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Path to Ascendancy
Book 2

Ian C. Esslemont


61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA

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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Bantam Press

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © Ian Cameron Esslemont 2017
Cover illustration by Steve Stone

Ian Cameron Esslemont has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473510593

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9780593074749 (tpb)

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About the Book
Title Page
Dramatis Personae
Part One
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Part Two
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
About the Author
Also by Ian C. Esslemont

Also by Ian C. Esslemont









Plague has struck across the continent of Quon Tali and in Li Heng, Dassem – the proclaimed Sword of Hood – is being blamed. As a crisis of faith sends him in search of answers, a young priest begins to question the perceived rot at the heart of the cult of D’rek, the Goddess of Decay. Across the sea, war looks increasingly likely between the island of Malaz and its neighbour – the equally piratical isle of Nap.

Meanwhile, Dancer and Kellanved have recently arrived in Malaz City. Joining forces with a band of Napans who’ve fled civil strife at home, their intention had been to plunge straight into the conflict. But their plans go awry when Kellanved develops a strange and dangerous fascination for a mysterious, dilapidated structure at the city’s heart – a place avoided by the locals at all cost.

As powerful entities start to take an interest in the Dal Hon mage, Dancer wonders whether it’s time he abandoned his partner-in-mischief – especially when Kellanved’s obsession with shadows and ancient artefacts brings them alarmingly close to death and destruction. Because who in their right mind would willingly enter the Deadhouse of an Elder?

Continuing his chronicling of the genesis of the Malazan Empire, this second chapter in Ian C. Esslemont’s thrilling epic fantasy takes readers back to the time before it all began …

For Simon Taylor


Once again I wish to thank A. P. Canavan for his insight, attention and discretion as a prereader and editor. Also, my gratitude to Nancy Webber for her sharp pencil and precise mind. And thanks as always to my agent Howard Morhaim for all his work on behalf of the World of Malaz.



The New Arrivals
Wu A mysterious mage
Dancer A notorious assassin

The Napans
Lady Sureth Exiled noblewoman of Nap
Cartheron An ex-flank admiral
Urko An ex-captain
Hawl A mage of Ruse
Grinner Lady Sureth’s bodyguard
Choss An ex-captain
Tocaras An archer
Amiss A sailor
Shrift A swordswoman

Of Malaz Island
Mock Ruler of Malaz, admiral, and marquis
Tattersail A mage of Malaz
Viv A serving girl
Nedurian A retired mage
Obo A wizard of Malaz
Agayla A sorceress of Malaz
Hess A Malazan captain
Guran A Malazan captain
Renish A Malazan captain
Dujek A marine
Jack A marine

Of Kartool
Tallow The Holy Invigilator of D’rek
Ithell The Demidrek (a high priest)
Salleen A high-ranking priestess
Tayschrenn A high-ranking priest
Silla Leansath A priestess
Koarsden Taneth A priest
Feneresh A priest

Dassem Ultor The Mortal Sword of Hood
Nara A follower of Dassem
Lars Jindrift An adventurer
Tarel Newly installed king of Nap
Koreth A Napan admiral
Clementh A Napan officer
Horst Grethall A caravan-master
Shear A masked caravan guard
Geffen A Malazan crime boss
Koro A winged inhabitant of Shadow


DARIYAL, CAPITAL CITY of the Napan Isles, burned in the night. From the heights of the harbour fortifications Cartheron Crust watched the flames swirl and dance and leap through the smoke. He followed that black plume as it billowed higher to obscure the bright silver eye of the waxing moon, and whispered to himself, ‘So it all ends.’ In fire, destruction and betrayal. Even the best laid plans.

He leaned forward to peer over the guano-stained edge of the battlements to the streets below, where bands of militia and partisans loyal to either side of this transfer of power hunted one another in the clash of running city-wide battle.

‘Captain!’ a voice called, and Cartheron glanced to his cordon of guards; a messenger had arrived. He waved forward the sweaty, soot-smeared woman.

She saluted. ‘Sir! We’ve lost control of the north quarter.’ Involuntarily, he glanced towards the arc of the harbour, and cursed inwardly. ‘Sir … the mole …’

He nodded. ‘Yes. I understand. Who are you with?’

‘Captain Hawl, sir.’

‘Very good.’ He took a slow breath, tasted the smoke on his tongue, and, grimacing, thought, It is now irrevocable. ‘My compliments to Captain Hawl. Have her withdraw. We will regroup at the agreed location.’

The young Napan’s indigo features darkened even further as her lips clenched in disappointment. She saluted. ‘I’m … sorry, sir.’

He waved her off. ‘Go quickly.’

She ran. Cartheron turned to the stairs behind him that led to the top of a curtain tower. He drew off his helmet and dragged a hand through his tangled sweaty hair. He let out a long low breath; now for the hard part. He started up the stairs.

When he reached the topmost landing he found her looking out across the city, her back to him, slim, ramrod straight, hands clasped behind her back, in a plain long cotton shirt and trousers. He cleared his throat into a fist and inclined his head. ‘Princess Sureth …’

She turned and Crust found himself confronted once again by the hard wall of that flat gaze. Even now, he thought, with everything on the line, so damned … distant.

‘Yes, captain?’

‘We’ve lost control of the north quarter. Your brother no doubt intends to close the harbour at the mole. M’lady, we must withdraw or risk capture.’

Her dark gaze slid aside to the north and it occurred to him that no longer was he looking down at the tousled, mousy hair that she always kept so short; the princess was now nearly as tall as he. Has the ruling Garell House strength, she has. And trains harder than any of us.

If only her brother hadn’t been so damned greedy …

She gave one slight nod. Her stony gaze returned to him. ‘I see. And what of our vaunted circle of Napan councillors?’

Cartheron could not hold her eyes. He glanced aside. ‘I’m sorry, m’lady. Tarel offered more.’

She set her hands over the stone parapet before her – hands he knew to be as hard as the stone itself. ‘Councillor Amaron must have offered just as much on my behalf.’

Cartheron pulled his fingers through his beard. Gods! How to say this? ‘Your demeanour. Your … ah, frankness … m’lady, has won you no friends on the council.’

She blew a harsh breath out her nose. ‘I see. They prefer Tarel’s shallow glad-handing and easy demeanour to my … what? Cartheron?’

He cleared his throat. Gods give him strength! She’d spoken truth to those fool councillors – that their policies were leading Nap into further decline … could he do any less? He drew a steeling breath. ‘They preferred the lies that you chose not to give them.’

One corner of her thin lips twitched. ‘I see. Sunk by my own mouth. You think I should have plied them with lies and flattery as well. You and Amaron.’

‘It is as he has tried to teach you all these years. Statecraft, m’lady.’

Those hard lips drew down in a savage scowl. ‘I refuse to play that game.’

Then you will lose! Cartheron steadied himself with another breath.

‘But … I grant you that I must guard my mouth more closely in the future.’

One small victory, at the least. ‘We must withdraw, m’lady. Sail today to fight tomorrow.’

A sad half-smile drifted across her pale blue features. ‘That old sailors’ saw. Napan to the core, Cartheron. Yes. Exile, then. Though it disgusts me.’

He motioned to the stairs and she nodded, preceding him.

He paused here, at the top of the tower, and his gaze returned to the smoke. Lit from below by the flames, it churned into the night sky. So be it. Exile. A new toss of the Twins’ dice; nothing new to an experienced sea-raider. He turned to face the iron waters of the Strait of Storms and glimpsed there the thick clouds of a gathering namesake.

*  *  *

Nedurian tossed his line from the end of the Malaz City harbour wharf and sat back once more to let the day pass. Sometimes, when restlessness came over him, he wondered whether he’d been right to walk away from the battles, the long string of command tents and encampments and the challenge of matching another talent in the field. But usually, in the next instant, he remembered the pain, the terror, the fallen comrades, and all the damned loss and waste, and could not regret the decision he had made so long ago.

After these moments of weakness he would recall his new appointment and cast his awareness far out upon the waters of the Strait of Storms, watching for any similar restlessness there deep within those dark frigid waters. Then, come the dusk, he would wind up his line once more and make the long walk back to the city waterfront for a drink and a meal at the Oar and Anchor.

This evening, an old-timer among his fellows sitting on a bench greeted him. ‘Fish don’t like you today, Ned?’

He gestured with his rod back towards the wide black waters. ‘I was lied to! Ain’t no fish out there at all.’

The fellow guffawed. Another considered his pipe and suggested, ‘I think he just plain scared them off.’

Nedurian thoughtfully drew a finger down his broken flattened nose and brushed the ridges of the scars that ran from his temple down to his chin. ‘Now what makes you say that, ol’ Renn?’

‘You do know you have to put a hook on that, don’t ya?’ offered another fellow.

‘One of those things? Hood, a fish stole my last long ago.’

The old-timers chuckled again. ‘See you tonight?’

He ambled on up the wharf. ‘I’ll be there.’

He headed inland, up the slight grade of the waterfront district. Beyond the sun-greyed shake roofs rose the craggy wind-clawed cliffs of the escarpment with the stained granite stones of Mock’s Hold perched above like a crow’s nest.

He’d taken a room in town with an old widow who, out of decades of stubborn habit, still kept a watch for a sailor husband long past returning. At least he thought of her as old, even though he’d already seen more years than her in her grandmother’s time. Years of warfare in which he’d sold his services to petty robber barons, bandit despots, the kings of Purge and Bloor, all the way up to the last dynasty of the Talian hegemony.

But no more. No more fighting and no more battle magery. He now lent his talents to a far more worthy cause.

He paused to set his elbows upon the mortared stone ledge of a bridge over one of the many river channels that cut through the town, built as it was on a boggy marsh, remembering his surprise upon retiring to this back-of-beyond island of Malaz to find talents here that could blast away any of the mightiest practitioners he’d duelled on the continent. All settled, or gathered, for one reason alone. One he’d been ignorant of though living all the while across a relatively narrow band of water. Oh, certainly, he knew all the myths and legends of the Riders, but to him they’d been only stories …

Something tickled his nose then and he raised his head, turning to the waterfront. What was that? Something … new. He cocked his head, cast his awareness outwards. He knew it was there but he couldn’t pin it down. All he could sense was that there’d been a sudden shift in the wind.

He’d have dismissed the passing sensation as a mere shudder, or the distant echo of some far off plucking of the Warrens, but for one small thing. Far above, atop Mock’s Hold, possibly the highest point of the island itself, stood an ancient weathervane hammered and chiselled into the form of a demon. And at that moment of heightened awareness he noticed it too had suddenly shifted to point directly to the east.

A coincidence? He tapped the fishing rod on his shoulder, considering. Best not to jump at every visiting talent who happened to pass through town. Even this misbegotten backwater. He’d wait and see.

Perhaps it would come to nothing.

Part One

Chapter 1

THOSE CAWN MERCHANTS were fools to have turned us down!’ Wu assured Dancer from across their table in a waterfront dive in Malaz City.

You,’ Dancer corrected. ‘They turned you down.’

Wu waved a hand airily to dismiss the point. ‘Well, that still leaves them the fools in my little scenario.’ He sipped his glass of watered wine. ‘As to chasing us out of town … an obvious overreaction.’

Dancer leaned back, one brow arched. ‘You threatened to curse them all to eternal torment.’

Wu appeared surprised. ‘Did I? I quite forget – I’ve threatened to curse so many.’ He lowered his voice conspiratorially, ‘In any case, Malaz here suits our purpose even better. It is fortunate. The Twins favour our plans.’

Dancer sighed as he poked at his plate of boiled pork and barley; he’d quite lost his appetite recently. ‘It was the first boat out we could jump.’

Wu opened his hands as if vindicated. ‘Exactly! Oponn himself may as well have invited us aboard.’

Dancer clenched the edge of the table of sun-bleached slats and released it only after forcing himself to relax. It’s all right, he assured himself. It’s only a setback. There are bound to be setbacks. ‘Plans,’ he said. ‘You mentioned plans.’

Wu shovelled up his plate of onions and beans, then spoke with lowered voice once more. ‘Easier to control a small city and confined island such as this. An excellent first step.’

‘First step to what?’

Wu opened his hands wide, his expression one of disbelief. ‘Why … everything, of course.’

Dancer’s answering scorn was interrupted by the slamming of a stoneware tankard to their table in the most curt manner possible. The servitor, a young woman whose skin showed the unique bluish hue of the Napans, stalked off without a backward glance. Dancer thought her the least gracious help he’d ever encountered.

In point of fact, she was the fourth Napan he’d seen in this rundown waterfront dive. Two were obvious hired muscle hanging about the entrance, while the third was a tall lad he’d glimpsed in the kitchens – another bouncer held in reserve. The nightly fights in this rat-hole must be ferocious.

‘… and for this we need a base of operations,’ Wu was saying. Dancer blinked, refocusing on him.

‘I’m sorry? For what?’

Wu looked hurt and affronted. ‘Why, our grand plan, of course!’

Dancer looked away, scanning the sturdy semi-subterranean common room more thoroughly. ‘Oh, that. Right. Our try anything plan.’ Stone walls; one main entrance strongly defended; slim windows; a single narrow back entrance. And he’d seen numerous windows on the second floor – good for covering fire. Quite the fortress.

Wu drummed his fingers on the tabletop, his expression sour. ‘You don’t seem to be taking this in quite the right spirit. If I may tell you my news …?’

Still eyeing his surroundings, Dancer murmured, ‘Be my guest.’ He noted that the bouncers at the door were far from the typical over-sized beer-bloated souses that usually slouched at the doors of these low-class alehouses. They were obvious veterans, scarred and hardened, their narrowed gazes scanning the room and the street outside.

This was not your typical sailors’ drinking establishment. In fact, everything about it shouted ‘front’. And everyone in Quon Tali knew Malaz Island was nothing more than a pirates’ nest; he wondered if he was looking at one of their bases.

Wu, he saw, was watching him, looking quite vexed. ‘What?’

‘Do you wish me to continue?’

‘Certainly.’ Dancer motioned to the Napan server who was now leaning against the wall next to the kitchen’s entrance, examining her nails. The woman made a disgusted face and sauntered over.

‘What is it?’ she demanded.

He motioned to his plate. ‘This food is atrocious.’

‘Atrocious. Really. A plate of boiled pork. How atrocious could that be?’

Dancer invited her to take the plate away. ‘Well, your cook managed it.’

The woman scooped up the plate and stalked to the kitchen entrance. ‘Hey, Urko! There’s a fellow out here taking issue with your cooking.’

A great basso voice thundered from the kitchens. ‘Whaaat!

The doors burst open and out shot fully the biggest and scariest-looking Napan of the lot: monstrously wide, with the shoulders of a strangler, yet wearing a dirty leather apron. Dancer readied himself for a confrontation, but instead of facing him the man turned on the server, bellowing, ‘I don’t need these complaints! I didn’t want to be the damned cook anyway. Make Choss the damned cook!’

‘He’s a better shipbuilder,’ the woman calmly returned, leaning against a wall, her arms crossed.

The big fellow raised fists the size of hams to his head. ‘Well … give the job to my brother then, dammit to Hood!’

‘He’s at sea.’

The gigantic cook sniffed his affront, grumbled, ‘Trust him to find a decent job.’

The server pointed back to the kitchens and the huge fellow – Urko, apparently – clenched his thick leather apron in his fists until it creaked. He scowled at the woman then drew a hand down his face, snorting through his nostrils like a bull. ‘Well … I got onion soup. Offer him that.’ And he stomped back through the doors.

Dancer could only shake his head at the state of the hired help here. He supposed it was difficult to find quality labour on the island. He motioned to the door. ‘Let’s try another place.’

Wu gave a strange high laugh, almost nervous, and Dancer cocked an eye at him, suspicious. ‘Change of management,’ Wu explained, gesturing to encompass the establishment. ‘Be patient.’

Whatever. Dancer tried a sip of the beer and found it far too watery. He made a sour face. ‘You said that you had news?’

‘Ah! Yes … news.’ Wu fluttered his hands on the table, the wrinkled knotted hands of an ancient as the mage was still maintaining his appearance of an old man, but his motions were quick and precise; not those of a doddering oldster. Dancer decided he’d have to coach him on that. ‘So,’ Wu continued, still brushing his hands across the tabletop, ‘yes. News. Well … while you were out reconnoitring the waterfront, I happened to fall into conversation with the owner of this fine establishment …’

Seeing that this was going nowhere fast, Dancer forced himself to take another sip of the foul beer. ‘Yes? And you killed him for gross incompetence?’

This raised a weak laugh that faded into a long drawn out coughing fit. ‘Well, actually, no. I found that he was in a feverish hurry to sell …’

Dancer set down the tankard. Oh, no. Tell me no. ‘What,’ he began, calmly, ‘have you done?’

Wu raised his hands. ‘As I was saying – we need a base of operations for our plans. This location is ideal. Close to the waterfront, great for smuggling …’

Dancer pressed his palm to his forehead. Mustn’t lose it. ‘What,’ he began again, through clenched teeth, ‘have you done?’

Wu opened his hands wide. ‘Our partnership has entered a new phase. We’ve gone into business together.’

Dancer somehow found himself on his feet, towering over Wu, his hands flat on the table. ‘You bought this rat-hole?

Wu’s dark ferret eyes darted left and right. ‘So it would seem.’

Through his rage, Dancer sensed a presence close to him and snapped his gaze aside – it was the serving woman. How did she get so close?

But her sullen attention was on Wu, ignoring him. She flicked a piece of dirt from the table. ‘You want to see your offices now?’

Wu brightened immediately. ‘Why, that would be excellent! Thank you … ah …’

‘Surly,’ the woman supplied, with a tired curl of a lip.

‘Ah, yes. Excellent. Thank you … Surly.’

She motioned to the stairs and Wu bustled off. His walking cane was now in his hand, tapping as he went. Dancer decided that the privacy of an office would be a better place for their discussion, in case he accidentally strangled the wretched fellow, and so he followed, but not before he noted the woman’s hands: hardened and calloused. The hands of a servitor? No, not the cracked and reddened skin of washing and scouring. Rather, skin toughened and scarred. Hands like his.

The office stood over the common room and here he found Wu waving a cloud of dust from his face after pushing a heap of papers off a chair. The mage gave a nervous laugh. ‘A quick whip-round and it’ll be decent in no time.’

Dancer closed the door behind him and pressed his back to it. ‘What have you done?’

Wu turned, blinking innocently. ‘What? Why, acquired a property at a fantastic price!’

‘Did you just spend all our remaining—’ He snapped up a hand. ‘Wait! I don’t want to know. What I do want to know is why.’

‘Hmmm?’ Wu was now inspecting the desk, which was heaped high with garbage and plates of dried crusted food. He poked his walking stick at the mess. ‘Why what?’

Dancer sighed, raised his suffering gaze to the ceiling. ‘Why did you purchase this place?’

Wu blinked again. ‘Ah, well, actually the price was a steal because the fellow thought the Napan employees were conspiring to kill him and take the business. Why he should think that I have no idea …’ Dancer just glared until Wu’s brows rose in understanding. ‘Ah!’ Swinging the walking stick, he brushed aside all the clutter on the desk, sending papers, glassware, tin plates and old candles crashing to the floor. Satisfied, he sat behind the expanse of wine-stained dark wood and gestured to the empty surface. ‘There we are. You see? One must sweep aside the old before building anew.’

Dancer crossed his arms. Okay. ‘Why here?’

‘The moment I set foot on this island I felt it.’ Wu raised his hands, brushing his thumbs and forefingers together. ‘Shadow. It’s close. This place has some sort of affinity.’

Dancer let his arms fall. ‘So you say,’ and he added, half muttering, ‘if only to justify this stupid purchase.’ He crossed to the one window. It overlooked a side street of ancient wood and stone buildings, all muted grey and dingy in a thin misting rain. He turned on Wu. ‘But we’re still only two. What’s the plan?’

The lad was undaunted. He raised his hands once again. ‘Why, as before. We take over the town.’

Great. As before … when we failed. Dancer drew breath to tear into the fool but silenced himself as he detected someone on the landing outside the door. A knock sounded. Wu cleared his throat and steepled his fingers across his stomach, arranging his features into a stern frown.

‘Ah! Yes? Do come in.’

The door swung inward but no one entered. Intrigued, Dancer leaned forward to peer out. It was the serving woman, Surly. The young Napan was surveying the room before entering and Dancer smiled to himself: More than a mere servitor. For certain.

She took one step in – still not clearing the door – and eyed Wu as if she’d found a particularly annoying mess. ‘Do you have staff of your own you’ll be bringing in?’

Wu’s tiny eyes darted right and left. ‘Ah … no.’

‘So, we’ll be staying on, then?’

‘For the foreseeable future.’



The young woman’s expression twisted into even more of a scowl. ‘Work’s hard to come by on this damned island.’

Wu leaned forward to set his chin on a fist, cocking his head. ‘I should think you and your, ah, piratical friends should easily find employment with any one of the crews that sail out of this island.’

The lips curled up into a humourless half-smile. ‘Don’t know much about the history between Nap and Malaz, do you?’

‘You’re rivals,’ Dancer supplied. Surly gave him a reserved nod. ‘You’ve fought for control of the southern seas for hundreds of years.’

‘That’s right. They won’t have us. And in any case,’ and she raised her chin, her gaze suddenly fierce, ‘we work for ourselves.’

Pride, Dancer read in her every stern line. Ferocious pride. How did anyone come to such monumental arrogance? And he smiled inwardly. Well … I should know.

The girl made it clear she considered the interview over by backing away – not turning round, as anyone else might, but sliding one bare foot behind the other and edging her weight backwards. And Dancer smiled again, inwardly. One should not advertise one’s training so openly.

Also studying the girl, one brow raised, Wu motioned to him. ‘My, ah, partner, Dancer.’

Surly eyed him anew. He watched her gaze move from his face to his hands, to his feet, a knowing amusement similar to his own growing in her dark eyes. ‘Partner,’ she said. ‘I see.’

‘So what brought you here, then?’ Wu went on.

The amused light disappeared behind high, hard walls. ‘Shipwreck in a storm. We are the few of … the crew who made it to shore.’

What had she been going to say just then, Dancer wondered. My crew, perhaps?

‘I see … well, thank you.’ Wu motioned her out.

The scowl returned but she withdrew, pulling the door shut as she left.

Dancer remained poised next to the window. He eyed the door, musing aloud, ‘I heard of some sort of dispute among the royal family of Nap not long ago. A civil war. This lot might’ve backed the losing side. So they can’t go back. They’re stuck here.’

No answer came from Wu and Dancer turned: the lad was leaning back in the captain’s-style chair, using his hands to cast shadow-images on the wall. Sensing Dancer’s attention he glanced over, blinking. ‘Sorry? You were saying something?’

Dancer gritted his teeth. ‘Never mind. Let’s talk about our plans.’

Wu thumped elbows to the desk and set his chin in his fists, frowning in hard thought. ‘Yes. Our plans. No sense tackling one of the corsair captains here – the crew wouldn’t follow us. I’ve never sailed. Mock rules from his Hold, but he probably doesn’t care who runs the streets. So, for now, we limit our attention to the shore. The merchants and bosses who control the markets and warehouses.’

Dancer had pursed his lips, considering. ‘What do you propose?’

Wu raised his head, smiling. ‘Why, our forte, of course. Ambush and hijacking.’

Chapter 2

AWAKE, AWAKE, MISTRESS Jay!’ Light blossomed and Sail winced, pulling the covers over her eyes. ‘’Tis late! What are you thinking, lolling about in bed?’

‘All the rich ladies in Unta do it, Viv. It’s good for the complexion. And it’s not Jay. It’s Sail.’

A poker rattled in the stone fireplace. ‘Well, I’d think it’s not good for the complexion. Makes the eyes puffy and all.’

‘You know nothing, Viv.’

There came a huff and a sniff. ‘Well … if Mistress Sail says so …’

Sail took the time to stretch. She arched her back, luxuriating in the soft smooth glide of clean cotton sheets – so unlike the coarse flea-infested rags of her youth. Her hand emerged from the layered covers to encounter the chill morning air of Malaz Island and she flinched, drawing her knees to her chest.

Gods, it was freezing! It was summer and it was freezing! How she hated this damned island. And trust Viv to start the fire late.

She dared poke her head from beneath the heaped quilts, and blinked at the light of mid-morning. ‘Is the chamberpot ready?’

Viv, her supposed lady-in-waiting, though having seen a bare twelve summers, turned from where she knelt at the fireplace. She wrinkled her tiny freckled nose. ‘Why do you have to use that smelly thing? Just use the privy like everyone else.’

Through clenched teeth Sail said, ‘Because that’s not what real ladies do.’

Viv rolled her eyes, then returned to rebuilding the fire. ‘More work for us,’ she grumbled.

‘Don’t forget who I am.’

‘Oh, I ain’t forgetting. You’re in bed, not me.’

Sail gathered the duvet about herself and dragged it across the icy bare stone floor of the bedroom to the divider behind which lay the ceramic chamberpot. She crouched over it and eased her bladder in an embarrassingly loud hiss.

She wondered what the real ladies in Unta did about that. She shuffled from behind the divider. ‘Now dress me.’

Viv sighed and straightened from the stone hearth, brushed errant strands of black hair from her snowy-pale forehead.

Well, Sail reflected, as least they’d progressed past comments like ‘Can’t you dress yourself?’

‘The riding skirts,’ she said.

Viv searched through the clothes chest. She grumbled, just loud enough, ‘Ain’t no horses on Malaz.’

Sail almost despaired. Couldn’t this foolish child see what a benefit this was for her? She was learning an art she could market on the mainland. ‘They’re all the fashion, Viv.’


‘What do you mean, where?’ She waved impatiently. ‘In the cities. Tali and Gris and Unta!’

‘Do much riding in these cities, do they?’

Sail clenched her lips tight, hissed, ‘Just bring them.’

Viv held out the layered thick skirts and Sail dared stretch an arm out of the duvet to take them. ‘And the velvet long-sleeved blouse, and that woven Wickan vest.’

Viv blew hair from her face and returned to the chest. ‘It’s summer,’ she said. ‘Why not a sleeveless dress?’

Sail shuddered in her wrap. ‘Summer here? What a joke. Bring the heeled shoes too. The black ones.’

‘Yes, mistress.’

Sail drew on the skirts. ‘Where’s Mock?’

‘Don’t know.’

As always, the dislike in the girl’s voice was obvious, and, as always, Sail chose to ignore it. She found the waist of the skirts too tight and realized she’d have to get Viv to let them out once again; she’d always been curvy, but perhaps there was a limit. ‘Don’t know?’ She waved her off. ‘Well, find out. And don’t forget to air the bedding and send someone to empty the pot.’

Viv dropped the remaining clothes on the bed and flounced from the bedchamber. ‘Yes, mistress.’

That’s right, child. Mistress. I am mistress of this castle – and don’t you forget it. She dressed hurriedly, tried to fluff up her tangled hair. The Deck of Dragons beckoned from the writing desk. It fairly burst with swirling potential this morning, but she’d already decided to find Mock. She turned away to the door.

Her search brought her down to the main floor of the keep. This consisted almost entirely of one large reception and banquet hall. Here Mock held court during long evening meals where he entertained his pirate – or, as they called themselves, privateer – captains. Privateers because they carried letters of marque and reprisal, penned by Mock himself, that allowed predation on all seagoing commerce during times of war. And war, of course, was constant.

Sail also knew that no state recognized the man’s right to issue such letters. But this was of little concern to Mock, the self-styled Marquis of Malaz. A title no state acknowledged either. When any ruler was forced to speak of him, Sail knew he was usually referred to as ‘that damned outlaw of Malaz Island’. And she was certain that in private their language was even less flattering.

She was at the bottom of the wide stairs that opened on to the main hall and thinking of heading to the kitchens for a late breakfast, when she caught sight of something that nearly made her trip and fall. She grasped hold of the stone balustrade and stared at the person who had just come in – was that really

Aged, yet tall and lean, with an aristocratic air, her thick long mane of dark hair shot with streaks of grey – by all the daemons of her youth! It was her.

Sail stalked across the hall. She had to stop herself from pushing up her sleeves and raising her Thyr Warren as she went.

‘Agayla!’ she called. ‘What are you doing here?’

The willow-thin woman turned, raising a brow, and Sail experienced that same old sensation of being looked down upon. Her teacher and mentor offered that too-familiar indulgent smile. ‘Why, Jay, what a pleasure to see you. Still here, I see.’

‘What do you mean, still here? Of course I’m still here! And it’s Sail now,’ she added, then hated how petulant that sounded.

Agayla shrugged. ‘Well, one never knows the vicissitudes of nobility, does one? Especially the men.’

‘I am mistress of this Hold, I’ll have you know.’

‘And where is your master?’

Sail stuttered, tongue-tied as always by her old teacher. She cleared her throat and began again, ‘Mock is elsewhere. May I help you?’ But Agayla had turned away and was now gesturing to the door, inviting in two burly workers who carried over their shoulders a large roll of cloth. ‘And what is this?’ Sail asked.

Agayla crossed her wiry arms. ‘My commission, of course. A tapestry for the main hall.’

Great gods! I’m going to have to stare at her work over dinner? Sail collected herself, crossing her own arms. ‘A commission? Truly? Your work will be a wonderful addition to our Hold.’

Agayla regarded her for a time, her lips compressed. ‘Jay … why are you here? There are academies in Itko Kan that would take you in an instant. You are wasting your potential here.’

Sail let her arms fall. A record. Back to the old argument in less than two minutes. She turned away, sighing. ‘Agayla – I will go to the mainland. But I will arrive as the Marquessa of Malaz.’

The old mage snorted her scorn. ‘Meaningless titles. You can achieve far more than such pretty baubles.’

It took a strong effort to control herself, but Sail managed, swallowing her anger. ‘Auntie, thank you for all that you have done for me. But with respect, it is no longer any of your business.’

The old woman’s gaze narrowed, and Sail briefly recalled her youthful dread of this woman’s temper. ‘It is my business, Jay. Nurturing this island’s talent is one of my duties – among others. And I would be negligent if I allowed a promising student to waste her time hanging on the arm of a cheap brigand.’

Sail felt her own expression harden into a frozen mask. She inclined her head in dismissal. ‘You may hang your tapestry, weaver. Good day.’ She turned her back and walked away.

She found him at the east wall battlements, overlooking the coast and the city harbourage just to the south. An older man, she well knew: grey at his temples, but still hale. Pirate admiral – marque – who had herded this unruly island of privateer captains for years. Fought two wars at sea against Nap and the kings of Itko Kan, and now wore a corset beneath his shirts and vest to maintain his lean figure. Mock, commander of the three men-o-war that ruled the southern seas: the Intolerant, the Intemperate, and the Insufferable.

Mock indeed.

He turned as she approached, smiling, and rather self-consciously brushing back his moustache. ‘Tattersail, my Thyr witch. How are you today?’

She pressed up against him. ‘Well. What brings you up here? Planning?’

He ran a hand down her waist to her rear and squeezed her there. ‘Indeed. There is word of a convoy heading out of Cawn for Unta. We cannot let that pass us by without challenging it.’ He kissed her brow. ‘The captains would be very reassured if you would accompany them. Their fearsome battle-mage, Tattersail.’

‘I’m sure the captains would be far more reassured if you accompanied them.’

He drew away, leaning both elbows on the stained limestone of a crenel. ‘I wish I could. But you know the moment I leave the captains will raise their eyes to the empty Hold and wonder: Why shouldn’t I sit there?’ He chuckled then, letting out a long breath. ‘Funny. Just like me. I wanted nothing more than to make this place my own. But now it’s as though I’m a prisoner. Not daring to leave …’

This direction of talk made Sail strangely uncomfortable. She took his arm. ‘You’ve gone on forays before.’

‘Yes. When I was younger. But now, with every passing year, these new captains become ever bolder. Well …’ He kissed her brow. ‘Will you travel on board the Insufferable in my stead?’

‘Of course I will.’

He squeezed her shoulders. ‘Thank you, Sail. I rely upon you a great deal.’

And I will not let you down. You will see. ‘When do we go?’

‘In a few days. Lie in wait off the Vorian coast, yes?’

Sail nodded. Yes, that rugged mountainous coastline was a favourite hunting ground. ‘And what of the Napans? Surely they will make a play for any convoy.’

Mock held out an arm, inviting her to take it, and started for the corner tower. ‘Nap remains in disorder. It just may be Malaz’s turn to rule the coasts. Then we will have them, Sail. All recognize Nap as an island nation – why not Malaz? Imagine that, yes? Mock, King of Malaz?’

Sail squeezed his arm tight. Yes. And Tattersail, Queen of Malaz.

Imagine that.

*  *  *

The deputation arrived outside his open threshold at dawn. All five knelt to one knee in the dust of the Street of Temples, awaiting his attention.

He let them sweat through the morning while he sat cross-legged before the sarcophagus that was his chosen altar, and prayed to his god. A god few prayed to, and then only in extreme need or exigency. A god ignored by most yet escaped by none in the end. Hood. The Grey God. The Dark Taker. The god of death itself.

In time he raised his head, straightening his back and setting his palms on his knees. Nara, who had been waiting just to one side, offered a wood platter bearing a light meal of yogurt, bread, and thin beer.

Bowing his thanks, he backed away from the altar and ate, sword across his lap, sitting on the stone threshold of what was once – and remained for all practical purposes – a mausoleum.

Through all this the five still did not raise their cowled heads.

Brushing his hands clean, he stepped out on to the street, and adjusted his sword at his hip. ‘Yes?’

The foremost of the five inclined his hooded head even further, then straightened, head still bowed. Only the tip of an iron-grey beard showed beneath his hood. ‘Lord Dassem. We come seeking a boon.’

‘And you are?’

‘We are chosen deputies of these lands’ largest congregations of our lord the Grey Walker.’

‘What of it?’

‘Lord Dassem – a scourge has appeared in many of our cities. A sickness that spares none. Young, old. Poliel’s visitations are known to us, of course, but this one’s touch is death. Some name it Hood’s Wrath. And so we come begging that you intercede with our lord. How have we transgressed? What have we done to earn his disfavour?’


The spokesman paused, glancing back to his fellows in obvious confusion. ‘Well … so that we may avert this scourge. Turn his displeasure aside from us. The populace is becoming fearful and angered in many cities. There have been reprisals. Killings of devotees.’

Dassem shook his head. ‘It is I who am angered that you should come to me. Angered and disappointed. You above all should know there is no turning aside Hood’s hand. There can be no propitiation. No bribe or sacrifice can be made that will save anyone. There is no cheating death. It comes at its appointed time – sooner or later.’

The spokesman fluttered his hands in apology. ‘Do not misunderstand. We seek no special favour for ourselves – we seek only for the safety of our flocks. Do you wish his worship to become repugnant in the eyes of so many? Blamed and denigrated? Outlawed, even?’

The rear delegate spoke up in a young man’s voice. ‘Everyone knows you came to Heng to challenge the Protectress’s ban on his worship! And you broke the ban! You brought his message to Heng. Why abandon it elsewhere?’

Dassem continued to shake his head. ‘I merely walked where my lord set my feet.’

‘You refuse us, then?’ the young delegate answered in rising anger.

The foremost lifted a hand for silence. ‘Control yourself, brother Jaim.’ He addressed Dassem. ‘Lord, are you saying you will not address our master on our behalf?’

Dassem let out a long slow breath. ‘I am saying it is pointless. What happens, must happen. There is no good or bad. Only what is necessary. Death. Ending. Destruction. Call it what you will. It is necessary in existence. Hood stands in that role because none other would. His is the face upon an inescapable truth of life. Some choose to hate him for it. They are foolish to do so.’

The spokesman bowed his cowled head once more. ‘Your interpretation of the faith is a most harsh one, Lord Dassem. Harsh and rigid and unforgiving. I wish you luck with it, but fear you may come to regret such an inhuman stance.’ He turned to his companions. ‘Come. We must return to our brothers and sisters and endure as best we might.’

Four of the deputation moved to leave, but the fifth, the last, remained facing Dassem, who noted his fists within his loose sleeves clenched and white.

‘Brother Jaim!’ the spokesman called, a note of warning in his voice.

In one swirling motion Brother Jaim threw off his robes, revealing a lean young man in leather armour, twinned longswords at his sides. He glared at Dassem. ‘I say you refuse because you are false! You are not the true Sword. You are an impostor. I say you must prove yourself – now!’

Dassem turned a glance upon the other four. The greybeard, his hands crossed and hidden in his robes, bowed his acquiescence. ‘So be it.’

Dassem tilted his head to Jaim. ‘I accept, of course.’

Jaim drew his blades and passing Hengans backed away, some shouting their alarm. The main way emptied. Dassem slowly crossed to its dusty mid-point. ‘We need not do this,’ he called to Jaim.

‘On the contrary – you must. You must prove yourself.’

He shook his head once again. ‘Prove myself to you, you mean.’

‘Anyone can claim a title,’ Jaim answered, now beginning to circle.

Dassem drew his hand-and-a-half and struck a ready stance edge-on to the man. He shifted as the fellow circled, waiting, as Jaim was the challenger.

It came quickly in a flurry of blows which Dassem slipped and blocked. The swordsman was good, Dassem could admit. As he would have to be. Yet not inspired; or he was holding back for the moment. Dassem now shifted, circling as well.

All had become eerily silent on the Street of the Temples, normally a hub of murmured prayers, hawkers, and chants of devotion. The four deputies watched motionless. The way was choked off far up its length at both ends as Hengans gathered. Nara watched, frozen in the mausoleum’s open entrance, a hand clutching her throat.

Dassem waited, husbanding his strength. Patience was one of his advantages. Many he’d fought became panicked the longer a duel dragged on. Or exhausted themselves in anxiety and constant tension. He remained relaxed, his shoulders and arms loose and fluid, and this alone often unnerved an opponent.

After his initial testing, Jaim also eased back into a similar waiting stance. Dassem offered him the slightest tilt of the head in acknowledgement. For as Jaim had been testing, he had been as well.

Now the strategy of the duel began. Weapon-masters are of course correct when they insist that most fights end in the first few passes; this is common truth. Those that do not, however, become less battles of exchanges and more battles of will and insight. Those who excel in either typically emerge the victor. And Dassem excelled at both.

He watched, studying his opponent, as Jaim through narrowed eyes likewise studied him.

Weapon-masters are also correct in warning against watching one’s opponent’s feet, their weapons, or their eyes; all can and will be used in diversion, deceit, feint, and stratagem. This is truth as well. One must cultivate the whole, take in thousands of tiny hints, the slightest of movements, a brush or suggestion, building an image of the opponent until one can understand their thinking. Their strengths and their weaknesses. Until you know them intimately; only then can you defeat them.

Here Dassem excelled as well. Indeed, so sensitive was his awareness that, watching any blade, he could filter out the extraneous irrelevant shifts and movements until he could discern the very tiniest of vibrations transmitted from the palm of the bearer through the grip and up to the utter tip, and know the pulse rate of his opponent’s very heart.

In a seemingly casual move, Jaim tried to disguise the forward shift of his centre of gravity. At the same instant his pulse rate jumped, and Dassem knew he was about to come at him not in a test or feint, but in a serious effort. He readied himself to counterattack.

The man came on in a beautifully coordinated series of passes of both blades, and Dassem was saddened that he would have to end this confrontation in so final a manner. Both knew there could be no first-blood here, no quarter or yielding; this was, of course, a duel to the death.

He yielded, circling and waiting, and finally his opening came. It appeared in the overextension of Jaim’s right foot. Dassem lashed out with his forward leg, striking the knee outwards, and Jaim, unbalanced, tumbled to that side as Dassem knew he would, his own blade already thrusting to take him through the heart as he fell.

Jaim struck the dirty cobbles of the road with Dassem already withdrawing his blade. He lay staring, a puzzled expression on his face, blinking at the sky as his fate registered in his mind. Then the puzzlement cleared and he nodded to Dassem, mouthing silently, My apologies

Dassem saluted him, grip raised to his chin.

Three of the deputies converged on the body, collecting the swords, a waist-pouch, and other possessions. The fourth, the greybeard, bowed to Dassem. ‘He was the best of us. None other could touch him.’ He shook his cowled head in wonderment. ‘Our apologies, Sword. But we had to be certain.’

‘I offer no blame.’

‘We shall return to our congregations and struggle to survive this plague as best we may. You, too, should prepare, Lord Dassem. I suspect Heng will not be spared.’ And he bowed for the last time, gesturing his brothers away.