The epic conclusion to this debut fantasy trilogy featuring a cast of assassins, knights and fools to delight any fan of Brent Weeks or Robin Hobbs . . .
He had come in to Maniyadoc through the night soil drain. Filth coated his clothes and skin but it was worth it; no guard worth his salt would bother watching a night soil drain. From there he climbed into a shovelling room, a curious one, far taller than it was wide, and he could not understand why that would be. He did not think about it too much. He had seen many odd things among the blessed of the Tired Lands, many things that made no sense, things done simply because they could be, so he did not question it. From the shovelling room he passed through a door. A servant found him quickly enough, drawn by the stink of his filthy clothes. The man’s diligence was rewarded with a quick death and filthy clothes were exchanged for the servant’s clean ones.
He moved into the castle.
Down corridors where his footsteps were absorbed by thick carpet.
It was difficult for him not to stare. Not to wander wide-eyed and amazed at what he saw here, at what King Rufra had wrought. There were no slaves. There was no one who looked sick or underfed and the forgetting plague had barely touched this land. In places along the corridors water ran from the walls to collect in bowls and people drank from them, as if it were nothing – and he supposed it was nothing to them. The more he walked, and the further up the castle he went the more certain he felt that he must be heading in the wrong direction. When he had been given the contract he had given little thought to finding his target. But Maniyadoc was no longhouse or small keep; it was a true castle and large beyond his imagining. He stopped, thought, considered the target and where they were likely to be and knew what he should do. “Not up, Gadger,” he whispered to himself. “Of course not up.”
Down into the depths. Down into the dark places. Down into the hidden places. That was where he would find his target.
And so he headed down.
Steps, so many steps. More steps than he had ever imagined one building could have. The air became colder, the subtle weight of damp on his clothes grew and he became sure this was right. This was where his quarry would be.
He found himself in a gallery, a low-roofed and dark room held up by hundreds of columns, each one with cracked and chipped stone eyes staring at him. The end of the room hidden by a darkness the torches could not penetrate and he felt sure he had found the place. It simply felt right and when she had trained him, she had said, “Listen to what you feel and it will not often send you wrong.”
Knives sliding from sheaths.
He moved more quietly now, slipping off his shoes to aid his silence. Feeling the cold stone against his feet. He hugged the columns, finding darkness and sticking to it.
Did he see something? A flash of white in the corner of his eye?
What did she always say?
Be still, boy. Be still and listen before you act.
So he stilled and he listened.
He moved again. A shiver ran through him as cold and damp air wormed through his ill-fitting disguise.
Was it? Not certain. It sounded very far away, though it could have been someone very near laughing quietly. Or simply an echo from somewhere else in the castle? Surely it was an echo.
A flash of black and white. A skittering. A shuffle of soft shoes on hard stone.
A trick of the light. A confluence of shadows. Nothing else. No one knew he was here. No one had seen him. No one had followed him. He was good, the best of hers or she would not have sent him.
A subtle movement: a breath of air from the wrong direction.
This time the shiver that ran through him was not from the cold. Not from the damp. Someone was here. He took a deep breath.
I have nothing to fear.
I am a sword.
Some servant or guard, that was all. He could deal with them. Even if it was the target, he was whole and hearty and young, more than a match for any cripple – no matter how storied he was. He moved again, avoiding the light and he was sure he felt a movement in return, as if some other timed their moves to his. Was it his imagination?
Darkness punctuated by columns of unseeing eyes. Anyone would be unsettled by this place.
A chill runs through it.
A chill runs through him.
A dash. A whispering echo. And a corpse. A walking corpse. Skeletal face; flashes of arm and leg bone as it limps forward. It holds blades and approaches with a strange, inhuman and exaggerated grace.
Not a corpse. A person.
A jester, that is all, a fool with knives in its hands and a fool who would have to die to ease his way. Death he could do. It was what he was for. It was what he did.
He attacked, blades drawn. A running thrust, a move to gut an unarmoured opponent.
But his opponent is not there. The jester has vanished and the air is filled with the strangest scent: of honey and herbs, at once beguiling and sickening, like corpse flowers in the thick woods of home.
A cut felt. Pain. The rattle of metal hitting stone as his knife falls from his hands. Blood fountains from where there had been fingers. He doesn’t scream, is too shocked to scream. The jester stands far across the room from him and he can see their blades are bloodied. But how?
“Where is the other half of your sorrowing?” The jester’s voice lacks any inflection; it speaks like a priest of the dead gods.
“What?” The pain building, searing, powerful. He will not cry.
“Who is he, Master?” This voice is not the jester’s. It comes from the darkness.
“Someone who wanted to hurt us, Feorwic.” The jester turns back to him. “Who did you come for?” Its voice is almost gentle now, beguiling.
“An assassin never gives up his secrets.” That had been drilled into him by her at training. The jester laughs.
“Everyone gives up their secrets eventually,” the jester said. And then the figure moves, a blur, a shadow across his vision, and arms are locked around his neck. He can smell the rancid smell of the panstick the jester wears to cover his face and it chokes him, like when he tries to eat rotten meat.
“Who are you here for?” is asked again, whispered into his ear and for the first time ever he thinks he understands evil. There is only darkness in that voice, no escape, no pity or mercy.
“An assassin never . . .”
Pain like he has never known, the junctures of bone and joints being twisted in ways they were never meant to twist. The sharp edge of the blade digging through his skin and something else, something darker and older and more terrifying. Something that moves along the veins of his body and pours through his blood in a tide of razors. There was nothing like this in the school. It is nothing like the drownings, the brands, the beatings or the hunger. It is worse than anything he has ever imagined.
The voice again.
“Who were you here for?”
“No . . .”
A fire along his nerves. Like biting lizards chewing on the insides of his skin.
“It can only get worse for you, boy.” A voice like slime in his ears. “Who were you here for?”
And he cannot keep the words in. The pain is so large, so huge and overwhelming that the words have no room in his mind. They are forced out through the spittle and gasps that occupy his mouth.
“Merela Karn. I came for the traitor, Merela Karn.”
And the knife bites a little deeper and he relaxes, because the fear of death is not as powerful as the relief he feels at the sudden cessation of pain. As he fades away, life seeping into the ground, he hears voices speaking over him.
“You should not play with them, Master, it is cruel.”
“No, it is not, Feorwic.” The jester speaks gently, calmly, warmly. “They tell the truth more quickly when they are scared. It is a kindness really. And you are to call me Girton, not master. You know this.”
Out of the darkness steps a child, a young girl, dressed like a jester and with a dagger in her hand. She stares at him as his life leaves his body. “Yes, Master,” she says and the jester puts a hand on her shoulder. It is strange that a boy who has been raised in the harsh school of the Open Circle should immediately recognise that such a small movement is filled with love. There is a space then, a silence. He tries to imagine what it would have been like to feel another touch him for any reason other than to cause him pain. And as he dies, as all pain flees, he wonders who he is, this Girton, this jester whose voice seems full of care. His last sight is of her, the child, as the jester picks her up and they walk away.
He would have liked to have been loved the way she so clearly is.
He would have liked that.