Exclusive Short Story: The Thief-Taker’s Blade, by Stephen Deas

We’ve  got something a little bit different for you this Friday as our #Friday Reads! Gollancz are very proud to share with you an exclusive short-story (well, more of a novella, really) by the incredibly talented Stephen Deas. The King’s Assassin is published next week, and is the rip-roaring conclusion to the series began in The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice and continued in The Warlock’s Shadow. Here we present an earlier tale of Syannis, the complicated and troubled Thief-Taker, and Kuy, the warlock, as they investigate a mysterious ship…

 

1st Council Day, Month of Floods

Two days since we took possession of the Flying Shark, and it’s taken us that long to settle on the name. The crew wanted to call it the Sun-King’s Doom, but that would hardly serve us if we were to put in to any of the Sun-King’s ports, so the Flying Shark it is. We sail with the Dread’s Revenge as far as Kurotos and then we see about selling her. The Shark is clearly the better ship. Not bigger, but faster, she sails closer to the wind and being a Taki ship, she’ll get us a welcome in most ports. Crew may take some convincing to part with the Dread’s Revenge, but they’ll do as they’re told or suffer the consequences. Hard to believe we managed to do this.

Takis fought harder than most to turn us away. Others would have surrendered as soon as we were aboard, but not this lot. Fought like demons. Several even went over the side rather than be taken. Weather fine, wind fresh.

 

1st Moon Day, Month of Floods

Taking longer than expected to work out how to sail this Taki maiden. Everything is unfamiliar. Prisoners are not co-operating. Made an example of two today. Tomorrow it will be four. Some cloud, wind fresh.

 

1st Abyss Day, Month of Floods

Inspected the hold. Not much there except the casket. Sanct says not to touch it. He’s acting stranger than usual and it’s getting to the crew. Sooner we’re in Kurotos and rid of him the better. Strung up four of the Takis today. They’re hanging in the rigging from hooks. One of them has been screaming for five hours straight. The rest, they don’t even flinch. Hard bunch. Some cloud, wind fresh.

 

2nd  Sun Day, Month of Floods

We have mastered this Taki maiden and she is beautiful. Under full sail she leaves the Dread’s Revenge for dead. Under half sail, she easily keeps her position. If it wasn’t for the Dread, we’d be in Kurotos in three days. Sanct has taken refuge in the captain’s cabin. Says he needs the space to do what he needs to do. He’s welcome to it. It’ll be mine as soon as he’s gone. Weather fine, wind strong.

 

2nd  Tower Day, Month of Floods

Strange noises from the hold in the night. Crew spooked. Takis are up to something. If they do it again, I say we throw them overboard. Weather fine, wind fresh.

 

1

 

The ship was aimed squarely at the harbour. It had a good wind coming off the port quarter and the sun behind it, already red and fat on the horizon. It was under full sail, too. That was the first thing that made Jerric pay attention. Coming in at full pelt in failing light, that wasn’t usual.

He squinted at the ship. The sun almost behind it made seeing anything more impossible, but it was definitely coming in fast. He could see it heeling to starboard. From where he sat in the watchtower on Wrecking Point, the ship looked like it was coming right at him.

It didn’t slow down. Jerric watched for another minute and then another. Then he nodded to no one in particular, turned away from the sea and climbed down the ladder towards the jumble of rocks below. The Guild of Sea Captains and Traders had built the watchtower at the start of the year, fed up of pirates sneaking around the point at night to raid the ships in the harbour. It wasn’t the easiest place to put a lookout post, at the end of the long curving arm of broken rock that sank reluctantly into the sea as it reached round to embrace the north side of the harbour. At the bottom of the little tower, wooden boards sat on piles, running across the litter of boulders. Jerric took them as quickly as he could, but the guild had been as tight-fisted as ever and the walkway was only as wide as his feet. It was also all relatively new, which meant it hadn’t had time to get properly used to the sea and the wind, and you never quite knew when one of the slowly warping planks would pop its nails and come loose. Falling off the walkway into the rocks was a sure way to break something and Jerric was too old to care about his city more than he cared about his bones. His eyes were firmly on his feet, so he didn’t see the ship as it came closer.

After the walkway there were some wooden steps and then a rope ladder up a small cliff, and then you were up on the flat top of Wrecking Point. There was a path the rest of the way, which was all very well apart from the fissures in the rock, some of them as wide as a horse. Rope bridges spanned the bigger ones. The smaller ones had planks, loose planks. Jerric and the other watchmen had found that if they left loose planks lying around, it would be a night or two at most before some wanker nicked them to build a house. So now the planks lay hidden. A constant source of tension between the watchmen and the guild, those planks.

He started to run. The path was even enough, at least when you had light to see where you were going. He jumped the first couple of cracks and scuttled across a rope bridge. One day, someone was going to help themselves to those too, and then he’d be stuffed.

The path levelled out. There was one last fissure here, as wide as Jerric was tall. It ran right across Wrecking Point, as though the end of the stone had snapped off and was slowly slipping into the sea. If you stopped to peer down between the slick black stone walls, the split went all the way down to the water. A good place for dropping bodies. Apparently a couple of watchmen had gone down there on ropes, back when they were building the path. They’d found all sorts. Bones, whole skeletons. Not the treasure they’d been looking for, but then you’d have to be a right fool to carry a body all the way out here without having the sense to loot it first.

There was a plank hidden here, pushing ten foot long, a foot wide and as thick as a man’s wrist. Too heavy for a man to carry, but that didn’t stop it going missing from time to time. Jerric started to push it towards the gap in the path. There was a trick to getting this one right. Move the plank to the right place, then slowly tip it up on one end and let it fall across the gap. Get it wrong and that was your plank gone down the chasm and one stuck watchman.

Jerric glanced over his shoulder. The ship was almost into the mouth of the harbour now, still racing under full sail. Jerric levered his plank into place and started to lift it up. If ever any real pirates came, whoever was watchman on Wrecking Point would probably get to the harbour-master just in time to watch them all leave again.

He let the plank go. It crashed down onto the other side of the chasm, bounced once and then stayed where it was supposed to. After that, Jerric ran. It was a good half-mile to the harbour.

The ship raced past him into the middle of Deephaven Bay. For a few seconds they sprinted side by side. Then at the end of the Wrecking Point road, Jerric dropped into the backside of Reeper Hill. Buildings – brothels, mostly – sprang up around him and he lost sight of the bay. The last thing he saw of the ship, its sails were falling down as though the ropes had been cut.

A minute later he was up above the Sea Gate and looking down into the harbour again. He stopped for a moment, stood gasping, doubled up, hands on his knees, watching as he tried to catch his breath. He was wasting his time. He could see that now. Down in the docks, the harbour longboats were already in the water, gangs of armed militiamen milling around the waterfront waiting to be told what to do. From where he stood, Jerric could hear their shouts, drifting across the waves. He’d have to finish his errand so the Wrecking Point Watch could be seen to have done their job, but the urgency was gone. So he stopped to have a proper look at the ship that had woken him up from his dozing.

She was a Taiytakei ship. A small one, but sleek and narrow and sharp-nosed for cutting through the sea. Not like the fat flat-bottomed ships they made in Shipwrights. Her sails lay scattered around her decks, the mainsail even lying half over her port side and dragging in the sea. Men were scurrying around the deck, already lowering boats. They were in an almighty hurry.

Across the ocean, the setting sun finally touched the horizon. The first boat from the ship landed heavily in the sea and immediately struck away. Jerric had his breath back now, but he couldn’t stop watching. The second boat splashed into the water. Men still on the deck jumped after it, even as the boats started to row away. Jerric could see them thrashing among the waves, sinking, drowning. He’d seen a ship in the harbour catch fire and burn once, years ago. It had looked exactly like this. Men throwing themselves overboard, preferring the cold kiss of the sea to being burned to death. Sailors running in mortal fear of their lives. The only difference being that this Taiytakei ship wasn’t aflame, not even a wisp of smoke. So why were they running?

The tip of the sun dipped below the sea. Shouts wafted across the water, turning into terrified screams. One by one, Jerric saw the sailors on the deck of the Taiytakei ship crumple and fall. He stared. Blinked. Rubbed his eyes. The deck became silent and still.

He was about to get moving again when he caught a glimpse of something else. A figure wreathed in shadow, too far away to tell if it was even human. It came up from the stern of the ship, walked to one side, the side closest to the harbour, paused there for a few seconds, then slipped back into the darkness below. The harbour fell quiet.

Jerric watched for a minute longer. When nothing else moved, he picked up his feet and ran on. His legs felt heavy and reluctant. They wanted to take him home, away from the sea and into the heart of the city. To a warm tavern somewhere. One with plenty of beer.

Instead, he ran down to the Sea Gate and into the harbour, across to the offices of the harbour-master in the northern corner. The dockside militia were already in their boats, but the Wrecking Point Watch had done its duty. They might as well not have bothered. As the Taiytakei boats drifted in to the shore, lifeless and still, it was obvious even to Jerric that every single sailor was dead.

 

2nd Moon Day, Month of Floods

Kurotos beckons. Two more days. Wind has turned against us and grows stronger. I smell a storm.

 

3rd Tower Day, Month of Floods

Gods! The storm is finally broken and we are, for the most part, still alive. Three hands lost and no sign of the Dread’s Revenge for twenty miles. Hard to imagine she was wrecked with Kaibel at the helm, but the storm was a hard bastard. Takis were up to their tricks in the hold before it broke, all wailing and moaning. Would have thrown them overboard but then the storm hit like a wall. Two days of constant battering before it let us go. Now it’s broken, we lose another day making good. Tomorrow we begin our search for the Dread.

 

3rd Mage Day, Month of Floods

No sign of the Dread. Can’t tell the crew, but we’re lost. Taki charts make no sense and most of ours stayed on the Dread. Takis can help me read them or feed the fish. Their choice.

 

3rd Council Day, Month of Floods

Takis are all dead. Weather fine, wind fresh.

 

 3rd Moon Day, Month of Floods

Still no sign of the Dread. No sign of land either. Storm could have blown us a hundred miles either way. Have set a course North. Kurotos has to be there somewhere. Under full sail, the Flying Shark ought to get us back in sight of land in two days, even at the worst.

I’ve stared at the stars for two whole nights now. They ought to tell me where we are. They ought, at least, be familiar. They’re not. How can they not be the stars I know?

Weather fine, wind fresh.

 

2

 

The banging on the door in the middle of the night woke Syannis up. It was a loud, persistent banging that soon added in some shouting for good measure.

‘Hoy! Thief-taker! Syannis the thief-taker!’

‘Oi! Shut your faces!’

That would be the crazy man across the yard. The one who kept snakes and made potions out of their venom. Syannis rubbed his eyes. The banging didn’t stop.

‘For the love of the Sun!’

The thief-taker got up. He opened the shutters and peered out of his tiny room down into the yard below. Four soldiers were there. Imperials, with swords and armour and everything. They were banging on his door. Or, strictly, they were banging on the door of the Four Horses where he happened to be renting a room. Banging and waking everyone up and loudly telling the world that he, Syannis, who made a point of keeping himself to himself among the patrons of the Four Horses, made a living taking thieves.

He opened his mouth to yell at them, then paused. Gangs of soldiers in the middle of the night? Did he want to even admit he lived here? Thief-taking made a man as many enemies as it did friends.

The soldiers didn’t look up. ‘Syannis! Thief-taker! Rouse yourself!’ They weren’t kicking down the door in yet. That was something.

‘Right!’ Across the yard, the face of crazy-snake-man appeared at a window. He was clutching something. A pot. A . . .

Syannis’ eyes widened as crazy-snake-man threw the contents of his chamberpot out across the yard, dousing the soldiers. The thief-taker ducked inside. He had his sword, next to his bed. Beside it was the heavy crossbow that his old friend from the small kingdoms, Kasmin, lovingly called The Leveller.

In the other bed, Kasmin stirred and groaned and sat up. Outside, the banging stopped. The soldiers’ voices were clear, though, echoing through the square outside.

‘Who . . .?’

‘What the Sun?’

Without haste, Kasmin picked up The Leveller and loaded it. Syannis pulled on a pair of trousers and fumbled for his mail vest made of sunsteel, the one thing of value he’d never managed to lose.

‘Oh, you’re going to wish you hadn’t done that!’

Yawning, Kasmin padded to the window and poked his head out. ‘Oi. You lot.’ He waited a moment until he had their attention. ‘Can either I or this heavy crossbow induce you gentlemen to keep the noise down?’

The shouting stopped. Syannis pulled the mail over his head and went to his window again. In the moonlight, the soldiers looked pale and furious. The first whiff of chamberpot crept up into the night air.

‘You Syannis?’

Kasmin shook his head. Syannis rested a hand on Kasmin’s shoulder. ‘Me. I’m Syannis. What do you want?’

‘Thief-taker! By command of Justicar Kol, you are to come with us immediately!’ The soldier at the front was looking up, but the ones behind him were all glaring at crazy-snake-man’s window. They were muttering to themselves.

‘You care to offer me some sort of reason?’

The soldier at the front held up a tiny leather bag. ‘The emperor’s face.’ Two of the soldiers at the back turned and strode towards crazy-snake-man’s door. As Syannis watched, they kicked it in. Kasmin sniffed.

‘You think we should warn them about the snakes?’

Syannis let that stew for a moment. Should he?

Kasmin shrugged. ‘I’m not saying anything. Bastards woke me up.’

‘And now that everyone knows what we are, we’re probably going to be looking for another place to live.’

‘They’re the emperor’s soldiers, after all. Not likely to be troubled by a few snakes, eh?’ Kasmin laughed. There was always a warmth to that. Syannis had grown up listening to Kasmin laugh, a long time ago.

A very long time ago. He’d missed that laugh over the years they’d been apart. Even now it wasn’t quite the same. Kasmin had a bitterness that never used to be there. All things considered, you couldn’t be surprised. Not when a man had lost nearly everything.

And which one of us am I talking about now?

Syannis left the soldiers to it. He dressed and then waited for Kasmin to do the same. He didn’t bother locking the door behind them. Not much point. Didn’t have anything to steal, and besides, no one would be daft enough to rob a pair of thief-takers, right?

The air in the passage outside smelled of wood-smoke. Behind him, Kasmin was muttering to himself. There wasn’t any light, no windows to let in the moon or the stars, but Syannis could have walked from the front door of the Four Horses to his room backwards wearing a blindfold without putting a foot out of place. He didn’t just know which boards creaked, he knew each one by their sound, almost as if he knew their names.

He caught a whiff of spirits, sweet and strong. Kasmin’s vice. He drank too much, too much for a thief-taker.

Outside, there was some sort of commotion across the square. The two soldiers who’d smashed their way into crazy-snake-man’s house were coming out again. One of them was almost having to hold the other one up. Above them, crazy-snake-man was still at his window. He was clutching something again. This time it was something long and wriggly.

‘This one,’ he shouted at them, ‘this one will paralyse ye and then lay its eggs in yer pants and when they hatch, the little ones will eat ye up, bollocks first. It’s really slow and hurts like buggery. Yeh, you, you down there. Ye come back any time. And bring a new door with ye when ye do.’

The shutters slammed closed. The first two soldiers fell in behind Syannis and Kasmin. ‘The Eight,’ snapped one, and then they headed over towards the others.

‘Temple on Moon Street,’ called Syannis. ‘Teacher Garrent. Tell him I sent you.’ He shook his head. ‘Might help if he knew what snake bit you.’

The shutters flew open again. ‘Aye, the vicious bollock-eating cobra, that’s what bit ye. Tell yer priest that. And don’t forget my new door. I got friends I have.’

‘Slithery ones,’ muttered Kasmin.

Syannis shook his head. He was almost going to miss crazy-snake-man when he had to find somewhere else to live.

 

4th Sun Day, Month of Floods

 No sign of land, no sign of the Dread. Sanct is getting annoying. I tell him we’ll be there when we’re there. We have food and water for a month. What’s the hurry? He doesn’t answer, but there is one. I can see it in his eyes. Something to do with the damn casket. Weather fine, wind strong, veering east.

 

 4th Mage Day, Month of Floods

Can’t admit it to the crew, but the only way to make sense of the Taki charts here is if we’re half a world away from where we’re supposed to be. Storm can’t have blown us that far. Sanct spends more and more time down in the hold now. Old fool is cracking. I don’t know what he’s up to, but it’s creeping even me out. Crew want rid of him and his blasted casket. They blame him for our misfortune. I have to wonder. He’s the one with the gold though, waiting for us in Kurotos. We’ll get there, one way or another. Weather fine, wind strong, veering west now.

 

4th Moon Day, Month of Floods

Still no sight of land. Have changed course to the north. If the charts are right and we are where they say we are, even though we can’t possibly be there, we should see land tomorrow. If we don’t, Sanct and his casket go overboard. There’ll be no stopping it, gold or no gold. Weather fair, wind falling.

3

 

The Eight Pillars of Smoke – The Eight as it was known to its regular collection of thief-takers and assorted officers of the courts – lay behind the courthouse, just off Four Winds Square and a half-mile of steadily increasing affluence from the Four Horses. On most days, come midnight, the last drunken dregs would be staggering their way towards the next day’s hangover. Tonight there were a lot of faces that looked as though they’d only just got out of bed.

The balding head of Justicar Kol turned and looked up as Syannis and Kasmin entered. Kol beckoned them over. He was holding court tonight, you could see that straight away. Big round table, surrounded by the thief-takers who took his coin. Master Fennis, Master Kakrim, Orimel the witch-breaker. All ones he trusted. Five years ago, Kol had been a thief-taker himself. He knew how it worked, he knew which ones were honest and which ones worked both sides. He knew which ones were brave and which ones were clever and which ones were craven and which ones were stupid. Tonight, by the looks of things, he was going for brave. Which tells me how he sees me and Kasmin, I suppose.

‘Right.’ Kol thumped the table. ‘Now you’re all finally here we can . . .’ He stared at Syannis. ‘Where are my soldiers, Syannis? You were supposed to bring them with you.’

Kasmin answered, grinning. ‘Got bitten by a snake.’

‘What? For the love of . . . All of them?’

Kasmin’s grin widened. ‘Just one. Took the other three to carry him. I think he might have swollen up a bit.’

Kol spat. ‘Yeh. You laugh it up, big man. That’s four swords we won’t have with us tonight. You make your fun with that while we’re on our way down the docks. Right. Anyway. Let’s go!’ The justicar brushed past Syannis on his way to the door. As he did, he jingled a purse. ‘There’s an emperor here for any of you fat-arses who can keep up. For those of you who can’t, I suggest you find an occupation more suited to your disposition. We’ve got a ship in the docks that needs a thief-taker or two and it needs it soon. And before any of you lack-wits ask, no it bloody can’t wait for morning.’

Outside, down the slope of the Kingsway leading towards the sea-docks, Kol broke into a run. Not much of one, not in the middle of the night with only the full moon lighting the cobbles and the city dung-boys not due to haul their shit-barrows around again until dawn. But fast enough that he managed not to say much more until they’d reached the bottom of the hill, rounded the warehouses there and spilled out into the docks proper. The docks were quiet, quieter than Syannis had ever seen them, even in the small hours like this. The justicar trotted out towards the waterfront and his half-dozen thief-takers ran along behind. Syannis caught the way they looked at each other. Questioning. Shaking heads. None of them knew any better what this was about. None of them except maybe the witch-breaker, but then Orimel . . . As far as Syannis could tell, Orimel had been hunting witches since the start of the world and nothing bothered him any more. So maybe he didn’t know anything either and just didn’t care.

Down by the waterfront, across cobbles worn flat and smooth by the endless passage of feet, a gang of dockside militiamen were milling about, waiting beside a pair of longboats. They looked uneasy. Anxious. Usually the militia gangs were hard to hold back once they had their blood up. This lot looked like they’d rather be almost anywhere else. Kol reached them and stopped. He turned and held up a purse.

‘Right. It’s like this.’ The purse jingled in his hand. ‘There’s a stack of emperors in here. One for each of you. Which would be daylight robbery if it was for a day’s work, but since we’ve all gotten out of our nice warm beds and our nice cosy blankets, we’ll just think of it as ordinary robbery and leave it at that. Right. To get your nice shiny emperor, what you have to do is get on that boat.’ Kol pointed down steps, slippery and green, that vanished into the black water of the sea by the pair of bobbing longboats.

Syannis sniffed. There was a smell, over the top of the salt and the seaweed and the fish. A smell of something dead. Something he’d come to know, back in the old country, before he’d been forced to flee his home and his life. A scent he thought he’d never smell again until he came here, and found he was by no means the first Tethis refugee to wash up in Deephaven.

‘Got a cold, Taker Syannis?’ snapped Kol. ‘As well as getting onto that boat, I suppose it goes without saying that you have to come back again, and so do I.’ With that, he tossed the purse into the gang of dockside militia. ‘You lot can look after that for now.’ Which meant the purse had nothing but a few copper pennies and some rusty bits of metal in it. No one in their right mind gave a purse full of emperors to the dockside militia to look after. ‘What’s more, we have to come back before dawn. And since none of you have the first idea why, let me tell you.’ He pointed out to sea. ‘That, out there, where we’re going, is a Taiytakei ship. Tore into the harbour at dusk like a virgin priest up Reeper Hill, dropped anchor, cut its sails and best I hear it, everyone jumped overboard. Interesting point of note number one. Interesting point of note number two: The crew, they weren’t Takis.’

He stopped for a moment to let that sink in. The Taiytakei were precious about their ships. Everyone knew that. No one moved or spoke, but the thinking was deafening.

‘So who were they?’ It was Orimel the witch-breaker who broke the silence, probably because he was the one thinking least of his own purse.

‘A handful of them got off into the ship’s boat. They’ve been brought ashore and taken to the temple. They’re not well.’

‘Plague-ship!’ hissed Taker Fennis. Justicar Kol clapped his hands.

‘Exactly,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘A plague-ship. Which is why our friends in the militia here won’t be coming with us, but instead will be guarding the dockside, making sure no one except us goes anywhere near it.’ He turned to face the militiamen. ‘Right lads?’

‘Plague-ship my arse,’ muttered Kasmin. Syannis nudged him in the ribs. For a plague-ship they’d send priests, or else they’d wait until daylight, cut her anchor, tow the ship out to sea and set her on fire. No, this was something else. Even in The Eight, the greed on Kol’s face had been clear enough.

The justicar led the way down the steps, picking his way across the slime and the seaweed and the barnacle-crusted stone. One by one the thief-takers followed.

‘You here. You there.’ Kol pointed at benches with waiting oars. Syannis sat where he was told. Given where he’d been born, it was an odd thing that he knew how to row.

‘Remember the night we slipped out of Galsmouth?’ Kasmin sniffed. Syannis didn’t answer. Of course he remembered. They both remembered. Rowing out to sea, just the two of them, a fishing boat waiting somewhere in the murk of the night. Both filled with rage and fire and the certain knowledge that they would soon return to avenge their families and what had been done to their kingdom.

And now here they were, both of them. Years older. Kingdom still unavenged. Kasmin’s family were dead and Syannis’ might as well have been. Next to him, Kasmin let go of his oar and gulped a mouthful from the bottle in his pocket. The spirits Kasmin kept in his pockets had been getting stronger over the years. Making up for what’s happening to the one inside, Syannis thought. But it’s not going to happen to me.

‘Oars, gentlemen. The round end goes in your hand, the flat end goes in the water. Waggle them back and forth and the miracle of motion occurs!’ Kol kicked the boat away from the dockside. ‘Come on, come on, put your backs to it. Last thing we need is for the sun to come up and find us helplessly adrift.’

‘Then maybe you’d better pick up an oar and help,’ snapped Kakrim.

Kol laughed. He sat back in the stern of the boat, crossed his legs and lit a pipe. ‘Then there’d be three of us on one side, no one to balance out Taker Kasmin here and we’d spend all night going round in circles. Besides, Taker Kakrim, one of us needs to keep an eye on which way we’re going, and it’s probably best that it’s the one of us that knows which ship we’re going to, eh?’

Kasmin laughed. The other thief-takers muttered to themselves and started to row. The boat pulled away from the waterfront, leaving the militiamen staring at them, slowly receding into the distance. As they left, Syannis noticed, the remembered smell of something dead slowly vanished on the breeze.

 

4th Abyss Day, Month of Floods

 Land. Lucky Sanct. The charts are right. Gods preserve us, but what sorcery was that storm? Maybe the shifting shadow of the calendar will change our fortunes. Weather bright, seas calm. Little wind this close to land.

 

1st Sun Day, Month of Lightning

With a fair wind and a month at sea, Kurotos lies to the West. The Taki ship is well provisioned but I have chosen a cautious course that will keep us close to land. I cannot fathom the nature of the storm that brought us here, but the coastal waters are more secure and the proximity of land will ease the discontent of the crew. Today we put in for water and fresh meat. I will permit two days ashore, no more. Kurotos and Sanct’s gold await us and I am keen to know if the Dread survived the storm and is waiting for us there. Sanct becomes increasingly tedious, demanding that we sail east instead to the port of Deephaven, a place of which I have never heard and have no wish to visit. He should consider himself fortunate that he and his gods-forsaken casket haven’t been abandoned in this wild place. The crew would have it done in a blink if I did not stop them. For myself, though, I cannot believe that he had any part in the storm that drove us here. Fair weather still. Some rain but the wind remains kind.

4

 

‘Well then,’ said the witch-breaker once they were away from the shore and the sounds of their oars would muffle their talk. ‘Since it isn’t a plague-ship, what is it, Kol?’

‘Plunder, plain and simple,’ muttered Fennis behind them.

‘No.’ The thief-taker’s voice was emphatic. ‘It’s not just that.’

Kol took a long pull on his pipe and blew a slow stream of smoke into the night air. ‘Might be, might not.’ He leaned forward. ‘One thing you should keep in the front of your thoughts, though. This is a Taki ship. In the morning, once the other Takis know it’s here, they’re going to be banging on the door of the Overlord’s Palace, demanding he give it back. And he will, too. Now our Overlord, being the lazy sort of fellow he is, he might not get around to even getting out of bed until midday, but you can be sure that the Takis will be up a lot sooner than that. Most likely they won’t wait for an answer. I’ll wager you an emperor to a crown that they have a boat in the water within a glass of sunrise, and men on-board a glass after that. Now our good champion the Overlord, he’s going to say yes, yes, of course his good friends the Taiytakei, those good friends who shower him with gifts, of course they can have their ship back. But in the back of his mind, there’ll be this little voice kicking and screaming. A Taki ship? You all know the stories. No one but a Taki gets on one of their ships. Why? Good question. So I say let’s find out. And since it was apparently overrun by a gang of pirates on the run from the sun-king, who knows what they might have done while they were aboard. All sorts of things might have gone missing. Charts, for a start.’

In front of Syannis, Orimel the witch-breaker coughed. ‘I’m sure we all understand, Justicar, that it is our, ah . . . civic duty to pillage anything that isn’t nailed down and hand it over to you as soon as we are ashore. But the crew, please tell me about the crew. The ones who abandoned this apparent treasure-palace in such haste. The ones who jumped into the sea to drown rather than revel in the fruits of their plunder. The ones who lie dead in the docks temple.’

The boat lurched as half the thief-takers lost their stroke at once. Dead?

‘Dead?’ Taker Kakrim growled the word.

‘Yes, why dead?’ Kol sounded annoyed. ‘I didn’t say anything about anyone being dead, witch-breaker. I said they weren’t well.’

Orimel cocked his head, calmly pulling on his oar. ‘Am I mistaken, Kol?’

The justicar paused. The boat paused with him. ‘No,’ he said eventually, after another long pull on his pipe. ‘You’re not mistaken. How did you know?’

‘How did they die, Kol?’

This time Kol shrugged. ‘Buggered if I know. All I know is they jumped into their boats and made for the shore and before they could reach the waterfront, they were all dead.’

‘Plague,’ hissed Taker Fennis again.

‘Bloody quick for a plague.’

‘They were running from something.’ The witch-breaker took a deep breath. ‘I smelled it on the dockside as you waved your purse of empty promises in the air. Death was with us then. I smelled the corpses lying in the sun-god’s temple. I smell the trail of them back out across the sea.’ He stood up and pointed out into the waves, between the anchored ships. ‘They died there. There. There. This ship carries more than charts and plunder and dead pirates.’

Kol stretched his shoulders. He turned for a moment and looked up at the stars. At the bright full moon high overhead. ‘And that, witch-breaker, is why you’re here. You find whatever it is and get rid of it while the rest of us do what the Overlord will actually thank us for. Now, are you lot going to row or what? Because if all you want to see is how pretty the sunrise is tomorrow, I suggest we all watch it from the shore.’

There wasn’t much to say after that. The thief-takers pulled on their oars, Kol steered them this way and that, a little left, a little right. Or port and starboard maybe, but Syannis, even if he’d grown up by it, had never been one for the sea. His eyes tracked the huge black shadows of the hulls as they passed by, of masts that reached up high enough to rake the sky, or so it seemed from down in the waves. Kol steered them carefully, keeping as clear of the other ships as he could, waving a lantern and calling out to the men on watch as they passed. Pirates had been the plague of Deephaven not all that long ago, coming around Wrecking Point in their boats. The city had put an end to that a few years back, in the mess and chaos at the end of the empire’s civil war, when mercenaries and swords had been cheap and plentiful and everyone else was too busy with their own problems to mind what one city did to the villages around it. That had been about the same time as Syannis and Kasmin had gone from living in a palace to slipping off to sea in a lonely rowing boat. Kasmin had made his way here later, just in time to see Khrozus the Usurper get murdered. By the time Syannis washed up in Deephaven, all of that was history. No more pirates. There was even talk of abandoning the watchtower only a year after they’d built it.

But sailors had long memories. Deephaven might be safe now, but the ship captains still set their watches through the night, still greased their anchor chains and were still prone to taking the odd shot at any small boat that happened to stray too close. The thief-takers kept away as best they could until Kol guided them in close towards the Taki ship. It wasn’t hard to spot. Swathes of sail and rope draped over the side, dragging in the water, gleaming in the light of the moon overhead. There were shapes, too, caught up in the ropes. Bodies, floating in the water. Syannis counted three of them. Strange to have drowned so close to a ship with a rope almost in your hand.

‘Right. In case any of you hadn’t noticed, this is it. If I’ve been keeping time right, we’ve got about two hours to get on board, take whatever we can and get off again if we want to be back on dry land before sunrise. Which, my motley friends, we do. So get us close and tie us up to one of those ropes and get us aboard and don’t fanny about.’

‘I am not liking this, Justicar,’ grumbled Orimel. ‘I sense a malevolence on this ship.’

Kol snorted. ‘And there I was thinking that her crew were just in such a rush to make happy hour at the Khrozus’ Head. See that?’ He pointed up at the full moon. ‘That’s the moon. You,’ he pointed at Orimel, ‘are a moon-priest. When that up there is all big and round and shiny, you lot practically hiccup lightning bolts, or so you’d have the rest us believe. So go find whatever thing it is you sense and sneeze at it or something.’ With that he stood up, setting the whole boat rocking from side to side, and seized a rope hanging down loose from the masts above. A moment later, the longboat was bumping against the hard dull hull of the Taiytakei trader. A minute or two more and the silhouettes of six thief-takers and a priest stood out for a moment against the dim horizon, shinning up a rope before they vanished into the darkness of the deck.

 

1st Mage Day, Month of Lightning

Three more men lost. The shores here are not as uninhabited as they seemed. Wild men with painted faces and strange magics fell upon our shore party, and we are fortunate that our losses were not greater. They cannot pursue us at sea. Tomorrow we will set our course for home. Weather fine, winds freshening from the south.

 

 1st Council Day, Month of Lightning

Yet another calamity befalls us, and this time I cannot ignore the baying of the crew. Our provisions are spoiled and our water fouled. Sanct demands again that we sail to Deephaven and with the fires of the savages burning clear for all to see on the shore, I find our choices are few. I know nothing of this place, yet Sanct, it seems, has a knowledge he previously chose to hide. What coin do they take in this city of Deephaven, I ask him? He promises he has the means to pay for whatever we will require. Good. I will take it from him. The crew howl anew to hurl him into the sea, blaming him for yet more misfortune, yet I see the hand of sabotage in this, clear as day. I will find whoever has done this and they will feed the sharks.

Even the winds argue for Deephaven. They would blow us straight there if I let them.

5

 

The deck of the Taiytakei ship was covered with the wreckage of fallen ropes and sails. Across the middle of the ship, straddling the main deck from corner to corner, lay a boom, fallen from one of the masts. A tangle of ropes and sail lay around it; another covered the bow of the ship and a third dangled over the side, the ropes the thief-takers had used to climb aboard.

‘Messy,’ sniffed Fennis.

‘No real sailor does this to a ship,’ muttered Kakrim.

‘Yes, yes. It’s not likely there’s going to be anything much up on deck here, so no need to start rummaging around.’ Kol hurried them over the rail, almost dragging them up.

‘There is a presence,’ growled Orimel. ‘Close by.’ He moved to the middle of the deck. Out here in the night-dark, a halo of silver light flickered around his face and fingers.

The justicar snorted, unimpressed. ‘Yes, well, most likely it’s not hiding under a sail. Come on. Charts, my fellows. We’ll start with those. I assume we’ll find them in the cabin at the back here. After that you can all join our witch-breaker on a jolly expedition to the bilges if that’s what you want.’ With that, the justicar picked his way across the fallen rigging and moved towards the raised deck at the back of the ship. ‘I don’t suppose any of you thought to bring a light.’

‘You sure you want light out here, Kol?’ asked Syannis. ‘People will see.’

The justicar paused in the gloom. He wagged a finger. ‘Now that’s the sort of thinking I like. A sliver of something dim, Master witch-breaker? Think you could manage that? A touch of the moon for us to take down below?’

Orimel muttered something under his breath, something that sounded more like an assertion of the justicar’s poor parentage than anything else. Kol’s hands started to glow with a silvery light, the same moonlight as the halo around the witch-breaker.

‘Obliged to you, priest. Remind me to come and help out with the collection plate one day.’

The justicar turned back. Syannis had been on enough ships in his time – more than he cared to remember, usually fleeing from one of the Small Kingdoms to the next and then finally crossing the ocean to Deephaven. Sloops, brigs, schooners, he’d never taken the time to learn the difference nor particularly cared. In one respect, they’d all been the same. They all had a raised deck at the back and the captain’s cabin, where all Kol’s precious charts would be, lay beneath it. Bigger ships had other cabins, smaller ships had just the one. He’d never been on a Taki ship before, but in the dark and with its sails cut and lying scattered across the deck, it looked much the same. Back and centre, a door led into the aft of the ship. Kol reached and paused. The door was open. As far as Syannis could remember, doors on ships stayed closed, always, unless someone was actually using them. Then again, sails usually stayed on masts and sailors usually stayed out of the sea.

Kol went inside. One by one, Syannis and the other thief-takers followed. Only the witch-breaker stayed behind. In the passageway beyond they stopped. Kol opened his hands and let the light from them settle softly on the debris underfoot.

‘We really should have brought a lantern,’ grumbled Kasmin. Syannis shrugged. Yes, a lantern would have been a fine idea. So would all sorts of other things if anyone had told him before he’d left the Four Horses that he’d be spending the night on an abandoned ship.

There were doors on either side of the passageway, one each. There was a door at the end, too. Or rather, space where a door had been. Now all Syannis could see was a gaping black hole, ragged-edged where both door and frame had been smashed to flinders. The floor beneath their feet was covered in shards of wood. A lot of little ones and a few good big ones the size of his arm.

‘Something hit that hard, then,’ said Kol. He was trying to sound cheerful and unconcerned, and not quite managing.

‘Something wanted out, Justicar.’

‘Yes.’ Kol took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. ‘Which means it’s probably not in there any more. So let’s go.’

‘Is it still on the ship?’ Kakrim glanced over his shoulder and looked straight at Syannis.

‘That’s what the witch-breaker’s out there for,’ shrugged Kasmin. He elbowed Syannis. ‘I say we get Kol’s precious charts and get out of here. If he wants to go down below-decks, let him do it without us.’

As they reached the shattered door-frame, Syannis peered at it. You could clearly see that it had been barricaded from both sides. Someone on the outside had wanted to keep something in, and so had someone on the inside. Which was strange.

‘Moon and Sun!’

The tension in Fennis’ voice had Syannis’ sword an inch out of its scabbard before he even knew he was reaching for it. His eyes struggled in the dim light, a few beams of moonlight coming through the small stern windows and the glow of Kol’s hands. For a second he didn’t spot whatever Fennis had seen. Then he saw. There was a body on the floor. Too dark to make out any more, but there were arms and legs and a head, if you looked hard enough.

‘There’s another one over here,’ said Kakrim. His voice was brittle, like ice about to crack.

‘And another one.’ Kol stepped gingerly over a shape in the darkness. He walked to the table in the middle of the room. ‘Never mind. They’re dead, so they’re not going to complain while we help ourselves.’ There were papers on the table, more scattered around the floor. He started picking them up. Quickly, without bothering to see what they were. ‘A hand here would be good.’

Fennis went to help him. The other thief-takers moved slowly about the cabin, anxious and on guard. ‘Can we just go once we’ve got these?’

‘Yes.’ Kol only hesitated for a moment, an unusual triumph of caution over greed. Syannis crouched beside one of the bodies. Dead for several days, judging from its swollen belly. Kasmin went to lean on a chest pushed up against the side of the room.

‘Searching its pockets?’

‘Can’t even tell if it’s a Taki in this light.’ The Taiytakei were black-skinned, which made them unique among all the realms whose people mingled in Deephaven. ‘Nothing in its . . . Holy Sun!’ Syannis jumped away. Startled, Kasmin stepped back and fell onto the chest behind him. ‘Kol?’ The dead man on the floor had a gaping hole in his chest. He’d had his heart ripped out. ‘Kol, you’ve got what you wanted. Now we leave. Right now.’

‘Seen a ghost, Taker Syannis?’

‘This man had his heart torn out of his chest. Whatever did that, it wasn’t a man.’

‘Oh, so what was it then? Sea-monster?’

Behind Syannis, Kasmin was making groaning noises, trying to pull himself upright. The chest apparently either didn’t have a lid or else didn’t have one strong enough for him to sit on.

Syannis glowered at the justicar, who stood in the middle of the cabin with a handful of papers. ‘I don’t know and I don’t want to find out.’

‘Thing is, Syannis, I’ve hunted thieves and killers in this city for twenty years now. I was here when Khrozus let his general Kyra loose on us and I was here right through the siege. I’ve seen men killed in every way you can imagine, a good few that you can’t, and one or two that you simply wouldn’t believe if I told you. And you know what killed them? Other men. I’ve seen more monsters than you could count, Syannis, and every one of them looked just like you or me.’

‘Then you’ve never seen whatever did this.’ Syannis hauled Kasmin back to his feet. ‘Come on. We’re done. We’ll stay with Orimel . . . Sun and Moon!’

What Kasmin had been sitting on had been no chest. It was a stone casket. The sort for burying sorcerers. It was empty. He peered inside. Couldn’t help himself.

No. Not empty. There was dust in the casket, a lot of dust, and then his fingers found something else. Something hard. A pair of knives. He blew the dust away. The knives were alien, strange, shaped more like cleavers, yet too small for butcher’s work. Their handles gleamed golden.

Alien, and yet familiar. He’d seen them before, or something like them once before. In a book maybe, back before Tethis had fallen and books had become a thing of the past.

He picked one up and started at it. There were patterns in the steel of the blade, patterns he could barely make out in the moonlight, but they were there. They almost moved. ‘Kas . . .’

Outside, a hideous wail echoed across the water. And then both Justicar Kol and Kakrim swore.

The corpses were rising.

 

1st Moon Day, Month of Lightning

Sanct, you bloody fool, what have you done?

 

6

 

‘Oh no you bloody well don’t!’ Kol landed a kick in the head of the nearest corpse, spinning it across the floor. The dead man beside Syannis grabbed his ankle and started clawing at his leg, trying to rise. Syannis whipped out his sword and split its head in two. When that didn’t stop it, he chopped off its hand. It was still moving, but at least it wasn’t clutching at him any more. Yanking at Kasmin, he backed towards the door. He wasn’t the only one. Fennis was swearing as only a northerner could swear, already backing out towards the passage. Out of all of them, Kakrim and the justicar were the ones who weren’t panicking. Kol was slashing and hacking at the one nearest to him, systematically chopping it into pieces. Kakrim was scampering away from the third while reaching into his coat.

‘Witch-breaker!’ What came next was a long shrill scream from somewhere outside. One that ended with a gasping gurgle and then silence.

‘That sounded far from good.’ Kasmin was almost rigid with tension.

Kakrim pulled something small out of his coat, a tiny bottle. He threw it at the walking corpse in front of him, which promptly lit up with golden fire and collapsed to the floor.

‘Sunfire!’ snapped Kol. Kakrim threw him another bottle, which the justicar sprinkled over the pieces around him on the floor. They too burst into yellow flame. By now Syannis was at the door. He stopped. Silhouetted against the night sky at the end of the passage, he could see two figures. One of them was hanging in the air, his feet flapping uselessly, a hand gripped around his throat and another hand apparently busy ripping out his organs.

‘Master Syannis, look lively!’

Syannis turned around. The third corpse, less the right side of its head and one hand, had managed to get up and was staggering towards him. He had no idea how it knew where he was, but it came with purpose. He turned his back on the passageway and whatever it was he’d seen there. Some thing slaughtering Orimel, that’s what it looked like. Unless there was someone else alive out there.

No. Had been someone else alive out there. Tenses mattered. Tenses were the difference between life and death. Whatever was out there, he didn’t need to see that, not right now. Best to be thankful that all he had seen was shadows and shapes. He swung his sword at the monstrosity in front of him. Not a pretty blow, not the sort his old sword-mistress would have approved at all, just madness and fear and ferocity. He swung once and then again and again, chopping it as Kol had done. When he glanced over his shoulder, whatever had been in the passageway was gone. He’d seen it though. Seen it for sure.

The room filled with light and golden fire and the thing in front of him crumpled.  Kol stood behind it, shaking his head.

‘Here we go again.’ He pressed something into Syannis’ hand, a small vial of something, then peered out into the passageway.

‘You don’t want to go there,’ hissed Syannis, his voice hoarse.

‘I certainly don’t want to stay in here.’

‘There’s something out there.’ What to say? What he’d seen, what else? ‘It killed Orimel. I think.’

‘Really?’

‘It was ripping him to bits. It was ripping someone to bits anyway.’

‘Ah.’ That seemed to make him at least stop and think. ‘Got any sunsteel on you?’

Syannis shook his head. Which was a lie – he had his mail, but that was his. Something Kol would never know. Whatever fire was burning these creatures, it was cold. All light and no heat, but it burned them anyway.

‘Kakrim?’

‘If I had a sunsteel blade, do you think I wouldn’t be using it?’ Syannis glanced back into the passageway. Still empty. From outside, another unearthly shriek violated the night.

Kasmin lurched forward. He shoved Kol in the chest hard enough to almost knock him down. ‘What the bloody Khrozus are you doing, Justicar? What do you mean here we go again? Why didn’t you tell us this ship was full of cocking monsters?’

‘Because I reasoned that if I did, you might not have come,’ snapped Kol. ‘Besides, I didn’t know. I might have guessed, but I didn’t know. Why do you think I brought Kakrim and the witch-breaker?’

‘You bastard . . .’

‘Kakrim?’ Syannis stared at the other thief-taker. The golden flames had almost died, but they were still bright enough that he could see Kakrim shrug.

‘If you’d been here for the siege as we both were, Syannis, the restless dead would almost be old friends. Sunsteel, fire, water, that’s what kills them. Chuck ’em in the sea and they’ll stop moving. If you fancy carrying them that far. Question is more about what made them. And what made them wake up when they did.’ He glanced over at the casket. ‘So what was that you two were fiddling with?’

Before either Syannis or Kasmin could answer, Kol was kneeling by the casket, squinting at it. Syannis still had one of the two knives in his off-hand. He quietly tucked it into his belt. Damned if he was going to let the justicar get his hands on something like that, not after leading them into this.

‘Well, Syannis? What is it?’

‘A burial casket.’

‘And what goes in burial caskets?’

Not very much, that was the answer. No one got buried, not in a stone casket, not like that. When a man died, his body was burned if he was a follower of the sun, or sunk in water if he followed the path of the moon. That was how a man’s soul returned to the gods from which it had been born. Syannis had heard there were some places where the dead were left lying out in open fields for three nights, which was supposed to do much the same thing. Burial, though, that was something else. That was to cut off a soul from those very same gods. That was to damn that soul to walk the underworld for eternity with the dead goddess of the earth. Burial was for . . .

‘Evil,’ said Kol, softly. ‘That’s what goes in caskets. Something too evil to be sent back to the gods.’

‘It’s not done,’ murmured Syannis. ‘It is forbidden. Even for the worst . . .’

‘Forbidden here, Syannis, but this didn’t come from Aria.’ He rubbed at the casket lid. ‘I don’t even recognise the words. Was there anything inside it?’

Syannis shrugged. ‘Not that I found.’ No, Justicar, you don’t get my treasure. ‘Just dust.’

Kol peered inside. Syannis waited for his hand to come out clutching the second knife, but it didn’t. ‘Dust.’ The justicar shrugged. ‘Just dust. Just my luck too. A stolen Taki ship shows up in my port and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s got some ancient restless spirit in it. For all we know, that could be some poor tit who looked at the mistress of some ancient king we’ve all long forgotten in a way that someone didn’t like, or it could be some thousand year old death-mage who wiped out an entire nation before someone took his head off.’ Kol frowned. ‘Assuming that even works for sorcerers. Oh my.’ He sneezed. ‘Cursed dust.’ Then he shrugged. ‘Changes things a bit.’

‘A bit?’ Kasmin might have hit him if Syannis hadn’t stopped him.

‘A bit, yes, Kasmin, a bit.’

‘Changed things more than a bit for Orimel,’ snapped Syannis. ‘Something had him out there and last I saw it was ripping out his lungs. I’m guessing it started with his heart.’

‘Someone had to come, Syannis,’ said Kol coldly, ‘and to be blunt, that’s what the city pays us for. To deal with whatever needs to be dealt with, and yes, sometimes one of us dies. Besides, if you really saw what you say, I think it’s highly unlikely that was our witch-breaker. Whatever it is, Orimel will deal with it. That’s what he does.’

‘And if he doesn’t? If it was him being torn to pieces?’

‘Then we take what we can get and burn the ship into the water. Fire and water, Syannis, either one will do.’ He nodded at the charts and the papers now scattered across the floor again after the fight. ‘Fennis, pick that lot up, because aside from finding out what this gods-cursed ship is doing here, that’s still mostly what we came for. Syannis, if something moves and you don’t like the look of it, throw what’s in the vial at it. Won’t bother anything that’s alive.’

‘What’s in it?’ asked Syannis, wondering whether the justicar had meant that as an invitation to throw the damn thing in his face.

‘Would it bother you, Kol?’ growled Kasmin.

‘Sunlight, that’s what’s in it. And no, Kasmin, it wouldn’t. Now, when you’re done helping thief-taker Fennis pick up all this mess, you can join me back on the deck.’

7

 

Whatever he had or hadn’t seen in the passageway, the hard truth was that it was the only way out of the cabin. A child might have climbed out of the windows and jumped and, if they were a strong swimmer, struck for shore. Syannis was neither, and so that left the passageway or staying where he was for however many hours it took for the sun to rise. So when Fennis and Kasmin had picked up all the papers and charts and tied them in bundles, Syannis had his sword in his hand, ready to go. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, almost hopping with nervous energy. Kasmin gave him a nod then waved something the shape of a large book at him.

‘You want to know what’s happening, I’ll wager it’s in here. A Taki ship’s book this is.’

For a moment, Syannis paused, all ready to rip it open, but ow that Kol and his moon-glowing hands had gone, he and Kasmin could barely even see each other. Instead he glanced at the casket.

‘Isn’t there something we’re supposed to do about that?’

Kasmin shrugged. ‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. Bless it. Cast some sort of divine ritual over it. Purify it. Exorcise the evil. Something like that?’

Kasmin shrugged again. ‘It’s just a lump of stone, Prince. Save your blessing for things that move and kill. Besides, even if you’re right, I’m no priest and neither are you.’ They both glanced at Fennis, but Fennis was almost useless now. He was shaking.

‘Don’t ask me to think,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t ask me to do anything. Just get me off this curse-ship.’

‘Right.’ Syannis drew his sword again, and as an afterthought took the strange knife in his other hand. There was the passageway, or there was sit and wait and see what eventually came along it, and he’d never been much of a sitting and waiting sort. ‘Kasmin beside me, Fennis behind. Steady now and quick, but not too quick.’ Kasmin with a sword beside him always felt good, felt certain. He’d grown up with that. Trained with that since he could hold a waster. Sometimes with Kasmin, sometimes with one of the others of his father’s guard, but who it was didn’t matter much, they all fought the same. They knew what to expect. Syannis would move one way and Kasmin would move another and neither of them would even have to look to know where the other was standing.

More shouting from outside, another unearthly scream. This time Syannis thought he heard Orimel’s voice, powerful and strong, invoking the name of the moon. Which meant the witch-breaker was alive and what he’d seen had either been something else or perhaps he hadn’t seen it at all. Perhaps his mind had been playing tricks on him.

No. He’d seen it all right. But still . . . Orimel was out on the deck, fighting whatever was there to be fought, and so were Kol and Kakrim. He stepped into the passageway, heart pounding, lips drawn back across his teeth. Think of Radek. Think he’s out there waiting for you. Yes, that did the trick. He was up for a fight now, eager for it . . .

And then they were at the end of the passage and climbing up onto the deck, and nothing had happened. He didn’t even remember treading on anything slick on the floor.

Did I imagine it?

No time for that. Orimel was up on the fore-deck. The witch-breaker was wreathed in silver lightning. Moonbeams sprayed out of his hands, directed at . . . at a hole in the middle of the deck, a hatch leading down into the bowels of the ship. Something was there, floating above it, shrouded in whirling shreds of howling darkness that battered the witch-breaker’s moonbeams away. As Syannis stared, the thing shrieked again. So much for slipping aboard and slipping away again without being noticed. Never mind the nearby ships – you could probably see the the flashes of light and hear those screams all the way up in the Overlord’s Palace on The Peak.

‘Light a fire!’ yelled Kol. ‘Burn it!’ He was on the other side of the hatch, as far away from the thing as he could be. Kakrim was closer, pressed into a corner, close to their longboat down in the sea below.

‘With what?’

‘Anything!’ The justicar pelted across the deck to Kakrim. The thief-takers converged, swords all drawn, instinctively taking a defensive stand. They were all on the wrong side of it, whatever it was, to help the witch-breaker. The noise and the howling were getting steadily worse, so even up close they had to shout to make themselves heard. The witch-breaker’s evocations were almost lost now.

‘What the bloody Khrozus is that?’ bawled Kakrim.

‘How the bloody Khrozus would I know?’ shouted Kol. ‘Burn it!’

‘With what?’

‘Whatever you’ve got that burns!’

‘That would be nothing, then.’

‘That’s what you get for dragging us all out of our beds,’ hissed Kasmin.

‘Oh how bloody useless are you lot? Call yourselves thief-takers? Next time the city fancies spending its emperors on handling some trouble, I reckon I’ll be going up Reeper Hill for a few of the ladies up there. Be a damn sight more use than you shower.’

‘You do that, Kol!’ roared Syannis. The wind was battering them now, strong enough to flap the fallen sails on the deck and pick up loose ends of rope. The light around the witch-breaker was so bright that Syannis couldn’t even look at him any more. ‘You bloody do that.’

‘There won’t be a next time,’ shouted Kasmin. ‘If that thing doesn’t kill him, I bloody will!’

‘You want to burn it?’ Kakrim ripped another vial out from an inside pocket and slammed it into Kol’s hands. ‘You go burn it.’

‘You know what, I will.’

Three quick strides was all it took, and then he was on the edge of the vortex. Kol’s arm jerked back and then forward again and he stumbled hastily back. A golden light flashed in the howling dark; for a moment it almost fell still, and in that stillness, Syannis thought he saw the outline of a man, clutching his head, writhing in torment.

The light died. The man vanished. The shadows swirled once more, let out another shriek so loud it made Syannis’ ears ring.

Abruptly, everything stopped. The noise, the movement, everything. A ball of sheer night hung over the centre of the ship, bathed in the fierce moonlight from the witch-breaker’s hands, and that was all. The thief-takers held their breath. They watched. Waited. Didn’t dare to even flinch.

‘Well . . .’ Kasmin. He was the first to crack, but he didn’t get any further than that. A rod of blackness shot out from the sphere, straight at the witch-breaker, straight into the middle of him, throwing him backwards. He staggered, tripped, fell into a tumble of fallen ropes and sails. The moonlight that had surrounded him faded slowly into the night.

The floating darkness changed again. It took shape. Arms and legs and a head of sorts. It turned towards the thief-takers and glided towards them.

‘Oh . . .’ Syannis shrugged. He had his sword, and that was that. He’d fight, if fighting actually made any difference. It didn’t look like it would.

‘Bollocks,’ spat the justicar. ‘That the word you’re looking for?’

Syannis grunted. ‘Hadn’t been looking for a word, really. More looking for which way to run.’

‘Yup.’

They ran.

8

 

Syannis, Kasmin and Kol bolted for the firedeck at the front of the ship. Fennis grabbed a rope and swung out over the side, over the sea and down towards the boat. The whirling shadows descended on Kakrim, the only one of them who hadn’t moved. Syannis heard a war cry. The howl of the wind grew louder and then stopped.

He turned. The thing had taken a shape that was almost human now. Kakrim was hanging in the air, his feet dangling, a monstrous hand gripped around his throat. As Syannis watched, another hand smashed into the thief-taker’s chest. The struggles stopped, and then the hand emerged, clutching something.

‘Holy Sun,’ breathed Kol. ‘He was wearing mail, too.’

Kakrim. One of the thief-takers Syannis had known right from the very start, from the day he’d first taken the justicar’s coin more than a year ago. Snuffed out, just like that.

‘What is that thing, Kol?’

The justicar was already up the steps to the firedeck, crouching over the witch-breaker. In the sudden calm that came with Kakrim’s death, Syannis could hear them talking. Orimel was alive, at least.

Across the main deck, the thing held still, shaking Kakrim like a doll, tearing pieces from his insides, inspecting them and then throwing them away, almost as though it was looking for something.

‘Syannis! Kasmin! Come up here!’

Kasmin ran at once. Syannis hesitated. Again, for a moment, in the pulsing shadows of the demon, he thought he saw the face of a man, stricken with anguish.

‘Get him on his feet! Come on!’

He had his sword in one hand, the casket knife in the other. Carefully, he put the knife back in his belt and took the bottle of sunfire that Kakrim had given him instead. From the other side of the ship, from the passageway where they’d been only moments ago, figures began to emerge. First one, then another, then more, six or seven. They milled around the whirling shadows, moaning and waving their arms, as if feeding from its energies. They picked up parts of Kakrim, discarded across the deck by the demon, and waved them in the air. They were almost dancing. A low growl rose from Syannis’ throat, a desire to hurl himself in among them, destroy them if he could. Kakrim was . . . well, not a friend the way friends had been in years gone by, but the closest sort he had here in Deephaven outside of Kasmin and perhaps one other refugee from his old home.

Yes, the urge was there all right, barely held in check. And what, exactly, was he going to do with it?

Up on the firedeck, Kol was talking to Kasmin, or to the witch-breaker, Syannis wasn’t sure which. Wasn’t really listening; but then a light flooded the ship. Moonlight, bright silver-white, poured down. The demon and the restless dead froze. And then a word, a single word like a whip-crack, so loud and hard it made his bones shake. The dead men around the demon screamed and writhed. A silver fire lit up around them like a halo. Their arms flailed, they danced up and down where they stood, shaking their heads, faster and faster. One by one they fell to the deck, silver flames licking over their fallen bodies.

The shadows around the demon flickered. Silver fire plucked at them, fought with them, streamers of light and dark, chasing each other in tight circles, twisting and turning, strangling one another then dying in their turn. In the middle of it all, Syannis saw it again, for a third time. The shape and face of a man, head tipped back, mouth open and screaming, eyes wide and wild, hands clutched to his face. If the robes he’d worn had been yellow, Syannis would have thought him a priest of the sun, but his clothes were darker. Not black, but some colour that was lost in the night, made grey like everything else by the moonlight.

Another word cracked out from the firedeck. More streamers of silver light tore into the demon. This time it staggered. Then it clutched at the remains of Kakrim, still held tight in one hand, and hurled the dead thief-taker’s body high over Syannis’ head and onto the firedeck.

The moonlight faltered. Only for an instant, but an instant was enough. The shadows devoured it. The monster became whole again. It shrieked, a howl that echoed all the way across the bay, the screaming pain of a hundred tortured souls. And then it moved. Fast. Straight at the firedeck. Straight at Syannis, who was standing in its path.

‘Syannis!’ Kol’s urgent cry reached out from the firedeck, but the rest was lost in a howl of wind and rage. Syannis didn’t need to hear it anyway. He understood. Stop it. Stop it if you can.  He couldn’t, though. He knew that perfectly well. The best he could do was put himself in its way and make it pause while it killed him. Still, he faced it. Didn’t flinch.

The first strike was clean, swift, precise. Not like fighting the restless dead in the cabin, no, this time fear was his servant, not his master. He struck at the demon and spun away. A perfect blow, exactly as sword-mistress Shalari had taught him. He could almost see the secret smile on her face, the little clap of approval.

The tip of his sword hit . . . something. Snagged on cloth or nicked flesh. Something. And then, for all his agile feet, the creature had him. A twist of shadow caught him, wrapped itself eagerly around him and wouldn’t be denied. Hungrily lifted him off his feet. An arm, or what passed for an arm, shot out from the shroud of darkness around the demon and gripped his throat, so hard and tight it was crushing his neck.

In a blink and a flick of the wrist, his sword snapped around. He struck the arm at the elbow, or where an elbow ought to have been. Another perfect blow, hard and cutting, but he might as well have struck an iron bar.

The arm drew him closer in. The grip on his neck tightened. He had seconds, perhaps, before the monster crushed his throat and then he began to slowly choke to death. He dropped his sword. Tore at the wax seal on Kakrim’s vial of sunfire, and threw it in the demon’s face. It screamed, so loud it hurt. Syannis felt it shudder, saw golden flames tear into the darkness around it. Not enough – he knew that straight away, could see it, somehow. Not enough sunfire to fight back so much shadow.

But again the face. The same man, stricken with torment, a rictus of pain, except this time, looking right at him. For a moment, the mouth closed, stopped screaming. The wild eyes found a purpose, a focus. They stared at him, seemed to see him, to somehow know him.

The sunfire grew weaker, the shadows shrugging it away. As the face faded, Syannis saw its lips move. Speaking. To him. There were no words, but there didn’t need to be. The lips had told him all he needed.

The knife, they said.

With the last of his strength, Syannis pulled the casket knife out of his belt. It felt strange in his hand, the weight all wrong, the handle too heavy and made of gold, the blade with its patterns that shifted and shimmered like a riot in the last of the sputtering sunfire. A cleaver blade, for cutting not for stabbing, but he stabbed it anyway, as hard and as deep as he could, straight at where he’d seen that tortured face.

There was no scream, no flash of light, no howling wind. A shudder, that was all, in the hand around his neck, and then the demon was gone, and all that was left was a withered man in dark robes, frail and fragile, lying on the deck with the casket knife buried in his face. Like a candle snuffed in a bucket of water.

Syannis picked himself up from where the creature had dropped him. He took a moment to look at the man. Didn’t know him. Didn’t recognise him, didn’t recognise anything about him.

‘Syannis! What . . ?’

Kol’s voice. Syannis shifted closer to the dead man beside him. He gripped the handle of the knife, eyes darting across the deck for any more, for the restless dead or whatever else the ship had waiting for them. The knife slipped out of the dead man’s head with ease. When Syannis looked, there wasn’t even a wound.

‘Syannis!’ Footsteps from the firedeck. Kol was up there. Syannis let his body hide the knife. Let the justicar not see it. ‘What did you do to it? What happened.’

The knife. It was his. Wanted to be his. A treasure. Something that could buy him anything. Buy him his way home. Buy him an army. The justicar would take it if he knew. Slowly, out of sight where none could see, he slipped the knife away inside his coat.

‘Sunfire,’ he lied. ‘Kakrim’s sunfire. That’s what did it.’

9

 

They burned the ship before they left. Kol made some suggestion about looking in the hold to see whether the Taiytakei had left anything worth taking, but even he sounded half-hearted. No one bothered to answer. The witch-breaker waited on the deck until the last of the thief-takers had scaled the ropes down to the waiting longboat. None of them saw what he did or how, but the ship was an inferno before they were halfway to the dockside. It sank into the harbour as they stood on the waterfront and watched.

‘Best this way, I suppose,’ grumbled the justicar. He had his charts, the precious charts, taken from Fennis. The rest of them, well, they had nothing at all except the promise of a golden emperor to come.

Save Syannis, who had his knife. The idea of sticking it into the justicar there and then crossed his mind. He was sure that none of the others would object.

‘Look,’ said Kol, as they watched the last of the Taiytakei ship slip below the water. ‘None of us knew what was out there. How was I to know?’

Sunrise wasn’t far off. They’d caused enough trouble already. Out in the harbour, every ship was awake, watchmen on the lookout for drifting wreckage. There must have been plenty enough people ashore who’d heard the demon screams, gone to the windows and watched the ship burn.

‘What we could do,’ growled Kasmin, ‘is weigh you down with lead and drop you in the water where it sank. Then you could rummage around down there for as much treasure as you like.’

Kol said nothing. After a bit, he turned and left.

‘Kakrim was his friend, too. As much as our justicar has any,’ said the witch-breaker softly. ‘He’ll pay you what he promised. I don’t think you need worry about that.’ And he was gone.  Fennis followed. Syannis and Kasmin were left alone.

‘We don’t want to be here when the sun comes up,’ muttered Syannis. ‘Don’t want anyone knowing we had anything to do with this. I’m going to bed.’

Kasmin sniffed. ‘I need a drink,’ he said.

‘You need rest, old bones.’

‘No, my prince, I need a drink. You go. I’ll find you in the Four Horses later.’

Syannis grunted. Kasmin walked away. He’d come back in the middle of the day, drunk as a lord, fall asleep, snore, eat for a small army and then start drinking again in the evening. More and more that was the way of it.

The thief-taker watched him go. Then he stared at the sea a while longer. The ships and the water tugged at him. Called him back to his home.

One day.

He turned to go. And there was that smell again. The smell of the dead. The smell he’d come to know, back in the old country, before he’d been forced to flee. The scent he thought he’d never smell again until he came here and found he was by no means the first Tethis refugee to wash up in Deephaven. He didn’t need to turn around. He knew who was there.

‘Hello, Kuy.’

‘Hello, Syannis.’

They stood together in silence, the thief-taker and the shadow-mage, side by side.

‘You found something,’ said the magician, after a while. ‘You brought something back.’

Syannis nodded.

‘No good will come of keeping it.’

‘Worth a bit though.’

‘More than you can imagine.’

‘Enough to buy a ship and an army of mercenaries? Enough to buy my kingdom back?’

‘More even than that.’

They stood together a while longer. Long enough. Syannis turned. ‘Then it’s mine, Kuy. You can’t have it.’

But the magician had gone.

10

 

Time did what time was wont to do. Syannis and Kasmin drifted apart. Neither of them could have said why. The dreams, maybe. The nightmares that came to plague them both after their night on the demon-ship. But then Kasmin had had nightmares for years. Woke up screaming at least once every week, haunted by the faces of the wife and son he would never see again. Syannis, he dreamed of a face, of a boy he’d almost forgotten. Of a father, a family, a home. Of watching it all burn. It was the strangest thing. Half the time he seemed to be dreaming of the past, the other half of the future, yet the faces, the places, they were always the same.

Or maybe they’d simply been drifting for a long time, Kasmin one way, himself another, Kasmin trying ever harder to forget, Syannis gripping the past like a vice. Maybe that was all there was to it. The Four Horses didn’t want a pair of thief-takers living under its roof, and maybe that was the spur that pushed them each to go their own way. Kasmin the thief-taker only existed because of Syannis the thief-taker, because once long ago, Kasmin the soldier had taken an oath to serve Syannis the prince. Both of those people were long gone. For a week they took a room together in a tavern near the market. When the week was up, Syannis quietly moved away, to a place in the Courthouse District. Kasmin said he’d follow but he never did. They saw each other every day for a time, met up each evening to share an ale and toast the constant master and the fickle one, the sun and the moon. With each week, Kasmin drank more and more, became morose and broody. Syannis found other things to do. Other reasons that kept him away. There were thieves to be caught, after all, and he had determined he would be the best taker in the city, the one Kol would call upon first, no matter what. It wasn’t quite being a prince, but it would have to do.

Kol, for his part, honoured his promise. The thief-takers met again in The Eight, seemingly by chance a few days after the curse-ship had sunk, and there he was. He gave them what he owed them and a little more, although the little more was measured in something other than gold. He gave them understanding. He gave them the ship’s log-book, written in a neat and tidy hand. Written by someone who’d learned their letters near the kingdoms that Syannis and Kasmin had called home, although Syannis kept that observation quietly to himself. So they learned of the ship’s last month at sea, but the last page was missing, torn out. Whatever the origins of the strange casket, no one had thought to write them down, the two gold-handled knives were never mentioned, and by the end, none of them were any the wiser.

‘Curse-ship,’ grumbled Master Fennis, and that was all any of them had to say.

Summer turned to winter. Not the harsh cold winters that Syannis had known as he grew up, but the mild Deephaven winters, cool but not bitter, breezy but with no storms. Kasmin moved away from the market – or possibly he was thrown out – and into The Maze somewhere. He fell back in with his old running-mates, the dockside gangs where Syannis had found him, a hired sword for some thief-lord that one day someone like Syannis would take down. An ageing drunken snuffer in a city already filled with far too many men like that to care. Syannis didn’t even know until weeks and months had passed. Once he did, he made a point of trekking down to The Maze once a twelvenight, every other Tower-day. Sometimes Kasmin wasn’t there. Mostly he was, drunk, hungover. Broke.

The Leveller was the first thing Syannis saw go, Kasmin’s great crossbow, sold to pay for drink. One by one, other pieces of him vanished in its wake.

‘I brought you something, old bones,’ he said to Kasmin, as they sat in the aftermath of the mid-winter festival, nursing their heads together.

‘Got everything I need right here.’ Kasmin grinned and held up a bottle. He put it to his mouth and tipped it back. Wine spilled over his chin and ran down his neck. He looked tired. Worn and spent, the way he’d looked on the day Syannis had first found him sprawled across a Deephaven street.

‘I’ve brought you a promise. We’ll go home, Kasmin. One day, we’ll go home. We’ll go, and you’ll have your revenge. Every bit of it. You come to me, the moment you’re ready.’ Kasmin laughed again and they both raised a glass to that, even if neither of them believed it. When Syannis went home, he was quite sure he’d never see his old friend and guardian again.

Yet fate moves with strange twists and oft steps sideways when it seems it must step forward. He did see Kasmin again, when almost a year had passed since the night of the curse-ship. Kasmin, on his doorstep, sober, clean, somehow free of his ghosts, or at least the most of them.

‘I bought a tavern,’ he said.

Syannis didn’t believe him. Or rather, couldn’t, because it simply wasn’t possible for someone like Kasmin.

‘The Barrow of Beer. Up near the market. It’s a hole, but it’s not nothing. I won’t say it stops me from being a drunk, but at least now I drink with my friends and they pay me for the privilege.’

They sat down together and they talked for a long time. About the way things were and the way they used to be, once long ago. Not about the way they might be again, though. Never that, not any more.

‘Where did you get the money, old bones?’ Syannis asked, when he couldn’t bear the not knowing any longer. Because he was, above all else, a thief-taker now.

Kasmin looked at him long and hard, a face full of fractured trust. He sniffed. ‘You remember the ship?’ he asked.

Syannis nodded. Of course. How could any of them ever forget?

‘There were two knives in that casket. I know you still got one. I sold mine. Got a tavern for it.’

‘Who’d you sell it to, old bones?’

‘Your death-mage. Kuy.’ He let that hang there, between them. Kasmin hated Kuy. Always had. Always said it was the magicians who’d brought ruin on their kingdom. Syannis, he had other thoughts, but on that one thing, nothing could make Kasmin see it another way. Now Syannis could see it all. Kuy had waited until Kasmin had nothing left. Waited for him to be as weak as he could possibly be, made his move and got what he wanted.

‘Tavern for a knife. That sounds like a bargain well struck.’ For one side, at least.

Enough to buy a kingdom? More, even, than that . . .

‘Need some money though. To make it work. Not much. A couple of emperors, that should–’

Syannis held up a hand. He went to where he hid his coin and brought back five. Everything he had, and he gave it to Kasmin. ‘Don’t spend it all at once.’

Kasmin nodded. ‘Thank you, my prince.’

‘Least I could do.’ There was a truth to that. If you went back far enough, the thief-taker owed Kasmin more than money. ‘Just make it work, old bones. Find some peace if you can.’

Kasmin grunted. ‘Kuy said you’d be going home one day. Said that knife you’ve got will kill you. Said I should tell you that. You know what I said? I said he should go stuff a spike up his arse.’ He almost smiled. Almost. ‘I’ll say one thing, though. Since then, since I gave him that knife, I don’t see their faces any more.’ The corner of his mouth twitched. ‘Just don’t. Don’t see them at all. Glad to be rid of it, really.’

His dead family. Syannis bit his lip.

‘Better that way.’ Kasmin sniffed again, took a deep breath and stood up. ‘Think I should go now.’ He reached inside his shirt. ‘Thought you should have this, too.’ He pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to Syannis. ‘No use to me any more. Might be to you. Might not. Don’t know.’

He paused at the door. Nodded a farewell. Syannis looked at the paper in his hand. ‘What is it?’

‘Last page of that book from the ship I reckon.’ Kasmin shrugged. ‘You come down to the Barrow one night. When you’re not working. First ale’s on the house, right.’

 

For any who find this, the captain is dead. I did not mean to kill him. I did not mean for it to kill him, but it grows beyond my power. I told him, gods know how many times I told him, we must put ashore. We must go to a place where its casket can be made pure. Deephaven, it is the only choice. Gods, holy sun, why did you send me here to this? I did your holy work and now I have a power that is against everything I swore, against everything I believe. Why have you done this to me? What have I done? Ah, they come. . .

 There. It is done. I am become vile. Two men lie dead by my hand, by the cursed hand of the sorcerer I am become. But what could I do? They would have torn me to pieces. I do not mind death, do not fear it, but not this way, for they would have unleashed a terror they cannot control. I cannot control. Gods. Even to let a tiny part of that power run through me to commit this villainy, that was hard enough, hard enough to hold back the trickle that would have become a torrent. Deephaven. It is the only place. The only port close enough where priests dwell who might banish this demon. This is what becomes of consorting with pirates, adventurers and freebooters. I am become the darkness within another. Gods help me.

Deephaven. I have told them Deephaven. All sail. All speed. Whatever means can be found.

I have killed another one. I did not mean to. I confine myself to this room. They fear and hate me as I fear and hate myself. Yet I must eat, must drink, or I will wither and it will rip through us all.

 The blue moon. When the sun sets and the blue moon rises, then I will lose this battle. When the blue moon sets, then it will become wholly of this world once more. In my flesh, it will be reborn. It has told me this. It gathers its strength for that time. It tells me. Mocks me. Already, whenever I am weak, I become it. But I do not go quietly into the darkness. Three days. In three days this will come to pass. In three days we must be in Deephaven or all will die. At least the crew know proper fear now. I pity them, but I can no longer stop myself. With planks and nails, I have barricaded myself inside this cabin, and when it was done, I threw the hammer through the window and into the sea. I have little hope it will contain the demon when it comes, but for now, it contains me. No more will die until I can no longer resist.

The sun sets. We race for the shore, but I see the horizon through my window. We are too late for me. Let them find a priest who can slay this creature before the night is through. Please, oh mighty sun.

What hope is there? The sun dips to the sea. It is too late. Oh gods. It comes.

Marcus

Marcus joined Gollancz as an Editor at the beginning of 2011, and is greatly enjoying the chance to work on the kind of books he’s always read. His shelves at home are groaning. Previously, he spent ten years as a bookseller for Blackwell’s, ending up as Sales Manager for their flagship London shop on Charing Cross Road. He lives with his partner, a historian and novelist, and their very small child, who is going to know more about SFF then anyone else at nursery. This may not be a good thing.