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Faintly, the distant city’s bells tolled their grief at the fall of darkness, and in the blue-lit streets and alleys, dogs howled.

* * *

In the innermost chamber of the palace of the city’s lord, she stood in shadows, watching as he moved away from the hearth, brushing charcoal from his hands. There was no mistaking his legacy of blood, and it seemed the weight his father had borne was settling like an old cloak on his son’s surprisingly broad shoulders. She could never understand such creatures. Their willingness to martyrdom. The burdens by which they measured self-worth. This embrace of duty.

He settled into the high-backed chair, stretched out his legs, the awakening fire’s flickering light licking the studs ringing his knee-high leather boots. Resting his head back, eyes closed, he spoke. ‘Hood knows how you managed to get in here, and I imagine Silanah’s hackles are lifting at this very moment, but if you are not here to kill me, there is wine on the table to your left. Help yourself.’

Scowling, she edged out from the shadows. All at once the chamber seemed too small, its walls threatening to snap tight around her. To so willingly abandon the sky in favour of heavy stone and blackened timbers, no, she did not understand this at all. ‘Nothing but wine?’ Her voice cracked slightly, reminding her that it had been some time since she’d last used it.

His elongated eyes opened and he observed her with unfeigned curiosity. ‘You prefer?’


‘Sorry. You will need to go to the kitchens below for that.’

‘Mare’s milk, then.’

His brows lifted. ‘Down to the palace gate, turn left, walk half a thousand leagues. And that is just a guess, mind you.’

Shrugging, she edged closer to the hearth. ‘The gift struggles.’

‘Gift? I do not understand.’

She gestured at the flames.

‘Ah,’ he said, nodding. ‘Well, you stand in the breath of Mother Dark—’ and then he started. ‘Does she know you’re here? But then,’ he settled back again, ‘how could she not?’

‘Do you know who I am?’ she asked.

‘An Imass.’

‘I am Apsal’ara. His night within the Sword, his one night, he freed me. He had the time for that. For me.’ She found she was trembling.

He was still studying her. ‘And so you have come here.’

She nodded.

‘You didn’t expect that from him, did you?’

‘No. Your father – he had no reason for regret.’

He rose then, walked over to the table and poured himself a goblet of wine. He stood with the cup in hand, staring down at it. ‘You know,’ he muttered, ‘I don’t even want this. The need … to do something.’ He snorted. ‘“No reason for regret”, well …’

‘They look for him – in you. Don’t they?’

He grunted. ‘Even in my name you will find him. Nimander. No, I’m not his only son. Not even his favoured one – I don’t think he had any of those, come to think of it. Yet,’ and he gestured with the goblet, ‘there I sit, in his chair, before his fire. This palace feels like … feels like—’

‘His bones?’

Nimander flinched, looked away. ‘Too many empty rooms, that’s all.’

‘I need some clothes,’ she said.

He nodded distractedly. ‘I noticed.’

‘Furs. Skins.’

‘You intend to stay, Apsal’ara?’

‘At your side, yes.’

He turned at that, eyes searching her face.

‘But,’ she added, ‘I will not be his burden.’

A wry smile. ‘Mine, then?’

‘Name your closest advisers, Lord.’

He swallowed half the wine, and then set the goblet down on the table. ‘The High Priestess. Chaste now, and I fear that does not serve her well. Skintick, a brother. Desra, a sister. Korlat, Spinnock, my father’s most trusted servants.’

‘Tiste Andii.’

‘Of course.’

‘And the one below?’

‘The one?’

‘Did he once advise you, Lord? Do you stand at the bars in the door’s window, to watch him mutter and pace? Do you torment him? I wish to know the man I will serve.’

She saw clear anger in his face. ‘Are you to be my jester now? I have heard of such roles in human courts. Will you cut the sinews of my legs and laugh as I stumble and fall?’ He bared his teeth. ‘If yours is to be my face of conscience, Apsal’ara, should you not be prettier?’

She cocked her head, made no reply.

Abruptly his fury collapsed, and his eyes fell away. ‘It is the exile he has chosen. Did you test the lock on that door? It is barred from within. But then, we have no problem forgiving him. Advise me, then. I am a lord and it is in my power to do such things. To pardon the condemned. Yet you have seen the crypts below us. How many prisoners cringe beneath my iron hand?’


‘And I cannot free him. Surely that is worth a joke or two.’

‘Is he mad?’

‘Clip? Possibly.’

‘Then no, not even you can free him. Your father took scores for the chains of Dragnipur, scores just like this Clip.’

‘I dare say he did not call it freedom.’

‘Nor mercy,’ she replied. ‘They are beyond a lord’s reach, even that of a god.’

‘Then we fail them all. Both lords and gods – we fail them, our broken children.’

This, she realized, would not be an easy man to serve. ‘He drew others to him – your father. Others who were not Tiste Andii. I remember, in his court, in Moon’s Spawn.’

Nimander’s eyes narrowed.

She hesitated, unsure, and then resumed. ‘Your kind are blind to many things. You need others close to you, Lord. Servants who are not Tiste Andii. I am not one of these … jesters you speak of. Nor, it seems, can I be your conscience, ugly as I am to your eyes—’

He held up a hand. ‘Forgive me for that, I beg you. I sought to wound and so spoke an untruth, just to see it sting.’

‘I believe I stung you first, my lord.’

He reached again for the wine, and then stood looking into the hearth’s flames. ‘Apsal’ara, Mistress of Thieves. Will you now abandon that life, to become an adviser to a Tiste Andii lord? All because my father, at the very end, showed you mercy?’

‘I never blamed him for what he did. I gave him no choice. He did not free me out of mercy, Nimander.’

‘Then why?’

She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. But I mean to find out.’

‘And this pursuit – for an answer – has brought you here, to Black Coral. To … me.’


‘And how long will you stand at my side, Apsal’ara, whilst I govern a city, sign writs, debate policies? Whilst I slowly rot in the shadow of a father I barely knew and a legacy I cannot hope to fill?’

Her eyes widened. ‘Lord, that is not your fate.’

He wheeled to her. ‘Really? Why not? Please, advise me.’

She cocked her head a second time, studied the tall warrior with the bitter, helpless eyes. ‘For so long you Tiste Andii prayed for Mother Dark’s loving regard. For so long you yearned to be reborn to purpose, to life itself. He gave it all back to you. All of it. He did what he knew had to be done, for your sake. You, Nimander, and all the rest. And now you sit here, in his chair, in his city, among his children. And her holy breath, it embraces you all. Shall I give you what I possess of wisdom? Very well. Lord, even Mother Dark cannot hold her breath for ever.’

‘She does not—’

‘When a child is born it must cry.’


‘With its voice, it enters the world, and it must enter the world. Now,’ she crossed her arms, ‘will you continue hiding here in this city? I am the Mistress of Thieves, Lord. I know every path. I have walked them all. And I have seen what there is to be seen. If you and your people hide here, Lord, you will all die. And so will Mother Dark. Be her breath. Be cast out.’

‘But we are in this world, Apsal’ara!’

‘One world is not enough.’

‘Then what must we do?’