The Boy in the SandFall of the Argosi

The child raced barefoot across the desert. The cuts on the soles of his feet were staining the sand a madman’s scarlet, but the look in his eyes said that was the least of his problems. Though I didn’t know it then, he was fleeing his father, who loved him more than anything in the world, and was now intent on his murder. The same could’ve been said of my own father, but I’m not ready to tell that story yet. 

At first the boy had been nothing but a puff of dust and blond hair in the distance. The sun was beating down mercilessly that day, reminding all living things who was in charge and that deserts were cursed places at the best of times. I had a horse though, which makes all the difference. 

‘Reckon that’s trouble ahead?’ I asked Quadlopo, patting his neck. 

The horse showed no signs of giving the matter any thought, just swished his tail to keep the flies away. In the five days since we’d fled to the borderlands, Quadlopo had yet to offer an opinion on anything, except perhaps that he would’ve preferred that I’d not stolen him in the first place. After all, it wasn’t like anyone wanted him dead. 

The grubby whirl of spindly arms and legs ran up the side of a dune, then lost his balance and came tumbling down the other. 

He looked like he couldn’t have been more than seven. An unseemly age to be running around the desert alone. His pale blue tunic was torn to rags, and the skin of his arms and face shone an angry red that spoke of too many days out in the sun with nothing and no one to protect him. He was limping too, but kept on going, which meant whatever was chasing him troubled him more than the pain. 

Brave kid. 

When he got within thirty yards of me, he stopped and stared as if trying to work out whether I was a mirage. I’m not sure what conclusion he came to, but I guess he’d been running a long time because his legs gave out on him and he dropped to his hands and knees. That’s when I saw the two new figures come shambling through the haze towards us. A tall man and a squat woman, whose unnatural, shuffling gaits made me question whether those labels might be too generous in describing whatever had followed the boy. 

For the first time since we’d happened upon this unpleasantness, Quadlopo became restless. He blew hot air out of his nostrils and pawed the sand with his hoofs, trying to turn his head away from the mangled figures lumbering towards the child who was now lying face down in the sand, by all appearances waiting to die. 

Most folk in these parts, should they get lost in the desert and run out of either water or the will to live, choose to meet their end on their back, so the last thing they see will be the blue sky above. The boy, though, seemed determined to look away from his pursuers. 

Now that I’d gotten a good look at them, I didn’t blame him. 

Insanity, as I’d learned in my paltry seventeen years, could take all forms, come in all shapes and sizes. I’d witnessed folks of sound mind condemned as lunatics for the crime of being ugly and eccentric at the same time. I’d met well-groomed, erudite gentlemen of means who hid diabolical madness beneath smooth talk and friendly smiles. Then again, when I saw myself in the mirror, I looked sane too, so best not to pass judgement on such matters without strong evidence. 

When two strangers come lurching towards you across the desert, naked as the day they were born except for their hides being caked in blood and dirt and fouler things I preferred not to imagine, when those same souls stare out at the world through eyes open so wide they look set to fall out of their sockets, jaws hanging open but nothing coming out except for a snake’s hiss, well, times like that call for a different sort of prudence. 

I reached over my shoulder and uncapped the long black mapmaker’s case that held the smallsword I’d vowed five days ago never again to draw so long as I lived. One of the reasons I’d chosen to flee to the Seven Sands had been to smash the blade into seven pieces and bury each one so far from the others that not even the finest tracker in the whole world could unite them. 

The hot desert wind shifted. The blood-soaked pair sniffed at the air like hunting hounds. Their heads tilted to the side like they’d just smelled a vixen for the first time and didn’t know what to make of her. Some sort of instinct took hold of them, and they stopped heading towards the boy and came for me instead. At first they plodded, so awkward I kept expecting them to trip over themselves like puppets caught in their strings. But with each step their bare, blistered feet found surer footing. Faster and faster they scurried, and the closer they came, the more their hisses grew into a nightmare’s worth of whispers that swirled around me like a dust storm. 

I drew the sword from its case and slid off the horse’s back, knowing that my oath never again to commit an act of violence, sworn while my foster mother’s blood was still slick on my hands, was about to be broken. 

The whispers became howls, and the howls turned to shrieks that sent poor, brave Quadlopo galloping away, abandoning me to whatever fate my bad luck and ill deeds had brought upon us. The two feral, manic creatures that came at me must’ve once been human beings with hopes and dreams of their own. Now their hands curled into claws, and they showed me teeth that had clacked so hard and so long against each other that they’d broken down to ragged fangs. From somewhere deep inside their throats, deranged screeches hid words I couldn’t understand and didn’t want to hear. Words that proved madness had its own poetry. 

My hand tightened on the grip of my sword and I breathed in as slow as I could, preparing to make my stand and wondering whether the awful sounds they were uttering would become the elegy I carried with me into the ground. 

My name is Ferius Parfax. I’m seventeen years old. This was the day I first heard the Red Scream.

Good GiRlWay of the Argosi

Be a good girl now. 

People are always saying that to me. Every time the shabby remnants of our tribe come to a new village or town begging for shelter, some stranger pats me on the head and says, ‘Be a good girl now.’ Different voices. Different languages. But always that same phrase, like a ghost that follows me wherever I go. 

A master contraptioneer in one of Gitabria’s gleaming cities said it with a smile in her lilting, musical accent: ‘Suvé onta bella jaïda.’ 

Be a good girl now. 

What she’d really meant was: smile, look pretty, and be quiet. 

In the Zhuban territories far to the north, a warrior poet (everybody in Zhuban claims to be a warrior poet) took it much more seriously. His brow furrowed with deep lines as he frowned at me. ‘Nanging isang bubutay bamba.’ 

Being now a good girl. 

But he was really telling me to be wise, to be vigilant and, most of all, to be quiet. 

Quiet is the part they all agree on. Even now, as this kind old woman, thin strands of sooty-grey hair burned to the skin of her forehead where the edge of an ember spell caught her a few minutes ago, arm hanging from her shattered left shoulder where that same mage’s iron binding slammed her into the corpses of her neighbours, whispers to me through broken teeth, ‘Shh . . . be a good girl now.’ 

It’s hard to be anything else in this dank, dark cave she shoved me into. Outside, in what’s left of this dusty, dried-out husk of a town on the edge of the Seven Sands . . . Outside the cave, a septet – that’s seven, in case you don’t know – of Jan’Tep war mages are busy slaughtering the screaming, pleading vestiges of my own clan one by one. They could probably incinerate all of us with one big spell, but from what I saw, the mages were mostly teenagers. I guess they’re showing off for each other. Soon they’re going to figure out that I’m in here and come up with an especially nasty spell just for me, but I guess I shouldn’t worry because the kindly old woman trying to nudge me further and further into the cave has a plan. 

Shh… be a good girl now. 

Great plan, lady. 

I feel like telling her that no Mahdek would ever tell an eleven-year-old to be quiet. They wouldn’t call me a girl either, because it’s not until we turn thirteen that we stand before our tribe and tell everyone who and what we are inside. At my age, I’m supposed to be searching for my spirit animal – the beast or bird who will be my companion as I make my way in the world, whispering its counsel to me, guiding me through life. 

How is a spirit animal supposed to hear you calling if you’re quiet all the time? 

Mahdek children are encouraged to make noise, to speak with our minds and our hearts (even if adults don’t exactly listen to us, I’ve noticed), so that spirit herds passing by will be drawn to our words and songs and one of them will sense a kindred soul whose life they want to share. 

But I’m never going to have a spirit animal. I’m never getting out of this cave. No matter how many times the nice old woman mutters, ‘Be a good girl,’ it’s not going to make a difference. Being good never saved a Mahdek exile from being murdered by a Jan’Tep mage. 

Although . . . 

It occurs to me now, as I’m lying here curled up in a ball, trying to make myself as small as possible among the smoul- dering corpses of the townsfolk who crawled in here as iron and ember spells were still tearing them apart, while this dying old woman . . . No, I’m pretty sure she’s dead now. The index finger of her good hand is still pressed to her lips as if, even in death, she’s reminding me to stay quiet. Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s a connection between the fact that my people are the only ones on the continent who don’t expect their young to be quiet and the fact that there are so few of us left. Maybe our problem is that we just never learned to shut up. 

I hear the battle cry of one of our warriors outside. She’s attacking the mages, shouting at them in the old way, in our own tongue. We don’t even speak it among ourselves any more because it makes the people who give us shelter uncom- fortable. The Jan’Tep mages who hunt us tell people that our language is a ‘demon-tongue’. They say we use it to awaken infernal beings to slaughter our enemies. 

How I wish that were true. 

I know our warrior has died when I hear the thunder crack of an ember spell lighting up the air outside the cave. I can picture the shower of gold and blue sparks, followed by the scene of early morning after a storm. Part of me wants to run outside just to behold the wonders of Jan’Tep magic. I know I should hate it, but the colours, the lights, the way they move . . . it’s beautiful. And if you’re going to die anyway, shouldn’t it be while looking at something beautiful? 

Too late now. The screams have stopped and everything’s gone quiet. I wonder if the warrior who just died was the last of my clan. And was my clan the last of all that remained of the once-great Mahdek tribes? 

Am I alone now? 

‘Burn the bodies, bury the ashes,’ I hear one of the mages saying. He’s the older one, the one in charge. But he’s not the one I hate the most. 

The one I hate the most is younger, maybe sixteen. He’s as tall as any of them though. His shoulders are broad and unlike the others he looks strong beneath his robes. He doesn’t smile when he raises his hands, forms those strange shapes with his fingers and sends lightning and fire to kill us. He doesn’t laugh or make jokes when we die. 

The others I can hate the way you hate a cold winter or a sharp stone that cuts your foot. They’re cruel and ugly on the inside. They’re monsters. But this one, he knows – some- where inside he knows– that this is wrong. He’s a human being. Like me. 

But he does it anyway. 

I don’t know his name because when the Jan’Tep mages are on a mission they call each other things like ‘Iron Asp’ or ‘Ember Fox’. This young one is ‘Shadow Falcon’. 

I’m going to kill Shadow Falcon one day.
Well, probably not since I’m about to die.
More spells are starting to ignite the air outside the cave. 

Different ones this time. Not the crack of thunder that passes in an instant but the steady crackle of flames that pour out from the mages’ palms as if their hands were volcanoes filled with lava. 

Why is it so important to them that no trace of us be left behind? 

I can hear some of the mages complaining about the stink of flesh burning from the bones of the dead. A couple of them are vomiting, their spells collapsing from the break in their concentration. Then the older one, their leader, shouts at them and they begin the process all over again. Soon he’ll send someone into the caves to search for any stragglers. To find me. 

‘Please spare us!’ a voice cries out. Not one of my people, of course. I’m pretty sure they’re all dead now. Also, we know better than to ask a Jan’Tep war coven for mercy. One of the villagers who took us in must be pleading for his life. 

‘We didn’t know what they were!’ 

Not true. We never lied about who we were. Maybe we should’ve though. 

‘They summoned demons to force us to shelter them.’ 

Complete fabrication. No matter how much the Jan’Tep claim we use demon magic – their excuse when they started killing us off three hundred years ago – you can’t ‘summon’ a demon. I know this because I’ve tried many, many times. 

‘We only pretended to hide them so we could come find yo—’ 

Funny how they kill him right as he’s finally saying something true. My clan stayed in this little town in the Seven Sands too long and one of the townsfolk must’ve gone in search of a Jan’Tep hextracker, who then led the war coven right to us. 

Never stay in one place too long. That’s what the Mahdek tell their children. 

It’s what my mother and father told me right before they died in the raid that wiped out half our clan three years ago. I still remember the looks on their faces, how scared they were. 

Why aren’t I scared? 

I’m going to die here in this dark cave, seeing nothing but the face of a dead woman with her finger pressed to her lifeless lips, smelling nothing but the stench of the corpses all around me. I should be terrified. I should be angry. Instead I feel almost . . . drunk? Is that the right word? We Mahdek don’t drink spirits (stupid name for alcohol since spirits are meant to guide you, not make you act silly). Maybe it’s just that once you’ve watched your parents floating in the air, wrists and ankles wrapped in beautiful bands of yellow and silver light, right before they’re torn apart, you know without a shred of doubt that one day some other Jan’Tep mage will do the same to you. 

Today’s that day, I think.
‘There!’ I hear a low voice growl. ‘Get her!’
I stick out my arms to make it easier for them to drag me 

from the bodies. I don’t pull away or scream. Maybe I really am a good girl? 

‘Quickly now, while they’re still destroying the evidence!’ 

A pair of big hands wrap around my wrists and yank me backwards, away from the entrance. My bum slides over the dead and then scrapes the cold rocks and dirt. We seem to be going deeper into the cave. I hadn’t even realised there wasa deeper part; it just looked like a shallow grotto before the old woman pulled me in here with her. 

Whoever’s got me lets go of my wrists and scoops me up in their arms. I look up in the darkness and I can just barely make out two figures. They’re crouched over me, and the shadows hang over them, making them look menacing. Like demons. 

Maybe my people really are demon worshippers. 

Something heavy scratches the cave floor, shifting as the bigger demon shoves it with his shoulder. The two of them bend down even lower as they haul me into a narrow tunnel. Must’ve been camouflaged by the villagers so they could use it to hide themselves and their valuables whenever they got raided. Probably doesn’t work so well when the mages coming for you have sand spells that can track you anywhere. The one they call Shadow Falcon, I heard one of the others say he’s the best at it. Maybe he’s already coming for us. 

‘Don’t be afraid,’ one of my rescuers says. He’s speaking Daroman, from a country about two hundred miles from here. The Seven Sands doesn’t have its own language, so most folk in these parts learn a simplified form of Daroman. This man speaks it awkwardly though, like he learned it only recently. His voice is deep, his tone gruff in a way that warns me not to argue with him. 

‘What about the others?’ I ask anyway, but all I hear is the shuffling of his boots on the rocky ground. I guess he doesn’t want to say that there aren’t any. 

‘Where are you taking me?’ I ask then. 

The voice that answers belongs to a woman. It’s unusual sounding. Smooth. Elegant. I like it, but I feel strange hearing it, like I’ve snuck into a rich person’s home and someone’s about to find me. ‘To a place far from here,’ she says. ‘A place where you’ll be safe.’ 

The man speaks up, grunting from the effort of carrying me while having to bend so low. ‘No more living on scraps for you, my girl. No more trudging through deserts under the hot sun or icy forests in the frozen winter. You’ll live in a big house and eat fine foods and have all the toys you could ever want.’ His voice catches on those last words – like he’s trying to stop himself from crying. 

‘The Jan’Tep—’ I begin, but the woman cuts me off. 

‘They will never hurt you again,’ she says, louder now because I guess we’re pretty far from the cave entrance. ‘Ours is a wealthy family, child. An important one. And we are . . .’ She struggles as if she doesn’t know the right word, which tells me for sure she isn’t a native Daroman speaker. After a second the man mumbles something to her and she nods. ‘Warriors-of-honour. Yes, we are warriors-of-honour. Do you understand me? Not even the lords magi of the Jan’Tep would dare try to take you from us.’ 

I’d explain to her that I have no idea what warriors-of- honour are supposed to be and that she’s wrong because once a mage has seen a Mahdek they neverstop coming for us, but I find I’m just so very tired now. I’m not sure how long they’ve been carrying me when beautiful golden light explodes all around us. Must be a Jan’Tep lightning spell. I feel bad for the man and the woman who came here thinking they could save me. Nobody likes to discover that their world isn’t as safe as they believed. 

‘Quick now,’ the man says. ‘Get her into the carriage!’ 

The sun. The light I saw was the sun in the sky above, not magic. 

They hide me under a blanket inside a carriage which, from the brief glance I get, is just about the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. Soon I find myself being gently rocked to sleep as four fine horses pull us along, first down a dirt path and then onto a road. My head is on the woman’s lap. It’s as warm and comfortable a pillow as I’ve ever known. 

‘Rest now,’ she says, stroking the red tangles of my hair under the blanket. ‘The worst has passed – this I swear. Be a good girl now, and stay as quiet as a mouse until we’re clear of the territories.’ 

Be a good girl now. 

She was nice. So was her husband. They took me to a lovely home just as big and beautiful as they promised. 

I buried their bodies in the garden six months later. 

Kapitel 1 – Lord TremondiBLUTRECHT

Man stelle sich einen Augenblick lang vor, man hätte sich seinen sehnlichsten Wunsch erfüllt. Nicht die einfachen, plausiblen Dinge, von denen man seinen Freunden erzählt, sondern den Traum, den man tief im Herzen bewahrt, den man selbst als Kind niemals laut in Worte fassen würde. Man stelle sich beispielsweise vor, man hätte sich danach verzehrt, ein Greatcoat zu sein, einer jener legendären Magister und Fechter, die das Land vom kleinsten Dorf bis zur prächtigsten Stadt bereisen und dafür sorgen, dass jeder Mann und jede Frau, egal ob von hoher oder niederer Geburt, das Gesetz des Königs für sich in Anspruch nehmen kann. Für viele ein Beschützer – für manche sogar ein Held. Man fühlt also den Greatcoat, den schweren Ledermantel, das Symbol des Amtes, auf den Schultern, das täuschend geringe Gewicht der eingenähten Knochenplatten, die einen wie eine Rüstung schützen, und die Dutzenden verborgenen Taschen, die mit den nötigen Werkzeugen und Schlichen, esoterischen Tränken und Pillen gefüllt sind. Man greift nach dem Schwert an der Seite, von dem Wissen beflügelt, dass einem als Greatcoat beigebracht wurde, falls nötig, zu kämpfen. Schließlich verfügt man über die entsprechende Ausbildung, jeden anderen Mann im Duell zu bezwingen.

Und jetzt stelle man sich vor, diesen Traum in die Tat umgesetzt zu haben – sämtlichen Hindernissen zum Trotz, die Götter und Heilige in die Welt setzen. Man ist also ein Greatcoat geworden. Aber halt, tatsächlich sollte der Traum noch ehrgeiziger sein: Man stelle sich vor, zum Ersten Kantor der Greatcoats erhoben worden zu sein, und seine beiden besten Freunde stehen einem zur Seite. Nun versuche man sich vorzustellen, wo man ist, was man sieht, was man hört, welches Unrecht man bekämpfen will …

»Sie ficken schon wieder«, sagte Brasti.

Ich zwang meine Augen auf und erhielt zur Belohnung den verschwommenen Blick auf den Korridor des Gasthauses, einen pompös dekorierten, aber schmutzigen Gang, der einen daran erinnerte, dass die Welt einst wohl ein hübscher Ort gewesen war, nun aber langsam verrottete. Kest, Brasti und ich bewachten den Korridor von dem Komfort heruntergekommener Stühle aus, die aus dem Gemeinschaftsraum im Erdgeschoss stammten. Uns gegenüber befand sich eine große Eichentür, die zu Lord Tremondis gemietetem Zimmer führte.

»Lass es sein, Brasti«, sagte ich.

Er schenkte mir einen bewusst vernichtenden Blick, der allerdings nicht besonders effektiv war; Brasti ist etwas zu hübsch, als ihm oder sonst jemandem guttut. Starke Wangenknochen und ein breiter, von einem kurzen rotblonden Bart eingerahmter Mund machen ein Lächeln noch strahlender, das ihn meistens vor den Kämpfen bewahrt, die er mit seinen Worten anzettelt. Sein meisterliches Bogenschießen erledigt den Rest. Aber wenn er versucht, einen niederzustarren, sieht er einfach nur aus, als würde er schmollen.

»Was soll ich denn bitte schön sein lassen?«, fragte er. »Soll ich nicht mehr davon sprechen, dass du mir ein Heldenleben versprachst? Damals, als ich mich bei den Greatcoats verdungen habe, weil du mich dazu überredet hast? Stattdessen nenne ich keine Münze mein Eigen und werde verachtet und verdinge mich notgedrungen als niederer Leibwächter für reisende Händler. Oder die Tatsache, dass wir hier sitzen und unserem großzügigen Gönner – was übrigens eine höfliche Bezeichnung ist, da er uns bis jetzt noch keine lausige schwarze Kupfermünze gezahlt hat – dabei zuhören müssen, wie er eine Frau vögelt? Zum übrigens wievielten Mal seit dem Abendessen? Dem fünften? Wie schafft der fette Sack das überhaupt? Ich meine …«

»Könnten Kräuter sein«, unterbrach Kest ihn und streckte sich mit der natürlichen Anmut eines Tänzers.

»Kräuter?«

Kest nickte.

»Und was versteht der sogenannte ›größte Fechter der Welt‹ von Kräutern?«, wollte Brasti wissen.

»Vor ein paar Jahren verkaufte mir ein Apotheker ein Gebräu, das den Schwertarm angeblich auch dann noch stark hält, wenn man halb tot ist. Ich habe es benutzt, als ich ein halbes Dutzend Meuchelmörder abwehren musste, die einen Zeugen umbringen wollten.«

»Und, hat es funktioniert?«, fragte ich.

Kest zuckte mit den Schultern. »Kann ich wirklich nicht sagen. Sie waren bloß zu sechst, also war es keine richtige Prüfung. Aber ich hatte die ganze Zeit über einen ordentlichen Ständer.«

Hinter der Tür ertönte ein schweres Grunzen, dem ein Stöhnen folgte.

»Bei allen Heiligen! Können die nicht einfach aufhören und schlafen?«

Wie zur Erwiderung wurde das Stöhnen lauter.

»Wisst ihr, was ich merkwürdig finde?«, fuhr Brasti fort.

»Hältst du in absehbarer Zeit die Klappe?«, fragte ich.

Brasti ignorierte mich. »Ich finde es merkwürdig, dass sich ein vögelnder Adliger fast so anhört wie einer, der gefoltert wird.«

»Du hast also schon viele Adlige gefoltert?«

»Du weißt schon, was ich meine. Hier hört man nur Stöhnen und Grunzen und kleine spitze Schreie, nicht wahr? Irgendetwas läuft da verkehrt.«

Kest hob eine Braue. »Und wie klingt richtiges Vögeln?«

Brasti schaute sehnsuchtsvoll zur Decke. »Die Frau muss viel öfter begeistert jauchzen, so viel steht fest. Und es muss mehr süße Worte geben. So wie: ›O Brasti, ja so, genau da an der Stelle! Du legst dich mit Herz und Seele ins Zeug!‹«

»›Du legst dich mit Herz und Seele ins Zeug‹? Sagen Frauen im Bett wirklich so was?«, wollte Kest wissen.

»Hör auf, den lieben langen Tag nur mit dem Schwert zu üben, geh mit einer Frau ins Bett, und du wirst es herausfinden. Komm schon, Falcio, hilf mir hier.«

»Ist schon möglich, aber es ist so verdammt lange her, ich erinnere mich nicht mehr.«

»Ja, natürlich, der heilige Falcio. Aber du hast doch sicherlich mit deiner Frau …«

»Lass es«, sagte ich.

»Ich wollte nicht … ich meine …«

»Bring mich nicht dazu, dir eine reinzuhauen, Brasti«, sagte Kest leise.

Schweigend saßen wir ein paar Minuten da, während Kest Brasti meinetwegen finster anstarrte und der Lärm aus dem Schlafzimmer ununterbrochen weiterging.

»Ich kann noch immer nicht begreifen, wie er das schafft«, fing Brasti schließlich wieder von vorn an. »Ich frage dich noch einmal, Falcio, was machen wir hier eigentlich? Tremondi hat uns noch nicht einmal bezahlt.«

Ich hob die Hand und bewegte die Finger. »Hast du seine Ringe gesehen?«

»Klar«, sagte Brasti, »groß und protzig. Oben mit einem wie ein Rad geformten Edelstein.«

»Das ist der Ring eines Karawanenlords – was du wissen würdest, hättest du der Welt vor deinen Augen einmal Beachtung geschenkt. Damit versiegeln sie bei ihrer jährlichen Zusammenkunft ihre abgegebene Stimme – ein Ring, eine Stimme. Nicht jeder Karawanenlord schafft es jedes Jahr zur Zusammenkunft, also haben sie die Möglichkeit, ihren Ring an jemanden zu verleihen, der dann bei allen wichtigen Abstimmungen für sie stimmt. Und wie viele Karawanenlords gibt es noch einmal?«

»Das weiß doch keiner genau, es ist …«

»Zwölf«, sagte Kest.

»Und an wie vielen seiner Finger steckten diese protzigen Ringe?«

Brasti starrte zu Boden. »Ich weiß es nicht … vier oder fünf?«

»Sieben«, sagte Kest.

»Sieben«, wiederholte ich.

»Das bedeutet also, er könnte … Also gut, Falcio, worum geht es dieses Jahr bei der Abstimmung der Lords?«

»Alles Mögliche«, sagte ich nüchtern. »Wechselkurse, Abgaben, Handelsbestimmungen. Ach ja, und die Sicherheit.«

»Die Sicherheit?«

»Seit die Herzöge den König umgebracht haben, verfallen die Straßen. Die Herzöge geben weder Geld noch Männer, nicht einmal, um die Handelswege zu verteidigen, und die Karawanenlords müssen für jede Reise ein Vermögen für Wächter aufbringen.«

»Na und?«

Ich lächelte. »Tremondi will vorschlagen, dass die Greatcoats die Straßenhüter werden sollen, was Autorität, Respekt und ein anständiges Leben bringt. Wir sorgen dafür, dass ihre kostbare Fracht nicht in die Hände von Banditen fällt.«

Brasti sah wenig überzeugt aus. »Sie würden zulassen, dass wir die Greatcoats wieder zusammenrufen? Also statt mein Leben damit zu verbringen, als Verräter aus jeder überfüllten Stadt und jedem von den Göttern verlassenen Dorf verjagt und von einem Ende des Landes zum anderen gehetzt zu werden, würde ich auf den Handelswegen reisen und Banditen verprügeln? Und dafür sogar bezahlt werden?«

Ich grinste. »Und so hätten wir eine viel bessere Gelegenheit, des Königs …«

Brasti winkte ab. »Bitte, Falcio. Er ist seit fünf Jahren tot. Wenn du die verfluchten Charoite des Königs bis jetzt noch nicht gefunden hast … und übrigens weiß noch immer keiner, was man damit eigentlich anstellen …«

»Ein Charoit ist ein Edelstein«, sagte Kest ruhig.

»Was auch immer. Ich will auf Folgendes hinaus: Diese Edelsteine ohne jeden Hinweis auf ihren möglichen Aufenthaltsort zu finden ist ungefähr so wahrscheinlich, als würde Kest den Heiligen der Schwerter töten.«

»Aber ich werde den Heiligen der Schwerter töten, Brasti«, sagte Kest.

Brasti seufzte. »Ihr seid hoffnungslos, damit meine ich euch beide. Und selbst wenn wir die Steine finden, was hätten wir davon?«

»Ich weiß es nicht«, antwortete ich. »Aber die Alternative besteht darin, dass die Herzöge die Greatcoats jagen, bis wir alle tot sind. Also finde ich Tremondis Angebot gut.«

»Nun dann«, sagte Brasti und hob ein imaginäres Glas, »schön für Euch, Lord Tremondi. Macht nur weiter, was auch immer Ihr darin so großartig treibt.«

Wie als Erwiderung auf seinen Trinkspruch ertönte hinter der Tür neues Stöhnen.

»Wisst ihr, ich glaube, Brasti könnte recht haben«, sagte Kest, stand auf und griff nach einem der Schwerter an seinem Gürtel.

»Wovon sprichst du?«, fragte ich.

»Zuerst klang das wie ein Liebesspiel, aber langsam glaube ich, dass ich wirklich keinen Unterschied mehr zwischen diesen Lauten und denen eines Folteropfers feststellen kann.«

Ich erhob mich vorsichtig, aber der alte Stuhl quietschte laut, als ich mich zur Tür vorbeugte und zu lauschen versuchte. »Anscheinend haben sie aufgehört«, murmelte ich.

Kests Schwert verursachte kaum ein Flüstern, als er es aus der Scheide zog.

Brasti legte das Ohr an die Tür und schüttelte dann den Kopf. »Nein, er hat aufgehört, aber sie ist noch immer dabei. Er muss schlafen. Aber warum sollte sie weitermachen, wenn er …«

»Brasti, weg von der Tür.« Ich warf mich mit der Schulter dagegen. Der erste Versuch scheiterte, aber beim zweiten zersplitterte der Riegel. Auf den ersten Blick schien alles in dem grell ausgestatteten Raum in Ordnung zu sein. Der Wirt hatte ihn so dekoriert, wie er sich in seinen Träumen das Schlafzimmer eines Herzogs vorstellte. Kleidung und Bücher lagen auf einem einstmals kostbaren Teppich, der nun mottenzerfressen und vermutlich eine Heimstatt für Ungeziefer war. Das Bett wies staubige Samtvorhänge auf, die von einem Eichenrahmen hingen.

Vorsichtig hatte ich den ersten Schritt in den Raum getan, als eine Frau hinter diesen Vorhängen hervortrat. Ihre nackte Haut war mit Blut beschmiert, und auch wenn die hauchzarte schwarze Maske vor ihrem Gesicht ihre Züge verhüllte, war mir klar, dass sie lächelte. In der rechten Hand hielt sie eine große Schere – eine Schere von der Art, wie sie Metzger benutzen, um Fleisch zu schneiden. Sie streckte die linke Hand in meine Richtung, die Faust geschlossen, die Handfläche in Richtung Decke gehalten. Dann hob sie sie an den Mund, und es sah so aus, als wollte sie uns eine Kusshand geben. Stattdessen stieß sie die angehaltene Luft aus. Blaues Pulver wogte durch die Luft.

»Nicht einatmen!«, rief ich Kest und Brasti zu, aber es war zu spät. Welche Magie auch immer in diesem Pulver lag, man brauchte es nicht einzuatmen, damit sie funktionierte. Plötzlich schien die Welt stehen zu bleiben; mir war, als wäre ich zwischen den bebenden Zeigern einer alten Uhr gefangen. Ich wusste, dass sich Brasti direkt hinter mir befand, aber ich konnte nicht den Kopf wenden, um ihn zu sehen. Kest sah ich aus dem rechten Augenwinkel, aber ich konnte ihn kaum ausmachen, während er wie ein Dämon darum kämpfte freizukommen.

Die Frau neigte den Kopf zur Seite und sah mich einen Augenblick lang an. »Großartig«, sagte sie leise und kam völlig unbefangen, fast schon schlendernd auf uns zu, und die Schere gab einen rhythmischen zuschnappenden Laut von sich. Ich spürte ihre Hand auf meiner Wange, dann strich sie mit den Fingern über meinen Mantel und schob das Leder zur Seite, bis sie die Hand darunterschieben konnte. Einen Augenblick lang legte sie die Handfläche auf meine Brust und liebkoste sie sanft, bevor sie sie nach unten führte und dann weiter an meinem Gürtel vorbei.

Schnipp-schnapp.

Sie stellte sich auf die Zehen und brachte das maskierte Gesicht an mein Ohr, während sich ihr nackter Körper an mich presste, als wollten wir uns umarmen. Schnipp-schnapp machte die Schere. »Man nennt den Staub ›Aeltheca‹«, flüsterte sie. »Er ist wirklich ausgesprochen teuer. Für den Karawanenlord brauchte ich nur eine Prise, aber wegen euch musste ich jetzt meinen ganzen Vorrat benutzen.« Ihre Stimme klang weder ärgerlich noch bedauernd, als würde sie bloß eine Feststellung treffen.

Schnipp-schnapp.

»Ich würde euch Lumpenmänteln ja die Kehle durchschneiden, aber ich habe jetzt eine bestimmte Verwendung für euch, und das Aeltheca wird verhindern, dass ihr euch an mich erinnert.« Sie trat zurück und machte eine theatralische Pirouette. »Sicher, ihr werdet euch an eine nackte Frau mit einer Maske erinnern – aber meine Größe, meine Stimme, die Rundungen meines Körpers, das werdet ihr alles vergessen.«

Sie beugte sich vor, drückte mir die Schere in die linke Hand und schloss die Finger darum. Ich wollte sie loslassen, aber meine Glieder gehorchten mir nicht. Mit aller Kraft versuchte ich mir ihren Körper einzuprägen, ihre Größe, die Gesichtszüge hinter der Maske, was auch immer mir dabei helfen konnte, sie wiederzuerkennen, sollte ich ihr noch einmal begegnen, aber das Bild verschwamm bereits während meiner Bemühungen. Ich versuchte, die für die Beschreibung nötigen Worte in Verse zu kleiden, damit ich mich daran erinnern konnte, aber auch sie verblassten sofort. Ich konnte sie anstarren, aber nach jedem Blinzeln war die Erinnerung verschwunden. Das Aeltheca war sehr wirkungsvoll.

Ich hasse Magie.

Die Frau begab sich kurz zu dem mit Vorhängen verhüllten Bett und kehrte mit einer kleinen Blutlache auf der Handfläche zurück. Sie ging zur gegenüberliegenden Wand, tauchte den Finger in das Blut und schrieb ein einziges Wort. Das tropfende Wort lautete Greatcoats.

Dann kam sie noch einmal zu mir zurück, und ich spürte einen Kuss durch den feinen Stoff der Maske.

»Es hat fast schon etwas Trauriges, die Greatcoats des Königs, seine legendären umherreisenden Magistrate, so gedemütigt zu sehen«, sagte sie leichthin. »Zusehen zu müssen, wie ihr euch einem fetten Karawanenlord anbiedert, den nur ein kleiner Schritt von einem gewöhnlichen Straßenhändler unterscheidet … Verrate mir doch, Lumpenmantel, wenn du schläfst, träumst du dann davon, wie du noch immer durch das Land reitest, das Schwert in der Hand und ein Lied auf den Lippen, während du den armen, erbarmungswürdigen, vom Joch eines launischen Herzogs unterdrückten Menschen Gerechtigkeit bringst?«

Ich wollte etwas erwidern, schaffte es aber trotz meiner Anstrengungen kaum, auch nur die Unterlippe beben zu lassen.

Die Frau hob den Finger und schmierte Blut auf die Wange, die sie eben noch geküsst hatte. »Leb wohl, mein hübscher Lumpenmantel. In wenigen Minuten bin ich nur noch eine verschwommene Erinnerung. Aber keine Sorge, ich erinnere mich an dich.«

Sie wandte sich ab, ging in aller Ruhe zur Kommode und nahm ihre Kleidung. Dann öffnete sie das Fenster und schlüpfte hinaus in die frühe Morgenluft, ohne sich vorher anzukleiden.

Wir standen noch vielleicht für eine Minute oder so wie Baumstümpfe da, bevor Brasti, der sich am weitesten von dem Pulver entfernt befunden hatte, die Lippen lange genug bewegen konnte, um »Scheiße!« sagen zu können.

Kest konnte sich als Nächster bewegen, dann war auch ich so weit. Ich rannte sofort zum Fenster, aber natürlich war die Frau schon lange verschwunden.

Ich ging zum Bett, um nach dem blutüberströmten Lord Tremondi zu sehen. Sie hatte ihn wie ein Chirurg behandelt und irgendwie lange am Leben gehalten – vielleicht eine weitere Wirkung des Aeltheca. Ihre Schere hatte für alle Ewigkeit einen Pfad der Verwüstung in seinen Körper geschnitten.

Das war nicht nur ein Mord. Das war eine Botschaft.

»Falcio, sieh doch«, sagte Kest und zeigte auf Tremondis Hände. An der rechten Hand waren noch drei Finger verblieben; alle anderen waren blutige Stümpfe. Die Karawanenlordringe waren verschwunden und mit ihnen unsere Hoffnung auf eine Zukunft.

Schritte dröhnten die Stufen hinauf, der gleichmäßige Rhythmus identifizierte sie als Stadtwächter.

»Brasti, versperr die Tür.«

»Die wird nicht lange halten, Falcio. Du hast sie irgendwie aufgebrochen, als wir reinkamen.«

»Mach es einfach.«

Brasti stieß die Tür zu, und Kest half ihm, die Kommode davorzuwuchten, bevor sie mir dabei halfen, nach einem Hinweis auf die Frau zu suchen, die Tremondi ermordet hatte.

»Glaubst du, wir finden sie?«, fragte Kest, während wir Tremondis geschlachtete Überreste betrachteten.

»Keine Chance«, erwiderte ich.

Kest legte die Hand auf meine Schulter. »Durch das Fenster?«

Ich seufzte. »Das Fenster.«

Fäuste hämmerten gegen die Tür. »Gute Nacht, Lord Tremondi«, sagte ich. »Ihr wart kein besonders guter Arbeitgeber. Ihr habt viel gelogen und uns nie den versprochenen Lohn gezahlt. Aber das geht wohl in Ordnung, denn am Ende waren wir ziemlich nutzlose Leibwächter.«

Kest kletterte bereits nach draußen, als die Konstabler anfingen, die Tür aufzubrechen.

»Warte mal«, sagte Brasti. »Sollten wir nicht … du weißt schon …«

»Was?«

»Du weißt schon, sein Geld nehmen?«

Das ließ sogar Kest noch einmal den Kopf wenden.

»Nein, wir nehmen sein Geld nicht«, erwiderte ich.

»Warum nicht? Schließlich braucht er es nicht mehr.«

Erneut seufzte ich. »Weil wir keine Diebe sind, Brasti, wir sind Greatcoats. Und das muss etwas bedeuten.«

Er schob ein Bein aus dem Fenster. »Ja, das bedeutet in der Tat etwas. Es bedeutet, dass uns die Menschen hassen. Es bedeutet, dass sie uns für Tremondis Tod verantwortlich machen werden. Es bedeutet, dass wir von einem Strick baumeln, während der Mob unsere Leichen mit faulem Obst bewerfen und ›Lumpenmantel, Lumpenmantel!‹ singen wird. Und – ach ja, und es bedeutet, dass wir kein Geld haben. Aber zumindest haben wir ja noch unsere Mäntel.«

Er verschwand aus dem Fenster, und ich stieg hinter ihm her. Die Konstabler hatten gerade die Tür aufgebrochen, und als mich ihr Hauptmann dort sah, wie der Holzrahmen noch immer in meine Brust drückte, lag der Hauch eines Lächelns auf seinem Gesicht. Ich wusste genau, was dieses Lächeln zu bedeuten hatte: Er hatte Männer abkommandiert, die unten auf der Straße auf uns warteten, und jetzt konnte er uns mit Pfeilen beschießen, während sie uns mit Piken in Schach hielten.

Mein Name ist Falcio val Mond, Erster Kantor der Greatcoats, und das war der erste von vielen schlimmen Tagen, die noch folgen sollten

The Dowager MagusBonus Content

The second knock was louder than the first, a reprehensible criminal act so far as Mer’esan was concerned. Her meditations now fatally interrupted, she reached up a shaking hand to wipe at the undignified spittle at the corner of her mouth.

You were asleep, old woman. No sense pretending otherwise.

But was it really the second knock that had woken her? Or had this been the third? The fourth? How long had this trespasser been banging at her cottage door?

She waited, wondering now if perhaps it had been a dream – a memory of someone from years past: her husband, the new clan prince, slamming his fist against the door, the force of his magic tearing apart spell after spell that she’d so carefully woven upon the cottage.

‘Open up, ya old bag, you’re not dead yet!’

What a strange, incongruous voice . . . female, yet lacking the grace and precision nurtured by Jan’Tep women. Each syllable suffused with a distinctive – and annoying – frontier drawl, as though designed specially to offend the ears.

Certainly it was no way to speak to a dowager magus.

’Touch my door once more and your life is forfeit,’ Mer’esan warned, cursing the feeble wheezing of her own voice that undermined her threat.

A pause – not long enough to account for reflection or reconsideration – just long enough for theatricality. Then, another knock.

Oh, whoever you are, you have signed your own death warrant now.

Mer’esan drew herself up from her chair only to stumble, her legs too old and stiff to hold her steady. She grabbed onto one of the rough wooden posts that held up the cottage roof, the effort sending jarring pains through the joints in her hand, her wrist, her elbow and finally her shoulder.

Old. Too old to strike fear into anyone.

The dowager magus regained her balance and raised her arms. Even through the wrappings of black cloth, six tattooed bands on her forearms shimmered, the metallic inks still gleaming bright after three hundred years, an odd contrast to the withered skin beneath.

The interloper will not see me thus, she promised herself.

The glyphs of the second band on her left arm, those of sand magic, began to glow and swirl, each shape flowing into one of its many variations as she drew forth the source of power to manipulate time. Those of the third band on her right arm did likewise, igniting the magic of blood, and thus the manipulation of flesh.

Again the intruder banged on the door, brazenly, without any sign of contrition. ‘Come on, you crazy old bird,’ she called out. ‘Time you and me had a chat.’

Time. That was precisely what Mer’esan needed. Before facing this invader she must bring back the body that had been hers decades – no, centuries – ago. But to erase the ravages of time from her outward flesh she must first remove the years from muscle and sinew, and to do that, vitality had to be brought back to her bones; to the very marrow of her being.

With trembling fingers she formed the somatic shape of the first restoration spell. Her throat was dry, and the sound that came past her lips was like a faltering breeze across the arid desert. So be it. Such a voice suited sand spells. Her mind held firm to the spell’s mystical geometry, her will lent her dominion over the raw magic, and only then did she speak the seven-word incantation. Oh, how she wished that youth spells needn’t be so intolerably long. ‘An’heda ki’reth sula be’enath men’er inati pha’sha.’

Pain.

Deep inside her body, wasted bone and marrow shattered. The spell transformed the base elements and knit them anew, like an army of ants tearing her apart and remaking her. Relentless. Merciless.

Quickly now, she thought, the next one, before the torment saps your will.

The second spell brought life back to muscle and sinew. The discomfort subsided as aches that had been her constant companions departed, unresisting, knowing that they would soon enough return to their comfortable home.

At last Mer’esan cast the third spell, this one upon her skin. Wrinkles fled, banished by a youthful glow that spread across the canvas of her body. Her hair thickened, a deep chestnut colour flowing from the roots of her scalp to the very tips. Idly her hand came up to twirl a lock around one finger. She’d always loved playing with her hair – a girlish affectation that even power and rank had never seemed to extinguish.

With her youth restored, the dowager shifted her attention to the tattooed band for iron – so that she might bind the trespasser – and to ember, in case she decided to destroy her entirely.

Which she probably would.

‘Come in,’ Mer’esan said, the lightness and clarity of her own voice surprising her – as it always did when she performed these temporary restorations. With a flick of her hand, the seals upon her cottage door came away, giving entry to the woman on the other side.

Into the darkness of the cottage came a puff of smoke, soon followed by a tiny red glow like that of an autumn emberfly. A smoking reed? Mer’esan wondered. This foreigner dares to smoke in my presence as if my home were some travellers’saloon. What will she do next? Demand I serve her a drink and bring out comfort boys for her selection?

‘You always sit by yourself in the dark?’ the imprudent visitor asked.

Mer’esan sent a fraction of her will into the single glow-glass lantern hanging from the centre of the cottage’s ceiling. The light flared like a white-hot sun, forcing the intruder to cover her eyes as she struggled to adjust to the sudden brightness . A petty retaliation perhaps, but it gave the dowager magus time to examine this woman who’d somehow snuck into the palace grounds, entered the gardens and slipped past the guard, all to disturb the sanctity of Mer’esan’s cottage.

The girl . . . No, not a girl – she only seemed so because, well, everyone looked like a child nowadays. The woman wore a broad-brimmed frontier hat, as though she was some Daroman cow herder. Unruly red curls tumbled beneath it down to her jaw, framing a face that wasn’t displeasing, certainly, but whose beauty was subverted by the sharp lines of her features and, most of all, by a wide, self-satisfied smile. Damn the Argosi and their smugness.

‘Well, take a look at you,’ the intruder said, stamping her riding boots on the mat and straightening the black leather waistcoat she wore over a travel-stained linen shirt. She tilted her head as she peered at Mer’esan. ’Did you go and get yourself all made up just for little old me? Why, you look as pretty as a flower and younger than new rain falling on a mountaintop!’

The glib words might have been a compliment, had they been spoken by someone with less mischief in their eyes. ‘Better to say that I am the mountain,’ Mer’esan countered. ‘And you, Ferius Parfax, are in avalanche country now.’

The other’s smile softened, derision becoming something more respectful, though still without a trace of fear. She gave a slight bow of her head. ‘And what a remarkable country it is, ma’am.’

‘A dangerous one. I hope your reason for coming is worthy of the risk.’

’I’m here about the kid.’

‘A Jan’Tep matter.’

The humour in the Argosi’s eyes vanished. ‘Not any more.’

The dowager allowed more of her will to flow into the ember band on her forearm. Let this swaggering gambler see just how easily I could turn her to ash. But the Argosi’s face showed no concern.

‘A simple thought from me will bring my guard,’ Mer’esan warned. The instant the words were passed her lips, she regretted them. The threat was an admission of her own fear. With no way to back away from it, she added, ‘He is a mage of no small power himself – a tribulator, in fact. That is to say he—‘

Ferius Parfax waved a hand negligently. ‘He casts spells that hurt people. I get it.’

Mer’esan found the subtle contempt in the woman’s tone irksome. Few foreigners, even enemies, spoke so dismissively of Jan’Tep magic. So was this self-assurance, or bluff? ‘I wonder, how did you evade his awareness? His sentry spells are rather potent.’

The Argosi took a puff from her smoking reed, which Mer’esan recognized as a means of delaying an answer. Did she, perhaps, not want to reveal her secrets? A good sign then, for it signalled uncertainty. ‘Silk magic,’ the Argosi replied.

‘Silk magic? You mean to say that you—‘

‘Jan’Tep spells for detecting intruders are built on silk magic, ain’t they? What do y’all call it? “Dominion over the minds of others”?’

Mer’esan nodded, her eyes narrowing.

The Argosi put out her smoking reed with a pinch of her finger and thumb, then put it inside her waistcoat before leaning back against the cottage wall. ‘Try it on me.’ She put her hands up in submission. ‘I won’t resist.’

A daring gambit, and a foolish one. If Mer’esan chose, she could use silk spells to do whatever she liked to the Argosi: strip her thoughts bare, fill her with visions of unspeakable horrors, even combine it with iron magic to create a mind chain that would . . . No, never that.

Mer’esan closed her eyes and brought the fingertips of her left hand together as she envisioned the geometry of the spell. She sent her will sliding into the silk band on her right forearm, then uttered the invocation as she opened her fingers wide. A simple unlocking spell would suffice, enabling her to witness the surface thoughts of this woman who’d so brazenly challenged her.

Like a key turning in a well-oiled lock, the Argosi’s mind opened to her – far more easily than Mer’esan had expected. She played about Ferius Parfax’s thoughts as effortlessly as she might rifle through the pages of a book. Since the Argosi had mentioned the boy – what was his name again? He had been here only hours ago and yet already the memory had faded. Ke . . . Kellen? That was it: Kellen of the House of Ke. Mer’esan began there, drawing forth images from Ferius’s memories of him: seeing the boy duelling that little wretch of the House of Ra, defeating him without magic, being nearly killed by his younger sister – Mer’esan would have to keep an eye on that girl – and then Ferius herself, struggling to save Kellen. Other images came, too, but prudence called for focusing on more vital questions: what was Ferius Parfax’s purpose in coming to the Jan’Tep lands so soon after the death of Mer’esan’s husband, the clan prince? What was her mission?

Suddenly the Argosi woman’s thoughts disappeared, her mind completely gone. Somehow, while Mer’esan had been distracted, she had slipped away from the cottage.

The dowager magus opened her eyes, expecting to see an empty room, only to find the Argosi still standing there. ‘How . . .?’

Ferius shrugged, taking out her smoking reed and lighting it once again. ‘Your fancy silk magic is all about the mind, but it needs an ego to bind itself to, a sense of individuality.’ She took a puff from the reed, exhaling a ring of smoke that floated in the air between them. ‘Sometimes it’s healthy to forget yourself a little.’

‘Impossible,’ Mer’esan declared, a sudden tightness in her chest at the very thought of it. ‘No one can lose themselves so utterly as to evade the power of silk magic.’

Another puff of smoke, and another self-satisfied smirk. ‘Impossible for you Jan’Tep, maybe, on account of how you’re all obsessed with being in control of yourselves and everything around you.’

The dowager magus prepared a retort. The Argosi were known to love debate and philosophizing. Well, Mer’esan had lived three hundred years and knew more about rhetoric and philosophy than any wandering gambler could ever imagine. But before she could reply, Ferius Parfax added, ‘Kind of like the way you’re trying to control the kid.’

Ah. At last a weakness, or at least an admission. ‘So your reason for having saved his life is more than passing altruism.’

The Argosi shook her head. ‘See, that’s the problem with you Jan’Tep: you can only see one possibility at a time. I saved Kellen because I saw a boy about to die for no better reason than that he was born into a country so crazy they make children fight each other with magic to impress their parents. If saving his life makes him useful to me in other ways, well, that’s just the way the path twists and turns.’

‘And that path has led you to my door?’

The Argosi shrugged. ’You ordered the kid to spy on me. Just figured we could save time by talking face to face.’

‘The boy confessed to you.’ Mer’esan felt a stab of disappointment. She’d had such high hopes for him.

‘He didn’t say a word. Kellen’s a good kid, trying his best to figure out what’s right.’

The implied slight troubled Mer’esan more than she liked. ‘As are we all. So then, have you come to demand that I desist? Or is it something else? Why do the Argosi seek to meddle in Jan’Tep affairs, now of all times? When our great houses are divided over who will take the seat of the clan prince now that my husband is dead? Is that why you’re here? Because the wanderers sense weakness in us now that our most powerful mage is gone?’

‘Your husband was an idiot.’

The declaration was like a slap to Mer’esan’s face, and despite her own feelings, despite what he had . . . The memory wouldn’t even allow itself to form in her mind. ‘You would not dare to speak so of the clan prince if he was alive.’

Ferius Parfax took a step towards Mer’esan. ‘I know what he did to you.’

Mer’esan opened her mouth, but the words died. Even such a small, unintentional utterance triggered the spell, and the chains tightened themselves around her mind.

The Argosi was staring at her, anger, no . . . fury in her gaze. But tempered with other things too. Determination. Resignation. And one other thing: sympathy. ‘I know the secret you keep,’ Ferius Parfax said. ‘I would break the chain for you if I could.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Please, please, show me some new Argosi trick, unwrap this thing from my soul and prove how clever you are, I beg you!

But there was nothing the other woman could do for her, nothing that Mer’esan herself hadn’t tried hundreds of times. Nothing save look upon her with pity. It was that last that hurt the most. To be pitied by a wandering gambler with no more magic than a half-witted goatherd. How Mer’esan wanted to rage at her, to scream the frustration of almost three hundred years of binding! An atrocity committed by her own—

Even here, even this fleeting thought – not even a word spoken but merely the feeling behind it – and the iron and silk magics clamped down around her throat.

Ferius Parfax spoke softly, barely a whisper, as if in doing so her words might go unnoticed by the spell. ‘I would reveal the secret for you, Dowager Magus. I’d shout it to the world, but it wouldn’t help, would it? The only way around the chain is for the truth to come out through happenstance. That’s the real reason why you want the boy. You’re betting that Kellen will work out the truth on his own and break the binding that way.’

‘You seem confused,’ Mer’esan said. ‘There is no . . .’ She couldn’t even speak its name. Instead, after a gurgling gasp, the spell forced her to say, ‘. . . no point in idle speculation.’

The Argosi nodded. ‘Then we will speak of it no more.’

The constricting pressure around her throat faded, and it was as if Mer’esan was a free woman once again. Free so long as she never thought of it, never tried to speak it aloud. Free so long as the truth burned away at her insides forever.

Ferius Parfax produced a small leather bundle and proceeded to unroll it on Mer’esan’s small rickety table. Inside was a small quantity of blank playing cards, along with brushes and inks. ‘You wish to paint my card?’ Mer’esan asked. ‘That is why you’ve gone to all this trouble to sneak into my cottage?’

‘Why not?’ the Argosi asked, her sly grin back on her face. ‘It’s not like you’re gonna get any prettier with time.’

Suddenly Mer’esan understood. ‘You believe my days are numbered, that I will die soon.’

The Argosi nodded.

‘Then am I . . .’ Mer’esan reached for the word. She’d spoken it only hours before to the boy, Kellen. ‘Am I one of your so-called “Discordances”? Does my life change the course of history?’

The other woman looked up at her, hesitating before answering. ‘Every life has meaning, Dowager. Every life changes the world around it.’

‘Do not patronize me! Am I a Discordance or –‘

‘No, you’re not. I . . . think you would have been, if you hadn’t been . . .’ The Argosi stopped, thankfully, because already the chain was rattling warningly inside Mer’esan’s mind.

Despite the strength and vigour her magics had brought her, she suddenly found it difficult to stand. She made her way to her chair and sank down into it. A wetness on her cheeks surprised her, and Mer’esan realized she was crying. ‘Then why did you come, damn you? Why waste time painting a card of a foolish old woman who means nothing to her own people, never mind to history?’

The Argosi looked stricken, uncertain for the first time since her arrival. ‘It’s the only thing I can think of that I can do for you, Mer’esan of the Jan’Tep.’

And suddenly that was the most important thing in the world: to not pass unremembered, to not have suffered for so long without anyone—

Again the damned chain snapped tight, strangling her, forcing her to forget even the torment that keeping her people’s darkest secret inflicted upon her. Mer’esan had to force herself to push as hard as she could against the binding just to whisper, ‘I don’t want to be forgotten.’

She felt two hands wrapping around her own, and opened her eyes to see Ferius Parfax kneeling before her. ‘I’m going to paint your card, Mer’esan, and the world will remember you. Know why?’

‘Why?’ she asked.

There was steel behind the softness in the Argosi’s eyes. ’Because I will not let them forget.’

Like a thunderclap signalling rain to one who’d only known the desert, Mer’esan suddenly understood how important this was to her, how much fear had lain in the certainty of going unremembered. ‘You would do that for me? A stranger? An enemy?’

Ferius Parfax took her hands away from Mer’esan’s and used them to wipe the tears away before going back to open up the first bottle of ink and dip one of the brushes inside. ‘I will, and I promise to do one thing more for you, Mer’esan of the Jan’Tep.’

‘What is that?’ she asked.

The other woman looked up from her painting, the mischievous smile firmly back in place. ‘I’m going to miss you, you crazy old bird.’

For You Are Sure To Die . . .Bonus Content

Sen Errera Bottio’s seminal work on the art of duelling is noted for two things: first, it’s the most depressing fencing book ever written, and second, it’s the only one to attempt to develop a complete list of duelling styles. While many manuals of the period described fencing technique in detail, Bottio considered these to be irrelevant ‘pamphlets for dilletantes.’ To Bottio, fencing was mere sport practiced by those without any real comprehension of the deadly nature of individual combat. Here, then, are brief descriptions of Bottio’s duellists.

The 8 Duelists

1. The Avertiere – Master of Feints

A duelist who uses feints and false attacks to distract his opponent, aiming at those parts of the body his enemy will instinctively protect, like the eyes or the neck, and drawing out wide parries so  that when the avertier launches his true attack, the real target will be undefended.

2. The Delusor – Master of Deception

Though not described in published versions of Bottio’s manual of duelling, rumours about that the Delusor was part of the original hand-written text. The art of the Delusor is more a strategy than a skill: it entails arranging for your opponent to be injured or drunk prior to the duel beginning, thus defeating them before the fight begins.

3. The Eludere – Master of Evasion

It’s entirely possible that the most annoying style of duelling is that of the Eludere. Practitioners of this technique specialize in parrying blows—deflecting attacks over and over and over until their opponents grow so frustrated they lose concentration. Bottio considered the Eludere to be only slightly less cowardly than the Fugadist.

4. The Fugadist – Master of Cowardice

Bottio despised cowards, yet went into great detail about the ways in which a Fugadist will attempt to avoid the duel entirely or, if necessary, simply run around the duelling court screaming in hopes someone will take pity and stop the fight. While this sounds both venal and pointless, the mere fact that Bottio described the methods at length suggests it sometimes works.

5. The Ludator – Master of the Ground Game

The Ludator’s strategy is to look for ways of knocking his opponent over, removing any advantage of greater reach or skill and finish the duel on the ground. This is a common tactic among bully-boys and other unskilled fighters, and one that works remarkably often against those unused to grappling.

6. The Perseguere – Master of the Feather Touch

The Perseguere’s art is to perfectly keep their blade in contact with the opponents. They never feint or retreat, but rather control the enemy’s blade, pursuing them across the court until they gain the advantage and can push through the opponent’s defence.

7. The Sanguinist – Master of a Thousand Cuts

Sanguinists specialize in the long game, conserving their strength while evading their enemy’s attempts to strike any substantial blow. In the meantime, they go for quick, tiny cuts, slowly increasing their opponent’s pain, fatigue, and frustration until they’re ready to deliver the final stroke.

8. The Vinceret – Master of the Quick Draw

Bottio believed the perfect duellist was the one who only needed one strike. Thus the Vinceret would spend years practicing drawing their blade into a lightning-fast lunge. With this skill mastered, the Vinceret could then wait for the moment the magistrate signals for the duel to begin, and then pull their weapon and strike so fast the battle is over less than a second after it’s begun.

FirewoodShadowblack

Reichis was still swearing his fuzzy little head off when Ferius sent me to fill our water flasks and gather more firewood while she buried her collection of little tricks and traps along the perimeter our campsite. I’d seen a few of her devices, mostly little balls with sharp spikes and tripwires. She never let me watch, though, which annoyed me nearly as much as the vague responses she gave when I asked why she was keeping them secret. “No point filling your head with nonsense when there’s barely enough room in there for how to find clean water and firewood.”

I consoled myself with the fact that she was probably wasting her time and effort. The last time we’d had a run-in with a Jan’Tep bounty hunter was only two weeks ago. You don’t see a lot of mages in the borderlands; they tend to stay out of each other’s way to avoid getting into a dispute that more often than not ends up with one or both of them burnt to a crisp or torn apart by lightning. Outside of the social structure of a clan, magic is a strangely isolating pursuit. You can’t trust the people you meet who have it, and those who don’t rarely trust you.

My chest tightened up at that thought. I was so far away from my clan now, from my sister Shalla and our mother and father. Every time I was by myself, I felt the urge to go back home to my people. I couldn’t, of course. Too many of them wanted me dead. Even my father, Ke’heops, likely the clan prince by now, only saw me as a potential tool to use against his enemies.

Nephenia didn’t look at me that way, though. She was the one person in my clan who could look at the Shadowblack around my eye without either seeing an excuse to kill me or an opportunity to exploit me. But Nephenia would have begun her apprenticeship with one of the masters by now, and probably had little time to think about me. She might be training as a warmage and mastering dozens of combat spells, or as an augurist, learning the ways of silk and sand magic to enable her to seek out dangers or secrets that could benefit our clan. Seedmage, lightshaper, chaincaster…she could already be well on her way to following any of those paths right now. Her life was one of magic and discovery, of hanging out with friends at the end of each day and talking about new spells and new breakthroughs. Maybe she’d even sparked another of her bands by now.

I let the bits of wood and scrub I’d assembled drop down to the ground and stared at the metallic ink tattoos around my own forearms. When I sent my will through the breath band, a faint silver-blue glow shimmered among its sigils. All the other bands were dull and flat, rendered lifeless by the counter-sigils burned into them by my own parents. I wanted to hate them so badly. Some days I did hate them. They’d stolen my whole future from me. Most of the time though, I missed my mother and father, wishing more than anything that they would come find me and tell me everything was okay and bring me home. I knew that was never going to happen. Hell, my father had probably voted right along with the rest of the council to put a price on my head, but knowing that didn’t seem to make a difference. I missed my family. I didn’t want to be alone.

“I thought the Argosi told you to find water,” Reichis chittered, padding up the trail behind me. “Not make it appear from your eyeballs.”

“I’m not crying,” I said.

He gave his little “huh huh huh” sound that was his best imitation of human laughter.

I hated when he did that. 

“Shut up, Reichis.”

The squirrel cat leapt up to land on the branch of a desiccated tree that didn’t look like it had much hope of holding his weight. The whole tree swayed back and forth, Reichis seemingly untroubled by its precarious movement. “Want to talk about it?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Why’s that?”

I reached down to pick up some dry brush for tinder only to have a thorn catch in the skin of my palm. “Damn it, because it doesn’t involve ripping out eyeballs or chewing people’s ears off, all right?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said. Hidden beneath his casual tone was a soft, almost indiscernible growl. a soft, almost indiscernible growl hidden in his voice. I’ve learned to watch out for that sound.

“I didn’t mean—“

“No, no, I get it.” He pretended to clean the fur on one paw, which is how he hides it when he’s planning to do something awful to me. “How could I possibly understand the complicated problems of human beings.”

I knelt down to retrieve the little pile of firewood I’d assembled. “Look, I’m not saying—“

“Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m just a dumb squirrel cat. What are we good for anyway, other than, you know…” the claws on his paw suddenly emerged into view. “Tearing apart soft flesh.” He gave an entirely fake yawn so to show off his fangs. “I suppose we’re pretty good at biting things, too.”

At times like this, the only thing to do is to offer up some shiny trinket or coin and hope he accepts it as a bribe. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything with me. “How bad’s it going to be?” I asked.

He seemed to give the matter a lot of thought. “Who knows, what with me being a dumb animal?”

“I never said that, all right? I just misspoke.”

“Oh, let me help you with that. See, my guess is that one day, maybe tonight, maybe a year from now, you’re going to wake up with a particularly nasty bite on your leg. That way, next time you’re thinking about misspeaking, you can just remember the bite and think twice.”

Great. “Fine. You want to know what’s wrong with me? I—“

“You miss your people,” the squirrel cat said. “You’re alone and you never knew what that would be like and it turns out that it sucks.”

“That’s…actually pretty accurate.” A thought occurred to me then. Reichis was in the same situation as I was. Almost his entire tribe had been killed by Ra’meth, and here he was, a good hundred miles from his old territory, even more alone than I was. I could still remember the sight of his mother, Chitra, her flesh burnt by Ra’meth’s spells, crawling towards us, putting her muzzle on Reichis before she died. ‘He will be so full of anger, this one. You must be his caution, as he will be your courage. You will teach him when to flee and he will teach you when to fight.’

“I’m sorry about your mother,” I said.

“Yeah, me too.” The squirrel cat hopped from his swaying tree branch to my shoulder and wrapped his bushy tail around my neck. “Sorry your parents turned out to be horrible crazy people who wrecked your life.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I started back along the trail towards camp. About halfway there Reichis said, “I’m still going to give you that bite someday, though. You know that, right?”

Secrets Of The GreatcoatsBonus Content

Letter To Falcio

 

Dear Falcio,

A few hours ago a cleric came to my cell – a proper Venerati Magni, no less – asking whether I wished to make final confession to the Gods. The longer we spoke, the more apparent it became that what he mostwished me to confess was the location of any treasures I might have secreted away from the Dukes prior to their taking the castle. He assured me that unburdening myself would ease my passage into the arms of the Gods.

Having nothing else to divert me whilst waiting for the headman’s axe, I promptly broke down in tears and proceeded to reveal, in precise and exhaustive detail, the wondrously inventive places where I had hidden various jewels and caches of gold spirited away from the castle treasury . . . the list of hiding places includes dung heaps, dead bodies and roughly half the privies in the country. Should you ever meet the smelliest priest in all of Tristia, do, I beg you, apologise on my behalf.

It’s too much to hope that you’ll be allowed in to my cell before I am executed, so I have used what little gold I had squirrelled away to secure three blank casebooks from the library, in the hope that they will reach at least one of you three. Inside, you will find my last ruminations about this sad country that you and I have tried so hard to redeem. May they bring you more insight than they brought me.

And if, by some great chance, the Generals should let you see me one last time, know that I am sorry for the final service I will have asked of you.

 

Paelis

who was once called King of Tristia,

but was never more nor less than

your friend.

 

Letter To Kest

Dear Kest,

Were you here with me in this cell, I have no doubt that you would be informing me of the precise odds of these three little books ever reaching their intended readers. No doubt you would also find it necessary to remind me that the odds are only worsened by trying to get the books to you, Brasti and Falcio individually, rather than just sending them out via any other Greatcoats, who will surely have a lower price on their heads than you three will by this point. Please know that I always found your keen intellect in these matters to be at once astute and annoying.

There was something I always wanted to tell you but never seemed to find the right way to do so: there is no shame in love, no matter what others may tell you – and no matter what you may tell yourself. I write this because I am uniquely aware of the unfairness of my final command to you. Forgive me, if you can; there is simply no one else I can trust with such a burden.

Yours with admiration,

Paelis, King of Tristia

 

Letter To Brasti

 

Dear Brasti,

Should this book reach you, which is optimistic at best, you will find in its pages my last notes regarding the country and what forces the Greatcoats might encounter after my death. I doubt you will be any more interested in affairs of state after my death than the times when I had to literally command you to pay attention – but there is always some chance that this little book will slip out of whatever pocket you’ve lost it in and Falcio will notice it. Should the copy I’ve sent him not reach him, then perhaps he’ll find yours.

If you do happen to open the book, do try not to rip out the pages to wipe your arse with. I’ve coated them with something that will make that a most memorable experience.

You always were an annoying bastard, but I thank you for having forced me to laugh on occasion, especially now.

Yours in amity,

Paelis, King of Tristia (for a few more hours, anyway)

 

Old Man Tristia

 

Tristia is an old man, so starved for hope he has lost even the ability to feel its hunger and now forgets who he once was; he tries to climb one last hill where his feeble eyes can just make out a small, withered fruit tree at the top. He stumbles up that hill, driven by an urge, maybe some last vestige of a better humanity, that’s telling him if he can just get to that tree and taste its fruit, he will remember his name, who he was, for what purpose he had lived. But no matter how hard he climbs, he keeps sliding back down, tearing the skin of his fingers and knees as he struggles to find purchase on the loose shale of the hillside.

He can never make it to the top because he is weighed down by a pack full of useless things he should have shed long ago – things which outlived their purpose ages – centuries– ago. His burden cannot feed him when he hungers; it will not warm him when he is cold; it does not help him find his way when the light grows dim.

What is in that pack? you ask; what burden does the old man carry that keeps him from the tree at the top of the hill?

It is us.

It is the nobility: the Dukes and Lords, the burden of a crushing and brutal system of rule as unjust as it is ingrained. 

It is all of us, even me.

 

The Trattari

 

When I first discovered that the word Trattariwas, in fact, not an insult but the name used centuries ago by the first order of Greatcoats, I nearly fell over laughing. The word that so torments Falcio that whenever he hears it I can almost see the blood boiling in his veins and smoke emerging from his ears was, in fact, proudly borne by those very men and women we now choose to emulate. I can’t count the number of times I considered revealing this choice little fact to Falcio, only to force the words back down, saving that revelation for another day. I suspect he must have thought me quite mad at times.

The earliest reference to the name comes from the dedication atop a crumbling scroll listing one of Tristia’s first set of laws: Et ellis solé trattari ven armé infirmi contris iniquita.

To save you the effort of looking up the words, that means: And with tattered cloaks will they shield the weakest from injustice.

It was as if, even then, those who made the laws understood the price that would have to be paid by those who enforced them.

Et ellis solé trattari ven armé infirmi contris iniquita.

I take strength in those words. They allow me to believe that the hundred and forty-four commands I have issued to my Greatcoats, these terrible and unfair demands I have made of you men and women who deserved so much better than the weak and foolish King you got, are somehow necessary, perhaps even justified.

Trattari. Tattered Cloaks.

It gives me hope.

 

The Honori

 

I have never quite been able to decide whether the word Knighthood is meant to refer to the ancient military orders or whether it’s the name of a rather severe mental disease. How did we ever manage to produce such a high number of men with the same perverse ideas of honour and loyalty? How does one get from, ‘My honour is my life’ to ‘Well, my Lord ordered me to beat that old man to death for his amusement so, here goes’?

To make it worse, most of my subjects appear to actively admire the Knights – or the Honori, as they were once known. I can’t help but think this has something to do with the fine shiny armour and the lovely embroidered tabards. Perhaps I should have asked my mother to sew little gold patches into the greatcoats.

However, as obscene as the Knights are now, the thought that terrifies me more is this: What happens when all these powerful men in armour decide to stop following the orders of their nobles?

 

The Dashini

 

I have lost twelve good men trying to root out the lair of those execrable bastards. How is a King supposed to establish any kind of order in his nation when anyone with enough money and influence can simply purchase the death of those they despise? What kind of country breeds such perfect dedication to the art of murder?

Ours.

I always believed the Dashini must have come from somewhere else – somewhere in the East, where it would be comfortable to believe such atrocities are welcomed. But I was wrong: the word Dashinicomes from the archaic Tristian: da, meaning final, and shini, meaning breath. The order of assassins started here, in our very own country.

I believe now that one of my predecessors set his armies the task of rooting out the Dashini; if the scant evidence I have found is correct, the Dashini fled, disgraced at being found. They retreated east, where they added to their already formidable skills the arts of the desert monks in their hidden monasteries: patience; silence; clarity; abandonment of the self. These all sound like fine virtues – until they are adopted by trained killers.

When the Dashini returned to Tristia to continue their Gods-forsaken mission, they were, quite simply, unbeatable in their arts.

There are a few scholars who believe that the Dashini serve a vital function, ensuring that those in power can never rest easy, never be completely assured of their invulnerability, which is, these scholars tell me, as necessary a force as justice itself in protecting a nation from tyranny.

All I know is that the bastards terrify me.

Twelve Greatcoats I lost in my vain quest to remove my fear of the Dashini. Perhaps it is hopeless to try. Twelve. You’d think I had learned my lesson.

Then I sent one more.

 

The Bardatti

 

The Bardatti confound me. Why would our ancestors have chosen singers and musicians to be the threads that tie the country together? Why should wandering troubadours be entrusted with carrying the land’s most secret and vital information?

I suppose it makes sense: that in a country like ours, where every nobleman is perfectly happy to murder the King’s messengers and spies if he thinks he can get away with it, there would need to be subtler ways of getting information and evidence safely from one end of the country to the other.

I have spent countless hours in the royal library trying to trace the origins and training of the Bardatti, to uncover their secrets, but of course, there is nothing: the Bardatti have made sure of that. They keep their ways hidden from others and though they swear to me up and down that they serve the monarchy, nonetheless they are not under my command.

It is a hard thing to be King of such an unruly country.

 

The Rangieri

 

Trattari, Dashini, Bardatti . . . they are all connected somehow, though we had thought them separate and distinct – after all, what connection could there possibly be between the Greatcoats, travelling judges enforcing the law, with the Dashini, who unleash such murder and mayhem upon the country? But you just have to listen: Trattari, Dashini, Bardatti . . . these words all trace their roots back to archaic Tristian. But there is more: students of such things will recognise the names share not just a time but a place too, placing them all within the same region and century. Does this not suggest more than just a connection but a relationship? And if such a connection did exist, is it also possible that these different orders shared a greater purpose?

When I first recognised this pattern, I began searching for more names in the ancient texts, expecting to find that the Cogneri, the Venerati and the other religious orders were part of it too – but they are not. At some point in ancient times there was a distinct moment when the religious and the secular split apart. The Trattari, the Dashini and the Bardatti have no connection to the churches. Somewhere in our distant past, we began creating orders of men and women whose purpose was to protect the country in ways both varied and baffling to me.

Recently, I found one more name to add to our ranks: the Rangieri.

As best I can tell, the word means ’far walkers’, or perhaps, ‘lost walkers’. However I have never met a Rangieri, nor do I know where to find them.

Perhaps they are indeed lost.

 

The Religious Orders

 

It would be easy to think that religion was dying out in Tristia these days – oh, sure, we make our prayers to the Gods and venerate the Saints. We hand out alms to roadside clerics and sit through interminable sermons when we can’t think of a good reason to be somewhere more interesting. But the churches are so fractured, so disorganised, that I wonder how they ever had such rigid and exacting orders defending them. Those few we encounter nowadays are generally old has-beens clinging to the tattered remnants of past glories.

There are two branches of the Venerati: the Venerati Magni, who preach to the wealthy and powerful, and the Venerati Ignobli, who tend to the poor. When I first took power I made some tentative moves to have the two combined – you will remember how well this went over with both the nobles and the Venerati Magni.

I met a Deator once. The man claimed that he could speak for the God War through his ecstatic trances; certainly his pronouncements regarding both the fate of the country and my own fate in particular were as dire as they were certain. I let him finish his speech before I replied, ‘Now tell me something I didn’t already know.’ It was worth it just to see his face.

The Quaestiappear to be the lowest of the low in the clerical ranks: monks clad in plain grey robes who travel our fair land waiting to be chosen by one of the Gods, who will call them to their colours. I wonder that they have such patience. 

I might have backed down on the issue of the Venerati, but I did at least stay firm on the issue of the Admorteo. I refused to condone torture in the churches of Tristia; there would be no more mortification of the flesh under the guise of bringing a soul closer to the Gods. I suspect that despite my decree, a few of these remain – should you happen to encounter any Admorteo in your travels, I would be grateful if you would give them a sound beating and see if their souls get any closer to the Gods that way. 

I don’t often pray, but Gods help us if the Fidericome back. The damned Honori create enough problems with their skewed notions of loyalty; how much worse are the Church Knights, believing that their violence is doing the work of the Gods themselves?

I had a lovely debate with an old Cogneri one evening in Hervor: over a very fine wine we argued over the question of precedence between religious and secular law, our fascinating discussions lasting into the early hours of the morning. At the end, I thanked the old Inquisitor for his patience, and he kindly informed me that the Gods would likely flay my soul once they finally got their hands on me.

 

The Sancti

 

he oddest thing about the Saints is that they do not appear to be connected to the religious orders in any way. Oh, the clerics refer to them often enough in their sermons, and some of their churches are actually dedicated to various of the Saints, but that seems to be the end of it.

The oldest religious texts don’t refer to the Saints, and the Saints themselves – those few I have had the pleasure (or not) of meeting – appear to be completely uninterested in religious affairs. They see themselves as serving some loftier purpose, though they would not reveal it to me for love or money. One of them (who I am almost positive was Saint Anlas-who-remembers-the-world) tried to kill me for having the temerity to ask. 

The others I met were no more forthcoming, although undoubtedly friendlier. Saint Laina, in particular, was most accommodating . . . 

 

The Nobli

 

In theory, the title given to all nobles in Tristia is Magni; however, given that those of lesser birth are called Ignobli, I always felt it more appropriate to think of the nobility as the Nobli. I rather like the word – it sounds small, and just close enough to ‘knobbly’ to give me a laugh as I think about those Dukes and Duchesses, Margraves and Margravinas, Viscounts and Viscountesses, Lords and Daminas, all of them drinking my wine as they await my execution.

I suppose I could have done a better job of explaining to you why simply fighting the Dukes’ army, or even killing the Dukes themselves would have done nothing to win our cause. The truth is, as powerful as they appear to be, the Dukes’ lives are as precarious as that of any ruler: beneath them there’s always a lesser noble eager and willing to take his throne away from him. As venal as they are, I do believe the Dukes are only half as bad as the minor nobles biting at the heels of our country and trying to drain every drop of blood they can from it. I would say they were like rats, but I don’t believe rats reproduce half as fast as nobles do.

As to the Dukes, here are a few final thoughts about them:

Erris, Duke of Pulnam: How that man hasn’t died yet is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because he spends so much time declaring his love for the Gods that they have decided it best to keep their distance from him?

Pulnam is a poor Duchy, but it has just enough farming to make both Hervor and Orison interested in annexing it. You will be able to secure Erris’ support for precisely as long as he believes it will keep dear Patriana off his back.

Hadiermo, Duke of Domaris: The self-styled ‘Iron Duke’ will betray you twice a day if he can, and three times on feast days. It’s odd, given that his Duchy is known for the sturdiness of its wood and iron mines, that its ruler should be so inconstant. Remember this about Hadiermo: his utter untrustworthiness makes him predictable. Once you understand this, despite his own efforts he may well serve as a useful ally in future.

Meillard, Duke of Pertine: I have never shared more than two words with Meillard. He is, by all accounts, a sensible and practical man. Coming from a poor and hard-to-defend Duchy, I suspect this explains why he’s never bothered to curry my favour: he guessed long ago that my rule would end in untimely and bloody fashion. I can’t say that endears him to me.

Ossia, Duchess of Baern: She is the closest thing you will have to an ally in the years to come. Trust her counsel, should she offer any. If things get rough, make for Chevor and from there get word to her. Ossia will help you as far as she can, and when she can no longer, she will, I believe, do you the courtesy of giving you a head-start before she betrays you to the others.

Roset, Duke of Luth: Roset wishes nothing more than for the world to leave him and his little Duchy alone. He likes women, plain food and reading old romances. I sent him a few books from the library once and he was genuinely touched. Mind you, that didn’t stop him from being the very first one to demand my execution at the highly theatrical little trial the Dukes held for me yesterday. 

Perault, Duke of Orison: Ah, if only all my enemies were like Perault: handsome, well-spoken, powerful, and utterly stupid. Other than Brasti, I have never met a man who so clearly wanted to soundintelligent without ever intending to do any of the work required to become so. Stay out of Perault’s way, if you can, although I cannot imagine him being long for this world.

Orison is a dull place whose historic function has been primarily to provide the wall between Avares and Tristia. The people there have little love for the south and even less for me, but generally they have no desire to get involved in affairs outside their borders.

Isault, Duke of Aramor: I’ve always thought that being Duke of Aramor is a pretty unpleasant job. Given that the Duchy is home to Castle Aramor and the seat of the Kings of Tristia, being Duke is rather a poor second place. Of all the Dukes, I think I know Isault best. He often comes to swear at me and make demands, always knowing the answers ahead of time – it’s entirely possible he makes these trips simply because he likes the food here better than at home.

I worry that one of the other Dukes will see his Duchy as the easiest to take – and the most valuable. I have made some efforts to protect him and his young family. I hope they do some good.

Jillard, Duke of Rijou: It’s hard to convey my confusion and disappointment in Andreas Jillard. As a young man he was both wise and inquisitive. He travelled in the east for years specifically to expand his knowledge of the world beyond our borders. I remember him coming to Aramor, and my father giving him permission to sleep in the library so he could study old texts on government and the social order. My father thought him mad; I thought him perhaps the best of the next generation of Ducal rulers. 

But when his own father died and Jillard took his seat in Rijou, it took very little time before he emerged as every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as his parent. What does it tell you about this country that a young man as promising as Andreas Jillard can become who he is today?

I can only hope that somewhere in there the idealistic young man who wanted so badly to be a great ruler still hides. Redeem him if you can.

Patriana, Duchess of Hervor: My darling Patriana. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that she is, without doubt, the most brilliant and daring of all the Dukes. I know Falcio would probably use different words to describe her. She once came to me with an offer of marriage. I asked her how long after the wedding I would remain alive. ‘Not long,’ she replied, ‘but better a brief and glorious honeymoon than what will await you if you refuse me.’

Beware Patriana. She is not like the others. She plots in years and decades, not in simple gambits, as the other Dukes do. She has known defeat, and she has overcome it, time and again. Every time you unwind one of her conspiracies, you will find another slowly wrapping itself around you.

Perhaps I should have agreed to marry her.

 

The Inlaudati

 

Inlaudati: a single word that appears to be almost devoid of meaning. Like so many of the other orders I have described, this one too can be traced back to archaic Tristian – but it is older, and it doesn’t actually appear to be connected to the Trattari and Bardatti. 

No, this is something different and altogether terrifying to me. 

Inlaudati, as best I can discern, means ‘the unrecognised’. Those few references I can find to it suggest that, unlike the orders of Honori or Cogneri or any of the rest, there have only ever been one or two Inlaudati at a time. In all the histories I have read, they appear almost as poetic devices: ‘Thus did the painter, with her brush most subtle, upon the world her colours place.’ Rubbish both as history and as poetry, if you ask me.

But there are other references too, which imply that there are those who can pull at the strings of the world at a far deeper level, much as I have tried to do. As a student of strategy I have worked to pull strings whose effects I believe will ripple through the next century – but I am no Inlaudati, so I shudder as I think on what actual long-term influence my meddling might have upon the future of this country.

As to the origin of the Inlaudati, I have no real clues. I am almost positive that the Tailor is one, but I know she was born a normal woman. She married a rather terrible man when she was young, and she paid a dreadful price for that. Now she is something utterly different – something her own son has trouble at times recognising.

Maybe that’s the point.

 

The Tailor's Name

 

It occurs to me, sitting here, waiting for the headsman, that this is the one time in my life when my mother is unable to cajole me with her usual exhortations about ‘where every thread began and where every thread will end.’ 

Ever since she began calling herself ‘The Tailor’, she has refused to use the name by which she was known before, nor will she abide having it spoken in her presence. So determined is she in this that, to my knowledge, there is no one now left who remembers her true name. But I do.

You were never a very conventional mother, but you were mine, and you never failed to astonish.

I love you, Margrit Denezia.

Deleted ScenesBonus Content

Prologue – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: These were the first words I wrote at 3am the night I came up with the central dilemma of the final novel in the series: the discovery of another heir.

Deleted because, while this might be a dramatic (and even enigmatic) introduction to the book, it didn’t fit with the style of the series, which usually opens with a second-person philosophical flourish rather than dark and sinister foreshadowing.

***

All the boy said was, “Oh, Falcio, I am so very sorry.”

The sound of my rapier clattering to the floor was followed by the sensation of falling and then a sudden pain in my knees as they struck the hard stone floor. My arms hung useless at my sides like withered vines from a dying tree.

Brasti was shouting behind me. “What’s wrong with him?”

The creek of his ironwood bow bending under the tension of its string was answered by the whisper of Kest’s blade leaving its sheath. An instant later, the sword’s tip nestled against the neck of the boy who had spoken.

“If this is magic,” Kest said, “I would suggest you stop it now.”

The boy said nothing. He didn’t need to.

“Maybe it’s not magic,” Brasti said, one eye on me even as he kept his arrow aimed at the child. “It’s probably poison. Falcio’s always getting poisoned.”

In fact, it was neither of those things.

It was the blood.

It’s always the blood.

Rhetan’s Statuary – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: After making a deal with Falcio, Margrave Rhetan brings him to see his prized collection of statues, including one of a certain Greatcoat undergoing the infamous Lament.

Deleted for several reasons, first being that I’d originally thought of having this sequence in Saint’s Blood (which is set shortly after the Greatcoat’s Lament) and it didn’t make as much sense in Tyrant’s Throne. Also, it took Rhetan down a darker path and ultimately didn’t serve the story – it would have only made Morn’s argument about the need for a new regime more credible.

***

“I must say, Falcio, that was all rather clever of you,” Rhetan said, winding his way down a circular staircase down through floor after floor of the keep’s main tower.

Kest, Brasti and I followed along behind. “What is it exactly that you wish to show us?” I asked.

“You’ll see. It’s not far now.”

I stopped. “Forgive me, Margrave Rhetan, but if you’re about to take us on a tour of your dungeon so as to impress upon us just how powerful and dangerous you are, I’d just as soon skip the tour and go straight to the threats.”

“Dungeon? Goodness, no. There’s no dungeon here. We have an old one in the east tower which I’m sure you could go visit if that’s your interest.” When we reached a large iron door, he pulled a key from inside his coat. “I suspect you’ll find this much more impressive.”

Beyond the door awaited a great hall, laid out much like the ballroom of a palace with twenty-foot high ceilings and light coming from thick glass windows set in the upper sections of the outer wall. The floors were marble, which was wildly expensive and was odd to find here given how plain Rhetan’s own throne room had been in comparison. But it was the contents of the room that took our breath away. “Saint Gan-who-laughs-with-dice,” I said, lacking anything more sensible to say.

“Welcome to my statuary,” Rhetan said, and extended an arm to show us his collection.

What looked to be two dozen statues, some in stone, some marble, and a few in bronze, were on display throughout the room. The first one we encountered showed two men in battle, one a near-giant in armour holding an oversized battle-axe while the other was a young man with nothing in but a small rock in his hands and a look of determination on his face. I recognized the scene as the legendary fight between King Teorre and his uncle, the usurper Sen Varran.

The next statue showed a woman, her arms laden with food, feeding starving peasants. “That’s the Lady Phan,” Kest said.  “Whose new methods of agriculture saved the former duchy of Bijalle and gave it its current name.”

“Imagine what it must have been like,” Rhetan mused, “to see this simple peasant girl coming with that first harvest? To realize that this young woman, uneducated and illiterate, had devised the means to save an entire people? It’s no wonder they changed the name of the duchy to honour her, is it?”

I looked around at the rest of the statues. Each was similarly impressive both in design and in what it represented. “It’s like walking through the history of Tristia’s legends.”

“Wouldn’t a decent book be cheaper?” Brasti asked. 

Rhetan laughed. “I suppose, but this isn’t about history, really.”

“Then what is it about?” Kest asked.

Rhetan led us down the centre of the room. “It’s about what I call the Great Acts. Those moments where a man or woman has done something that was simply inconceivable before.”

“Impressive,” Kest said, “but Brasti’s right. It seems a rather expensive hobby.”

Rhetan didn’t answer but rather walked to the end of the room. There, beneath the light of a circular window set in the wall, was what I presumed was another statue, this one obscured in a large grey cloth.

“It’s more than a hobby,” Rhetan said. “To be honest, it’s something of an obsession with me. I come here sometimes and look at these statues and imagine myself being there, in that moment, bearing witness to these magnificent acts…you have to understand, I’m an old man now, and old men rarely get to see anything that truly impresses them anymore.”

“I take it you have a new statue to add to your collection?” I said, pointing to the object covered in the grey cloth.

“Ah, yes. This is quite new. It’s the pride of my collection, really. Cost me an absolute fortune.”

Kest tilted his head as he examined the shape underneath the cloth. “It’s not any larger than the others.”

“Smaller, in fact,” Brasti added.

“Ah, it wasn’t the stone that cost the money, nor even the sculptor’s services, though that wasn’t cheap. No, the expense went into the fate scribes I had to pay.”

“Fate scribes?”

“From the monastery of Saint Anlas-who-remembers-the-world,” Rhetan replied. “I paid them to work with an artist who drew hundreds of sketches from their description. You see, only a few people are still alive who saw the event, and none of them were likely to provide me with the detail required such that the sculptor could do the scene justice.”

“And you’re only unveiling it now?” I asked.

Rhetan smiled. “I’ve viewed it, of course, but you are the first people outside of myself and the sculptor to see it.”

“I would have thought you’d prefer a more august assembly for the unveiling.”

“Ah,” Rhetan said, “there could be no more appropriate audience for this particular statue.”

“Well, what is it supposed to show then?” Brasti asked.

Rhetan’s face took on a look of almost religious awe. “A moment that should have been impossible. An act of unparalleled valour.” He walked behind the statue and picked up a length of rope which was attached to the cloth. “Do you believe that some things are simply beyond the realm of men, and even to tread lightly risks our souls? That for them to occur is a kind of miracle?” He held onto the rope as if waiting for a signal from us.

“I’m bored,” Brasti said. “Is this supposed to be a history lesson? Because if so, it’s working because I feel myself falling asleep.

In one swift motion Rhetan pulled on the rope, and the covering came away, revealing the statue underneath. To me he said, “I was hoping you could tell me if the work is accurate to the original event.”

“Gods…” Brasti whispered.

I said nothing, having lost the use of my wits.

The statue showed a man bound to a tree with branches running diagonally up towards the sky. The man’s arms were tied to those branches, making it look as if he were pleading to the Gods for mercy. His body was naked, save for long, wicked needles piercing his chest, his face, his legs, and even his private parts. His face was a mask of agony and despair, his mouth twisted in a kind of unending horror.

The man was me.

“The Lament,” I said, my voice suddenly as weak and hoarse as it was during those days when I’d screamed over and over until nothing but harsh wheezing escaped my lips. 

“An impossibility,” Rhetan said. “That a man should resist the unparalleled agonies of the Dashini’s greatest achievement.” He turned to me. “But you did, Falcio val Mond. You experienced such torment that are supposed to burn out the very soul of a man and yet you resisted.”

Brasti inspected the statue, his gaze travelling down front the face to the belly and then lower. “Was it particularly cold that day, Falcio? I ask because your—“

“Shut up, Brasti,” Kest said.

“Why did you make this?” I demanded of Rhetan.

He ignored the question and pointed to one of the needles that had been slid beneath one of the ribs. “This one here? Look at the metal. It’s real. I found it at the site.”

“Why…why would you show me this?” I asked.

“I would have thought you’d be proud,” Rhetan said. “In that single act of defiance you broke a plot that would have torn this country apart. The story of the Lament would have forever enslaved our people in fear.” He shook his head sadly. “I’m an old man. I’ve seen some remarkable things in my life but they only make me hunger for more.” His eyes met mine. “My greatest wish in this life is that I might see such valour for myself. To watch it happen in front of me.”

Something occurred to me then—a thought that wound its way inside my mind and then down into my heart. I could never survive the Lament a second time. I could never survive torture like that again. Whatever had saved me during those days of black and red and burning over and over was gone. My flesh had healed and I liked to think my mind had, too, but my soul would never truly recover from those horrors. 

Rhetan looked at me and smiled. “Men such as Evidalle rush to their desires. They have no patience. I have patience. I can wait, for in the waiting I grow more and more confident that I will one day see that wish fulfilled.”

This, then, was his message. He had time. He was disciplined. He would find a way, slowly but surely, to work towards seeing me back on that tree, bound and tortured, and this time, destroyed for good.

“Why…” I couldn’t even find the words.

“You would set your laws above the natural order,” Rhetan said. “You would set them above the very Gods themselves. The Greatcoats are a rot that spreads in the very roots of this country. I said I admired you, Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats. I never said I liked you.”

Perhaps I should have killed him then. I wanted to. Even though, of course, it would mean the destruction of everything we had worked towards. Rhetan knew that such an act would be seen by the Dukes and the rest of the nobility as a declaration of war against them—confirmation that the Greatcoats could never be trusted to administer justice impartially. But still, I would have killed him anyway.

But I was afraid.

“Stay as long as you like,” Rhetan said, as he turned and made his way back down the hall towards the stairs. “Stay as long as you like.”

Is Brasti Touched? Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: During the dressing-down by Duchess Ossia, Chalmers asks Falcio if Brasti might be ‘touched’.

Deleted because the scene already had too many shifts between humour and seriousness.

***

Chalmers elbowed me. ‘Is Brasti touched?’ she asked with a whisper. ‘We had a kitchen boy back at Aramor who fell from the top of the storeroom shelves and struck his head on the stone floor. Kept mixing up his words after that, just like your archer does.’

‘Brasti’s not . . .’ I stopped myself. ‘Yes. Yes, he is. He’s touched. It’s best to use short, simple sentences when talking to him. Oh, and always speak loudly, so he understands you.’

It’s important to enjoy the little things in life when you can.

The Privateer – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: As recompense for their incompetent handling of Evidalle’s conspiracy, Ossia demands the trio help the Privateers she’s hired to hunt down pirates who are stealing supplies meant for Aramor. Falcio, unable to sleep on the ship, makes an unwelcome discovery about just why the pirates have been so successful.

Deleted because it would have taken us on an entirely separate adventure that wasn’t crucial to the overall plot of the novel and would have made the next parts of the book feel disconnected from the opening act.

***

I’m no expert on seasickness, but I’ve yet to find any benefits to commend it. First of all, the constant vomiting means you can’t keep any food down, which means you get gradually weaker day after day. Even worse than the lack of nutrition is the fact that you become dehydrated, which means you’re slowly dying of thirst while being surrounded by water. Of course, since any body of water large enough to sail in tends to be full of salt, it’s not drinkable anyway. I sometimes curse geography as a cruel joke of the Gods. Then I remind myself that most of the Gods are dead so I’m probably wasting my time.

Nausea is another little gift of seasickness, one that is especially annoying for a fencer as it throws off your sense of balance. I could barely make it ten feet along the deck before I’d become convinced I was tipping over. Shifting my weight in the other direction only overbalanced be on the other side, which would then cause me to lean to far in the opposite direction and start falling over like an old man whose cane had just disappeared. The crew found this tremendously funny. It soon became a running joke among the deckhands to challenge me to hold up one end of a mop and challenge me to a duel.

For all that, it turned out there was one benefit to seasickness: it makes it incredibly hard to sleep through the night.

I’d no idea what time it was when I finally slid out of my hammock. Apparently ships don’t carry clocks but rely on seamen periodically ringing a bell—further evidence that sailing is a barbaric practice which I hope is one day consigned to the ash heap of history. I hauled myself up the ladder to find a few sailors on deck and a million stars overhead.

I took up my usual post on the left side of the ship (each side has a proper name, they kept reminding me, but I was determined not to memorize them) with my elbows on the wooden railing (again, there is a proper sailing term for it, I’m told.) Staring out at the horizon reduced the feeling of dizziness and nausea somewhat, but it also put me into a strange kind of trance as I listened to the men going about their business, pulling sail or climbing up and down the rigging. One of the sailors climbed down and then took a spot not far away from me, pulling out a thick needle and thread and starting to sew a patch into a sail near the back of the boat (they call it the stern, I think.)

“Come up for a duel then, eh Trattari?” a passing deckhand called out, elbowing me in the side as he wandered by.

“Name the time and the place,” I replied. “Just as long as it isn’t now and it’s never on this damned boat.”

His laugh turned into something of a hiss. It turns out you can upset sailors by referring to their ship as a boat—something I resolved to do at every opportunity. “It’s ill luck to insult the lady,” he said.

Oh, that’s the other thing: sailors think their ships are females. 

I would have left it there but I realized there wasn’t any merit in taking out my frustration over my own inability to withstand what I was assured were smooth waters on the crew. We’d likely be fighting back to back once we found the pirate vessel.

“Well, if she’s a lady then that explains everything,” I said.

“Yeah, how so?”

“Because I’ve always been terrible with women.”

The deckhand—whose name I now recalled was Trig, though not what it was short for—laughed uproariously. Sailors take a remarkable amount of pleasure in jokes. Possibly the constant shifting and tilting of the ship addles their brains over time. Trig slapped me on the back in appreciation, which had the unfortunate effect of sending what little soup I still had in my stomach over the bow, which then resulted in a renewed cacophony of laughter.

Footsteps came along the deck towards me, notable for the heavy heel on the wooden planks and the sure stride. All other sounds receded in response. Even before I turned, I was fairly sure who was coming to see me.

“Captain Durant,” I said, wiping my mouth with the sleeve of my coat. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”

He smiled, giving me a show of his teeth. “Just wanted to make sure you hadn’t fallen overboard.”

“I’ll manage.” I took in a deep breath to steady myself. Vomiting makes me dizzy. “When we catch up to the kidnappers I’ll be ready.”

The statement was boastful at best, since I’d yet to show any agility at all on deck. I would have expected the captain to scoff in response. Instead he nodded. “Of course, of course. Not a thing to worry about.”

His confidence bothered me somehow. “When do you expect we’ll catch them?”

“Oh, I’d guess in a few hours, likely before dawn.”

Damn. That soon? How in any hell was I going to be ready to board another vessel and fight my way through by then?

Durant seemed to notice my concern. He clapped me gently on the shoulder. “No fears, Falcio, it’ll all go smooth as glass.”

I nodded. He stared at me a while longer and when he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to throw up again he wandered off, sharing grins with his crew as he went.

I leaned back against the rail and watched the goings-on of the ship. Men went about their business without fuss or bother, stopping to tell a joke with each other here or there, sometimes dipping into a coat pocket to pull out a flask and share a drink. Their easy camaraderie bothered me somehow, and since I couldn’t go back to sleep, I tried to figure out why.

I knew nothing about life aboard a ship, but it made sense that a crew who lived and worked so closely would be friendly with each other. I could even understand their affability towards me as both guest and a source of curiosity.

So why am I so irritated?

Seasickness was the obvious explanation, but it wasn’t sufficient. Something was missing. Here I was, aboard their vessel, taking them off whatever business they’d otherwise be engaged in to chase after a pirate ship and risk their lives on a mission to recover a nobleman they had no reason to care about. No matter how fast and deadly Captain Durant insisted his vessel was, the battle to come could easily cost some of the crew their lives. If I were in their shoes, I’d be rightfully pissed at the man who’d brought me this danger and who now showed no signs of being able to carry his share of the fighting. And yet, everyone was nice to me.

And when has that ever been a good sign?

I caught the eyes of a young sailor going by carrying a huge amount of rope on one shoulder. I guessed his age at somewhere shy of seventeen. He nodded as he saw me, then went by and grinned at one of his fellows, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was a chance he could be dead in a few hours. That’s what was bothering me, I realized. These men were overconfident. No, more than that. They’re completely unconcerned.

False confidence usual manifests as boasts about one’s skill and declarations of eagerness to meet the enemy in battle. Beneath the braggadocio always likes a tightness, a tension in the eyes, the smile just a bit too wide, the laughter just a bit too loud. The body reveals the tension even when the mind tries to deny it. The sailors, like their captain, simply weren’t worried at all.

So why not?

Three different explanations presented themselves to me. The first was that Captain Durant and the crew of the Black Maria were fools who simply had no idea what they were facing. That seemed unlikely for a privateer ship famed for hunting pirates. Their experience and string of successes should have, more than anything, made them extra wary before a battle. Every fencer knows you only get so many wins before a defeat comes your way.

The second possibility was that we’d been conned. Durant was going to take Duchess Ossia’s money and go on a pleasant leisure cruise. We’d sail along the pirates’ trail, never quite catching up to them, and after a reasonable period, the captain would shrug his shoulders and say, ‘well, sometimes the wind’s not with you.’

I pushed myself up from the rail and wobbled towards the stairs that led belowdecks. One of the sailors looked up from his busywork—the man sewing a patch into a sail. It was then I noticed he hadn’t made any progress in all the time I’d been on deck. I smiled and gave him a wave. “Reckon it’s time I stopped wasting all this lovely vomit on the ocean and started decorating things below.”

He laughed jovially at my rather lame effort at humour. As I walked towards the stairs, I heard him whistle a little tune in the air.

Son of a bitch.

There was a third explanation for the fact that everyone was being nice to me and no one was worried about dying in a fight with the pirates. Captain Durant and the crew of the Black Maria were working with the pirates.

***

I waited until I got to the bottom before I gently loosened my rapiers in their scabbards. As I made my way to the back where Kest and Brasti lay asleep, I kept a careful watch on the men swaying in their hammocks. Even before I reached them, Kest’s eyes opened. I hate that he seems to know what I’m about just by the way I walk. I let it go, since I wasn’t worried about him.

I put a hand over Brasti’s mouth before I jostled him awake. He grunted as his eyes went wide and he tried to push me away. I put a finger to my lips.

“What in hells is it?” he whispered.

“Get your things and come with me,” I said, looking around the lower deck, trying to find a spot for privacy.

“One deck below,” Kest suggested. “The stores.”

I nodded. His suggestion had two virtues, the first being that it would be only lightly guarded, which minimized the number of people I might have to knock unconscious, and second, next to the stores was the room where they kept the powder for the cannons.

We took our time and went separately so as not to arouse too much suspicion, which meant it was nearly an hour later before we made it below. There was only one man guarding the stores, and he was half-asleep and fully drunk, so the three of us made some mumbling noises about the stench above and went to the far end of the hold, keeping our voices low as we talked.

I quickly conveyed my suspicions to the others.

“Son of a bitch,” Brasti swore. “Setting yourself up as a pirate hunter by actually colluding with pirates.”

“You sound offended,” Kest said.

“I am. It’s a perfectly scandalous way to make a fortune. Why didn’t I think of it?”

“Perhaps because you’re supposed to be a fucking magistrate,” I suggested.

“So how does it work?” Brasti asked. “I mean, we meet up with the pirate ship and then the crew kills us?”

Kest’s eyes narrowed. “Unlikely. They could have done it by now.”

It was a good point, and something that had already occurred to me. “This Captain Durant, I don’t think he’s a violent man. His crew seems altogether too comfortable around him for him to be brutal or mean-spirited.” Something else occurred to me. I looked to Kest. “The people at the port, they cheered him as if he were a local hero.”

“Well, he is a famous pirate hunter,” Brasti said.

“Yes, but since when do hungry people care about such things?”

Kest nodded thoughtfully. “He handed out coins, do you recall? And his men had unloaded several barrels. What if they contained something more than just rum?”

“Wait,” Brasti said. “You think he’s getting paid off by the pirates, bringing back some paltry amount of what’s been stolen after claiming to have destroyed their ship, and then giving some of it to the village folk nearby?”

“That’s certainly a plausible explanation,” Kest said.

“Not all of it,” Brasti said. “The captain’s god an awful lot of finery around him.” He glanced around the hold and its rather extensive collection of cheeses, bottles, and supplies. “And his men do awfully well, too, from what I’ve seen.”

I smiled ruefully. “Steal from the rich, give to the poor, and keep a healthy commission.”

“Gods damn it, now we have to stop them” Brasti said. “These bastards stole my idea!”

***

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are captured by the privateers. They begin having an argument over the right to something which is unclear to the villain and to the reader. After a while, the villain thinks they’re arguing over something simple:

“Look at them,” he said to his men. “Cowards arguing over who gets the best scraps?”

I looked up and smiled. “Oh, it’s not that. We’re debating who gets to kill you.”

“And it’s my turn,” Brasti said.

“It’s not all about turns,” I replied.

“Are you mad?” our captor asked. “We have you at our mercy!”

“You do,” I agreed. “But soon that’s going to change and it would be awkward if the three of us were to then waste time arguing over who gets to put a blade in your throat when we were supposed to be escaping.”

The Problem With Leaving A Ship – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: Arriving at the city of Aramor’s dock after their voyage from their meeting with Ossia, Falcio discovers yet another unpleasant aspect of sea travel.

Deleted because I decided to skip showing the ship arriving and instead went from Brasti’s exercising on the deck in advance of their next bout of trouble to the trio being blocked the castle gates.

***

We left the barge, which Brasti had re-christened “The Official Pirate Ship Of The Royal Magistrates” to absolutely no one’s approval, at the dock by the river whereupon I learned that you don’t actually get to just leave your boat tied up somewhere without having to pay ridiculous fees for the privilege. I also discovered that once you hire a crew to run said ship, you can’t simply leave them to their own devices whilst landlocked: you have to keep paying them. The rationale is that until the ship is decommissioned, the well-being of the crew is the ongoing responsibility of the captain (which was me, in theory, which was a subject of considerable amusement to the sailors.) The dockmaster informed me that the real reason why you keep paying the crew is to keep them from stealing the ship when they run out of money.

All in all, sailing had proven itself an expensive hobby, one which I would be happy to rid myself of as soon as possible. Oh, and the best part? That would be the moment I finally stepped off the barge after so many days on the water.

“Had a bit to drink, has he?” the dockmaster asked amiably.

“Not a drop,” Brasti said.

I pushed myself up off the ground, spitting dirt from my mouth, and got back to my feet. Only Kest’s quick hand kept me from falling over again. It turns out that ‘sea legs’ is a two-way street: you’re constantly tipping over while getting used to being on a ship and then once you get off, you start tipping over again.

“Why aren’t you falling over?” I asked Kest.

He shrugged. That’s his way of saying, ‘Because I’m Kest-fucking-Murrowson, of course. Falling is for other people.’

The Generals’ Meeting – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 1

Author’s Note: After being ordered not to interfere in Pastien’s gossiping about Valiana, the trio are summoned to a meeting of some of Tristia’s Generals on the current state of forces in the country.

Deleted because the sequence was at risk of getting too long and this would have taken the reader from high tension (discovering what’s been done to Valiana) to low tension (the Generals nattering) then back to high tension.

***

It is a common misconception that the most boring meetings in the world are either about politics or economics. The latter is especially untrue; Economists are remarkably hostile towards one another’s ideas and watching them argue looks a lot like the moments that come before a duel to the death. Political discussions always have a certain amount of back-stabbing and veiled threats to keep you entertained. It’s worth staying awake for the verbal barbs alone.

No, the most boring meetings in all of life are military councils. You wouldn’t think it were the case, given the subject generally deals with weapons, killing, and conquest, but it is, in fact, possible to make even those dark and terrible topics somnambulant.

“Thus we could anticipate an overall force dispersal effect across any field of conflict larger than one acre that would further reduce both targeting efficiency and rapidity in re-deployment of remaining troops.”

The speaker was a man by the name of Aethondoro Bel Mederio, Knight-General of the armies of Luth—a duchy with roughly three thousand troops in total, of which less than a hundred where Knights. Given that a Knight-Sargent is supposed to command no less than ten men, and a Knight-Captain should oversee no fewer than four Knights-Sargent, and a Knight-Commander at least 3 Knights-Captain, you can imagine how credible I found old Aethondro’s monotone ravings.

“Falcio?” Brasti whispered to me—unnecessarily, I might add, given that no one there care one whit what the Greatcoats thought about any of this. “Do you understand any of what these buffoons are saying?”

The buffoons in question included Tristia’s finest military minds, which was the only reason I could answer. “I think he’s saying that if any force larger than a group of travelling lute players decides to attack the country, we’re all fucked.”

Kest, who had been giving the speakers his utmost attention, commented, “That is a succinct assessment of our military situation.”

“Really?” Brasti asked. “What’s the problem?”

“Not enough soldiers.”

Brasti snorted. “Seems to me the Dukes have always had more than enough to make a mess of the country.”

“Except they haven’t. The Ducal armies used to be a decent size, but they lost half their Knights during the war with Shuran, and the Blacksmith’s war against the Saints only made things worse.”

“How bad is it?” I asked.

Kest looked thoughtfully at the men standing at the front of the room. “If a half-dozen lute players were to declare war on the country, we’d have a fifty-fifty chance of winning.”

“Saint’s, it must be bad,” Brasti said, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest. “Kest is making jokes about it.”

The generals moved on to the subject of the relative merits of allocating limited resources to increasing the capacity of cavalry over infantry given increasing costs for horses. We took our seats and sat there like good little boys, listening to the experts drone on and on while I wondered exactly what I should have done differently with Valiana.

“None of this is your fault, you know,” Kest whispered.

“The lack of soldiers?”

He shook his head. “Valiana.”

“Of course it’s his fault,” Brasti countered.

“How so?”

“He gave her his name.”

“That doesn’t mean—“

Brasti cut him off. “This is Falcio, we’re talking about. He thinks of her as a daughter and you know what an idiot he is about—“

“You realize I’m right here?” I asked.

“Oh, right. Sorry, Sometimes I forget.” He turned back to Kest. “Anyway, as I was saying, Falcio always thinks the world rests on his shoulders. He halfway loses his mind every time a woman is threatened in this country and when it comes to Valiana, Aline, or Ethalia, he goes especially nuts.”

Kest ignored him and said to me, “Part of caring for her is respecting her judgment. She’s asked you to stay out of this.”

“I know,” I said.

Brasti seemed unconvinced. “Except that now we’re saying it’s okay for a nobleman to besmirch Valiana’s reputation just because we might need his vote.”

“That’s politics,” Kest said. “We may not like it, but since none of us are very good at it, we’re going to have to let others decide.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Some things transcend politics, and pissing on Valiana is one of them.”

“Leave it,” I said. “Valiana’s told us to stay out of it.” My voice sounded particularly bitter to my ears.

I’m not actually a complete fool. I understood her reasoning. Things were tense enough already and we couldn’t afford to alienate one of our few allies. Not that he’s proven to be much of an ally. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the various images I had of my hands around Pastien’s throat.

Kest tapped me on the shoulder. When I looked to see what he wanted he motioned towards the front of the room where one of the generals, Umessiat, I believe his name was, was staring at me.

“Forgive me, General, could you repeat that?” I asked.

“I said, how many Greatcoats can we put in the field as scouts if we need to?”

The question threw me, first because we had at most twelve Greatcoats at the moment, and second because we were magistrates, not soldiers. “What, you mean under military command?”

He nodded.

“None. We’re not troops you can allocate to your little armies.”

General Umessiat gave me a weary and very cynical smile. “I wonder if you’ve heard of the term ‘conscription’, Trattari?”

Brasti replied before I could with his own question. “I wonder if you’re familiar with the term ‘blunt force trauma.”

Umessiat was, I suspected, one of the few Generals in Tristia who’d seen real combat in his time, which meant he was neither afraid of Brasti’s threat nor prone to overreacting to it. “If we have to go to war then you’ll bloody well do as your told just like everyone else.”

“Your reasoning does not seem sound, General,” Kest observed. “If our military capacity is as poor as you and your colleagues have explained, then surely we would need to avoid war at all costs.”

“Perhaps, but there are times when you fight a battle not because you can win, but because you can’t allow the other side to feel safe attacking you.”

I was about to tell him just how ridiculous that sounded, given that losing such a war would surely confirm for the other side that, in fact, they could do whatever they wanted to you. Something stayed my tongue. Maybe the fact that he was right. So was Brasti.

“Uh oh,” Brasti said.

“What?” Kest asked.

He picked up his bow and quiver. “Looks like we’re going to beat up Pastien after all.”

The Man in the Painted Box – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 2

Author’s Note: After learning Morn’s plans, Falcio asks how Morn could so easily set aside the King’s dream. Morn replies with a single word: “Geahtzu”

Deleted because . . . well, I’m not entirely sure why. I like the scene but it feels a bit pedantic in a way – as if it’s not just Morn showing how clever he thinks he is, but the author as well.

***

Morn looked at the three of us with something that I might have been confused with pity were his eyes not so full of self-righteous disdain. “Geahtzu.”

“Uh . . . bless you?” Brasti suggested.

Morn gave a little snort, acknowledging both Brasti’s humour and the contempt he felt for it. “It is an Avarean word. An old one.”

“What does it mean?” Kest asked, his interest piqued.

For the world’s most skilled fighter, he really tends to walk into these things a lot.

“There is no translation into Tristian,” Morn replied, then narrowed his eyes as he sought a way to explain it to our poor, feeble, ignorant minds. “I met a Viscount years ago . . . well, calling him a ‘Viscount’ is being a bit generous. His Condate was so small as to hardly be worth the name and was, in fact, slowly being taken from him inch by inch by his neighbours. Yet he paid this no heed, for he new cared only for those things that truly mattered to him.”

“What were those?” Brasti asked.

“Women, beautiful women. He loved to look at them, to drink good wine and smell fresh flowers as he felt their tits. This was the only life he craved, yet he wasn’t handsome, had little money left, and his mind was slowly going. So he had a box made, fitted around his head with a hole at the top for light to shine in. On the side of the box in front of his eyes he hired a painter to depict the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He had his servants place fresh flower petals inside the box each morning so he’d smell them and nothing else. A tube ran from a sack of wine attached to his chair into the box, and he drank from this as his hands – each of which was strapped to a ripe, soft melon – gently squeezed imaginary tits for hours on end.”

Brasti’s prodigious snort turned into boisterous laughter, but Kest had understood the point of the story. “Geahtzu.”

Morn nodded, and to me said, “This Viscount’s lands, his wealth, his very life, were slowly being taken away from him, yet he saw and felt only those things he wanted to. You’re just like him, Falcio. No matter how big the world, no matter how momentous the events around you, you still live inside a little box fitted only to the size of your own mind.”

Darriana’s Offer – Tyrant’s Throne, Act 4

Author’s Note: After Falcio’s failed attempt to kill Trin and Filian, he is visited in his cell by Darriana, who brings an unusual offer…

Deleted because, while I love the idea of us seeing Darriana’s love for Valiana, this would have made for far too many visits to Falcio in the jail cell. It also has his commitment to the law being reborn far too quickly to be effective in the story.

***

It was well into the night when my second visitor arrived.

“You look like shit,” Darriana said.

I sat up from my cot and looked through the bars of my cell, trying to spot her. It took me a few moments to find her standing perfectly still in the shadows. “I’ve had something of a day.”

“How long are you planning on staying a prisoner?”

“Haven’t decided yet. Did you come to break me out?”

“No.”

I went back to my cot and lay down on my back. “In that case, you’re interrupting my nap.”

I felt, rather than saw or heard, Darriana approach the bars of my cell. “I figure you’ve got plenty of people who could break you out of here if they wanted. Apparently they don’t want to.”

“I’m not as popular as I once was,” I said. I didn’t feel like explaining the political situation to a woman whose idea of diplomacy was to curtsey after you slit your target’s throat.

She was silent for a while, just standing outside the door, staring at me. I imagine the Dashini get good at that sort of thing. “Is there something I can do for you, Darriana?”

“Do you remember that night weeks ago when we climbed up the remains of the tower and drank from the King’s private cache of liquor?”

“I remember the hangover. I think some of that stuff really was poisoned.”

Darriana ignored the joke. “Do you remember what I told you?”

She’d said any number of things to me that night, but only one of them was relevant to my current situation. “You said the one thing you and I had in common was that we knew the difference between love and loyalty.”

“Love is a game people play together. You can love someone a little or love them a lot and you follow the rules accordingly. Loyalty—real loyalty—isn’t a game. It’s either absolute or it’s irrelevant.”

“Darriana, what are you—“

“I can kill her,” she said.

I got up from the cot and went to the bars to face her. “Trin?”

She nodded.

“She’ll have her own guards by now,” I said. “Not to mention whatever magical tools she might have brought with her. She’s protected.”

“Not well enough. Not if I go after her.”

I shook my head. “Filian would go mad. His rule would be—“

“I could kill him too.”

She said the words so smoothly, so coldly, that I had to stop myself from stepping away from the bars. “And then what?”

She shrugged. “I kill whichever Duke tries to take power. I kill whatever supporters they have.”

“You’re getting into rather large numbers, Darriana. How many people do you plan to kill?”

“As many as you need me to. Tell me how many it will take.”

“How many it will take to what?”

“To keep Valiana safe.”

Despite everything that had happened, I felt a pang of sympathy for Darriana. Her arrival made sense now. This was why she’d come to me. This was the one thing that mattered to her in life. A single, uncomplicated purpose: defend Valiana from those who would do her harm. There was something foolish, almost childlike about Darriana; she cared nothing for the implications of what she would do, not even the moral consequences. Kill a Duchess, murder a King, burn a village. It was all the same to her. Loyalty, not love, was what drove her. It was a kind of insanity that I understood. I almost admired it.

“You can’t keep her safe,” I said at last.

“Just because you failed to save Aline, don’t think that—“

I did something very stupid then. I reached through the bars and took her hand in mine. She must have been rather surprised because she didn’t immediately cut it off. “We can’t save them by killing their enemies, Darriana.”

Her eyes looked sadder than I’d ever seen them. I think she’d already come to the same conclusion and had simply been hoping I’d give her an excuse to rid herself of fear by unleashing it as fury upon Valiana’s enemies. “Then how do we protect them?”

I was about to reply, but the words in my head made me chuckle. “You’re not going to like the answer.”

“Tell me.”

I squeezed her hand in mine. “To save one life you have to save the country itself.”

I felt the tension in the small muscles of her hand—muscles perfectly trained for fighting, for destruction and for murder. I think she thought I might be mocking her, but then she asked, “How do we save the country, then?”

I let go of her hand, all the strength draining out of me. I went to slump back down on the cot. “I don’t know, Darriana. I just don’t know anymore.”

She stood there for a long while—so long that I think I’d began to drift off to sleep when I heard her say, “Then you damned well better figure it out, Falcio val Mond, because no one else is going to do it for you.”

Desert LightningCharmcaster

'I totally saw this coming,’ Reichis growled, leaping onto my shoulder as lightning scorched the sand barely ten feet from us. The squirrel cat’s claws pierced my sweat-soaked shirt and dug into my skin.

‘Yeah?’ I asked, ignoring the pain with about as much success as I was having stopping my hands from shaking. ‘Maybe next time there’s a hextracker on our tail, you could warn us before our horses panic and dump us in the middle of the desert.’ Another thunderclap erupted overhead and shook the ground beneath our feet. ‘Oh, and if it’s not too much trouble, how about a little heads-up before dry lightning starts crashing down on us from a cloudless sky?’
Reichis hesitated, no doubt trying to come up with a believable explanation. Squirrel cats are terrible liars. They make excellent thieves and particularly enthusiastic murderers, but they’re rubbish at deception. ‘I was waiting to see if you’d gure it out on your own. I was testing you. Yeah, that’s it. Testing you. And you failed, Kellen.’

‘You two recall we’re supposed to be laying an ambush?’ Ferius Parfax asked, kneeling a few feet away to bury some- thing shiny and sharp in the sand. A tangle of red curls whipped around her face while she worked. Despite the strange storm raging all around us, her movements were uid and practised. This wasn’t the rst time we’d found ourselves on the wrong end of a hunting expedition.

Hence the need for traps.

Ambushing a Jan’Tep mage is a tricky business. You never know which forms of magic they might have at their disposal. Iron, ember, sand, silk, blood, breath . . . The enemy could have any number of spells to kill you. As if that wasn’t enough, you also have to consider the possibility of accomplices – lackeys or mercenaries hired to watch the mage’s back or do his dirty work for him. ‘This might go faster if you let me help you set the traps,’ I suggested to Ferius, desperate to keep my mind o the surprising number of ways I might die in the next few minutes.

‘No, and quit watching me.’ She got up and walked a few yards away before kneeling to bury another spiked ball or fragile glass cylinder lled with sleeping gas or whatever else she was using this time. ‘The fella chasing us could be casting one of them fancy Jan’Tep silk spells to ferret out our plans. That head of yours is too full of thoughts, kid. He’ll read you easy.’

That bristled. Ferius was an Argosi – one of the enigmatic card players who travelled the continent attempting to . . . Actually, I still wasn’t quite sure what they were meant to do other than annoy people. Despite not having much hope of ever becoming an Argosi myself, I’d been studying Ferius’s ways as best I could, if only because doing so might keep me alive. It didn’t help that she kept insisting I rst had to learn to do stupid things like ‘listen with my eyes’ or ‘grab onto emptiness’.

Reichis, of course, loved it when Ferius upbraided me. ‘She’s right, Kellen,’ he chittered from his perch on my shoulder. ‘You should be more like me.’

‘You mean without any thoughts in my head?’

The snarl he gave me was barely more than a whisper, but delivered perilously close to my ear. ‘It’s called instinct, skinbag. Makes it hard for silk mages to read me. Want to know what my instincts are telling me to do right now?’

Another bolt of lightning struck the peak of the dune above us, nearly giving me a heart attack and sending a wave of smoke sizzling up from the sand. Had Reichis and I been better friends, we probably would have been hanging on to each other for dear life. Instead, he bit me. ‘Sorry. Instinct.’

I jerked my shoulder, shaking the squirrel cat o me. He spread his paws out and the furry aps that ran between his front and back limbs caught the wind as he glided down gracefully to the ground where he gave me a surly look. It had been petty of me to throw him o . I couldn’t blame him for his reaction to the thunder. Reichis has a thing about lightning and re and . . . well, pretty much any enemy you can’t bite.

‘How is this guy doing it?’ I wondered aloud. A dry storm in the middle of the desert under a cloudless sky? It made no sense. Sure, the sixth form of ember magic creates an electrical discharge that looks a lot like lightning, but it mani- fests from the mage’s hands, not from above, and they have to be able to see the target to cast it.

I looked back up the dune for the thousandth time, wondering when I’d see him coming over the crest, ready to rain seven hells upon us. ‘Three days this mage has been on our tail and nothing we do shakes him. Why won’t he leave us alone?’

Ferius gave a wry chuckle. ‘Reckon that’s what comes from having a spell warrant on your head, kid. Whichever cabal of mages implanted obsidian worms in them rich kids can’t be too pleased with us going around destroying them.’

Even with more pressing dangers at hand, just thinking about obsidian worms repelled me. They were a type of mystical parasite. Once lodged inside the victim’s eye, they enabled mages to control the host from afar. Ferius, Reichis and I had spent the last six months tracking down students from the famed Academy who had no idea they were slowly being turned into spies against their own families – or worse, assassins.

‘When did it become our job to save the world from the obsidian worms anyway?’ I asked, removing my frontier hat so I could wipe my brow with my sleeve. Despite the dry air, I was sweating profusely; wearing a black hat that was too big for my head wasn’t helping. I’d got the hat from a fellow spellslinger by the name of Dexan Videris – payment on account of his having tried to kill me. He’d claimed the silver sigils adorning the band would keep mages from tracking me, but like everything else Dexan had told me, that was turning out to be a lie.

‘It ain’t our job,’ Ferius replied. ‘It’s mine. The whole point of bein’ Argosi is to avert the calamities that bring su ering to innocent folks. Since a bunch of idiot Jan’Tep mages assassinating powerful families all across the continent could set o a war, I’d say this situation qualifies.’

The wind picked up without warning and my apparently non-magical prized possession ew from my hand. I almost went running after it but decided not to bother. Stupid thing never t right anyway. ‘It would be nice if just once somebody came along who wanted to help instead of everybody trying to murder us.’

Ferius rose abruptly to her feet and peered out into the desert. ‘Now that don’t look good at all.’

I turned to see what she was talking about. In the distance, a wall of sand that must’ve been a hundred feet high had begun to roil in the air.

‘Now we’ve got to deal with a freakin’ sandstorm?’ Reichis grumbled. He shook himself and his fur changed colour from its usual muddy brown with black stripes to a dusty beige ecked with grey that matched the approaching clouds of sand and grit. Once it got here he’d be able to pretty much disappear into the storm if he wanted – which he probably would if things went badly. Squirrel cats aren’t sentimental.

As the storm approached, I tried to decide whether I’d rather die from being buried under tons of sand, electrocuted by dry lightning or murdered with dark magic. The choices are never pretty when you’re an outlaw spellslinger with a gambler for a mentor, a squirrel cat for a business partner and a long line of mages who want you dead.

Oh, and I was fairly sure it was my seventeenth birthday. ‘What do we do now?’ I asked.

Ferius, her gaze on the thick clouds of sand coming for us, replied, ‘Reckon you’d best take a deep breath, kid.’

ДИСКОРДАНСмеханическая птица

Те, кто хочет стать аргоси, сперва должны понять, что мы — не пророки и не предсказатели будущего. В наших кар- тах нет магии. Мы просто странники. А колоды, которые мы носим с собой, — это всего лишь обычные карты.

Каждая масть символизирует одну из человеческих куль- тур, а каждая карта — властные структуры общества.

Если в структуре общества происходят изменения, меня- ются и наши колоды. Возникают конкордансы. Они показы- вают то, что есть сейчас.

Но когда аргоси находят нечто — то, чего не должно быть, но оно существует и может изменить ход истории, — прихо- дится нарисовать новую карту. Дискорданс. Это предупреж- дение и призыв, обращенный ко всем аргоси. Ведь до тех пор, пока истинная сущность дискорданса сокрыта, будущее оста- ется… непредсказуемым.

 

МОЛНИЯ В ПУСТЫНЕ

 

-Ая ведь знал, что так и будет! — посетовал Рейчис. Он вспрыгнул ко мне на плечо, спасаясь от мол- нии, которая раскалила песок в каких-то десяти футах от нас. Когти белкокота проткнули мою мокрую от пота рубаш-

ку и впились в кожу.
— Да ну? — сказал я, стараясь не обращать внимания на

боль и пытаясь унять дрожь в руках. То и другое получалось с переменным успехом. — Может, в следующий раз, когда за нами погонится ищейка, ты предупредишь заранее? До того, как лошади взбесятся и скинут нас посреди пустыни?

Раздался еще один удар грома, и земля под ногами ощути- мо вздрогнула.

— О! И если не трудно, сообщай об опасности до того, как с чистого неба полетят молнии.

Рейчис молчал, явно пытаясь придумать какое-нибудь до- стойное оправдание. Белкокоты — никудышные лжецы. Они отличные воры и искусные убийцы, но вот врать не умеют со- всем.

— Я хотел посмотреть, заметишь ли ты все это сам. Про- верял тебя. Да, именно так. Проверял! А ты облажался.

— Эй, вы, сладкая парочка. Еще не забыли, что мы соби- рались устроить ловушку? — сказала Фериус Перфекс.

Она стояла на коленях в нескольких футах поодаль, за- капывая в песок что-то острое и блестящее. Волнистые рыжие пряди падали ей на лицо. Хотя эта странная буря по-прежнему бушевала вокруг нас, ее движения остава- лись плавными и точными. Что ж, уже не в первый раз мы превращались из охотников в добычу. И теперь требо- валась хорошая ловушка. Устроить засаду на мага джен- теп — дело непростое. Никогда не знаешь, какие формы магии имеются в его распоряжении. Железо, огонь, песок, шелк, кровь, дыхание… У противника может быть сколько угодно заклинаний, способных тебя убить. Вдобавок стоит учитывать, что у мага порой имеются помощники — слу- ги или наемники, которые прикроют его спину и сделают грязную работу.

— Давай помогу тебе с ловушками. Быстрее пойдет, — предложил я Фериус, тщетно стараясь выкинуть из головы неприятные мысли. Например, сколькими разными способа- ми я могу умереть в ближайшие минуты.

— Нет. И перестань так на меня пялиться.

Она встала, отошла на несколько ярдов и снова опусти- лась на колени, чтобы закопать в песок очередной шипастый шарик. Или хрупкий стеклянный цилиндр, наполненный сон- ным газом. Или что там еще было в ее арсенале.

— Тот парень, что гонится за нами, может сотворить одно

из своих драгоценных заклинаний, использовать магию шел- ка, чтобы выяснить наши планы. А твоя голова распухла от мыслей, малыш. Он прочитает их, даже не напрягаясь.

Как же она меня раздражает!

Фериус была аргоси — одной из тех загадочных фокус- ниц, которые странствовали по континенту, пытаясь… На са- мом деле я и по сей день не понимал толком, чем они занима- ются. Ну, кроме того что бесят всех окружающих. Хотя я не слишком-то надеялся стать аргоси, я пытался понять устрем- ления Фериус. Ведь только так я и мог выжить. Не сказать, чтобы Фериус помогала мне в этом, предлагая, к примеру, «слушать глазами» или «хватать пустоту».

Рейчису, ясное дело, нравилось, когда Фериус меня чихво- стила.

— Она права, Келлен, — протрещал он, восседая на моем плече, — лучше бери пример с меня.

— Имеешь в виду, что у тебя в голове вовсе нет никаких мыслей?

Он зарычал — негромко, но зато над самым моим ухом.

— Это называется «инстинкт», глупый голокожий. Магам шелка трудно меня читать. И, к слову: знаешь, что подсказы- вает инстинкт прямо сейчас?..

Еще одна молния прорезала небо и врезалась в вершину дюны над нами. Песок зашипел, от него поднялось облач- ко дыма. Меня чуть удар не хватил. Будь у нас с Рейчисом более теплые отношения, мы, наверное, вцепились бы друг в друга изо всех сил. А так он просто укусил меня за ухо.

— Извини. Инстинкт.

Я дернул плечом, сбрасывая белкокота. Он раскинул лапы; перепонки натянулись, Рейчис мягко спланировал на землю и одарил меня угрюмым взглядом. С моей стороны было мелоч- но вот так его скинуть. Я не мог винить Рейчиса за его реакцию на громовой раскат: у него был пунктик относительно молний, огня и… ну, вообще любого врага, которого нельзя укусить.

— Как он это делает? — спросил я.

Сухая буря посреди пустыни, под безоблачным небом. Это казалось нереальным. Да, при помощи шестой формы магии огня можно было создать электрический разряд, который был очень похож на молнию, но его выпускает из рук маг, он не просто возникает в небесах. Вдобавок магу нужно видеть цель, чтобы сотворить такое заклятие. В тысячный раз я по- смотрел на дюну, раздумывая, когда же противник появится на вершине и обрушит огонь на наши головы.

— Три дня этот маг висел у нас на хвосте, и мы ничего не можем сделать, чтобы он отцепился. Почему он не оставит нас в покое?

Фериус криво ухмыльнулась.

— Полагаю, хочет получить награду за твою голову, ма- лыш. Какая бы там кучка магов ни внедряла в людей своих обсидиановых червяков, этим ребятам не нравится, что мы болтаемся тут и уничтожаем плоды их трудов.

Вот и еще одна опасность. Сама мысль об обсидиановых червях внушала мне отвращение. Это были своего рода маги- ческие паразиты. Помещенный в глаз человека, такой червь позволял магу контролировать жертву на расстоянии. Мы с Фериус и Рейчисом провели последние полгода, выслежи-

вая учеников известной Академии, которые, сами того не зная, мало-помалу превращались в шпионов, замышляющих что-то против собственных семей. Или хуже того — в убийц.

— И когда мы успели подвизаться спасать мир от обси- диановых червей? — спросил я, сдвигая шляпу на затылок и утирая лоб рукавом.

Хотя воздух был сухим, я отчаянно потел. Черная шляпа, которая была мне чересчур велика, не слишком спасала ситу- ацию. Эту шляпу я забрал у моего коллеги — меткого мага по имени Дексан Видерис — в качестве компенсации за то, что он пытался меня убить. Он уверял, что серебряные иероглифы на ней помешают другим магам выследить меня. Но — как и все прочее, что говорил Дексан, — это, похоже, было враньем.

— Не мы подвизались, а я, — ответила Фериус. — Все предельно просто. Аргоси должны бороться с напастями, из- за которых страдают простые люди. Кучка придурков джен- теп убивают членов вляительных семей по всему континен- ту. Это может кончиться войной. Поэтому ситуация требует, чтобы я в нее вмешалась.

Внезапный порыв ветра сорвал с головы мою немагиче- скую шляпу. Я ринулся было за ней, но тут же плюнул на это дело. Глупости никогда не доводят до добра.

— Было бы очень мило, если б кто-нибудь предложил по- мощь. А то все только и делают, что пытаются нас убить, — буркнул я.

Фериус стремительным движением поднялась на ноги и оглядела пустыню.

— Да, сейчас все выглядит не очень-то здо?рово.

Я обернулся, пытаясь понять, о чем это она, и увидел в отда- лении стену песка футов сто высотой, несущуюся по воздуху.

— Эй, теперь тут у нас будет песчаная буря? — пробур- чал Рейчис. Он встряхнулся, и его шерсть изменила цвет. Обычно темно-коричневая с черными полосами, сейчас она стала серовато-бежевой, похожей на приближающееся обла- ко песка и пыли. Теперь белкокот вполне мог слиться с пей- зажем, став незаметным, — если б того пожелал. Очевидно, именно так он и собирался сделать, если дела пойдут совсем плохо. Белкокоты не сентиментальны.

Облако приближалось, и я размышлял, какая смерть пред- почтительнее. Быть похороненным под тоннами песка, по- лучить удар молнии или погибнуть от темной магии? Не очень-то веселенькие перспективы, но так оно обычно и бы- вает, если ты — изгой, твой наставник — карточный фокус- ник, твой деловой партнер — белкокот, и куча магов желают твоей смерти. Ах да, и сегодня, кажется, мой семнадцатый день рождения.

— Что будем делать? — спросил я.

Фериус, не отрывая взгляда от несущегося на нас песча- ного облака, отозвалась:

— Думаю, тебе надо поглубже вдохнуть, малыш.

The Chevor CatBonus Story

Now the second story I need to tell you took place about two years ago in Chevor, one of the larger trade cities in the South of Tristia, which is the civilized part of the world. Unless, of course, the person reading this is a warrior-servant from the neighbouring country of Avares, which, if that’s the case, means everything has pretty much gone to shit anyway. So let me be the first of your newly-conquered neighbours to the East to welcome you and say, ‘Glory to the eternal unity of the one Master.’ But then, if you’re from Avares, chances are you can’t read anyway, so fuck you and the horse that gave birth to you.

Anyway, it was pissing rain in Chevor, and I was sitting under the cover of a house awning hoping the city constables wouldn’t come by too soon. I had rescued a little girl from being trampled under a horse cart earlier in the day, and she said she’d sneak me a few morsels of food from her dinner if I waited outside. But as I sat there watching the rain and listening to the rumbling conversation between my stomach and my intestines, it occurred to me that the little girl had probably forgotten all about me. Then I heard voices coming from the living room of the house. Evidently dinner was over, and I hoped that she was coming to bring me some food.

“Now there’s a funny thing to ask, Beatta” a woman’s voice said.

“Well, are you going to tell me?” asked a clearly frustrated little girl.

Her mother laughed. It was a nice laugh. Something like my own mother’s or perhaps just the way I imagine it. I don’t really remember her laughing that much.

“Well, my little inquisitor, the word ‘trattari’ doesn’t actually mean ‘traitor’ at all, that’s why. It means ‘tattered cloak’.”

“But when the Duke condemned that man for selling secrets, he called him ‘trattari’, didn’t he?”

“Yes dear, but that’s just what people call traitors these days.”

There was a short pause. “Well, that’s just dumb then, isn’t it?”

The mother’s sigh was audible even through the window. “Alright sweetheart, I’ll tell you the story.”

A cat jumped up onto the window ledge and tapped a paw on the window. A wasted effort. In Chevor, no one lets cats inside their houses. The little beast gave me a baleful look.

“Fuck you,” I said softly. “It’s not my fault they think you’re cursed.”

I heard a chair creak, and the mother began speaking.

“You see, the Trattari were the assassins that worked for Evil King Paelis, and they were men who had no honour.”

“Did they really go around the country killing the King’s enemies?” Beatta asked.

“Yes, but they also killed the peasants to keep them from rising up to defend their Dukes,” her mother said. “And they swaggered about the land with their great long coats made of leather that they never took off even to bathe. So you see, my dear, they were just like you – always dirty and never wanting to wash.”

“Mommy!”

The mother laughed again. “Now now, I’m just playing with you, sweetheart.”

“But the Trattari really did wear their coats all the time?”

“Oh yes, they even slept in them on the road because people didn’t want to give them rooms.”

“Even for money?”

“No one asked a Trattari for money, dear, not if they wanted to live long. But no, the Trattari never stayed in inns or homes like normal people. They preferred to sleep in their coats when they travelled. And they always said their coats were forged, not woven. They believed the coats were stitched together from their honour, not just simple thread.”

“So then why did they call themselves ‘tattered cloaks’?”

“They didn’t call themselves that, Beatta. They called themselves the King’s Magisters or, more often, the Greatcoats.” The woman gave a small laugh. “Isn’t that silly, naming yourself after your clothing? Why, if we did that, we’d have to call you ‘Dirty Socks’!”

If Beatta got the joke, I didn’t hear it in her voice.

“I see it now. They thought of themselves as honourable and that they were dispensing the King’s justice, and they called themselves Greatcoats. But they were really just hired killers, and so people called them ‘tattered cloaks’ because their honour was in tatters for being assassins.”

“Well now, doesn’t that mind of yours go off quite by itself?” the mother said. “But you’re not quite right. You see, people hated them for being so evil, but that’s not why they called them traitors.”

“Then why, Mommy? I thought…”

“Because three years ago, when the Dukes rose up to free all of Tristia from King Paelis’s terrible reign, his magisters made a deal with the generals to let the army pass in return for their own lives and freedom from being prosecuted for any of the awful things they had done. You see, dear, no matter what else we might think of people we don’t like, at least they can be true to their lords. The knights teach us that – to be honourable is to honour your oaths and your master. But the Greatcoats just stepped aside and let the King be killed because they were afraid of dying. So that’s why we call them Trattari. They said their coats would never fray so long as their honour held, but in the end they gave up just to save their own skins. So now we call them the tattered cloaks.”

I realized at that moment that my hands were clenched so tight I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. The cat had settled onto my lap without my even noticing and was sleeping peacefully as the patter of rain settled onto the cobblestones in front of us. There was murder in my heart for just a moment.

“And now, my dear, what exciting adventures did you have today?” the mother asked.

“Oh, not much. I almost got hit by a stupid horse and cart, but a dirty man picked me up.”

“A dirty man? I hope he didn’t hurt you?”

“No, he just kind of wandered off. He wasn’t that bad. But he was smelly, though.”

“Hah!” her mother laughed. “And with that piece of wisdom, I think it’s time for a bath. You don’t want to smell like a tatter-cloak, do you?”

“Mommy!” Beatta said in a shocked voice.

“Come along then, sweetheart. I’ll tell you a story about the Duke as we bathe.”

The sound of footsteps faded into raindrops as they left the room. The cat jumped when a drop of water landed on its head, but this time it was from me. I reached into one of the inner pockets of my coat and took out a hard needle and thread to try to repair one of the patches on the sleeve of my greatcoat. But then the cat decided to come back, so I put away the needle and thread and tried to keep her dry for a little while.

Karetní trikROZVRATNÍK

Stařík mi rozdal eso. Zvedl jsem ho a vzápětí nechal spadnout lícem nahoru vedle dalšího esa a dvou spodků přede mnou. Jeden roh karty přistál na plesnivém, vysu- šeném drobtu chleba přilepeném ke stolu. Ležela te􏰀 na- kloněná ke mně, jako by zdůrazňovala to, co bylo zřejmé.
„Dva spodci, každý s esem,“ řekl jsem. „To je dvojice kopiníků.“
Stařík se sklonil nad stolem a jeho dlouhé hnědé mast- né vlasy a vousy rámovaly křivý úsměv. Zamával rukama, jako by ho právě smetly okolnostmi, které nemohl před- vídat.
„Takže jsem zase prohrál, co?“
Rozhlédl se po místnosti, jako by hrál divadlo pro pu- blikum. Lokál byl prázdný, až na jednoho opilce chrápa- jícího v koutě a hostinského, který se věnoval nevděčné práci: vytírání podlahy.
Stařík se ke mně otočil zády, jednu ruku nechal kles- nout do klína a druhou přivolal hostinského, aby nám natočil nové pivo do džbánků, které nebyly o nic čistší než prkna podlahy.
„Nezdá se, že bys hrál karty kdovíjak dobře,“ pozna- menal jsem.
Můj protivně veselý společník se na mě usmál. Měl dokonalý chrup. Špinavé mastné vlasy, potrhaný pláš􏰁, vychrtlý jako hrábě. Jeho sandály mi připomínaly taková ta svlékací představení, při kterých si tanečnice omotaly tělo látkovými pruhy a svíjely se na jevišti; nedalo se říct, že jsou nahé, ale určitě by nastydly, kdyby vyšly ven. Ale ty zuby? Rovné. Vyčištěné. Dokonalé. Jediný pohled na jeho ruce mi odhalil prsty bez mozolů a nehty pečlivě ošetřené.
„Člověk se musí sám sebe ptát, co asi tak může způso- bit, že lord mág zabloudí do téhle hospody a začne pro- hrávat v kartách krvavé peníze,“ poklepal jsem na komí- nek mincí na mé straně stolu. Na začátku večera jsem měl jenom jednu.
Stařec pokrčil rameny. „Třeba jsem povznesen nad ta- kové malichernosti, jako jsou peníze.“
„Třeba,“ řekl jsem a zhluboka se napil piva, čehož jsem vzápětí litoval. „Na druhou stranu, možná ti nevadí sledo- vat, jak celý večer přesunuju mince z tvé strany stolu na svoji, protože nemáš v úmyslu nechat mě s nimi odejít.“
Mág posbíral karty a znovu je začal míchat. „Řekli mi, že jsi chytrý.“
„Nezapomeň jim za ten kompliment poděkovat.“
Rozdal na další Přepadení země. Čtyři karty každému. Počítaly se pouze karty s figurami.
Podíval jsem se na svoje karty a zjistil, že všechny čty- ři jsou dvojky. Děda mi právě rozdal osminohého koně. Řekl bych, že tentokrát mě nechtěl nechat vyhrát.
„Tak co tedy bude?“ zeptal jsem se.
„Tohle bude.“ Jeho úsměv byl rázem pryč. Stejně jako veškerá přetvářka.
„Dnes večer zemřeš, Kellene z rodu Ke.“
„Počítám, že sis mě s někým spletl, příteli.“
Odhodil jsem vozovou dvojku do talonu uprostřed
stolu. Stařík mi rozdal novou kartu a ukázalo se, že je to další vozová dvojka. Dobrý trik.
„Počítáš?“ zachechtal se. „Myslíš si, že ten směšný hra- ničářský přízvuk zakryje, kdo ve skutečnosti jsi?“
Tohle bylo od něho opravdu ošklivé. Nacvičoval jsem svůj přízvuk celé dopoledne, aby vypadal přirozeně.
„Tentokrát neutečeš, Kellene,“ pokračoval mág. „Jsi, kdo jsi, a já jsem, kdo jsem. Jistě, máš trochu magických schopností. Ovládáš pár triků. Ale nejsi lord mág.“
„Nikdy jsem netvrdil, že jsem.“
Stařec pohrdavě zafrkal. „Ne, jistěže ne. Jak že ti to ti daromanští barbaři říkají? ,Královnin divotvůrce‘?“
„Myslím, že Její Veličenstvo dává přednost titulu ,krá- lovský učitel karet‘.“
Odhodil jsem do talonu katapultovou dvojku.
„,Její Veličenstvo‘,“ pohrdavě zakňoural stařec. Od- plivl si na stůl, čímž ho o moc víc ani neušpinil, ani ne- vyčistil. „Ta malá děvka naštvala spoustu lidí, Kellene. Ale je příliš dobře chráněná – je v tom politika, diploma- cie, chápeš. Takže jsem byl vyslán, abych jí dal za vyuče- nou tím, že z tebe udělám odstrašující příklad.“ Znovu si odfrkl, zjevně zaskočen vlastní dokonalostí. „Myslíš, že by pak ze mě mohla udělat svého ,královského učitele dobrých mravů‘?“
„Dost dobře nechápu, jak bych se mohl stát odstrašu- jícím příkladem, vzhledem k tomu, že, jak už jsem řekl, nejsem ten Kellen, po kterém údajně pátráš.“
Rozdal mi další kartu; tentokrát nesla číslo dvě a zob- razovala dvojici lebek. Bylo to obzvláš􏰁 působivé, když uvážíte, že daromanský balíček žádnou barvu „lebky“ ne- obsahuje.
„Nechtěl bys mě ten trik naučit?“ zeptal jsem se.
„K čemu by to bylo?“ Luskl prsty a karta vzplanula. „Byl bych si myslel, že člověk žijící mimo zákon jako ty se radši někde ukryje, ale moje hedvábná kouzla mě neomylně dovedla na toto místo. Upřímně, hochu, zklamals mě na- tolik, že mám sto chutí zabít tě hned a mít to z krku.“
Zvedl jsem ruce a věnoval mu jeden ze svých nejpod- manivějších úsměvů. „Hele, není třeba se ukvapovat. Jen jsem si sem zašel na panáka a zahrát si karty. Co kdy- bys mi toho tvého Kellena popsal? Třeba jsem ho tady někde viděl.“
Mág se zachechtal. „Tvoje výška, tvoje postava.“ Ho- dil na stůl katapultového spodka. „Tvůj podlézavý úsměv, tvoje vlasy barvy hnoje.“ Vyhodil kartu do vzdu- chu a stal se z ní listový spodek.
„Ten popis se v těchhle končinách hodí na kdekoho,“ namítl jsem. „Mimoto si myslím, že nemáš právo hanět vlasy jiných lidí, příteli.“
„A samozřejmě –“ mág opět vyhodil kartu do vzduchu, a když dopadla tentokrát, zůstala stejná, jen spodkovo oko obklopovala složitá černá kresba – „muž, kterého hledám, má kolem levého oka stejný odporný černý stín, jaký nosíš ty, Kellene z rodu Ke.“
Zaklonil jsem se na židli a zatleskal mu. „Vážně? Te􏰀 tedy trochu jemné magie. Opravdu se nenecháš přemlu- vit, abys mě naučil ty svoje úžasné karetní triky?“
„Triky už ti došly, Kellene,“ pohrozil mi prstem. „Jistě, unikl jsi několika mladším mistrům a s tou svojí troškou magie sis vybudoval jistou pověst. Bezpochyby jsi tady na pár zaostalých křupanů zapůsobil. Možná jsi dokonce zaujal dvanáctiletou holku, která si říká královna. Ale se skutečným lordem mágem se měřit nemůžeš, Kellene. Proto te􏰀 zemřeš.“
Vzdychl jsem na znamení marnosti. „Už hodinu se ti tady snažím vysvětlit, příteli, že sis mě s někým spletl.“ „Chceš mi namluvit, že se v těchhle krajích nachází víc než jeden muž s černými znameními kolem levého
oka?“
Pokrčil jsem rameny. „Třeba je to jen líčení, víš? Něco
jako nová móda. Nebo snad… přetvářka?“
„Přetvářka? Copak by si někdo, kdo má všech pět po-
hromadě, vědomě zahrával s černým stínem poskvrňují- cím jeho duši?“ Spráskl rukama. „Beru zpět, chlapče. Je s tebou taková zábava, že je skoro škoda tě zabít. Nane- štěstí jsi zabil příliš mnoho jan’tepských mágů…“
Posbíral karty, udělal z nich nevelkou hromádku a roz- prostřel je do vějíře po stole. Jedenáct karet. Samí králo- vé. „Pokud se dá věřit tomu, co se říká.“
„Možná dokonce víc?“ odtušil jsem a přihodil k nim další kartu z balíčku. Bylo by hezké, kdyby se jako zázra- kem ukázalo, že je to další král, ale byla to jen šípová šestka.
„Všechno je možné.“
„Ten Kellen je asi hrozně nebezpečný. To se ani trochu nebojíš, že bys mohl přijít k úrazu, když ho budeš honit po celém daromanském území?“
„Ne.“
Opřel jsem se lokty o stůl a upřeně mu pohlédl do očí. „To jsi si tolik jistý sám sebou? Vážně jsi tak mocný?“
„Jsem. Ale na rozdíl od těch pitomců, se kterými ses setkal předtím, jsem i opatrný. Proto jsem před naším setkáním učinil jistá opatření.“
Poklepal jsem na svůj komínek mincí. „Tím, že jsi pro- hrál spoustu peněz v kartách?“
Zasmál se. „Víceméně. Karty tě měly jenom udržet na tvé židli, kterou jsem, jak záhy zjistíš, včera očaro- val kouzlem starším a zákeřnějším, než si vůbec umíš představit.“
Pohlédl jsem na svoji židli. „Tenhle rozvrzaný starý krám? Nerad ti to říkám, příteli, ale jestli mě to mělo zabít, pak to moc nefunguje.“
„Zabít tě? Neblázni. Chci si to potěšení schovat pro sebe. Ne, ta židle je očarovaná znehybňujícím kouzlem na základě duchovní spřízněnosti, Kellene. Jakmile se na ni posadí mág, kouzlo se postupně zmocňuje magie, jíž je nositelem. Te􏰀 už dokonce i ta špetka síly, kterou máš v dechovém pásku na předloktí, postačí, aby tě sevřela silněji než dubové nebo železné okovy.“ Pokynul mi, abych vstal. „Dělej. Zkus se pohnout. Čím víc se budeš snažit, tím silněji tě kouzlo připoutá k židli, až tě nako- nec svým tlakem zardousí.“
Chvíli jsem to zvažoval. „To zní opravdu důmyslně. Neumím si představit způsob, jak bych se dostal z tak 􏰀ábelské pasti. Až mě napadá, proč to na toho Kellena nikdo předtím nezkusil.“
Stařec se zahihňal. „Ach, ujiš􏰁uju tě, že tohle kouzlo ovládá málokdo.“
„Pak by mě tedy zajímalo, proč se deseti lidem, co dneska seděli na téhle židli přede mnou, nic nestalo?“
Starce to viditelně podráždilo. „Jak už jsem říkal, kouz- lo účinkuje jenom na jan’tepské mágy. Myslel jsem si, že tě to ocenění potěší, Kellene. Aspoň ti te􏰀 lidé budou mu- set přiznat, že nejsi tak docela bez magických schopností.“
„Dobrá, dobrá,“ řekl jsem. „Ďábelské a ohleduplné. A přece…“ Začal jsem bubnovat prsty na stůl.
„A přece co?“
Zaklonil jsem hlavu a nepřítomně zíral do stropu. „No, připadá mi riskantní vložit tolik úsilí do něčeho tak ba- nálního jako židle a spoléhat se na to, že se obě􏰁 posadí zrovna na tu správnou.“
„Vůbec to nebylo riskantní. Pozoroval jsem tě tu celý uplynulý týden, jak každý večer sedáváš právě na téhle židli. Takže stačilo, abych byl na své židli předtím, než přijdeš, a hostinský se postaral, aby se na ni neposadil nikdo jiný, dokud se neukážeš. Kromě toho jsem si vy- bral večer, kdy je většina těch barbarů na oslavě naroze- nin jejich malé královny.“
„Jistě, to dává smysl. Ačkoli…“
„Copak?“
„Já jen že tenhle Kellen má být 􏰀ábelsky mazaný psanec,
ne? Pravý génius ovládající umění unikat nepřátelům.“ „Génius? Ne. Spíš je prohnaný. Má v rukávu pár triků,
to jistě.“
Souhlasně jsem přikývl. „Dobrá. Tak je prohnaný. Ra- finovaný. Takže otázka zní: nebylo by možné, že by tak prohnaný a rafinovaný chlápek zjistil, co máš za lubem, přišel sem včera v noci a prohodil židle? Myslím tím, že se zdá, že má až neskutečnou schopnost přežít v každé situaci. Co kdyby se sem včera v noci po zavírací době tajně vplížil, postavil tvoji židli sem a svoji židli přesně tam, kde te􏰀 sedíš ty? Neznamenalo by to, technicky vzato, že očarovaný znehybňujícím kouzlem bys byl ty?“
Mág přimhouřil oči. Pokusil se zvednout ruku a ote- vřel ústa, když se ani nepohnula. Škubal rukávem pláště, jako kdyby byl přilepený k opěrce židle. Začal sebou zu- řivě vrtět ve snaze uniknout ze židle, ale nebylo mu to nic platné. Jeho pohyby byly čím dál tím prudší, až na mě nakonec jenom civěl přes stůl a pomalu pohyboval rty, bezmocně, jako kdyby mu prsa drtilo stále těžší olověné závaží. Víčka se mu zachvěla a zavřela se.
V místnosti se rozhostilo ticho.
Pak se stařík rozesmál.
Bez sebemenší námahy vstal ze židle a pohladil si bři-
cho. „No teda. Ten výraz ve tvé tváři! Přísahám, hochu, že to nemělo chybu! Bylo to jako pozorovat kata pod ši- benicí, když zjistí, že má oprátku na vlastním krku!“
„V tom případě,“ řekl jsem suše, „to tedy bylo slušné představení.“
Stařec se uklonil až po pás. „Děkuji, děkuji.“ Posadil se a znovu se začal hihňat. „Varoval jsem tě předem, Kelle- ne, že jsem o něco chytřejší než ti mágové, se kterými jsi bojoval předtím.“
„O něco,“ připustil jsem.
„Věděl jsem, že by ses mohl dovědět, co mám v úmys- lu, proto jsem učinil předběžná opatření. Zařídil jsem, aby židle byly hned ráno zkontrolovány. Takže když ses sem včera v noci vloudil a vyměnil je…“
„Tvůj komplic je před mým příchodem vrátil zpátky.“ Ohlédl jsem se po hostinském, jehož umouněná tvář zářila úsměvem. „Moc pěkně se chováš ke stálým zákaz- níkům.“
Mág se opřel rukama o stůl mezi námi. „I když to bylo nanejvýš zábavné, bohužel jsem mezitím zmeškal čas, kdy jsem si měl vyzvednout druhou polovinu své odmě- ny, což znamená, že musíme tu záležitost uzavřít spolu.“
Hostinský se k nám přiloudal a položil na stůl zapráše- nou láhev vína a vývrtku.
„Ty něco slavíš,“ otázal jsem se, „nebo mě chceš ještě před tím, než mě zabiješ, pozvat na skleničku?“
„Myslíš tohle?“ zvedl láhev. „Ale ne. Tohle si schovám na potom.“ Postavil láhev zase na stůl, vytáhl z kapsy bílý hadřík a začal jím otírat vývrtku. „Tuhle věc,“ pravil a zvedl ji přede mnou, „ti zavrtám do toho tvého černé- ho oka a potom ti vyrvu život z těla.“
Polkl jsem naprázdno. „Jestli k tomu můžu něco říct, tak na takového vznešeného pána, jako jsi ty, mi to při- padá poněkud barbarské.“
„Požadavek mých daromanských zaměstnavatelů,“ po- krčil rameny. „Hanobení mrtvol jejich nepřátel je u nich něco jako tradice. Pro jejich královnu to bude o to dů- raznější vzkaz.“
Soucitně jsem přikývl. „Práce na volné noze může být tak nechutná.“
„Mně to nevadí.“ Otočil vyleštěnou vývrtkou ve vzdu- chu. „Lord mág si jen málokdy ušpiní ruce, ale vrazit ti tohle do oka? Působit ti takové strašlivé utrpení, zatím- co tam sedíš, řveš bolestí a nemůžeš se ani pohnout?“ Otřásl se. „Řekněme, že je to nápad, který mě zaujal. Nejspíš se zadusíš v boji proti znehybňujícímu kouzlu dřív, než zemřeš na následky svých zranění.“
Zakousl jsem se do rtu. „Nepočítáš s tím, že se ti to budu snažit rozmluvit? Že ti možná nabídnu obchod?“ Mág zavrtěl hlavou. Usmál se, naposledy mi ukázal své dokonalé zuby a vstal. V pravé ruce pevně svíral vý-
vrtku.
„A sakra,“ řekl jsem. „Jestli tohle má být den, kdy se
setkám se svými předky, tak bych u toho radši stál.“ „Říkal jsem ti, že –“
Nikdy se nedovím, co mi chtěl ten stařík sdělit, proto-
že mu slova odumřela na rtech, když uviděl, jak vstávám ze židle.
„To není…“
Zvedl jsem láhev vína a mrkl na ročník naškrábaný in- koustovou tužkou. Zřejmě se jednalo o nejdražší láhev, jakou podnik nabízel. Musela stát pěkné peníze.
„Tady něco nehraje,“ nechápal mág. Připomínal mi zmateného dědulu, který právě zjistil, že zabloudil velmi daleko od domova.
„Že by to kouzlo nefungovalo?“ hádal jsem. „Vyloučeno. Moje kouzla nikdy neselhala. Nikdy.“ „To je tedy vážně záhada.“ Zvedl jsem prst. „Třeba je
ten Kellen mnohem, mnohem mocnější, než se ti snažili namluvit.“
„Ale…,“ zajíkl se stařec, „každý přece ví, že Kellen z rodu Ke je velice slabý mág. Rozzářil jen dechový pá- sek. Jeho magie je slabá jako magie dítěte!“
Zamyšleně jsem přikývl. „Ano, i to jsem slyšel. Takže pokud tvoje kouzla nikdy neselžou a ten Kellen není dost silný, aby je přemohl, pak zbývá jediné vysvětlení, že?“
Zvedl jsem ze stolu bílý hadřík a začal si stírat z levého oka černé líčení.
„Předkové! Ty jsi mě podvedl! Ty nejsi –“
Nevinně jsem se usmál. „Bu􏰀 spravedlivý, příteli. Po- koušel jsem se tě upozornit, že nejsem ten Kellen z rodu Ke, kterého hledáš. Řekl jsem ti to několikrát, jestli si vzpomínáš.“
Mágovi se podařilo opět nabýt ztracené rovnováhy a začal ohýbat prst do tělesného tvaru, jak říkají Jan’Tepové. „A􏰁 jsi, kdo jsi, skutečnost, že tě ta židle ne- znehybnila, znamená, že nemáš žádné magické schop- nosti, kterými by ses bránil. Takže mi te􏰀 hezky povíš, kde se Kellen skrývá, nebo budeš ještě na kolenou prosit o rychlou smrt!“
„Klidně ti to řeknu zadarmo,“ odtušil jsem a hodil špi- navý hadr přes mágovo rameno. „Je přímo za tebou.“
Mág se prudce otočil. Hostinský ležel omráčený na podlaze. Opilec, který chrápal v koutě, te􏰀 stál za staří- kem a otíral si levé oko mágovým hadrem.
„Podvod!“ vykřikl mág. „Hnusný trik!“
Kellen Argos – alespoň takové jméno udal, když si mě najal – se na starce soucitně usmál. Černé obrazce kolem jeho oka, které jsme předtím celé hodiny malovali kolem mého, zlověstně zářily v matném světle lucerny. „Je to, jak říkáš, lorde mágu: mám strašně málo magických schopností, se kterými můžu pracovat. Jediné, co mi zbý- vá, jsou triky.“
Abych dostál svému závazku až do konce, praštil jsem mága ze všech sil láhví do zátylku. Sklo se roztříštilo na tisíc kousků a víno se rozlilo po starcových mastných vlasech. Svalil se jako pytel.
Kellen Argos u něho poklekl, přesvědčil se, že mu srd- ce stále bije, a prohledal mu pláš􏰁, z nějž vytáhl měšec s penězi. Vylovil z něj několik mincí, které si strčil do kapsy, a podal mi zbytek.
Podíval jsem se do měšce. Bylo v něm celé jmění; dost na to, abych si za ně mohl koupit nižší šlechtický titul a pěkný zámeček poblíž hlavního města. Dost na to, aby to ve mně vyvolalo podezření. „V čem je háček?“
Kellen uchopil omráčeného mága za jednu ruku. „Pomůžeš mi s ním.“
Vzali jsme ho mezi sebe, zvedli a posadili na židli, na
které jsem předtím seděl já.
„Připadá mi to trochu kruté,“ ozval jsem se.
Kellen pohladil staříka po hlavě. „O nic víc, než co
měl přichystané pro mě. Kromě toho te􏰀 už budou jeho zaměstnavatelé na cestě sem, aby to oslavili. Možná se nad ním slitují a najmou dalšího mága, který ho ze zne- hybňovacího kouzla vysvobodí.“
„Proč ho prostě nezabijeme? To se nebojíš, že těm li- dem vyžvaní, jak jsi to dokázal?“
„Na to právě spoléhám.“ Přešel k lavici, na které před- stíral spánek, a vzal si kabát a černý hraničářský klo- bouk, jehož stuhu nad krempou zdobily stříbrné pečetě.
„Až si příště královnini nepřátelé budou chtít najmout nějakého lorda mága, aby za ně udělal špinavou práci, budou muset za tu čest zaplatit mnohem víc.“
Zamířil k létacím dveřím od lokálu.
„Ještě jedna otázka,“ zadržel jsem ho. „Pracuješ pro královnu, že? Chci říct, jsi příslušník daromanského dvora?“
„To mi pořád připomínají.“
„Proč tu tedy není aspoň deset královských šerifů nebo palácových stráží, aby ti kryli záda?“
Nasadil si klobouk. Byl mu trochu velký. I když jsme si skutečně byli podobní – dost na to, abychom oklamali cizince –, byl přece jen o pár let mladší než já a vypadal mnohem… unavenější.
„Taky mi říkají, že moc nevycházím s jinými lidmi.“
„A co bude příště?“ nedal jsem se odbýt. „Tenhle trik nebudeš moct použít dvakrát.“
Rozrazil dveře, kterými z ulice dovnitř pronikly vzdá- lené dozvuky včerejší oslavy. Otočil se ke mně a v kout- cích úst mu zahrál lišácký úsměv. Tvářil se jako pobuda, když vyklouzne zadním oknem z vašeho domu poté, co vám ukradl večeři. „Příště budu nejspíš muset přijít s ně- jakým novým trikem.“

Chapter I - The ArrestCrownbreaker

Nothing stinks like a capital city in the summer. Streets already crowded with courtiers, craftspeople, lords and labourers begin to burst as endless caravans of merchants, diplomats, and those impoverished by bad harvests or foreign raiders roll through the gates in search of profit or protection. Upon a gleaming white arch at the city’s entrance an inscription bearing the Daroman capital’s motto beckons visitors with a promise: ‘Emni Urbana Omna Vitaris’.

From The Imperial City Flows Prosperity.

Also, sewage.

That’s the thing about great cities: they can solve hunger with more food, security with more soldiers, and almost everything else with more money. But there’s only so much shit you can swirl around before the flagstones begin to reek.

‘This place stinks,’ Reichis chittered above me.

The soft flutter of fur-covered gliding flaps heralded a light thump against my shoulder as the squirrel cat made his landing. My two-foot-tall, thieving, murderous business partner sniffed at my face. ‘Funny, you don’t smell dead.’

‘I’m fine,’ I said, not eager to resume the lengthy argument begun in the early hours before dawn when I went off alone to face the mage who’d been sent to kill me. All I wanted now was a bath, some quiet, and maybe a few restful hours without any attempts on my life.

Reichis sniffed at me a second time. ‘You smell worse than dead, actually. Is that whisky?’ he asked, poking his muzzle in my hair and sounding more than a little intrigued.

A year of living in the capital city of Darome had afforded Reichis the opportunity to expand his list of unhealthy addictions, which currently consisted of butter biscuits, overpriced amber pazione liqueur, several vintages of Gitabrian wines – the expensive ones, naturally – and, of course, human flesh.

‘Did you remember to bring me the mage’s eyeballs?’ he inquired.

‘He wasn’t dead.’

‘That’s not what I asked.’

This is where having a squirrel cat perched on your shoulder perilously close to your soft, tasty human ears, gets dangerous. See, squirrel cats, with their tubby feline bodies, big bushy tails, coats that change colour depending on their mood and furry flaps that stretch between their front and back limbs enabling them to glide from the treetops (or “fly as well as any gods-damned falcon” as Reichis would insist), can – if you stare at them, squinty-eyed, from a distance and preferably through a drunken haze – look almost cute. They’re not, though. Puppy dogs are cute. Bunny rabbits are cute. Poisonous Berabesq sand rattlers are cute to somebody. Squirrel cats, though? Not cute. Evil.

‘Reichis . . .’ I began.

His breath is surprisingly warn when it’s less than an inch from your earlobe. ‘Go on, say it.’

Ancestors, I thought, noting in the periphery of my vision that Reichis’s shadowblack markings were swirling. A year ago he’d wound up with the same twisting black lines around his left eye as I had around mine. Unlike me, though, the possibility of one day becoming a rampaging demon terrorizing the entire continent didn’t trouble him in the least. The idea frankly delighted him.

Rescue from possibly fatal squirrel cat gnawing came in the form of a half-dozen pairs of heavy boots clomping up behind me, followed soon thereafter by the tell-tale click of a crossbow’s safety catch being released. ‘Kellen Argos, by order of Lieutenant Libri of the Queen’s Marshals Service, you are under arrest.’

I sighed. ‘This again?’

The first tentative rasp of the crossbow’s trigger grinding against its iron housing. ‘Get those hands up high, spellslinger.’

I hadn’t even noticed that my fingers had drifted to the powder holsters at my sides. Reflex, I guess, though by now you’d figure I’d’ve gotten used to being arrested on a weekly basis.

I raised my arms and slowly turned to find a half-dozen marshals wearing their customary broad hats and long grey coats armed with the usual assortment of short-hafted maces and crossbows – all trained on me. ‘Would you like me to read the warrant?’ Sergeant Faustus Cobb asked. Short, scrawny, narrow-shouldered and years past his prime, you’d think he’d appear comical next to his younger and more vigorous subordinates. But my experience with the Queen’s Marshals had taught me that age does nothing to diminish how dangerous they are – only how ornery they become when you resist.

Me? I was eighteen, wearier than my years ought to allow. My shirt was still soaked from the booze I’d used to disguise myself as a drunk back at the saloon, and I was feeling a little crabby myself. ‘What’s the charge this time?’

Cobb made a show of reading out the warrant. ‘Conspiracy to commit assault upon the person of a foreign emissary enjoying the protections afforded diplomatic representatives.’

Yep, that’s right: the old man who’d come to kill me, being a Jan’Tep lord magus, held ambassadorial status in Darome.

Cobb went on. ‘Grievous physical abuse.’

Not nearly grievous enough.

‘Theft.’

Knew I shouldn’t have kept any of the coins.

‘Acting against the vital interests of the Daroman Crown and the people it serves.’

That one they throw into almost every warrant. Spit on the sidewalk and you’ve technically ‘acted against the interests’ of the crown.

Cobb paused. ‘There’s something here about “unlawfully being an irritating, half-witted spellslinging card sharp who doesn’t do what he’s told”, but I’m not sure that’s an actual crime.’

And yet, I was pretty sure it was the only crime Torian was concerned about. ‘Funny how she had that warrant already drawn up before anyone found the mage,’ I pointed out.

Cobb grinned. ‘Guess the lieutenant’s got you pegged pretty good by now, Kellen.’

I was really starting to dislike Lieutenant Torian Libri. While there were no end of people in the Daroman capital intent on making my life hell, few displayed her raw determination and consistently lousy sense of humour. ‘You do realize that under Imperial law my rank as Queen’s Tutor prevents you from prosecuting me for any crime without four-fifths of the court first revoking my status, don’t you?’

One of the younger deputies gave an amiable chuckle. I’d let him win at cards with me last week in the vain hope I might win over some of the marshals to my side. ‘Don’t say nothin’ about you bein’ arrested, though.’

‘Let’s go, spellslinger,’ Cobb ordered, motioning for me to walk ahead of him.

Reichis gave a low growl. ‘You gonna take this crap, Kellen? Again? Let’s murder these skinbags. You owe me three eyeballs and this here’s an opportunity for you to pay up.’

‘Three? How many eyeballs did you think that mage had?’ I asked.

One of the marshals stared at me quizzically. She must’ve been new – the others were accustomed to hearing me talk to Reichis.

‘Who can tell with humans?’ the squirrel cat grumbled. ‘Your faces are all so ugly that every time I start counting, I lose track on account of needing to puke. Besides, two eyeballs was what you owed me an hour ago. The third is interest.’

Perfect. Because in addition to being a thief, a blackmailer, and a murderer, Reichis now wanted to add loan shark to his list of criminal enterprises.

‘Let’s pick up the pace,’ Cobb said. ‘You know how the lieutenant gets when you keep her waiting.’

Several of the deputies laughed at that – not that any of them would dare cross her. Reluctantly, I trudged along the wide flagstone street en route to my thirteenth jailing since becoming the queen’s tutor of cards.

‘Hey, what’s that?’ Reichis asked, his nose nodding in the direction of something small and flat floating on the breeze towards us, low to the ground. A playing card settled at my feet.

‘Keep walking,’ Cobb ordered.

I stayed where I was, staring down at the elaborate image on the card depicting a magnificent city on the top half. The bottom was a sort of mirror image, distorted as if reflected by a dark, shifting pool of black water.

‘You drop that?’ he asked, finally noticing the card.

‘Sergeant Cobb,’ I began. ‘Before this goes any further, I need to clarify a couple of things.’

‘Yeah? Like what?’

‘First, I had nothing to do with this card suddenly turning up.’

‘So what? It’s a playing card. Not like you’re the only gambler in the capital.’

As if to contest his banal explanation, a second card drifted down to land next to the first one. Then another and another, each one rotated a little more the the previous, gradually encircling me.

‘What are you playing at, spellslinger?’ Cobb asked, stepping back. I heard the safety catches on several crossbows unlock.

I was now standing in a ring of elaborately painted cards, their rich metallic hues of copper, silver and gold so vibrant they made the street look drab and lifeless by comparison. I turned to the half dozen well-armed men and women charged with escorting me to jail. ‘Marshals, allow me to offer my sincere apologies.’

‘For what?’ asked one as she raised her crossbow to train it on me.

The cards on the ground shimmered ever brighter, blinding me to everything but the coruscating play of colours that drained the light from the world around me.

‘For the inconvenience of my rescue,’ I replied.

I doubt anyone heard me. The city around me faded to a flat, colourless expanse; the buildings, the streets, even the marshals themselves looked as if they’d been carved out of thin sheets of pale ivory. Reichis slumped on my shoulder and began snoring. A figure walked towards me, a lone source of dazzling colour wrapped in the twisting golds of sand magic, the pale blues of breath, and the glistening purple of a silk spell.

A grandiose entrance like this is usually accompanied by the disappointed sigh of my sister Shalla, soon followed by an extensive commentary regarding my dishevelled condition and the annoyances my recent behaviour has caused our noble and much-admired family. Occasionally, though, it’s my father who appears to inform me of the latest crime I’ve committed against our people. That latter possibility was why my hands were now deep inside the powder holsters at my sides.

Ever since I’d left my people more than two years ago, I’d known the day would come when my father’s grand destiny could no longer tolerate my miserable existence. I’d been asked on many occasions by friends and foes alike if I had a trick – some devious ruse – saved up that could outsmart the mighty Ke’heops before he could kill me.

I did. I just wasn’t sure if it would work.

‘Kellen.’

The voice didn’t belong to my sister or father. In fact, I hadn’t heard it in such a long time that I didn’t recognize her. The bands of magical force began to settle, their brilliance diminishing enough that I could finally identify the apparition before me, and found myself standing there, the twin red and black powders I’d normally be using to cast a fiery explosion slipping through my fingers, with absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.

‘Mother?’

The figure gestured at the cards surrounding me. ‘Pick a card, Kellen,’ she said. ‘Any card.’

What is it with people and card tricks lately?

 

Chapter 2 - The Deck

As a child, I’d firmly believed Bene’maat was the finest mother any Jan’Tep boy could hope for. She had been an island of patience and calm in the otherwise stormy sea of my father’s unyielding ambitions and my sister’s pugnacious temper tantrums. My mother’s prowess as a mage was widely respected in our clan, yet her fascination with astronomy and healing revealed an inquisitive nature not solely consumed with the pursuit of magic as Ke’heops or Shalla were. Or me, for that matter.

If a parent’s second duty is to love their children equally, then Bene’maat had done so admirably in a society that valued Shalla’s raw talent for magic a thousand times more than my aptitude for clever tricks. And if a mother’s first duty is to protect her children, well, then Bene’maat done that pretty well, too – right up until the day she’d drugged me and then helped my father strap me down to a table, inscribing counter-sigils on the metallic tattooed bands around my forearms to forever deny me access to the magic that defined our people as I screamed over and over again for her to stop.

Now the woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years was standing before me, placidly repeating, ‘Pick a card, Kellen. Any card.’

I considered telling my beloved mother to bugger off, but my family is nothing if not persistent, so I gently settled the slumbering Reichis down on the ground and considered the thirteen cards forming a spell circle around me. I reached for the first one, which depicted architecture in the style of the Daroman capital in which we stood and was titled “City of Glories”.

‘Not that one,’ she said.

‘Why not?’

I heard the answer inside my mind a fraction of a second before her lips moved. ‘That is the keystone. Picking it up would break the spell and end our meeting.’

I’d always been a belligerent child. Life as an outcast had done nothing to cure me of that fault. I reached for the City of Glories again.

‘Please,’ the voice in my mind said just before the apparition did. ‘Forgive the awkward fashion in which our conversation must take place, but I’ve been unable to properly recreate Shalla’s wondrous spell for long distance communication. I’ve had to rely on a much older spell your grandmother invented before you were born.’

For the third time she repeated the same instruction, exactly as she had before: ‘Pick a card, Kellen. Any card.’

She’s not really here, not even in spirit, I realized. Bene’maat must have used silk, sand, and breath magic to record her thoughts and convey them to me within the cards as a series of individual messages, like a bundle of letters tied together with string, the spell encoded with specific responses based on my actions.

The remaining twelve cards fell into four suits unfamiliar to me – which is saying something considering how many decks I’ve encountered. In an Argosi deck, each suit corresponds to a particular civilization on our continent. In more common sets of playing cards created for entertainment, the suits tend to represent symbols meaningful to the culture that created them. The standard Daroman deck, for example, like it’s people, embodies their obsession with military emblems: chariots, arrows, trebuchets, and blades. However the four suits of this new deck before me were unlike any I’d seen before: scrolls, quills, lutes, and masks.

Had my mother devised these suits herself? And if so, what did each one mean?

I selected the Seven of Lutes, reasoning that no one had ever been blasted out of existence by a lute.

The figure of Bene’maat smiled and an instrument appeared in her hands. She began to play a melody that pulled at my heart so unexpectedly I gasped out loud.

‘You always loved this song as a child,’ she murmured. ‘You used to make me play it for hours and hours whenever you were scared or sad.’

I dropped the card as if it were a spider crawling on my hand.

The figure of my mother nodded, somewhat sorrowfully, as if she’d known I would respond this way.

‘Pick a card, Kellen,’ she repeated. ‘Any card.’

I found one that depicted a man carefully arranging quills on a scale. The caption read “Enumerator of Quills”.

My mother’s apparition was now seated at a desk composing a letter. ‘My dearest Kellen. It’s close to two years since last I touched your face. I had never thought such a thing possible. I always assumed you would come ba—’

‘What is this?’ I demanded. ‘Nostalgia? Have you forgotten what you did to me, mother?’ I pulled back my sleeves to show the foul counter-sigils desecrating the tattooed bands on my forearms. ‘You destroyed any hope I had of becoming a mage like you and father and Shalla.’

I hadn’t expected a reply, but I felt an itch in the back of my mind and a moment later, she spoke again. ‘I know you’re angry with us, Kellen. You have every right.’

I was beginning to understand how the magic worked. I wasn’t communicating directly with my mother, but these messages were more than just words scrawled on a page. The spell was made from a more complete collection of her thoughts, capturing a single moment in time during which my mother had bound up all her contemplations on a particular topic and infused them into the card.

A spectral tear slid down my mother’s cheek. ‘It broke my heart, what we did. We believed we were protecting you, protecting the world from what you might become. We had no idea how wrong our actions were.’

You should’ve known, I thought bitterly. A mother is supposed to protect her child, not ruin him.

I didn’t say any it out loud, though. I knew it wasn’t really Bene’maat standing there in front of me, yet still I couldn’t bear to say such hurtful things to my mother.

‘I thank you for your gracious missive,’ I said finally. ‘Are we done now? I have an important appointment in a jail cell. So unless you have some miracle cure for—’

Bene’maat’s arm extended, pointing now to a different card.

I dropped the one I was holding and picked up the Nine of Quills. The expression on my mother’s face changed to a look of determination, and arranged all around her were sketches and diagrams and pages upon pages of esoteric formulae. ‘Every day since you left, I’ve tried to find a way to undo the counter-banding. I’ve searched every book of lore in our sanctums, consulted with spellmasters across the territories. I read every scrap of parchment your father brought back from the Ebony Abbey, hoping to find amidst their knowledge of the shadowblack’s etheric planes the means to repair your connection to the high magics. At times I thought I might be close . . .’

She stopped, squeezing her fists in frustration. The image of her fluttered and faded.

The spell must require perfect focus to imprint the message on the card, I thought. Every time she lost her concentration, she’d had to stop and start a new one.

‘What do you mean, “close”?’ I asked. ‘Are you saying there might be a cure?’

A different card began to glow brighter than the others. The Peddler of Masks. I picked it up.

‘So much of what I’ve been told has turned out to be lies, Kellen. False promises. Supposed secret methods for inscribing new sigils that resulted in nothing more than temporary illusions.’

‘Then it’s hopeless?’

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of all the things I lost when I left my people, the one I knew I could never get back was my magic. I’d learned to live with that fact. With my one breath band, my blast powders, my castradazi coins, and all the other tricks I’d learned along the way, I sometimes even prided myself that I could outsmart my enemies without spells. But I still woke up in the middle of the night sometimes with every inch of my skin glistening with sweat, my fingers twitching through dozens of somatic forms I’d practiced thousands of times for spells I would never cast, so desperate for the taste of magic that no food or drink could satisfy me.

Like all my people, I was an addict. My addiction was inscribed in tattooed metallic inks around my forearms. I could never sate that desire. I doubted it would ever leave me.

The apparition of my mother gestured behind me, and I turned to see the Thief of Masks rising from the other cards, beckoning me to take it. When I did, her voice became a whisper.

‘There might be a way.’

I spun back around to see her, still standing where she’d been before. There was an uncertainty in her gaze, though, as if she were afraid someone else might burst into wherever she’d been when she’d created these messages for me.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

She looked as if she were struggling to get out the words without losing the concentration required to continue imprinting her thoughts onto the card. ‘Our people have been . . . Wrong about magic, Kellen. Wrong in so many ways and at costs we’re only now discovering. The fundamental forces are vastly more complex than we assumed and can be fashioned in ways we never imagined. There are traditions as old as our own, spread out across the cultures of this continent. Much of the knowledge has been lost even to their own people, but I’ve found traces of it within old songs and stories.’

No wonder she was having so much trouble holding the spell. To hear a Jan’Tep mage admit our people weren’t the only ones who could perform the true high magics was a kind of sacrilege that even I found troubling.

‘There is a place far from here where I believe I might acquire the means to rectify the crime your father and I committed against you, to give you back the chance to become a true mage of the Jan’Tep.’ The look of determination I’d seen in her so often as a child appeared in her features. ‘I swear to you, my son, there is no price I will not pay to buy back your future.’

I swallowed. My breathing was quick, my heart beat faster than it should. The prospect of what my mother was suggesting . . . But I’d travelled the long roads of this continent, seen and heard just about every kind of con game there was, performed half of them myself. Not everything is fake in this world, but nothing of value comes free.

I reached for the card depicting two figures exchanging goods as they stood beneath an open scroll. My people don’t use scrolls for spells or messages. We use them for contracts.

‘Come home,’ my mother said, her voice more a plea than an opening bid. ‘Come back to us. Your father is Mage Sovereign now. He has lifted the spell warrant against you.’

‘Too bad he didn’t mention that to the lord magus who just tried to kill me.’

The apparition of my mother gave no reply. She couldn’t, of course. She would’ve had no knowledge of this latest attempt on my life. Besides, it was a fair bet this guy had been hired by Daroman conspirators rather than my own people.

‘Return to us,’ Bene’maat went on. ‘And even if I fail to return your magic to you, still I can give you a home.’

Home. Such a strange word. I wasn’t sure I knew what it meant anymore.

‘I’ve been scrying you when I could, though you’re very difficult to track,’ Bene’maat said. ‘Not spying on you, I promise, but I needed to see you sometimes, through a mother’s eyes and not through the recounting of your sister and others.’ In the haze behind her, pictures formed and faded, images of events in my life since I’d left my homeland. Scenes of violence, of pursuit, of me sitting alone after the fight looking far more miserable than even I remembered. ‘The brave face you put on for those around you, this trickster’s guise you’ve taken on, it’s not you, Kellen. You weren’t meant for this life. You aren’t happy.’ 

Happy? I’d spent the past three years facing every mage, mercenary, or monster this continent had to offer. I’d survived them all. Saved a few decent people along the way. Wasn’t that enough? Was I supposed to be happy now, too?

My mother’s fingers were outstretched now, reaching towards me, a desperate hope in her eyes. ‘Come home, son.’

The card in my hand felt heavy. Clammy against my skin. I dropped to the ground and before another could glow or rise or otherwise demand my attention, I shuffled them all together, fully breaking the circle and ending the spell. The cards became dull and flat once again, and the world around me came back to life.

Goodbye, mother.

‘Move real slow now, spellslinger,’ Cobb said.

I heard the marshals shuffling behind me, fingers on the triggers of their crossbows. They seemed neither concerned nor even aware of the cards that had floated here and that I now held in my hand. Probably barely a second had passed for them and this whole event had taken place solely in my mind.

‘Hey,’ Reichis growled from where he was curled up on the ground. ‘Why’d you dump me down here?’

‘Sorry,’ I said to both him and the marshals, stuffing my mother’s strange herald cards into my pocket. I picked up the squirrel cat and settled him back on my shoulder. ‘Let’s get a move on. Time for Torian Libri to lock us up again.’

The marshals chuckled at that, and we all resumed our march to the palace.

‘You know where you went wrong with that Torian female?’ Reichis asked.

‘Don’t start,’ I warned.

There are only three solutions his species have to offer regarding the resolution of conflicts between humans: kill them, rob them blind, or – and this is the one where Reichis derives the most pleasure from devising elaborate and intensely nauseating suggestions – bed them.

‘Should’a mated with the lieutenant the day you met her,’ the squirrel cat said earnestly.

‘Mating works better when the other person doesn’t hate you,’ I said.

A couple of the marshals following behind me broke out laughing. Reichis took their mirth as encouragement – not that he needed any. ‘Nah, that Torian female wants you, see?’ He tapped a paw against his fuzzy muzzle. ‘Smelled it on her the day the queen introduced you two. I swear on all twenty-six squirrel cat gods, Kellen, the marshal’s in heat for you.’

It was, most assuredly, not true. Also, it’s highly doubtful that there are twenty-six squirrel cat gods. Times like these, though? It’s best not to contradict the little monster.

‘Now, here’s what you oughta do . . .’ Reichis tried – and failed staggeringly – to stifle his chittering laughter. ‘First, you’re gonna take off your trousers and perform a ceremonial dance. Human females love that. Next, you turn around and wiggle your bottom at her. Then all you have to do is drop to your knees and start making this sound . . .’

I’m not going to describe the noise he made. Suffice it to say that it was exactly as disgusting than you might imagine and he kept making it all the way to the palace.

 

Chapter 1 - The Dangling CorpseDance Of The Chamberlin

The chamberlain’s corpse danced from a rope looped around a beautiful chandelier in a ballroom surrounded by opulence, stinking of death.

Danced.

At this moment, the movements in question appeared to be a virtuadoré – an especially intricate noble courtship dance that involved a great deal of heel turns and swaying arms.

‘How is this even possible?’ demanded the Viscount of Cajoulac, pacing along the pristinely polished oak boards of his specially sprung floor which made dancing upon it less of a hardship to his guests’ knees.

Not the one hanging from the crystalline chandelier, of course.

‘I mean it,’ the slender, elaborately-attired Viscount insisted, pairing his outrage with a stomp from his emerald green silk with ivory lace shoe against the floor.

‘How can a dead body be dancing – literally dancing without cease even as we stand here watching?’

Estevar Borros, the King’s Crucible, chose not to answer, merely placed his hands over his belly, and allowed his fingers to drum a rhythm against the thick dark crimson leather of his greatcoat. In times past he would instead twist the beaded braids of the neatly trimmed and carefully oiled black beard that came down to the collar of his coat, but given the nature of the conundrum before him, drumming his fingers seemed a more fertile investigative methodology.

‘Well?’ the Viscount asked him.

There were three other people in the room – not counting the small herd of kneeling grey-robed clerics wearing black funerary cowls that bobbed up and down as they chanted disharmonious prayers to any number of Gods real or imagined. Estevar knew the Viscount’s confidants would only speak over him if he attempted to offer an opinion before they had their turn.

‘It is witchcraft, of course,’ concluded the mountainous Sir Galleato, dressed in plate armour despite the unpleasant heat emanating from the ornately carved marble fireplace at the end of the hall as well as the lack of there being anyone with which to do battle. Except, perhaps, Estevar, who he periodically glared at from beneath his steel war helm. ‘Black, bloody witchcraft.’

Blood isn’t black, Estevar thought, as anyone who bothered to stick around long enough after killing a person to see what death looked like would know. But men like Sir Galleato did not remain to witness the results of their actions. They were too busy bragging about them to their fellow knights.

Leave it alone, Estevar told himself. Murders aren’t solved by getting into brawls with armoured thugs.

‘Could it be a trick?’ asked Damina Melisende Jovien. ‘Some kind of . . . pulleys or springs hidden inside the metal shaft of the chandelier descending from the ceiling?’

Melisende was an older woman, grey hair thinning somewhat beneath the gold circlet crowning her angular face. The bright claret, almost pink gown she wore tried too hard to accentuate her bosom, suggesting she was struggling to hold the Viscount’s continued interest. Age was crueller to mistresses than to wives, Estevan had observed more than once.

‘Do not waste our time with the nonsense of whores,’ said Venerati Magni Lazare, pausing in his own loudly chanted prayers to rise up and kick one of his lesser clerics who’d apparently fallen asleep in his duties. The shaven-headed figure looked up and offered a surreptitious rude gesture to the Venerati’s back.
Fourteen days is a long time to put on such vocal displays of piety, even for professionals.

‘This is the work of the Gods themselves!’ Venerati Lazare declared, pressing the back of one hand against the palm of the other and holding them up towards the dangling corpse in a symbol of religious prayer. ‘Only by their hand is such a punishment possible!’

Estevar waited for the Viscount of Cajoulac to reprimand the priest for the insult to Damina Jovien. When the reprimand failed to come, he contemplated doing so himself.

Death of the Swashbuckler

The assassination was to take place at the fourth bell after midnight. An excellent time for a murder, for the taverns had already cleared out, the city constables had started sneaking sips of throat-burning liquor from silver flasks secreted on their person to keep out the cold and wet, and with dawn coming so soon, even the wariest of victims might fool himself into believing that he was safe for the night.

And make no mistake about it: Falcio val Mond was a wary individual.

Gavalle Sanprier ended his third perambulation of the abandoned library’s exterior, giving the dying building a brief salute before slipping inside. Even in its decline, there was something darkly beautiful about the decrepit old building. Three stories rose up from a sagging sidewalk that years ago had begun to dip into the canal waters. The City Masters had deemed the cost of restoration too great, and libraries – even the beautiful ones – unworthy of such vast expense.

Still, though, the decision can’t have been easy.

The sweeping arches of the arcade fronting the ground floor conjured images of a better time, when artists and scholars might sit in the shade beneath those arches while painting their masterpieces or debating the finer points of philosophy, the latter no doubt periodically racing inside to find just the right book with which to score an intellectual victory over their opponents. Now the arcade was four feet underwater. Gavalle, garbed in specially oiled night-black trousers and duelling vest to keep from becoming soaked himself and imperilling his movements when the moment of val Mond’s death arrived, made slow, methodical progress so as not to slosh the muck too much and risk alerting his victim.

DiscordanceL’Ombre Au Noir

Celui qui aspire à devenir argosi doit d’abord accepter l’idée qu’il n’est ni prophète, ni cartomancien. Nos cartes ne contiennent pas de magie. Nous sommes de simples voyageurs, et le jeu qui est

le nôtre ne constitue rien d’autre qu’un ensemble de cartes dont chaque enseigne représente une culture, et chaque carte un élément de cette culture. À mesure qu’évoluent les peuples et les nations, nos cartes évoluent également. Ce sont là les concordances, qui révèlent qui est qui.

Cependant, lorsqu’un Argosi a connaissance d’un événement ou de quelque chose qui ne devrait pas exister mais qui est susceptible de modifier le cours de l’histoire, il lui faut peindre une nouvelle carte, qui s’appelle alors une discordance. Chaque discordance est un avertissement, une sorte de coup de clairon destiné à prévenir les autres Argosi qu’aussi longtemps que la nature de cette discordance demeurera secrète, l’avenir sera… imprévisible.

 

1 - La foudre du désert

– Je le savais, grogna Rakis en bondissant sur mon épaule lorsque l’éclair frappa le sable à trois mètres devant nous.

Les griffes du chacureuil transpercèrent ma chemise humide de sueur et ma peau.

– Ah ouais ? fis-je en tentant d’ignorer la douleur avec aussi peu de succès qu’en cherchant à empêcher mes mains de trem- bler. Dans ce cas, peut-être que la prochaine fois qu’on aura un traqueur de sort aux trousses tu pourras nous avertir avant que nos chevaux prennent peur et nous plantent en plein désert.

Un nouveau coup de tonnerre retentit au-dessus de nos têtes et fit trembler le sol. J’ajoutai :

– Oh, et puis, si ça ne te dérange pas trop, qu’est-ce que tu dirais de prévenir aussi qu’un orage sec va s’abattre depuis un ciel sans nuages?

Rakis hésita, sans doute en quête d’une explication plau- sible. Les chacureuils mentent très mal. Ce sont des voleurs hors pair et des assassins très enthousiastes mais, en bluff, ils sont nuls.

– Je voulais voir si tu pouvais t’en sortir tout seul. Je te met- tais à l’épreuve. Eh bien, Kelen, je t’annonce que tu as échoué.

– Hé, vous deux, vous vous souvenez que vous êtes censés tendre une embuscade ? lança Furia Perfax agenouillée un peu plus loin pour enterrer un objet luisant et pointu dans le sable.

Ses boucles rousses s’agitaient autour de son visage mais, malgré l’étrange orage qui se déchaînait sur nous, ses gestes demeuraient fluides et maîtrisés. Ce n’était pas la première fois qu’au cours d’une traque, on n’était pas les chasseurs, mais les proies.

D’où la nécessité de l’embuscade.

Ce n’est pas une mince affaire que de piéger un mage Jan’Tep, car on ne sait jamais quelle magie il possède. Le fer, la braise, le sable, la soie, le sang, le souffle… Il a à sa disposi- tion tout un arsenal de sorts. Et comme si ça ne suffisait pas, il peut également avoir des complices, hommes de main ou mercenaires, destinés à le protéger ainsi qu’à faire le sale bou- lot à sa place.

– Ça irait plus vite si tu me laissais t’aider à installer tes pièges, suggérai-je à Furia.

Je rêvais d’avoir une bonne occasion de penser à autre chose qu’aux atroces façons de mourir que je risquais de subir dans les minutes à venir.

– Pas question, gamin. Et arrête de me regarder, aussi, répondit- elle en s’éloignant de quelques mètres pour s’agenouiller et enterrer une nouvelle boule surmontée d’une pointe – un cylindre en verre rempli de gaz soporifique ou allez savoir quel autre genre de piège elle utilisait. Le type à nos trousses pourrait avoir jeté l’un de ces jolis petits sorts de soie pour découvrir ce qu’on a en tête. Or ta tête déborde de pensées, gamin. Il lirait en toi comme dans un livre ouvert.

C’était agaçant. Furia était une Argosi, ces joueurs de cartes

énigmatiques qui parcourent le continent pour… En fait, je ne savais toujours pas vraiment pour quoi, à part pour se moquer de tout le monde. Je n’avais pas grand espoir de devenir moi- même un Argosi, pourtant, j’étudiais du mieux que je pouvais les manières de Furia. Ne serait-ce que pour rester en vie.

Même si ça ne m’aidait guère qu’elle veuille avant tout m’enseigner des choses stupides comme «écouter avec mes yeux» ou «saisir le vide».

Évidemment, Rakis adorait quand Furia me réprimandait.

– Elle a raison, Kelen, feula-t-il depuis son perchoir favori, à savoir mon épaule. Tu devrais davantage t’inspirer de moi.

– Autrement dit, ne jamais réfléchir?

Son grognement fut à peine plus fort qu’un murmure, mais si près de mon oreille que…

– Ça s’appelle l’instinct, espèce de sac à peau. Ça complique la tâche des mages de la soie, car ils ne peuvent pas deviner ce que j’ai en tête. Et tu veux savoir ce que mon instinct me commande de te faire, là?

Un nouvel éclair frappa la dune devant nous, puis un jet de fumée s’éleva du sable. Je faillis avoir une attaque. Si Rakis et moi, on avait été amis, on se serait sans doute blottis l’un contre l’autre en priant pour nos vies. Au lieu de ça, il me mordit.

– Désolé, c’est l’instinct, cracha-t-il.

Je secouai l’épaule pour le faire tomber. Il écarta les pattes et ses palmures duveteuses prirent le vent, si bien qu’il glissa avec grâce jusqu’au sol, d’où il me lança un regard noir.

C’était un geste mesquin de ma part, car je ne pouvais pas lui en vouloir de sa réaction à la foudre. Rakis avait du mal avec les éclairs, le feu et, de façon générale, tous les ennemis qu’il ne pouvait pas mordre.

– Mais comment fait ce type ? demandai-je tout haut. Un orage sec en plein désert sous un ciel sans nuages, ça défie l’entendement !

Certes, la sixième forme de la magie de la braise permet de créer des décharges électriques qui ressemblent beaucoup à un éclair, mais celui-ci provient alors des mains du mage, pas du ciel, et la personne qui jette le sort doit avoir sa cible en vue.

Je regardai pour la millième fois la dune, me demandant à quel moment j’allais voir surgir le mage par-dessus la crête, prêt à abattre sept enfers sur nous. Ça faisait trois jours qu’il nous traquait et on ne parvenait pas à se débarrasser de lui.

– Mais pourquoi il ne renonce pas ? protestai-je.
Furia eut un petit rire.
– Peut-être parce qu’il y a une prime sur ta tête, gamin. La

cabale de mages ayant implanté des vers d’obsidienne dans les yeux de ces gosses de riches ne doit pas apprécier qu’on cherche à leur faire la peau.

Malgré le danger pressant, rien que la pensée des vers d’ob- sidienne me donna des haut-le-cœur. Il s’agissait d’une sorte de parasite mystique qui, une fois logé dans l’œil de sa victime, permettait aux mages de la contrôler à distance.

Furia, Rakis et moi, on avait passé les six derniers mois à la recherche des anciens étudiants de la célèbre Académie, lesquels ne se doutaient pas du tout qu’ils étaient lentement mais sûrement en train de se transformer en espions, voire en assassins de leurs propres familles.

– Quand est-ce que c’est devenu notre boulot de sauver le monde des vers d’obsidienne ? lançai-je en retirant mon cha- peau pour m’essuyer le front avec ma manche.

Malgré l’air sec, je transpirais abondamment. Il faut dire

que mon chapeau noir et trop grand ne m’aidait pas. Je l’avais volé à un autre frondeur de sort du nom de Dexan Videris, lequel avait tenté de me tuer. Selon lui, les glyphes en argent sur le bandeau empêchaient les mages de traquer le porteur du chapeau, mais comme tout ce qu’avait dit Dexan, ça se révélait inexact.

– C’est pas notre boulot, répondit Furia. C’est le mien. Le but des Argosi, c’est d’empêcher que des calamités s’abattent sur des innocents. Alors une bande de crétins de mages Jan’Tep qui a décidé de s’en prendre aux familles les plus puissantes de ce continent, ce qui pourrait aboutir à une guerre, ça entre dans mes attributions.

Il y eut tout à coup une bourrasque de vent, et mon cha- peau sans magie m’échappa des mains. Je faillis courir derrière, puis décidai de ne pas me donner cette peine. De toute façon, ce machin ne m’allait pas.

– Ça serait bien que, pour une fois, quelqu’un vienne nous demander de l’aide plutôt que de chercher à nous tuer, fis-je remarquer.

Furia se redressa et scruta le désert, puis déclara :
– Apparemment, c’est pas pour cette fois.
En regardant dans la même direction qu’elle, je découvris

un mur de sable de trente mètres de haut qui progressait vers nous.

– Et maintenant, on est bons pour une foutue tempête, gémit Rakis.

Il s’ébroua, et sa fourrure passa de son habituelle couleur terre avec des rayures noires à un beige clair parsemé de gris qui correspondait en tout point au nuage composé de sable et de petits cailloux. Une fois que la tempête serait sur nous, s’il

le souhaitait, Rakis disparaîtrait, ce qui se produirait sans doute s’il jugeait que les choses tournaient trop mal pour nous. Les chacureuils ne sont pas du tout sentimentaux.

Comme la tempête approchait, je me demandai si je préfé- rais mourir étouffé sous une tonne de sable, électrocuté par un éclair d’orage sec, ou assassiné avec de la magie noire. Ce n’est pas le choix qui manque quand on est un frondeur de sort et un hors-la-loi accompagné d’une joueuse de cartes argosi pour mentor, d’un chacureuil pour partenaire, et qu’on a toute une troupe de mages aux fesses.

De plus, j’étais presque sûr que c’était mon anniversaire, le jour même de mes dix-sept ans.

– Et qu’est-ce qu’on fait, maintenant ? demandai-je.

Les yeux fixés sur l’épais nuage de sable qui avançait vers nous, Furia répondit :

– Je crois que tu ferais bien de respirer un bon coup, gamin.

 

Respirer un bon coup

Quand on est attaqués, ce qui arrive bien plus souvent qu’à notre tour, on a chacun un rôle : Furia pose les pièges, prépare ses armes et utilise ses stupides talents argosi de façon à déter- miner la meilleure tactique de survie. Rakis part en éclaireur pour localiser tout ennemi à l’approche grâce à son odorat ultradéveloppé.

Moi, je respire un bon coup.

Furia connaît plein d’astuces, Rakis possède quatre pattes velues terminées par des griffes ainsi que deux rangées de crocs et un désintérêt total pour les conséquences de sa violence. Moi, dans ce genre de situation, je n’ai qu’un seul atout : un peu de magie du souffle qui dépend de mes mains agiles et des deux sortes de poudre que je conserve dans des bourses de chaque côté de ma ceinture. En revanche, je dégaine vite. La puissance d’un mage n’a aucune importance s’il explose avant de pouvoir prononcer ses incantations. Le problème, c’est que quand mes mains tremblent ou que je transpire trop, alors les poudres me collent aux doigts et je risque de me retrouver avec deux moignons carbonisés, ainsi que l’air sacrément penaud.

Alors… «Respire un bon coup.»
«Et essaie de garder ton calme.»

«Ne fais pas attention aux éclairs et à la tempête de sable. Mets à profit toutes ces années consacrées à visualiser des sorts pour te représenter ton ennemi au sommet de cette dune et le faire exploser avant qu’il…»

Une violente douleur sous forme de bourrasque de vent glacé me traversa l’œil droit. Je plaçai ma paume dessus dans une tentative vaine de l’apaiser. D’habitude, c’est mon œil gauche qui m’embête à cause de l’ombre au noir (qui est aussi la raison pour laquelle les chasseurs de primes munis d’avis de recherche magiques veulent ma peau). Mais comme si l’ombre au noir ne suffisait pas, depuis environ six mois, mon œil droit est devenu le refuge d’une sasutzei – un esprit du vent. Et comme je suis encore novice en magie du murmure, j’ai beaucoup de mal à la contrôler.

– Arrête, bon sang, j’essaie de me concentrer !

À ma grande surprise, la douleur disparut. Je pris une grande bouffée d’air et, à nouveau, je tentai de visualiser le moment où j’apercevrais notre poursuivant. Mes muscles se détendirent comme je m’imaginais attraper mes poudres, les lancer en l’air et créer les formes somatiques adéquates puis, au moment où les poudres entreraient en contact, prononcer l’incantation et les faire exploser…

– Argh! Arrête!
– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a, gamin ? me lança Furia.
– Cette crétine de sasutzei du vent dans mon œil n’arrête

pas de m’embêter!
Furia s’approcha en plissant les yeux puis demanda :
– Et depuis quand Suzy fait des siennes ?
Suzy était le surnom dont Furia avait affublé la sasutzei.

– Depuis que ce mage nous poursuit. Chaque fois que j’es- saie de me le représenter, elle…

Rakis m’interrompit avec un grognement sourd, le museau dressé. Ses yeux brillaient déjà de l’envie de se battre, et non de la peur légitime qu’un animal aurait dû ressentir dans une situation comme celle-là. Les coins de sa gueule velue se retroussèrent en ce qui ressemblait vaguement à un sourire et il déclara d’un ton solennel :

– L’heure du combat approche.

Un éclair frappa à nouveau le sable près du sommet de la dune. Une fois, deux fois, trois fois. La tempête projetait du sable partout autour de nous, transformant le monde en ombres virevoltantes. Jusqu’à ce que l’une de ces ombres se dresse sur la dune.

Furia m’attrapa par les épaules et m’obligea à me baisser.

– Attends qu’il approche, dit-elle, ses mots à peine audibles dans la tempête. Laisse l’ennemi venir à nous.

– Les humains sont vraiment débiles, grommela Rakis, mais pour une fois, il fit comme nous.

Tandis qu’on se recroquevillait par terre, une silhouette mince vêtue d’un long manteau de voyageur dévala la dune. L’individu portait un foulard sur le visage de façon à se pro- téger du sable et du vent ainsi qu’un chapeau de la Frontière qui ressemblait au mien. Le choix de cette tenue était assez étrange. En général, les mages qui cherchent à me tuer aiment bien être élégamment vêtus. Un animal – une sorte de chat ou de chien – boitillait près de lui.

– Une hyène, grogna Rakis en reniflant l’air et en décou- vrant ses crocs. Je déteste les hyènes.

Il tendit à nouveau le museau, puis inclina la tête sur le côté d’un air étonné.

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demandai-je.
– Un truc bizarre. Le sac à peau et la bestiole puent la peur. – Ils ont peur de nous ? m’exclamai-je, incrédule.
J’eus la réponse à ma question quand le mage atteignit le

pied de la dune et nous dépassa pour se précipiter vers la tem- pête de sable. Quelques secondes plus tard, quatre silhouettes apparurent sur la crête : des hommes vêtus des larges habits en lin clair qu’affectionnent les Berabesq. Nous étions sur leurs terres. Ils brandissaient des épées au bout incurvé et agitaient des fléaux dont les chaînes étaient munies de boules en métal à picots. Ils poursuivaient le mage avec une grâce féroce.

– Des doctrinaires berabesq, murmura Furia d’un ton à la fois effrayé et admiratif.

D’habitude, la plupart des paroles qui sortent de sa bouche relèvent de la plaisanterie, alors la terreur perceptible dans sa voix était déconcertante.

– C’est quoi, des doctrinaires berabesq ? demandai-je.

Elle regarda le mage disparaître dans la tempête de sable. – Pour ce pauvre crétin ? La pire mort imaginable garantie.

 

 

1 - Le problème du sableL’Abbaye d'Ebene

Le désert est un menteur.

De loin, cette étendue de sable doré à perte de vue semble paradisiaque. La contempler depuis le sommet d’une dune tan- dis qu’une petite brise atténue la brûlure du soleil… Quelles que soient vos envies – découvrir un trésor, fuir vos ennemis, voire faire disparaître ces marques noires qui ne cessent de grandir autour de votre œil gauche –, il y a toujours un crétin pour vous promettre que la solution vous attend de l’autre côté du désert. «C’est un voyage périlleux? Peut-être, mais tu as vu ce qu’il y a à gagner, mon garçon ? Songe à la récompense… »

Le problème, c’est quand on y regarde de plus près, de vrai- ment plus près, disons à un centimètre du sable. Ce qui se produit quand on est sur le point de mourir de soif. Là, on comprend que chaque grain de sable est unique. Qu’ils ont chacun leur forme, leur taille, leur couleur… Et on se rend compte que la perfection qu’on avait imaginée, ça n’était qu’un mirage. Parce qu’en réalité, de près, le désert est dur, il est laid, il est terrible.

Comme je l’ai dit : le désert est un sale menteur.
– C’est toi qui es un sale menteur, grommela Rakis.

Je redressai la tête. Je ne m’étais pas rendu compte que je parlais tout haut. Au prix d’un immense effort, je réussis à tourner la tête vers mon prétendu partenaire. même ça, ce fut difficile. Le manque de nourriture et d’eau m’avait affaibli. Les blessures provoquées par les sorts d’un mage dont le cadavre pourrissait en plein soleil à quelques mètres de nous n’aidaient pas non plus. Devais-je gâcher le peu de vie qui me restait pour foudroyer du regard un chacureuil au caractère de cochon en train d’agoniser près de moi?

– Toi aussi, tu es sale, rétorquai-je.
– Hé hé, gloussa-t-il.
Les chacureuils n’ont pas conscience de la mort. En

revanche, ils ont un penchant très développé pour rejeter la faute sur les autres.

– Tout ça, c’est ta faute, feula-t-il.

Je roulai sur le dos dans l’espoir de soulager ma colonne ver- tébrale, mais ça ne fit que déclencher des cris de protestation de la part des entailles sur mes épaules.

Un gémissement comparable à un râle franchit ma gorge déshydratée.

– N’essaie pas de le nier, lâcha-t-il.
– J’ai rien dit.
– Si. Tu t’es plaint, et je t’ai entendu dire : « Rakis, comment

pouvais-je savoir que je t’entraînais dans un piège tendu par mon propre peuple? C’est vrai, tu m’avais prévenu que cette histoire de monastère en plein désert où des moines pour- raient me guérir de l’ombre au noir était une arnaque, mais tu me connais : je suis un idiot. Un idiot qui n’écoute jamais son partenaire, pourtant tellement plus intelligent et tellement plus beau que moi.»

Au cas où vous n’auriez jamais vu de chacureuil, représentez- vous un fauve avec une tête hargneuse, un corps dodu, une queue touffue et hirsute, ainsi que d’étranges palmures duve- teuses sur les flancs qui lui permettent de sauter de très haut pour ensuite se laisser flotter dans les airs. « Beau » n’est pas le terme qui vient spontanément à l’esprit.

– Tu as entendu tout ça dans un gémissement ? demandai-je. Silence. Puis il rétorqua :
– Les chacureuils ont beaucoup d’intuition.
Je pris une bouffée d’air, et la chaleur montant du sable

me brûla l’intérieur des poumons. Depuis combien de temps étions-nous étendus là tous les deux? Un jour? Deux? ma main se tendit vers notre dernière outre d’eau. Je me préparai mentalement à l’idée de devoir partager cette dernière réserve avec Rakis. Il paraît qu’on est capable de vivre trois jours sans boire, mais ça, c’est sans prendre en considération que le désert fait disparaître vos dernières provisions d’eau comme… une saloperie de chacureuil ! L’outre était totalement vide.

– Tu as tout bu? m’écriai-je.
Rakis répondit d’un ton irrité :
– Je t’ai demandé l’autorisation.
– Quand ça?
Un nouveau silence.
– Pendant que tu dormais.
Apparemment, le désert n’était pas le seul traître auquel

j’avais affaire.
Dix-sept ans, exilé par mon peuple, recherché par tous les

traqueurs de sort et autres mages chasseurs de primes, avec seulement deux sorts et quelques mauvaises manières à mon

actif, et voilà que ma dernière gorgée d’eau venait de m’être dérobée par ce qui se rapprochait le plus d’un ami.

Je m’appelle Kelen Argos. Autrefois, j’étais un initié parmi les mages, fils de l’une des plus puissantes familles Jan’Tep. Puis des marques noires et sinueuses sont apparues autour de mon œil gauche : les premières manifestations d’une mysté- rieuse malédiction connue sous le nom d’ombre au noir.

Désormais, on me traite de hors-la-loi, de traître, d’exilé, et encore, ça, c’est quand les gens sont polis.

La seule chose qu’on ne dit jamais de moi, c’est que j’ai de la chance.
***

– Bien sûr que je connais l’endroit, avait déclaré la vieille aventurière, son œil noisette et son œil vert braqués sur ma sacoche en cuir poussiéreuse remplie de babioles en cuivre et en argent posée sur la table entre nous.

Nous avions le salon de voyageurs pour nous, à l’exception de deux ivrognes évanouis dans un coin et d’un triste hère assis par terre, qui faisait rouler encore et encore deux dés tout en pleurant dans sa bière et en ressassant ses malheurs.

«T’as pas tort, mon pote.»

– Pourriez-vous me conduire là-bas ? Jusqu’à ce monastère ? avais-je demandé en plaçant une carte à jouer sur la table.

L’aventurière la saisit et cligna des paupières en scrutant les tours plongées dans la pénombre.

– Joli travail, dit-elle. C’est toi qui as peint ça ?

J’acquiesçai. Au cours des six derniers mois, Rakis et moi avions arpenté la moitié du continent à la recherche d’un remède contre l’ombre au noir. Nous avions découvert quelques

indices, des annotations dans les marges de textes obscurs fai- sant référence à un sanctuaire secret, entendu des rumeurs issues de la bouche d’ivrognes au fond de tavernes comme celle-ci. Les Argosi peignent des cartes au sujet de personnages ou d’endroits essentiels, les imprégnant des quelques informa- tions qu’ils ont récoltées dans l’espoir que l’image révèle des détails qui, sinon, resteraient cachés à jamais. Alors je m’étais mis à la peinture, moi aussi. Comme ça, si je devais mourir en quête d’un remède, il y avait une petite chance que mes cartes parviennent aux mains d’un Argosi, peut-être de Furia Perfax, pour qu’elle sache que ce n’était plus la peine de me chercher.

La vieille aventurière lança la carte sur la table comme si elle pariait au poker.

– L’endroit que tu cherches s’appelle l’abbaye d’Ébène, et oui, je pourrais t’y conduire… si j’étais dans de bonnes dispo- sitions.

Son sourire accentua les rides sur son visage tanné par le soleil. on aurait dit la carte d’un pays mystérieux. Elle avait beau avoir une soixantaine d’années, son gilet en cuir sans manches révélait des bras et des épaules aux muscles aussi noueux que des cordes. Et vu l’assortiment de couteaux qu’elle portait en bandoulière, ainsi que l’arc dans son dos, elle devait être capable de se tirer de bien des mauvais pas. mais à la façon dont elle ne cessait de regarder la sacoche de babioles sur la table sans me prêter la moindre attention, je compris qu’elle ne pensait pas la même chose de moi.

Notre quête du remède miracle n’avait jusque-là pas été très fructueuse. Chaque sou gagné comme frondeur de sort au cours de mes pérégrinations avait été dépensé auprès de charlatans qui m’avaient vendu diverses décoctions putrides.

Conclusion, je m’étais retrouvé plusieurs fois à vomir mes tripes pendant des jours.

ma chemise en lin usée pendait sur mon corps maigre. mon visage et mon cou portaient encore la trace de ma dernière rencontre avec deux chasseurs de primes Jan’Tep. Je pouvais comprendre pourquoi l’aventurière ne frémissait nullement à ma vue.

– Elle réfléchit au moyen de nous piquer nos trésors, me souffla Rakis, qui reniflait depuis son perchoir sur mon épaule. – Cette bestiole a pas la rage, au moins ? demanda-t-elle

avec un regard inquiet.
Heureusement, les gens ne comprennent pas les feule-

ments, grognements et parfois même pets que Rakis utilise pour communiquer.

– J’aimerais bien en être sûr, rétorquai-je.
Le chacureuil grogna :
– Tu sais que je peux t’arracher les yeux des orbites et les

manger dans ton sommeil, n’est-ce pas?
Il sauta de mon épaule pour rejoindre les deux ivrognes

évanouis dans un coin, sans doute avec l’intention de leur faire les poches.

– Voici la légende, entonna l’aventurière d’une voix chan- tante. Seuls sept étrangers ont réussi à franchir les murs de l’abbaye d’Ébène. Cinq sont morts. Depuis, le sixième fume tellement d’herbe qu’il ne pourrait pas retrouver son nez avec ses deux mains, encore moins un monastère secret dans le désert. (Elle tendit la main vers la petite sacoche qui contenait tous mes biens.) Et puis, il y a moi.

Je réussis à attraper la sacoche avant elle. Je n’ai peut-être l’air de rien, mais je suis rapide.

– Nous ne nous sommes pas mis d’accord quant aux termes, déclarai-je.

Pour la première fois, la vieille bonne femme posa sur moi son regard vairon. J’essayai d’avoir l’air méchant, mais c’est dés- tabilisant de fixer des yeux de couleurs différentes. Elle reprit :

– Pourquoi tu veux aller voir les dépouilleurs noirs, d’abord ?

Son regard se concentra sur mon œil gauche, et je com- pris qu’elle avait vu, malgré la pâte de mesdet recouvrant les marques noires, que ma peau tout autour était légèrement plus foncée.

– T’as l’ombre au noir, c’est ça ?
– L’ombre quoi ? fis-je. Jamais entendu cette expression.
– Je sais qu’il y a une bande de jeteurs de sorts Jan’Tep

qui offrent une belle récompense en échange de tout démon atteint de l’ombre au noir. J’ai aussi entendu dire qu’ils sont depuis un bon moment sur les traces d’un jeune type.

– Je sais rien à ce sujet, répondis-je en essayant de prendre une voix menaçante. Comme je vous l’ai expliqué, j’écris un livre sur les moines du désert.

– Il y a beaucoup d’argent sur sa tête. Bien plus que dans ta sacoche.

Je retirai les mains des babioles pour laisser mes doigts atteindre le sommet des bourses attachées de chaque côté de ma ceinture. Elles contenaient les poudres rouge et noire que j’utilisais pour mon sort, qui produisait toujours son petit effet.

– Vous savez quoi ? fis-je d’un ton négligent. maintenant que vous le dites, je crois que j’ai entendu parler de la prime sur la tête de ce jeune type avec ce machin, l’ombre au noir. Beaucoup de gens pourtant réputés dangereux ont essayé de la remporter. Je me demande bien ce qu’ils sont devenus.

L’aventurière m’adressa un petit sourire. Dans ses mains, je le voyais maintenant, il y avait deux couteaux à bout crocheté. – J’ai déjà rencontré beaucoup de gens réputés dangereux. Aucun ne m’a fait grande impression. En quoi tu serais diffé-

rent d’eux?
Je lui rendis son sourire.
– Regardez derrière vous.
Elle se contenta de faire pivoter la lame d’un couteau et,

dans le reflet, découvrit le chacureuil juché au sommet des portemanteaux, qui n’attendait plus qu’un ordre pour bondir.

Ce petit salaud sait parfois se rendre utile.

Je comptai trois grandes respirations avant que la vieille aventurière pose ses couteaux sur la table.

– Tu as l’air d’écrire un livre impressionnant, mon jeune ami, dit-elle en attrapant ma sacoche remplie de babioles avant de se lever. on a intérêt à faire des provisions en ville avant de se lancer dans une pareille aventure.

Je me fis prier, comme si je n’avais pas encore décidé si j’allais l’embaucher en tant que guide ou bien la réduire en cendres. Il est vrai que j’attendais aussi que mon cœur cesse de battre la chamade.

– À quelle distance se trouve cette abbaye ? demandai-je.

Elle ajusta la lanière de son arc dans son dos et rangea ses couteaux dans leurs étuis.

– Loin, mais t’inquiète pas, le voyage va te plaire.
– Ah bon?
Elle dit avec un sourire :
– on raconte que le Passage doré est l’endroit le plus plai-

sant et le plus beau sur terre.

 

2 - Les vertus d’un cadavre

Un petit grattement me ramena à la réalité. J’entrouvris à peine un œil, de crainte d’être aveuglé par les rayons du soleil qui se reflétaient sur le sable doré. À la place, ce furent le crépuscule et un froid mordant. on pourrait croire qu’un endroit tel que le Passage doré, brûlant dans la journée, serait agréable la nuit. mais non, la température plonge juste après être restée agréable une heure à peine. Je frissonnai en tentant de me rendormir.

mais le grattement continua. Il était si proche que je me frottai une oreille, inquiet qu’un insecte soit en train de s’y frayer un chemin. Puis, comme ça ne changeait rien, je m’obli- geai à relever la tête en direction de la source du bruit. Rakis rampait misérablement sur le sable.

«Il essaie de me rejoindre», pensai-je.

Une profonde tendresse jaillit en moi malgré le froid et le désespoir. En dépit de nos différends, le chacureuil et moi nous étions chacun sauvé la vie plus de fois qu’on ne peut le compter. Et maintenant, il voulait mourir près de moi.

Je tendis la main, mais juste pour découvrir qu’il n’était pas en train d’approcher. En réalité, il s’éloignait de moi.

Ai-je déjà mentionné que les chacureuils sont des animaux ingrats? mon prétendu partenaire n’était pas en train de dépenser ses dernières forces pour succomber à mes côtés. Il ne ferait pas preuve du moindre signe d’amitié, même dans ses derniers instants. Au lieu de ça, le petit monstre à fourrure s’approchait du cadavre du mage.

– Qu’est-ce que tu fais? demandai-je.

Pas de réponse. Rakis se contentait de ramper centimètre par centimètre vers sa destination. Quand il s’affala près de la tête du cadavre, je craignis que l’esprit du chacureuil ait tellement souffert de la soif qu’il ait confondu le mage mort avec moi. Puis il tendit une patte tremblante vers les yeux de l’homme qui regardaient sans le voir le ciel sombre. Et là, je compris enfin ce que voulait Rakis.

«Au nom de tous mes ancêtres, jurai-je, il ne va quand même pas…»

Et là, avec la dextérité issue d’une grande pratique – beau- coup de pratique –, Rakis arracha l’œil du type avec ses griffes. Puis il ouvrit grand les mâchoires, lâcha la boule spongieuse dans sa gueule, et croqua.

– oh, fit-il avec un gémissement de bonheur. C’est telle- ment bon…

– Tu es répugnant, tu le sais ?

Je ne suis pas certain que ces mots franchirent mes lèvres. Car, à cet instant, je concentrais les dernières forces qui me restaient pour ne pas vomir.

– miam, fit-il entre deux bouchées.
Puis il déglutit bruyamment.
Ce que peu de gens savent sur les chacureuils, c’est que,

encore plus atroce que leur façon de dévorer leur proie, ils adorent décrire son goût.

– Tu vois, lâcha-t-il avec un soupir satisfait, on pourrait craindre que ça soit trop cuit à cause des brûlures infligées à ce type, mais en fait, c’est juste parfait. Un peu croustillant au bord, tiède à cœur, dit-il en tendant une patte vers l’autre œil du mage. Je te laisse celui-ci? demanda-t-il avec un petit grognement pour me prévenir que cette proposition n’était pas vraiment sincère.

– Je passe mon tour. mais ça ne te donne pas trop soif ? on a plus de chances de mourir de soif que de faim, tu sais ?

– C’est pas faux, répondit Rakis en se hissant sur le torse du mage où une blessure avait laissé une flaque de sang, que le chacureuil entreprit de lécher. Tu ferais bien d’en boire, toi aussi, Kelen. Le sang, ça contient de l’eau, non ?

– Je refuse de boire du sang ou de manger des yeux.
Le chacureuil émit un commentaire sarcastique :
– Je comprends, tes dégoûts culinaires comptent bien plus

que notre survie.
Je ne trouvai rien à répliquer. Pour ce que j’en savais, il

avait peut-être raison, même si j’ignorais s’il était possible de se réhydrater suffisamment avec du sang, ou si ça ne ferait que me rendre malade. De toute manière, j’étais incapable de m’y résoudre, alors je me contentai de rester étendu en écoutant les lapements enthousiastes de Rakis. Quand il eut enfin terminé, il se rallongea et me lança :

– Kelen?
– ouais?
– Je sais que c’est un sujet délicat, mais… – Quoi?

– Si tu meurs, je peux te bouffer ? Parce qu’au final, autant que l’un de nous deux s’en sorte, non ?

Je roulai loin de lui, ignorant la nouvelle douleur qui irra- dia de mes blessures. Je ne voulais pas que ma dernière image sur terre soit la tête d’un chacureuil maculée de sang qui se demande s’il va d’abord dévorer mon œil ou mon oreille.

Très haut dans le ciel, bien au-delà des minables considéra- tions des mortels, les étoiles surgirent tels des milliers de petites étincelles. Le Passage doré avait beau être un endroit aride et invivable, le ciel y était malgré tout un spectacle incroyable. Je pris une bouffée d’air, ce qui ne fit que me contracter dou- loureusement la gorge, sans doute à cause du manque d’eau.

«Je vais mourir ici.» Ces mots envahirent mon esprit avec la force et la rapidité d’un sort d’entrave de fer. « Je vais mourir cette nuit à cause d’un salopard de chasseur de primes Jan’Tep et de ma stupidité.» Je sentis que j’allais pleurer. Avec des doigts tremblants, je voulus essuyer des larmes qui ne cou- laient même pas.

Un sanglot dut toutefois m’échapper, parce que Rakis grogna :

– Perdre l’eau qui te reste par les yeux, c’est pas ça qui va t’aider.

Les chacureuils ne sont guère réputés pour leur compassion.

Autrefois, lorsque j’avais des ennuis, ma survie dépendait de l’arrivée d’une joueuse de cartes aux boucles rousses répondant au nom de Furia Perfax. J’étais à genoux, en train de supplier un cinglé qui se trouvait avoir une dent contre l’ombre au noir, et j’attendais qu’une lame (ou massue, arbalète, sort de braise… vous voyez l’idée) s’abatte sur moi. Là, Furia surgissait en disant :

– on dirait deux furets qui se battent pour une fougère.

En réalité, elle n’aurait pas dit ça, mais quelque chose qui n’avait guère plus de sens.

– Ne te mêle pas de ça, l’Argosi, rétorquait le mage (ou sol- dat, assassin, toute personne qui voulait ma peau, allez savoir pourquoi).

Furia remontait son chapeau de la Frontière d’un centi- mètre sur son front, plongeait la main dans son gilet pour en sortir un roseau de feu et lâchait :

– Sans vouloir t’offenser, l’ami, j’ai fini par apprécier ce mai- grichon que tu sembles vouloir découper en morceaux. Alors je vais te demander gentiment de battre en retraite.

Après ça? Bagarre, ironie, mort certaine, prouesse impos- sible, ennemi à terre, encore un peu d’ironie, en général à mon détriment, et j’étais sain et sauf. Voilà comment ça se passait depuis que j’avais quitté ma terre natale le jour de mon sei- zième anniversaire.

mais tout avait changé. Six mois plus tôt, j’avais abandonné Furia, mon mentor argosi, ainsi que Nephenia, l’ensorceleuse dont j’étais autrefois amoureux, parce que mon peuple ne ces- serait jamais de me pourchasser, ainsi que toute personne qui m’accompagnerait, tant que j’aurais l’ombre au noir. Puisque les marques autour de mon œil gauche ne montraient nul désir de disparaître, je devais quitter les deux personnes dont j’étais le plus proche pour éviter qu’elles soient victimes de mes ennemis, elles aussi. Si douloureux qu’ait été mon départ, au moins, il m’était apparu comme un geste noble.

Ça avait duré à peu près cinq minutes.

Le problème avec la noblesse d’âme, c’est que quand on a un souci, par exemple avec un traqueur de sort dont les

bandes métalliques tatouées sont en train d’étinceler d’une magie destinée à vous tuer, il n’y a personne pour vous tirer de ce mauvais pas.

– Kelen ? fit Rakis avec une hésitation étonnante dans la voix.

– oui, tu pourras me bouffer une fois que je serai mort. Ça te va?

Il y eut un silence, puis il reprit :
– Non, c’est pas ça. Tu crois que ce mage disait la vérité ? – À quel sujet?
– Quand il a dit qu’il avait tué Furia.

 

Chapter 1 - PleadingsDuel With The Demon

Sparks erupted where the steel blades met, floating down to the loose hay covering the hall’s stone floor. Were it not for the storm raging outside and the raindrops leaking through the rotted rafters of the roof, the old castle might’ve been set ablaze by the reckless fury of the two brothers.

At least, Estevar assumed they were brothers. Surely two such identically brutish and irredeemably stupid men could not have come from different fathers.

The nearly hundred and twenty townsfolk in attendance had seemed troubled when first the fight had broken out, but now several among them were cheering and whooping the assailants on, slapping the backs of the heads of those who failed to join in.

‘Gentlemen, you will desist,’ Estevar called out impatiently.

The criminally uncomfortable oak and iron Magistrate’s chair in which he’d spent the better part of the day wedged like a hog caught in the fork of a tree root wore on his temper. The stench of too many bodies pressed too close together, of ale and pipeweed snuck inside the improvised courtroom, all of it had been making Estevar’s head swim for hours.

And now this.

‘Who are those two hooligans?’ Estevar asked the girl who’d been serving as his clerk today.

‘Rugio and Raballo, my Lord,’ she replied, half-hidden behind his chair.

‘And what is your name?’

The black-haired waif in the dull and faded grey-green dress stuck her head out from behind the chair. All-day she’d struck him as clever and confident, yet now she was positively terrified by this petty brawl. ‘My name is Abria, my Lord.’

Estevar tugged at the lapels of his dark leather greatcoat to straighten it, as well as to make sure some of the smaller weapons secreted within were in easy reach. If the girl was this frightened over what appeared to be little more than two men having it out with one another, perhaps she knew something he did not.

‘Well, Abria, I am a Magistrate, not a nobleman, and so you may refer to me as “Your Eminence” – though I warn you,’ he said with a wink to keep from frightening her further, ‘I’ll know if you’re commenting on my physique. Alternately you may simply call me Estevar.’

Yes, Your Emin—‘ the girl paused, openly contemplating his girth. ‘Yes, Estevar.’

Wise child.

‘Now,’ Estevar went on, ‘would you kindly explain to me why, given the Town Masters of Sen Trovan requested one of the King’s Travelling Magistrates come all this way to judge cases long overdue, the constables are tolerating an unsanctioned duel in this . . .’ he glanced around at the ruinous condition of the town’s uninhabited castle, ‘. . . delightful cathedral to civility and good government?’

Abria pointed to the two men who continued to swing their longswords at each other wildly as chips of stone and mortar flew from this ancient castle’s walls, coming apart under the onslaught of time, disrepair, and the steel blades of two men who clearly knew nothing about the weapons they wielded so recklessly. ‘Rugio and Raballo are the constables.’

Saint Ethalia-who-shares-all-sorrows, Estevar swore silently.

How had it all gone so badly?

1The Fox and the Bowman

The faint creak of the bow let Thomas know he’d drawn it as far as the yew would allow before
breaking. Two hundred yards at least, he thought, and prayed that his position atop the hill would help him bridge the distance. If he couldn’t hit Sir Hammond from here, if the steel tip of the arrow failed to pierce the bastard’s armour, then all his sacrifice would have been for naught.

Thomas squinted, barely able to make out the golden eagle crest on Sir Hammond’s tabard. Letting out one last breath, he aimed for the dead centre of the eagle and hoped a sudden wind wouldn't take his arrow astray.

“That’s an odd sort of bird you’re hunting tonight,” a voice called out.

Thomas spun around. “Who’s there?” He trained his bow on a man of middle years stepping out from behind the trees.

“I’m not entirely sure it’s legal to shoot fowl of that particular breed, and I’m positive it won’t taste very good.”

The intruder’s hair and short, neatly trimmed beard were reddish brown, almost russet, framing angular features and a cocky smile. His long leather coat, fringed in silver fur at the collar, marked him as a foreigner, at least from these parts. Glinting rings, each bearing colourful gemstones, decorated long, manicured fingers. The man might have been a wealthy merchant, or perhaps a minor noble, but what mattered most was that he was a witness to Thomas’s impending crime.

“Don’t come any closer!” Thomas warned. “Go back the way you came, forget you were ever here, and I’ll let you live.” He did his best to muster the tone of an angry soldier, but what came out was a quivering mess.

“Now why on earth would I want to do that?” the nobleman asked.

He walked casually over to the edge of the outcrop next to where Thomas knelt, seemingly unconcerned that he might soon find an arrow in his belly.

“It’s not the worst plan I’ve ever seen,” the intruder said, idly gazing down at the scene below. “Sir Hammond goes down to that little cottage every evening, I imagine? Perhaps to meet with a secret lover?” Without turning his gaze, the nobleman reached out a finger and casually brushed the tip of Thomas’ arrow. “Shooting from this height might even give you enough speed and force to pierce that armour.” He removed his finger and tapped it against his lips. “Good thinking. I always say, ‘if you’re going to commit a murder, a hill makes a very discrete accomplice.’”

“Who said anything about murder? I’m just out here—”

The nobleman held up a hand. “Please, Thomas, let’s have no lies between us. Lies are the least graceful form of deception.”

“Who are you? How do you know my name?”

The man bowed low and said, “You may call me Master Reynard.”

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PrologHOCHVERRAT

eisender, solltest Du in einer Winternacht in einem der Gasthäuser entlang der Handelsstraßen von Tristia Zuflucht suchen und Dich ans Feuer setzen, das aller Wahrscheinlichkeit nach verwässerte Ale trinken und Dir alle Mühe geben, nicht die Aufmerksamkeit der örtlichen Raufbolde zu erregen, siehst Du vielleicht einen Greatcoat eintreten. Man erkennt ihn an dem langen Ledermantel, dem Zeichen seines Amtes, den die raue Witterung dunkelbraun verfärbt hat und der vielleicht hier und da sogar einen dunkelroten, grünen oder manchmal sogar blauen Schimmer aufweist.

Er oder sie werden ihr Bestes tun, in der Menge unterzutauchen. Darin sind sie sehr gut – solltest Du nach links blicken, werter Reisender, siehst Du einen zweiten Greatcoat allein in den Schatten sitzen. Der am Eingang wird sich mit ziemlicher Sicherheit zu ihm setzen.

Solltest Du Dich näher zu ihnen beugen (aber sei vorsichtig!) und ihre Unterhaltung belauschen, wirst Du ein paar Einzelheiten über die Streitfälle aufschnappen, die sie in den Städten, Dörfern und Siedlungen auf dem Land geschlichtet haben. Sie werden über diesen Herzog oder jenen Lord sprechen und welche Verbrechen sie an ihrem Volk verübt haben. Einzelheiten über die Rechtsprechung in jedem Fall werden zur Sprache kommen, und ob der Greatcoat ein Duell führen musste, damit das Urteil auch vollstreckt wurde.

Beobachtet man die beiden nur lange genug, wird einem auffallen, wie sie gelegentlich den Raum mustern und die anderen Gäste einschätzen. Betrachtet man die Mäntel genauer, erkennt man Muster unter dem Leder. Das sind die eingenähten Knochenplatten, die hart genug sind, um Pfeil, Klinge oder Bolzen zu widerstehen. Und doch bewegt sich der Mantel so natürlich wie der, den Du vermutlich trägst. Solltest Du je Gelegenheit erhalten, in ihn hineinzugreifen, findest Du verborgene Taschen – manche behaupten, es seien beinahe hundert –, die alle mit Tricks und Fallen, esoterischen Pillen und Pülverchen gefüllt sind, die ihnen bei dem Kampf gegen einen Mann oder auch einen ganzen Mob einen Vorteil verschaffen sollen. Und auch wenn die unter den Mänteln verborgenen Blankwaffen nichts Besonderes sind, sind sie dennoch gut geölt, scharf geschliffen und spitz genug, um ihre Arbeit zu erledigen.

Den Legenden zufolge fingen die Greatcoats als Duellkämpfer und Meuchelmörder an, bis sie ein gütiger König oder eine gütige Königin unter den Befehl der Monarchie stellte, um dafür zu sorgen, dass in den neun Herzogtümern von Tristia die alten Gesetze befolgt werden. Natürlich reagierten die Herzöge auf diese unerwünschte Einmischung mit dem Ersinnen der vorstellbar qualvollsten Todesarten für jeden Greatcoat, den ihre Leute im Kampf besiegen konnten. Aber für jeden getöteten Greatcoat erhob sich ein anderer, der den Mantel anlegte und durch das Land zog, um den Adel zu verärgern, indem er den Gesetzen Geltung verschaffte, die diesen Herrschaften nur eine Last waren. Bis dann vor ungefähr hundert Jahren eine Gruppe reicher Herzöge die Dashini in ihre Dienste nahm – jenen Orden von Meuchelmördern, die selbst einen so verdorbenen Ort wie Tristia noch mehr verderben konnten. Die Dashini gaben ihnen eine beständigere Methode in die Hand, jeglichen Widerspruch zu entmutigen. Sie bezeichneten es als die Wehklage der Greatcoats.

Ich werde Dich nicht mit den Einzelheiten schockieren, werter Reisender – sie gehören nicht in eine Unterhaltung zwischen Leuten aus gutem Hause. Es reicht zu wissen, dass, nachdem die Dashini den letzten erwischten Greatcoat der Wehklage unterzogen, fast ein ganzes Jahrhundert lang niemand mehr vortrat, um den Mantel zu tragen. Nicht bis ein übertrieben idealistischer junger König namens Paelis und ein närrischer Bauer namens Falcio entschieden, sich dem Lauf der Geschichte entgegenzustemmen und die Greatcoats zurück ins Leben zu rufen.

Aber das ist alles Vergangenheit. König Paelis ist tot, und die Greatcoats sind seit über fünf Jahren aufgelöst. Die beiden, die Du beobachtest, riskieren bei jedem Versuch, ihre traditionellen Pflichten zu erfüllen, den Tod und Schlimmeres. Also werden sie einfach ihre Gläser austrinken, die Zeche zahlen und in die Nacht verschwinden. Vielleicht kannst Du ihr Lächeln sehen, wenn sie sich gegenseitig versichern, dass die Wehklage der Greatcoats nur eine weitere dieser Geschichten ist, die sich Reisende vor einem warmen Feuer in einer kalten Nacht erzählen; dass, selbst wenn sie einst existierte, heute niemand mehr wissen würde, wie man sie durchführt. Aber diese beiden Reisenden würden sich irren. Denn Du musst wissen, ich weiß aus sicherer Quelle, dass die Wehklage der Greatcoats durchaus real ist. Sie ist sogar noch qualvoller und schrecklicher, als die Geschichten erahnen lassen. Ich würde Dir ja mehr darüber berichten, aber leider bin ich selbst die erwähnte »sichere Quelle«.

Mein Name ist Falcio val Mond, einer der letzten Greatcoats des Königs, und wenn Du ganz genau lauschst, hörst Du mich noch immer schreien.

 

1 Das Wartespiel

 

ch kann an einer Hand abzählen, wann ich friedlich und glücklich aufgewacht bin, ohne unmittelbare Todesangst oder erfasst von tiefem Zorn, der mich jemanden umbringen lassen wollte. Der Morgen an dem Tag, vier Wochen nachdem Patriana, die Herzogin von Hervor, mich vergiftet hatte, gehörte nicht dazu.

»Er ist tot.« Trotz des Nebels in meinem Kopf, der auch meine Ohren verstopfte, erkannte ich Brastis Stimme.

»Er ist nicht tot«, sagte eine andere, etwas tiefere Stimme. Sie gehörte Kest.

Das leichte Dröhnen von Brastis Schritten auf dem Holzfußboden der Hütte wurde lauter. »Für gewöhnlich ist er wieder daraus erwacht. Ich sage dir, dieses Mal ist er tot. Sieh doch. Er atmet kaum.«

Ein Finger bohrte sich in meine Brust, dann meine Wange, dann mein Auge.

Sicherlich fragt Ihr Euch mittlerweile, werter Leser, warum ich Brasti nicht einfach mit einer Klinge durchbohrte und weiterschlief. Zwei Gründe. Erstens lagen meine Rapiere ungefähr drei Meter entfernt auf einer Bank neben der Tür der kleinen Hütte, die wir bewohnten. Zweitens konnte ich mich nicht rühren.

»Hör auf, an ihm herumzubohren«, sagte Kest. »Kaum zu atmen bedeutet lebendig.«

»Was auch so eine Sache ist«, meinte Brasti. »Neatha soll eigentlich tödlich sein.« Ich stellte mir vor, wie er mit dem Finger vor meiner Nase herumwackelte. »Wir sind alle glücklich, dass du das überlebt hast, Falcio, aber dieses Herumlungern jeden Morgen ist ein äußerst unpassendes Benehmen. Man könnte es sogar egoistisch nennen.«

Trotz meiner wiederholten Versuche weigerten sich meine Hände einfach, sich um Brastis Hals zu legen.

In der ersten Woche nach meiner Vergiftung hatte ich eine gewisse Schwäche in meinen Gliedern bemerkt. Ich schien mich nicht mehr so schnell bewegen zu können. Tatsächlich versuchte ich manchmal die Hand zu bewegen, und es dauerte eine ganze Sekunde, bis sie gehorchte. Dieser Zustand hatte sich langsam verschlimmert, bis ich mich jeden Morgen nach dem Aufwachen mehrere Minuten lang in meinem Körper gefangen fand.

Eine Hand auf meiner Brust drückte stark. Brasti lehnte sich auf mich. »Trotzdem musst du zustimmen, dass Falcio größtenteils tot ist.«

Wieder trat eine Pause ein, und ich wusste, dass Kest über die Sache nachdachte. Brasti ist ein Idiot, das ist nun einmal das Problem mit ihm. Er sieht gut aus, ist charmant, kann jeden Mann mit dem Bogen besiegen. Und er ist ein Idiot. Das fällt einem zuerst gar nicht auf; er kann hervorragende Konversation betreiben und viele Worte benutzen, die den Worten ähneln, die schlaue Leute von sich geben. Er benutzt sie nur nicht im richtigen Kontext. Oder in der richtigen Reihenfolge.

Das Problem mit Kest ist jedoch, dass er zwar ausgesprochen intelligent ist, aber dem Glauben anhängt, philosophisch zu sein bedeute, jede Idee in Betracht zu ziehen, selbst wenn sie von dem eben erwähnten Idioten geäußert wird.

»Schon möglich«, sagte er schließlich. »Aber wäre es nicht passender, wenn man sagt, er ist irgendwie lebendig?«

Noch mehr Schweigen. Vielleicht sollte man in diesem Zusammenhang erwähnen, dass die beiden fraglichen Narren meine besten Freunde sind. Beide sind Greatcoats, und ich verließ mich darauf, dass sie mich beschützten, falls Lady Trin genau diesen Augenblick wählte, um uns ihre Ritter auf den Hals zu hetzen.

Vermutlich hätte ich mich mittlerweile daran gewöhnen müssen, sie Herzogin Trin zu nennen. Ich hatte ihre Mutter Patriana (richtig, die, die mich vergiftet hatte) bei dem Versuch getötet, die Erbin des Königs zu beschützen. Vermutlich war das Letztere der wahre Grund für Trins Problem mit mir, da es ihren Plänen im Weg stand, sich selbst auf den Thron zu setzen.

»Er bewegt sich noch immer nicht«, sagte Brasti. »Ich glaube wirklich, dieses Mal ist er tot.« Ich spürte seine Hand kurz an einer eher intimen Stelle meines Körpers und begriff, dass er meine Taschen nach Geld durchsuchte, was wieder einmal bewies, dass es nicht zu den besten Ideen des Königs gehört hatte, einen ehemaligen Wilderer zu einem reisenden Magistrat zu machen. »Übrigens haben wir nichts mehr zu essen«, fuhr er fort. »Sollten diese verdammten Dörfler uns nicht Vorräte bringen?«

»Sei dankbar, dass sie uns erlaubt haben, uns hier zu verstecken«, sagte Kest. »Für ein so kleines Dorf ist es eine schwere Bürde, mehr als hundert Greatcoats zu ernähren. Außerdem haben sie vor wenigen Minuten Lebensmittel aus ihren Wintervorratslagern in den Bergen gebracht. Die Schneiderin verteilt sie.«

»Warum höre ich dann nicht diese lästigen Kinder schreien und uns anbetteln, ihnen unsere Schwerter zu leihen oder noch schlimmer, mit einem meiner Bögen spielen zu können?«

»Vielleicht haben sie mitbekommen, dass du dich deswegen beschwert hast. Ihre Familien haben sie heute Morgen in den Bergen gelassen.«

»Nun, wenigstens etwas.« Brastis Finger klappte mein rechtes Augenlid hoch. Grelles Licht blendete mich, dann verschwand der Finger und mit ihm das Licht. »Wie lange dauert es wohl noch, bis Falcio größtenteils lebendig und nicht länger völlig nutzlos ist? Ich meine, was passiert, wenn Trins Ritter davon erfahren? Oder Dashini-Meuchelmörder? Oder sonst jemand?« Je länger Brasti sprach, umso nervöser wurde er. »Egal welche Gruppe man auch nennt, die weiß, wie man einen Mann auf schreckliche Weise umbringen kann, irgendwie hat Falcio sie sich alle zum Feind gemacht. Jeder von ihnen könnte …«

Ich konnte fühlen, wie sich meine Brust schneller bewegte. Ich bemühte mich, meine Atmung zu kontrollieren, aber langsam überwältigte mich die Panik.

»Halt den Mund, Brasti. Du verschlimmerst seinen Zustand nur noch.«

»Sie werden kommen und ihn holen, Kest. Möglicherweise sogar in diesem Augenblick. Willst du jeden Einzelnen von ihnen töten?«

»Falls das erforderlich ist.« Wenn Kest so spricht, liegt eine gewisse Kälte in seiner Stimme.

»Du magst ja der Heilige der Schwerter sein, trotzdem bist du immer noch nur ein Mann. Du kannst nicht gegen ein ganzes Heer antreten. Und was passiert, wenn sich Falcios Zustand weiter verschlechtert und er einfach zu atmen aufhört? Was passiert, wenn wir nicht da sind und …«

Ich hörte die Laute einer Rangelei und fühlte das Bett erzittern, als jemand gegen die Wand gedrückt wurde.

»Nimm deine von den Göttern verdammten Hände von mir, Kest. Heiliger oder nicht, ich werde …«

»Ich habe auch um ihn Angst«, sagte Kest. »Wir alle haben Angst.«

»Er war … Bei allen Höllen, in denen wir waren. Er ist doch angeblich der Schlaue von uns. Wie konnte er es nur zulassen, noch einmal vergiftet zu werden?«

»Um sie zu retten«, sagte Kest. »Um Aline zu retten.«

Ein paar Augenblicke lang herrschte Stille, und zum ersten Mal an diesem Morgen konnte ich mir Kests und Brastis Gesichter nicht vorstellen. Das war besorgniserregend, als wäre jetzt auch mein Hörvermögen weg. Glücklicherweise ist Schweigen ein Zustand, den Brasti nicht lange durchhält. »Und noch etwas«, sagte er. »Wenn er so verdammt brillant ist, warum muss man nur ein Mädchen nach seiner toten Frau benennen, um ihn dazu zu bringen, sein Leben für sie zu riskieren?«

»Sie ist die Erbin des Königs.«

»Trotzdem, wenn …«

»Und wenn du Falcios Frau noch einmal erwähnst, wirst du entdecken, dass es schlimmere Dinge gibt, als gelähmt zu sein.«

»Das Risiko ginge ich ein, wenn es ihn da herausholt«, sagte Brasti. »Verdammt, Kest! Er ist hier der Schlaue. Trin hat Heere und Herzöge auf ihrer Seite. Wir haben nichts. Wie sollen wir ohne ihn ein dreizehnjähriges Mädchen auf den Thron bringen?«

Ich fühlte, wie meine Augen zuckten. Leeres Grau blitzte zu grellem Weiß und wieder zurück, immer wieder. Der Effekt war beunruhigend.

»Dann müssen du und ich wohl versuchen, schlauer zu werden«, sagte Kest.

»Und wie sollen wir das machen?«

»Nun, wie macht Falcio es?«

Eine lange Pause trat ein. »Er … nun, er durchschaut Dinge, nicht wahr?«, sagte Brasti dann. »Du weißt schon, sechs Dinge geschehen, von denen keines wichtig erscheint, und plötzlich springt er auf und verkündet, dass Meuchelmörder kommen oder ein Karawanenlord einen Konstabler bestochen hat. Oder was weiß ich.«

»Dann müssen du und ich das tun«, sagte Kest. »Diese Dinge erkennen, bevor sie passieren.«

»Wie?«

»Was geschieht denn in diesem Augenblick?«

Brasti schnaubte. »Trin hat fünftausend Soldaten auf ihrer Seite und den Rückhalt zweier mächtiger Herzogtümer. Uns stehen ungefähr hundert Greatcoats und die widerwillige Unterstützung des alten, klapprigen Herzogs von Pulnam zur Verfügung. Oh, und vermutlich verspeist sie gerade ein nettes Frühstück und sieht noch einmal ihre Pläne zur Thronergreifung durch, während wir uns hier in diesem beschissenen kleinen Dorf verstecken und Falcio dabei zusehen, wie er mit Bravour eine Leiche spielt. Und dabei verhungern.«

Wieder trat Stille ein. Ich versuchte einen Finger zu bewegen. Ich glaube nicht, dass ich Erfolg hatte, aber ich konnte die grobe Wolle der Decke fühlen. Das war ein gutes Zeichen.

»Immerhin musstest du keine schreienden Kinder auflisten«, sagte Kest.

»Immerhin.«

Ich hörte Kests Schritte, als er an mich herantrat, und fühlte eine Hand auf der Schulter. »Also, was würde Falcio davon halten, was glaubst du? Was bedeutet das alles?«

»Gar nichts«, erwiderte Brasti. »Das sind nur ein Haufen Einzelheiten, die aber auch gar nichts miteinander zu tun haben. Glaubst du, dass Falcio immer nur so clever tut und ihn bis jetzt noch keiner dabei erwischt hat?«

Am liebsten hätte ich über Brastis Frustration gelacht. Dann fühlte ich die kleinen Muskeln am Rand meines Mundes zucken. Nur ein klein wenig. Bei den Göttern, ich schüttelte es ab. Beweg dich, befahl ich mir. Steig aus dem Bett und hilf der Schneiderin, Trins Heer zu besiegen. Bring Aline auf den Thron und zieh dich aus Politik und Krieg zurück. Kümmere dich wieder um Grundstücksstreitereien und jage korrupte Ritter.

Ein Ziehen im Magen ließ mich erkennen, wie hungrig ich war. Zuerst Frühstück, dachte ich, dann kannst du darüber nachdenken, wie du die Welt retten willst. Ich war froh, das nicht tun zu müssen, während die schreienden Dorfkinder überall herumrannten und mit allem in Sichtweite spielen wollten.

Was seltsam war. Warum brachten die Dörfler ihre Kinder nicht mit? Das Dorf schwebte in keiner großen Gefahr. Die Schneiderin hatte Kundschafter ausgesandt, von denen keiner mehr als eine Handvoll von Trins Männern gemeldet hatte – keineswegs genug, um uns Ärger zu machen. Und wenn man so darüber nachdachte, wo steckte der Rest von Trins Männern? Möglicherweise befanden sie sich ja auf Missionen, aber man hätte sie in dem Moment zurückgerufen, in dem bekannt wurde, dass wir hier waren. Und die Kinder …

»Rapiere!«, brüllte ich.

Nun, brüllen ist nicht so ganz richtig. Meine Zunge lag noch immer dick in meinem Mund. Aber meine Augen öffneten sich, was gut war.

Brasti kam angerannt. »Rappen? Was meinst du damit?« Unbeholfen strich er mir über den Kopf. »Keine Angst, Falcio, wir lassen dich nicht von irgendwelchen Rappen niedertrampeln.« Er wandte sich Kest zu. »Ich glaube, er phantasiert.«

Ich bemühte mich, meine Zunge unter Kontrolle zu kriegen. Kest warf mir einen Blick zu, dann griff er nach den Schwertern auf der Bank. »Hilf ihm hoch«, sagte er. »Falcio hat nach seinen Rapieren verlangt. Etwas ist nicht in Ordnung.«

Brasti legte den Arm um meine Schultern, dann half er mir aus dem Bett auf meine unsicheren Beine. Verflucht! Ich bewegte mich wie ein alter Mann.

»Was ist es, Falcio?«

»Die Kinder«, erwiderte ich.

»Sie sind nicht hier, hörst du das denn nicht?«, sagte Brasti.

»Genau darum geht es ja. Die Dorfbewohner ließen ihre Kinder in den Bergen zurück. Man greift uns an.«

PrologueKnight's Shadow

If on a winter’s night a traveller like you finds shelter in one of the inns that line the trade roads of Tristia, sitting close to the fire, drinking what is quite likely watered-down ale and doing your best to stay out of the way of the local bully-boys, you might chance to see a Greatcoat wander in. You’ll know him or her by the long leather coat of office, weathered to a deep brown and tempered by a hint of dark red or green or sometimes even blue.

  He or she will do their best to blend in with the crowd. They’re good at it – in fact, if you look over there to your left, sitting alone in the shadows you’ll see a second Greatcoat. The one at the door will almost certainly walk over and sit with the first one.

  If you sidle over (carefully, now) and listen in to their conversation, you’ll hear snatches of stories about the cases they once judged in the cities, towns and hamlets throughout the countryside. They’ll talk about this Duke or that Lord and which crimes they perpetrated on their people this time. You’ll learn the details of how each case was decided and whether the Greatcoat had to fight a duel in order to get the verdict upheld.

  Watch these two long enough and you’ll begin to notice the way that they check out the room every so often. They’ll be gauging the other patrons, looking for potential trouble. Look closer at those coats and you’ll see a faint pattern in the leather: that’ll be the bone plates sewn into the lining, hard enough to withstand arrow, blade or bolt, and yet the coat itself moves as naturally as the one you yourself might be wearing. If you ever got the chance to reach inside, you’d find hidden pockets – some say a hundred of them – all filled with tricks and traps and esoteric pills and powders designed to give them an edge, whether fighting a single man or a mob. And while the swords hidden beneath the coats aren’t fancy, you’d find them well-oiled, well-honed and more than pointy enough to do the job.

  Legend has it the Greatcoats began as duellists and assassins-for-hire, until some benevolent King or Queen brought them under the command of the monarchy to ensure that ancient laws were preserved in each of the nine duchies of Tristia. The Dukes, quite naturally, responded to this unwanted intrusion by devising the most painful deaths they could imagine for any Greatcoats their Knights defeated in combat. But for every Greatcoat killed, another would rise up to take the mantle and continue the job, going around the country annoying the nobility by enforcing laws that the nobility found inconvenient. That was until just over a hundred years ago, when a group of the wealthier (and more determined) Dukes hired the Dashini – an order of assassins who never failed to spread corruption, even in a place already as corrupt as Tristia – to provide them with a more enduring means of discouraging dissent. They called it the Greatcoat’s Lament.

  I will not bore you with the details, gentle traveller, for they are unfit for conversation between folk of good breeding. Suffice it to say, after the Dashini finished giving the Lament to the last Greatcoat they’d managed to catch, no more came forward to take up the mantle . . . at least, not for nearly a century, not until an overly idealistic young king named Paelis and a foolhardy commoner named Falcio decided to push back against the tide of history and recreate the Greatcoats.

  But that’s all done with now. King Paelis is dead and the Greatcoats have been disbanded these last five years or more. The two you are watching risk death and worse any time they attempt to fulfil their traditional duties. So instead they will simply finish up their drinks, pay their tab and wander off into the night. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of their smiles as they reassure each other that the Greatcoat’s Lament is just one of those stories told by travellers in front of a warm fire on a cold night; that even if it had once existed, no one alive today would have the faintest idea of how to inflict it. But they – and you – would be wrong. For you see, I have it on extremely good authority that the Greatcoat’s Lament is very real, and that it is even more painful and terrible than even the most horrifying stories made out. I would tell you more, but unfortunately, the ‘good authority’ I mentioned is me.

  My name is Falcio val Mond, one of the last of the King’s Greatcoats, and if you listen very carefully you might still be able to hear me screaming.

1Memories Of Flame

The little boy whistled, and the fire grew. The flames inside the stone hearth danced, though it wasn’t immediately apparent to Estevar whether they were responding to the boy’s tune or from the wind that snuck in beneath the door and the gaps in the wooden slats that served for windows. Either way, the timber-framed cottage was too hot, and sweat dripped down Estevar’s jaw, soaking his elegantly coiffed black beard that was a source of pride to him before sliding down his neck and beneath the collar of his dark crimson leather greatcoat.

The boy wasn’t sweating at all.

‘Are you here to arrest me?’ the boy asked.

‘Have you committed a crime?’ Estevar asked in return.

Still facing towards the stone fireplace, the boy – Olivier the town constables had said his name was – nodded. Thick ginger curls bobbed up and down. ‘I hurt Jovan Guillet,’ he replied. After a moment he added. ‘Jovan is my best friend.’

Estevar glanced around the cottage for a chair that might have some hope of taking his admittedly considerable weight. This house was too small, the clay walls too close and the wooden rafters of the roof too low. The conflicting smells of baked bread and unwashed clothes, of rosemary hanging from the kitchen wall and un-emptied chamberpots in the bedroom upstairs burrowed inside his nostrils like earthworms, choking off his breathing.

The flames crackled as if they found humour in his discomfort. Outside, three clerics chanted prayers like braying sheep being slaughtered. Estevar walked the three steps to the wall furthest from the fire and unbuckled the scabbard from his belt so he could ease himself down onto the dusty stone floor.

‘Is that sharp?’ Olivier asked, turning at last to point at Estevar’s rapier.

Settling himself on his buttocks, Estevar drew the weapon from its sheath and held it out flat so the boy could see it. ‘This part here,’ he said, tapping the thicker steel near the hilt, ‘isn’t sharp at all, for it must be strong so that it can parry an opponent’s attacks and be used as leverage to force their weapon out of the way.’ His finger floated up and along to the middle third. ‘Here, it is sharper, but only a little, so that the edge may grip and therefore control the enemy’s blade.’ At last, he came to the narrowest part. ‘Now here, where the steel is thinnest, it is weak, but also very sharp. With this, I can cut through hide and flesh with ease. With the tip, I can penetrate thick leather and pierce a body with no more effort than you might put into pushing aside the branch of a sapling.’

Without coming closer, Olivier leaned forward to peer at the rapier, green eyes narrowing to slits. ‘Will you stab me with it? If you decide I’m guilty and you have to execute me, I mean.’ The boy rubbed at the left side of his chest. ‘I don’t think I’d like that.’

‘I would not willingly choose such an outcome either.’

Outside, the clerics continued their chanting, and though Estevar’s study of archaic languages had largely been restricted to legal texts, still he could make out the horrendous curses accompanying their prayers.

The Obsidian Worm

Telling someone to stay calm as you're about to drive a white-hot iron needle into their eye doesn't work as well as you might hope. The young Berabesq guy I'd hogtied to the golden supplication chair in the opulent prayer room of his parents' palace certainly wasn't reassured by my soothing words. I couldn't be sure of course, being as how I don't know much Berabesq, but I was basing my assumption on the way he kept trying to head-butt me while shouting prayers to his six-faced god to come and smite my heathen carcass, that he wasn't in the least bit reassured.

'Neither you nor your god are helping any,' I muttered, struggling to hold his head in position with one hand while lining up the needle with the other. It also wasn't helping that the desert sun was blazing down through the prayer room's domed glass ceiling and reflecting off all the gold that covered just about every inch of furniture around us. Religious zealotry is an expensive pastime in these parts.

'Any time now, kid,' Ferius called out amidst the clashing of steel weapons and furious shouting going on behind us. Argosi wanderers like her don't exactly scare easy, or so she's led me to believe in the year since she became my mentor. The fact that I couldn't detect even a hint of a smirk in that frontier drawl of hers made me nervous.'This isn't something I can rush,' I shouted back to her.

Eye surgery is hard - don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Ask any Jan'Tep spellmaster or Daroman physician worth their exorbitant fees: these sorts of procedures require years of training, tremendous skill, and no small amount of luck. One small mistake, even just a slight tremble of the hand at the wrong moment, and you'll blind the patient. That is, if you don't end up killing them outright.

So I really couldn't blame Sajad - that was the name of the poor guy whose right eye was currently swirling with the black trail of an obsidian worn slithering around inside - for wishing that the person about to poke him with three inches of burning hot iron was an actual doctor rather than a seventeen-year-old spellslinger.

'This isn't fun for me, either, you know,' I said.

That only convinced him to scream louder. There's probably an art to keeping a patient calm during stressful procedures. I'll add it to my list of things to learn one day if I survive this one. The problem was, Sajad's desperate struggles were preventing me from holding the sizzling needle at the exact right angle, which itself was the least of my problems because I was going to need my other hand to form the precise somatic shapes required for the spell that would prevent the obsidian worm from burrowing into his brain when I tried to spear it.

'Havin' a hard time convincin' these folks of your heroic intentions there, kid!' Ferius yelled back.

'Not feeling like much of a hero, now that you mention it,' I replied, punching my bound and terrified captive in the face to make him stop squirming.

Chapter 1 - Rabbit, RabbitPlay Of Shadows

Everyone has a talent, and mine is running. Without fear of bragging, I can honestly say that my aptitude for panicked flight is so superb it almost makes up for my less admirable qualities, which include cowardice, poor fencing skills, and the regrettable tendency to forget those faults while making bold threats against those who suffer no such deficiencies of their own.

‘Run rabbit, run!’ my pursuers cheered as they chased me down streets and alleyways, over one canal bridge and across the next. ‘Run down your warren, run up the hill! Run from the Vixen before she makes her kill!’

The Vixen. Of all the sobriquets adopted by professional fencers in the city of Jereste, surely Lady Federica di Traizo’s was the most apt – and the most terrifying.

I dove under a fruit seller’s stand, rolled up to my feet the other side and kept on running. What had possessed me to go and challenge the deadliest fencer in the entire city to a duel?

’Run rabbit, run! A running rabbit is far more fun!’

Merchants shuttering their shops for the night picked up the song. Scampering children trying to run under my legs giggled their way through their own mangled lyrics. I had to shove aside two young lovers out for a romantic stroll as they hummed the tune whilst gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes.

I dashed through the crowded square and into an equally crowded courtyard, doing my best to avoid those among my fellow citizens who saw it as their duty to stick out a foot to trip me in anticipation of witnessing a good beating before I was dragged back to court. I’d been keeping up a goodly pace thus far, but I was tiring, and my tormentors knew it.

‘Run rabbit, run!’ the black-shirted bravos chanted.

When I dared glance back, I caught the glint of the iron orchid emblems on their collars beneath the oil-scented flames of brass street lanterns. An orchestra of swashing and clanging followed my pursuers as the small buckler shields slung low on their leather belts bang against the scabbarded steel hilts of their rapiers and backswords. The thump of booted heels on the loose cobblestone streets added an ominous rhythm section.

Saint Birgid-who-weeps-rivers, I swore silently, help me escape these mercenary thugs before they can haul me back to court and dump me in the duelling circle so that fox-faced lunatic who calls herself the Vixen can stick her blade through my heart before the magistrate’s even gavelled the trial!

They kept herding me deeper and deeper into the narrow streets and blind alleys of the Pauper’s Market, determined to keep me from the Temple District where I might beg sanctuary for the night. Fortunately for me, I had no intention of sleeping in a church tonight.

‘Run down your hole, rabbit, run up to the sky!

Run a little faster, else you’ll surely die!’

‘Coming through!’ I shouted to a pair of street cleaners wrestling a stinking refuse cart across the street. They gave me only grins in reply, and pushed all the harder to cut me off. No doubt they hoped for a reward from my pursuers; a coward fleeing a lawful duel means plenty of coin to go around for those who help bring him to justice.

Desperation lent my legs the extra ounce of strength I needed to jump high enough for my right foot to reach the top of the wagon’s iron-banded wheel. My left found purchase on the edge of the coffin-sized refuse box, but as I leaped across, my toe caught on the opposite edge and I tumbled headlong towards the cobblestones below. Luck more than skill sent me into a summersault that saved my skull, but came at the cost of a numb shoulder and a biting ache in my ankle.

I ran for the nearest alley, chest heaving now, knowing the danger in my gambit. If any of the Iron Orchids thought to circle round and beat me to the other side, I’d be trapped. But I had more pressing problems, as it turned out, because my next step had me hissing through my teeth, and the one after that tore a howl from me. I’d sprained my ankle, and my race was done.

‘Rest rabbit, rest. It’s really for the best!

There’s nowhere left to hide – besides,

It’s long past time you died!’

I ignored them and their lousy sense of rhyme. Staggering onwards, I grabbed at every gate and door handle I passed in search of an escape route. Too soon, though, a dozen shadowy figures appeared at the far end of the alley. The glint of freshly sharpened blades cut through the darkness.

So close, I thought. Three doors down the alley had been my destination and, I’d hoped, my one chance at salvation.

’You’ve bested me, friends,’ I said, jovially, as if this had all been a momentary jest on my part even as my gaze sought out some means of delaying the inevitable. ‘My word of honour, I’ll give you no trouble on the way back to the courthouse. No doubt her ladyship the Vixen is most troubled by my temporary absence.’

‘Honour?’ the leader of the bravos asked. ‘What honour does a rabbit have? And what trouble could he possibly give a pack of hunting hounds? But fear not, little bunny, for we have many games yet to play before we turn you over to the Vixen.’

I stifled a shiver. On my best day, an amateur like me – whose principal sword training had been at theatre school and largely devoted to learning how not to hit an opponent – might last as long as a minute in the duelling circle against an opponent of the Vixen’s calibre. With a sprained ankle – not to mention my escorts intending to deposit me with a full complement of bruises before her Ladyship? – the only chance I had to score first blood would be if I drove the tip of my rapier through my own eye socket before she got to me.

My eyes went to the stage door barely nine feet away. It would surely be locked right now, which meant I needed two things: a great deal of noise, and a minor miracle.

Actually, given how terrible my plan was, I would need two miracles.

‘Rabbit, rabbit,’ the bravos repeated eagerly, closing in on me from both ends of the alley now, clanging their bucklers with added gusto, ‘rabbit, rabbit!’

At least the Orchids can always be counted on for something, I thought. Now I just need them to be louder.

‘Oh, do shut up!’ I shouted.

’Rabbit, rabbit!’ they roared, suitably encouraged. They started bashing the embossed steel protuberances of their bucklers against the alley walls for added effect. The endlessly repeated chant was paralyzing, as if the words were unleashing some ancient magic upon me, transforming me into a cornered hair cowering as he awaits the jaws of the hounds.

Come on, come on! I thought, watching the back of the stage door. Don’t tell me a company of actors is going to tolerate this cacophony outside their walls?

The Orchids would be upon me any second now. I couldn’t even hope top bribe them – my job as a messenger was no path to fortune. Nor could I roll the dice and challenge my captors to fence me one on one here in the alley since I’d been forced to abandon my rapier a mile back to keep it from slowing me down.

Also, I’m rubbish with a blade.

The squeal of a heavy door twisting angrily on its hinges surprised all of us, and heralded the sweet melody of a roaring bear woken too early from its cave.

‘What racket intrudes upon these hallowed halls?’ the gruff voice demanded. ‘What halfwit interrupts the sacred work of this city’s finest actors rehearsing the most magnificent play ever conceived?’

Wild, curly red hair and a thick beard framed a face better suited to the war chief of a barbarian horde come to sack the city than an actor performing in one of its legendary theatres. The lantern-light leaking from the backstage door lent a flickering glow to a bronze plaque bolted onto the theatre’s back wall.

Operato Belleza. Players Only

I nearly wept in gratitude to the many Saints who’d ignored my prayers over the years. What had moments ago seemed a truly terrible plan had, by this tiny interruption, been transformed into a scheme of magnificent cunning.

‘What the hell’s this about?’ one of the Iron Orchids asked. ‘You run all this way to hide in a theatre, rabbit?’

‘Actually . . . yes!’

Ignoring the pain in my sprained ankle, I sprinted up the three stone stairs, ducked under the burly red-haired actor’s arm, and dove into the dimly lit hallway.

‘Hey! What are y—?’

I limped as quickly as I could, the damned ankle grinding like broken glass, all the way down a long corridor, passing closets bulging with costumes and cabinets filled with props. My shoulder hit the edge of the wall as I took a left turn, following as best I could the sounds of voices. Rounding a second corner, I found myself confronted by a pair of oak doors sagging on their hinges. Heedless of what awaited me on the other side, I barrelled through the doors to tumble into a massive hall where more than two dozen men and women in ill-fitting costumes milled about as sullenly as if the Gods themselves were pitted against them.

Actors, I thought, jubilant as I rose unsteadily to my feet. Now I just need my second miracle.

A broad-chested woman in a too-tight red velvet dress jabbed her thumb at me. ‘Who the hell’s this now?’ she demanded. ‘Has Shoville hired more bloody amateurs for this stupid play?’

Two things I ought to mention at this juncture: the first is that the Belleza is one of the oldest theatres in Jereste, and one of only three entitled to call itself an operato. This might seem of trivial importance to anything other than calculating the price of a ticket to a performance, but there’s a far deeper significance to that lofty title. Productions staged in the city’s operatos are deemed so vital to the spiritual health of the city that its players are granted privileges once exclusive to the legendary Bardatti performers of old. These include exemption from military conscription, immunity from incarceration over unpaid debts and, according to tradition, the right to demand reprieve from certain affairs of honour . . .

Oh, and the second thing? In addition to being an excellent runner, I’m also a superb liar.

I swept back a lock of damp russet hair from my brow before favouring my buxom saviour with a wink and a smile. ‘I’m the new herald,’ I announced, venturing deeper into the room and glancing about for a spare costume.

That there would be a herald’s part in their play was an educated guess on my part. Most of the Grand Historias tend to be about historical battles and the reigns of Princes and Dukes, which meant they invariably needed at least one herald to proclaim their glorious victories.

A tall, slender fellow about my age, with a hooked nose and ash-brown hair cut in the fashion of a royal page, dressed to match in doublet and hose, stamped his foot. ‘Roz,’ he said to the voluptuous woman in the red velvet dress. ‘I thought I was playing the herald in the final act! Has the bloody director given away another of my parts?’

‘Oh, do give it a rest, Teo,’ she replied, tying back her brassy-blonde tresses with a scarlet ribbon. ‘It’s only one line.’

‘Well, it was my line,’ Teo grumbled. ‘Why should this guy get to—‘

My newfound rival for trivial acting roles was cut off by the return of the red-bearded lummox who’d unintentionally rescued me from the Iron Orchids two minutes ago. ‘There you are,’ the big man said.

‘Hey, Bereto,’ the skinny young man called out. ‘Did you know Shoville gave this arsehole my part?’

Whatever Bereto was going to say in reply was drowned out by the clanging of weapons as a dozen armed men and women crowded their way into the rehearsal hall behind him. Even though the doors were already open, one fellow kicked it anyway, shouting, ‘There’s our rabbit!’ 

Teo and the rest of the players, most of them costumed in fake finery or imitation armour, retreated to the shadows at the back of the hall. As a species, actors are largely immune from such ailments as courage or dignity. Only the one they called Bereto stood his ground.

On closer inspection, he looked nearer my own age of twenty-five than I’d first thought. The two of us must’ve looked ridiculous side-by-side like that: a great red bear looming over a pale, shivering hare. The big man folded his arms across his broad chest, observing the proceedings with calm curiosity.

‘Fled a duel, did you?’ he asked me.

‘I prefer to think of it as engaging with the enemy honourably but from a safe distance,’ I replied.

‘How’s that working out so far?’

‘Not as well as I’d like.’

I limped to one of the weapons racks near the wall, grabbed a longsword and turned to brandish it at the bravos slowly advancing on me.

‘Stay back,’ I warned them. ‘I’ll see the blood of all twelve of you consecrate the floors of this hallowed hall ere the first lays a hand on me.’

The leader patted his thick leather fencing vest and chuckled when he saw the weapon I was brandishing. ‘Which should we fear more, rabbit? The fencing skills of a coward who ran from a lawful duel, or the wooden toy he now waves in my face?’

It was only then that I noticed the distressingly light weight of the sword – due no doubt to the fact that the blade was constructed from painted wood rather than proper steel. Usually the operatos pride themselves on having authentic weapons for their performances. Apparently business wasn’t great at the Belleza.

I tossed the wooden prop aside and offered up my best approximation of a victorious sneer.

Well, Grandmother, Grandfather, I thought, now we’ll find out if those acting lessons you paid for were worth the money.

I took a deep breath and declared, ‘What need would I have of a blade, you ill-bred dogs, when we all know performers in Jereste’s operatos are exempt from honour duels.’

My unexpected show of bravado took my pursuers aback. Their leader looked torn between laughter and dismay. ‘What? You? An actor?’

Now that hurts.

It wasn’t entirely a lie. I had, in fact, attended not one but three of the city’s finest dramatic academies. That I’d been tossed out of all three of them was an entirely different matter.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I asked, trying unsuccessfully to make my question rhetorical. I gestured to the motley assortment of actors now discretely huddled against the back wall of the rehearsal hall. ‘And engaged by this fabled company of players, the legendary . . .’

Oh, hell.

I looked over at the big, red-haired man desperately.

‘Knights of the Curtain,’ he replied with the hint of a smile.

‘The Knights of the Curtain!’ I managed to repeat without irony. ‘Among these paladins of the stage am I to perform the sacred role of the herald, as all here can attest.’ I wiggled my fingers in a dismissive wave at my pursuers. ‘So you see, I can’t possibly fight some petty honour duel when my talents are needed here.’

The leader of the Iron Orchids cast a dubious glance at the company of actors cowering at the back of the hall. ‘And you’d all swear to this?’

If only he’d asked that question with a teensy bit more disdain in his voice. My gambit relied entirely on the well-founded hatred actors felt for the bravos of this city, who looked down on them as nothing more than pampered, over-privileged prostitutes.

His question elicited nothing but deathly silence.

More honour among thieves than actors, I thought bitterly. Although, to be fair, I suppose barging in on their rehearsal and lying about being a member of their company wasn’t the strongest foundation on which to expect loyal camaraderie.

One of the narrow doors at the far end of the rehearsal hall swung open to reveal a man of middle years with sallow skin and thinning grey hair. His pronounced pot-belly was at odds with his skinny, stoop-shouldered frame. But in his eyes – ah, his eyes – there lay a lion waiting to pounce.

Shoving his way through the milling players, he bellowed, ‘In the name of Saint Anlas-who-remembers-the-world, what is going on in my theatre? I leave you for all of ten minutes and instead of rehearsing, here I find you dawdling about with . . .’

He arched an eyebrow as he finally took note of the bravos infesting his hall. Without a trace of fear, he strode up to their leader, ignoring bared blades pointed in his direction.

‘No admission without a ticket,’ he announced, ‘and weapons must be left in the cloakroom. The show isn’t until tomorrow night, so until then, get your arses out of my theatre.’

Definitely the director, I thought.

The leader of the bravos looked oddly discomfited by the director’s officious tone. ‘We, sir, are lawfully deputised . . . um . . . deputies.’ His fingers reached up to brush the iron flower brooch pinned to the collar of his leather vest. ‘We’ve come to retrieve this fugitive from justice: Damelas Shademantaigne must face . . . um . . . justice in—’

The director barely spared a glance at me. ‘If you’re telling me you’ve brought a criminal into my theatre, then you’d best have him out of here before I bring suit against your duelling court for wasting my company’s valuable and much needed’ – he turned to glare at his players – ‘rehearsal time.’

That’s it for me then, I thought helplessly. Just my bad luck that I’ve stumbled into the one theatre in the city where the Directore Principale bothers to show up for rehearsals.

‘Right then,’ said the leader of the Iron Orchids. He nodded to two of his henchmen, who grinned in response and with entirely too much eagerness, advanced on me.

‘A moment.’

The voice was so soft, so unexpectedly gentle that it took a moment for me to realise it had come from the burly red-haired man the others had called Bereto. There was an oddly whimsical look in his eye as he stared down at me. ‘Your family name is Shademantaigne? Truly?’

‘What's a Shad-a-man-tayn?’ asked Teo.

‘A Greatcoat,’ Bereto replied, ‘but not just any Greatcoat. Our new friend here must be a descendant of one of the most famous duelling magistrates in history!’

The leader of the bravos took another step, his three-foot-long single-edged backsword ready to thrust as his free hand reached out to grab me by the throat. 

But then a strange kind of miracle took place. It wasn’t the kind in heroic sagas, where a magic sword or a great flying eagle appears just when you need it, but far rarer: the red-haired actor, a stranger with no cause to help an obvious liar who’d snuck inside his home to cheat his way out of a duel, stepped between me and the twelve mercenaries.

Despite their greater numbers, the Iron Orchids stopped. Their leader, forced to tilt his head back to meet the big man’s gaze, warned him, ‘Best you back off, player.’ 

‘What in all the Hells are you doing, Bereto?’ the director asked.

‘Forgive me, Lord Director,’ he replied evenly, and his right hand reached surreptitiously to the hilt of a short, curved and very genuine-looking blade sheathed at the back of his belt. ‘Have you forgotten you hired our new colleague . . . um . . .’

‘Damelas,’ I supplied quickly.

‘Really?’ he asked.

I nodded. My given name isn’t of any particular consequence unless you happen to know the history of the Greatcoats. Damelas Shademantaigne, my distant forebear, was reputed to be the first of the King’s sword-fighting magistrates to take up the mantle.

‘Right,’ Bereto went on, seamlessly. ‘As I was saying Lord Director, you hired Damelas here for the role of the herald, remember? We can’t very well put on a historia without one – therefore, with much regret, we must invoke the operato’s prerogative to withdraw him from any legal disputes that might interfere with the show.’

The director tilted his head sideways to stare at me. ‘I recall no such thing. When did I—?’

‘Enough!’ interrupted the leader of the Iron Orchids. His underlings were glaring at him with the dubious expressions of those reconsidering their chosen leader. ‘No one gives a fuck about some obscure theatrical tradition, and no one’s going to stand in the way of us retrieving our fugitive. This one’s bound for the Vixen’s den tonight!’

Bereto stepped aside. I assumed he’d gone as far as he could on my behalf and now I was properly screwed. I panicked, tried to take my first step on what would surely be a shorter run than the last, only to collapse while choking back a scream of agony. I was saved a swift and unpleasant face-first encounter with the polished oak boards of the floor when Bereto grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me upright.

‘Well,’ he went on as if nothing had happened, ‘I suppose if our esteemed Directore Principale has decided that the ancient prerogatives of the theatre no longer hold sway in the sacred city of Jereste . . .’

The leader of the bravos gestured for him to move aside, then signalled for two of his fellows to take me away. But somehow Bereto’s words, like some ancient magic spell even more potent than the sort that turn perfectly courageous fugitives from duels into cowering rabbits, transformed the unprepossessing director, Shoville, into a raging dragon. I half expected him to start spitting fire as he commanded the bravos, ’Step. Back. NOW!’

The trio of Iron Orchids halted their advance, which was apparently not satisfactory for the director.

‘Anyone who isn’t an actor in the Company of the Knights of the Curtain,’ he began, every consonant cutting like a sword’s blade, ‘will answer to me, Hujo Shoville, Directore Principale of the Operato Belleza, the greatest theatre in the greatest city in the world. This I swear: before the night is out, I will personally see to it that any such knaves will find themselves on their knees in front of the Duke of Pertine himself. By morning those who dared test my will shall find themselves exiled for ever to that filthy, barbaric wilderness that is the world outside Jereste’s fair walls – but not before they have been dragged, bound, gagged and tarred, through the streets, so that their fellow unwashed denizens may hurl upon them such refuse as shall clothe them on their final journey into the void!’

You had to admire the unwavering determination the leader of the bravos displayed in his zeal to drag me back to the courthouse: even in the face of the little director’s flurry of thrusts, he attempted one last parry. Holding up the metal brooch on his collar, he declared, ‘You can’t threaten us! We’re the Iron Orchids!’

Shoville, who had clearly been a passionate, if perhaps melodramatic, actor in his own day, grabbed the end of the nearest bravo’s blade and pulled it to his chest. ‘Then strike, you blackguards – put steel to your words and let’s you and I meet the good God Death together!’

Still clutching his iron orchid, their leader stammered, ‘But . . . but . . . you said it yourself: this man isn’t even one of your actors—’

‘I said no such thing!’ Shoville roared imperiously. He let go of the bravo’s sword and clapped a hand on my shoulder. ‘Look closely, you near-sighted nincompoops, for before you stands my latest discovery: a veritable star in the making. My newest protégé, Dam . . . Damo . . .’

‘Damelas Shademantaigne,’ Bereto offered.

‘Shut up,’ the director muttered. ‘I’ll deal with you later.’ He advanced on the bravos, forcing them to yield the field, or murder him in cold blood, and as the last of them backed out of the rehearsal hall, he declared, with furious conviction and improbable certainty, ‘Mark this day, you ignorant poltroons, for I’ll lay odds against every pauper’s penny in your purses that by this time next year Damelas Shademantaigne will be the most famous actor in the entire Duchy!’

Regrettably, that turned out to be true.

Sníh a měďKRÁLOVNOVRAH

Sš,ššš,ššš,šeptal stříbřitý sníh, stejně chladný jako chlap, který vám uprostřed ulice plné lidí zakryje zezadu rukou ústa a vrazí vám nůž do zad. V tomto konkrétním davu nás bylo sedm třesoucích se zimou na mrazivé planině vysoko v pohraničních horách. Merrell Betrian, muž, kterého jsem přišel zabít, krčící se za Arc’aeonem, válečným mágem, jehož si najal, aby mě zabil dřív. O několik metrů dál stáli dva otrávení daromanští šerifové, kteří se nám laskavě nabídli, že dohlédnou na náš souboj (popravdě řečeno, kdybychom nezaplatili poplatek za úřední dozor, hrozilo by nám zatčení). Zbýval už jenom nádherný orel kroužící vysoko nad námi, který byl Arc’aeonův zvířecí ochránce, a malý protivný koč­koveverčák, který byl považován za ochránce mého. No, a sa­mozřejmě já.

„Teď to schytáš, Kellene!“ hulákal na mě Merrell z opačné strany padesátimetrového, sněhem poprášeného prostranství, které nás oddělovalo. „Tady Arc’aeon je opravdovskej ohnivej mág. A taky to není blbec, takže žádný tvý divotvorecký triky na něho fungovat nebudou.“

„Jo, máš recht, Merrelle,“ vykřikl jsem i já. „Mý triky fungujou jedině na blbce.“

Merrell zaklel, Arc’aeon se pousmál a dva šerifové stěží potlačovali smích. Ani pták, ani kočkoveverčák nám nevěnovali žádnou pozornost. Soustředili se na sebe. Pokud šlo o mě, pomyslel jsem si, že možná Merrell přece jen nebude takový pitomec, jaký se původně zdál. Teď neobratně podupával na místě ve snaze zabránit, aby mu omrzly nohy.

Myslel jsem si, že už ho doháním, spěchal jsem, abych mu zabránil překročit hranici na zhubanské území, kam věděl, že za ním nepůjdu. Myslel jsem si, že pronásleduju tupého chlapa s pomačkanou hubou, který mlátí svou ženu a podvádí v kartách. Ukázalo se, že jsem se šeredně mýlil.

Merrell byl mnohem bohatší, než dával najevo. Měl taky mnohem lepší styky, jelikož byť netrpěl nedostatkem peněz, najmout si dobrého válečného mága nemohlo být zas tak jednoduché. Můj lid burany z pohraničí obvykle pohrdá a nenechává se jimi zaměstnávat.

Pohled na Arc’aeona byl naproti tomu jako pohled na sebe samého v křivém zrcadle. Do mých osmnáctých narozenin scházelo sotva pár dní a nevypadalo to, že se dožiju dvacítky. Arc’aeonovi mohlo být něco přes třicet, už nyní byl hlavou váženého jan’tepského rodu, bohatý, mocný, a jistě ho čekala dlouhá a oslnivá budoucnost. Mé vlasy mají slušně řečeno barvu hnoje, jeho zářily v ranním slunci, jako kdyby byly upředené z platinových a zlatých vláken. Já byl po dlouhých měsících strádání a života na útěku kost a kůže; on měl svalnatou postavu vojáka.

„Máš hezké brnění,“ zavolal jsem přes plochu zvířeného

sněhu, která ležela mezi námi. Hruď, paže a nohy mu chránily dokonale přiléhavé, zářivě lesklé pláty připevněné pruhy hedvábné látky. „Je velmi… zlaté. Hodí se ke tvému ptákovi.“

„Shadea je orel, hochu,“ opravil mě a s úsměvem pohlédl vzhůru na dravce líně kroužícího ve vzduchu jako káně, které vyhlíží novou kořist. „Pták je něco, co poletuje kolem, dokud si to nezastřelíš k obědu. Orel si dá k obědu tebe.“

Zamyšleně ukázal na mě. Neměl jsem žádné brnění, až na koženou kazajku a kožené jezdecké nohavice, které mě chránily, abych se při každém pádu z koně neodřel až na maso. „Máš hezký klobouk,“ řekl a kývl na můj daromanský hraničářský klobouk, který jsem nosil, aby mi slunce nesvítilo na černá znamení, jež se mi klikatila kolem levého oka. „Ty stříbrné symboly na střeše jsou… roztomilé. Slouží k něčemu?“

Pokrčil jsem rameny. „Muž, jemuž jsem ten klobouk vzal, říkal, že mi přinesou štěstí.“

Arc’aeon se opět usmál. „V tom případě tě přecenil. Tenhle pitomec mi zaplatil slušné peníze, abych s tebou skoncoval, Kellene z rodu Ke, ale udělal bych to i zadarmo, kdybych věděl, že jsi černý stín. Teď ti to tvoje odporné levé oko hezky provrtám světelným bleskem.“

Pták… vlastně orel, vydal hlasitý skřek, jako kdyby rozuměl našemu rozhovoru. „Ty myslíš, že ten pták ví…,“ začal jsem.

„Ovšemže ví, co říkáš,“ zaprskal Reichis a dodal: „Idjite.“ Kočkoveverčák chtěl říct „idiote“, ale už jsme se potulovali pohraničím několik měsíců a on začal mluvit jako bezzubý pasák ovcí. „Ten orel je jeho ochránce. Všechno, co slyší ten vypelichaný mág, slyší i pták.“

Shlédl jsem dolů na Reichise. Vypadal trochu legračně, jak si stínil tlapou oči před ostrým slunečním světlem, které se odráželo od sněhu a ledu, aby lépe viděl na mágova orla. Jestli jste ještě nikdy neviděli kočkoveverku, pak si představte, že nějaký opilý bůh obdařil obtloustlou, něco přes půl metru dlouhou kočku dlouhým huňatým ocasem a srstnatými blánami mezi předníma a zadníma nohama, které jí umožňují snášet se klouzavým letem z vrcholků stromů a zarývat drápy a zuby do vybrané kořisti – kterou je prakticky všechno, co se hýbe. Načež stejné božstvo dalo svému stvoření do vínku zlodějské sklony. A vyděračské. A nejspíš víc než při jedné příležitosti také vražedné.

„Vsadím se, že Arc’aeonovi ten jeho orlí kámoš neříká ,idjite‘,“ konstatoval jsem.

Reichis na mě pohlédl. „Jo, hm, to je možné, protože já nejsem tvůj ochránce. Já jsem tvůj obchodní partner. Idjite.“

„Myslíš, že na tom asi za pět minut bude záležet, až nás šerifové vyzvou, abychom tasili, a ten orel tě popadne a vyr­ve ti vnitřnosti z těla?“

„Správně,“ poplácal mě Reichis po noze. „Dobrá, jsi génius, chlapče. Teď jen vyřiď toho chlápka, abychom si mohli dát toho jeho ošklivého ptáka k večeři. Zamlouvám si obě oči.“

Spustil jsem ruce dolů k bokům, kde jsem měl pouzdra na prach. Stálo mě malé jmění přemluvit brašnáře, aby mi je

zhotovil, ale umožňovala mi sahat po prášcích rychleji než do mých starých váčků, a když bojujete s válečným mágem, může i zlomek vteřiny znamenat rozdíl mezi životem a smrtí. Merrell si div nesedl na zadnici a oba šerifové na mě okamžitě namířili své kuše pro případ, že bych chtěl při souboji podvádět, avšak Arc’aeon můj pohyb zcela ignoroval.

„Vůbec se nebojí, že ho zasáhneš,“ promluvil Reichis. Totiž, vlastně se nedalo říct, že mluvil – vydával kočkoveverčí zvuky –, ale podstata našeho vztahu je taková, že ty zvuky vnímám jako slova.

„Přesně tak,“ řekl jsem. „Neproniknutelný kouzelný štít?“

„To bude ono.“

Prozkoumal jsem očima prostor mezi námi a ohnivým mágem. Na zemi jsem nespatřil nic. Vybral jsem si toto místo úmyslně, poněvadž je zatraceně těžké udržet kruh neporušený, když jediným místem, kam ho můžete narýsovat, je led a sníh. Neviděl jsem žádné stopy, takže logicky zbývala jenom jedna možnost.

„Poslyšte, hoši. Vadilo by vám, kdybychom se posunuli asi o metřík doprava? Tady mi svítí slunce do očí. Mám právo na férový souboj, ne?“

Starší z šerifů, myslím, že se jmenoval Harrex, pokrčil kostnatými rameny a tázavě pohlédl na Arc’aeona. Mág se na něho jen usmál a zavrtěl hlavou. Jeho orel se pokusil o nálet na nás a zpátky k nebi se zvedl jen asi metr od mého obličeje.

„Byli tu už dříve a položili pod sníh měděný drát s ochrannými zaklínadly, pak na něj nalili vodu a počkali, až se promění v led,“ řekl jsem Reichisovi. „Zdá se, žes měl pravdu, že jsme se tu měli včera utábořit.“

„Idjite.“

Harrex zvedl ruku s miniaturními slunečními hodinami. „Dobrá, pánové. Řekl bych, že čas nadešel. Za minutu bude deset a tady šerif Parsus začne odpočítávat od sedmi. Předpokládám, že další pravidla znáte.“

„Zabít toho druhého?“ navrhl jsem.

Reichis na mě zlostně pohlédl. „Takový je tvůj plán? Dělat vtipy, až nás ten mág nebude moct odpálit, protože se rozchechtá tak, že nebude schopen pronést zaklínadlo?“

„To by možná bylo pro nás nejlepší. Neexistuje žádný způsob, jak bych ten štít mohl prorazit.“

„Co si tedy počneme?“

Ohlédl jsem se po Arc’aeonovi a sledoval jsem, jak se úsměv na jeho tváři rozšiřuje. Stál na svém místě naprosto klidný a vyčkával na signál k zahájení souboje.

„Sedm!“ vykřikl šerif Parsus.

Pohlédl jsem dolů do Reichisových korálkovitých kočkoveverčích očí. „Co kdybychom si prohodili taneční partnery?“ navrhl jsem.

„Šest!“

„Říkáš, že si mám vzít mága?“ Kočkoveverky se obvykle neusmívají, teď ale Reichisův chlupatý obličejík zdobil zlověstný úšklebek. Možná byl lakomý, možná byl lhář, zloděj a vyděrač,

ale ten malý parchant nade vše miloval drsný boj až do konce. Před několika měsíci si nechal levé oko očarovat stejnou kletbou černého stínu, jako mám já. Jeho povaha se tím nijak nezlepšila.

„Pět!“

„Přestaň blbnout, Reichisi. Víš, co máš dělat.“

„Čtyři!“

Reichis se lehce otřásl. Jeho kožich změnil barvu z obvyklé světle hnědé s černými pruhy na čistě bílou, čímž se stal na vysokém sněhovém koberci takřka neviditelným. Rozepnul jsem kovové přezky na pouzdrech a otevřel záklopky.

„Tři!“

Arc’aeon spojil prsty obou rukou do špičky. Znal jsem dobře ten tělesný tvar, třebaže jsem sám neuměl to kouzlo vytvořit. Mimovolně jsem sebou trhl při pomyšlení, co by se se mnou stalo, kdyby mě zasáhlo.

„Dva!“

Arc’aeon na mě mrkl. Orel dokončoval poslední okruh připravený vrhnout se na Reichise. Kočkoveverčák se spustil na všechny čtyři a zabořil zadní nohy do sněhu, aby se mohl lépe odrazit.

„Jedna…,“ řekl Parsus, na můj vkus s příliš velkým nadšením.

Svědkové podobných scén budou nejspíš vědět, že porážka v souboji má obvykle jenom dvojí vyústění: buď skončíte na kolenou a žebráte o milost, nebo na zádech a čekáte, až vaši mrtvolu zakryje padající sníh.

„Začněte!“

Vzápětí jsem měl objevit třetí možnost, která byla ještě horší.

 

Oheň a blesk

Vokamžiku, kdy se kolem Arc’aeonových prstů zhmotnily první modré jiskřičky záblesků, se orel vrhl střemhlav na Reichise, aby ho zabil. Ohnivá magie byla doslova cítit ve vzduchu a vzápětí už vyšlehl záblesk. Modlil jsem se, aby byl Arc’aeon natolik sebejistý, že splní své předchozí výhružky. Praštil jsem sebou o zem s rukama zasunutýma do pouzder u boku a nabral jsem ukazováčky špetku červeného a černého prášku. Sledoval jsem ohnivou kouli, jak prolétla prostorem, kde by mě ještě před zlomkem vteřiny zasáhla do levého oka. Ten chlapík měl věru dobrou mušku.

Reichis za sebou vyvolal malou sněhovou vánici, jak se tryskem rozběhl k Arc’aeonovi, a nepřestával křičet: „Chcípni, ty pitomý holube!“

Orlovy spáry se už málem dotýkaly kočkoveverčákova kožichu, když jsem vyhodil prášky do vzduchu před sebe a padl jsem pravým ramenem na zem. Samy o sobě byly prášky netečné a nevinné jako batolata, avšak vzájemně se nesnášely, takže jejich kontakt vyvolal pokaždé ohromný výbuch. Podstatou magie samozřejmě není výbuch – ten způsobí prášky samy o sobě. Magie spočívá v obtížnější části – řídit explozi určitým směrem, aniž byste si přitom spálili prsty nebo obličej. Mé prsty vytvořily nezbytný tělesný tvar: malíčky a prsteníčky přitisknuté k dlani na znamení sebeovládání; ukazováčky a prostředníčky namířené dopředu, aby naznačovaly směr; a palce ukazovaly k nebi a ztělesňovaly prosbu, aby mi, řekněme, někdo tam nahoře pomohl.

„Carath Toth,“ pronesl jsem dvouslovné zaklínadlo. Přísně vzato byly potřebné jenom první dvě slabiky. Toth bylo jméno jednoho obzvlášť neodbytného lovce lidí, který nás s Reichisem vystopoval před několika týdny a oznámil celému městu, že se mnou s konečnou platností skoncuje. Jelikož mé prášky byly teď nasáklé jeho krví, dodávalo vyslovení jeho jména kouzlu ještě o trochu více energie.

Červený a černý oheň se vznítily, plameny se propletly jako hadi a sledovaly směr, který naznačovaly mé ukazováčky. Vystřelily proti orlovi a nechávaly za sebou kouřovou stopu. Minul jsem ptákovo srdce, ale zasáhl jsem jedno z jeho křídel a on se zřítil na zem asi metr od Reichise. Kočkoveverčák se ani neohlédl a hnal se na svých krátkých nožkách ke svému pravému cíli.

„Shadeo!“ vykřikl mág a jeho ruce mimovolně opustily tělesný tvar dalšího zamýšleného kouzla. Bolí to, když to tvůj ochránce schytá, co?pomyslel jsem si zlomyslně. Chápejte, proti tomu orlovi jsem nic neměl, ale snažil se zabít mého obchodního partnera.

Arc’aeon vypálil druhý blesk, právě když jsem se zvedal na nohy, a přinutil mě opět sebou plácnout o zem. Tentokrát jsem

skončil roztažený na břiše. Cítil jsem, jak se mi zježily vlasy, když mi blesk prolétl těsně nad hlavou. Pochopil jsem, že třetímu blesku se už nevyhnu.

Reichis mezitím překonal vzdálenost mezi sebou a válečným mágem. S divokým mručením vyskočil do vzduchu. Arc’aeon málem upadl naznak, ačkoli nebylo možné, aby kočkoveverčák prolomil štít. V tomtéž okamžiku, kdy Reichis dopadl na zem, začal zuřivě hrabat ve sněhu a ledu a pronikal k místu, kde musel být zakopán křehký kruh z měděného drátu.

Arc’aeonovi to právě začalo docházet, když jsem po jeho ochránci vyslal další porci prášků.

„Carath Toth,“ zamumlal jsem.

„Ne!“ zaječel Arc’aeon. Tentokrát vyslal jiné kouzlo, něco jako zaklínadlo či ochranu, které obklopilo orla a rozptýlilo mou explozi v oblaku černého kouře. Dobrý trik, pomyslel jsem si.

„Teď!“ zavrčel na mě Reichis.

Uviděl jsem ve sněhu, kde hrabal, mezeru, která mi dávala příležitost k útoku. Nebyl jsem však na správném místě, odkud bych mohl vyslat zažehnuté prášky skrz otvor ve štítu.

„Sakra,“ ulevil jsem si, vyskočil jsem na nohy a rozběhl jsem se k Arc’aeonovi.

Viděl jsem, že se dívá na zem a skládá ruce do nového, ošklivého tvaru. Oči mu těkaly z mezery na Reichise, aby nakonec spočinuly na mně a vzápětí mi namířil kouzlo na prsa. To je brzy, sakra, moc brzy.Nebyl jsem ještě v přímé linii s mezerou.

„Carath, pitomče!“ vykřikl jsem z plných plic a namířil prsty na Arc’aeona, jako kdybych skutečně vysílal kouzlo. Říkat „pitomče“ nebylo vůbec nutné, ale jste-li v posta­vení psance a na vaši hlavu je vypsaná odměna, snažíte se pobavit, kde se dá. Instinktivně změnil polohu prstů a vytvořil krátkodobý štít. Což byla chyba, jelikož jsem ve skutečnosti nevypálil a jeho ochrana, pokud nebude ukot­vena v měděném drátu, vydrží pouhou vteřinu. Arc’aeon si uvědomil, že jsem ho oklamal, a protáhl obličej. Nacházel jsem se nyní přímo před otvorem v jeho štítu.

Otvor ve štítu vypadal jako sloupec tetelícího se vzduchu. Naposledy jsem zašeptal své „Carath Toth“. Prášky se přede mnou srazily. Namířil jsem prsty do otvoru a vyslal skrze něj výbuch dříve, než Arc’aeon stačil vztyčit další ochranný štít. Záblesk ho zasáhl přesně doprostřed břicha a prorazil zdobené pláty jeho brnění.

Rozhostilo se ticho, během něhož jsme vyčkávali, až v horách dozní poslední ozvěny výbuchu. Válečný mág zůstal několik vteřin stát, jako by si odmítal připustit, že jeho tělo nyní postrádá orgány nezbytné pro život. Výbuch po sobě zanechal díru dost velkou na to, abych skrz ni viděl na místo, kde se za svým šampionem krčil Merrell. Když jsem k němu vykročil, mágovo tělo konečně zjistilo, co se stalo, a zhroutilo se na zem.

Pokud to všechno zní moc jednoduše, tak nebylo.

Kromě toho jsme se ještě nedostali do bodu, kdy jsem všechno podělal.

 

Krev a hedvábí

 

"No tak, Kellene, neudělej teď něco, co nikdo z nás nechce…,“ škemral Merrell. Otočil se k oběma šerifům, Harrexovi a Parsusovi. „Nedovolte mu, aby mě voddělal!“ zaječel. „Zaplatím vám! Mám u sebe spoustu peněz, když je ten mág mrtvej.“

Šerifové zpražili Merrella pohledem. Pokoušet se podplatit královniny policejní úředníky? To nebylo zrovna chytré. Mám podezření, že jediný důvod, proč ho na místě nezatkli, byl ten, že věděli, že z toho brzy udělám možnost čistě teoretickou.

„Nechoď blíž, Kellene!“ Merrell měl ruce sepjaté jako k modlitbě, což bylo od něho plýtvání časem. Můj lid je příliš civilizovaný na to, aby věřil v bohy. Místo toho uctíváme své předky.

„Já?“ otázal jsem se. „Rozhodně nemám v úmyslu jednat unáhleně, Merrelle.“

Dal jsem mu jen tolik času, aby se mu ve tváři rozhostil výraz úlevy, a dodal jsem: „Teď je řada na kočkoveverčákovi, je to takový malý dareba. Nejspíš ti utrhne obličej a já si zatím dám malou snídani.“

Předkové. Už jsem jako Reichis a taky mluvím jako nějaký křupan z pohraničí.

„Ne! Počkat! Ještě pořád se můžem dohodnout. Každej ví, že hledáš lék na černej stín, je to tak? Dobře, znám jed­noho chlápka.“

Když přijde řeč na hadí mazání a zázračné medicíny, každý zná nějakého chlápka.

Sníh mi příjemně zakřupal pod podpatkem, když jsem učinil další krok k Merrellovi. Stále jsem viděl výraz tváře té dívky, když… Ne. Hněv je špatný rádce. Soustřeď se na to, co je tady a teď.

„Přísahám, Kellene! Znám jednoho chlápka! Uměl by vyléčit tvůj černej stín!“

Reichis už byl přikrčený a připravený ke skoku. Otočil ke mně nadutou kočkoveverčí tvář a já hned věděl, co si o tom všem myslí. „Nenalítni zase na tyhle kraviny, idjite.“

Jeho varování nebylo zapotřebí. Procestoval jsem křížem krážem dva kontinenty a utratil jsem každý haléř, který jsem dokázal vydělat nebo ukrást, při hledání léku na klikatá černá znamení kolem levého oka. Přineslo mi to jen zácpu a v jednom případě i ošklivou červenou vyrážku.

„Jak se ten zázrak jmenuje?“ zeptal jsem se.

Merrell byl buď příliš chytrý na to, aby si myslel, že mu skočím na jeho hru, nebo příliš hloupý, aby přišel s falešným jménem. Na tom však nezáleželo. Zaváhal jsem, a to stačilo. Sáhl si za záda a zachytil jsem záblesk ocele těsně před tím, než po mně hodil nůž spodním vrhem. Čepel mě zasáhla přímo do pravého ramene a já se svalil jako pytel. Reichis se vydrápal po Merrellově těle a zaútočil mu na obličej. Zaryl mu drápy do levého očního důlku a vytrhl z něj kus masa, až vystříkl proud krve. Potom se mu kočkoveverčák vrhl na krk.

Merrell ječel, jako by ho na nože brali. S námahou jsem se zvedl, ale pak jsem uviděl, jak opět sahá za sebe.

„Reichisi! Má ještě jeden nůž!“

Kočkoveverčák mi nevěnoval pozornost. Malé, krvežíznivé monstrum.

Tryskem jsem uběhl několik kroků k nim a třel si o sebe prsty v naději, že se mi do nich vrátí cit a budu moct risknout ještě jedno kouzlo. Bylo to však beznadějné – při posledním odpalu jsem použil příliš mnoho prášku a prsty byly ztuhlé. Kdybych se o to pokusil znovu, jen by mi to utrhlo ruce. K pravému stehnu jsem měl připevněný balíček jako břitva ostrých ocelových vrhacích karet, ty by mi ale s necitlivými prsty a nožem zabodnutým do ramene byly také k ničemu.

Merrell mával nožem kolem sebe a pokoušel se jím Rei­chise seknout, ale kočkoveverčák byl natolik chytrý, že mu seskočil z prsou a zakousl se mu do nohy. Merrell ho prudce nakopl, takže kočkoveverčák přistál na zemi metr od něj. V záchvatu vzteku se Merrell rozběhl k němu a vší silou po něm dupl. Kdyby se Reichis neodkulil stranou, byl by ho rozdrtil. Merrell se chystal ke druhému pokusu, když jsem k němu konečně doběhl. Sykaje bolestí jsem si vytrhl nůž z ramene a zabodl ho Merrellu Betrianovi do krku. Myslím, že nakonec jsem křičel ještě hlasitěji než on.

Dva šerifové trpělivě vyčkali, až Merrell vykrvácí, a pak se vydali se svými koňmi k nám. Součástí dohledu nad soubojem bylo i ošetření zranění vítěze. Daromani jsou takhle civilizovaní.

„Krvácíš opravdu pořádně, brachu,“ prohodil Parsus.

Podíval jsem se na rameno a zjistil jsem, že má pravdu. Bylo tam víc krve, než by mělo být. Nůž musel zasáhnout něco důležitého. Jako ve snu jsem popadl první kus látky, který jsem uviděl na boku šerifova koně, a přitiskl si ho na ránu, abych ji ucpal.

„A sakra,“ uslyšel jsem zamumlat Reichise.

Můj pohled se přesunul od kočkoveverčáka na dva šerify. Parsus vypadal, jako kdyby ho každou chvíli měla ranit mrtvice. Harrex sahal po své kuši. Teprve teď jsem si uvědomil, co jsem provedl.

Urazil jsem dvě stě padesát kilometrů, abych zabil člověka. Měl jsem pro to jediný zákonný důvod, a sice že mě ošidil v kartách. Zabil jsem v souboji jan’tepského mága, chladnokrevně jsem zavraždil jeho zaměstnavatele a až do této chvíle… kdy jsem z koně toho šerifa strhl červenobílou vlajku Darome… jsem se nedopustil žádného zločinu.

Na tomto impériu je zvláštní jedna věc: podle jejich způsobu uvažování, nejste-li cizí diplomat, jakmile vstoupíte na daromanské území, stáváte se citavis teradi– teritoriálním občanem. Tato pochybná čest s sebou přináší jeden nebo dva menší nároky na právní ochranu a svatou povinnost bránit panovníka. Naneštěstí jsem právě potřísnil královninu vlajku krví, což bylo totéž, jako kdybych vyhlásil královské rodině Darome válku, jinak řečeno dopustil jsem se velezrady. A udělal jsem to před očima

dvou královniných šerifů.

Neměl jsem sílu na další kouzlo, ale pravděpodobně bych se o ně stejně pokusil, kdyby mě Parsus prozíravě neudeřil do týlu svým šerifským obuškem. Poslední věc, kterou jsem slyšel, než jsem omdlel, byl Reichisův zděšený, třesoucí se hlas.

„Idjite.“

 

 

ПРОБЛЕМА ПЕСКАубийца королевы

Пустыня — лгунья.
О, конечно, издалека эти бесконечные просторы золо- того песка выглядят манящими. Стоишь на вершине песчаной

дюны, теплый бриз смягчает палящее солнце и манит к ожида- ющим внизу чудесам. Все, что пожелаешь — невообразимые сокровища, спасение от врагов, возможно, даже лекарство от извилистых черных линий, которые не перестают расти вокруг твоего левого глаза, — какой-нибудь дурак поклянется, что все это ожидает тебя по другую сторону пустыни.

«Опасное путешествие? Возможно, зато какая награда, па- рень! Подумай о награде…»

Но давайте рассмотрим поближе — я имею в виду, по-насто- ящему близко — скажем, находясь примерно в дюйме от само- го песка. Это легко сделать, когда лежишь на нем лицом вниз, ожидая смерти от жажды. Видишь, как уникальны и неповтори- мы все до единой песчинки? Они разной формы, размера, цве- та… Единое совершенство, которое ты видел раньше — просто иллюзия. Вблизи пустыня грязная, мерзкая и злая.

Как я уже сказал, она вонючая лгунья.
— Это ты вонючий лгун, — проворчал Рейчис.
Я резко вскинул голову. Я даже не осознавал, что говорю

вслух. С большим усилием я повернулся, чтобы посмотреть, как поживает мой так называемый деловой партнер.

Я не очень далеко ушел: сказались недостаток еды и воды. Проклятые синяки, оставленные чарами недавно скончавше- гося мага, чей смердящий труп гнил на жаре в нескольких футах от меня, тоже не помогали. Итак, я собираюсь потра- тить остаток жизни на то, чтобы просто сердито глядеть на сварливого двухфутового белкокота, умирающего рядом со мной?

— Сам ты вонючка, — ответил я.
— Хе, — хихикнул он.
Белкокоты не очень хорошо осознают свою смертность. Од-

нако у них большая склонность сваливать вину на другого.
— Это все ты виноват! — просвистел он.
Я перевернулся, надеясь дать облегчение онемевшему хреб-

ту — только для того, чтобы раны на спине протестующе заво- пили. Боль исторгла сиплый стон из моей пересохшей глотки.

— Не пытайся это отрицать, — сказал Рейчис.
— Я ничего не отрицаю.
— Нет, отрицаешь. Ты хныкал, и я услышал: «Но, Рейчис, от-

куда я мог знать, что веду нас в смертельную ловушку, расстав- ленную моим же народом? То есть ты, конечно, предупреждал меня, что эта болтовня о тайном монастыре в пустыне, монахи которого могут вылечить меня от Черной Тени, — жульничест- во, но ты же знаешь меня, я идиот. Идиот, который никогда не слушает своего более умного и куда более красивого делового партнера».

На тот случай, если вы никогда не видели белкокота — во- образите сердитую кошачью морду, слегка пузатое тело, непо- корный косматый хвост и странные мохнатые перепонки меж- ду передними и задними лапами. С помощью этих перепонок он может планировать с верхушек деревьев, убивая свою добычу. «Красивый» — не то слово, которое приходит на ум, когда на него смотришь.

— Ты разобрал все это из хныканья? — спросил я.
Пауза.
— У белкокотов отличная интуиция.
Я сделал неровный вдох; жар песка обжигал мне лег-

кие. Как долго мы тут пролежали? День? Два дня? Я потя- нулся к нашей последней фляге с водой, подтащил ее ближе и собрался с силами, сознавая, что мне придется поделить- ся остатком воды с Рейчисом. Говорят, без воды можно про- жить три дня, но это только если пустыня не высасывает из тебя влагу, как… как чертов белкокот! Во фляге не осталось ни капли воды.

— Ты выпил нашу последнюю воду? Рейчис раздраженно ответил:
— Я сперва спросил.
— Когда?

Еще одна пауза.
— Когда ты спал.
Очевидно, пустыня была не единственным лгуном, с кото-

рым мне приходилось спорить.
Мне семнадцать лет от роду, я изгнан своим народом, меня

преследовали все маги-ищейки и наемные маги с двумя закли- наниями и плохими манерами, и остатки моей воды только что украло существо, больше всего походившее на друга.

Меня зовут Келлен Аргос. Некогда я был многообещающим посвященным и членом одной из самых могущественных се- мей на территориях джен-теп. Потом вокруг моего левого гла- за появились извилистые черные отметины загадочной болез- ни, известной как Черная Тень. И теперь люди называют меня изгоем, предателем, изгнанником — это когда хотят проявить вежливость.Единственная характеристика, которую я никогда не заслуживал, — везунчик.

— Конечно, я знаю место, — сказала старая разведчица.

Ее разные глаза — светло-коричневый и зеленый — не отры- вались от пыльного кожаного кошеля с медными и серебряны- ми безделушками, который лежал между нами на столе. Кроме нас на нижнем этаже таверны для путешественников никого не было, если не считать пары вырубившихся пьянчуг в дальнем углу и одного печального парня, который сидел в одиночестве и снова и снова перекатывал пару костей, плачась своему элю, что он самый невезучий на свете.

Что ты знаешь о невезении, приятель.

— Вы можете отвести меня туда? В этот монастырь? — спросил я, выкладывая карту на стол картиной вверх.

Разведчица взяла карту и прищурилась, на изображенные на ней темные башни.

— Хорошая работа, — сказала она. — Ты сам это нари- совал?

Я кивнул. За последние шесть месяцев мы с Рейчисом пере- секли полконтинента в поисках лекарства от Черной Тени. Мы здесь и там собирали улики, короткие каракули на полях неяс- ных текстов, упоминающих о тайном убежище, слухи, которые бесконечно повторяли пьяные в тавернах вроде этой.

Аргоси рисуют карты важных людей и мест, дополняя ри- сунки обрывками любой собранной информации в надежде, что получившиеся изображения явят свое скрытое при других обстоятельствах значение. Я и сам занялся рисованием. Если я погибну в поисках лекарства, всегда есть шанс, что карты по- падут в руки аргоси, а потом — к Фериус Перфекс, чтобы она поняла: можно не трудиться, разыскивая меня.

Старая разведчица швырнула карту обратно на стол, словно делая ставку.

— Место, которое ты ищешь, называется Эбеновым аббат- ством, и — да, я могла бы отвести тебя туда… Если бы мне за- хотелось.

Улыбка натянула обожженную солнцем кожу на ее выпу- клом лбе и вокруг глаз. Лицо разведчицы напоминало карту давно забытой страны. Наверное, ей было далеко за шестьде- сят, но куртка без рукавов демонстрировала похожие на ве- ревки мускулы на плечах и руках. Вкупе с ассортиментом но- жей в ножнах на портупее, пересекающей грудь, и арбалетом, пристегнутым за спиной, эти мускулы говорили, что разведчи- ца скорее всего прекрасно может постоять за себя в бою. Из-за того, как она продолжала пялиться на мешок с безделушками на столе, не обращая на меня особого внимания, становилось яснее ясного, что я не произвел на нее схожего впечатления.

До сих пор поиски чудодейственного лекарства не были осо- бо выгодным предприятием. Все до единого монеты, которые я заработал в своих путешествиях как меткий маг, ушли тор- говцу змеиным маслом, продававшему вонючие отвары; из-за них меня несколько дней потом тошнило и рвало. Теперь моя износившаяся в дороге рубашка свободно болталась на тощем теле, с лица и груди еще не сошли синяки и царапины, оставши-

еся после последней встречи с парой наемных магов джен-теп. Так что я понимал, почему мой вид вряд ли мог внушить развед- чице трепет.

— Она думает о том, чтобы избить тебя и забрать твои день- ги, — сказал Рейчис, поводив носом у меня на плече.

— Эта тварь не кролик, так? — спросила разведчица, бросив на него настороженный взгляд.

Ее народ не понимал посвистывания, рыков и временами — пуканья и других штучек, с помощью которых общался Рейчис.

— Я все еще пытаюсь это выяснить, — ответил я.
Белкокот издал низкое рычание:
— Ты же знаешь, что я могу запросто вырвать твои глаза из

глазниц и сожрать, пока ты будешь спать, верно?
Он спрыгнул с моего плеча и направился к двум пьянчугам в углу — без сомнения, чтобы проверить, удастся ли обшарить

их карманы.
— Спроси тех, кому ведомы истории, — начала разведчица

напевным голосом, — и тебе расскажут, что никто, кроме семи чужаков, никогда не бывал за стенами Эбенового аббатства. Пятеро из них мертвы. Один, пристрастившийся к сонной тра- ве, не смог бы найти обеими руками собственный нос, не гово- ря уж о тайном монастыре, укрытом в пустыне.

Она потянулась к небольшому кошелю, в котором лежали все оставшиеся у меня ценности.

— Значит, есть только я.

Я завладел кошелем первым. Может, с виду я и не очень, но у меня проворные руки.

— Мы еще не договорились об условиях.

Впервые разномастные глаза разведчицы встретились с мо- ими. Я попытался ответить на ее сердитый взгляд таким же . . .

Chapter I - Snow and CopperQueenslayer

Shush, shush, shush, whispered the silvery snow, soothing as a man clamping his hand over your mouth as he sticks a knife in your back in the middle of a crowded street. There were seven of us in this particular crowd, shivering on the frigid plateau high up in the border mountains. Merrell of Betrian, the man I’d come to kill, cowered behind Arc’aeon, the war mage he’d hired to kill me first. A few yards away stood two bored Daroman marshals who’d graciously offered to oversee our duel (which is to say, threatened to arrest us unless we paid the overseeing fee). That just left the tall, graceful eagle that was Arc’aeon’s familiar and the short, nasty squirrel cat who passed for mine. Oh, and me, of course.

‘You’re gonna get it now, Kellen!’ Merrell hooted at me from across the fifty-yard stretch of snow-dusted ground separating us. ‘Arc’aeon here’s a proper ember mage. Ain’t no fool, neither, so your spellslinger tricks ain’t gonna work on him.’

‘Yeah, you’re right, Merrell,’ I shouted back. ‘My tricks only work on fools.’

Merrell swore, Arc’aeon smirked and the two marshals chuckled. Neither the bird nor the squirrel cat paid any attention. They were focused on each other. Me, I was thinking that maybe Merrell wasn’t the biggest sucker shuffling about trying to keep his toes from freezing off.

I thought I’d been running him down, racing to keep him from crossing the border into the Zhuban territories where he knew I wouldn’t follow. I thought I’d been chasing after a dumb, pug-ugly wife beater who’d tried to cheat me at cards. Turns out that was all wrong.

Merrell was a lot wealthier than he’d let on. He was also a lot better connected, because however much money he had, hiring a full-on war mage couldn’t have been easy. My people usually shun contract work from repugnant borderland hicks.

Looking at Arc’aeon, on the other hand, was like staring into a distorted mirror of myself. I was a few days shy of my eighteenth birthday and unlikely to see twenty. Arc’aeon looked to be in his early thirties, already the head of a notable Jan’Tep house, with wealth, power and a long, glorious future in front of him. My hair is what’s politely referred to as ‘manure coloured’; his gleamed in the morning sunlight like it was spun from strands of platinum and gold. I was scrawny from hard living and a life on the run; he had the muscular build of a soldier.

‘I like your armour,’ I shouted across the swirling patch of snow that lay between us. Shining form-fitting plates linked by bands of silk thread protected his chest, arms and legs. ‘It’s very . . . golden. Matches your bird.’

‘Shadea is an eagle, boy,’ he corrected me, smiling up at the hunter flying in lazy circles through the air like a buzzard anticipating his next meal. ‘A bird is something that flitters around before you shoot it for dinner. An eagle makes a meal of you.’

He pointed absently towards me. I didn’t have any armour – just my leather coat and riding chaps to keep myself from getting scraped to bits every time I fell off my horse. ‘I like your hat,’ he said, nodding at the Daroman frontier hat I wore to keep the sun off the black marks that wound around my left eye. ‘Those silver glyphs on the brim are . . . cute. Do they do anything?’

I shrugged. ‘The man I stole the hat from said they’d bring me luck.’

Arc’aeon smiled again. ‘Then he overcharged you. This fool has paid me rather a lot of money to end you, Kellen of the House of Ke, but I would have done it for free had I known you were shadowblack. I’m going to send a bolt of lightning straight through that filthy left eye of yours.’

The bird . . . eagle, rather, let out a caw for emphasis, as if it understood the conversation. ‘You think the bird knows . . .’ I began.

‘Of course he knows what you’re saying,’ Reichis chittered in reply, then added, ‘Idjit.’ The squirrel cat meant to say ‘idiot’, but we’d been travelling the borderlands for a few months, and he’d taken to talking like a gap-toothed sheep herder. ‘The eagle’s his familiar. Whatever that skinbag mage hears, the bird hears.’

I glanced down at Reichis. He looked a little ridiculous holding his paw just above his eyes to shield them from the harsh sunlight reflecting off the snow and ice so he could scowl at the mage’s eagle. If you’ve never seen a squirrel cat before, imagine some drunken god had gifted a slightly tubby two-foot-tall cat with a big bushy tail and furry flaps that ran between its front and back legs, enabling it to glide down from treetops and sink its claws and teeth into its chosen prey – which is pretty much everything that moves. Oh, and then that same deity had given his creation the temperament of a thief. And a blackmailer. And probably on more than one occasion a murderer.

‘I bet that guy’s eagle doesn’t call him “idjit”,’ I said.

Reichis looked up at me. ‘Yeah, well, that’s probably because I’m not your familiar, I’m your business partner. Idjit.’

‘You think that’s going to make a difference in about five minutes when the marshals tell us to draw and that eagle snatches you up and rips out your entrails?’

‘Point,’ Reichis said. He patted me on the leg. ‘All right, so you’re a genius, kid. Now blow this guy away so we can eat that ugly bird of his for supper. I call both eyeballs.’

I let my hands drift down to the powder holsters at my sides. It had cost a small fortune to convince a leather smith to make them for me, but they let me pull powder faster than my old pouches, and when you’re duelling a war mage, even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between life and death. Merrell nearly fell on his arse and the two marshals instantly had their crossbows trained on me in case I was about to cheat the duel, but Arc’aeon ignored the gesture entirely.

‘He ain’t afraid of you blasting him,’ Reichis said. Well, he doesn’t speak exactly – he makes squirrel cat noises – but the nature of our relationship is such that I hear them as words.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘Intransigent charm shield?’

‘Gotta be.’

I peered across the gap between us and the ember mage. I couldn’t see anything on the ground. I’d picked this spot intentionally because it’s pretty damned hard to keep a circle intact when the only thing to draw it in is ice and snow. I couldn’t see markings, so that left only one logical possibility.

‘Say, fellas? You all mind if we move just a few feet to the right? I’ve got the sun in my eyes here. Can’t have an unfair duel, right?’

The older of the two marshals, Harrex I think his name was, shrugged his bony shoulders and nodded towards Arc’aeon. The mage just smiled back and shook his head. His eagle did a little dive towards us and turned up just a few feet away from my face.

‘They got here early and laid down copper sigil wire under the snow, then poured water on it and waited for it to turn to ice,’ I said to Reichis. ‘Guess you were right that we should’ve camped out here last night.’

‘Idjit.’

Harrex held up a sundial. ‘Well, gentlemen, I reckon we’re just about there. In a minute it’ll be mid-morning and Marshal Parsus here will start the countdown from seven. You both know the rules after that?’

‘Kill the other guy?’ I offered.

Reichis glared up at me. ‘That your plan? Crack jokes until that mage can’t blast us on account of he’s laughing too hard to speak the incantations?’

‘Might be our best shot. No way am I going to be able to blast through that shield.’

‘So what do we do?’

I looked over at Arc’aeon and watched the smile on his face widen as he stood there, calm as could be, waiting for the duel to begin.

‘Seven!’ Marshal Parsus shouted out.

I looked down into Reichis’s beady squirrel cat eyes. ‘How about we switch dance partners?’ I suggested.

‘Six!’

‘You’re saying I get the mage?’ Squirrel cats don’t usually smile, but Reichis had a big nasty grin on his fuzzy little face. He might be greedy, he might be a liar, a thief and a blackmailer, but the little bugger loves nothing more than a knock-down, drag-out fight. A few months ago he got himself the same shadowblack curse around his left eye that I have around mine. It hadn’t improved his disposition any.

‘Five!’

‘Don’t screw around, Reichis. You know what to do.’

‘Four!’

Reichis gave a little shake. His fur changed colour from its usual mean-spirited brown with black stripes to pure white, making him almost invisible against the thick carpet of snow. I flipped up the metal clasps on my holsters to open the flaps.

‘Three!’

Arc’aeon brought the fingers of both his hands together in a steeple shape. I knew the somatic form, even if I couldn’t cast the spell myself. I winced at the thought of what it would do when it hit me.

‘Two!’

Arc’aeon winked at me. The eagle pulled around from his last circle to get ready to dive after Reichis. The squirrel cat got down on all fours and pressed his back feet against the snow, digging in for leverage.

‘One . . .’ Parsus said, a little too much enthusiasm in his voice for my taste.

Observers of such things will note that there are usually only two ways to lose a duel: end up on your knees begging for mercy, or on your back waiting for the falling snow to cover your corpse.

‘Begin!’

I was about to discover a third option that was even worse.

Red Lily

Red lilies.

The sweet aroma woke Ferius Parfax with a start, overpowering the stench of old ale and sweat that otherwise occupied her rented room. She’d never taken much to sleeping indoors, but the Jan’Tep girl – Nephenia, she insisted being called even though ‘girl’ should’ve been sufficient – had caught the chills from too many days riding the dusty roads and too many nights sleeping on cold ground. Trouble enough to teach the hard-travelling ways of the Argosi to a kid raised pampered and privileged among a people who knew everything about magic and nothing at all about life. The teaching only got harder when the poor kid couldn’t stop shivering and shaking. So Ferius had relented, and when they’d come across a half-decent saloon she’d paid the vastly inflated price demanded by the barman for a pair of clean rooms. The plan was to win the money back once she convinced him to let her join his midnight card game, but that was before she’d woken to the scent of red lilies.

‘Do you like them?’ a man’s voice asked. ‘It was murder to find them in this backwater village.’

Ferius was willing to bet that murder hadn’t been a metaphor – no more than was waking her with the scent of the flower traditionally found at the grave sites of Argosi wanderers.

‘Did you hurt the girl?’ Ferius asked, careful not to open her eyes.

‘She sleeps soundly. Who knows? She may even wake up again.’

Ferius ignored the implied threat. Keeping her eyes shut, she took stock of herself, shaking off the last vestiges of sleep and picturing the room as she’d left it the night before: the uneven floor with the broken board near the door; the too-small window at the back jammed closed by paint; two chairs beneath it and a rickety table between them. None of these made for decent weapons or escape routes.

‘I imagine you’ll be reaching for those razor-sharp steel cards of yours,’ the man’s voice said softly. He was wrong, though. The moment those damned red lilies had woken her, Ferius had noticed the absence of the comforting weight of her cards pressing inside her waistcoat. She’d gone to bed fully clothed just in case one of the locals tried to invite themselves into either her room or the girl’s, but now the cards were gone. So was the extensible steel rod she kept in her left pocket. The worst part came as leaned up on her elbows and reached inside her waistcoat. ‘What kind of man sneaks into a lady’s room and steals her smoking reeds?’

The soft chuckle that followed came from the far corner of the room, hidden in the quivering shadows cast by the brazier at the end of her bed that burned the red lilies. ‘Aren’t you rather noted for your insistence that you’re no lady?’

‘Guess you’re right,’ she said, easing herself up to a sitting position and gauging what angle she’d need to kick the brazier to send it into the intruder’s face. The problem was, she was pretty sure it wouldn’t do any good against him.

Chapter 1 - On The Morning Of Your First DuelSaint's Blood

On the morning of your first duel, an unusually attractive herald will arrive at your door bearing a sealed note and an encouraging smile. You should trust neither the note nor the smile. Duelling courts long ago figured out that first-time defendants are less prone to running away if it means embarrassing themselves in front of beautiful strangers. The practice might seem deceptive, even insulting, but just remember that youare the idiot who agreed to fight a duel.

Don’t bother opening the envelope. While the letter might start out with extravagant praise for your courage and dignity, it quickly descends into a lengthy description of the punishment for failure to show up at court. In case you’re wondering, the penalty in Tristia for attempted flight from a lawful duel is roughly the same as that of attempted flight from the top of a tall tree with a rope tied around your neck. So just take the unopened envelope from the herald, crumple it in your hands and toss it into the fire. It helps if you do this while uttering a dismissive snort or even a boisterous ‘huzzah!’ for best effect. Then as the flames feast upon the details of your upcoming demise, place your hands on your hips and strike a confident pose.

The herald might, at this point, suggest you put on some clothes.

Choose trousers or breeches made of a light, loose fabric, with plenty of room to move. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as having your lunge come up short at the precise moment that your enemy is counter-attacking and he drives his blade deep into your belly just as your seams split at the crotch.

‘But wait!’ you say. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong! How did I end up in such dire circumstances when I don’t even know how to hold a sword properly?’

The herald will laugh brightly, as though firmly of the belief that you’re merely jesting, before ushering you out the door and escorting you to the courthouse to meet your secondier.

The law in Tristia, observed in all nine Duchies, requires that every duellist be supported by a second – for otherwise, who would go back and forth between you and your opponent to deliver the necessary scathingly droll insults? If you have no one of your acquaintance willing – or able – to fulfil this sacred duty, and you are too poor to hire a suitable candidate, then you can count on the local Lord or Duke to provide a secondier for you. That’s right: you live in a country so feckless and corrupt that those same nobles who would gladly stand aside as you starve to death would never, everconsider allowing you to be skewered by the pointy end of a blade without a second standing proudly beside you.

Make your way past the twin statues of the Gods of Death and War that guard the double doors leading into the courthouse and through to the large central room littered with exquisite architectural features, none of which you’ll notice, for by now your eyes will be fixed on the duelling court itself. The classical form is a simple white circle, roughly ten yards across, however, in these modern times you may instead find yourself in a pentagon or hexagon or whatever shape is deemed to be most blessed by the Gods in that particular Duchy. Once you’re done admiring the architecture, take a look at the person standing on the opposite side of the duelling court. This is the moment to remember to clench all the muscles in your lower body to prevent any . . . accidents.

Your opponent – likely a highly skilled Knight, or perhaps a foreign mercenary – will smile or grimace, or possibly spit at your feet, and then immediately turn away and pretend to be engaged in a thoroughly witty conversation with a member of the audience. Don’t worry too much about this part – they’re only doing it to unnerve you.

The clerk of the court will now announce the terms of the duel. You might be tempted to take heart when you hear that this duel isn’tto the death, but that would be a mistake. Whichever Lord or Lady you offended has almost certainly instructed their champion to first humiliate you, then bloody you, and finally – and with a grand flourish that will bring the audience to their feet, roaring with applause – kill you.

When this happens, you can rest assured that the presiding magistrate will undoubtedly make a great harrumphing noise over this gross violation of the rules, and will immediately fine said Lord or Lady, although that will be roughly equivalent to the cost of the wine in the goblet they’ll be drinking while watching you bleed out on the floor.

Not really your best day, is it?

Well, that’s for later. For now, take a good, long look at your opponent standing across from you in the duelling court, because this is the part where you learn how to win.

Your enemy is almost certainly a great fencer – someone with speed, strength of arm, exceptional balance, lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. A great fencer spends years studying under the finest masters in the country. You, regrettably, aren’t likely to have had the benefit of any of those fine qualities and there’s a good chance that your only fencing master was your best friend when the pair of you were six years old, play-fighting with sticks and dreaming of growing up to be Greatcoats.

But you don’t need to be a fencerright now; you need to be a duellist.

A duellist doesn’t care about technique. A duellist won’t be walking into that circle hoping to impress the audience or curry favour with their nobles. A duellist cares about one thing only, that most ancient and venerable of axioms: Put the pointy end of the sword into the other guy first.

So as the clerk strikes the bell signalling the beginning of the duel and your opponent begins his masterful display of skill to the appreciative oohsand ahsof the audience, forget about life and death or honour and cowardice; forget about everything except finding that one opportunity – that single moment – when you can push the top three inches of your blade into your opponent’s belly.

In Tristia we have a saying: Deato mendea valus febletta. The Gods give every man a weakness.

Remember this, and you might just survive the day. In fact, over the years that follow, you might even go on to win other duels. You might even become known as one of the deadliest swordfighters of your generation. Of course, if that does turn out to be the case, then it’s equally likely that one day – perhaps even today – that great swordfighter who’s about to lose the duel?

It could be you.

TalismanČERNÉ ZNAMENÍ

„Není to krádež,“ přesvědčoval jsem se trochu příliš na- hlas vzhledem k tomu, že jediný, kdo mě mohl slyšet, byl půl metru vysoký kočkoveverčák, jenž se právě pilně zabý- val číselným zámkem, který jediný stál mezi námi a obsa- hem skleněné vitríny zastavárny.

Reichis soustředěně tiskl jedno své chlupaté ucho k zám- ku a šikovnými tlapami rychle otáčel třemi malými lesklý- mi kroužky.

„Neotravuj!“ zaprskal zlostně. „Není to tak snadné, jak se zdá.“ Tlustý zadek se mu třásl rozčilením.

Pokud jste ještě nikdy neviděli kočkoveverku, tak si představte kočku s mrzutým výrazem, dlouhým chlupa- tým ocasem a tenkými kožnatými záhyby porostlými srstí mezi předníma a zadníma nohama, jež umožňují plachtit ve vzduchu způsobem, který jednou působí směšně, jindy zas nahání hrůzu. A abych nezapomněl, přidejte k tomu náturu zloděje, vyděrače, a pokud věříte Reichisovým po- vídačkám, i několikanásobného vraha.

„Už to skoro je,“ oznámil.
To opakoval téměř celou hodinu.

Mezerami mezi dřevěnými laťkami na průčelním okně zastavárny a pode dveřmi začaly dovnitř pronikat paprsky světla. Brzy se hlavní ulice zaplní lidmi, kteří budou oteví- rat své krámky nebo postávat před hostincem v očekávání veledůležitého prvního ranního panáka. Zde v pohraničí bylo běžné, že se chlapi dostávali do alkoholového opo- jení ještě před snídaní. To byl také jeden z důvodů, proč lidé řešili prakticky všechny spory násilím. Proto jsem také začínal být trochu nervózní. „Mohli jsme prostě roz- bít sklo a nechat mu tam něco peněz na úhradu škody,“ poznamenal jsem.

„Rozbít sklo? Amatére,“ zavrčel Reichis opovržlivě a dal tím jasně najevo, co si o tomto nápadu myslí. Začal se opět věnovat zámku. „Jen klid… klid…“

Ozvalo se cvaknutí a v následující vteřině Reichis pyšně zvedl tlapy, ve kterých držel složitý lesklý zámek. „Sledu- ješ?“ holedbal se. „Takhle se dělá správná vloupačka!“

„Není to vloupačka,“ namítl jsem už asi podvanácté od chvíle, co jsme v noci vnikli do zastavárny. „Zaplatili jsme mu za ten talisman, nepamatuješ se? To on vzal na hůl nás.“

Reichis pohrdavě zafrkal. „A co jsi s tím udělal, Kelle- ne? Jen jsi tam stál jako pitomec, zatímco on si strkal do kapsy náš těžce vydělaný peníz. To jsi udělal!“

Pokud sahá má paměť, Reichis si v životě žádný peníznevydělal. „Měls mu rozervat krk zubama, jak jsem ti ří- kal,“ pokračoval.

Správné řešení těch nejožehavějších problémů – ales- poň pro kočkoveverky – je jít přímo ke zdroji potíží, po- řádně se mu zakousnout do krku a odejít s pokud možno co největším kusem krvavého masa.

Přenechal jsem mu poslední slovo, natáhl jsem se přes něj a otevřel jsem skleněné dveře vitríny. Z ní jsem sebral malý stříbrný zvoneček připevněný k tenkému kovovému kroužku. Piktogramy vyleptané podél jeho okraje zazářily v pološeru: bylo to umlčovací kouzlo. Účinné jan’tepské umlčovací kouzlo. S jeho pomocí jsem mohl používat ma- gii, aniž bych za sebou zanechával ozvěnu, která by umož- nila lovcům lidí nás vystopovat. Poprvé od doby, co jsme opustili jan’tepské území, jsem cítil, že dýchám opět sko- ro – skoro – volně.

„Hele, Kellene?“ zajímal se Reichis, vyskočil na pult a pohlédl na stříbrný kroužek v mé ruce. „Ty značky na talismanu – jsou kouzelné, že jo?“

„Tak trochu. Spíš je to způsob, jak uchovat kouzlo v ta- lismanu.“ Otočil jsem se a zkoumavě na něho pohlédl. „Odkdy se zajímáš o magii?“

Zvedl tlapu, v níž držel číselný zámek. „Od té doby, co tahle věc začala svítit.“

Kolem válcovitého pouzdra rudě světélkovaly tři řady složitých piktogramů. Vzpomínám si, že vzápětí se rozlétly dveře, zastavárnu zalilo sluneční světlo a dovnitř vrazila nejasná postava, která mě povalila na zem a rázně tak ukončila vloupání, které, když o něm zpětně uvažuju, mohlo vyjít, kdyby bylo pečlivěji naplánováno.

Čtyři měsíce v pohraničí mě přivedly k neoddiskutova- telnému závěru: stal se ze mě dokonalý vyvrhel. Neulovil jsem nic, co by stálo za řeč, zabloudil jsem všude, kam jsem přišel, a zdálo se, že každá osoba, s kterou jsem se setkal, si našla víc než dobrý důvod, aby mě oloupila nebo zabila.

Někdy obojí.

El AmuLetoNEGRASOMBRA

Esto no es robar —insistí, quizá un poco alto, te­ niendo en cuenta que el único que podía escu­ charme era un gato ardilla de sesenta centímetros de largo que, en ese momento, estaba atareado con una cerradura de combinación que se interponía entre el contenido de una de las vitrinas de la casa de empeños y no­ sotros.
Reichis, que tenía una de sus peludas orejas levantada y pe­gada a la cerradura mientras con sus diestras patitas daba vuel­ tas a las tres ruedecitas de latón, me soltó con aquellos gruñidi­ tos y ruiditos suyos:

—¿¡Te importa!? ¡Esto no es tan fácil como parece!

Y sacudió los cuartos traseros con cierta violencia, como si estuviera molesto.

Si nunca has visto un gato ardilla, imagina un gato con cara de malas pulgas, con una larga cola peluda y con una tela co­riácea que le va de la pata de delante a la de detrás y de la que se vale para planear por el aire de tal manera que parece, a un tiempo, un ser ridículo y aterrador. ¡Ah!, y dale la personalidad de un ladrón, de un chantajista y, si te crees lo que el propio Reichis cuenta, la de un asesino múltiple.
—Ya casi lo tengo —me dijo.
Aunque, claro, llevaba una hora diciendo lo mismo.
Finas rayitas de luz empezaban a escurrirse por entre los
huecos que quedaban en las tablas de madera del escaparate de la casa de empeños y por debajo de la puerta. No tardaría en haber gente en la calle principal, que llegaría para abrir su negocio o que se dirigiría a la cantina para ese importantísimo primer trago de la mañana. Aquí, en las Tierras Fronterizas, hacen cosas de esas, como emborracharse como cubas antes incluso de desayunar. Esa es una de las razones de que, en este sitio, la gente tienda a considerar que la violencia es la única manera de solucionar las disputas. Y también era la razón de que se me estuvieran crispando los nervios.
—Deberíamos haber roto el cristal y haberle dejado algo de dinero por los daños.
—¿¡Romper el cristal!? —gruñó Reichis para dejarme claro lo que pensaba de aquella idea—. Principiante… —Y volvió a concentrarse en la cerradura—. Ya casi está… ya casi está…
Oí un «clic» y, un instante después, el gato ardilla se volvió, orgulloso, con la cerradura de latón en la zarpa.
—¿¡Ves!? ¡Así se roba!
—No estamos robando —insistí como por décima vez des­ de que nos habíamos colado en la casa de empeños en mitad de la noche—. Ya le pagamos por el amuleto, ¿recuerdas? Es él quien nos ha estafado.

Reichis resopló con desdén.
—¿Y qué hiciste tú al respecto, Kellen? Te quedaste planta­ do, como un papanatas, mientras él se embolsaba esa moneda que con tanto esfuerzo habíamos conseguido. ¡Como un papa­ natas!
Que yo supiera, Reichis jamás se había esforzado por conse­ guir una moneda.
—¡Deberías haberle rajado la garganta de un mordisco, como te dije!
Para los gatos ardilla, la solución a la mayoría de las eleccio­ nes complicadas que se te presentan en la vida consiste en acercarte a la fuente del problema y morderle con fuerza en el cuello y, a poder ser, arrancarle un pedazo de carne sanguino­ lenta tan grande como sea posible.
No me importó que fuera Reichis quien dijera la última pa­ labra. Pasé la mano por encima de él para abrir la puerta de cristal de la vitrina y quité la campanita de plata que había en­ cima del fino disco de metal. Los glifos que había grabados a lo largo del borde de la moneda brillaron a pesar de la poca luz que había. Se trataba de un amuleto de silencio. Un amuleto de silencio jan’tep. Con él podía lanzar hechizos sin que deja­ sen ese eco característico de la magia con el que los cazadores de recompensas conseguían rastrearnos. Por primera vez desde que habíamos huido de las tierras de los jan’tep, me sentí —casi— como si pudiera respirar tranquilo.
—Oye, Kellen, esas marcas que hay en el amuleto… son ma­ gia, ¿verdad? —me preguntó Reichis después de subirse al mostrador de un salto para ver más de cerca la moneda que tenía en la mano.
—Más o menos. Son, más bien, una manera de trabar un hechizo en el amuleto —me giré para dirigirme a él—. ¿Desde cuándo te interesa la magia?
Levantó la cerradura de combinación.
—Desde que este cacharro ha empezado a resplandecer. Los tres glifos elaborados que había a lo largo de la cámara
cilíndrica de latón de la cerradura habían empezado a brillar y a ponerse de color rojo. Lo siguiente que recuerdo es que la puerta de la casa de empeños se abrió de par en par y que el sol iluminó con fuerza el interior de la tienda al tiempo que una silueta cargaba contra mí y me tiraba al suelo, lo que puso un abrupto punto final a aquel atraco —que, ahora, pensándolo en frío, podríamos haber planeado mucho mejor.
Aquellos cuatro meses en las Tierras Fronterizas me habían servido para llegar a una conclusión irrefutable: era un foraji­ do lamentable. Era incapaz de cazar algo que mereciera la pena, me perdía fuera adonde fuera y empezaba a tener la sensación de que todo aquel con el que me encontraba tenía razones de lo más sensatas para intentar robarme o matarme —y, en oca­ siones, para lo uno y para lo otro.

АМУЛЕТчёрная тень

-Это не кража, — настаивал я несколько гром- че, чем надо бы, потому что моим зрителем был белкокот ростом в два фута. Он деловито вскрывал кодо- вый замок, отделявший нас от содержимого стеклянной ви-

трины в закладной лавке.
— Ты не против? Это не так легко, как кажется, — гнев-

но проверещал в ответ Рейчис, прижав одно мохнатое ухо к замку и вращая ловкими лапами три маленьких латунных диска. Его филейная часть аж задрожала от возмущения.

Если вы никогда не видели белкокота, представьте себе кошку со злобной физиономией, большим пушистым хвостом и тонкими мохнатыми перепонками между перед- ними и задними лапами. С их помощью он планирует в воз- духе, умудряясь выглядеть одновременно нелепо и пугаю-

ще. Ах да, еще добавьте ему нрав вора, шантажиста и, если верить рассказам Рейчиса, еще и убийцы-редицивиста.

— Почти готово, — заявил он.

Он повторял это уже около часа. Тонкие лучи света на- чинали просачиваться в щели между деревянными план- ками на ставнях, закрывавших окна лавки, и под нижней кромкой двери. Вскоре на главной улице появятся люди, они начнут открывать свои магазинчики или пить под две- рями салуна утреннюю кружку, без которой им никуда. В приграничных землях всегда так делают: доводят себя до пьяного ступора еще до завтрака. Это только одна из при- чин, почему люди здесь склонны решать любой спор наси- лием. Поэтому нервы были уже на пределе.

— Можнобылопросторазбитьстеклоиоставитьемупо- больше денег на покрытие морального ущерба, — сказал я.

— Разбитьстекло?—прорычалРейчис,даваяпонять,что он уже размышлял над этой идеей. — Любитель, — он сно- ва обратил внимание на замок. — Осторожно… осторожно…

Щелчок — и латунный замок оказался в гордо поднятых лапах белкокота. — Вот! — заявил он. — Вот это правиль- ная кража!

— Это не кража, — повторил я, наверное, уже в двенад- цатый раз с тех пор, как мы проникли к закладчику. — Мы заплатили ему за амулет, или ты забыл? Это он нас ободрал.

Рейчис пренебрежительно фыркнул.

— И что ты сделал, Келлен? Что ты сделал? Стоял как дурачок, пока он прикарманивал наши поˆтом и кровью за- работанные денежки, вот что!

Насколько мне было известно, Рейчис за всю свою жизнь не заработал ни гроша.

— Надо было зубами выдрать ему горло, как я тебе го- ворил, — продолжал он.

Решение любого острого вопроса — по крайней мере, у белкокотов — заключается в том, чтобы подойти к источ- нику несчастий и изо всех сил укусить в шею, предвари- тельно вырвав как можно более солидный кусок крово- точащей плоти. Я оставил за Рейчисом последнее слово и потянулся, чтобы открыть стеклянные дверцы и достать маленький серебряный колокольчик, прикрепленный к тонкому металлическому диску. Иероглифы, вырезанные по его краю, светились в полумраке. Это амулет-глушилка. С ним я смогу колдовать, не рискуя, что меня вычислят на- емники. Впервые с тех пор, как мы бежали из земель джен- теп, я почувствовал, что могу вздохнуть с облегчением. Почти.

— Эй, Келлен! — Рейчис вспрыгнул на прилавок, чтобы получше рассмотреть серебряный диск у меня в руке. — Эти символы на амулете — это магия, так ведь?

— Вроде как. Это способ привязать заклинание к аму- лету, — я повернулся к белкокоту. — С каких это пор тебя интересует магия?

Он сунул мне под нос замок:
— С тех пор, как эта штука начала светиться.
Три замысловатых иероглифа сияли ярко-красным све-

том вдоль латунного цилиндра. В следующее мгновение дверь распахнулась и солнечный свет залил закладную лав- ку. Какой-то силуэт ворвался внутрь и повалил меня на пол, внезапно нарушив наш план по ограблению, который, если подумать, не помешало бы заранее получше продумать.

Проведя четыре месяца в приграничных землях, я при- шел к одному-единственному выводу: изгой из меня полу- чился скверный. Я ни черта не умею охотиться, теряюсь, куда бы ни пошел, и у каждого, кто встречался мне на пути, находилась веская причина попытаться меня ограбить или убить.

А иногда убить и ограбить сразу.

 

ПУТЬ КУЛАКА

 

Получить по лицу куда больнее, чем кажется. Когда чьи-то костяшки соприкасаются с вашей че- люстью, кажется, что четыре крохотных стенобитных тара-

на пытаются ее расплющить. Ваши зубы, маленькие предате- ли, прикусывают вам язык, и рот наполняется ржавым вкусом крови. А треск, который вы слышите? Вы всегда думали, что кости ломаются именно с таким звуком, и, наверное, именно поэтому голова резко поворачивается, чтобы угнаться за под- бородком, пока он не удрал с места преступления.

Знаете, что хуже всего? Как только ноги вновь обрета- ют равновесие, а глаза открываются, вы вспоминаете, что недоброжелатель, который избивает вас до потери созна- ния, — тощий парнишка в конопушках, которому наверня- ка не больше тринадцати.

— Нечего было тырить мой амулет, — пробубнил Коно- патый. Он двинулся на меня, отчего я инстинктивно отшат- нулся назад, поскольку мое тело, видимо, решило, что луч- ше позорно рухнуть мешком на пол, чем рисковать и снова нарваться на его кулак. Откуда-то послышался смех — тол- па горожан, вывалившихся из своих лавчонок и салунов, собралась поглазеть на драку и билась об заклад, кто по- бедит. На меня не ставил никто; может, я и был родом из племени лучших магов на континенте, но, как оказывает- ся, в рукопашной мы никуда не годимся.

— Я заплатил тебе за этот амулет, — настаивал я. — А кроме того, я положил его обратно в витрину! Так что не- зачем…

Конопатый указал большим пальцем на качающуюся вы- веску закладной лавки, туда, где угнездился Рейчис, ра- достно изучая серебряный колокольчик, прицепленный к амулету. Каждый раз, когда Конопатый бил меня, Рейчис звонил в колокольчик. Белкокоты — такие шутники, по- добные выходки для них смешнее некуда.

— Думаешь, я всю ночь вскрывал замок, чтобы ты про- сто вернул амулет?

— Чертов вор! — крикнул я Рейчису.

Конопатый залился еще более густой краской — на- верно, принял это на свой счет. Я все время забываю, что

я один понимаю Рейчиса, а все остальные слышат только ворчание и пыхтение.

Конопатый с воплем бросился на меня, и в следующий миг я уже лежал навзничь. Мой мучитель едва не вышиб из меня дух и прижал к полу.

— Встал бы ты лучше на ноги, малыш, — сказала Фе- риус Перфекс со своим тягучим приграничным акцентом. Она опиралась на коновязь, у которой стояли наши лоша- ди. Черная шляпа надвинута низко на лоб, словно Фери- ус готовилась вздремнуть. — Трудно подняться, когда ле- жишь на спине.

— А ты могла бы помочь, знаешь ли, — ответил я. Ну и вообще сказал бы, если бы у меня в легких еще оставал- ся воздух.

Фериус стала моей наставницей и хотела, чтобы я жил по заветам аргоси — загадочного племени, — которые много говорят, хорошо играют в карты и путешествуют по всему свету, занимаясь… ну, пока никто еще не рассказал мне, чем именно они занимаются. Она помогает мне выжить, пока я в бегах, и не попасться магам-ищейкам, которые идут по моему следу. Ее наставничество в основном сводилось к по- трясающим фразочкам вроде: «Трудно подняться, когда ле- жишь на спине». Вот эта вот взбесила меня чуть ли не боль- ше, чем ее привычка все время называть меня «малыш».

The Way Of WaterShadowblack

The way of the Argosi is the way of water. Water never seeks to block another’s path, nor does it permit impediments to its own. It moves freely, slipping past those who would capture it, taking nothing that belongs to others. To forget this is to stray from the path, for despite the rumours one sometimes hears, an Argosi never, ever steals.

The Charm

‘This isn’t stealing,’ I insisted, a little loudly considering the only person who could hear me was a two-foot-tall squirrel cat who was, at that moment, busily picking the combination lock that stood between us and the contents of the pawnshop’s glass display case.

Reichis, one furry ear up close to the lock as his dextrous paws worked the three small rotating brass discs, chittered angrily in reply. ‘Would you mind? This isn’t as easy as it looks.’ His tubby little hindquarters shivered in annoyance.

If you’ve never seen a squirrel cat before, picture a mean- faced cat with a big bushy tail and thin furry flaps of skin between his front and back legs that let him glide through the air in a fashion that somehow looks both ridiculous and terrifying. Oh, and give him the personality of a thief, a blackmailer and, if you believe Reichis’s stories, a murderer on more than one occasion.

‘Almost done,’ he insisted.
He’d been saying that for the past hour.
Thin lines of light were beginning to slip through the gaps

between the wooden slats in the pawnshop’s front window and beneath the bottom edge of the door. Soon people would

be coming down the main street, opening their shops or standing outside the saloon for that all-important first drink of the morning. They do that sort of thing here in the border- lands: work themselves into a drunken stupor before they’ve even had breakfast. It’s just one of the reasons why people here tend towards violence as the solution to any and all disputes. It’s also why my nerves were fraying. ‘We could have just broken the glass and left him some extra money to cover the damage,’ I said.

‘Break the glass?’ Reichis growled to convey what he thought of that idea. ‘Amateur.’ He turned his attention back to the lock. ‘Easy… easy…’

A click, and then a second later Reichis proudly held up the elaborate brass lock in his paws. ‘See?’ he demanded. ‘That’s how you pull off a proper burglary!’

‘It’s not a burglary,’ I said, for what must have been the twelfth time since we’d snuck into the pawnshop that night. ‘We paid him for the charm, remember? He’s the one who ripped us off.’

Reichis snorted dismissively. ‘And what did you do about it, Kellen? Just stood there like a halfwit while he pocketed our hard-earned coin. That’s what!’

To the best of my knowledge, Reichis had never actually earned a coin in his life. ‘Shoulda ripped his throat out with your teeth like I told you,’ he continued.

The solution to most thorny dilemmas – to squirrel cats anyway – is to walk up to the source of the problem and bite it very hard on the neck, preferably coming away with as much of its bleeding flesh as possible.

I let him have the last word and reached past him to pull open the glass doors and retrieve the small silver bell attached

to a thin metal disc. Glyphs etched along its edge shimmered in the half-light: a quieting charm. An actual Jan’Tep quieting charm. With this I could cast spells without leaving the echo that allowed bounty hunters to track us. For the first time since we’d fled the Jan’Tep territories, I felt as if I could almost – almost – breathe easy again.

‘Hey, Kellen?’ Reichis asked, hopping up on the counter to peer at the silver disc I held in my hand. ‘Those markings on the charm – those are magic, right?’

‘Kind of. More like a way to bind a spell onto the charm.’ I turned to look at him. ‘Since when are you interested in magic?’

He held up the combination lock. ‘Since this thing started glowing.’

A set of three elaborately drawn glyphs shimmered bright red along the cylindrical brass chamber. The next thing I knew, the door was bursting open and sunlight filling the pawnshop as a silhouetted figure charged inside and tackled me to the floor, putting an abrupt end to a heist that, in retrospect, could have done with more planning.

Four months in the borderlands had brought me to one irrefutable conclusion: I made a terrible outlaw. I couldn’t hunt worth a damn, got lost just about everywhere I went, and it seemed like every person I met found some perfectly sensible reason to try to rob me or kill me.
Sometimes both.

The Way Of The Fist

Getting punched in the face hurts a lot more than you might expect.

When somebody’s knuckles connect with your jaw, it feels like four tiny battering rams are trying to cave in your mouth. Your own teeth turn traitor, biting down on your tongue and flooding the back of your throat with the coppery taste of blood. Oh, and that crack you hear? It sounds a lot like what you’ve always imagined bone breaking would sound like, which must be why your head is already spinning a quarterturn clockwise, trying to keep up with your chin before it leaves the scene of the crime.

The worst part? Once your legs recover their balance and your eyes flicker open, you remember that the devastating opponent beating you senseless is a skinny freckle-faced kid who can’t be more than thirteen years old.

‘Shouldn’a stolen my charm,’ Freckles said.

He shuffled forward, causing me to lurch back instinctively, my body having apparently decided it preferred the embarrassment of collapsing in on itself over the risk of getting hit again. Laughter erupted all around us as the crowd of townsfolk who’d come out of their shops and saloons to witness the fight began placing wagers on the outcome.

No one was betting on me; my people might be the best mages on the continent, but it turns out we’re rubbish in a fist fight.

‘I paid you for that charm,’ I insisted. ‘Besides, I put it back in the case! You’ve got no cause to –’

Freckles jerked a thumb up to where Reichis was perched on the swinging sign outside the pawnshop, happily inspecting the silver bell on the charm. Every time Freckles hit me, Reichis rang the bell. This is the sort of thing squirrel cats find hilarious. ‘You think I spent all night picking that lock just so you could give the charm back?’

‘You’re a damned thief,’ I told the squirrel cat.

Freckles’s face went an even brighter shade of red; he must’ve thought I was talking to him. I keep forgetting that other people don’t hear what Reichis says – it all just sounds like a bunch of grunts and growls to them.

Freckles gave a yell and barrelled into me. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with the wind knocked out of me and my opponent pinning me down.

‘Best get on your feet, kid,’ Ferius Parfax suggested in that frontier drawl of hers. She was leaning against the post where we’d tethered our horses, black hat dipped low over her forehead as though she were taking a nap. ‘Can’t dodge when you’re flat on your back.’

‘You could help, you know,’ I said. Well, that’s what I would have said if I could’ve got any air into my lungs.

Ferius was my mentor in the ways of the Argosi – the mysterious, fast-talking card players who went about the world doing … well, nobody had yet told me exactly what it was they did. But Ferius was supposed to be helping me learn how to survive as an outlaw and stay clear of the bounty mages who were hunting me. She did this mostly by dispensing such brilliant axioms as, ‘Can’t dodge when you’re flat on your back.’ That one annoyed me almost as much as her calling me ‘kid’ all the time.

ПРОБЛЕМА ПЕСКАаббатство теней

Пустыня — лгунья.
О, конечно, издалека эти бесконечные просторы золо- того песка выглядят манящими. Стоишь на вершине песчаной

дюны, теплый бриз смягчает палящее солнце и манит к ожида- ющим внизу чудесам. Все, что пожелаешь — невообразимые сокровища, спасение от врагов, возможно, даже лекарство от извилистых черных линий, которые не перестают расти вокруг твоего левого глаза, — какой-нибудь дурак поклянется, что все это ожидает тебя по другую сторону пустыни.

«Опасное путешествие? Возможно, зато какая награда, па- рень! Подумай о награде…»

Но давайте рассмотрим поближе — я имею в виду, по-насто- ящему близко — скажем, находясь примерно в дюйме от само- го песка. Это легко сделать, когда лежишь на нем лицом вниз, ожидая смерти от жажды. Видишь, как уникальны и неповтори- мы все до единой песчинки? Они разной формы, размера, цве- та… Единое совершенство, которое ты видел раньше — просто иллюзия. Вблизи пустыня грязная, мерзкая и злая.

Как я уже сказал, она вонючая лгунья.
— Это ты вонючий лгун, — проворчал Рейчис.
Я резко вскинул голову. Я даже не осознавал, что говорю

вслух. С большим усилием я повернулся, чтобы посмотреть, как поживает мой так называемый деловой партнер.

Я не очень далеко ушел: сказались недостаток еды и воды. Проклятые синяки, оставленные чарами недавно скончавше- гося мага, чей смердящий труп гнил на жаре в нескольких футах от меня, тоже не помогали. Итак, я собираюсь потра- тить остаток жизни на то, чтобы просто сердито глядеть на сварливого двухфутового белкокота, умирающего рядом со мной?

— Сам ты вонючка, — ответил я.
— Хе, — хихикнул он.
Белкокоты не очень хорошо осознают свою смертность. Од-

нако у них большая склонность сваливать вину на другого.
— Это все ты виноват! — просвистел он.
Я перевернулся, надеясь дать облегчение онемевшему хреб-

ту — только для того, чтобы раны на спине протестующе заво- пили. Боль исторгла сиплый стон из моей пересохшей глотки.

— Не пытайся это отрицать, — сказал Рейчис.
— Я ничего не отрицаю.
— Нет, отрицаешь. Ты хныкал, и я услышал: «Но, Рейчис, от-

куда я мог знать, что веду нас в смертельную ловушку, расстав- ленную моим же народом? То есть ты, конечно, предупреждал меня, что эта болтовня о тайном монастыре в пустыне, монахи которого могут вылечить меня от Черной Тени, — жульничест- во, но ты же знаешь меня, я идиот. Идиот, который никогда не слушает своего более умного и куда более красивого делового партнера».

На тот случай, если вы никогда не видели белкокота — во- образите сердитую кошачью морду, слегка пузатое тело, непо- корный косматый хвост и странные мохнатые перепонки меж- ду передними и задними лапами. С помощью этих перепонок он может планировать с верхушек деревьев, убивая свою добычу. «Красивый» — не то слово, которое приходит на ум, когда на него смотришь.

— Ты разобрал все это из хныканья? — спросил я.
Пауза.
— У белкокотов отличная интуиция.
Я сделал неровный вдох; жар песка обжигал мне лег-

кие. Как долго мы тут пролежали? День? Два дня? Я потя- нулся к нашей последней фляге с водой, подтащил ее ближе и собрался с силами, сознавая, что мне придется поделить- ся остатком воды с Рейчисом. Говорят, без воды можно про- жить три дня, но это только если пустыня не высасывает из тебя влагу, как… как чертов белкокот! Во фляге не осталось ни капли воды.

— Ты выпил нашу последнюю воду? Рейчис раздраженно ответил:
— Я сперва спросил.
— Когда?

Еще одна пауза.
— Когда ты спал.
Очевидно, пустыня была не единственным лгуном, с кото-

рым мне приходилось спорить.
Мне семнадцать лет от роду, я изгнан своим народом, меня

преследовали все маги-ищейки и наемные маги с двумя закли- наниями и плохими манерами, и остатки моей воды только что украло существо, больше всего походившее на друга.

Меня зовут Келлен Аргос. Некогда я был многообещающим посвященным и членом одной из самых могущественных се- мей на территориях джен-теп. Потом вокруг моего левого гла- за появились извилистые черные отметины загадочной болез- ни, известной как Черная Тень. И теперь люди называют меня изгоем, предателем, изгнанником — это когда хотят проявить вежливость.Единственная характеристика, которую я никогда не заслуживал, — везунчик.

— Конечно, я знаю место, — сказала старая разведчица.

Ее разные глаза — светло-коричневый и зеленый — не отры- вались от пыльного кожаного кошеля с медными и серебряны- ми безделушками, который лежал между нами на столе. Кроме нас на нижнем этаже таверны для путешественников никого не было, если не считать пары вырубившихся пьянчуг в дальнем углу и одного печального парня, который сидел в одиночестве и снова и снова перекатывал пару костей, плачась своему элю, что он самый невезучий на свете.

Что ты знаешь о невезении, приятель.

— Вы можете отвести меня туда? В этот монастырь? — спросил я, выкладывая карту на стол картиной вверх.

Разведчица взяла карту и прищурилась, на изображенные на ней темные башни.

— Хорошая работа, — сказала она. — Ты сам это нари- совал?

Я кивнул. За последние шесть месяцев мы с Рейчисом пере- секли полконтинента в поисках лекарства от Черной Тени. Мы здесь и там собирали улики, короткие каракули на полях неяс- ных текстов, упоминающих о тайном убежище, слухи, которые бесконечно повторяли пьяные в тавернах вроде этой.

Аргоси рисуют карты важных людей и мест, дополняя ри- сунки обрывками любой собранной информации в надежде, что получившиеся изображения явят свое скрытое при других обстоятельствах значение. Я и сам занялся рисованием. Если я погибну в поисках лекарства, всегда есть шанс, что карты по- падут в руки аргоси, а потом — к Фериус Перфекс, чтобы она поняла: можно не трудиться, разыскивая меня.

Старая разведчица швырнула карту обратно на стол, словно делая ставку.

— Место, которое ты ищешь, называется Эбеновым аббат- ством, и — да, я могла бы отвести тебя туда… Если бы мне за- хотелось.

Улыбка натянула обожженную солнцем кожу на ее выпу- клом лбе и вокруг глаз. Лицо разведчицы напоминало карту давно забытой страны. Наверное, ей было далеко за шестьде- сят, но куртка без рукавов демонстрировала похожие на ве- ревки мускулы на плечах и руках. Вкупе с ассортиментом но- жей в ножнах на портупее, пересекающей грудь, и арбалетом, пристегнутым за спиной, эти мускулы говорили, что разведчи- ца скорее всего прекрасно может постоять за себя в бою. Из-за того, как она продолжала пялиться на мешок с безделушками на столе, не обращая на меня особого внимания, становилось яснее ясного, что я не произвел на нее схожего впечатления.

До сих пор поиски чудодейственного лекарства не были осо- бо выгодным предприятием. Все до единого монеты, которые я заработал в своих путешествиях как меткий маг, ушли тор- говцу змеиным маслом, продававшему вонючие отвары; из-за них меня несколько дней потом тошнило и рвало. Теперь моя износившаяся в дороге рубашка свободно болталась на тощем теле, с лица и груди еще не сошли синяки и царапины, оставши-

еся после последней встречи с парой наемных магов джен-теп. Так что я понимал, почему мой вид вряд ли мог внушить развед- чице трепет.

— Она думает о том, чтобы избить тебя и забрать твои день- ги, — сказал Рейчис, поводив носом у меня на плече.

— Эта тварь не кролик, так? — спросила разведчица, бросив на него настороженный взгляд.

Ее народ не понимал посвистывания, рыков и временами — пуканья и других штучек, с помощью которых общался Рейчис.

— Я все еще пытаюсь это выяснить, — ответил я.
Белкокот издал низкое рычание:
— Ты же знаешь, что я могу запросто вырвать твои глаза из

глазниц и сожрать, пока ты будешь спать, верно?
Он спрыгнул с моего плеча и направился к двум пьянчугам в углу — без сомнения, чтобы проверить, удастся ли обшарить

их карманы.
— Спроси тех, кому ведомы истории, — начала разведчица

напевным голосом, — и тебе расскажут, что никто, кроме семи чужаков, никогда не бывал за стенами Эбенового аббатства. Пятеро из них мертвы. Один, пристрастившийся к сонной тра- ве, не смог бы найти обеими руками собственный нос, не гово- ря уж о тайном монастыре, укрытом в пустыне.

Она потянулась к небольшому кошелю, в котором лежали все оставшиеся у меня ценности.

— Значит, есть только я.

Я завладел кошелем первым. Может, с виду я и не очень, но у меня проворные руки.

— Мы еще не договорились об условиях.

Впервые разномастные глаза разведчицы встретились с мо- ими. Я попытался ответить на ее сердитый взгляд таким же . . .

Chapter I - The Problem With SandSoulbinder

The desert is a liar.
Oh, sure, from a distance that endless expanse of golden

sand looks inviting. Standing at the top of a sand dune, warm breezes soothe the scorching sun above, beckoning you to the wonders awaiting below. Whatever you desire – treasure beyond imagining, escape from your enemies, or maybe even a cure for the twisting black lines that won’t stop growing around your left eye – some fool will swear it’s waiting for you across the desert. A dangerous journey? Sure, but the rewards, boy! Think of the rewards . . .

Look closer, though – I mean, really close – say, an inch or so from the sand itself. This is easy to do when you’re face down in it waiting to die of thirst. See how each and every grain of sand is unique? Different shapes, sizes, colours . . . That seamless perfection you saw before was just an illusion. Up close the desert is dirty, ugly and mean.

Like I said: it’s a stinking liar.
‘You’re a stinking liar,’ Reichis grumbled.
My head jerked up with a start. I hadn’t even realised I’d spoken out loud. With considerable effort I turned my head and turned to see how my so-called business partner was

faring. I didn’t get very far. Lack of food and water had taken their toll on me. The bloody bruises inflicted by the spells of a recently deceased mage whose foul-smelling corpse was rotting in the heat a few feet away didn’t help either. So was I going to waste what life I had left to me just to glare at the ill-tempered, two-foot-tall squirrel cat dying by my side?

‘You stink,’ I replied.

‘Heh,’ he chuckled. Squirrel cats don’t have a very good sense of their own mortality. They do, however, have an acute penchant for assigning blame. ‘This is all your fault,’ he chittered.

I rolled over, hoping to ease the stiffness in my spine, only for the wounds on my back to scream in protest. The pain drew a rasping moan from my parched throat.

‘Don’t try to deny it,’ Reichis said.
‘I didn’t say anything.’
‘Yes, you did. You whimpered and I heard, “But, Reichis,

how could I possibly have known that I was leading us into a death trap set by my own people? I mean, sure, you warned me that this talk of a secret monastery in the desert where monks could cure me of the shadowblack was a scam, but you know me: I’m an idiot. An idiot who never listens to his smarter and much better-looking business partner.”’

In case you’ve never seen a squirrel cat, picture an angry feline face, slightly tubby body, unruly bushy tail and strange furry flaps connecting their front and back limbs that enable them to glide down from treetops to massacre their prey. ‘Good-looking’ isn’t exactly the phrase that comes to mind.

‘You got all that from a whimper?’ I asked.

A pause. ‘Squirrel cats are very intuitive.’

I drew a ragged breath, the heat off the sand burning the air in my lungs. How long had the two of us been lying here?

A day? Two days? My hand reached for the last of our water skins, dragging it closer. I steeled myself for the fact that I’d have to share what was left with Reichis. People say you can live three days without water, but that’s not factoring in the way the desert robs the moisture from you like a . . . like a damned squirrel cat! The water skin was bone-dry. ‘You drank the last of our water?’

Reichis replied testily, ‘I asked first.’

‘When?’

Another pause. ‘While you were asleep.’

Apparently the desert wasn’t the only liar I had to contend with.

Seventeen years old, exiled by my people, hunted by every hextracker and bounty mage with two spells and a bad attitude, and the last of my water had just been stolen by the closest thing I had to a friend out here.

My name is Kellen Argos. Once I was a promising student of magic and the son of one of the most powerful families in the Jan’Tep territories. Then the twisting black markings of a mystical curse known as the shadowblack appeared around my left eye. Now people call me outlaw, traitor, exile – and that’s when they’re being polite.

The one thing they never call me is lucky.

***

‘Sure, I know the place,’ the old scout had said, her mismatched hazel and green eyes glued to the dusty leather bag of copper and silver trinkets on the table between us. We had the ground floor of the traveller’s saloon to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of passed-out drunks in the far corner and one sad fellow who sat on the floor by himself, rolling a pair of dice over and over as he sobbed into his ale about having the worst luck in the whole world.

Shows what you know, buddy.

‘Can you take me to it? This monastery,’ I asked, placing a card face up on the table.

The scout picked up the card and squinted at the shadowy towers depicted on its surface. ‘Nice work,’ she observed. ‘You paint this yourself?’

I nodded. For the past six months, Reichis and I had crossed half a continent in search of a cure for the shadowblack. We’d pick up clues here and there, brief scrawls in the margins of obscure texts referring to a secret sanctuary, rumours repeated endlessly by drunks in taverns like this one. The Argosi paint cards of important people and places, imbuing them with whatever scraps of information they collect in hopes that the resulting images reveal otherwise hidden meanings. I’d taken to painting my own. If I died in my search for a cure, there was always a chance the cards would find their way into Argosi hands, and then to Ferius Parfax, so she’d know not to bother looking for me.

The old scout tossed the card back down on the table as if she were placing a bet. ‘The place you’re looking for is called the Ebony Abbey, and yeah, I could take you there . . . if I were so inclined.’ Her smile pinched the crags of sun-browned skin on her forehead and around her eyes, her face like a map of some long-forgotten country. She had to be well into her sixties, but her sleeveless leather jerkin revealed rope-like muscles on her shoulders and arms. Those, along with the assortment of knives sheathed to a bandolier across her chest and the crossbow strapped to her back, told me she could probably handle herself just fine in a fight. The way she kept staring at the bag of trinkets on the table without paying much attention to me made it plain that I hadn’t made a similar impression on her.

Searching for a miracle cure hadn’t been a particularly profitable enterprise so far. Every coin I earned as a spellslinger during my travels had been wasted on snake-oil salesmen peddling putrid concoctions that left me sick and vomiting for days at a time. Now my travel-worn linen shirt hung loose on my skinny frame. My face and chest still showed the bruises and scars from my last encounter with a pair of Jan’Tep bounty mages. So I could understand why the sight of me didn’t exactly fill the scout with trepidation.

‘She’s thinking of beating you up and taking our money,’ Reichis said, sniffing the air from his perch on my shoulder. ‘That thing ain’t rabid, is it?’ the scout asked, sparing him a wary glance. Other people don’t understand the chitters, snarls and occasional farts Reichis uses to communicate. ‘I’m still trying to figure that out,’ I replied.

The squirrel cat gave a low growl. ‘You know I can just rip your eyeballs right out of their sockets and eat them while you sleep, right?’ He hopped off my shoulder and headed towards the two drunks passed out in the corner, no doubt to see if he could pick their pockets.

‘Ask them that know the tales,’ the old scout began in a sing-song voice. ‘They’ll tell you naught but seven outsiders have been inside the Ebony Abbey’s walls. Five of them are dead. One’s a dream-weed addict who couldn’t find his own nose with both hands, never mind a secret monastery hidden in the desert.’ She reached for the little bag that contained everything I still had of any value. ‘Then there’s me.’

I got to the bag first. I may not look like much, but I’ve got fast hands. ‘We haven’t agreed terms yet.’

For the first time the old scout’s mismatched eyes locked on mine. I tried to match her glare, but it’s unnerving to have two different-coloured eyes staring back at you. ‘Why you want to mess with them Black Binders anyway?’ she asked. Her gaze went to my left eye, and I could tell she’d picked up on the slight discolouration where the edges of the skin-coloured mesdet paste met the top of my cheekbone. ‘You ain’t got the shadowblack, do ya?’

‘Shadow-what?’ I asked. ‘Never heard of it.’

‘Well, I hear there’s a posse of Jan’Tep spellcasters who’ll pay plenty for one o’ them demon-cursed. There’s a particular fellow they’ve been hunting a while now, or so I hear.’

‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ I said, trying to lend my words a hint of a threat. ‘Like I told you before, I’m just writing a book about obscure desert monks.’

‘Lot of money for that bounty. Maybe more than what’s in that bag of yours.’

I removed my hands from the bag and let my fingers drift down to open the tops of the pouches attached to either side of my belt. Inside were the red and black powders I used for the one spell I knew that always left an impression. ‘You know what?’ I asked casually. ‘Now that you mention it, I think maybe I have heard about this shadowblack bounty you mention. Word is, a lot of dangerous folk have tried to collect on it. Have to wonder what happened to all of them.’

One corner of the scout’s mouth rose to a smirk. Her own hands, I saw now, had managed to make a pair of hooked knives appear. ‘Met plenty of dangerous men in my time. None of them impressed me much. What makes you any different?’

I returned her smile. ‘Look behind you.’

She didn’t, instead angling one of her knives just a touch

until the blade caught the reflection of a certain squirrel cat who’d surreptitiously made his way up to the top of the coat rack behind her and was now waiting for the cue to pounce. Yeah, the little bugger makes himself useful sometimes.

I counted three full breaths before the old scout slowly set her knives down on the table. ‘Sounds like a mighty fine book you’re writing, my young friend.’ She snatched up my bag of trinkets and rose from the table. ‘Best we load up on supplies in town before we make the trip.’

I waited a while longer, doing my best to make it appear as if I hadn’t decided whether to hire her as my guide or blast her into ashes. Truthfully though, I was waiting for my heart to stop racing. ‘How far away is this abbey?’ I asked.

She adjusted the strap of her crossbow and slid her knives into their sheathes. ‘A long ways, as these things go, but don’t worry; you’ll enjoy the journey.’

‘Really?’

She grinned. ‘Folks say the Golden Passage is the gentlest, most beautiful place you’ll ever see.’

SoubojDIVOTVŮRCE

Staří mistři čarodějové rádi říkají, že kouzla mají svou chuť. Ohnivá kouzla jsou jako koření, které pálí na špičce jazyka. Dechová magie je jemná, takřka chladná, a chutná jako lísteček máty mezi rty. Písečná, hedvábná, krvavá, železná… všechna ta kouzla mají svoji příchuť. Správný za- svěcenec – čaroděj, který dovede čarovat dokonce i mimo oázu – je zná všechna.

A já? Neměl jsem ani potuchy o tom, jak chutná vysoká magie, což byla hlavní příčina všech mých potíží.

Tennat na mě čekal o kus dál mezi sedmi mramoro- vými sloupy, které obklopovaly městskou oázu. Slunce za ním vrhalo jeho stín na cestu přede mnou. Patrně si tohle místo vybral právě kvůli tomu účinku. A fungovalo to, protože ústa jsem měl vyschlá jako písek pod mýma nohama a jediný pocit, který jsem jasně zakoušel, byla panika.

„Nedělej to, Kellene,“ naléhala Nephenie a zrychlila krok, aby mi stačila. „Ještě je čas odstoupit.“

Zastavil jsem se. Teplý jižní vánek pohyboval růžový- mi květy tamaryšků, které lemovaly ulici. Ve vzduchu se

vznášely drobné okvětní plátky a třpytily se v odpoledním slunci jako jiskřičky z ohnivých kouzel.

Pár ohnivých kouzel by se mi docela hodilo. Popravdě, vzal bych zavděk jakýmikoli kouzly.

Nephenie si povšimla mého váhání a zbytečně dodala: „Tennat se vytahuje po celém městě, že ti zpřeráží hnáty, jestli se mu postavíš.“

Usmál jsem se, hlavně proto, že to byl jediný způsob jak zabránit, aby se strach, který mi svíral žaludek, neprojevil na mé tváři. Ještě nikdy předtím jsem nepodstoupil čaro- dějnický souboj, ale byl jsem si celkem jistý, že zkamenět před soupeřem strachy není zrovna účinná taktika. „To bude dobré,“ řekl jsem a znovu vyrazil rázným krokem k oáze.

„Nephenie má pravdu, Kele,“ řekl Panahsi celý udýcha- ný, jak se snažil udržet s námi krok. Pravou ruku si tiskl k silné vrstvě obvazů, která mu držela pohromadě žebra. „Kvůli mně s Tennatem bojovat nemusíš.“

Zpomalil jsem trochu krok a potlačil nutkání obrátit oči v sloup. Panahsi měl všechny předpoklady, aby z něho byl jeden z nejlepších čarodějů naší generace. Dokonce by se mohl jednou stát i hlavní tváří našeho klanu u dvora, což by bylo neštěstí, jelikož jeho od přírody svalnatou postavu zdeformovaly následky hluboké náklonnosti k rakytníko- vým koláčkům a jinak pohledné rysy mu hyzdil špatný stav pokožky, což byl nevyhnutelný následek konzumace výše zmíněných koláčků. Můj lid zná spoustu kouzel, ale žádné z nich neumí vyléčit obezitu a uhrovitou tvář.

„Neposlouchej je, Kellene,“ zavolal na mě Tennat, když jsme se přiblížili ke kruhu bílých mramorových sloupů.

Stál uprostřed kruhu v písku s rukama založenýma na černé plátěné košili. Ustřihl si u ní rukávy, aby bylo vidět, že mu na ruce září ne jeden, ale dva pásky. Na obou před- loktích měl tetování, které se mu třpytilo a vzdouvalo pod kůží na znamení toho, že si osvojil kouzla dechu a železa. „Já si myslím, že je od tebe hezké, když dáváš vlastní život všanc, jen abys bránil čest svého tlustého přítele.“

Z hloučku poblíž stojících zasvěcenců se ozval smích. Většina z nich se plna očekávání tlačila za Tennatem. Po- řádný výprask každého potěší. Až na postiženého.

Panahsi možná neměl tak dokonalou postavu jako staří čarodějové-válečníci vytesaní do sloupů před námi, byl ale dvakrát lepší čaroděj než Tennat. Neexistovalo vysvětlení, proč u všech čertů dostal v souboji s ním takovou na- kládačku. Ještě teď, po více než dvou týdnech strávených v posteli a kdovíkolika léčivých kouzlech, se Panahsi stěží dobelhal na přednášky.

Věnoval jsem protivníkovi svůj nejzářivější úsměv. Jako všichni ostatní byl i Tennat přesvědčen, že jsem ho vyzval na svou první zkoušku z čirého nerozumu. Někteří další zasvěcenci se domnívali, že jsem se chtěl pomstít za Pana- hsiho, který byl koneckonců jediný přítel, jehož jsem měl. Jiní si mysleli, že tím plním ušlechtilé poslání zabránit Tennatovi v šikanování ostatních studentů a terorizování sha’tepských služebníků, kteří neovládali žádná vlastní kouzla, aby se mohli bránit.

„Nenech se od něj vyprovokovat, Kellene,“ řekla Ne- phenie a pohladila mě po ruce.

Pár lidí mě nepochybně podezíralo, že to všechno dě- lám kvůli tomu, abych udělal dojem na Nephenii, dívku

s nádhernými hnědými vlasy a tváří, která, ač nebyla dokonalá, mně dokonalá rozhodně připadala. Hleděla na mě s neskrývanými obavami. To bylo nesmírně pří- jemné, ačkoli bych nevsadil ani pětník na to, jestli si mě vlastně všimla za celé ty roky, které uběhly od chvíle, kdy jsme se stali zasvěcenci. Popravdě, většinu dní si mě nevšímal vůbec nikdo. Dnes to ale bylo jiné. Dnes mi věnoval pozornost každý, dokonce i Nephenie. Hlavně Nephenie.

Byla v tom jen lítost? Snad, ale ze starostlivého výrazu na jejích rtech, které jsem toužil líbat od té doby, kdy jsem zjistil, že líbání neznamená, že se dva lidé vzájemně koušou, se mi zatočila hlava. Cítil jsem na kůži její prsty… bylo to poprvé, kdy se mě dotkla?

Jelikož jsem se nerozhodl podstoupit tento souboj čistě proto, abych na ni udělal dojem, jemně jsem Nepheniinu ruku odstrčil a vešel do oázy.

Jednou jsem kdesi četl, že v jiných kulturách se slovem „oáza“ označuje nevelké úrodné místo v poušti, ale pro Jan’Tepy znamená oáza něco úplně jiného. Nad námi se tyčilo sedm mramorových sloupů, každý pro jednu ze sed- mi forem pravé magie. Uvnitř uzavřeného kruhu o polo- měru deseti metrů nebyly žádné stromy ani zeleň, nýbrž zářící vrstva stříbrného písku, který se nikdy nedostal za hranici vymezenou sloupy, ani když ho rozvířil vítr. Upro- střed byla mělká kamenná nádrž naplněná něčím, co ne- bylo ani tekutina, ani vzduch, ale co se vlnilo, vzdouvalo a zase opadávalo. To byla pravá magie. Jan.

Slovo „tep“ znamená „lidé“, takže by vám mělo být jas- né, jak je pro nás magie důležitá. Až tak, že když sem při

šli mí předkové jako mnozí jiní před nimi, odložili svá sta- rá jména a stali se z nich Jan’Tepové, „Lid pravé magie“.

Tedy, teoreticky.

Poklekl jsem a narýsoval do písku kolem sebe ochranný kruh. I když „kruh“ je možná silné slovo.

Tennat se zachechtal. „No, teď jsi mě opravdu vyděsil.“

Přes všechno chvástání neměl Tennat ani zdaleka tak impozantní postavu, jak si představoval. Pravda, byl pruž- ný a agresivní, ale nebyl moc velký. Ve skutečnosti byl stejně hubený jako já a o půl hlavy menší. Možná právě to zvyšovalo jeho agresivitu.

„Jste oba stále rozhodnuti podstoupit tento souboj?“ otázal se mistr Osia’phest a vstal z kamenné lavice na kra- ji oázy. Starý čaroděj přitom hleděl na mě, ne na Tennata, takže bylo naprosto zřejmé, kdo z nás měl vycouvat.

„Kellen neodstoupí,“ prohlásila moje sestra, která se dosud ukrývala za zády našeho učitele. Shalle bylo teprve třináct, byla mladší než my, ale už také skládala zkoušky. Byla ze všech přítomných nejlepší čarodějka, s výjimkou Panahsiho, o čemž svědčila skutečnost, že se mohla pyšnit zářícími pásky pro dechovou, železnou, krvavou a ohni- vou magii. Byli čarodějové, kteří prošli svoji cestu živo- tem, aniž by ovládli čtyři druhy magie, avšak moje mladší sestra zcela vážně plánovala zvládnout je všechny.

A kolik pásků jsem rozzářil já? Kolik vytetovaných sym- bolů se rozvlní a zažehne pod mými rukávy, až přivolám vysokou magii, která je nerozlučně spjata s mým lidem?

Žádný.

Ano, v hranicích oázy jsem uměl předvádět praktická kouzla, kterým se učí všichni zasvěcenci. Mé prsty znaly

všechny tělesné tvary stejně dobře nebo dokonce lépe než kterýkoli z mých spolužáků zasvěcenců. Uměl jsem doko- nale vyslovit každou slabiku, naprosto jasně si představit i tu nejesoteričtější geometrii. Pronikl jsem do všech tajů, které obnášelo sesílání kouzel – až na jejich uplatnění v praxi.

„Odstup ze souboje, Kellene,“ řekla Nephenie. „Najdeš si nějaký jiný způsob, jak složit zkoušky.“

Jenže v tom byl právě ten problém. Táhlo mi už na šest- náct a tohle byla moje poslední šance dokázat, že moje magie je dostatečná, abych si zasloužil své čarodějnické jméno. Znamenalo to, že musím složit všechny čtyři ča- rodějnické zkoušky počínaje soubojem. Pokud neuspěju, budu nucen se připojit k Sha’Tepům a strávit zbytek živo- ta vařením, uklízením nebo vedením domácnosti některé- ho z mých bývalých spolužáků. To by bylo ponižující pro každého zasvěcence, ale pro člena mé rodiny, pro syna samotného Ke’heopse? Nezdar byl nemyslitelný.

Nic z toho ovšem nebylo důvod, proč jsem se rozhodl vyzvat zrovna Tennata.

„Vezměte na vědomí, že zákonná ochrana se nevzta- huje na ty, kdo podstupují zkoušky,“ připomněl nám Osia’phest unaveným a rezignovaným hlasem. „Pouze ti, jejichž schopnosti jim dávají sílu postavit se našim nepřá- telům v otevřeném boji, mají právo požadovat udělení čarodějnického jména.“

V oáze se rozhostilo ticho. Každý z nás viděl seznam bývalých zasvěcenců, kteří se pokusili o složení zkoušek, aniž byli připraveni. Každý z nás přesně věděl, jak zemřeli. Osia’phest na mě znovu pohlédl. „Opravdu jsi připraven?“

„Jistě,“ přisvědčil jsem. Nebyl to nejvhodnější způsob, jak hovořit s naším učitelem, ale mým úmyslem bylo pro- jevit jistou dávku sebedůvěry.

„,Jistě‘,“ posměšně zaskučel Tennat. Zaujal základní obrannou pozici s nohama rozkročenýma na šířku ramen a s rukama volně spuštěnýma podél boků, připravený vy- slat kouzla, která si připravil pro náš souboj. „Máš po- slední možnost odejít, Kellene. Jakmile začneme, nepře- stanu, dokud nepadneš.“ Zasmál se s očima upřenýma na Shallu. „Nepřál bych si, aby strašlivá bolest, kterou ti hodlám způsobit, zbytečně trýznila tvoji sestru.“

Pokud si Shalla povšimla Tennatova dětinského poku- su o galantnost, nedala to ničím najevo. Stála tam s ru- kama v bok a zářivě žluté vlasy jí půvabně vlály ve větru. Měla je rovnější a jemnější než já ty svoje špinavě hnědé chomáče, které mi věčně padaly do očí. Oba jsme měli po matce světlou pleť, ale moje byla zbrázděná násled- kem pravidelně se opakujících nemocí. Shalla měla štíh- lou pružnou postavu, která přitahovala pozornost takřka všech zasvěcenců našeho rodu. Nikdo z nich ji samozřej- mě nezajímal. Věděla, že se v ní skrývá větší potenciál než v nás ostatních a byla pevně odhodlána udělat vše, co bude zapotřebí, aby se mohla jednou stát lordem mágem jako náš otec. Kluci do téhle rovnice zkrátka nepatřili.

„Jsem si jistý, že můj bolestný jekot v pohodě zvládne,“ pravil jsem.

Shalla zachytila můj pohled a v očích se jí zračily zma- tek a podezření. Věděla, že pro složení zkoušek udělám cokoli. Proto mě neustále tak bedlivě sledovala.

Ať víš, co víš, Shallo, hlavně mlč, prosím tě.

„Jako student, který získal nejméně pásků,“ vyhlásil Osia’phest, „si můžeš pro souboj zvolit druh magie, Kel- lene. Jaká je tvá zbraň?“

Všichni na mě civěli a snažili se uhodnout, co jsem si zvolil. Zde v oáze každý z nás mohl použít malou dávku různých druhů magie – právě tolik, kolik bylo potřeba k procvičování kouzel. To však nebylo nic ve srovnání s tím, co jste mohli dělat, jakmile jste rozzářili své pásky. Jelikož Tennat měl k dispozici železo a dech, byl bych blá- zen, abych volil jedno z nich.

„Železo,“ oznámil jsem dost hlasitě, abych si byl jist, že to každý uslyší.

Moji spolužáci na mě hleděli, jako kdybych přišel o ro- zum. Nephenie zbledla. Shalla přimhouřila oči. Panahsi začal cosi namítat, ale přísný Osia’phestův pohled ho uml- čel. „Neslyšel jsem tě dobře,“ pomalu pronesl náš učitel.

„Železo,“ zopakoval jsem.

Tennat se zazubil. Z železného pásku na předloktí mu začala proudit našedlá zář a obalila mu ruce, když začal přivolávat sílu. Všichni věděli, jak má Tennat rád železná kouzla a způsob, kterým vám umožňovala vyřítit se na nepřítele a ztlouct ho. Bylo vidět jeho rostoucí vzrušení, nadšení pramenící z ovládání vysoce účinné magie. Škoda že jsem nevěděl, jaké to je.

Tennat byl tak nedočkavý, že jeho prsty už začaly for- movat tělesné tvary kouzel, která chtěl proti mně použít. Jedna z prvních věcí, které se v soubojích naučíte, je, že jen naprostý pitomec ukáže ruku před začátkem střetnutí. Ale jelikož bylo nemožné, abych Tennata porazil v železné magii, myslel si nejspíš, že na tom nesejde.

To byl také ten pravý důvod, proč jsem se usmíval.

Několik posledních týdnů jsem totiž sledoval každý souboj, který Tennat svedl proti ostatním zasvěcencům. Všiml jsem si, že dokonce i silnější studenti – ti, kteří by ho měli snadno porazit – pokaždé skončili tak, že byli přinuceni se vzdát.

A tehdy jsem to konečně pochopil. Magie je zrádná hra.

Oáza vypadala klidně, skoro mírumilovně. Všichni asi čekali, až se konečně nervózně zachichotám a dřív, než bude pozdě, oznámím, že to všechno byl jen žert. Místo toho jsem zakroužil rameny dozadu a naklonil krk dole- va a doprava, až mi v něm křuplo. Nemělo to žádný vliv na mé čarodějnické schopnosti, ale myslel jsem si, že tak možná budu vypadat drsněji.

Tennat sebevědomě zasupěl. Zaznělo to jako jeho běž- né zasupění, jen o něco hlasitější. „Myslel bych, že ten, kdo má málem infarkt i z rozsvěcení dmuchavkové lampy, bude trochu opatrnější při výběru soupeře.“

„Máš pravdu,“ odtušil jsem a vyhrnul jsem si rukávy, aby byly vidět vybledlé, nehybné inkoustové linky mých šesti vytetovaných pásků. „Takže ti nejspíš vrtá hlavou, proč jsem si vybral právě tebe?“

Tennat na okamžik zaváhal a pak řekl: „Třeba toužíš po smrti a víš, že já jsem ten nejlepší člověk, který tě zavede do šedé uličky a ukončí tvoje utrpení.“

„Možná,“ připustil jsem, „ale řekněme, čistě v zájmu debaty, že je za tím něco jiného.“

„Jako třeba co?“

Měl jsem dopředu připravenou řeč o tom, jak jsem ovládl stín – sedmou a nejnebezpečnější magii, kterou jsme měli všichni zakázanou. Kdyby ho nevyděsilo tohle, měl jsem proti němu další trumf: že opravdu velcí čarodě- jové mezi našimi předky dovedli ovládnout vysokou magii i bez zářících pásků. Ale právě když jsem se chystal spus- tit, uviděl jsem nad sebou kroužit sokola a rozhodl jsem se změnit taktiku.

„Nemusíš rozzářit své pásky, pokud jsi nalezl svého zví- řecího ochránce.“

Všichni obrátili oči nahoru a uviděli ho. Tennat se hněvivě ušklíbl, čímž mi dal najevo, že začíná být ner- vózní. „Dneska už nikdo nepoužívá pomocníky. A kromě toho, jak by někdo s tak slabou magií mohl získat zví- řecího ochránce? A ještě k tomu sokola? Ani náhodou, Kellene. Ani za tisíc let.“

Všiml jsem si, že se sokol chystá vrhnout dolů na men- šího ptáka. „Jdi po něm, miláčku,“ zašeptal jsem tak, aby to všichni slyšeli. Všichni náhle zatajili dech, když se so- kolovy pařáty nemilosrdně zaryly do kořisti. Napadlo mě, že by ze mě možná byl dobrý herec, kdyby to zaměstnání nebylo Jan’Tepům zapovězené.

„Dobrá, dobrá,“ zakročil Osia’phest a zamával ruka- ma, jako by chtěl kouzlem zahnat všechna nejapná slo- va, kterými jsme se častovali. Byl jsem si skoro jistý, že stařík dobře věděl, že jsem žádného pomocníka nezís- kal, ale domníval jsem se, že je mu proti srsti odhalovat tajemství jiného čaroděje, dokonce i kdyby to náhodou byly lži. Nebo mu to zkrátka bylo jedno. „Uznávám, že vlastnímu souboji tradičně předchází jistá dávka… vy

chloubání, ale myslím, že už toho bylo dost. Jste připra- veni začít?“

Přikývl jsem. Tennat zachoval kamennou tvář, jako kdy- by narážka, že by snad mohl být nepřipraven, byla pro něho urážkou.

„Výborně,“ řekl Osia’phest. „Začnu tedy odpočítávat.“ Stařík se zhluboka nadechl, což bylo zjevně nepřiměřené, jelikož jediné, co následně pronesl, bylo: „Sedm!“

Zvedl se vítr a moje volná plátěná košile mi hlasitě za- pleskala na kůži. Asi podesáté jsem si do ní otřel ruce a odkašlal jsem si, abych se zbavil lechtání v krku. Nezačni kašlat. Nedávej najevo slabost. Hlavně nedávej najevo slabost.

„Šest.“

Tennat se na mě široce usmál, jako kdyby měl pro mě přichystané nějaké velké překvapení. Byl bych se bál mno- hem víc, kdybych předtím neviděl, že stejný úsměv věnuje před soubojem každému soupeři. Ale stejně jsem byl tak vyděšený, že jsem se málem zhroutil na zem.

„Pět.“

Pták se opět vrhl střemhlav dolů, a tak jsem vzhlédl a zamrkal na něj. Tennatův úsměv zakolísal. Zjevně byl schopen uvěřit tomu, že jsem slaboch a současně se mi podařilo získat zvířecího ochránce. Blbec.

„Čtyři.“

Začal vytvářet levou rukou tělesné tvary nezbytné pro štítové kouzlo. Ještě nikdy jsem ho neviděl, že by si na- před přichystal štít a pak teprve meč. Pohlédl na svoji ruku, aby se přesvědčil, že tvar je správný. Tennat začínal mít trochu starosti.

„Dva.“

Dva? Kam se poděly tři? Dávej kruci pozor. Tennatova pravá ruka vytvořila tělesný tvar pro útočné železné kouz- lo, kterému jsme mezi sebou říkali meč v břiše. Prsty měl perfektně srovnané tak, aby způsobil svému soupeři co největší bolest. Hlavu měl stále skloněnou, ale zdálo se mi, že se opět usmívá.

„Jedna.“

Ano, určitě se usmíval. Možná to přece jen nebyl dobrý nápad.

„Začněte!“ vyzval nás Osia’phest.
Další věc, kterou jsem ucítil, byla palčivá bolest v břiše. Jak jsem říkal, magie je zrádná hra.

Většinou.

Le DuelL'Anti-Magicien

Les vieux maîtres de sort aiment raconter que la magie a un goût. Les sorts de braise ressemblent à une épice qui vous brûle le bout de la langue. La magie du souf e est subtile, presque rafraîchissante, un peu comme si vous teniez une feuille de menthe entre vos lèvres. Le sable, la soie, le sang, le fer… cha- cune de ces magies a son parfum. Un véritable adepte, autre- ment dit un mage capable de jeter un sort même à l’extérieur d’une oasis, les connaît tous.

Moi? Je n’avais pas la moindre idée du goût de la haute magie, ce qui était précisément la raison pour laquelle j’avais tant d’ennuis.

Tennat m’attendait au centre des sept colonnes en marbre qui bordent l’oasis de notre cité. Il avait le soleil dans le dos, ce qui projetait son ombre dans ma direction. Il avait sans aucun doute choisi cette position pour obtenir précisément cet effet. Et c’était réussi, parce que j’avais la gorge aussi sèche que le sable sous mes pieds, et le seul goût dans ma bouche était celui de la panique.

– Kelen, ne fais pas ça, me lança Nephenia en accélérant le pas pour me rejoindre. Tu peux encore déclarer forfait.

Je m’arrêtai. Une petite brise tiède agitait les eurs des tama- rix qui bordaient la rue. Leurs minuscules pétales ottaient dans l’air et scintillaient sous le soleil de l’après-midi comme autant de particules de magie du feu. J’aurais bien eu besoin d’un peu de magie du feu, à cet instant.

En réalité, j’aurais accepté n’importe quelle magie.

Nephenia remarqua mon hésitation et ajouta, ce qui était totalement inutile :

– Tennat a raconté partout en ville que si tu te présentes devant lui, il va te réduire en bouillie.

Je souris, surtout parce que je n’avais pas d’autre moyen d’empêcher la terreur qui me dévorait le ventre de gagner mon visage. Cela avait beau être mon premier duel de mages, j’étais à peu près sûr qu’apparaître pétri é devant son adver- saire n’était pas une tactique très ef cace.

– Ça va aller, dis-je en reprenant un rythme régulier en direction de l’oasis.

– Nephenia a raison, insista Panahsi, qui souf ait et suait d’avoir pressé la marche pour nous rattraper. (Il avait le bras droit le long du bandage serré qui lui maintenait les côtes en place.) Tu n’es pas obligé de dé er Tennat pour me venger.

Je ralentis le pas, résistant à l’envie de lever les yeux au ciel. Panahsi avait toutes les qualités pour incarner l’un des mages les plus doués de notre génération. Il aurait peut-être même pu devenir un jour la gure de proue de notre clan à la cour, ce qui aurait été dommage, parce que son corps naturellement musclé était déformé par sa passion pour les petits gâteaux aux baies jaunes, et ses traits ns rongés par les boutons, autre conséquence desdits petits gâteaux. Mon peuple connaît de nombreux sorts, mais aucun contre l’obésité ni l’acné.

– Kelen, ne les écoute pas! me cria Tennat comme nous approchions du cercle des colonnes en marbre blanc.

Il se tenait dans un périmètre d’un mètre de diamètre des- siné sur le sable, les bras croisés sur sa chemise en lin noir, dont il avait découpé les manches pour que tout le monde puisse constater qu’il avait fait étinceler non pas une, mais deux de ses bandes. Les encres métalliques de ses tatouages chatoyaient et tourbillonnaient sur la peau de ses avant-bras tandis qu’il invoquait déjà la magie du souf e et du fer.

– Je trouve ça mignon de sacri er ta vie juste pour défendre l’honneur de ton obèse de pote, ajouta-t-il.

Un chœur de gloussements s’éleva parmi les autres initiés, dont la plupart, très excités, se tenaient derrière Tennat. Tout le monde adore les bagarres. Sauf le perdant, bien entendu.

Panahsi n’avait peut-être pas la ère allure des anciens mages guerriers sculptés dans les colonnes en face de nous, pourtant, il était deux fois plus fort que Tennat. Jamais il n’au- rait dû perdre aussi lamentablement son duel. Même là, après deux semaines au lit et allez savoir combien de sorts de guéri- son, Panahsi assistait péniblement aux cours.

Je s mon plus beau sourire à mon adversaire. Comme tout le monde, Tennat était persuadé que c’était par excès de con ance que je le dé ais pour mon tout premier duel. Cer- tains initiés croyaient que je voulais venger Panahsi, mon meil- leur ami et plus ou moins le seul, d’ailleurs. D’autres pensaient que je tentais là d’accomplir un acte noble pour que Tennat cesse d’importuner les autres élèves et de terroriser les serviteurs Sha’Tep qui, eux, n’avaient pas de magie pour se défendre.

– Ne le laisse pas te provoquer, Kelen, me dit Nephenia en posant la main sur mon bras.

Quelques-uns croyaient sans doute que je faisais ça pour impressionner Nephenia, la lle aux magni ques cheveux bruns et au visage qui, s’il n’était pas parfait, incarnait à mes yeux la perfection. Vu sa façon inquiète de me regarder et sa fébrilité, on n’aurait jamais pu imaginer que, pendant toutes ces années d’initiation, elle ne m’avait jamais prêté attention. Pour être honnête, elle n’était pas la seule. Mais aujourd’hui, c’était différent. Aujourd’hui, tout le monde s’intéressait à moi, même Nephenia. Surtout Nephenia.

Éprouvait-elle juste de la pitié? Peut-être. N’empêche, la vue de ses lèvres crispées me faisait tourner la tête. Je rêvais de les embrasser depuis que j’avais découvert qu’un baiser n’était pas juste une morsure entre deux personnes. Sans oublier la sensation de ses doigts sur ma peau… Serait-ce la première fois qu’elle me touchait?

Mais comme je n’avais pas choisi de me battre pour l’im- pressionner, je repoussai doucement sa main et pénétrai dans l’oasis.

J’avais lu un jour que, dans d’autres cultures, une oasis désigne une terre fertile en plein désert. Une oasis Jan’Tep, c’est très différent. Elle est entourée par sept colonnes en marbre représentant chacune des sept formes de magie. Dans le cercle de dix mètres de diamètre, il n’y a pas d’arbre ni de verdure, juste un tapis de sable argenté qui, même secoué par le vent, ne franchit jamais la limite des colonnes. Au centre, un petit bassin en pierre rempli d’une matière ni liquide ni gazeuse qui miroite quand elle se soulève par vagues. C’est ça, la véritable magie. Le Jan.

Le mot Tep signi e «peuple», ce qui vous laisse deviner à quel point la magie est importante pour mon peuple. À tel

point que lorsque mes ancêtres sont arrivés là, comme d’autres peuples avant eux, ils ont renoncé à leur nom pour devenir les Jan’Tep, le «peuple de la magie véritable».

En théorie, en tout cas.

Je me baissai pour dessiner dans le sable un cercle de pro- tection autour de moi. «Cercle» était peut-être un terme un peu trop précis.

Tennat ricana.
– Maintenant, j’ai vraiment peur, lâcha-t-il.
En dépit de ses fanfaronnades, il n’était pas aussi impres-

sionnant qu’il le croyait. Certes, il était tout en muscles noueux et en méchanceté, cependant, il avait oublié de grandir. Il était aussi maigre que moi, et avait une demi-tête de moins. Ce qui, d’une certaine manière, ne faisait qu’accroître son agressivité.

– Chacun d’entre vous est-il toujours décidé à se soumettre à ce duel ? demanda maître Osia’phest qui, jusque-là, était assis sur un banc en pierre au bord de l’oasis.

Le vieux maître de sort me regardait, et non Tennat. Il n’y avait aucun doute dans ses yeux sur celui des deux qui aurait dû renoncer.

– Kelen ne déclarera pas forfait, annonça ma sœur, qui sur- git derrière notre professeur.

Shalla n’avait que treize ans, mais elle s’apprêtait déjà à pas- ser ses épreuves. Elle était meilleure mage que toutes les per- sonnes réunies dans l’oasis, à part Panahsi, comme en attestait le fait qu’étincelaient déjà sur ses avant-bras les bandes de la magie du souf e, du fer, du sang et de la braise. Si certains mages ne maîtrisaient pas plus de trois disciplines de toute leur vie, ma petite sœur avait bien l’intention de les acquérir toutes.

Et moi, combien de bandes avais-je fait étinceler ? Combien

des symboles tatoués sous les manches de ma chemise lui- raient et tourbillonneraient quand j’en appellerais à la haute magie qui caractérise mon peuple?

Aucun.

Certes, dans l’oasis, j’étais capable de réaliser les sorts d’exer- cice qu’on enseigne à tous les initiés. Mes doigts connaissaient les formes somatiques aussi bien, voire mieux, que les autres élèves. J’étais capable de prononcer chaque formule à la per- fection, de visualiser la géométrie la plus ésotérique avec une clarté parfaite. Je maîtrisais tous les aspects du jeté de sorts – à l’exception de la magie.

– Kelen, retire-toi de ce duel, me dit Nephenia. Tu trouveras un autre moyen de passer ton épreuve.

Le véritable problème, c’étaient bien sûr les épreuves. J’aurais bientôt seize ans, et c’était là ma dernière chance de prouver que je disposais de la magie nécessaire pour me voir attribuer un nom de mage. Ce qui signi ait que je devais réus- sir chacune des quatre épreuves, à commencer par le duel. Si j’échouais, je rejoindrais les Sha’Tep et passerais le reste de ma vie à cuisiner, à nettoyer ou à gérer l’intendance chez l’un de mes anciens camarades de classe. C’était un destin humi- liant pour n’importe quel initié, mais pour un membre de ma famille, pour le ls de Ke’heops ? C’était inconcevable.

Pourtant, ce n’était pas la raison qui me poussait à dé er Tennat.

– Ayez bien à l’esprit que nos lois cessent de s’appliquer durant les épreuves, nous rappela Osia’phest d’un ton aussi las que résigné. Car seuls ceux qui ont la puissance d’affronter nos ennemis lors d’un combat peuvent prétendre à un nom de mage.

1 - Duelulduelul vrajilor

PRIMA PROBĂ

Există trei cerinţe pe care trebuie să le îndeplineşti ca să câştigi statutul de mag printre Jan’Tep. Prima este forţa, ca să îţi aperi familia. A doua este abilitatea de a mânui magia care protejează neamul nostru. A treia este pur şi simplu să ajungi la vârsta de şaisprezece ani. Mai erau câteva săptămâni până la ziua mea de naştere când am aflat că nu voi face niciunul din aceste lucruri.

Magii vârstnici spun că magia are gust. Vrăjile de ambră sunt asemenea unui condiment care îţi pişcă vârful limbii. Magia suflată este uşoară, aproape răcoroasă, asemănătoare cu senzaţia pe care o ai atunci când ţii o frunză de mentă între buze. Vrăjile de nisip, mătase, sânge şi fier… fiecare are propria-i aromă. Adevăratul adept – acel mag care poate face vrăji, chiar şi în afaraoazei – le ştie pe toate. Eu? Habar nu aveam ce gust aveau vrăjile supreme, şi tocmai din acest motiv aveam necazuri. Tennat mă aştepta mai încolo, în interiorul celor şapte coloane dinmarmură care înconjurau oaza oraşului. Soarele care strălucea în spatele lui îi arunca umbra lungăpe drum, înspre mine. Alesese, probabil, locul tocmai pentru acest efect, iar asta dădea roade, pentru că aveam gura la fel de uscată precum nisipul de sub tălpi şi singurul gust pe care îlsimţeam era cel al panicii.
– Nu face asta, Kellen, m-a rugat Nephenia, grăbind pasul ca să mă ajungă din urmă. Nu este preatârziu să renunţi.
M-am oprit în loc. Briza caldă dinspre sud se juca printre florile rozalii ale copacilor de tamarixcare mărgineau strada. Petale minuscule pluteau în aer, lucind în soarele după-amiezii ca nişteparticule de foc magic. Mi-ar fi prins bine focul magic în acel moment. Sincer, m-aş fi mulţumitcu orice fel de magie. Nephenia a observat că ezit şi a adăugat, neajutorată:
– Tennat s-a lăudat prin oraş că te va schilodi dacă te va prinde.
Am zâmbit, mai ales pentru că era singura cale prin care puteam împiedica să mi se citească pe faţă acel sentiment de teamă pe care îl simţeam în stomac. Nu mă mai duelasem până atunci cu un mag, însă eram aproape convins că nu era o tactică prea eficientă să apari cuprins de groază în faţa adversarului tău.
– Nu voi păţi nimic, am spus eu, continuându-mi liniştit drumul către oază.
– Nephenia are dreptate, Kel, a spus Panahsi, gâfâind în timp ce se chinuia să ţină pasul. Braţullui drept era înfăşurat într-un strat gros de bandaje, care-i ţineau coastele laolaltă. Nu trebuie să

te lupţi cu Tennat din cauza mea. Am încetinit puţin ritmul, abia abţinându-mă să îmi dau ochiipeste cap. Panahsi avea tot ce trebuia ca să devină unul dintre cei mai pricepuţi magi ai generaţieinoastre. Ba chiar ne-ar fi putut reprezenta clanul în instanţă într-o bună zi, ceea ce ar fi fost onenorocire, având în vedere faptul că trupul său bine clădit din naştere era contrabalansat demarea lui slăbiciune pentru tarta cu mure galbene, iar trăsăturile lui, altminteri frumoase, eraupocite de afecţiunea de piele care era rezultatul inevitabil al tartelor amintite. Neamul meucunoaşte multe vrăji, însă niciuna care să vindece de grăsime şi de ciupitul de vărsat.

– Nu-i asculta, Kellen! a strigat Tennat când ne-am apropiat de cercul de coloane albe dinmarmură.
Stătea pe nisip, în mijlocul unui cerc lat de un metru, cu braţele încrucişate peste cămaşa lui neagră din pânză. Îşi tăiase mânecile ca să se asigure că toată lumea vedea că făcuse să strălucească nu una, ci două dintre benzile sale. Benzile metalice tatuate începură să lucească şi să freamăte sub pielea antebraţelor lui când el invocă magia de răsuflare şi de fier.

– Mi se pare adorabil că eşti pregătit să renunţi la viaţa ta ca să aperi onoarea prietenului tăugras. Ceilalţi iniţiaţi chicotiră în cor. Cei mai mulți dintre ei stăteau în spatele lui Tennat, foindu-se nerăbdători. Toată lumea asista bucuroasă la o bătaie bună. Mă rog, mai puţin victima.
Deşi Panahsi nu semăna cu figurile strălucitoare ale magilor războinici din trecut, sculptaţi pecoloanele din faţa noastră, era de două ori mai puternic decât Tennat. Nici în ruptul capului nuar fi trebuit să sufere o înfrângere atât de crâncenă în timpul duelului. Chiar şi acum, după mai bine de două săptămâni de zăcut în pat şi cine ştie câte vrăji de vindecare, Panahsi abia reuşea să ajungă la lecţii.

I-am oferit adversarului cel mai frumos zâmbet al meu. Tennat era convins, la fel ca și ceilalţi, că,din nesăbuinţă îl voi înfrunta la prima mea probă. Unii dintre iniţiaţi bănuiau că o voi face ca să îl răzbun pe Panahsi, care era, la urma urmei, singurul meu prieten. Alţii credeau că pornisem înmisiunea nobilă de a-l opri pe Tennat să nu-i mai chinuiască pe ceilalţi ucenici sau să nu îi maiterorizeze pe servitorii Sha’Tep, care nu erau înzestraţi cu puteri magice și nu puteau să se aperesinguri.

– Nu îl lăsa să te întărâte, Kellen, a spus Nephenia, punându-şi mâna pe braţul meu.

ПОЕДИНОКтворец заклинаний

Старые чародеи говорят, что у магии есть свой вкус. Заклинания огня похожи на острые специи, обжигаю- щие язык. Магия дыхания — нежная, словно бы прохладная,

оставляет на губах привкус мятного листа. Магия песка, шел- ка, крови, железа… каждая имеет свой особый вкус. Истин- ный маг способен творить заклинания даже за пределами Оа- зиса, он знает их все.

Я?.. А я понятия не имею, каков вкус высшей магии. В том- то и беда.

Теннат ждал меня неподалеку. Он стоял в кольце семи мраморных колонн, окружающих Оазис. Солнце светило ему в спину, и длинная тень падала на дорогу, протягиваясь прямо ко мне. Вероятно, Теннат выбрал место нарочно для подобного эффекта. Что ж, это сработало: мои губы стали такими же сухими, как песок под ногами, а единственный вкус, который я ощущал, был вкусом страха.

— Не делай этого, Келлен! — взмолилась Нифения. Она ускорила шаг, пытаясь догнать меня. — Еще не поздно сдаться. Я остановился. Теплый южный ветерок покачивал розовые цветы тамарисков, выстроившихся вдоль улицы. Крошечные лепестки парили в воздухе, сверкая под полуденным солнцем, как воплощение магии огня. Мне бы заклинания огня сейчас не помешали. Откровенно говоря, любая магия пришлась бы

кстати…
Заметив мою нерешительность, Нифения беспомощно при-

бавила:
— Теннат орал на весь город, что, если ты выберешь его —

он тебя изувечит.
Я улыбнулся — единственный способ не выказывать стра-

ха, который скрутил внутренности в тугой комок. Я еще ни разу не участвовал в магическом поединке, но отлично пони- мал: демонстрировать противнику свой испуг — не самая эф- фективная тактика.

— Все будет хорошо, — отозвался я и вновь двинулся в сторону Оазиса.

— Нифения права, Кел, — сказал Панакси. Он едва поспе- вал за мной, натужно дыша и придерживая рукой толстую по- вязку на ребрах. — Не дерись с Теннатом из-за меня.

Я чуть замедлил шаг, борясь с желанием закрыть глаза. Панакси был одним из лучших магов среди их сверстников. В один прекрасный день он мог представлять наш клан при дворе. Не слишком красивым лицом… Тело Панакси, ладное и мускулистое от природы, сильно изменилось под влиянием

сладких пирожков с морошкой. А его красивые черты испор- чены кожной болезнью, вызванной чрезмерным употреблени- ем любимого лакомства. Мой народ владеет множеством за- клинаний, но ни одно из них не лечит полноту и не убирает отметины с рябого лица.

— Не слушай их, Келлен! — крикнул мне Теннат, когда мы подошли к белым мраморным колоннам.

Он стоял в центре десятифутового круга на песке, скрестив руки поверх белой льняной рубашки. Теннат отрезал рукава, чтобы все видели, что он пробудил не одну, а целых две маги- ческие стихии. По его предплечьям вились вытатуированные узоры, отливавшие металлическим блеском, он призывал ма- гию дыхания и железа.

— Приятно наблюдать, как ты ломаешь себе жизнь, защи- щая честь твоего жирного дружка.

Приятели Тенната захихикали. Они стояли за его спи- ной — переминались с ноги на ногу и предвкушали развлече- ние. Всякий любит хорошую драчку. Ну, кроме жертвы.

Может, Панакси и не похож на древних боевых магов, чьи сияющие фигуры были вырезаны на колоннах перед нами, но он вдвое превосходил Тенната по силе. Непонятно, как же он так бездарно проиграл свой поединок. Больше двух недель в посте- ли и бесчетное множество исцеляющих заклинаний — но даже сейчас Панакси едва мог доковылять до класса.

Я одарил противника самой лучезарной из своих улыбок. Как и все прочие, Теннат был уверен: выбрать его для пер- вого испытания — верх безрассудства. Некоторые наши

одноклассники считали, что я устроил все это, чтобы ото- мстить за Панакси. Как-никак он был, пожалуй, единствен- ным моим другом. Кое-кто думал, будто я выполняю некую благородную миссию — пытаюсь поставить Тенната на ме- сто, чтобы он прекратил измываться над другими ученика- ми и третировать ше-теп, слуг которые вообще не владели магией и никак не могли себя защитить.

— Они же подначивают тебя, Келлен. Не ведись. — Нифе- ния положила ладонь на мою руку.

Не сомневаюсь: некоторые подозревали, что я ввязался в драку, желая впечатлить Нифению. Девушку с красивыми каштановыми волосами и чертами лица пусть и не идеальными, но казавшимися безупречными мне. Как она смотрела на меня сейчас! Едва дыша от беспокойства… Кто бы мог подумать, что она едва замечала меня все те годы, что мы учились вместе. Как и остальные, если честно. Но сегодня все было иначе. Сегодня меня заметили все, даже Нифения. Особенно Нифения.

Может, она вела себя так только из жалости? Не исклю- чено. Но ее губы взволнованно изгибались. Губы, которые я мечтал поцеловать с тех пор, как выяснил, что поцелуй — не попытка двух людей укусить друг друга… Когда я смотрел на эти губы, у меня начинала кружиться голова. А ее пальцы касались моей кожи. Кажется, сегодня она впервые в жизни дотронулась до меня.

Так или иначе, но я устроил поединок не для того, чтобы впечатлить Нифению. Аккуратно отстранив руку девушки, я вошел в Оазис.

Когда-то я читал, что в других культурах слово «оазис» обо- значает кусочек плодородной земли посреди пустыни, но Оа- зис джен-теп — нечто совершенно иное. Семь мраморных ко- лонн возвышались над нами — каждая символизировала одну из семи форм Истинной магии. Здесь, в этом десятифутовом круге, не было деревьев и никакой зелени — лишь ковер пе- реливчатого серебристого песка. И песок этот, даже когда ве- тер приводил его в движение, никогда не покидал границ кру- га, очерченного колоннами. В центре находился неглубокий каменный бассейн, наполненный чем-то — не жидкостью и не воздухом, искрящийся и переливающийся волнами, то вздыма- ющимися, то опадающими. Это и была Истинная магия джен.

Слово «теп» означает «народ», и, я думаю, понятно, как важна для нас магия. Ведь когда мои предки пришли сюда, они стали известны как джен-теп — народ Истинной магии.

Ну, в теории по крайней мере.

Я опустился на колени и начертил вокруг себя на песке за- щитный круг. Если честно, «круг» мог бы быть и поровнее.

Теннат осклабился.
— Да-а. Вот теперь я и впрямь испугался.
Несмотря на свое хвастовство, Теннат не производил тако-

го уж сильного впечатления, как воображал. Да, он был жи- листым и подлым, но не слишком-то большим. На самом деле он был таким же худым, как я, и на полголовы ниже. Почему- то от этого он казался еще более гнусным.

— Вы двое все еще намерены устроить поединок? — спро- сил мастер Осья-фест, поднимаясь с каменной скамьи на краю

Оазиса. Старый чародей смотрел на меня, не на Тенната — недвусмысленно намекая, кто должен сдать назад.

— Келлен не отступит! — заявила моя сестра, выходя из- за спины учителя.

Шелле исполнилось лишь тринадцать. Она младше всех нас — но уже проходила испытания и была лучшим магом из присутствующих здесь, кроме разве что Панакси. Об этом го- ворили четыре татуировки, сверкающие на ее предплечьях — магия дыхания, железа, крови и огня. Иные маги оканчивали свои дни, так и не ухитрившись изучить сразу четыре стихии, но моя сестренка овладела ими и намеревалась совершенст- вовать их все.

Так сколько же узоров вытатуировано на мне? Сколько узоров под рукавами моей рубашки замерцают и закружатся, когда я призову высшую магию своего народа?

Ни одного.

О да, в пределах Оазиса я мог использовать тренировочные заклятия, которые изучают все посвященные. Я мог воспроиз- вести любые жесты так же хорошо — а может, и лучше — чем любой из моих одноклассников. Я без запинки произносил са- мые заковыристые словоформы. Я с безукоризненной точно- стью вычерчивал сложнейшие фигуры магической геометрии. Я был искусен на всех этапах сотворения заклинания… кро- ме, собственно, магии как таковой.

— Откажись от этой драки, Келлен, — умоляла Нифе- ния. — Найдешь кого-нибудь другого для поединка.

Да, в том-то и проблема. Скоро мне исполнится шестнад- цать, и остается последний шанс доказать, что я достаточно хорош, чтобы получить имя мага. Я должен был пройти че- тыре магических испытания, первое из которых — поединок. А иначе я стану одним из ше-теп и проведу остаток жизни, го- товя еду, прибираясь и прислуживая в доме одного из моих бывших товарищей. Унизительно для любого посвященного. А уж для члена моей семьи, для сына самого Ке-хеопса!.. Не- мыслимо!

Впрочем, как бы там оно все ни было, именно Тенната я ре- шил вызвать совсем по другой причине.

— Предупреждаю вас: защита закона не распространяет- ся на проходящих испытания, — напомнил Осья-фест. Голос его звучал устало и терпеливо. — Лишь тот, чьи навыки дают ему силу противостоять нашим врагам в бою, может предъя- вить право на имя мага.

В Оазисе воцарилась тишина. Все мы видели список имен посвященных, которые подверглись испытаниям, не пригото- вившись должным образом. И все мы знали, как они умерли. Осья-фест снова посмотрел на меня.

— Ты действительно готов?

— Само собой! — сказал я. Не принято так разговаривать с учителем, но следовало придерживаться стратегии: непоко- лебимая уверенность в себе.

—«Само собой», — насмешливо передразнил Теннат. Он встал в простейшую защитную позицию: ноги на шири-

не плеч, руки свободно висят вдоль тела, готовые сотворить заклинания, которые потребуются в поединке. — Последний шанс уйти, Келлен. Когда мы начнем, я не остановлюсь, пока ты не свалишься.

Он ухмыльнулся и перевел взгляд на Шеллу.

— Сейчас тебе будет жутко больно. Не хотелось бы, чтобы это зрелище причинило ненужные страдания твоей сестре.

Если Шелла и заметила неуклюжую попытку Тенната про- явить галантность, то не подала вида. Она не двигалась с ме- ста — стояла, уперев руки в бока, а ее яркие золотистые во- лосы вздымались волнами под порывами ветра. У Шеллы волосы прямые и мягкие — в отличие от тех непослушных пегих прядей, которые пытался откинуть с глаз я. Нам обоим по наследству досталось хрупкое сложение нашей матери, но в моем случае дело усугубилось постоянными болезнями. Шелла — тоненькая и изящная — неизменно притягивала взгляды посвященных нашего клана. Она, впрочем, не обра- щала на это ни малейшего внимания. Сестра отлично пони- мала, что ее потенциал в разы превосходит возможности всех остальных и полностью посвятила себя тому, чтобы стать лордом-магом, как отец. Парни просто-напросто не были ча- стью этого уравнения.

— Не сомневаюсь, что она спокойно выдержит все мои ду- шераздирающие вопли, — сказал я.

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The DuelSpellslinger

The old spellmasters like to say that magic has a taste. Ember spells are like a spice burning the tip of your tongue. Breath magic is subtle, almost cool, the sensation of holding a mint leaf between your lips. Sand, silk, blood, iron … they each have their flavour. A true adept – the kind of mage who can cast spells even outside an oasis – knows them all.

Me? I had no idea what the high magics tasted like, which was why I was in so much trouble.

Tennat waited for me in the distance, standing inside the seven marble columns that ringed the town oasis. The sun at his back sent his shadow stretching all the way down the road towards me. He’d probably picked his spot precisely for that effect. It worked too, because my mouth was now as dry as the sand beneath my feet, and the only thing I could taste was panic.

‘Don’t do this, Kellen,’ Nephenia pleaded, quickening her step to catch up with me. ‘It’s not too late to forfeit.’

I stopped. A warm southern breeze shook the flowers from pink tamarisk trees lining the street. Tiny petals floated up into the air, glittering in the afternoon sun like particles of fire magic. I could have used some fire magic just then. Actually, I would have settled for just about any kind of magic.

Nephenia noticed my hesitation and unhelpfully added, ‘Tennat’s been bragging all over town that he’ll cripple you if you show up.’

I smiled, mostly because it was the only way I could keep the feeling of dread crawling up my stomach from reaching my face. I’d never fought a mage’s duel before, but I was fairly sure that looking petrified in front of your opponent wasn’t an especially effective tactic. ‘I’ll be fine,’ I said, and resumed my steady march towards the oasis.

‘Nephenia’s right, Kel,’ Panahsi said, huffing and puffing as he struggled to catch up. His right arm was wrapped around the thick covering of bandages holding his ribs together. ‘Don’t fight Tennat on my account.’

I slowed my pace a little, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. Panahsi had all the makings of one of the finest mages of our generation. He might even become the face of our clan at court one day, which would be unfortunate, since his naturally muscular frame was offset by a deep love of yellow-berry sweetcakes, and his otherwise handsome features were marred by the skin condition that was the inevitable result of the aforementioned cakes. My people have a lot of spells, but none that cure being fat and pockmarked.

‘Don’t listen to them, Kellen,’ Tennat called out as we approached the ring of white marble columns. He stood inside a three-foot circle in the sand, arms crossed over his black linen shirt. He’d cut the sleeves off to make sure everyone could see he’d sparked not just one, but two of his bands. The tattooed metallic inks shimmered and swirled under the skin of his forearms as he summoned the magics for breath and iron. ‘I think it’s sweet the way you’re throwing your life away just to defend your fat friend’s honour.’

A chorus of giggles rose up from our fellow initiates, most of whom were standing behind Tennat, shuffling about in anticipation. Everyone enjoys a good beating. Well, except the victim.

Panahsi might not have looked like the gleaming figures of ancient war mages carved into the columns in front of us, but he was twice the mage Tennat was. There was no way in all the hells that he should have lost his own duel so badly. Even now, after more than two weeks in bed and who knew how many healing spells, Panahsi could barely make it to lessons.

I gave my opponent my best smile. Like everyone else, Tennat was convinced I’d challenged him for my first trial out of recklessness. Some of our fellow initiates assumed it was to avenge Panahsi, who was, after all, pretty much my only friend. Others thought I was on some noble quest to stop Tennat from bullying the other students, or terrorising the Sha’Tep servants, who had no spells of their own with which to defend themselves.

‘Don’t let him goad you, Kellen,’ Nephenia said, her hand on my arm.

A few people no doubt suspected I was doing all this to impress Nephenia, the girl with the beautiful brown hair and the face that, while not perfect, was perfect to me. The way she was staring at me now, with such breathless concern for my well-being, you’d never have guessed that she’d hardly noticed me in all the years we’d been initiates together. To be fair, most days no one else had either. Today was different though. Today everyone was paying attention to me, even Nephenia. Especially Nephenia.

Was it only pity? Maybe, but the worried expression she wore on those lips that I’d longed to kiss ever since I’d first figured out that kissing wasn’t just two people biting each other made my head spin. The feel of her fingers on my skin … was this the first time she’d ever touched me?

Since I really hadn’t picked this fight just to impress her, I gently removed Nephenia’s hand and entered the oasis.

I once read that other cultures use the word ‘oasis’ to describe a patch of fertile terrain in a desert, but a Jan’Tep oasis is something completely different. Seven marble columns towered above us, one for each of the seven forms of true magic. Inside the enclosed thirty-foot circle there were no trees or greenery, but instead a glimmering carpet of silver sand that, even when stirred by the wind, never left the boundary set by the columns. At the centre was a low stone pool filled with something that was neither liquid nor air, but which shimmered as it rose and fell in waves. This was the true magic. The Jan.

The word ‘tep’ means ‘people’, so it should tell you how important magic is to us that when my ancestors came here, like other peoples before them, they left their old names behind and became known as the Jan’Tep, the ‘People of True Magic’.

Well, in theory, anyway.

I knelt down and drew a protective circle around myself in the sand. Actually, ‘circle’ might have been a bit generous.

Tennat chuckled. ‘Well, now I’m really scared.’

For all his bluster, Tennat wasn’t nearly as imposing a figure as he imagined. True, he was all wiry muscle and meanness, but he wasn’t very big. In fact, he was as thin as I was and half a head shorter. Somehow that just made him meaner.

‘Are you both still determined to go through with this duel?’ Master Osia’phest asked, rising from a stone bench at the edge of the oasis. The old spellmaster was looking at me, not at Tennat, so it was pretty clear who was supposed to back out.

‘Kellen won’t withdraw,’ my sister declared, stepping out from behind our teacher. Shalla was only thirteen, younger than the rest of us, but already taking her trials. She was a better mage than anyone present except for Panahsi, as evidenced by the fact that she’d already sparked the bands for breath, iron, blood and ember magic. There were mages who went their whole lives without ever being able to wield four disciplines, but my little sister fully planned on mastering all of them.

So how many bands had I sparked? How many of the tattooed symbols under my shirtsleeves would glow and swirl when I called on the high magics that defined my people?

Zero.

Oh, inside the oasis I could perform the practice spells that all initiates learn. My fingers knew the somatic shapes as well or better than any of my fellow initiates. I could intone every syllable perfectly, envision the most esoteric geometry with perfect clarity. I was skilled at every aspect of spellcasting except for the actual magic part.

‘Forfeit the duel, Kellen,’ Nephenia said. ‘You’ll find some other way to pass your tests.’

That, of course, was the real problem. I was about to turn sixteen and this was my last chance to prove that I had the calibre of magic worthy of earning my mage name. That meant I had to pass all four of the mage’s trials, starting with the duel. If I failed, I’d be forced to join the Sha’Tep and spend the rest of my life cooking, cleaning or clerking for the household of one of my former classmates. It would be a humiliating fate for any initiate, but for a member of my family, for the son of Ke’heops himself? Failure was inconceivable.

Of course, none of that was the reason why I’d chosen to challenge Tennat in particular.

‘Be warned, the protection of the law is suspended for those who undertake the trials,’ Osia’phest reminded us, his tone both weary and resigned. ‘Only those whose calibre gives them the strength to face our enemies in combat can lay claim to a mage’s name.’

Silence gripped the oasis. We’d all seen the list of past initiates who’d attempted the trials before they were ready. We all knew the stories of how they’d died. Osia’phest looked to me again. ‘Are you truly prepared?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. It wasn’t an appropriate way to speak to our teacher, but my strategy required that I project a certain confidence.

‘”Sure”,’ Tennat repeated in a mocking whine. He took up a basic guard position, legs shoulder width apart and hands loose at his sides, ready to cast the spells he’d use for our duel. ‘Last chance to walk away, Kellen. Once this starts, I don’t stop until you fall.’ He chuckled, his eyes on Shalla. ‘I wouldn’t want the tremendous pain I’m about to inflict on you to bring any needless suffering to your sister.’

If Shalla had noticed Tennat’s childish imitation of gallantry she gave no sign of it. Instead she stood there, hands on her hips, bright yellow hair billowing gracefully in the wind. Hers was straighter and smoother than the dirt-coloured mop I struggled to keep out of my eyes. We shared our mother’s pale complexion, but mine was exacerbated by a lifetime of intermittent illnesses. Shalla’s accentuated the fine-boned features that drew the attention of just about every initiate in our clan. None of them interested her, of course. She knew she had more potential than the rest of us and fully intended doing whatever it took to become a lord magus like our father. Boys simply weren’t part of that equation.

‘I’m sure she’ll weather my screams of agony just fine,’ I said.

Shalla caught my glance and returned a look that was equal parts bemusement and suspicion. She knew I’d do anything to pass my trials. That was why she was keeping such close watch on me.

Whatever you think you know, Shalla, keep your mouth shut. I’m begging you.

‘As the student who has sparked the fewest bands,’ Osia’phest said, ‘you may select the discipline of magic for the duel, Kellen. What is your weapon?’

Everyone stared at me, trying to guess what I’d choose. Here in the oasis, any of us could summon some tiny portion of the different forms of magic – just enough to train in spellwork. But that was nothing compared with what you could do once you’d sparked your bands. Since Tennat had iron and breath at his disposal, I’d be crazy to choose either of those two.

‘Iron,’ I said, loud enough to ensure that everyone heard.

My classmates looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Nephenia went pale. Shalla’s eyes narrowed. Panahsi started to object, but a glance from Osia’phest shut him up. ‘I did not hear you correctly,’ our teacher said slowly.

‘Iron,’ I repeated.

Tennat grinned, a greyish glow already winding itself from the iron band on his forearm, slithering around his hands as he began summoning the power. Everyone there knew how much Tennat loved iron magic, the way it let you tear and bludgeon at your enemies. You could see the excitement building up inside him, the thrill that came from wielding high-calibre magic. I wished I knew what it felt like.

Tennat was so eager that his fingers had already begun running through the somatic shapes for the spells he’d be using against me. One of the first things you learn in duelling is that only an idiot shows his hand before the fight starts, but since there was no possible way I could beat Tennat in iron magic, he probably figured there was nothing to lose.

That was the real reason why I was smiling.

See, for the past several weeks I’d watched every single duel Tennat had fought against the other initiates; I’d noticed how even those students with more power – those who should have been able to beat him with ease – always ended up forced to yield.

That was when I’d finally figured it out.

Magic is a con game.

PrologSturmbogen

Im Herzen von Schloss Aramor gibt es eine kleine Privatbibliothek, die als das Königliche Athenäum bekannt ist. (Oder auch als »dieser komische kleine runde Raum, in den der König gern adlige Damen zu führen pflegte, um ihnen zu zeigen, wie schlau er doch war«, wie Brasti es gerne beschrieb). Nicht lange, nachdem die Herzöge dem König den Kopf abgetrennt hatten, plünderten sie die meisten seiner Bücher – vermutlich weil auch sie niedere Adlige und edle Damen mit ihrer Brillanz beeindrucken wollten. Aber wenn man nur lange genug in dem von den Herzögen zurückgelassenen Müll kramt und den Staub und die Spinnweben beseitigt, stößt man mit etwas Glück auf ein wenig beeindruckendes Buch mit dem Titel Über die Tugenden der Ritter.
Nun sollte man eigentlich annehmen, dass jedes der aufgeblasenen herzoglichen Arschlöcher den Wunsch verspürt, dieses Buch stolz auf dem Kaminsims zu präsentieren. Welcher Adlige schwafelt schließlich nicht selbstgerecht und ausführlich über die Ehre und Loyalität seiner Ritter ? (Ganz zu schweigen von dem Geld, das sie ihn kosten). Sollte ein Buch mit dem verheißungsvollen Titel Über die Tugenden der Ritter da nicht von allen Herzögen heiß begehrt und umkämpft sein ?
Allerdings ist der Einband dieses speziellen Bandes ziemlich abgenutzt. Die Farben sind verblichen, und der nicht besonders angenehme Duft von verschimmeltem Leder über­-
deckt den Gestank der stockfleckigen Seiten.
Hätte einer der Herzöge das Buch in die Hand genommen, wäre ihm vermutlich der Name des Verfassers aufgefallen : Arlan Hemensis, und selbst die flüchtigste Nachforschung hätte ergeben, dass Arlan ein ehemaliger Schreiber im Haushalt eines unbedeutenden Adligen gewesen war, der aufgrund eines Disputes mit einem herzoglichen Ritter die meisten seiner späteren Jahre im Kerker verbracht hatte. Der fragliche Ritter hatte sich über die beharrliche Weigerung des alten Mannes geärgert, für einen neuen Wappenrock zu zahlen, nachdem das Blut von Veren Hemensis, dem einzigen Sohn von Arlan, den alten unwiderruflich versaut hatte. Der Wappenrock war während des Duells zwischen dem Ritter und dem jungen Veren mit Blut beschmiert worden. Der Junge war gerade mal siebeneinhalb Jahre gewesen und hatte es für ein Spiel gehalten, den Ritter zum Duell herauszufordern. Aber das hatte nicht den geringsten Unterschied gemacht. Schließlich ist das Duell eine der heiligen Pflichten der herzoglichen Ritter.
Als man Arlan schließlich im Alter von siebenundsechzig Jahren aus dem Kerker entließ, lebte er gerade noch lange genug, um sein kleines Buch zu schreiben.
Oberflächlich betrachtet preist das Buch die Ehre und Effektivität der Ritterschaft, obwohl das genauere Studium in den Gedanken der eher zynisch veranlagten Leser mög­licherweise ein paar Fragen aufwirft. Meine Lieblingspassage ist die letzte, in der Folgendes steht :
Ein wahrer Ritter ist so großartig, dass – sollte er auf dem Schlachtfeld niedergeschlagen werden und seine Rüstung von, sagen wir, einem Dutzend Pfeilen durchbohrt und der Helm so hart getroffen worden sein, dass der Stahl, der einst den Kopf des Ritters beschützte, ihn nun zerquetscht hat und das Gehirn aus seinem Kopf tropfen ließ … Selbst wenn es sich so verhalten sollte, verehrter Leser, ist ein wahrer Ritter so großartig, dass das laute Klirren seiner Rüstung, wenn der zerschlage­­ne Körper zu Boden kracht, trotz allem einen so edlen und gehaltvollen Ton macht, dass man jedem verzeihen möge, der ihn immer wieder hören möchte.
Natürlich muss man festhalten, dass die Geschichte den Tod von tausend Bauern vermutlich nicht zur Kenntnis nehmen würde, aber sollten diese erbärm­lichen Schurken ihre Höhergestellten angreifen und durch Zufall einen Ritter zu Fall bringen, wirft seine in Stahl gehüllte Leiche in der Tat einen sehr langen Schatten.

 

1 Die Heilige der Gnade

 

In bitterem Schweigen ritten wir, fünf verzweifelte, erschöpfte Great­coats, den nördlichen Dörfern von Luth entgegen und jagten vierzig herzoglichen Rittern hinterher. Trotz der schweren Rüstungen, die sie mit sich herumschleppten, hatten sie Kest zufolge einen ganzen Tag Vorsprung. Immer wenn mich der Schlaf zu übermannen drohte, stellte ich mir die Männer, die wir verfolgten, als grinsende Schakale vor, die mit Begeisterung unschuldige Dorfbewohner in Stücke rissen. Tatsächlich war das Massaker vermutlich recht metho­-
disch und leidenschaftslos erfolgt. Schließlich handelte es sich hier um Ritter : Männer, die nur Befehle befolgten – oh, und nicht zu vergessen das Diktat ihrer Ehre oder was sie dafür hielten. Ich würde jeden Einzelnen von ihnen töten.
Unsere Feinde bemühten sich nicht, ihre Spuren zu verwischen. Jeder Hufabdruck war wie ein in den Staub eingeprägtes Grinsen, das uns zur Verfolgung aufforderte. Jeder Blick zurück schien mir die Toten von Carefal zu zeigen – die Männer, Frauen und Kinder starrten mich mit toten Augen an und formten mit ihren toten Lippen unablässig die Worte Feigling und Verräter, als würde mich das zu größerer Schnelligkeit anspornen. Aber wir ritten bereits so schnell, wie es die Pferde und die raue Straße erlaubten. Und wir konnten nicht das Risiko eingehen, dass die Tiere vor Erschöpfung tot zusammenbrachen.
Dariana und Kest übernahmen abwechselnd die Spitze und hielten nach Anzeichen dafür Ausschau, dass die Ritter von ihrer nördlichen Route abwichen. An diesem ersten Tag sagte Brasti kein Wort, und er sah uns auch nicht in die Augen. Am Ende war es Valiana, die zu ihm durchdrang. Sie ignorierte einfach sein Schweigen und ritt neben ihm, ohne auch nur ein Wort zu sagen. Am nächsten Tag tat sie das Gleiche, und nach ein paar Stunden glaubte ich ihn etwas murmeln zu hören – ich konnte es nicht verstehen, aber was auch immer es gewesen war, sie reagierte nicht darauf. Ich hielt mich fern, aber nach einer Weile konnte ich Brasti sprechen hören. Dann wütete er und schluchzte. Und noch immer hörte Valiana einfach nur zu. Als er endlich schwieg, machte sie nicht den Versuch, seine Probleme zu lösen oder seine Ansichten zu korrigieren oder ihm zu sagen, dass er ein Narr war.
»Sprich weiter«, sagte sie.
Ich wollte mich zu ihnen gesellen, etwas Schlaues oder Witziges sagen, das unseren Brasti zur Rückkehr zwingen würde, das – wenn auch nur reflexartig – den lachenden, arroganten Bastard zurückholte, der für gewöhnlich den Rest von uns bei geistiger Gesundheit hielt. Aber ich war mir ziemlich sicher, dass jedes Wort aus meinem Mund die Dinge nur verschlimmern konnte, also hielt ich den Blick auf die Straße gerichtet und dachte nach.
Jemand ermordete mein Land.
Hier kann es unmöglich nur darum gehen, die Ordnung zu bewahren, dachte ich. Irgendwie müssen die Morde an Isault und Roset und ihren Familien mit den Aufständen in den Dörfern in Verbindung stehen.
Es wäre nicht schwergefallen, das alles Trin anzulasten. Sie verfügte über die bösartige Verdorbenheit, so etwas zu befehlen und sich am Ergebnis zu berauschen. Aber wenn sie in der Region einen derartigen Einfluss hatte, warum hatte sie dann nicht schon längst die Kontrolle über das ganze Land übernommen ? Und wenn sie Tristia in einen Bürgerkrieg mit all seinem Chaos trieb, worüber wollte sie dann noch herrschen ?
Ich verfluchte jeden einzelnen Heiligen.
Ich brauchte mehr Informationen. Ich musste mit jemandem darüber reden, musste die vielen sich widersprechenden Worte und Bilder aus meinem Kopf bekommen und sehen, was eine andere Person darüber dachte. Valiana hatte ihr ganzes Leben an Trins Seite verbracht und wusste mehr über sie und ihre Art als sonst jemand, aber ihre Aufmerksamkeit war auf Brasti gerichtet. In der kommenden Schlacht würde ich ihn dringend brauchen, also ließ ich sie in Ruhe.
»Weißt du, eigentlich wollte ich sie hassen.«
Ich blickte zur Seite. Dariana ritt neben mir.
»Natürlich hatte ich von Valiana gehört«, fuhr sie fort. »Es hieß, sie sei ein hochnäsiges Miststück – die ach so mächtige Tochter der verfluchten Herzogin Patriana, die ihr ganzes Leben lang davon ausging, eines Tages Königin zu sein. Selbst als das mit Trin ans Licht kam, dachte ich mir : ›Achtung. Jetzt wird sich diese Valiana zur betrogenen Heiligen stilisieren‹. Aber das tat sie nicht.«
»Nein«, erwiderte ich. »Das tat sie nicht.«
»Man drückt ihr einen Mantel und ein Schwert in die Hand, und sie … Weißt du eigentlich, dass sie nicht einmal wütend ist ? Natürlich will sie Trin tot sehen, aber auch das hauptsächlich nur, weil Trin Aline umbringen will.« Sie warf einen Blick zurück auf Valiana. »Wie soll man das verstehen ? Da entreißt man ihr sämtliche Privilegien des Adels, und sie wird …«
»Edel ?«
Dariana schnaubte. »Vielleicht.« Sie schwieg ein paar Sekunden lang. »Sie sollte völlig außer sich vor Zorn sein ! Sie sollte versuchen, jeden umzubringen, der ihr je …«
Dariana verstummte. Schweigend ritten wir ein paar Minuten lang weiter. »Es stimmt, was Nile über dich sagte, oder ? Du bist die Tochter von Shanilla, dem Kompass des Königs«, sagte ich dann.
Dariana kniff die Augen zusammen. »Spielt das eine Rolle ?«
»Ich bin ihr nur ein paarmal begegnet.« Ich rief mir die kleine, rothaarige Frau mit den dunkelgrünen Augen zurück ins Gedächtnis. »Der König ernannte sie zur Greatcoat, als ich gerade in Domaris für Gerechtigkeit sorgte, also standen wir uns nicht besonders nahe, aber ich kannte sie gut genug, um sie zu respektieren.«
»Und, erkennst du viel von ihr in mir ?«, wollte sie wissen.
»Ich …« Shanilla war eine der besten Magistrate der Great­coats gewesen. Ihre meisterhafte Beherrschung der Wechselfälle des Gesetzes kam niemandem gleich – nicht einmal Kest. Auch als Fechterin war sie nicht schlecht, obwohl darin sicher nicht ihre größte Stärke gelegen hatte. »Du ähnelst ihr ein bisschen, um die Augen. Aber nein, ich kann mir kaum zwei unterschiedlichere Menschen vorstellen.«
Dariana lächelte. Es war kein fröhliches, glückliches Lächeln. »Gut.«
In ihrem angespannten Ausdruck glaubte ich eine Zerbrechlichkeit zu spüren, was mir das Gefühl gab, irgendwie eine Verbindung zu ihr aufgenommen zu haben. Shanilla hatte nie versucht, sich jemanden zum Feind zu machen – für gewöhnlich hatte sie sich alle Mühe gegeben, jeden Konflikt zu vermeiden. Und doch hatte sich ein Herzog oder Markgraf oder Lord genug darüber geärgert, wie sie in einem Fall entschieden oder zur Durchsetzung des Urteils seinen Champion besiegt hatte, dass er ihr eines Nachts kaum eine Meile von der Sicherheit Schloss Aramors entfernt zwei Dashini auf den Hals gehetzt hatte, um sie zu ermorden. »Als sie starb, warst du noch sehr jung, richtig ?«
Dariana nickte.
»Wie alt warst du, vierzehn, fünfzehn ?«
Wieder nickte sie, ohne genaue Angaben zu machen.
Ich dachte an Valiana und wie sie es geschafft hatte, zu Brasti durchzudringen. Vielleicht gelang mir bei Dari das Gleiche. »Es ist in Ordnung, darüber zu reden«, sagte ich so sanft, wie ich konnte.
»Darf ich dir eine Frage stellen, Falcio ?«
»Natürlich.«
»Deine Frau ist vor ungefähr fünfzehn Jahren gestorben, ist das richtig ?«
»Ja.«
»Hättest du etwas dagegen, mir jede Einzelheit des Tages zu beschreiben, an dem sie starb ? Und vielleicht auch von den folgenden Tagen ? Hat sie deinen Namen geschrien, als sie ermordet wurde ?«
Meine Hände verkrampften sich um die Zügel. »Warum solltest du …«
Dariana lehnte sich näher zu mir. »Sie wurde doch auch vergewaltigt ? Hast du dir genau vorgestellt, was sie mit ihr gemacht haben ? Jede Entwürdigung und Schändung ihres Körpers ? Hast du dir die Gesichter jedes einzelnen Mannes vorgestellt, als er …«
»Hör auf !«, rief ich. »Was bei allen Höllen stimmt nicht mit dir ?«
»Es tut mir leid«, sagte sie. »Ich nehme an, die Erinnerungen erfüllen dich nur mit Schmerz.«
»Sie bringen mir jeden Tag Schmerz, verflucht.«
Dariana lehnte sich so nahe heran, dass unsere Gesichter nur noch ein kleines Stück voneinander entfernt waren. »Gut. Denk an deine Frau, wenn du unbedingt alte Wunden wieder aufreißen willst. Und lass meine verdammt noch mal in Ruhe.«
Sie trieb ihr Pferd an und ritt ein paar Meter voraus.
Ein paar Minuten später lenkte Kest sein Tier an meine Seite. »Ich glaube nicht, dass sie dich mag.«
»Wir haben uns nur unterhalten.«
»Nein, du verstehst nicht. Wenn sie dich ansieht, liegt Zorn in ihrem Blick, vielleicht sogar Hass. Das habe ich nicht zum ersten Mal beobachtet.«
»Glaubst du, sie will mir schaden ?«
»Ich weiß es nicht, aber ich würde sie im Auge behalten.«
Ich dachte an all die Kämpfe zurück, die wir ausgefochten hatten, von Trins Kundschaftern in Pulnam zu den luthanischen Rittern in dem Gasthaus vor wenigen Tagen. »Sie hatte viele Gelegenheiten, mich zu töten«, sagte ich. Ich erinnerte mich an den Morgen, an dem ich mit ihrem Messer am Hals aus meiner Lähmung erwacht war. »Sie hätte es auch tun können, als wir allein waren.«
»Das stimmt«, meinte Kest. »Trotzdem.«
»Ich weiß. Sie hasst mich. Das ist im Augenblick nichts Besonderes. Alle werden besser über mich denken, wenn ich tot bin.«
Eine normale Person hätte das vielleicht eine Weile nachwirken lassen, bevor sie darauf antwortete, aber Kest verschwen­-
det nie gern Zeit. »Wie fühlst du dich ?« Sein Blick bohrte sich in mein Gesicht, als könnte er durch meine Haut sehen.
»Gut, schätze ich. Ich glaube, ich bin etwas langsamer als gewöhnlich. Meine Gedanken schweifen öfter ab. Meistens wache ich mit einer solchen Angst auf, dass ich mich vollpinkeln würde, was die Lähmung aber wohl verhindert.«
Kest nickte. »Dann ist es ja nicht so schlimm.«
Ich musste kichern. »Ach, alles hat auch seine guten Seiten, selbst der Tod durch Lähmung. Zum Beispiel muss ich mir keine Sorgen darüber machen, alt zu werden und Falten zu bekommen.«
Er tat so, als würde er mich voller Ernst von Kopf bis Fuß mustern. »Du würdest bestimmt einen schönen Leichnam abgeben, Falcio.«
»Das liegt an der Lähmung. Ich bekomme jeden Tag viel Schönheitsschlaf.«
»Angeblich sind Schlaflosigkeit und Schlafwandeln ein weitverbreitetes Leiden.«
»Damit habe ich kein Problem.« Ich hob ein imaginäres Glas in die Luft. »Auf Herzogin Patriana und die vielen unerwarteten Vorzüge einer Neatha-Vergiftung.«
Er hob ebenfalls ein imaginäres Glas. »Die sie immerhin zuerst umgebracht hat.«
Wir lachten beide und ignorierten, wie seltsam es doch war, die Gewalt hinter sich zu lassen, nur um zur nächsten Gewalt zu eilen, von einem Massaker in die Schlacht zu reiten. Und dabei nur einen kurzen Augenblick des Trostes durch die Gesellschaft der anderen vergönnt zu bekommen, um das Muster zu brechen. Aber wenn die kleinen Momente des Glücks die Dunkelheit durchbrechen, versucht man sein Bestes, sie nicht zu ruinieren. Darum wartete ich ein paar Minuten, bevor ich Kest eine Frage stellte, vor der ich mich schon seit Tagen drückte. »Was glaubst du, wie lange ich noch habe ?«
Sein Blick flackerte in meine Richtung und richtete sich dann wieder auf die Straße. »Ich bin kein Heiler. Ich weiß nicht …«
»Komm schon«, sagte ich. »Du hast mal den Unterschied berechnet, wie lange es dauert, ein Schwert im Regen zu ziehen und im Trockenen. Wenn ein Mann uns auch nur schief ansieht, berechnest du die Chancen. Willst du mir ernsthaft erzählen, du hast nicht versucht auszurechnen, wann mich das Neatha umbringt ?«
»Es ist … Ich kenne nicht alle Faktoren. Sicherlich hält die Lähmung jeden Morgen länger an, und je länger du gelähmt bist, umso flacher wird offenbar deine Atmung. Manchmal scheint sich deine Kehle zu verkrampfen, als könnte sie sich nicht weit genug öffnen …«
»Wie lange ?«
Kest sah mich an und holte tief und gequält Luft, als würde der Gedanke an meine Symptome seine Atmung beeinflussen. »Sechs Tage, würde ich sagen. Es könnten auch sieben sein.« Wieder blickte er nach vorn, wie er es immer tut, wenn er nicht wirklich von dem überzeugt ist, was er gleich sagen wird. »Es könnte eine Medizin geben, die etwas dagegen ausrichtet. Das Gift könnte auch endlich aus deinem Körper verschwinden. Es könnte besser werden, falls …«
»Schon gut«, sagte ich. »Sechs Tage.«
»Vielleicht auch sieben.«
Ich nickte. »In dieser Zeit muss ich herausfinden, wer zwei Herzöge und ihre Familien ermordet hat und warum in Carefal zweihundert Bauern gestorben sind.«
»Möglicherweise hat das gar nichts miteinander zu tun«, sagte Kest. »Wer auch immer diese Ritter sind, die Carefal massakriert haben, ich bezweifle, dass es Dashini sind.«
»Sie könnten für dieselben Leute arbeiten«, hielt ich dagegen, obwohl sich die Worte schon falsch in meinen Ohren anhörten, als ich sie aussprach. »Aber nein. Das ergibt irgendwie keinen Sinn.«
»Warum ?«
»Die Dashini sind präzise. Schnell und tödlich wie eine Stilettklinge. Ein Werkzeug für den Fall, dass Verstohlenheit erforderlich ist – wie ein Flüstern im Dunkeln.«
Kest lächelte merkwürdig. »Ein Flüstern im Dunkeln ? Schreibst du in deiner Freizeit jetzt Verse ?«
»Die verfluchten Bardatti färben auf mich ab !«, beklagte ich mich. »Hör einfach zu. Ritter sind nichts anderes als Zorn und nackte Gewalt – eine von einem starken Arm geschwungene Keule. Ihr Einsatz ist eine klare Ansage. Etwas, das man von den Dächern ruft.«
»Also sind die Bauern zwischen der scharfen Klinge der Dashini und dem schweren Hammer der Ritter gefangen.«
»Und wer redet jetzt wie ein Bardatti ?«, zog ich ihn auf. »Aber da steckt mehr dahinter. Jemand hat die Dorfbewohner bewaffnet, und zwar nicht nur einmal, sondern zweimal. Das erste Mal, bevor wir überhaupt von Carefals Existenz erfuhren, und dann bewaffnete sie jemand erneut, nachdem wir ihre Stahlwaffen konfisziert hatten.«
»Jemand will das Land unbedingt in einen Bürgerkrieg stürzen«, sagte Kest.
Ich schüttelte den Kopf. »Nein. Darauf steuert es bereits zu. Und zwar seit Jahren. Jemand will es beschleunigen.«
»Trin ist noch immer die beste Verdächtige.«
»Aber warum ? Sie will Tristia beherrschen, nicht auf einem hübschen Thron sitzen und zusehen, wie sich das Land selbst zerfleischt.«
»Sie ist verrückt.«
»Sie ist verrückt. Aber nicht dumm.« Ich warf wieder einen Blick auf die Fährte der Männer, die wir verfolgten. »Kest, jemand führt dieses Land ins Chaos. Jemand will es brennen sehen.«

When The Sword Seems To Smile

It’s a strange thing to watch the rise and fall of your wife’s belly as she sits by the fire. With each sleepy breath – hers, not mine – the gentle slope beneath the pale blue cotton shift swells as if any moment now the baby’s going to leap out of her, expecting me to catch it.

And what am I supposed to do after that?

Ethalia exhales, and the moment where I unbuckle my duelling swords forever, shed the long leather coat that has marked me as one of the King’s Travelling Magistrates these past fifteen years to take on the newer and far more terrifying mantle of fatherhood recedes a little while longer.

I can’t decide whether my own breathing comes easier when Ethalia is inhaling or exhaling. I know she’s aware of me, of both my anticipation and my doubts. She’s always known what I was feeling, even before she became a Saint.

A real one. I’m not being metaphorical here: my wife is now known in this troubled little country of ours as Saint Ethalia who-shares-all-sorrows. I’m most commonly referred to as ‘That arsehole Falcio val What’s-his-name’.

Father.

Soon someone will be calling me father, and that will change everything. It will change me.

It has to, doesn’t it?

I lean back in my chair, closer to the wooden-slatted window of this tiny cottage we’ve rented until the baby is born and we’re able to make our way by boat to a little island off the coast of Baern that is Ethalia’s birthright. She tells me it’s beautiful. Peaceful. The folk who live there work out their differences with words over rabbit stew instead of steel inside a duelling circle.

Who knew such strange cultural practices still existed in which violence wasn’t the inevitable answer to every question?

I’m calmer now, and for a moment I tell myself it’s alright; I’m growing accustomed to this impending and uncertain future. But then I notice the reason for my composure: the fingers of my right hand have slipped around the leather grip of the scabbarded rapier that sits across my lap at night when Ethalia dozes and I listen by the window in case any of the thousand enemies this same blade has earned me should come to call. The reassurance I’ve learned to feel when holding a blade is an instinct that’s kept me alive all these years when by rights I should’ve been dead a hundred times over.

Chapter 1 - The Language of SwordsTales of the Greatcoats Vol. 1

The rapier blades clink like wine glasses when the duellists cross swords for the first time. There’s no clanging or clattering, instead, I hear the opening note of an unbearably graceful tune, performed by two masters playing their instruments in perfect harmony. The freshly sharpened edges graze against one another like the fingertips of two dancers passing each other on the stage. Leather-soled boots glide across the marble floor, never stomping, never slipping. Every movement is precise. Assured. Calculated.

The noble families in their cushioned seats by the railings and the rabble clamouring from behind on rough, splintery benches grin and nod at each other, united for once by the perils and prestige meted out within the duelling circle. The spectators jeer and shout at those seated on the opposite side of the court, negotiating wagers with elaborate hand gestures, fingers darting back and forth as speedily as the thrusts and parries of the combatants. So aroused are the audience’s passions that they’ve become blind to all but the flash of steel upon steel. Deafened by the cacophony of their own applause, their ears fail to follow the deadly conversation unfolding inside the duelling circle. This is more than violence; it is poetry, composed in a language that goes unrecognized by the cantankerous crowds of Rijou’s infamous Court of Blades.

I understand it, though. Every word, every whisper.

It makes me sick.

Like all proper young gentlemen of Rijou, I’ve devoted hundreds of sweating, tearful hours inside the fencing halls where the sons and daughters of our city’s notable families train in the ways of the sword. Within those walls, my name has become synonymous with awkward, incompetent bladework. ‘Percevar Tiarren!’ our master will shout, and my fellow students will pause in their own bouts to roll their eyes at my latest gaffe. The admonishments have become so frequent this past year that now whenever one of my classmates stumbles into a failed lunge, their partner will hiss, ‘Don’t percé your attack, silly.’

I’d take offence at this misuse of my name, but doing so would inevitably lead to a duel with blunted foils at midnight, and I get enough bruises in the classroom as it is. As has been pointed out to me many times – often with the tip of the master’s own sword – I am rubbish as a fencer. ‘You’ve learned nothing from me!’ he declares at the end of every lesson. ‘Nothing!’

He’s wrong, though. I’ve learned this language of steel.

I just can’t bear to speak it.

My father, Lord Tiarren is one of the most respected generals in the Ducal army and a highly regarded duellist. Last night he asked me – no, begged me, his own son – to accept the junior officer’s commission he purchased for me and accompany him to quell the border raids. As the second eldest child, tradition dictates that I become our house champion when I turn of age. To me, it will fall to protect my parents as they age, my eldest sister as she leads our house, and my younger siblings as they expand our business ventures. It is for me to fight duels on behalf of our family.

When I refused my father’s offer for the third time, he didn’t hit me with one of those big, iron-hard fists of his; he didn’t threaten to expel me from his house and have my name stricken from our family line. He merely nodded as if he’d known all along what my answer would be, and accepted it as the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of congenital cowardice.

But I’m not a coward. I’m not.

At least, I don’t think I am. I’m just afraid all the time.

The duel inside the courtroom changes tenor, the rhythm accelerating, drawing my attention back to the fighting circle. The combatants’ probing rapiers having uncovered any weaknesses in defence or stiffness of movement, the blades now slither like snakes against each other, searching for an opening. The defendant, Orlo Abradi is a former guard captain to one of the High Twelve houses, convicted of attempting to swap a near-priceless blue romantine gemstone meant for his employer’s anniversary necklace with a mere sapphire.

Orlo is a tall man, broad in the chest and long in the arm. This gives him greater strength and reach than his opponent. When the duel began, the heralds dubbed him ‘Our Lord of the Battering Blow’. Orlo is indeed a formidable figure who’s probably never lost a fight in his life. The loud swish of his blade as he slashes at the prosecuting duellist and the grunt he makes a split-second before his lunges tells me that Orlo should’ve accepted the magistrate’s sentence of seven years for his crime instead of appealing for trial by combat.

A duella damnatio is sometimes called a ‘gambler’s duel’ because every cut the defendant scores against the prosecuting duellist strikes a year from his sentence. Every wound he suffers, however, extends his prison term by a year, and like all gamblers playing at the wrong table, Our Lord of the Battering Blow doesn’t know when to fold on a bad hand.

‘Sixteen!’ The audience shouts in unison as the prosecutor’s point slips under the defendant’s guard to nick his sword arm uet again. Before Orlo can even react, the prosecutor ducks down low and extends his arm in a perfect thrust that drives the tip of a blackened steel rapier a half-inch into the defendant’s right thigh. A tiny spot of blood blooms red against the white duelling breeches. ‘Seventeen!’ The crowd cheers, as if they were the ones who’d scored the touch.

Chapter 1 - Lord TremondiTraitor's Blade

Pretend, just for a moment, that you have attained your most deep-seated desire. Not the simple, sensible one you tell your friends about, but the dream that’s so close to your heart that even as a child you hesitated to speak it out loud. Imagine, for example, that you had always yearned to be a Greatcoat, one of the legendary sword-wielding magistrates who travelled from the lowliest village to the biggest city, ensuring that any man or woman, high or low, had recourse to the King’s Laws. A protector to many – maybe even a hero to some. You feel the thick leather coat of office around your shoulders, the deceptively light weight of its internal bone plates that shield you like armour and the dozens of hidden pockets holding your tools and tricks and esoteric pills and potions. You grip the sword at your side, knowing that as a Greatcoat you’ve been taught to fight when needed, given the training to take on any man in single combat.

  Now imagine you have attained this dream – in spite of all the improbabilities laid upon the world by the ill-intentioned actions of Gods and Saints alike. So you have become a Greatcoat – in fact, dream bigger: pretend that you’ve been made First Cantor of the Greatcoats, with your two best friends at your side. Now try to envision where you are, what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what wrong you are fighting to right—

  ‘They’re fucking again,’ Brasti said.

  I forced my eyes open and took in a bleary view of the inn’s hallway, an overly ornate – if dirty – corridor that reminded you that the world was probably a nice place once but had now gone to rot. Kest, Brasti and I were guarding the hallway from the comfort of decaying chairs taken from the common room downstairs. Opposite us was a large oak door that led to Lord Tremondi’s rented room.

  ‘Let it go, Brasti,’ I said.

  He gave me what was intended to be a withering look, though it wasn’t very effective: Brasti’s a little too handsome for anyone’s good, including his own. Strong cheekbones and a wide mouth clothed in a reddish-blond short beard amplify a smile that gets him out of most of the fights he talks his way into. His mastery of the bow gets him through the rest. But when he tries to stare you down, it just looks like he’s pouting.

  ‘Let what go, pray tell?’ he said. ‘The fact that you promised me the life of a hero when you tricked me into joining the Greatcoats and instead I find myself impoverished, reviled and forced to take lowly bodyguard work for travelling merchants? Or is it the fact that we’re sitting here listening to our gracious benefactor – and I use the term loosely since he has yet to pay us a measly black copper – but that aside, that we’re listening to him screw some woman for – what? The fifth time since supper? How does that fat slob even keep up? I mean—’

  ‘Could be herbs,’ Kest interrupted, stretching his muscles out again with the casual grace of a dancer.

  ‘Herbs?’

  Kest nodded.

  ‘And what would the so-called “greatest swordsman in the world” know about herbs?’

  ‘An apothecary sold me a concoction a few years ago, supposed to keep your sword-arm strong even when you’re half-dead. I used it fighting off half a dozen assassins who were trying to kill a witness.’

  ‘And did it work?’ I asked.

  Kest shrugged. ‘Couldn’t really tell. There were only six of them, after all, so it wasn’t much of a test. I did have a substantial erection the whole time though.’

  A pronounced grunt followed by moaning came from behind the door.

  ‘Saints! Can they not just stop and go to sleep?’

  As if in response, the groaning grew louder.

  ‘You know what I find odd?’ Brasti went on.

  ‘Are you going to stop talking at any point in the near future?’ I asked.

  Brasti ignored me. ‘I find it odd that the sound of a nobleman rutting is hardly distinguishable from one being tortured.’

  ‘Spent a lot of time torturing noblemen, have you?’

  ‘You know what I mean. It’s all moans and grunts and little squeals, isn’t it? It’s indecent.’

  Kest raised an eyebrow. ‘And what does decent rutting sound like?’

  Brasti looked up wistfully. ‘More cries of pleasure from the woman, that’s for sure. And more talking. More, “Oh my, Brasti, that’s it, just there! Thou art so stout of heart and of body!”’ He rolled his eyes in disgust. ‘This one sounds like she’s knitting a sweater or cutting meat for dinner.’

  ‘“Stout of heart and body”? Do women really say that kind of thing in bed?’ Kest asked.

  ‘Try taking a break from practising alone with your sword all day and bed a woman and you’ll find out. Come on, Falcio, back me up here.’

  ‘It’s possible, but it’s been so damned long I’m not sure I can remember.’

  ‘Yes, of course, Saint Falcio, but surely with your wife—?’

  ‘Leave it,’ I said.

  ‘I’m not – I mean—’

  ‘Don’t make me hit you, Brasti,’ Kest said quietly.

  We sat there in silence for a minute or two as Kest glared at Brasti on my behalf and the noises from the bedroom continued unabated.

  ‘I still can’t believe he can keep going like that,’ Brasti started up again. ‘I ask you again, Falcio, what are we doing here? Tremondi hasn’t even paid us yet.’

  I held up my hand and wiggled my fingers. ‘Did you see his rings?’

  ‘Sure,’ Brasti said, ‘very big and gaudy. With a stone shaped like a wheel on top.’

  ‘That’s a Lord Caravaner’s ring – which you’d know if you’d paid attention to the world around you. It’s what they use to seal their votes when they have their annual concord – one ring, one vote. Not every Lord Caravaner shows up for the concord each year, so they have the option of lending their ring to another to act as their proxy in all the major votes. Now, Brasti, how many Lords Caravaner are there in total?’

  ‘Nobody knows for sure, it’s—’

  ‘Twelve,’ Kest said.

  ‘And how many of his fingers had one of those gaudy rings on them?’

  Brasti stared at his own fingers. ‘I don’t know – four … five?’

  ‘Seven,’ Kest said.

  ‘Seven,’ I repeated.

  ‘So that means he could … Falcio, what is it exactly that the Concord of Lords Caravaner is going to vote on this year?’

  ‘Lots of things,’ I said casually. ‘Rates of exchange, dues, trade policies. Oh, and security.’

  ‘Security?’

  ‘Since the Dukes killed the King, the roads have fallen into disrepair. The Dukes won’t spend money or men, not even to defend the trade routes, and the Lords Caravaner are losing a fortune on private security for every single trip they take.’

  ‘And we care about this why?’

  I smiled. ‘Because Tremondi’s going to propose that the Greatcoats become the Wardens of the Road, giving us authority, respect, and a decent life in exchange for keeping their precious cargoes out of the hands of the bandits.’

  Brasti looked wary. ‘They’d let us reassemble the Greatcoats again? So instead of spending my life being branded a traitor and hounded from every overcrowded city or Gods-forsaken village the length and breadth of the country, I’d get to run around the trade routes beating up bandits – and I’d actually get paid for it?’

  I grinned. ‘And from there, we have a much better chance of fulfilling the King’s—’

  Brasti waved a hand. ‘Please, Falcio. He’s been dead for five years. If you haven’t found these bloody “King’s Charoites” by now – and still no one knows what they are, by the way—’

  ‘A charoite is a gemstone,’ Kest said calmly.

  ‘Whatever. My point is: finding these gemstones with no clue whatsoever as to where they might be is about as likely as Kest here killing the Saint of Swords.’

  ‘But I will kill the Saint of Swords, Brasti,’ Kest said.

  Brasti sighed. ‘You’re hopeless, both of you. Anyway, even if we do find the Charoites, what exactly are we supposed to do with them?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ I answered, ‘but since the alternative is that the Dukes hunt down the Greatcoats one by one until we’re all dead, I’d say Tremondi’s offer works for me.’

  ‘Well then,’ Brasti said, lifting an imaginary glass in the air, ‘good on you, Lord Tremondi. Keep up the good work in there!’

  More moaning came from the room as if in response to his toast.

  ‘You know, I think Brasti may be right,’ Kest said, standing up and reaching for one of the swords at his side.

  ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

  ‘At first it sounded like lovemaking, but I am beginning to think I really can’t tell the difference between these noises and those of a man being tortured.’

  I rose carefully, but my battered chair creaked loudly as I leaned towards the door, trying to listen. ‘They’ve stopped now, I think,’ I murmured.

  Kest’s sword let out only the barest whisper as he pulled it from its scabbard.

  Brasti put his ear to the door and shook his head. ‘No, he’s stopped, but she’s still going. He must be asleep. But why would she keep going if—?’

  ‘Brasti, move away from the door,’ I said, and threw my shoulder into it. The first try failed, but at the second, the lock gave way. At first I couldn’t see anything amiss in the gaudily appointed room, decorated in what the proprietor fondly believed to be the style of a Duke’s bedroom. Clothes and discarded books were strewn across what had once been expensive rugs but now were moth-eaten and likely homes for vermin. The bed had dusty velvet curtains hanging from an oaken frame.

  I had just begun to move slowly into the room when a woman stepped out from behind those curtains. Her bare skin was smeared with blood and, though I couldn’t see her features through the diaphanous black mask that covered her face, I knew she was smiling. In her right hand she held a pair of large scissors – the kind butchers use to cut meat. She extended her left hand towards me, fist closed tight, palm to the ceiling. Then she brought it close to her mouth and it looked as if she might blow us a kiss. Instead, she exhaled, and blue powder billowed into the air.

  ‘Don’t breathe in,’ I shouted to Kest and Brasti – but it was too late; whatever magic was in the powder didn’t require us to inhale to do its work. The world suddenly slowed to a halt and I felt as if I was trapped between the stuttering ticks of an old clock. I knew Brasti was behind me, but I couldn’t turn my head to see him. Kest was just in my sight, in the corner of my right eye, but I could barely make him out as he struggled like a demon to break free.

  The woman tilted her head as she looked at me for a moment. ‘Lovely,’ she said softly, and walked casually, even languidly towards us, the scissors in her hand making a rhythmic snip-snip sound. I felt her hand on the side of my face, then she ran her fingers down the length of my greatcoat, pushing at the leather until she could sneak her hand inside. She placed her palm on my chest for a moment, caressing it softly before sliding it down my stomach and below my belt.

  Snip-snip.

  She stretched up on her toes and leaned her masked face close to my ear, pushing her naked body against mine as if we were about to embrace. Snip-snip went the scissors. ‘The dust is called “aeltheca”,’ she whispered. ‘It’s very, very expensive. I needed only a pinch of it for the Lord Caravaner, but now you’ve made me use my entire supply.’ Her voice was neither angry nor sad, just as if she were merely making a dispassionate observation.

  Snip-snip.

  ‘I’d cut your throats out, my tatter-cloaks, but I’ve some use for you now, and the aeltheca will keep you from remembering anything about me.’

  She stepped back and twirled theatrically.

  ‘Oh, you’ll remember a naked woman in a mask – but my height, my voice, the curves of my body, these will all slip away from you.’

  She leaned forward, placed the scissors in my left hand and closed my fingers around them. I struggled to let them go, but my fingers wouldn’t move. I tried as hard as I could to memorise the shape of her body, her height, the features of her face through the mask, anything that would help me know her if I saw her again, but the images faded even as I watched her. I tried turning the words to describe her into rhymes that I might remember, but those too left me instantly. I could stare right at her, but each time I blinked my eyes, the memory was gone. The aeltheca was certainly effective.

  I hate magic.

  The woman went back to the curtained bed briefly, then returned with a small pool of blood held carefully in the palm of her hand. She went to the wall opposite us, dipped her finger in the blood and wrote a single word upon the wall. The dripping word was ‘Greatcoats’.

  She came back to me once more and I felt a kiss on my cheek through the gauzy fabric of her mask.

  ‘It’s almost sad,’ she said lightly, ‘to see the King’s own Greatcoats, his legendary travelling magistrates, brought so low; to watch you bowing and scraping to a fat Lord Caravaner barely one step up from a common street merchant … Tell me, tatter-cloak, when you sleep, do you imagine yourself still riding across the land, sword in hand and a song on your lips as you bring justice to the poor, wretched people trapped under the heels of capricious Dukes?’

  I tried to reply, but despite the effort, I could manage barely a tremor to my lower lip.

  The woman brought her finger up and smeared blood on the cheek she had kissed a moment ago. ‘Goodbye, my lovely tatter-cloak. In a few minutes, I’ll just be a hazy memory. But don’t worry, I’ll remember you very well indeed.’

  She turned and walked casually to the wardrobe and picked up her clothes. Then she opened the window and, without even dressing, slipped out into the early morning air.

  We stood there like tree stumps for a minute or so more before Brasti, who had been furthest away from the powder, was able to move his mouth enough to say, ‘Shit.’

  Kest came out of it next, and I was last. As soon as I could move, I raced to the window, but of course the woman was long gone.

  I went to the bed to examine the blood-soaked body of Lord Tremondi. She had gone after him like a surgeon and had managed to keep him alive for a long time, somehow – perhaps another property of the aeltheca. The passage of her scissors had for ever imprinted a map of atrocity across the surface of his body.

  This wasn’t just a murder; it was a message.

  ‘Falcio, look,’ Kest said, pointing at Tremondi’s hands. Three fingers remained on his right hand; the rest were bloody stumps. The Caravaner rings were gone, and with them, our hopes for the future.

  I heard the sounds of men coming up the stairs, the steady thump-thump of their footsteps marking them as city guards.

  ‘Brasti, bar the door.’

  ‘It’s not going to hold for long, Falcio. You kind of broke it when we came in.’

  ‘Just do it.’

  Brasti pushed the door back into place and Kest helped him to shove the dresser in front of it before turning to help as I searched for anything that would link to the woman who’d killed Tremondi.

  ‘Do you think we’ll find her?’ Kest asked me as we looked down at Tremondi’s butchered remains.

  ‘Not a chance in any of the hells we’re headed for,’ I replied.

  Kest put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Through the window?’

  I sighed. ‘The window.’

  Fists were banging on the door outside. ‘Goodnight, Lord Tremondi,’ I said. ‘You weren’t an especially good employer. You lied a lot, and never paid us when you promised. But I guess that’s all right, since we turned out to be pretty useless bodyguards.’

  Kest was already climbing out as the constables were beginning to force the door of our room.

  ‘Hang on,’ Brasti said. ‘Shouldn’t we – you know …’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You know, take his money?’

  Even Kest looked back and raised an eyebrow at that one.

  ‘No, we do not take his money,’ I said.

  ‘Why not? It’s not like he needs it.’

  I sighed again. ‘Because we’re not thieves, Brasti, we’re Greatcoats. And that has to mean something.’

  He started making his way out of the window. ‘Yeah, it means something: it means people hate us. It means they’re going to blame us for Tremondi’s death. It means we’re going to hang from the noose while the mob throws rotten fruit at our corpses shouting, “Tatter-cloak, tatter-cloak!” – And – oh yes it means we also don’t have any money. But at least we still have our coats.’

  He disappeared out of the window and I climbed out after him. The constables had just broken down the door, and when their leader saw me there with the wooden sill digging into my chest as I eased myself out of the window, there was the hint of a smile on his face. I knew instantly what that smile meant: he had more men waiting for us below, and now he could rain arrows down on us while they held us at bay with pikes.

  My name is Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats, and this was only the first of a great many bad days to come.

ЛОРД ТРЕМОНДИОСТРИЕТО НА ПРЕДАТЕЛЯ

Представи си за миг, че си постигнал най-съкровеното си желание. Не онова просто и практично нещо, което споделяш с приятелите си, а мечтата, която е толкова близко до сърцето ти, че дори като дете си се колебал да я изкажеш на глас. Предста-ви си, например, че винаги си искал да бъдеш Мантия, един от легендарните Арбитри, владеещи до съвършенство меча, кои-то са пътували от най-малките села до най-големите градове, за да направят възможно всеки мъж и всяка жена, независимо дали са високопоставени или обикновени хора, да са в състоя-ние да се обърнат към Царските закони. Закрилник за мнози-на, а за някои – може би дори герой. Усещаш плътната кожена служебна мантия около раменете си, измамно ниското тегло на вътрешните предпазни плочки, които те защитават като броня, както и десетките скрити джобове, в които са поставени твоите оръжия и секретни пособия, езотеричните ти хапчета и отвари. Държиш меча отстрани на тялото си, знаейки, че като Мантия си научен да се биеш, когато е необходимо, използвайки своята подготовка да се справиш с всеки противник в схватка един на един.
Сега си представи, че вече си постигнал тази мечта – въпре

ки всички препятствия, наложени над света от злонамерени-те действия на подобията на Богове и Светци. И така, вече си станал Мантия – всъщност мечтай по-мащабно – представи си, че си станал Предводител на Мантиите, заедно с двамата ти най-добри приятели, които са винаги с теб. Сега се опитай да си представиш къде си, какво виждаш, какво чуваш, какви зло-деяния се бориш да поправиш.
– Те отново се чукат – каза Брасти.
Насилих се да отворя очи и насочих замъгления си поглед към коридора на странноприемницата, който беше твърде пре-трупан и мръсен и напомняше, че светът най-вероятно е бил ху-баво място някога, но вече е западнал. Кест, Брасти и аз пазехме коридора, възползвайки се от удобството на прогнилите столо-ве, донесени от общото помещение на долния етаж. Срещу нас имаше голяма дъбова врата, която водеше към наетата от Лорд Тремонди стая.
– Не се връзвай, Брасти – казах аз.
Той ми хвърли един поглед, който беше замислен като смра-зяващ, но ефектът не се получи – Брасти просто е голям хуба-вец. Силните му скули и широката уста, обгърнати от червени-каворуса къса брада, подсилват усмивката, която го измъква от повечето сбивания, до които го докарват приказките му. Съвър-шеното владеене на лъка му помага да се справи с останалото. Опита ли се обаче да те разколебае с поглед, той просто изглеж-да сякаш се цупи.
– На кое да не се връзвам, ще ми обясниш ли? – каза той. – На факта, че ми обеща живот на герой, когато ме подмами да се присъединя към Мантиите, а вместо това се оказах беден, об-руган и принуден да приемам незначителни поръчки като те-лохранител на пътуващи търговци? Или може би на факта, че седим тук и слушаме нашия милостив благодетел – използвам термина свободно, тъй като той все още трябва да ни плати ке-лявите пари – но да оставим това на страна, та да го слушаме, значи, докато той оправя някаква жена, и за какво? Пети път след вечерята вече? Как изобщо издържа толкова този мърляч? Имам предвид…

– Може да е от билките – прекъсна го Кест, разтягайки мус-кулите си за пореден път с обичайната грациозност на танцьор.
– Билки ли?
Кест кимна с глава.
– И какво точно знае за билките „най-великият майстор на
меча в света“?
– Преди няколко години един аптекар ми продаде отвара, чи-
ето предназначение е да държи силна ръката, с която боравиш с меча, дори когато си почти умрял. Използвах я, за да отблъсна половин дузина убийци, които се опитваха да ликвидират един свидетел.
– И подейства ли? – попитах аз.
Кест сви рамене.
– Не мога да бъда сигурен. Те все пак бяха само шестима, кое-
то не е особено голям тест. През цялото време обаче имах со-лидна ерекция.
Отзад вратата се чуха стенания, последвани от пъшкане.
– О, Светци! Не могат ли просто да спрат и да си легнат да спят? Сякаш в отговор пъшкането стана по-силно.
– Знаеш ли кое ми е странно? – продължи Брасти.
– Ще спреш ли да говориш по някое време в близкото бъде-
ше? – попитах аз.
Брасти ме игнорира.
– Странно ми е, че звукът, издаван от разгонен благородник,
трудно може да се различи от този, когато го измъчват.
– Много време ли си прекарал в измъчване на благородници? – Знаеш какво имам предвид. Само пъшкане, грухтене и леки
писъци, не е ли така? Неблагоприлично е.
Кест повдигна едната си вежда.
– Как звучи благоприличното чифтосване?
Брасти погледна нагоре, изпълнен с копнеж.
– Със сигурност с повече стенания, издаващи насладата на
жената. И повече говорене. Повече „О, Брасти, само така, точно там! Сърцето и тялото ти са толкова юначни!“ – той извърна погледа си в знак на погнуса. – Това тук звучи сякаш тя плете пуловер или реже месо за вечеря.

– Опитай се да спреш за малко да тренираш сам по цял ден с твоя меч и си легни с някоя жена и ще разбереш. Хайде, Фалцио, подкрепи ме по този въпрос.
– Възможно е, но мина толкова много време, че не съм сигу-рен дали мога да си спомня.
– Да, разбира се, Свети Фалцио, но нали все пак със съпругата ти…?
– Престани – казах му аз.
– Не съм искал да… Имам предвид, че…
– Не ме карай да те ударя, Брасти – каза Кест тихо. Поседяхме в тишина една-две минути, докато Кест гледаше
гневно към Брасти вместо мен, а звуците от спалнята продъл-жаваха с неотслабваща сила.
– Все още не мога да повярвам, че той е в състояние да про-дължава по този начин. – Брасти погледна отново нагоре. – Пи-там те пак, Фалцио, какво правим тук? Тремонди дори не ни е платил още.
Вдигнах ръка и размърдах пръсти.
– Видя ли пръстените?
– Разбира се – каза Брасти – много големи и пищни. Отгоре с
камък във формата на колело.
– Това е пръстенът на Лорд на керван, щеше да го знаеш, ако
обръщаше повече внимание на света около теб. Именно това използват, за да запечатват вотовете си, когато провеждат го-дишната си конференция – един пръстен, един вот. Не всеки Лорд на керван идва за конференцията всяка година, затова имат право да дадат пръстена си на друг, който изпълнява ро-лята на пълномощник във всички важни гласувания. И така, Брасти, колко са общо Лордовете на керваните?
– Никой не знае със сигурност. Те са…
– Дванайсет – каза Кест.
– А на колко от неговите пръсти има по един от тези пищни
пръстени?
Брасти се загледа в собствените си пръсти.

– Не зная – четири… пет?
– Седем – каза Кест.
– Седем – повторих аз.
– Това означава, че той би могъл… Фалцио, какво точно ще се
гласува на тазгодишната конференция на Лордовете?
– Много неща – казах аз небрежно – Обменни курсове, такси,
търговски политики. А, също и сигурността.
– Сигурността ли?
– След като Херцозите убиха Краля, пътищата се занемариха.
Херцозите не отпускат средства и човешка сила дори за безо-пасността на търговските пътища, а Лордовете на керваните губят цяло състояние за лична охрана по време на всяко от пъ-туванията, които осъществяват.
– Нас това какво ни интересува?
Аз се усмихнах.
– Тремонди ще предложи Мантиите да станат Надзиратели
на пътищата, което ще ни донесе авторитет, уважение и сносен живот в замяна на опазването на техните скъпоценни товари от ръцете на бандитите.
Вниманието на Брасти се изостри.
– Ще ни позволят да съберем отново Мантиите ли? Значи ли това, че вместо да си прекарвам живота с етикет на изменник, подложен на гонения във всеки пренаселен град или забравено от бога село по цялата дължина и ширина на страната, аз ще обикалям търговските пътища и ще бия бандити и дори ще ми плащат за това?
Аз се засмях.
– След това ще имаме много по-добър шанс да изпълним кралските…
Брасти махна с ръка.
– Моля те, Фалцио, той умря преди 5 години. Ако до сега не си открил тези проклети „Кралски чароити“ *, за които между другото никой все още не знае какво представляват…
– Чароитът е скъпоценен камък – каза Кест спокойно.
– Както и да е. Мисълта ми е, че вероятността да намерим тези скъпоценни камъни, без да имаме каквато и да е представа

къде могат да бъдат, е толкова голяма, колкото Кест да убие тук Светеца на мечовете.
– Но аз ще убия Светеца на мечовете, Брасти – заяви Кест. Брасти въздъхна.
– Вие сте безнадежден случай, и двамата. Както и да е, дори
и да намерим Чароитите, какво точно се предполага, че трябва да направим с тях?
– Не зная – отговорих аз. – Но тъй като алтернативата е Херцозите да изловят Мантиите един по един, докато не из-мрем всичките, аз мисля, че предложението на Тремонди ме устройва.
– Добре тогава – каза Брасти, повдигайки имагинерна чаша във въздуха – браво на теб, Лорд Тремонди. Продължавай до-брата работа там вътре!
От стаята отново се чуха стонове, сякаш в отговор на него-вия тост.
– Знаеш ли, мисля, че Брасти може и да е прав – каза Кест, докато се изправяше и се протягаше, за да достигне един от ме-човете от неговата страна.
– Какво имаш предвид?
– Първоначално звукът наподобяваше правене на любов, но започвам да си мисля, че не виждам разлика между тези звуци и онова, което се чува, когато измъчват някого.
Аз се изправих внимателно, но моят очукан стол изскърца шумно, докато се навеждах към вратата, опитвайки се да под-слушам.
– Мисля, че сега спряха – измърморих аз.
Мечът на Кест издаде едва доловим шум, когато той го из-дърпа от ножницата.
Брасти долепи ухо до вратата и поклати глава.
– Не, той е спрял, но тя продължава. Той сигурно е заспал. Но защо тогава тя продължава, при положение че…?
– Брасти, отдръпни се от вратата – казах аз и стоварих рамо-
то си върху нея.
Първият опит се провали, но при втория ключалката под-
даде. Първоначално не можах да видя нищо нередно в кичозно

подредената стая, декорирана по начин, за който собственикът дълбоко вярваше, че съответства на стила на една Херцогска спалня. Дрехи и зарязани книги бяха разхвърляни по някогаш-ните скъпи килими, които сега бяха проядени от молци и най- вероятно приютяваха паразити. Прашни кадифени завеси вися-ха от дъбовата рамка над леглото.
Точно започвах да се придвижвам бавно из стаята, когато една жена изскочи иззад тези завеси. Непокритата ѝ кожа беше изпоцапана с кръв и, въпреки че не можех да видя чертите ѝ през прозиращата черна маска, която покриваше лицето ѝ, аз знаех, че тя се усмихва. В дясната си ръка държеше голяма но-жица като онези, който касапите използват за рязане на месо. Тя протегна към мен лявата си ръка със затворен юмрук, държей-ки дланта си обърната нагоре. След това я приближи до устата си и изглеждаше сякаш ще ни прати въздушна целувка. Вместо това тя подухна и във въздуха се образува облак син прах.
– Не дишайте – извиках на Кест и Брасти, но вече беше късно.
Каквато и магия да се съдържаше в праха, тя не се нуждаеше от вдишване, за да заработи. Светът изведнъж спря да се вър-ти и аз се почувствах сякаш съм заклещен между зациклилите тиктакания на стар часовник. Знаех, че Брасти е зад мен, но не можех да извърна глава, за да го видя. Кест влизаше в полезре-нието ми – в ъгъла на дясното ми око, но трудно можех да го махна оттам, тъй като се бореше като демон да се освободи.
Жената наклони глава и ме погледна за миг.
– Прекрасно – каза тя нежно и тръгна небрежно, дори мудно, към нас с ножица в ръка, издавайки ритмично звука клъц-клъц. Усетих ръката ѝ отстрани на лицето си, след което тя прока-ра пръсти надолу по мантията ми, насилвайки кожата, докато не промъкна ръката си вътре. Сложи дланта си на гърдите ми за момент, галейки ги нежно, след което се спусна надолу към
корема и под колана ми.
Тя се повдигна на пръсти и приближи маскираното си лице до ухото ми, притискайки голото си тяло към моето, сякаш щя-хме да се прегръщаме. Клъц-клъц се чу от ножиците.

– Прахът се казва „аелтека“ – прошепна тя. – Много, много е скъп. Беше ми необходима само една щипка от него за Лорда на керваните, но сега вие ме накарахте да използвам целия запас.
Гласът ѝ не беше нито ядосан, нито тъжен, а звучеше сякаш просто прави безпристрастно наблюдение.
– Бих ви прерязала гърлата, Дрипари такива, но сега поне мога да ви използвам за нещо, а аелтеката няма да ви позволи да запомните нищо, свързано с мен.
Клъц-клъц.
Тя отстъпи назад и се завъртя театрално.
– О, ще си спомняте за една гола жена с маска, но теглото, гласът, извивките на тялото ми – всичко това ще ви се изплъзва. Тя се наведе напред, сложи ножицата в лявата ми ръка и стегна пръстите ми около нея. Опитах се да я пусна, но пръсти-те ми не помръдваха. Положих възможно най-големи усилия да запаметя формата на нейното тяло, ръста ѝ и чертите на лицето ѝ през маската – каквото и да било, което би ми помогнало да я разпозная, ако я видя отново, но образите избледняваха още докато я гледах. Опитах се да обърна думите, с които я описвах, в рими, които имаше възможност да запомня, но и те ми се из-плъзваха моментално. Можех да се взирам директно в нея, но всеки път, когато мигнех с очи, споменът изчезваше. Аелтеката
със сигурност бе ефикасна.
Мразя магии.
За кратко жената отиде пак в леглото със завесите, след кое-
то се върна с малка локвичка кръв, която държеше внимател-но в дланта си. Тя отиде до стената срещу нас, натопи пръст в кръвта и написа една-единствена дума на стената. Думата, от която се стичаха капки, беше „Мантии“. Тя се върна при мен още веднъж и усетих целувка по бузата през ефирния плат на ней-ната маска.
– Почти е тъжно – каза тя спокойно – да гледаш личните Ман-тии на Краля – неговите легендарни Арбитри, паднали толкова ниско, че да се прекланят и раболепстват пред един дебел Лорд на керваните, който е само едно стъпало над обикновените улични търговци. Кажи ми, Дрипар, когато спиш, представяш

ли си се как все още яздиш из страната с меч в ръка и песен на уста, носейки правосъдие на бедните, окаяни хорица, смазани от ботуша на капризните Херцози?
Опитах се да отговоря, но въпреки усилията едвам успях да накарам долната си устна да потрепери.
Жената вдигна пръст и намаза с кръв бузата, която преди миг бе целунала.
– Сбогом, любими мой Дрипарю. След няколко минути аз ще бъда само един мъгляв спомен. Но не се притеснявай, аз ще те запомня много добре.
Тя се обърна, тръгна небрежно към гардероба и взе дрехите си. След това отвори прозореца и без даже да се облече, изчезна навън в ранния сутрешен въздух.
Около минута стояхме като три пъна, преди Брасти, който беше най-далеч от праха, да успее да размърда устата си доста-тъчно, за да каже: „Мамицата му“.
След това се опомни Кест, а аз бях последен. Веднага щом се размърдах, се затичах към прозореца, но жената естествено от-давна бе изчезнала.
Отидох към леглото, за да изследвам прогизналото от кръв тяло на Лорд Тремонди. Тя се бе отнесла с него като хирург и бе успяла някак си да го поддържа жив дълго време – най-вероят-но това беше друго свойство на аелтеката. Работата с нейната ножица бе оставила завинаги знака на варварството върху тя-лото му.
Това не беше просто едно убийство, а послание.
– Фалцио, погледни – каза Кест, сочейки към ръцете на Тре-монди. На дясната му ръка бяха останали три пръста, другите представляваха кървави остатъци. Пръстените на Лорда на керваните бяха изчезнали, а заедно с тях и нашите надежди за бъдещето.
Чух шума от изкачването на хора по стълбите, а равномерно-то потропване на стъпките им показваше, че са градски стражи.

Lord TremondiAz ÁRulÓ Pengéje

Tegyük fel, csupán egyetlen pillanatra, hogy elérted, amire a lelked mélyén vágytál. Nem valamely egyszerű, józan célodat, amelyről a barátaidnak mesélsz, hanem azt, amely olyannyira közel áll a szívedhez, hogy még gyermekként sem merted hangosan kimondani. Képzeld el például, hogy mindig is öregkabátos szerettél volna lenni, egyike azoknak a kardforgató bíráknak, akik a legszerényebb falvaktól a legnagyobb városokig mindenfelé járják a vidéket, és gondoskodnak róla, hogy bárki, férfi vagy nő, alsó vagy felső körökbe tartozó, a király törvényének védelmét élvezze. Sokak számára védelmező – néhányak szemében akár hős is. Érzed a hivatalodhoz járó erős bőrkabátot a válladon, a megtévesztően könnyű belső csontlemezeket, amelyek páncélként védelmeznek, és a tucatnyi rejtett zsebet, ahol az eszközeidet, trükkjeidet, ezoterikus tablettáidat és italaidat tartod. Megragadod a kardot az oldaladon, tudva, hogy öregkabátosként megtanítottak, hogy szükség esetén harcolj, és kiképeztek, hogy párviadalban bárkivel kiállhass.

Most képzeld el, hogy megvalósítottad ezt az álmot, hiába esküdtek össze ellened rosszindulatú istenek és szentek. Öregkabátossá lettél, de ne állj meg itt! Álmodj nagyobbat: tegyük fel, hogy az öregkabátosok Első Kántorának tettek meg, oldaladon pedig a két legjobb barátod. Most próbáld elképzelni, hol vagy, mit látsz, mit hallasz, miféle sérelmek jóvátételéért harcolsz…

Chapter 1 - The Wedding PlayTyrant's Throne

A trial is a performance, no different than a stage play or a wedding. The script may be dramatic or dull, the players captivating or hesitant, the spectators enraptured or bored, but by the time the curtain falls, everyone gets up to leave knowing that the conclusion was never really in doubt. The trick, of course, is figuring out the ending before it’s too late.

*

‘I don’t suppose any of you gutless rat-faced canker-blossoms would like to surrender?’ The young woman in the travel-worn leather coat was armed with nothing but a foul tongue and a broken cutlass that she swung in wide, desperate arcs as more than a dozen guardsmen closed in on her. Step by step they drove her back with the points of their castle-forged swords, until she was forced to duck behind the yardarm of the main mast.

‘We can’t see!’ a nobleman called out from his seat at one of the tables set at the rear of the wedding barge’s vast deck.

‘This isn’t a play, you fools!’ she shouted back. ‘I’m a Greatcoat! A Magister of Tristia, here to enforce a lawful verdict – and just to be quite clear, these swords being waved at me? They’re not props – these men are going to kill me!’

‘She doesn’t look like a proper Greatcoat to me,’ Lady Rochlan observed to the man in livery refilling her wine goblet. ‘Her coat is far too shabby – and that hair! Honestly, it looks as if she cuts it herself.’

‘And without the benefit of scissors, it would appear, my Lady,’ the servant added.

Lady Rochlan smiled, then asked, ‘Are you quite all right, young man? You look a trifle seasick.’

‘Quite all right, I assure you, my Lady. I merely . . . Pardon me.’

The servant ran to the back of the barge just in time to vomit over the side and into the calm river waters below, drawing chuckles from nearby guests who wondered aloud how anyone could be seasick without even being at sea.

Still backing away from her pursuers, the Greatcoat growled in frustration. ‘Step aside!’ she commanded the guardsmen. ‘By the laws set forth by King Paelis and reconsecrated by his heir, Aline the First, withdraw, or face me one by one in the duelling circle where I’ll gladly teach you the first rule of the sword.’ The threatening tone she had adopted was sadly undermined both by her obvious youth and by the way her blade trembled in her hand.

The guardsmen maintained their slow, patient approach, and even the seasick servant shuffling behind them in search of more wine for the guests could sense their excitement. The chance to kill a Greatcoat, to be forever remembered as one of those few who’d brought one of the legendary sword-wielding magistrates to a bloody end? That was enough to make any man reckless. But these were Guardsmen of the March of Barsat, disciplined soldiers one and all, and so they awaited their master’s order to strike with the forbearance of Saints.

A soft laugh broke through the tension. Evidalle, Margrave of Barsat, began speaking in tones so light they might have been the opening notes of a love song. ‘I believe, my Lady Greatcoat – how does one address a female magistrate, anyway? “Mistress Greatcoat”? Or perhaps “Madam Greatcoat”?’

She shook back a lock of reddish-brown hair that was threatening to fall into her eyes. ‘My name is Chalmers, also called the King’s Question.’

‘Chalmers? Odd name for a girl.’ Evidalle furrowed his smooth brow. ‘And did Paelis really refer to you as “the King’s Question”? I wonder, was his query perhaps, “If I were to dress a homely waif in man’s clothes and hand her a rusted blade, would she really be any worse than the rest of my tatter-cloaks?”’ The Margrave laughed heartily at his own joke. Like a pebble dropped in the middle of a pool, his mirth spread in waves, first to the guardsmen encircling the Greatcoat and then beyond, to the guests in their finery seated at their white and gold tables beneath the long ribbons of silver silk hung from the masts to celebrate the Margrave’s nuptials.

As if on cue, a beautiful Bardatti at the very front of the barge struck an opening chord on her guitar and led the three violinists beside her into a jaunty tune fit for the occasion. The guests – Lords, Daminas, Viscounts and other minor nobles, smiled and whispered conspiratorially to their companions as they luxuriated in the shade offered by the stiff white parasols held at careful angles against the afternoon sun by impeccably turned-out servants. Each noble had brought a Knight from their personal guard, both for protection and decoration, their livery proudly displaying their house colours and sigils as they stood at attention, stiff and silent as statues. Now even they began to laugh at the scene playing out before them.

The attending clerics, instantly recognisable by the robes of red or green or pale blue they wore to mark whichever God had, in theory at least, chosen them, smiled knowingly to each other – all save one, standing inconspicuously behind the others, his arms folded within his sleeves, wearing the grey rough-spun robes of an unchosen monk.

Only the servants kept their silence as they scurried between nobles and their Knights to bring plates of roast pig and poultry prepared by a small army of cooks working spits dripping hissing grease onto the flames below. One of the cooks’ assistants, apparently oblivious to the anxiety of his fellows, sliced morsels off the chickens turning on one of the spits and popped them into his mouth as he watched the events unfolding.

As the laughter settled down, the guardsmen’s eyes returned to the Greatcoat, anticipating the signal to strike – but the Margrave’s performance was only just beginning. ‘I believe, my dear “King’s Question”, that your unfortunate appellation may be to blame for your current predicament. You see, when the High Cleric of Baern asks whether the Gods or Saints have any cause to bar a marriage, it’s actually considered quite impolite to speak up.’

‘The Gods are dead,’ Chalmers said, ‘and so are the Saints, from what I’ve heard, and this wedding of yours is nothing more than a sham.’ She gestured at Lady Cestina, who stood silently by Evidalle, her eyes downcast, as they had been throughout the ceremony. ‘You had her true husband killed so you could marry her, and even now your soldiers hold her mother and father, beaten and bloody, prisoners in their own keep!’

The specificity of the accusations drew uncomfortable titters from the guests, some of whom were no longer entirely certain that what was taking place was the promised wedding play that usually accompanied a nobleman’s nuptials.

‘You forgot her sister, Mareina,’ Evidalle said. ‘Clever girl – she’s actually quite pretty, too. I’d considered her as an alternative to Lady Cestina but then she came at me with a knife, so . . . well, you know how that goes.’

‘She wastes away in a cage beneath the deck of this very barge, you bastard,’ the Greatcoat said. ‘You’re forcing Lady Cestina into marriage by threatening her own sister’s life!’

‘I am?’ Evidalle put on a show of shock and confusion as he turned and surveyed his guests. ‘You must all think me a truly wretched creature.’ He stepped gracefully to where the Lady Cestina was trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid notice and extended a well-manicured hand towards her. ‘My Lady? Is there any truth to this terrible accusation? Can it be possible that you do not wish to marry me?’

Lady Cestina, who might otherwise have been quite beautiful had her face not been a picture of fear, with smudged blue maschiera paints running from her eyes down to her chin, her long blonde hair wet where it stuck to her cheeks, accepted the Margrave’s hand.

‘No, my Lord,’ she whispered, ‘the accusations are false. I wish nothing more than to be your wife.’

‘You see?’ Evidalle said, turning back to the Greatcoat as if expecting her to agree that the matter had been amicably resolved. When she glared at him instead, he nodded sagely. ‘Ah, but of course the lovely Cestina might simply be saying this out of fear for her sister’s wellbeing, no?’ He turned back to his bride. ‘My dear, would you kiss me?’

‘Of . . . of course, my Lord.’ Lady Cestina leaned in towards the Margrave and kissed him. Everyone could see her lips were trembling.

Evidalle shook his head in mock dismay. ‘That won’t do at all, my darling. I fear our Lady Greatcoat will think you are simply pretendingto love me – you must do better.’

The Lady Cestina looked around anxiously before kissing Evidalle again, this time pressing her lips hard against his, keeping them there a long time.

‘Better,’ Evidalle said, pulling away to smile at the audience, who gave a smattering of applause. He held up a hand to quiet them. ‘I think we can improve on it, though.’ His gaze returned to Cestina. ‘This time, use your tongue,’ he ordered, then asked sweetly, ‘Would you like that?’

The fear was joined by humiliation playing across her face. Her eyes were those of a rabbit caught in a trap. ‘Yes, my Lord . . . I would . . .’ Tentatively, she opened her mouth and extended her tongue to his lips.

Evidalle grinned and leaned back a bit, making her reach for him, to the ribald laughter of the crowd. After a moment he opened his mouth to receive her tongue.

‘Enough!’ the Greatcoat shouted. ‘Leave her be, damn you!’

Evidalle kept the peculiar kiss going a while longer before pulling away. ‘Enough?’ he asked the Greatcoat. ‘You do realise she’s going to be my wife, don’t you? We’ll soon be doing a great deal more than kissing. But perhaps you’re right . . .’

He turned back to the wedding guests. ‘My Lords and Ladies, has this demonstration of our love been enough for you, or do you require more evidence?’

For a moment the guests looked at each other in confusion, unsure of what response was expected. Evidalle stared at them and finally someone shouted, ‘Er . . . more—?’

At the Margrave’s approving nod this soon grew into a rousing chant, ‘Give us more! Give us more!’

The clerics stood placid and unmoving, the hems of their robes flapping in the breeze – all but the monk at the back, who had his eyes fixed on the guardsmen; he appeared to be examining each one in turn. The servants were doing their best to feign ignorance of what was going on, save one refilling a flagon of wine, who paused to scowl at the cook’s assistant who had stopped turning the spit but was still slicing pieces of chicken for himself.

The chanting grew in volume. ‘Give us more! Give us more!’

Evidalle gazed lovingly into his young bride’s eyes. ‘It seems our guests demand a grander gesture from us, Lady Cestina. We must provide them with a more . . . ah, complete demonstration of our love.’

The young woman’s eyes went wide as she finally worked out what was to come. Her lips parted and a single word came out, silent as a whisper to all but those nearby. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Please—’

Margrave Evidalle laughed. ‘You see? She’s begging for it!’ He turned back to her. ‘Take off your dress.’

‘Please, no, not here,’ the Lady said, even as her hands, as though no longer under her control, began to undo the laces fastening the bodice of her wedding gown. ‘Please,’ she said again, each repetition carrying more trepidation, more desperation.

The curve of Evidalle’s lips remained the same, yet his smile grew dark, ugly, his eyes more intense. ‘Faster,’ he said, a hand already reaching out for her.

‘Touch her even once,’ Chalmers warned, her voice thick with rage, ‘and I swear by Saint Zaghev-who-sings-for-tears, those tits will be the last thing your fingers ever feel.’

‘Isn’t Saint Zaghev one of the dead ones?’ Evidalle asked, his expression turning from desire to mild annoyance. ‘I doubt he’ll do you much good now.’

The Greatcoat gave out a shout and swung her broken cutlass at the leg of the guardsman closest to her. The tip of the lightly curved blade was missing but the jagged end remained sharp enough that it gashed the man’s thigh, sending him tumbling onto his backside. Chalmers had already brought her blade back up in front of her and was swinging it wildly at the faces of the men nearest her, forcing them back. For a brief moment it almost looked like the young woman’s ferocity might break their line – until a long-limbed guard reached over her and struck the back of her head with the pommel of his sword. Two other guardsmen grabbed her arms and held on tight, rendering her as helpless as the woman she’d come to save.

The man whose leg Chalmers had cut got back on his feet, ripped the blade from her hand and tossed it to the deck. He drew his own thin-bladed dagger and pressed it against her throat.

The Margrave gave a small cough and the guard froze. He dropped to his knees immediately. ‘Forgive me, my Lord. I was—’

‘It’s perfectly understandable,’ Evidalle said, waving him away. ‘At times like these one can sympathise with the overwhelming desire for immediate . . . gratification.’ Evidalle signalled to the musicians to resume their tune as he took over the unlacing of Lady Cestina’s gown.

Chalmers howled in frustration as she struggled in vain to pull free from her captors. The man she’d injured used this as an excuse to strike her across the face, but to her credit, the Greatcoat didn’t beg or plead or moan, but shouted, ‘Kill me then, you dogs, but know that a reckoning comes to Tristia. Retribution rides on a fast horse and wields a sharp blade. So go ahead, you foul-breathed bastards, slit my throat if you dare.’

Evidalle sighed. ‘Are you just about done, Lady Greatcoat?’ He removed his fingers from the laces on the front of Lady Cestina’s wedding dress. ‘Forgive me, my love, but I fear that the Greatcoat’s caterwauling is making me lose my enthusiasm for our little performance.’

Her reply was oddly plaintive. ‘You mustn’t stop now, my dear.’

All eyes turned to stare in surprise at the young bride. Beneath the tears and smudged maschiera paints, Lady Cestina’s expression had changed; the mask of fear and sorrow had been replaced by what looked suspiciously like a self-satisfied grin. Eyes bright with mischief, she added, ‘We’re just getting to the best part.’

Very slowly, like a dancer taking her first few steps onto the stage, Lady Cestina walked over and extended a hand to caress the chin of her deeply confused would-be rescuer.

‘My valiant Greatcoat, I must apologise. You see, I’m afraid this really is a wedding play . . . only you were never meant to perform the part of the daring hero. You’re here to play the villain.'