Mael shook his head. ‘There is such pain in her … no, I dare not get close. She stood before us, in the throne room, like a child with a terrible secret, guilt and shame beyond all measure.’
‘Perhaps my guest here will have the answer.’
‘Is this why you wanted him? To salve mere curiosity? Is this to be a voyeur’s game, K’rul? Into a woman’s broken heart?’
‘Partly,’ K’rul acknowledged. ‘But not out of cruelty, or the lure of the forbidden. Her heart must remain her own, immune to all assault.’ The god regarded the wrapped corpse. ‘No, this one’s flesh is dead, but his soul remains strong, trapped in its own nightmare of guilt. I would see it freed of that.’
‘Poised to act, when the moment comes. Poised to act. A life for a death, and it will have to do.’
Mael sighed unevenly. ‘Then it falls on her shoulders. A lone woman. An army already mauled. With allies fevered with lust for the coming war. An enemy awaiting them all, unbowed, with inhuman confidence, so eager to spring the perfect trap.’ He lifted his hands to his face. ‘A mortal woman who refuses to speak.’
‘Yet they follow.’
‘Mael, do they truly have a chance?’
He looked down at K’rul. ‘The Malazan Empire conjured them out of nothing. Dassem’s First Sword, the Bridgeburners, and now the Bonehunters. What can I tell you? It is as if they were born of another age, a golden age lost to the past, and the thing of it is: they don’t even know it. Perhaps that is why she wishes them to remain unwitnessed in all that they do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She doesn’t want the rest of the world to be reminded of what they once were.’
K’rul seemed to study the fire. Eventually, he said, ‘In these dark waters, one cannot feel one’s own tears.’
Mael’s reply was bitter. ‘Why do you think I live here?’
‘If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement. But if I am to be accused of being cleverer than I am – and how is this even possible? – or, gods forbid, too aware of every echo sent charging out into the night, to bounce and cavort, to reverberate like a sword’s edge on a shield rim, if, in other words, I am to be castigated for heeding my sensitivities, well, then something rises like fire within me. I am, and I use the word most cogently, incensed.’
Udinaas snorted. The page was torn below this, as if the author’s anger had sent him or her into an apoplectic frenzy. He wondered at this unknown writer’s detractors, real or imagined, and he thought back to the times, long ago, when someone’s fist had answered his own too-quick, too-sharp wits. Children were skilled at sensing such things, the boy too smart for his own good, and they knew what needed doing about it. Beat him down, lads. Serves him right. So he was sympathetic to the spirit of the long-dead writer.
‘But then, you old fool, they’re dust and your words live on. Who now has the last laugh?’
The rotting wood surrounding him gave back no answer. Sighing, Udinaas tossed the fragment aside, watched flakes of parchment drift down like ashes. ‘Oh, what do I care? Not much longer, no, not much longer.’ The oil lamp was guttering out, used up, and the chill had crept back in. He couldn’t feel his hands. Old legacies, no one could shake them, these grinning stalkers.
Ulshun Pral had predicted more snow, and snow was something he had grown to despise. ‘As if the sky itself was dying. You hear that, Fear Sengar? I’m almost ready to take up your tale. Who could have imagined that legacy?’
Groaning at the stiffness in his limbs, he clambered out of the ship’s hold, emerged blinking on the slanted deck, the wind battering at his face. ‘World of white, what are you telling us? That all is not well. That the fates have set a siege upon us.’
He had taken to talking to himself. That way, no one else had to cry, and he was tired of those glistening tears on weathered faces. Yes, he could thaw them all with a handful of words. But that heat inside, well, it had nowhere to go, did it? He gave it to the cold, empty air instead. Not a single frozen tear in sight.
Udinaas climbed over the ship’s side, dropped down into knee-deep snow, and then took a fresh path back to the camp in the shelter of rocks, his thick, fur-lined moccasins forcing him to waddle as he ploughed through the drifts. He could smell woodsmoke.
He caught sight of the emlava halfway to the camp. The two enormous cats stood perched on high rocks, their silvered backs blending with the white sky. Watching him. ‘So, you’re back. That’s not good, is it?’ He felt their eyes tracking him as he went on. Time was slowing down. He knew that was impossible, but he could imagine an entire world buried deep in snow, a place devoid of animals, a place where seasons froze into one and that season did not end, ever. He could imagine the choking down of every choice until not a single one was left.
‘A man can do it. Why not an entire world?’ The snow and wind gave no answer, beyond the brutal retort that was indifference.
In between the rocks, now, the bitter wind falling off, the smoke stinging awake his nostrils. There was hunger in the camp, there was white everywhere else. And still the Imass sang their songs. ‘Not enough,’ Udinaas muttered, breath pluming. ‘It’s just not, my friends. Face it, she’s dying. Our dear little child.’
He wondered if Silchas Ruin had known all along. This imminent failure. ‘All dreams die in the end. Of all people I should know that. Dreams of sleep, dreams of the future, sooner or later comes the cold, hard dawn.’ Walking past the snow-humped yurts, scowling against the droning songs drifting out around the hide flaps, he made for the trail leading to the cave.
Dirty ice crusted the rocky maw, like frozen froth. Once within its shelter the air warmed around him, damp and smelling of salts. He stamped the snow from his moccasins, and then strode into the twisting, stony corridor, hands out to the sides, fingertips brushing the wet stone. ‘Oh,’ he said under his breath, ‘but you’re a cold womb, aren’t you?’
Ahead he heard voices, or, rather, one voice. Heed your sensitivities now, Udinaas. She stands unbowed, for ever unbowed. This is what love can do, I suppose.
The old stains on the stone floor remained, timeless reminders of blood spilled and lives lost in this wretched chamber. He could almost hear the echoes, sword and spear, the gasp of desperate breaths. Fear Sengar, I would swear your brother stands there still. Silchas Ruin staggering back, step by step, his scowl of disbelief like a mask he’d never worn before, and was it not ill-fitting? It surely was. Onrack T’emlava stood to the right of his wife. Ulshun Pral crouched a few paces to Kilava’s left. Before them all reared a withered, sickly edifice. Dying House, your cauldron is cracked. She was a flawed seed.
Kilava turned upon his arrival, her dark animal eyes narrowing as would a hunting cat’s as it gathered to pounce. ‘Thought you might have sailed away, Udinaas.’
‘The charts lead nowhere, Kilava Onass, as I’m sure the pilot observed upon arriving in the middle of a plain. Is there anything more forlorn than a foundered ship, I wonder?’
Onrack spoke. ‘Friend Udinaas, I welcome your wisdom. Kilava speaks of the awakening of the Jaghut, the hunger of the Eleint, and the hand of the Forkrul Assail, which never trembles. Rud Elalle and Silchas Ruin have vanished – she cannot sense them and she fears the worst.’
‘My son lives.’
Kilava stepped closer. ‘You cannot know that.’
Udinaas shrugged. ‘He took more from his mother than Menandore ever imagined. When she faced that Malazan wizard, when she sought to draw upon her power, well, it was one of many fatal surprises that day.’ His gaze fell to those blackened stains. ‘What happened to our heroic outcome, Fear? To the salvation you gave your life to win? “If I have not challenged myself, if I have not striven to give it all I have, then will I stand head bowed before the world’s judgement.” But the world’s judgement is cruel.’