From the rooftop platform of the square tower on his right a child of no more than nine or ten years was struggling with what had once been a signal kite, straining to hold it overhead, until with thudding wing-flaps the tattered silk dragon lifted suddenly into the air, spinning and wheeling. Ganoes Paran squinted up at it. The dragon’s long tail flashed silver in the midday sunlight. The same tail, he recalled, that had been in the sky above the stronghold the day of the conquest.
What had the defenders been signalling then?
He stared up at the kite, watched it climb ever higher. Until the wind-spun smoke devoured it.
Hearing a familiar curse, he turned to see the Host’s High Mage struggling past a knot of children at the top of the stairs, his face twisted in disgust as if navigating a mob of lepers. The fish spine clenched between his teeth jerking up and down in agitation, he strode up to the High Fist.
‘I swear there’re more of them than yesterday, and how is that possible? They don’t leap out of someone’s hip already half grown, do they?’
‘Still creeping out from the caves,’ Ganoes Paran said, fixing his attention on the enemy ranks once more.
Noto Boil grunted. ‘And that’s another thing. Whoever thought a cave was a decent place to live? Rank, dripping, crawling with vermin. There will be disease, mark my words, High Fist, and the Host has had quite enough of that.’
‘Instruct Fist Bude to assemble a clean-up crew,’ Paran said. ‘Which squads got into the rum store?’
‘Seventh, Tenth and Third, Second Company.’
‘Captain Sweetcreek’s sappers.’
Noto Boil plucked the spine from his mouth and examined the pink point. He then leaned over the wall and spat something red. ‘Aye, sir. Hers.’
Paran smiled. ‘Well then.’
‘Aye, serves them right. So, if they stir up more vermin—’
‘They are children, mage, not rats. Orphaned children.’
‘Really? Those white bony ones make my skin crawl, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’ He reinserted the spine and it went up and down. ‘Tell me again how this is better than Aren.’
‘Noto Boil, as High Fist I answer only to the Empress.’
The mage snorted. ‘Only she’s dead.’
‘Which means I answer to no one, not even you.’
‘And that’s the problem, nailed straight to the tree, sir. Nailed to the tree.’ Seemingly satisfied with that statement, he pointed with a nod and jab of the fish spine in his mouth. ‘Lots of scurrying about over there. Another attack coming?’
Paran shrugged. ‘They’re still … upset.’
‘You know, if they ever decide to call our bluff—’
‘Who says I’m bluffing, Boil?’
The man bit something that made him wince. ‘What I mean is, sir, no one’s denying you got talents and such, but those two commanders over there, well, if they get tired of throwing Watered and Shriven against us – if they just up and march themselves over here, in person, well … that’s what I meant, sir.’
‘I believe I gave you a command a short while ago.’
Noto scowled. ‘Fist Bude, aye. The caves.’ He turned to leave and then paused and looked back. ‘They see you, you know. Standing here day after day. Taunting them.’
‘I wonder,’ Paran mused as he returned his attention to the enemy camp.
‘The Siege of Pale. Moon’s Spawn just sat over the city. Months, years. Its lord never showed himself, until the day Tayschrenn decided he was ready to try him. But here’s the thing, what if he had? What if, every damned day, he’d stepped out on to that ledge? So Onearm and all the rest could pause, look up, and see him standing there? Silver hair blowing, Dragnipur a black god-shitting stain spreading out behind him.’
Noto Boil worked his pick for a moment, and then said, ‘What if he had, sir?’
‘Fear, High Mage, takes time. Real fear, the kind that eats your courage, weakens your legs.’ He shook his head and glanced at Noto Boil. ‘Anyway, that was never his style, was it? I miss him, you know.’ He grunted. ‘Imagine that.’
‘Noto, do you understand anything I say? Ever?’
‘I try not to, sir. No offence. It’s that fear thing you talked about.’
‘Don’t trample any children on your way down.’
‘That’s up to them, High Fist. Besides, the numbers could do with some thinning.’
‘We’re an army, not a crèche, that’s all I’m saying. An army under siege. Outnumbered, overcrowded, confused, bored – except when we’re terrified.’ He plucked out his fish spine again, whistled in a breath between his teeth. ‘Caves filled with children – what were they doing with them all? Where are their parents?’
‘We should just hand them back, that’s all I’m saying, sir.’
‘Haven’t you noticed, today’s the first day they’re finally behaving like normal children. What does that tell you?’
‘Doesn’t tell me nothing, sir.’
‘Fist Rythe Bude. Now.’
‘Aye sir, on my way.’
Ganoes Paran settled his attention on the besieging army, the precise rows of tents like bone tesserae on a buckled floor, the figures scrambling tiny as fleas over the trebuchets and Great Wagons. The foul air of battle never seemed to leave this valley. They look ready to try us again. Worth another sortie? Mathok keeps skewering me with that hungry look. He wants at them. He rubbed at his face. The shock of feeling his beard caught him yet again, and he grimaced. No one likes change much, do they? But that’s precisely my point.
The silk dragon cut across his vision, diving down out of the reams of smoke. He glanced over to the boy on the tower, saw him struggling to keep his footing. A scrawny thing, one of the ones from up south. A Shriven. When it gets too much, lad, be sure to let go.
Seething motion now in the distant camp. The glint of pikes, the chained slaves marching out to the yokes of the Great Wagons, High Watered emerging surrounded by runners. Dust slowly lifting in the sky above the trebuchets as they were wheeled forward.
Aye, they’re still upset all right.
‘I knew a warrior once. Awakening from a wound to the head believing he was a dog, and what are dogs if not loyalty lacking wits? So here I stand, woman, and my eyes are filled with tears. For that warrior, who was my friend, who died thinking he was a dog. Too loyal to be sent home, too filled with faith to leave. These are the world’s fallen. When I dream, I see them in their thousands, chewing at their own wounds. So, do not speak to me of freedom. He was right all along. We live in chains. Beliefs to shackle, vows to choke our throats, the cage of a mortal life, this is our fate. Who do I blame? I blame the gods. And curse them with fire in my heart.
‘When she comes to me, when she says that it’s time, I shall take my sword in hand. You say that I am a man of too few words, but against the sea of needs, words are weak as sand. Now, woman, tell me again of your boredom, this stretch of days and nights outside a city obsessed with mourning. I stand before you, eyes leaking with the grief of a dead friend, and all I get from you is a siege of silence.’
She said, ‘You have a damned miserable way of talking your way into my bed, Karsa Orlong. Fine then, get in. Just don’t break me.’
‘I only break what I do not want.’
‘And if the days of this relationship are numbered?’
‘They are,’ he replied, and then he grinned. ‘But not the nights.’