloured glass.

“What is this place?”

Bayaz was casting an eye over the robes by the wall. “A theatrical outfitters.”

“A what?”

“The people of this city love spectacle. Comedy, drama, theatre of all kinds. This shop provides equipment for the mounting of plays.”

“Stories?” Logen poked at a wooden sword. “Some people have too much time on their hands.”

A small, plump man emerged from a door at the back of the shop, looking Bayaz, Malacus and Logen over suspiciously. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”

“Of course.” Bayaz stepped forward, switching effortlessly to the common tongue. “We are mounting a production, and require some costumes. We understand you are the foremost theatrical outfitter’s in all of Adua.”

The shopkeeper smiled nervously, taking in their grimy faces and travel stained clothes. “True, true, but… er… quality is expensive, gentlemen.”

“Money is no object.” Bayaz took out a bulging purse and tossed it absently on the counter. It sagged open, heavy golden coins scattering across the wood.

The shopkeeper’s eyes lit with an inner fire. “Of course! What precisely did you have in mind?”

“I need a magnificent robe, suitable for a Magus, or a great sorcerer, or some such. Something of the arcane about it, certainly. Then we’ll have something similar, if less impressive, for an apprentice. Finally we need something for a mighty warrior, a prince of the distant North. Something with fur, I imagine.”

“Those should be straightforward. I will see what we have.” The shopkeeper disappeared through the door behind the counter.

“What is all this shit?” asked Logen.

The wizard grinned. “People are born to their station here. They have commoners, to fight, and farm the land, and do the work. They have gentry, to trade, and build and do the thinking. They have nobility, to own the land and push the others around. They have royalty…” Bayaz glanced at the tin crown “…I forget exactly why. In the North you can rise as high as your merits will take you. Only look at our mutual friend, Bethod. Not so here. A man is born in his place and is expected to stay there. We must seem to be from a high place indeed, if we are to be taken seriously. Dressed as we are we wouldn’t get past the gates of the Agriont.”

The shopkeeper interrupted him by reappearing through the door, his arms heaped with bright cloth. “One mystical robe, suitable for the most powerful of wizards! Used last year for a Juvens in a production of The End of the Empire, during the spring festival. It is, if I may say so, some of my best work.” Bayaz held the shimmering swathe of crimson cloth up to the faint light, gazing at it admiringly. Arcane diagrams, mystical lettering, and symbols of sun, moon and stars, glittered in silver thread.

Malacus ran a hand over the shining cloth of his own absurd garment. “I don’t think you’d have laughed me off so quickly, eh, Logen, if I’d arrived at your campfire dressed in this?”

Logen winced. “I reckon I might’ve.”

“And here we have a splendid piece of barbarian garb.” The shopkeeper hefted a black leather tunic onto the counter, set with swirls of shiny brass, trimmed with pointless tissues of delicate chain-mail. He pointed at the matching fur cloak. “This is real sable!” It was a ludicrous piece of clothing, equally useless for warmth or protection.

Logen folded his arms across his old coat. “You think I’m going to wear that?”

The shopkeeper swallowed nervously. “You must forgive my friend,” said Bayaz. “He is an actor after the new fashion. He believes in losing himself entirely in his role.”

“Is that so?” squeaked the man, looking Logen up and down. “Northmen are… I suppose… topical.”

“Absolutely. I do declare, Master Ninefingers is the very best at what he does.” The old wizard nudged Logen in the ribs. “The very best. I have seen it.”

“If you say so.” The shopkeeper looked far from convinced. “Might I enquire what you will be staging?”

“Oh, it’s a new piece.” Bayaz tapped the side of his bald head with a finger. “I am still working on the details.”

“Really?”

“Indeed. More a scene than an entire play.” He glanced back at the robe, admiring the way the light glittered on the arcane symbols. “A scene in which Bayaz, the First of the Magi, finally takes up his seat on the Closed Council.”

“Ah,” the shopkeeper nodded knowingly. “A political piece. A biting satire, perhaps? Will it be comic, or dramatic in tone?”

Bayaz glanced sidelong at Logen. “That remains to be seen.”

<p>Barbarians at the Gate</p>

Jezal flashed along the lane beside the moat, feet pounding on the worn cobblestones, the great white wall sliding endlessly by on his right, one tower after another, as he made his daily circuit of the Agriont. Since he had cut down on the drinking the improvement in his stamina had been impressive. He was scarcely even out of breath. It was early and the streets of the city were nearly empty. The odd person would look up at him as he ran by, maybe even call out some word of encouragement, but Jezal barely noticed them. His eyes were fixed on the sparkling, lapping water in the moat, and his mind was elsewhere.

Ardee. Where else was it ever? He had supposed, after that day when West had warned him off, after he had stopped seeing her, that his thoughts would soon return to other matters, and other women. He had applied himself to his fencing with a will, attempted to show an interest in his duties as an officer, but he found himself unable to concentrate, and other women seemed now pale, flat, tedious creatures. The long runs, the monotonous exercises with bar and beam, gave his mind ample opportunity to wander. The tedium of peacetime soldiering was even worse: reading boring papers, standing guard on things that needed no guarding. His attention would inevitably slip, and then she would be there.

Ardee in wholesome peasant garb, flushed and sweaty from hard work in the fields. Ardee in the finery of a princess, glittering with jewels. Ardee bathing in forest pools, while he watched from the bushes. Ardee proper and demure, glancing shyly up at him from beneath her lashes. Ardee a whore by the docks, beckoning to him from a grimy doorway. The fantasies were infinite in variety, but they all ended the same way.

His hour-long circuit of the Agriont was complete and he thumped across the bridge and back in through the south gate.

Jezal treated the guards to their daily share of indifference, trotted through the tunnel and up the long ramp into the fortress, then turned towards the courtyard where Marshal Varuz would be waiting. All the while, Ardee was rubbing up against the back of his mind.

It was hardly as though he had nothing else to think about. The Contest was close now, very close. Soon he would fight before the cheering crowds, his family and friends among them. It might make his reputation… or sink it. He should have been lying awake at night, tense and sweating, worrying endlessly about forms, and training, and steels. And yet somehow that wasn’t what he thought about in bed.

Then there was a war on. It was easy to forget, here in the sunny lanes of the Agriont, that Angland had been invaded by hordes of slavering barbarians. He would be going north soon, to lead his company in battle. There, surely, was a thought to keep a man occupied. Was not war a deadly business? He could be hurt, or scarred, or killed even. Jezal tried to conjure up the twisting, twitching, painted face of Fenris the Feared. Legions of screaming savages descending upon the Agriont. It was a terrible business alright, a dangerous and frightening business.

Hmmm.

Ardee came from Angland. What if, say, she were to fall into the hands of the Northmen? Jezal would rush to her rescue, of course. She would not be hurt. Well, not badly. Perhaps her clothes a little torn, like so? No doubt she would be frightened, grateful. He would be obliged to comfort her, of course. She might even faint? He might have to carry her, her head pressed against his shoulder. He might have to lay her down and loosen her clothes. Their lips might touch, just brush gently, hers might part a little, then…

Jezal stumbled in the road. There was a pleasant swelling building in his crotch. Pleasant, but hardly compatible with a brisk run. He was nearly at the courtyard now, and this would never do at fencing practice. He glanced desperately around for a distraction, and nearly choked on his tongue. Major West was standing by the wall, dressed to fence and watching him approach with an unusually grim expression. For an instant, Jezal wondered if his friend might be able to tell what he had been thinking. He swallowed guiltily, felt the blood rushing to his face. West couldn’t know, he couldn’t. But he was most unhappy about something.

“Luthar,” he grunted.

“West.” Jezal stared down at his shoes. They had not been getting on too well since West joined Lord Marshal Burr’s staff. Jezal tried to be happy for him, but could not escape the feeling that he was better qualified for the post. He had excellent blood after all, whether he had experience in the field or not. Then Ardee was still lurking between them, that unpleasant and needless warning. Everyone knew that West had been first through the breach at Ulrioch. Everyone knew that he had the devil of a temper. That had always seemed exciting to Jezal, until he got on the wrong end of it.

“Varuz is waiting.” West unfolded his arms and strode off towards the archway, “and he’s not alone.”

“Not alone?”

“The Marshal feels you need to get used to an audience.”

Jezal frowned. “I’m surprised anyone cares in the present climate, what with the war and all.”

“You’d be surprised. Fighting and fencing and all things martial are very much the flavour. Everyone’s wearing a sword these days, even if they’ve never drawn one in their lives. There’s an absolute fever about the Contest, believe me.”

Jezal blinked as they passed into the bright courtyard. A stand of temporary seating had been hastily erected along one wall, packed from one end to the other with people, three score or more.

“And here he is!” shouted Marshal Varuz. There was a ripple of polite applause. Jezal felt himself grinning—there were some very important people in amongst the crowd. He spotted Marovia, the Lord High Justice, stroking his long beard. Lord Isher was not far away from him, looking slightly bored. Crown Prince Ladisla himself was lounging on the front row, shining in a shirt of gossamer chain-mail and clapping enthusiastically. The people on the benches behind had to lean over to see round the waving plume on his magnificent hat.

Varuz handed Jezal his steels, still beaming. “Don’t you dare make me look a fool!” he hissed. Jezal coughed nervously, looking up at the rows of expectant people. His heart sank. Inquisitor Glokta’s toothless grin leered at him from the crowd, and on the row behind him… Ardee West. She was wearing an expression that she never had in his daydreams: one third sullen, one third accusing, one third simply bored. He glanced away, staring toward the opposite wall, inwardly cursing his own cowardice. He seemed unable to meet anyone’s eye these days.

“This bout will be fought with half-edged steels!” thundered the Lord Marshal. “The best of three touches!” West already had his swords drawn and was making his way to the circle, marked out with white chalk in the carefully shaved grass. Jezal’s heart was hammering loud as he fumbled his own steels out of their sheaths, acutely aware of all those eyes upon him. He took his mark opposite West, pushing his feet cautiously into the grass. West raised his steels, Jezal did the same. They faced each other for a moment, motionless.

“Begin!” shouted Varuz.

It quickly became clear that West had no mind to roll over for him. He came on with more than his usual ferocity, harrying Jezal with a flurry of heavy cuts, their steels clashing and scraping rapidly together. He gave ground, still uncomfortable under the watchful eyes of all those people, damned important people some of them, but as West pushed him back towards the edge of the circle, his nerves began to fade, his training took over. He ducked away, making room for himself, parrying the cuts with left and right, dodging and dancing, too fast to catch.

The people faded, even Ardee was gone. The blades moved by themselves, back and forth, up and down. There was no need for him to look at them. He turned his attention to Wests eyes, watched them flicker from the ground to the steels to Jezal’s dancing feet, trying to guess his intentions.

He felt the lunge coming even before it was begun. He feinted one way then turned the other, slipping smoothly round behind West as he blundered past. It was a simple matter for him to apply his foot to the seat of his opponent’s trousers and shove him out of the circle.

“A touch!” shouted Marshal Varuz.

There was a ripple of laughter as the Major sprawled on his face. “A touch on the arse!” guffawed the Crown Prince, his plume waving back and forth with merriment. “One to Captain Luthar!” West didn’t look half so intimidating with his face in the dirt. Jezal gave a little bow to the audience, risked a smile in Ardee’s direction as he rose. He was disappointed to see she wasn’t even looking at him. She was watching her brother struggle in the dust with a faint, cruel grin.

West got slowly to his feet. “A good touch,” he muttered through gritted teeth as he stepped back into the circle. Jezal took his own mark, barely able to suppress his smile.

“Begin!” shouted Varuz.

West came on strongly again, but Jezal was warming to his task now. The sounds of the audience muttered and swelled as he danced this way and that. He began to work the odd flourish into his movements, and the onlookers responded, “oohs” and “aahs” floating up as he flicked West’s efforts away. He had never fenced so well, never moved so smoothly. The bigger man was starting to tire a little, the snap was going out of his cuts. Their long steels clashed together, scraped. Jezal twisted his right wrist and tore West’s blade from his fingers, stepped in and slashed at him with his left.

“Gah!” West winced and dropped his short steel, hopping away and grabbing his forearm. A few drops of blood pattered across the ground.

“Two to nothing!” shouted Varuz.

The Crown Prince jumped up, his hat tumbling off, delighted by the sight of blood. “Excellent!” he squawked, “capital!” Others joined him on their feet, clapping loudly. Jezal basked in their approval, smiling wide, every muscle tingling with happiness. He understood now what he had been training for.

“Well fought, Jezal,” muttered West, a trickle of blood running down his forearm. “You’ve got too good for me.”

“Sorry about the cut.” Jezal grinned. He wasn’t sorry in the least.

“It’s nothing. Just a scratch.” West strode away, frowning and holding his wrist. Nobody paid much attention to his exit, Jezal least of all. Sporting events are all about the winners.

Lord Marovia was the first to get up from the benches and offer his congratulations. “What a promising young man,” he said, smiling warmly at Jezal, “but do you think he can beat Bremer dan Gorst?”

Varuz gave Jezal a fatherly clap on the shoulder. “I’m sure he can beat anyone, on the right day.”

“Hmm. Have you seen Gorst fence?”

“No, though I hear he is most impressive.”

“Oh, indeed—he is a devil.” The High Justice raised his bushy eyebrows. “I look forward to seeing them meet. Have you ever considered a career in the law, Captain Luthar?”

Jezal was taken by surprise. “Er, no, your Worship, that is… I am a soldier.”

“Of course you are. But battles and so forth can play hell with the nerves. If you should ever change your mind, perhaps I might have a place for you. I can always find a use for promising men.”

“Er, thank you.”

“Until the Contest then. Good luck, Captain,” he threw over his shoulder as he shuffled away. The implication was that he thought Jezal would need a great deal of it. His Highness Prince Ladisla was more optimistic.

“You’re my man, Luthar!” he shouted, poking the air with his fingers as though they were fencing steels. “I’m going to double my bet on you!”

Jezal bowed obsequiously. “Your Highness is too kind.”

“You’re my man! A soldier! A fencing man should fight for his country, eh, Varuz? Why isn’t this Gorst a soldier?”

“I believe he is, your Highness,” said the Lord Marshal gently. “He is a kinsman of Lord Brock, and serves with his personal guard.”

“Oh.” The Prince seemed confused for a moment, but soon perked up. “But you’re my man!” he shouted at Jezal, poking once more with his fingers, the feather on his hat waving this way and that. “You’re the man for me!” He danced off towards the archway, decorative chain-mail gleaming.

“Very impressive.” Jezal whipped round, took an ungainly step back. Glokta, leering at him from his blind side. For a cripple, he had an uncanny knack of sneaking up on a man. “What a happy chance for everyone that you didn’t give it up after all.”

“I never had any intention of doing so,” snapped Jezal frostily.

Glokta sucked at his gums. “If you say so, Captain.”

“I do.” Jezal turned rudely away, hoping that he never had occasion to speak to the loathsome man again. He found himself staring straight into Ardee’s face, no more than a foot away.

“Gah,” he stammered, stepping back again.

“Jezal,” she said, “I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Er…” He glanced nervously around. Glokta was shambling away. West was long gone. Varuz was busy holding forth to Lord Isher and a few others still remaining in the courtyard. They were unobserved. He had to speak to her. He ought to tell her straight out that he could not see her anymore. He owed her that much. “Er…”

“Nothing to say to me?”

“Er…” He turned swiftly on his heel and walked away, his shoulders prickling with shame.


The tedium of guard duty at the south gate seemed, after all that unexpected excitement, almost a mercy. Jezal was quite looking forward to standing idly by, watching people file in and out of the Agriont, listening to Lieutenant Kaspa’s mindless babble. At least, he was until he got there.

Kaspa and the usual complement of armoured soldiers were clustered around the outer gates, where the old bridge across the moat passed between the two massive, white rendered towers of the gatehouse. As Jezal marched down to the end of the long tunnel he saw that there was someone with them. A small, harassed-looking fellow wearing spectacles. Jezal recognised him vaguely. Morrow he was called, some crony of the Lord Chamberlain. He had no reason to be here.

“Captain Luthar, what a happy chance!” Jezal jumped. It was that lunatic, Sulfur, sitting cross-legged on the ground behind him, his back against the sheer wall of the gatehouse.

“What the hell’s he doing here?” snapped Jezal. Kaspa opened his mouth to speak, but Sulfur got in first.

“Don’t mind me, Captain, I’m simply waiting for my master.”

“Your master?” He dreaded to think what manner of an idiot this idiot might serve.

“Indeed. He should be here very shortly.” Sulfur frowned up at the sun. “He is already somewhat tardy, if the truth be told.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” The madman broke into a friendly smile once more. “But he’ll be along, Jezal, you can depend on it.”

First-name terms was too much to take. He hardly knew the man, and what he knew he didn’t like. He opened his mouth to give him a piece of his mind, but Sulfur suddenly jumped up, grabbing his stick from the wall and brushing himself down.

“Here they are!” he said, looking out across the moat. Jezal followed the idiot’s eyes with his own.

A magnificent old man was striding purposefully across the bridge, bald head held high, a fabulous gown of shimmering red and silver flowing about him in the breeze. At his heels came a sickly-looking youth, head a little bowed as if in awe of the older man, holding a long staff out before him in upturned palms. A great brute of a man in a heavy fur cloak followed behind them, a good half head taller than the other two.

“What the…” Jezal trailed off. He seemed to recognise the old man from somewhere. Some lord perhaps, from the Open Council? Some foreign ambassador? Certainly he had an air of majesty. Jezal racked his brains as they approached, but could not place him.

The old man stopped before the gatehouse, swept Jezal, Kaspa, Morrow and the guards imperiously with glittering green eyes. “Yoru,” he said.

Sulfur stepped forward, bowing low. “Master Bayaz,” he murmured, in hushed tones of deep respect.

And that was it. That was why Jezal knew the man. He bore a definite resemblance to the statue of Bayaz in the Kingsway. The statue Jezal had run past so many times. A little fatter perhaps, but that expression: stern, wise, effortlessly commanding, was just the same. Jezal frowned. For the old man to be called by that name? He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the look of the lanky young man with the staff either. He liked the look of the old man’s other companion even less.

West had often told Jezal that the Northmen found in Adua, usually skulking dishevelled by the docks or dirty drunk in gutters, were by no means typical of their people. Those that lived free in the far North, fighting, feuding, feasting, and doing whatever Northmen did, were of quite a different kind. A tall, fierce, handsome people, Jezal had always imagined, with a touch of romance about them. Strong, yet graceful. Wild, yet noble. Savage, yet cunning. The kind of men whose eyes are fixed always on the far horizon.

This was not one of those.

Never in his life had Jezal seen a more brutish-looking man. Even Fenris the Feared had seemed civilised by comparison. His face was like a whipped back, criss-crossed with ragged scars.

His nose was bent, pointing off a little sideways. One ear had a big notch out of it, one eye seemed a touch higher than the other, surrounded by a crescent-shaped wound. His whole face, in fact, was slightly beaten, broken, lop-sided, like that of a prize fighter who has fought a few bouts too many. His expression too, was that of one punch-drunk. He gawped up at the gatehouse, forehead furrowed, mouth hanging open, staring about him with a look of near animal stupidity.

He wore a long fur cloak, and a leather tunic set with gold, but this height of barbaric splendour only made him look more savage, and there was no missing the long, heavy sword at his belt. The Northman scratched at a big pink scar through the stubble on his cheek as he peered up at the sheer walls above, and Jezal noticed one of his fingers was missing. As though any further evidence of a life of violence and savagery was necessary.

To let this hulking primitive into the Agriont? While they were at war with the Northmen? It was unthinkable! But Morrow was already sidling forward. “The Lord Chamberlain is expecting you, gentlemen,” he gushed as he bowed and scraped his way towards the old man, “if you would care to follow me—”

“One moment.” Jezal grabbed the under-secretary by the elbow and pulled him aside. “Him too?” he asked incredulously, nodding over at the primitive in the cloak. “We are at war, you know!”

“Lord Hoff was most specific!” Morrow shook his arm free, spectacles flashing. “Keep him here if you wish, but you can explain it to the Lord Chamberlain!”

Jezal swallowed. That idea was not at all appealing. He glanced up at the old man, but could not look him in the eye for long. He had a mysterious air, an air of knowing something no one else could guess, and it was most unsettling.

“You… must… leave… your… weapons… here!” he shouted, speaking as slowly and clearly as possible.

“Happy to.” The Northman pulled the sword from his belt and held it out. It weighed heavily in Jezal’s hands: a big, plain, brutal-looking weapon. He followed it with a long knife, then knelt and pulled another from his boot. He took a third from the small of his back, and then produced a thin blade from inside his sleeve, heaping them into Jezal’s outstretched arms. The Northman smiled broadly. It was truly a hideous sight, the ragged scars twisting and puckering, making his face more lopsided than e