Bantam Press (UK)
Surrounded in a city of blue fire, she stood alone on the balcony. The sky’s darkness was pushed away, an unwelcome guest on this the first night of the Gedderone Fete. Throngs filled the streets of Darujhistan, happily riotous, good- natured in the calamity of one year’s ending and another’s beginning. The night air was humid and pungent with countless scents.
There had been banquets. There had been unveilings of eligible young men and maidens. Tables laden with exotic foods, ladies wrapped in silks, men and women in preposterous uniforms all glittering gilt – a city with no standing army bred a plethora of private militias and a chaotic proliferation of high ranks held, more or less exclusively, by the nobility.
Among the celebrations she had attended this evening, on the arm of her husband, she had not once seen a real officer of Darujhistan’s City Watch, not one genuine soldier with a dusty cloak- hem, with polished boots bearing scars, with a sword- grip of plain leather and a pommel gouged and burnished by wear. Yet she had seen, bound high on soft, well- fed arms, torcs in the manner of decorated soldiers among the Malazan army – soldiers from an empire that had, not so long ago, provided for Darujhistan mothers chilling threats to belligerent children. ‘Malazans, child! Skulking in the night to steal foolish children! To make you slaves for their terrible Empress – yes! Here in this very city!’
But the torcs she had seen this night were not the plain bronze or faintly etched silver of genuine Malazan decorations and signi.ers of rank, such as appeared like relics from some long- dead cult in the city’s market stalls. No, these had been gold, studded with gems, the blue of sapphire being the commonest hue even among the coloured glass, blue like the blue .re for which the city was famous, blue to proclaim some great and brave service to Darujhistan itself.
Her fingers had pressed upon one such torc, there on her husband’s arm, although there was real muscle beneath it, a hardness to match the contemptuous look in his eyes as he surveyed the clusters of nobility in the vast humming hall, with the proprietary air he had acquired since attaining the Council. The contempt had been there long before and if anything had grown since his latest and most triumphant victory.
Daru gestures of congratulation and respect had swirled round them in their stately passage through the crowds, and with each acknowledgement her husband’s face had grown yet harder, the arm beneath her fingers drawing ever tauter, the knuckles of his hands whitening above his sword- belt where the thumbs were tucked into braided loops in the latest fashion among duellists. Oh, he revelled in being among them now; indeed, in being above many of them. But for Gorlas Vidikas, this did not mean he had to like any of them. The more they fawned, the deeper his contempt, and that he would have been offended without their obsequy was a contradiction, she suspected, that a man like her husband was not wont to entertain.
The nobles had eaten and drunk, and stood and posed and wandered and paraded and danced themselves into swift exhaustion, and now the banquet halls and staterooms echoed with naught but the desultory ministrations of servants. Beyond the high walls of the estates, however, the common folk rollicked still in the streets. Masked and half naked, they danced on the cobbles – the riotous whirling steps of the Flaying of Fander – as if dawn would never come, as if the hazy moon itself would stand motionless in the abyss in astonished witness to their revelry. City Watch patrols simply stood back and observed, drawing dusty cloaks about their bodies, gauntlets rustling as they rested hands on truncheons and swords.
On the balcony where she stood, the fountain of the unlit garden directly below chirped and gurgled to itself, buffered by the estate’s high, solid walls from the raucous festivities they had witnessed during the tortured carriage ride back home. Smeared moonlight struggled in the softly swirling pool surrounding the fountain.
The blue fire was too strong this night, too strong even for the mournful moon. Darujhistan itself was a sapphire, blazing in the torc of the world. And yet its beauty, and all its delighted pride and its multitudinous voice, could not reach her tonight.
This night, Lady Vidikas had seen her future. Each and every year of it. There on her husband’s hard arm. And the moon, well, it looked like a thing of the past, a memory dimmed by time, yet it had taken her back.
To a balcony much like this one in a time that now seemed very long ago.
Lady Vidikas, who had once been Challice Estraysian, had just seen her future. And was discovering, here in this night and standing against this rail, that the past was a better place to be.
Talk about the worst night yet to run out of Rhivi flatbread. Swearing under her breath, Picker pushed her way through the crowds of the Lakefront market, the mobs of ferociously hungry, drunk revellers, using her elbows when she needed to and glowering at every delirious smile swung her way, and came out eventually at the mouth of a dingy alley heaped ankle- deep in rubbish. Somewhere just to the south of Borthen Park. Not quite the route back to the bar she would have preferred, but the fete was in full frenzy. Wrapped package of flatbread tucked under her left arm, she paused to tug loose the tangles of her heavy cloak, scowled on seeing a fresh stain from a careless passer- by – some grotesque Gadrobi sweetcake – tried wiping it off which only made it worse, then, her mood even fouler, set out through the detritus.
With the Lady’s pull, Bluepearl and Antsy had fared better in finding Saltoan wine and were even now back at K’rul’s. And here she was, twelve streets and two wall passages away with twenty or thirty thousand mad fools in between. Would her companions wait for her? Not a chance. Damn Blend and her addiction to Rhivi flatbread! That and her sprained ankle had conspired to force Picker out here on the first night of the fete – if that ankle truly was sprained, and she had her doubts since Mallet had just squinted down at the offending appendage, then shrugged.
Mind you, that was about as much as anyone had come to expect from Mallet. He’d been miserable since the retirement, and the chance of the sun’s rising any time in the healer’s future was about as likely as Hood’s forgetting to tally the count. And it wasn’t as if he was alone in his misery, was it?
But where was the value in feeding her ill temper with all these well- chewed thoughts? Well, it made her feel better, that’s what.
Dester Thrin, wrapped tight in black cloak and hood, watched the big- arsed woman kicking her way through the rubbish at the other end of the alley. He’d picked her up coming out of the back door of K’rul’s Bar, the culmination of four nights positioned in the carefully chosen, darkness- shrouded vantage point from which he could observe that narrow postern.
His clan- master had warned that the targets were all ex- soldiers, but Dester Thrin had seen little to suggest that any of them had kept .t and trim. They were old, sagging, rarely sober, and this one, well, she wore that huge, thick woollen cloak because she was getting heavy and it clearly made her self- conscious.
Following her through the crowds had been relatively easy – she was a head taller than the average Gadrobi, and the route she took to this decrepit Rhivi market in Lakefront seemed to deliberately avoid the Daru streets, some strange affectation that would, in a very short time, prove fatal.
Dester’s own Daru blood had permitted him a clear view of his target, pushing purposefully through the heaving press of celebrants.
He set out to traverse the alley once his target exited at the far end. Swiftly padding at a hunter’s pace, he reached the alley mouth and edged out, in time to see the woman move into the passageway through Second Tier Wall, with the tunnel through Third just beyond.
The Guild’s succession wars, following the disappearance of Vorcan, had finally been settled, with only a minimum amount of spilled blood. And Dester was more or less pleased with the new Grand Master, who was both vicious and clever where most of the other aspirants had been simply vicious. At last, an assassin of the Guild did not have to be a fool to feel some optimism regarding the future.
This contract was a case in point. Straightforward, yet one sure to earn Dester and the others of his clan considerable prestige upon its summary completion.
He brushed his gloved hands across the pommels of his daggers, the weapons slung on baldrics beneath his arms. Ever reassuring, those twin blades of Daru steel with their ferules filled with the thick, pasty poison of Moranth tralb.
Poison was now the preferred insurance for a majority of the Guild’s street killers, and indeed for more than a few who scuttled Thieves’ Road across the rooftops. There’d been an assassin, close to Vorcan herself, who had, on a night of betrayal against his own clan, demonstrated the deadliness of fighting without magic. Using poison, the assassin had proved the superiority of such mundane substances in a single, now legendary night of blood.
Dester had heard that some initiates in some clans had raised hidden shrines to honour Rallick Nom, creating a kind of cult whose adherents employed secret gestures of mutual recognition within the Guild. Of course, Seba Krafar, the new Grand Master, had in one of his very first pronouncements outlawed the cult, and there had been a cull of sorts, with five suspected cult leaders greeting the dawn with smiling throats.
Still, Dester had since heard enough hints to suggest that the cult was far from dead. It had just burrowed deeper.
In truth, no one knew which poisons Rallick Nom had used, but Dester believed it was Moranth tralb, since even the smallest amount in the bloodstream brought unconsciousness, then a deeper coma that usually led to death. Larger quantities simply speeded up the process and were a sure path through Hood’s Gate.
The big- arsed woman lumbered on.
Four streets from K’rul’s Bar – if she was taking the route he believed she was taking – there’d be a long, narrow alley to walk up, the inside face of Third Tier Wall Armoury on the left, and on the right the high wall of the bath- house thick and solid with but a few scattered, small windows on upper floors, making the unlit passage dark.
He would kill her there.
Perched on a corner post’s finial at one end of the high wall, Chillbais stared with stony eyes on the tattered wilds beyond. Behind him was an overgrown garden with a shallow pond recently rebuilt but already unkempt, and toppled columns scattered about, bearded in moss. Before him, twisted trees and straggly branches with crumpled dark leaves dangling like insect carcasses, the ground beneath rumpled and matted with greasy grasses; a snaking path of tilted pavestones leading up to a squat, brooding house bearing no architectural similarity to any other edifice in all of Darujhistan.
Light was rare from the cracks between those knotted shutters, and when it did show it was dull, desultory. The door never opened.
Among his kin, Chillbais was a giant. Heavy as a badger, with sculpted muscles beneath the prickly hide. His folded wings were very nearly too small to lift him skyward, and each sweep of those leathery fans forced a grunt from the demon’s throat.
This time would be worse than most. It had been months since he’d last moved, hidden as he was from prying eyes in the gloom of an overhanging branch from the ash tree in the estate garden at his back. But when he saw that .ash of movement before him, that whispering flow of motion, out from the gnarled, black house and across the path, even as earth erupted in its wake to open a succession of hungry pits, even as roots writhed out seeking to ensnare this fugitive, Chillbais knew his vigil was at an end.
The shadow slid out to crouch against the low wall of the Azath House, seemed to watch those roots snaking closer for a long moment, then rose and, .owing like liquid night over the stone wall, was gone.
Grunting, Chillbais spread his creaking wings, shook the creases loose from the sheets of membrane between the rib- like fingers, then leapt forward, out from beneath the branch, catching what air he could, then flapping frenziedly – his grunts growing savage – until he slammed hard into the mulched ground.
Spitting twigs and leaves, the demon scrambled back for the estate wall, hearing how those roots spun round, lashing out for him. Claws digging into mortar, Chillbais scrabbled back on to his original perch. Of course, there had been no real reason to fear. The roots never reached beyond the Azath’s own wall, and a glance back assured him- Squealing, Chillbais launched back into the air, this time out over the estate garden.
p; Oh, no one ever liked demons!
Cool air above the overgrown fountain, then, wings thudding hard, heaving upward, up into the night.
A word, yes, for his master. A most extraordinary word. So unexpected, so incendiary, so fraught!
Chillbais thumped his wings as hard as he could, an obese demon in the darkness above the blue, blue city.
Zechan Throw and Giddyn the Quick had found the perfect place for the ambush. Twenty paces down a narrow street two recessed doorways faced each other. Four drunks had staggered past a few moments earlier, and none had seen the assassins standing motionless in the inky darkness. And now that they were past and the way was clear . . . a simple step forward and blood would flow.
The two targets approached. Both carried clay jugs and were weaving slightly. They seemed to be arguing, but not in a language Zechan understood. Malazan, likely. A quick glance to the left. The four drunks were just leaving the far end, plunging into a motley crowd of revellers.
Zechan and Giddyn had followed the two out from K’rul’s Bar, watching on as they found a wine merchant, haggled over what the woman demanded for the jugs of wine, settled on a price, then set out on their return leg of the journey.
Somewhere along the way they must have pulled the stoppers on the jugs, for now they were loud in their argument, the slightly taller one, who walked pigeon- toed and was blue- skinned – Zechan could just make him out from where he stood – pausing to lean against a wall as if moments from losing his supper.
He soon righted himself, and it seemed the argument was suddenly over. Straightening, the taller one joined the other and, from the sounds of their boots in the rubbish, set out by his side.
Nothing messy, nothing at all messy. Zechan lived for nights like this.
Dester moved quickly, his moccasins noiseless on the cobbles, rushing for the woman striding oblivious ahead of him. Twelve paces, eight, four-
She spun, cloak whirling out.
A blurred sliver of blued steel, .ickering a slashing arc. Dester skidded, seeking to pull back from the path of that weapon – a longsword, Beru fend! – and something clipped his throat. He twisted and ducked down to his left, both daggers thrust out to damn her should she seek to close.
Heat was spilling down his neck, down his chest beneath his deerhide shirt. The alley seemed to waver before his eyes, darkness curling in. Dester Thrin staggered, flailing with his daggers. A boot or mailed fist slammed into the side of his head and there was more splashing on to the cobbles. He could no longer grip the daggers. He heard them skitter on stone.
Blind, stunned, lying on the hard ground. It was cold.
A strange lassitude filled his thoughts, spreading out, rising up, taking him away.
Picker stood over the corpse. The red smear on the tip of her sword glistened, drawing her gaze, and she was reminded, oddly enough, of poppies after a rain. She grunted. The bastard had been quick, almost quick enough to evade her slash. Had he done so, she might have had some work to do. Still, unless the fool was skilled in throwing those puny daggers, she would have cut him down eventually.
Pushing through Gadrobi crowds risked little more than cutpurses. As a people they were singularly gentle. In any case, it made such things as picking up someone trailing her that much easier – when that someone wasn’t Gadrobi, of course.
The man dead at her feet was Daru. Might as well have worn a lantern on his hooded head, the way it bobbed above the crowd in her wake.
Even so . . . she frowned down at him. You wasn’t no thug. Not with daggers like those.
Sheathing her sword and pulling her cloak about her once more, ensuring that it well hid the scabbarded weapon which, if discovered by a Watch, would see her in a cell with a damned huge fine to pay, Picker pushed the wrapped stack of flatbread tighter under her left arm, then set out once more.
Blend, she decided, was in a lot of trouble.
Zechan and Giddyn, in perfect unison, launched themselves out from the alcoves, daggers raised then thrusting down.
A yelp from the taller one as Giddyn’s blades plunged deep. The Malazan’s knees buckled and vomit sprayed from his mouth as he sank down, the jug crashing to a rush of wine. Zechan’s own weapons punched through leather, edges grating along ribs. One for each lung. Tearing the daggers loose, the assassin stepped back to watch the red- haired one fall.
A short sword plunged into the side of Zechan’s neck.
He was dead before he hit the cobbles.
Giddyn, looming over the kneeling Malazan, looked up.
Two hands closed round his head. One clamped tight over his mouth, and all at once his lungs were full of water. He was drowning. The hand tightened, fingers pinching his nostrils shut. Darkness rose within him, and the world slowly went away.
Antsy snorted as he tugged his weapon free, then added a kick to the assassin’s face to punctuate its frozen expression of surprise.
Bluepearl grinned across at him. ‘See the way I made the puke spray out? If that ain’t genius I don’t know what-’
‘Shut up,’ Antsy snapped. ‘These weren’t muggers looking for a free drink, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Frowning, Bluepearl looked down at the body before him with the water leaking from its mouth and nose. The Napan ran a hand over his shaved pate. ‘Aye. But they was amateurs anyway. Hood, we saw those breath plumes from halfway down the street. Which stopped when those drunks crossed, telling us they wasn’t the target. Meaning-’
‘We were. Aye, and that’s my point.’
‘Let’s get back,’ Bluepearl said, suddenly nervous.
Antsy tugged at his moustache, then nodded. ‘Work up that illusion again, Bluepearl. Us ten paces ahead.’
‘I ain’t no sergeant no more.’ ‘Yeah? Then why you still barking orders?’
By the time Picker arrived within sight of the front entrance to K’rul’s Bar, her rage was incandescent. She paused, scanned the area. Spotted someone leaning in shadows across from the bar’s door. Hood drawn up, hands hidden.
Picker set off towards the figure.
She was noticed with ten paces between them, and she saw the man straighten, saw the growing unease betrayed by a shift of those covered arms, the cloak rippling. A half- dozen celebrants careened between them, and as they passed, Picker took the last stride needed to reach the man.
What ever he had been expecting – perhaps her accosting him with some loud accusation – it was clear that he was unprepared for the savage kick she delivered between his legs. As he was going down she stepped closer and slapped her right hand against the back of his head, adding momentum to the man’s collapse. When his forehead cracked against the cobbles there was a sickly crunch. The body began to spasm where it lay.
A passer- by paused, peered down at the twitching body.
‘You!’ Picker snarled. ‘What’s your damned problem?’
Surprise, then a shrug. ‘Nothing, sweetie. Served ‘im right, standin’ there like that. Say, would y
ou marry me?’
As the stranger ambled on, bemoaning his failure at love, Picker looked around, waiting to see if there was someone else . . . bolting from some hidden place nearby. If it had already happened, then she had missed it. More likely, the unseen eyes watching all of this were peering down from a rooftop somewhere.
The man on the ground had stopped twitching.
Spinning round, she headed for the entrance to K’rul’s Bar.