The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen (6 page)

BOOK: The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen
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He saw Lorn studying him as they came to the crest. “Captain, I have a request for you.”

The captain grunted.
Request, hell. The Empress has to check her slippers every morning to make sure this one isn’t already in them
. “Of course, Adjunct.”

The woman dismounted, as did Paran. The lieutenant’s expression was impassive. Was that arrogance, or had the Adjunct given him something to think about?

“Captain,” Lorn began, “I understand there’s a recruiting drive under way in Kan. Do you pull in people from outside the city?”

“To join? Sure, more of them than anyone else. City folk got too much to give up. Besides, they get the bad news first. Most of the peasants don’t know everything’s gone to Hood’s Gate on Genabackis. A lot of them figure city folk whine too much anyway. May I ask why?”

“You may.” Lorn turned to watch the soldiers cleaning up the road. “I need a list of recent recruits. Within the last two days. Forget the ones born in the city, just the outlying ones. And only the women and/or old men.”

The captain grunted again. “Should be a short list, Adjunct.”

“I hope so, Captain.”

“You figured out what’s behind all this?”

Still following the activity on the road below, Lorn said, “No idea.”

Yes, the captain thought, and I’m the Emperor reincarnated. “Too bad,” he muttered.

“Oh.” The Adjunct faced him. “Lieutenant Paran is now on my staff. I trust you’ll make the necessary adjustments.”

“As you wish, Adjunct. I love paperwork.”

That earned him a slight smile. Then it was gone. “Lieutenant Paran will be leaving now.”

The captain looked at the young noble and smiled, letting the smile say everything. Working for the Adjunct was like being the worm on the hook. The Adjunct was the hook, and at the other end of the line was the Empress. Let him squirm.

A sour expression flitted across Paran’s face. “Yes, Adjunct.” He climbed back into the saddle, saluted, then rode off down the road.

The captain watched him leave, then said, “Anything else, Adjunct?”

“Yes.”

Her tone brought him around.

“I would like to hear a soldier’s opinion of the nobility’s present inroads on the Imperial command structure.”

The captain stared hard at her. “It ain’t pretty, Adjunct.”

“Go on.”

The captain talked.

It was the eighth day of recruiting and Staff Sergeant Aragan sat bleary-eyed behind his desk as yet another whelp was prodded forward by the corporal. They’d had some luck here in Kan. Fishing’s best in the backwaters, Kan’s Fist had said. All they get around here is stories. Stories don’t make you bleed. Stories don’t make you go hungry, don’t give you sore feet. When you’re young and smelling of pigshit and convinced there ain’t a weapon in all the damn world that’s going to hurt you, all stories do is make you want to be part of them.

The old woman was right. As usual. These people had been under the boot so long they actually liked it. Well, Aragan thought, the education begins here.

It had been a bad day, with the local captain roaring off with three companies and leaving not one solid rumor in their wake about what was going on. And if
that wasn’t bad enough, Laseen’s Adjunct arrived from Unta shortly afterward, using one of those eerie magical Warrens to get here. Though he’d never seen her, just her name on the hot, dry wind was enough to give him the shakes. Mage killer, the scorpion in the Imperial pocket.

Aragan scowled down at the writing tablet and waited until the corporal cleared his throat. Then he looked up.

The recruit standing before him took the staff sergeant aback. He opened his mouth, on his tongue a lashing tirade designed to send the young ones scampering. A second later he shut it again, the words unspoken. Kan’s Fist had made her instructions abundantly clear: if they had two arms, two legs and a head, take them. The Genabackis campaign was a mess. Fresh bodies were needed.

He grinned at the girl. She matched the Fist’s description perfectly. Still. “All right, lass, you understand you’re in line to join the Malazan Marines, right?”

The girl nodded, her gaze steady and cool and fixed on Aragan.

The recruiter’s expression tightened.
Damn, she can’t be more than twelve or thirteen. If this was my daughter
. . .

What’s got her eyes looking so bloody old?
The last time he’d seen anything like them had been outside Mott Forest, on Genabackis—he’d been marching through farmland hit by five years’ drought and a war twice as long. Those old eyes were brought by hunger, or death. He scowled. “What’s your name, girl?”

“Am I in, then?” she asked quietly.

Aragan nodded, a sudden headache pounding against the inside of his skull. “You’ll get your assignment in a week’s time, unless you got a preference.”

“Genabackan campaign,” the girl answered immediately. “Under the command of High Fist Dujek Onearm. Onearm’s Host.”

Aragan blinked. “I’ll make a note,” he said softly. “Your name, soldier?”

“Sorry. My name is Sorry.”

Aragan jotted the name down on his tablet. “Dismissed, soldier. The corporal will tell you where to go.” He looked up as she was near the door. “And wash all that mud off your feet.” Aragan continued writing for a moment, then stopped. It hadn’t rained in weeks. And the mud around here was halfway between green and gray, not dark red. He tossed down the stylus and massaged his temples.
Well, at least the headache’s fading
.

Gerrom was a league and a half inland along the Old Kan Road, a pre-Empire thoroughfare rarely used since the Imperial raised coast road had been constructed. The traffic on it these days was mostly on foot, local farmers and fishers with their goods. Of them only unraveled and torn bundles of clothing, broken baskets and trampled vegetables littering the track remained to give evidence of their passage. A lame mule, the last sentinel overseeing the refuse of an exodus, stood dumbly nearby, ankle-deep in a rice paddy. It spared Paran a single forlorn glance as he rode past.

The detritus looked to be no more than a day old, the fruits and green-leaved vegetables only now beginning to rot in the afternoon heat.

His horse carrying him at a slow walk, Paran watched as the first outbuildings of the small trader town came into view through the dusty haze. No one moved between the shabby mudbrick houses; no dogs came out to challenge him, and the only cart in sight leaned on a single wheel. To add to the uncanny scene, the air was still, empty of birdsong. Paran loosened the sword in its scabbard.

As he neared the outbuildings he halted his mount. The exodus had been swift, a panicked flight. Yet he saw no bodies, no signs of violence beyond the haste evident in those leaving. He drew a deep breath, slowly released it, then clicked his horse forward. The main street was in effect the town’s only street, leading at its far end to a T intersection marked by a single two-story stone building: the Imperial Constabulary. Its tin-backed shutters were closed, its heavy banded door shut. As he approached Paran held his eyes on the building.

He dismounted before it, tying his mare to the hitching rail then looking back up the street. No movement. Unsheathing his blade, Paran swung back to the Constabulary door.

A soft, steady sound from within stopped him, too low to be heard from any distance but now, as he stood before the huge door, he could hear a liquid murmuring that raised the hairs on his neck. Paran reached out with his sword and set its point under the latch. He lifted the iron handle upward until it disengaged, then pushed open the door.

Movement rippled in the gloom within, a flap and soft thumping of air carrying to Paran the redolent stench of putrifying flesh. Breathing hard and with a mouth dry as old cotton, he waited for his eyes to adjust.

He stared into the Constabulary’s outer room, and it was a mass of movement, a chilling soft sussuration of throats giving voice. The chamber was filled with black pigeons cooing in icy calm. Uniformed human shapes lay in their midst, stretched haphazardly across the floor amid droppings and drifting black down. Sweat and death clung to the air thick as gauze.

He took a step inside. The pigeons rustled but otherwise ignored him. None made for the open doorway.

Swollen faces with coin-dull eyes stared up from the shadows; the faces were blue, as of men suffocated. Paran looked down at one of the soldiers. “Not a healthy thing,” he muttered, “wearing these uniforms these days.”

A conjuring of birds to keep mocking vigil. Dark humor’s not to my liking anymore, I think
. He shook himself, walked across the room. The pigeons tracked away from his boots, clucking. The door to the captain’s office was ajar. Musty light bled through the shuttered windows’ uneven joins. Sheathing his sword, Paran entered the office. The captain still sat in his chair, his face bloated and bruised in shades of blue, green, and gray.

Paran swept damp feathers from the desktop, rummaged through the scroll work. The papyrus sheets fell apart under his touch, the leaves rotten and oily between his fingers.

A thorough eliminating of the trail
.

He turned away, walked swiftly back through the outer room until he stepped into the warm light. He closed the Constabulary door as, no doubt, the villagers had.

The dark bloom of sorcery was a stain few cared to examine too closely. It had a way of spreading.

Paran untethered his mare, climbed into the saddle and rode from the abandoned town. He did not look back.

The sun sat heavy and bloated amid a smear of crimson cloud on the horizon. Paran fought to keep his eyes open. It had been a long day.
A horrific day
. The land around him, once familiar and safe, had become something else, a place stirred with the dark currents of sorcery. He was not looking forward to a night camped in the open.

His mount plodded onward, head down, as dusk slowly enveloped them. Pulled by the weary chains of his thoughts, Paran tried to make sense of what had happened since morning.

Snatched out from the shadow of that sour-faced, laconic captain and the garrison at Kan, the lieutenant had seen his prospects begin a quick rise. Aide to the Adjunct was an advancement in his career he could not have even imagined a week ago. Despite the profession he had chosen, his father and his sisters were bound to be impressed, perhaps even awed, by his achievement. Like so many other noble-born sons and daughters, he’d long since set his sights on the Imperial military, hungry for prestige and bored with the complacent, static attitudes of the noble class in general. Paran wanted something more challenging than coordinating shipments of wine, or overseeing the breeding of horses.

Nor was he among the first to enlist, thus easing the way for entrance into officer training and selective postings. It had just been ill-luck that saw him sent to Kan, where a veteran garrison had been licking its wounds for nigh on eight years. There’d been little respect for an untested lieutenant, and even less for a noble-born.

Paran suspected that that had changed since the slaughter on the road. He’d handled it better than many of those veterans, helped in no small part by the superb breeding of his horse. More, to prove to them all his cool, detached professionalism, he’d volunteered to lead the inspection detail.

He’d done well, although the detail had proved . . . difficult. He’d heard screaming while crawling around among the bodies, coming from somewhere inside his own head. His eyes had fixed on details, oddities—the peculiar twist of this body, the inexplicable smile on that dead soldier’s face—but what had proved hardest was what had been done to the horses. Crusted foam-filled nostrils and mouths—the signs of terror—and the wounds were terrible, huge and devastating. Bile and feces stained the once-proud mounts, and over everything was a glittering carpet of blood and slivers of red flesh. He had nearly wept for those horses.

He shifted uneasily on the saddle, feeling a clamminess come to his hands where they rested on the ornate horn. He’d held on to his confidence through the whole episode; yet now, as his thoughts returned to that horrid scene, it was as if something that had always been solid in his mind now stuttered, shied, threatening his balance; the faint contempt he’d shown for those veterans in his troop, kneeling helpless on the roadside racked by dry-heaves, returned to him now with a ghoulish cast. And the echo that came from the Constabulary at Gerrom, arriving like a late blow to his already bruised and battered soul, rose once again to pluck at the defensive numbness still holding him in check.

Paran straightened with an effort. He’d told the Adjunct his youth was gone. He’d told her other things as well, fearless, uncaring, lacking all the caution his father had instilled in him when it came to the many faces of the Empire.

From a great distance in his mind came old, old words:
live quietly
. He’d rejected that notion then; he rejected it still. The Adjunct, however, had noticed him. He wondered now, for the first time, if he was right to feel pride. That hard-bitten commander of so many years ago, on the walls of Mock’s Hold, would have spat at Paran’s feet, with contempt, had he now stood before him. The boy was a boy no longer, but a man.
Should’ve heeded my words, son. Now look at you
.

His mare pulled up suddenly, hooves thumping confusedly on the rutted road. Paran reached for his weapon as he looked uneasily around in the gloom. The track ran through rice paddies, the nearest shacks of the peasants on a parallel ridge a hundred paces from the road. Yet a figure now blocked the road.

A cold breath swirled lazily past, pinning back the mare’s ears and widening her nostrils as she flinched.

The figure—a man by his height—was swathed in shades of green: cloaked, hooded, wearing a faded tunic and linen leggings above green-dyed leather boots. A single long-knife, the weapon of choice among Seven Cities warriors, was slung through a thin belt. The man’s hands, faintly gray in the afternoon light, glittered with rings, rings on every finger, above and below the knuckles. He raised one now, holding up a clay jug.

BOOK: The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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