1154th Year of Burn's Sleep 96th Year of the Malazan Empire. The Last Year of Emperor Kellanved's Reign
THE STAINS OF RUST SEEMED TO MAP BLOOD SEAS ON THE BLACK, pocked surface of Mock's Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold's wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.
The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City.
The Vane's silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock's Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory's heights.
Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock's Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist's holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.
For Ganoes, the ancient fortification overlooking the city was too familiar to be of interest. This visit was his third in as many years; he'd long ago explored the courtyard with its heaved cobblestones, the Old Keep—now a stable, its upper floor home to pigeons and swallows and bats—and the citadel where even now his father negotiated the island export tithe with the harbour officials. In the last instance, of course, a goodly portion was out of bounds, even for a son of a noble house; for it was in the citadel that the Fist had his residence, and in the inner chambers that such affairs of the Empire as concerned this island were conducted.
Mock's Hold forgotten behind him, Ganoes' attention was on the tattered city below, and the riots that ran through its poorest quarter.
Mock's Hold stood atop a cliff. The higher land of the Pinnacle was reached by a switchback staircase carved into the limestone of the cliff wall. The drop to the city below was eighty armspans or more, with the Hold's battered wall adding still another six. The Mouse was at the city's inland edge, an uneven spreading of hovels and overgrown tiers cut in half by the silt-heavy river that crawled towards the harbour. With most of Malaz City between Ganoes' position and the riots, it was hard to make out any detail, beyond the growing pillars of black smoke.
It was midday, but the flash and thundering concussion of magery made the air seem dark and heavy.
Armour clanking, a soldier appeared along the wall near him. The man leaned vambraced forearms on the battlement, the scabbard of his longsword scraping against the stones. 'Glad for your pure blood, eh?' he asked, grey eyes on the smouldering city below.
The boy studied the soldier. He already knew the complete regimental accoutrements of the Imperial Army, and the man at his side was a commander in the Third—one of the Emperor's own, an elite. On his dark grey shoulder-cloak was a silver brooch: a bridge of stone, lit by ruby flames.
High-ranking soldiers and officials of the Empire commonly passed through Mock's Hold. The island of Malaz remained a vital port of call, especially now that the Korel wars to the south had begun. Ganoes had brushed shoulders with more than his share, here and in the capital, Unta.
'Is it true, then?' Ganoes asked boldly.
'Is what true?'
'The First Sword of Empire. Dassem Ultor. We heard in the capital before we left. He's dead. Is it true? Is Dassem dead?'
The man seemed to flinch, his gaze unwavering on the Mouse. 'Such is war,' he muttered, under his breath, as if the words were not meant for anyone else's ears.
'You're with the Third. I thought the Third was with him, in Seven Cities. At Y'Ghatan—'
'Hood's Breath, they're still looking for his body in the still-hot rubble of that damned city, and here you, are, a merchant's son three thousand leagues from Seven Cities with information only a few are supposed to possess.' He still did not turn. 'I know not your sources, but take my advice and keep what you know to yourself.'
Ganoes shrugged. 'It's said he betrayed a god.'
Finally the man faced him. His face was scarred, and something that might have been a burn marred his jaw and left cheek. For all that, he looked young for a commander. 'Heed the lesson there, son.'
'Every decision you make can change the world. The best life is the one the gods don't notice.
You want to live free, boy, live quietly.'
'I want to be a soldier. A hero.'
'You'll grow out of it.'
Mock's Vane squealed as a wayward gust from the harbour cleared the grainy smoke. Ganoes could now smell rotting fish and the waterfront's stink of humanity.
Another Bridgeburner, this one with a broken, scorched fiddle strapped to his back, came up to the commander. He was wiry and if anything younger—only a few years older than Ganoes himself, who was twelve. Strange pockmarks covered his face and the backs of his hands, and his armour was a mixture of foreign accoutrements over a threadbare, stained uniform. A shortsword hung in a cracked wooden scabbard at his hip. He leaned against the merlon beside the other man with the ease of long familiarity.
'It's a bad smell when sorcerers panic,' the newcomer said. 'They're losing control down there.
Hardly the need for a whole cadre of mages, just to sniff out a few wax-witches.'
The commander sighed. 'Thought to wait to see if they'd rein themselves in.'
The soldier grunted. 'They are all new, untested. This could scar some of them for ever.
Besides,' he added, 'more than a few down there are following someone else's orders.'
'A suspicion, no more.'
'The proof's right there,' the other man said. 'In the Mouse.'
'You're too protective,' the man said. 'Surly says it's your greatest weakness.'
'Surly's the Emperor's concern, not mine.'
A second grunt answered that. 'Maybe all of us before too long.'
The commander was silent, slowly turning to study his companion.
The man shrugged. 'Just a feeling. She's taking a new name, you know. Laseen.'
'Napan word. Means—'
'I know what it means.'
'Hope the Emperor does, too.'
Ganoes said, 'It means Thronemaster.'
The two looked down at him.
The wind shifted again, making the iron demon groan on its perch—a smell of cool stone from the Hold itself. 'My tutor's Napan,' Ganoes explained.
A new voice spoke behind them, a woman's, imperious and cold.
Both soldiers turned, but without haste. The commander said to his companion, 'The new company needs help down there. Send Dujek and a wing, and get some sappers to contain the fires—wouldn't do to have the whole city burn.'
The soldier nodded, marched away, sparing the woman not a single glance.
She stood with two bodyguards near the portal in the citadel's square tower. Her dusky blue skin marked her as Napan, but she was otherwise plain, wearing a saltstained grey robe, her mousy hair cut short like a soldier's, her features thin and unmemorable. It was, however, her bodyguards that sent a shiver through Ganoes. They flanked her: tall, swathed in black, hands hidden in sleeves, hoods shadowing their faces. Ganoes had never seen a Claw before, but he instinctively knew these creatures to be acolytes of the cult. Which meant the woman was…
The commander said, 'It's your mess, Surly. Seems I'll have to clean it up.'
Ganoes was shocked at the absence of fear—the near-contempt in the soldier's voice. Surly had created the Claw, making it a power rivalled only by the Emperor himself.
'That is no longer my name, Commander.'
The man grimaced. 'So I've heard. You must be feeling confident in the Emperor's absence. He's not the only one who remembers you as nothing more than a serving-wench down in the Old Quarter. I take it the gratitude's washed off long since.'
The woman's face betrayed no change of expression to mark if the man's words had stung. 'The command was a simple one,' she said. 'It seems your new officers are unable to cope with the task.'
'It's got out of hand,' the commander said. 'They're unseasoned—'
'Not my concern,' she snapped. 'Nor am I particularly disappointed. Loss of control delivers its own lessons to those who oppose us.'
'Oppose? A handful of minor witches selling their meagre talents—to what sinister end?'
'Finding the coraval schools on the shoals in the bay.'
'Hood's Breath, woman, hardly a threat to the Empire.'
'Unsanctioned. Defiant of the new laws—'
'Your laws, Surly. They won't work, and when the Emperor returns he'll quash your prohibition of sorcery, you can be certain of that.'
The woman smiled coldly. 'You'll be pleased to know that the Tower's signalled the approach of the transports for your new recruits. We'll not miss you or your restless, seditious soldiers, Commander.'
Without another word, or a single glance spared for the boy standing beside the commander, she swung about and, flanked by her silent bodyguards, re-entered the citadel.
Ganoes and the commander returned their attention to the riot in the Mouse. Flames were visible, climbing through the smoke.
'One day I'll be a soldier,' Ganoes said.
The man grunted. 'Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking up the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.'
Ganoes scowled. 'You're not like the other soldiers I've talked to. You sound more like my father.'
'But I'm not your father,' the man growled.
'The world,' Ganoes said, 'doesn't need another Izrine merchant.' The commander's eyes narrowed, gauging. He opened his mouth to make the obvious reply, then shut it again.
Ganoes Paran looked back down at the burning quarter, pleased with himself. Even a boy, Commander, can make a point.
Mock's Vane swung once more. Hot smoke rolled over the wall, engulfing them. A reek of burning cloth, scorched paint and stone, and now of something sweet. 'An abattoir's caught fire,'
Ganoes said. 'Pigs.'
The commander grimaced. After a long moment he sighed and leaned back down on the merlon.
'As you say, boy, as you say.'