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Udinaas set off down to the beach.

Absi had clambered free and tackled one of the girls and was now tickling her into a helpless state. Trouble passed, but he continued anyway.

Out in the sea beyond the small bay, whales broached the surface, sending geysers into the air, announcing the coming of summer.

The rider paused on the road, glancing down at the untended turnips growing wild in the ditch, and after a moment he kicked his horse onward. The sun was warm on his face as he rode west along Itko Kan’s coastal track.

In his wake, in the lengthening shadows, two figures took form. Moments later huge hounds appeared. One bent to sniff at the turnips, and then turned away.

The figure with the cane sighed. ‘Satisfied?’

The other one nodded.

‘And you imagine only the best now, don’t you?’

‘I see no reason why not.’

Shadowthrone snorted. ‘You wouldn’t.’

Cotillion glanced over at him. ‘Why not, then?’

‘Old friend, what is this? Do you still hold to a belief in hope?’

‘Do I believe in hope? I do.’

‘And faith?’

‘And faith. Yes. I believe in faith.’

Neither spoke for a time, and then Shadowthrone looked over at the Hounds, and cocked his head. ‘Hungry, are we?’ Bestial heads lifted, eyes fixing on him.

‘Don’t even think it, Ammeanas!’

‘Why not? Remind that fop on the throne who’s really running this game!’

‘Not yet.’

‘Where is your impatience? Your desire for vengeance? What sort of Patron of Assassins are you?’

Cotillion nodded down the road. ‘Leave them alone. Not here, not now.’

Shadowthrone sighed a second time. ‘Misery guts.’

The shadows dissolved, and a moment later were gone, leaving nothing but an empty road.

* * *

The sun set, dusk closing in. He’d yet to pass any traffic on this day and that was a little troubling, but he rode on. Having never been this way before, he almost missed the side track leading down to the settlement on the shelf of land above a crescent beach, but he caught the smell of woodsmoke in time to slow up his mount.

The beast carefully picked its way down the narrow path.

Reaching the bottom, now in darkness, he reined in.

Before him was a small fishing village, though it looked mostly abandoned. He saw a cottage nearby, stone-walled and thatch-roofed, with a stone chimney from which smoke drifted in a thin grey stream. An area of land had been cleared above and behind it where vegetables had been planted, and working still in the growing gloom was a lone figure.

Crokus dismounted, hobbled the horse outside an abandoned shack to his left, and made his way forward.

It should not have taken long, yet by the time he reached the verge of the garden the moon overhead was bright, its effervescent light glistening along her limbs, the sheen of her black hair like silk as she bent to gather up her tools.

He stepped between rows of bushy plants.

And she turned. Watched him walk up to her.

Crokus took her face in his hands, studied her dark eyes. ‘I never liked that story,’ he said.

‘Which one?’ she asked.

‘The lover … lost on the moon, tending her garden alone.’

‘It’s not quite like that, the story I mean.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s what I remember from it. That, and the look in your eyes when you told it to me. I was reminded of that look a moment ago.’

‘And now?’

‘I think,’ he said, ‘the sadness just went away, Apsalar.’

‘I think,’ she replied, ‘you are right.’

The boy watched the old man come down to the pier as he did almost every day whenever the boy happened to be lingering along the waterfront at around this time, when the morning was stretching towards noon and all the fish were asleep. Day after day, he’d seen the old man carrying that silly bucket with the rope tied to the handle for the fish he never caught – and the fishing rod in his other hand would most likely snap in half at a crab’s tug.

Bored, as he was every day, the boy ambled down to stand on the edge of the pier, to look out on the few ships that bothered sheltering in the harbour of Malaz City. So he could dream of the worlds beyond, where things exciting and magical happened and heroes won the day and villains bled out in the dirt.

He knew he was nobody yet. Not old enough for anything. Trapped here where nothing ever happened and never would. But one day he would face the whole world and, why, they’d all know his face, they would. He glanced over to where the old man was sitting down, legs over the edge, working bait on to the hook.

‘You won’t never catch nothing,’ the boy said, idly pulling at a rusty mooring ring. ‘You sleep in too late, every day.’

The old man squinted at the hook, adjusted the foul-smelling bait. ‘Late nights,’ he said.

‘Where? Where you go? I know all the taverns and bars in the whole harbour district.’

‘Do you now?’

‘All of them – where d’you drink, then?’

‘Who said anything about drinking, lad? No, what I do is play.’

The boy drew slightly closer. ‘Play what?’


‘You play at a bar?’

‘I do, aye.’

‘Which one?’

‘Smiley’s.’ The old man ran out the hook on its weighted line and leaned over to watch it plummet into the depths.

The boy studied him suspiciously. ‘I ain’t no fool,’ he said.

The old man glanced over, nodded. ‘I can see that.’

‘Smiley’s doesn’t exist. It’s just a story. A haunting. People hearing things – voices in the air, tankards clunking. Laughing.’

‘That’s all they hear in the night air, lad?’

The boy licked his suddenly dry lips. ‘No. They hear … fiddling. Music. Sad, awful sad.’

‘Hey now, not all of it’s sad. Though maybe that’s what leaks out. But,’ and he grinned at the boy, ‘I wouldn’t know that, would I?’

‘You’re like all the rest,’ the boy said, facing out to sea once again.

‘Who are all the rest, then?’

‘Making up stories and stuff. Lying – it’s all anybody ever does here, ’cause they got nothing else to do. They’re all wasting their lives. Just like you. You won’t catch any fish ever.’ And he waited, to gauge the effect of his words.

‘Who said I was after fish?’ the old man asked, offering up an exaggeratedly sly expression.

‘What, crabs? Wrong pier. It’s too deep here. It just goes down and down and for ever down!’

‘Aye, and what’s down there, at the very bottom? You ever hear that story?’

The boy was incredulous and more than a little offended. ‘Do I look two years old? That demon, the old emperor’s demon! But you can’t fish for it!’

‘Why not?’

‘Well – well, your rod would break! Look at it!’

‘Looks can be deceiving, lad. Remember that.’

The boy snorted. He was always getting advice. ‘I won’t be like you, old man. I’m going to be a soldier when I grow up. I’m going to leave this place. For ever. A soldier, fighting wars and getting rich and fighting and saving people and all that!’

The old man seemed about to say one thing, stopped, and instead said, ‘Well, the world always needs more soldiers.’

The boy counted this as a victory, the first of what he knew would be a lifetime of victories. When he was grown up. And famous. ‘That demon bites and it’ll eat you up. And even if you catch it and drag it up, how will you kill it? Nobody can kill it!’

‘Never said anything about killing it,’ the old man replied. ‘Just been a while since we last talked.’

‘Ha! Hah! Hahaha!’

High above the harbour, the winds were brisk coming in from the sea. They struck and spun the old battered weathervane on its pole, as if the demon knew not where to turn.

A sudden gust took it then, wrenched it hard around, and with a solid squeal the weathervane jammed. The wind buffeted it, but decades of decay and rust seemed proof to its will, and the weathervane but quivered.