Book title in original: Ruckley Brian. Corsair

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Brian Ruckley

Corsair

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I

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‘Let me show you my animals,’ the Corsair King said to Yulan. ‘Been the greatest labour of my life, they have. You should see them.’

Yulan did not want to see Kottren Malak’s animals. He would not have been interested at the best of times, and with his body still feeling rinsed out this was not the best of times. The stench of the creatures filled this crumbling stronghold and made him feel ill all over again. Getting closer to the source of the stink was the last thing he wanted to do. Even so, he followed as the Corsair King limped along the passageway.

‘Folks called me a fool to start bringing animals to this island,’ Kottren muttered. As he walked, he was working stubby fingers up the side of his chin, scratching them over the wiry hair of his beard. ‘But the idea crept up on me, crawled into my head like a spider.’

He scrabbled his fingers at his ear, and stopped and turned to grin at Yulan, his hand frozen there as if trying to get inside.

‘That ever happen to you, Free-boy? You ever get an idea that just came from somewhere, crept in and made a nest in your skull, all uninvited?’

‘Not really,’ Yulan said without inflection.

He was nineteen years old, big and strong. It had been some time since anyone called him a boy, and he had no idea whether Kottren was mocking him or just letting his tongue run as it would. He was beginning to suspect that the self-proclaimed Corsair King was mad. It was a rather dispiriting thought. When someone’s head was rot-riddled, trying to reason with them was not easy. Nor was trying to bargain with them, predict them or threaten them.

Kottren moved on again, leading the way towards the menagerie.

‘Maybe you’re too young,’ he said without looking round. ‘Might be you’ve not got the bedding in your head yet for an idea to make a nest from.’

Yulan could hear, somewhere up ahead, snuffles and shiftings. Grunts and snarls. The smell of dung and straw and fur and musk was getting stronger. He braced himself – or more to the point, his stomach – for the encounter. But his testing was delayed a little longer, for the Corsair King once more stopped, and he turned about in the narrow corridor so suddenly that Yulan almost walked into him.

Kottren glared out from narrowed eyes.

‘You sure you’re here to parley?’

Yulan nodded.

Kottren wrinkled his nose. ‘Never liked parley. It’s not a game for men, y’ask me. And I never did hear of the Free being paid to parley for peasants.’

The hope had been that this contract might be fulfilled without bloodshed. Yulan suspected that the day was loosening its arms, flexing its muscles, preparing to smack him in the face with disappointment. Of course, no disappointment would outweigh the relief of having solid ground beneath his feet. The day could knock him about all it liked and he would still be thanking it for giving him that wonderful respite.

‘There’s always room in the world for new things, don’t you think?’ he said.

Kottren did not seem inclined to reflect on such notions. He flicked the underside of his chin three times with his middle finger, absently but surprisingly hard, and looked over Yulan’s shoulder.

‘D’you see that beast behind you?’

Yulan looked round. There was no animal there, only the closest of Kottren’s mangy warriors. Older than the rest, with lines and loose skin and hair turning white with age. He wore, just as the rest did, a strange medley of clothes. Ill-fitting, mismatched. The paltry booty of their raids against people still poorer than they were themselves.

‘Calls himself Lake, but that’s not his name,’ Kottren said.

Yulan had not closely marked this man before, though he had probably been with them all along, in among the ragtag band of brigands which followed Kottren around. It was an oversight that Yulan now regretted. For all his years, the man had an air of competent concentration that the rest of Kottren’s pack most decidedly lacked.

‘Not his name?’ Yulan murmured.

‘No,’ said Kottren. ‘Don’t know his true name. Foreign. He used to be an Orphanidon, y’see.’

Yulan chose not to react. Not outwardly, at least. From somewhere up ahead, amid all the other bestial sounds, he thought he could hear teeth scraping on bone.

Lake stared flatly back into Yulan’s eyes. It seemed absurd that a petty pirate like Kottren could acquire the services of a former Imperial Orphanidon, but was it possible? Perhaps. The decadently strange Empire of Orphans was very distant, and was no friend to the Hommetic Kingdom upon whose fringes this island lay; any journey that had brought an Orphanidon here would have been extraordinary. But it could have happened. As descriptions of the day went, disappointing might yet prove too feeble.

‘Thought y’might want to know,’ Kottren continued. Not quite amiable, but not aggressive either. ‘Just … well, you’re the Free, y’say. Everyone knows it’s trouble when the Free stick a finger in a stew, don’t they?’

‘It doesn’t have to be,’ Yulan said, turning away from Lake with studied calm. ‘Depends how people deal with us.’

‘If they let you be the bully or not, y’mean.’ Kottren was smiling, in a manner of speaking. ‘Either way, can’t do any harm for folks to know I’ve got an Orphanidon at my back, right? If I want to, I can piss all over trouble.’

Another concern, cosying up against that regarding Kottren’s possible madness. Could it be that he was ignorant too? Yulan had not been riding with the Free for long, but he had already come to expect a certain … well, caution if nothing else, at the mere naming of the last of the independent companies. In the decades of its storied existence, the Free had broken entire armies, humbled mighty lords. Unmade and made real kings, not just broken-minded bandits who pretended to the title.

The Free might not be all it had been in its glorious past, but still it wielded martial and magical power beyond the dreams of most. And one thing the Free still knew how to do when necessary was make trouble, far more of it than one aged Orphanidon could quench with his stream. Perhaps Kottren did not know or understand that.

Which was all the more troubling given that Kottren and his grey-haired killer did not actually have to contend with the full might of the Free today. Just Yulan and one other. There was a touch of the bluff to this whole venture, and Yulan did not much like his chances of bluffing an ignorant madman.

It was, if nothing else, going to be interesting, he supposed. And what had the wandering that eventually brought him to the Free been, if not a search for the interesting?

‘Let’s go and feed the animals then,’ Kottren said.

‘Let’s,’ agreed Yulan, smiling thinly.

II

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‘What will you do when you get there?’ Corena had asked Yulan.

That’s what he thought she’d said, anyway. It had not been easy to hear above the breaking of waves about her boat’s prow, the groaning of the rope and wood that held the wind-full sail. And the sound of his own heaving and retching. Here was a depth of bodily misery he had never before explored. A simple admixture of wind, wave and boat and lo: all the world was asway and he was undone. Unmanned.

It should not have concerned him that Corena saw him like this, yet it did. Or it had until he became so ill he began to wonder if he was dying and lesser worries were forgotten. She was attractive in her weather-scoured way, and could only be five or six years older than him. Young to be captaining her own fishing scow, he would have thought.

Whatever her age, having her standing there watching him empty his already empty stomach into the brine was not how he had imagined things turning out. He had anticipated a rather more splendid journey: one that would prove his worth and firm his standing in the Free. All that had been proved so far was that the ocean loathed him almost as much as he loathed it. Not quite, but almost.

‘No call for boats where I grew up,’ he muttered by way of apologetic explanation as he leaned back from the gunwale. ‘I know sand and horses better than water.’

‘The sea’s mother to a thousand hurts. Sickening you’s about the gentlest of them.’

In Yulan’s head-spun state, he couldn’t untangle the sympathy from the unsympathy in that. There was certainly no sympathy on offer from the rest of the boat’s crew. They were a taciturn and hard-faced little group, and they had not bothered to conceal their amusement at the effect the sea had upon their passengers.

‘What’ll you do when we get there?’ Corena asked again.

Yulan wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He could dimly hear Hamdan vomiting over the side a little way back in the small boat. There might have been some comfort buried in the fact that he was not the only brave warrior of the Free to be crippled by a bit of a swell, but he felt far too sick to go digging after it.

‘If we survive the voyage, you mean?’ he asked.

‘You’ll live,’ she said, and her sharpness cut through even the fog of Yulan’s bottomless misery.

Hard as it was to remember in this foul-tasting moment, his own suffering might not be the most important thing in the world. Corena’s village, and two others just as poor, had rendered themselves all but destitute to buy the aid of the Free, and what had their desperation bought them? Two men of the desert who collapsed into puking and snivelling infirmity as soon as they were put aboard a boat. She was probably thinking they had spent their every hope to buy warhorses and landed themselves a pair of ailing mules instead.

‘When we get there,’ he said carefully, ‘we’ll do whatever is required to fulfil our contract with you. Merkent gave you his word and the Free does not break its Captain’s pledges.’

‘Two men don’t seem much to set against the Corsair King,’ Corena said.

Yulan was reaching for something confident to say when his stomach clenched again. In an instant he was back over the boat’s edge, retching into the glittering, foaming waters.

‘Sorry,’ he tried to say, but there was no real room for the word in his throat or mouth.

Only two, he might have said, but two of the Free are worth twenty who aren’t.

The liege of the fishing villages was Munn of Festard, a petty lordling whose entire renown was as a dullard and drunkard; among the dullest and drunkest of all the Hommetic Kingdom’s nobility, which in that company was no small achievement. Receiving none of the protection Lord Munn owed them, Corena’s people had turned to the Free.

Barrels of salted whitefish, some whale ivory, jars of fish oil, a scattering of jewellery that had been passed down through generations. Half the total remaining wealth of the villages, perhaps. Morsels, by the standards of the Free; only enough to buy the service of Yulan and Hamdan.

She might doubt it now, but if Yulan could have spoken he would have promised her: Two is enough. We are enough. You will see. 

His involuntary silence left her un-reassured and she moved away, crossing the pitching deck with an ease Yulan found deeply enviable. He slithered and stumbled his own way back to Hamdan’s side, eyes tight shut, never leaving hold of the gunwale.

‘I feel like I’m dying,’ he muttered to his fellow warrior.

‘I know.’ Hamdan sounded as enfeebled as Yulan felt. ‘First time I sailed was even worse, believe it or not. Swore I’d never ride the sea again.’

‘You knew it would do this to you and you came anyway?’ Yulan asked in something close to disbelief.

‘I’ve been the only Massatan in the Free for a long time, son,’ Hamdan said. ‘You don’t think when another finally turns up, I might be inclined to watch his back? Especially when he’s a young lion who’s got more learning still to do than he knows?’

Yulan looked briefly into Hamdan’s face. It carried quite a few more years than his own, but even so there was something of the mirror to it. The same pale brown skin soaked in the memory of the sun. The same straight black hair. Two men of the southern sands, far from home.

A glimpse of the rolling horizon at the edge of his vision quickly made Yulan clamp his eyes shut again.

‘Corena wants to know what we’re going to do when we get there,’ he said.

‘Assuming we get there alive, you mean?’

‘That’s what I said,’ Yulan grunted. He had a powerful urge to lie down.

‘Merkent gave you the lead,’ – Hamdan was talking quickly, perhaps trying to outpace an interruption by his own stomach – ‘so he must have thought you could work the thing out. I don’t imagine it’ll be complicated, though. We talk first, and if that doesn’t work we figure out how many people need to die and get to the killing.’

III

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Getting to the killing was starting to feel inevitable to Yulan as he followed the Corsair King into the huge hall where he kept his menagerie. He would have preferred to avoid deaths, but he did not fear the prospect. He had killed more than a few men – some even before he joined the Free – and he was starting to suspect that Kottren Malak’s demise would be at least as great a service to the world as any of them had been.

In the villages along the mainland shore, as he rode with Merkent and the rest to meet with the fisherfolk, Yulan had seen a dozen kinds of utter misery. The graves of children killed by Kottren’s raiders in among the burned-out husks of shacks. The widows of fishermen, their husbands slaughtered or enslaved at sea, begging by the side of the track. They had been thinned by hunger, made desperate and shameless by poverty. Empty moorings where boats seized by the Corsair King had once lain.

The fishing villages and their inhabitants were dying. It was all Kottren Malak’s doing, and as far as Yulan could tell it weighed less than a feather in the man’s conscience or memory.

‘People called me a fool for starting to collect these beasts,’ Kottren told Yulan, just as he had done before.

I’m sure they did, Yulan thought.

‘You’ll see now, though,’ Kottren continued. ‘I’d wager there’s none has more. Not even your King in … where do they reign these days? Armadell?’

Yulan quickly said, more out of instinct than anything else, ‘The Free answer to no throne. We owe allegiance to none but ourselves.’

‘Lucky boys and girls,’ Kottren grunted. ‘The kings and the School have stamped out every other free company. You folk have faced them down though, eh? Got to, if you want to stand straight and tall. Got to follow your fancies. Can’t have others telling you which way to sail.’

The decrepit castle had been impossible to miss while a couple of the pirate’s raiding boats were escorting Corena’s scow in to the island. The whole long, thin isle was tipped up at an angle, rising to a rocky headland atop which someone – the Sorentines, who ruled long before the Hommetics, Yulan guessed – had decided to build a stronghold. Now it was well on the way to being a ruin. There was a pervasive dampness to the place, and flutters of wind leaked in to tug at the flames of the torches Kottren’s men carried.

Even so, the menagerie hall retained a little of its remembered grandeur. It was big and high; once, it must have a place of feasting and councils. Now it held far more squalor than glory. The dressings that hung on the walls were not the tapestries that might grace a real king’s abode, but the faded cloths and bedsheets of Kottren’s impoverished victims. Hooks held not gem-encrusted swords or shields or glaives, but copper cooking pots and hammered pewter salvers. Trophies of a sort, bespeaking not power and might but pettier attributes.

‘You’re amazed,’ Kottren suggested, to which Yulan could think of no sensible reply.

Cages were spaced evenly around the edges of the hall, some twenty of them in all. Each held a single animal. The few oil lamps on the walls bathed the whole chamber in a yellowish light that barely dented the gloom. Partly because of that, partly because most of them appeared to be sickly, wasted and caked in excrement or dirt, it was hard for Yulan to identify most of the creatures.

But he recognised an emaciated wolf, staring at him with dead eyes. There was also a huge lizard of the sort that scavenged carcasses across much of the Kingdom. He thought a strange, hunched shape huddled at the back of its prison might be an ape, one of the almost but not quite human monsters he had heard rumoured.

Only one of the captive animals held his attention for more than a moment. A lion. The kind of big male, bearded and maned, that his own people both hunted and respected. The desert lions were feared for the threat they posed to the precious Massatan horses, but no other creature was so admired.

Yulan could see the lion’s ribs through its hide. Its jowls hung slack. He could not be absolutely sure, but it looked as though the longest of the animal’s teeth had been knocked out. Certainly there were welts and scars across its flanks and back that suggested its captivity was ungentle.

It struck Yulan that any man so proud of holding all these creatures in such sordid imprisonment betrayed a terrible smallness of imagination and understanding.

‘They’ve come from all across the world to grace my court,’ the Corsair King was murmuring.

Yulan ignored him. His eyes followed the surprising keepers of this menagerie: children. There were perhaps a dozen of them, all young, all clothed in drab rags. All shuffling barefoot between the cages, sweeping away straw and dung that had spilled out onto the floor, pushing food through the bars. Some were hunched over. Some looked to be so thin they might collapse at any moment. Their dirt and rags and illness made it hard to tell how old they were.

Kottren, having evidently noted Yulan’s gaze, said simply, ‘My children.’

‘Your children,’ Yulan echoed.

He had seen a similar kind of suffering among Corena’s people. Had even known it once or twice himself when young, under the crushing weight of near-famine. The anger he felt stirring in his breast might be dangerous, for him as well as others, so he hid it away.

‘Every one sprung from my loins,’ Kottren muttered. ‘I care for them best as I can, now their mothers’re gone.’

Yulan wondered at the fate of the mothers, but did not enquire. He doubted there was anything to be gained from further exploration of the fetid swamp that was Kottren.

‘D’you want to feed them?’ Kottren was asking. ‘Perhaps the lion?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘You’ll let me feed you, at least,’ Kottren said, beckoning one of the nearest children.

She came – Yulan thought it was a she – on unsteady legs. Yulan noted that most of the other children stopped where they were, scattered about the hall, to watch. There was something in the way they held themselves, their expressions … anxiety, perhaps? Trepidation? He felt a tension tightening the musty air. It did not quite fit Kottren’s casual gesture and the calmness with which the girl responded. So much here felt subtly – or not so subtly – off-kilter, as if the Corsair King’s imbalances had seeped into everyone and everything.

‘I should be getting back to the boat,’ Yulan said, just a little more curtly than he intended.

The girl stood before him, gazing up at him. Her eyes were red-veined and had some sort of encrustation at their corners. There were sores on her face. Her fingers were crooked, over-aged. She looked to Yulan like misery given form. He found himself wanting to give her a smile, to offer some small comfort.

‘She can fetch whatever y’want from the kitchens,’ Kottren said.

‘No, thank you,’ said Yulan. He found it difficult to shift his eyes away from that girl, but he did. ‘I’m awaited. What message shall I take with me?’

‘Message? Oh, the tithe notion?’

‘One-tenth of everything the fishing boats land, delivered up to you each month for as long as you live, in payment for peace.’

It was an offer riddled with trips and traps, only to be made if the Corsair King proved – as he had so far – resistant to intimidation. None but an idiot would seriously entertain it for long. Yet Kottren stood there, grasping and tugging at the fringes of his russet beard. For all the world, it looked as though he was giving the matter serious thought.

‘I’ll sleep on it,’ Kottren mused, almost to himself. ‘Sometimes answers come, y’know? Creeping into a sleeping head like … spiders, I suppose.’

He smirked unappealingly at Yulan.

‘Lake here’ll walk you back to your boat. I’ll bring you my answer down there in the morning. Early. I always rise early. Keeps the years from weighing too heavy, y’know?’

IV

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There was little vegetation on the island. Stretches of short grass strewn with pink and white flowers were interrupted by bare rock and patches of gritty soil. Although a few stubborn bushes had rooted themselves in crevices, they could hardly be said to be thriving. It all meant there was little shelter from the wind blustering across the low, sloping isle, but Yulan – to his surprise – found it rather pleasant. Without the unsteady deck of a fishing boat beneath him, there was a certain appeal to the vast sky and the clean wind.

There might be little greenery, but there was life in abundance. The spine of the island had been colonised by thousands of gulls. Their nests were all around, even within a pace or two of the path down which Yulan and Lake walked. Their quarrels and conversations filled the air, a cacophony riding white wings.

‘You used to be an Orphanidon?’ Yulan said as they walked through the tumult.

‘I did.’

Yulan could not see Lake’s face, for Kottren’s bodyguard followed behind him. He imagined it to be entirely still and expressionless.

‘You don’t look the part,’ he said. ‘Not now, if you ever did.’

No answer came to that. It had been an easy and crude jab, Yulan knew, but he had to take the measure of this man somehow.

‘You’re very far from home, in more ways than one,’ he continued. ‘I thought being an Orphanidon was all about noble service to the Empire, not selling your sword to mad bandits.’

The gulls were growing angry as the two men passed through the heart of their nesting grounds. White shapes lunged down out of the sky, screaming accusations. Some dived so close to his head that Yulan could feel the sweep of their wings. He heard Lake’s quiet reply clearly enough, even among those distractions.

‘I have not been an Orphanidon for many years. I serve as I please.’

The accent was unfamiliar, certainly not that of any native speaker Yulan had ever met. It proved nothing, but it could  be the voice of an Imperial exile.

‘It’s an inglorious cause you’ve chosen to adopt,’ Yulan observed.

‘Less so than was the Empire of Orphans.’

Fragments of eggshell crunched beneath Yulan’s feet.

‘You fell out of love with your masters, then,’ he said. ‘That’s a point in your favour. Kottren Malak might be mad, but the Orphans make him look sane as sane can be.’

‘Just so. I choose to serve a lesser madness, and have thus improved my station.’

There might have been a whisper of wry humour in that. It really was hard to tell with Lake, and Yulan had always thought himself rather good at reading a man’s tone.

‘I hope your Corsair King will not force us to our swords,’ he said. ‘His madness might be the lesser, but it’s still not worth dying for.’

‘You think I would die?’ Lake asked, and Yulan definitely heard amusement in that. ‘I know the Free, and your great capacities and terrible magics. But you do not know the Corsair King as well as you think. Even if all your hundreds came to this place, his would not be the only people dying.’

Yulan stopped and turned to face his companion. Lake stood four or five paces behind him. Just out of sword reach. Whatever his past had truly been, the man was capable and careful.

Before Yulan could say anything, a rush of wings had him ducking away; too slow to avoid the stabbing impact of a beak on his skull. Yulan cursed and touched his hand to his scalp. It felt wet and sticky. A moment later, he could feel the blood trickling down his forehead.

‘First blood. It is best to keep moving,’ Lake said impassively. ‘These birds defend their families, even at peril of their own lives.’

Corena’s scow was moored in the lee of the island’s furthest point, where the rocks sloped away beneath the sea. Kottren’s motley little fleet had its own berthing in a cliff-ringed cove beneath the castle. They had not allowed the fishing boat anywhere near that.

The waters looked calm but Yulan still felt a twinge of foreboding at the prospect of a night afloat. At least he and Lake were spared any further aerial assaults. For whatever reason, the gulls chose not to nest down here on the lowest ground.

‘You can hail a boat to take you aboard,’ Lake said. ‘The Corsair King will meet you here in the morning.’

Yulan regarded the grizzled warrior. He read a subtle tension in the man’s posture and eyes. His own mimicked it, he knew.

Yulan’s every instinct told him this was all still edging its way towards bloodshed. He knew a good deal about woodworking and carving and had sometimes heard craftsmen say that a piece of raw wood held within it a shape that it wanted to become. He felt imprecisely but strongly that the day now drawing to a close had the shape of a bloody tomorrow within it, willing its own expression.

He suspected that Lake had the same sense. Perhaps even the same thought: This man might be dangerous if the time comes. Why wait for that time to choose its own moment? 

‘You wonder whether you should try to kill me,’ Lake said.

Which was at once a good deal more blunt and more precise than Yulan was entirely expecting. He let his hand drift just a touch closer to the hilt of his sword. Barely noticeable.

‘You hesitate,’ Lake continued in a matter-of-fact way, ‘which means you have lost. If you attempt me now, I  will kill you .’

Yulan knew, as fact not hubris, that he was better with a sword than at least nineteen out of any twenty men in the Hommetic Kingdom. The problem was that this one had the manner and assurance of that troublesome twentieth. In all likelihood, Hamdan was watching from the boat offshore and, given his absurd talents, could probably put an arrow or two in Lake even from there, but that would be of little consolation if Yulan was already dead.

‘I have spent three times the years since your mother squeezed you out learning the matter of violence,’ Lake announced. ‘I have embraced it and made it my own.’

Yulan forced some looseness into his shoulders and a smile onto his face.

‘I’m sure you’re very happy together, but I didn’t come here to kill anyone. Only to lift the burden of Kottren off from the backs of the fisherfolk.’

For the first time, Yulan thought he saw the faintest flicker of contempt in Lake’s face.

‘You should not disavow your willingness to kill. You diminish and weaken yourself. Now I know, still more certainly than before, that if you attempt me I will kill you.’

‘I thank you for the lesson,’ Yulan said lightly. ‘I regret any disappointment it may cause, but I’ll not be attempting you now. Perhaps another time?’

Lake gave a little nod of his head. Yulan turned his back on the warrior and waved to the fishing boat.

‘You should consider, when you ponder what is to come, that I am not the greatest danger on this island,’ Lake said behind him. ‘There is more power here than you see, and it will oppose you.’

Yulan steadfastly kept waving, which took a certain effort given how much he disliked the sound of that.

V

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‘How could he have an Orphanidon and  something worse fighting for him?’ Hamdan asked in disbelief.

‘What’s an Orphanidon?’ Corena asked.

‘Warriors of the Empire of Orphans,’ Hamdan expl


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ained before Yulan could say anything. ‘The Emperor’s personal army and the best killers there are, most’d say. Those who’ve not met the Free, anyway.’

They were sitting cross-legged on the deck of the fishing boat. It was rocking so gently that Yulan found if he kept his eyes fixed on the planks he could master his nausea. Out in the darkness he could hear the faint sound of waves slapping rocks, but they sounded half-hearted. The sea was not making war on him tonight.

‘One man can’t make much difference,’ Corena said.

‘It’s not about the number; it’s the nature of the man,’ Hamdan said, shaking his head. ‘Whole history of the Free proves that. Orphanidons are much the same.’

‘He might be lying about the something worse,’ Yulan said. ‘But one Orphanidon’s enough to fret over, anyway.’

He flapped a hand at a fly buzzing in his face, wishing it would go and immolate itself in one of the torches burning around the boat to keep the night at bay.

‘I failed. Half the purpose of me going in there alone was to see what faced us if it came to the sword. All I bring back is questions.’

Hamdan snorted, almost dismissively.

‘Questions we didn’t even know to ask before. Don’t go flogging yourself for missing the mark of perfection. You’ll have flayed your back to the bone by the time you’re my age, believe me.’

‘Of course it comes to the sword,’ Corena said with more than a hint of irritation.

‘Maybe not,’ said Hamdan. ‘Not yet, anyway. If your Corsair King’s foolish enough to take a tithe from you, even Munn of Festard won’t be able to shrug that off. Lords can’t stand by while bandits go around squeezing all the juice from their fruit, can they?’

Corena scowled and rose to her feet. She stamped away, shouting angry orders at her unlucky crew.

‘You’ve all the gentle touch of a rock,’ Yulan observed.

Hamdan did look a little guilty. He rubbed at his eye wearily.

‘And you’re very serious for a young man,’ he grunted.

That was true. Yulan had been serious for a child, serious a youth. Nothing had changed yet, if it ever would. He had always felt, from his earliest years, that there was a bigger world beyond his homeland. One where greater deeds and consequences awaited him. He had followed the scent of them north, out of the wastes. To the Free.

‘But you’re right,’ Hamdan continued. ‘I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. It’s been a bad day. You’ve had solid ground under your feet. Me? I’ve been stuck out here with only the waves for company.’

He wobbled his hand in imitation of the rocking sea and grimaced.

‘True, though, isn’t it? If the Free turning up at his door isn’t enough to frighten this Kottren off, him being stupid enough to try for a tithe’s about the least painful way out of this I can see.’

‘He’s not nearly as scared of us as he ought to be, that’s for sure.’

‘How many swords did you count?’ Hamdan asked.

‘Twenty-three. Could easily be the same again out of sight.’

‘Who wins, if it’s you and me against fifty of them?’

Yulan shook his head.

‘Before the Orphanidon showed up on the game board, I’d have said us. Now? Maybe still us? Unless Lake’s telling the truth and there’s even worse than him waiting for us. I tell you, though, it might be Kottren Malak needs killing more than any man I’ve ever met.’

‘Oh, you’re young,’ smiled Hamdan ruefully. ‘The world’s got far, far worse than Kottren Malak in its quiver. You carry on the way you’re going, might be you even get the chance to kill some of them. Just make sure you’re getting paid well to try it, because they’re the ones liable to kill you right back.’

A slab of the hard, grainy bread that passed for food on the boat landed suddenly in Yulan’s lap. He started and looked up at Corena.

‘Not much to eat, but us tithe-fruit make do with what we have,’ she said as she threw another to – or perhaps at – Hamdan.

‘He didn’t mean to offend,’ Yulan said on behalf of his comrade, who nodded in confirmation.

‘I daresay,’ she grunted. ‘Folks often don’t. Tell me this: we going to get our throats cut in the night?’

Yulan shook his head. ‘Hamdan and I’ll take watches by turn. I don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow, but I promise we’ll live to find out.’

He watched her back as she went to organise her own little crew for the night.

‘He has children in there,’ he said softly. ‘Kottren. We should get them out.’

‘Careful, son,’ Hamdan grunted. ‘Might be you think too much. If you didn’t want to be different, you’d no business joining the Free. Folks’ll fear you, maybe admire you. There’s not many of them will end up liking you, no matter what you do.’

The archer stretched himself out, setting his back to the deck and clasping his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes.

‘I’ll sleep first, unless you tell me otherwise.’

‘Fine.’

Yulan leaned on the gunwale, staring out over the island. A half-moon was lighting it with faint touches of greyish silver. The ripples on the surface of the sea glinted. In the far distance, he could see feeble little touches of orange light: torches or lamps in Kottren’s castle.

He had toyed with the notion of creeping back in there tonight. Finishing things quickly. He had not seen quite enough in his time ashore to be certain of that outcome, though. He did not know where in the crumbling castle Kottren slept, or whether Lake watched over him.

And there was still the chance, however slender, that this all would end without blood. There was no way to know, but Yulan could not help playing things out in his mind. Since childhood he had sometimes seen both the past – memories – and the future – possibilities – more clearly than those around him. It was part of why he had left his home in search of something more. It was part of why Merkent had sent him to this forsaken island. The Captain of the Free had told him: ‘You’ve got talents, but they’re like unbroken horses: no use to anyone until you prove you can ride them. So let’s find out if you know how to ride.’

‘Told you, you think too much,’ Hamdan said.

Yulan looked down at him.

‘I can hear you thinking from here,’ said Hamdan, eyes still closed. He rolled onto his side. ‘Just keep your watch well. The answers are waiting for us on the other side of the night, but tomorrow can’t talk until it gets here.’

‘All right,’ Yulan said.

‘And don’t get sick. If you empty your stomach on my head while I’m asleep, I’ll throw you overboard.’

Yulan made a sound halfway between grunt and laugh.

‘I mean it,’ Hamdan said.

‘I can’t swim.’

‘Neither can I. What’s that got to do with anything?’

VI

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‘What in the name of all the entelechs is he wearing?’ Hamdan asked, staring in poorly concealed amazement at the Corsair King.

Kottren Malak was advancing slowly down the path towards Yulan, Hamdan and Corena. He came with close to a score of attendants and fighting men. Some of the former flanked him, holding up tall staves that attracted the ire of the seagulls and thus spared Kottren’s head from their attentions. Yulan wished someone had told him of that trick yesterday. As Hamdan said, though, the most striking thing was Kottren’s attire.

‘Are those seashells?’ Hamdan asked.

They were indeed. Scallop shells, by the look of them. Thirty or more were plated over Kottren’s shoulders and breast like a child’s notion of armour. On his head rested a wreath of gull feathers and dried seaweed. It trembled as Kottren limped closer.

‘He looks like something washed up on a beach,’ Hamdan murmured. ‘If that’s supposed to be royal regalia …’

Yulan already had another matter on his mind.

‘The Orphanidon’s not here,’ he said quietly.

‘No? That good or bad?’

‘Not sure.’

It was unexpected, and that troubled him. He had assumed Lake would be at his master’s side. The warrior’s absence made little obvious sense.

‘I don’t know whether to be proud or pained,’ the Corsair King was calling as he came out from beneath the assaults of the gulls. ‘I get the famous Free set on me and all I merit is a fishwife and you two sand-eaters.’

‘I’ll pain the bastard myself if he carries on like that,’ Hamdan muttered under his breath, dropping his head to conceal his lips from view.

‘Best to take the pride,’ Yulan said loudly. ‘All the Free stand behind us, even if you can’t see them yet. And this lady is no fishwife. She is here as contract-holder and to witness for her people how matters are settled between the Free and the Corsair King.’

He heard Corena crossing her arms, and could imagine with what fierce loathing she was watching Kottren’s approach. He hardly begrudged her that loathing. She was entitled to it.

Kottren’s shells scraped and clicked against one another as he drew himself up, a good twenty or so paces from Yulan and the others. He flicked both arms out sideways and those of his escort who lacked the look of fighters fell back a short way; those with weapons fell into line on either side of their king. The wind tugged at Kottren’s ragged crown and he lifted a hand to set it a little more firmly on his head. It would be laughable, if laughing were not so inadvisable.

‘She’s a fine day for the mighty t’be making parley,’ the Corsair King said with jab of his bearded chin towards the wide and cloudless sky.

‘As you say,’ Yulan nodded. ‘And what is it you’re to tell to us?’

‘What to tell, what to tell,’ Kottren echoed distractedly. He was watching gulls circling way up in the azure air.

Hamdan glanced at Yulan, one eyebrow sharply arched.

‘Mad for sure,’ the archer silently mouthed.

Yulan allowed himself the slightest and most subtle of shrugs.

‘I spent years under the heels of folks that thought they were my betters,’ the Corsair King told the sky. ‘Took me all that time to reckon out what a man’s real duty was. Y’know what I reckoned?’

‘No,’ said Yulan. He was not certain he managed to keep all of his impatience out of his voice.

‘Do what you want,’ Kottren smiled, turning his gaze at last down towards earthly matters. ‘Don’t go looking for a mercy no one’s going to give you. Don’t hope for a kindness that’s not in the world. Fight your way up, and break any bastard as tries to push you down.’

The Corsair King looked beyond Yulan.

‘What’s a contract-holder, then?’ he asked.

‘Our Captain and the elders of her village put their marks to a parchment,’ Yulan explained without any enthusiasm. ‘She carries it as proof that what we do is right in the law. Whatever  we do, within the bounds of the contract.’

He tried to put a touch of threat into those last words, but it washed over Kottren unnoticed as far as he could tell. The Corsair King took a few paces closer and beckoned Corena with a crooked finger.

‘Let’s see it, then. Let’s see this contract between peasants and the Free that’s supposed to make my bowels tremble.’

‘There’s no need …’ Yulan began, but Corena was already moving smoothly past him.

‘Let the man see it if he wants,’ she said.

She carried the parchment case at the small of her back, strapped around her waist. Her hand moved round towards it as she walked. Kottren was holding out his hand. He was smiling with the sort of sour laziness Yulan had come to expect of the King’s amusement.

Off-kilter, Yulan’s mind whispered to him. It caught the shifting mood before he was consciously aware of it. It set his legs in motion, even as he was seeing that Corena’s hand behind her back clasped not the contract but something else, nestled in there beneath the leather case. He reached for her with one hand, for the hilt of his sword with the other, and already knew there was nothing he could do.

Corena brought a thin, short blade out and around. She stepped forward and took hold of the Corsair King’s hair so suddenly that he had no reaction save the widening of his eyes and the opening of his mouth. She punched the knife once, twice, thrice into the side of his neck. The spray of blood was instant. Kottren’s arms had started to come up to fend her off, but his legs folded as if some puppeteer had carelessly cut his strings.

‘Is there a plan I don’t know about?’ Hamdan asked into the fragment of silence as everyone stared in startled disbelief at Kottren’s slumping form.

Then all was movement, and the only thing that mattered was who moved fastest. Yulan, already reaching for Corena, was fastest.

His left hand closed on her shoulder and he dragged her violently backwards, away from her choking victim. His right hand brought out his sword as he stepped over Kottren’s twitching legs.

This was the kind of moment in which he had always found a calm others could not. He saw clearly and with precision. His anticipation reached a beat ahead of his steady heart. A glimpse told him all he needed to know about the men before him.

Several would not fight. Others might, unless they were quickly discouraged. The key to their discouragement lay in the few who sprang forwards at once, swords and clubs and axes raised.

He dodged past the first, because they would not expect him to put an enemy at his back. His sword came down on the shoulder of the next. It bit in. The blade did not come free at first, so he kicked the man hard in the chest with the sole of his boot to force flesh and sword apart.

Behind him he heard what he had hoped – no, trusted – he would: the tethered sounds of bowstring thrumming, shaft flying, arrowhead smacking home. Hamdan was the only reason it was safe to put an enemy at his back.

Three pirates still remained to his front. Beyond them, a few of their fellows were already fleeing. More stood in uncertainty, or edged cautiously towards the struggle. Every moment mattered, so he danced between those moments and shaped them as best he could.

He caught a descending axe on the blade of his sword and turned it aside and down. The movement brought him in close enough to hit the axe’s wielder hard in the throat with stiff fingers. The man staggered, clutching at his neck, and Yulan spun away and onward even as Hamdan skimmed an arrow into the axeman’s chest.

Yulan shouted, screaming invented rage at his opponents. It worked as it was meant to. Eyes widened a touch, feet hesitated. Yulan fell on them. He ducked under the clumsy swing of a stave. Broke a man’s wrist, cutting it open to the bone. Swept the legs out from under him and half-slit his belly even before he hit the ground.

Yulan’s foot slipped on blood and slime. It took him less than a heartbeat to steady himself, long enough for a knife to stab into his upper arm. There was only the distant whisper of pain – as if someone else, somewhere else was feeling it – as the blade wrenched out. He spun and brought his sword about in a rising arc, fast and hard as it would go. It took the man who had stabbed him in the side of the face. Unhinged his jaw, broke his teeth. And with that, there was no one left to kill.

Yulan stood among the dead and dying. His arms hung loose at his side, the bloodied point of his sword almost touching the ground. He bowed his head for a moment or two, breathing hard. The gulls were screaming. The wind was tumbling Kottren’s fallen crown over the rocks, spinning it like a toy wheel.

Hamdan moved up at his side. He loosed an arrow after the fleeing figures, a dozen or more of them running for the distant castle through a churning cloud of angry gulls. He set another to the string before the first was even homed, sent it too flashing away.

‘Cursed birds get in the way,’ the archer grunted in irritation.

‘Let them go,’ Yulan muttered.

‘Only because of the birds. Once the killing starts, never think it’s done before you know  it’s done. That’s my advice.’

Yulan turned about as he sheathed his sword. He stepped over a corpse and knelt at the side of the Corsair King. Kottren’s blood had slicked out from his punctured neck, spreading a thick and darkening sheen over the bare rock. Yulan carefully turned Kottren’s head so that he could look into his eyes. The light and life in them were fading. Flickering away.

‘What did you do?’ the Corsair King murmured. ‘It’s not … never …’

And he was gone. Yulan took his hand away. The knife that had killed Kottren lay on the rocks, its victim’s blood sticky around it. It was such a small blade. A simple knife for gutting fish.

A shadow fell across him and the body. He looked up at Corena. Her hands were balled into fists; from the right, the Corsair King’s blood still dripped. She was staring at the dead man with a cold, fixed expression. Then she spat onto Kottren’s cheek.

‘Why?’ asked Yulan, rising to his feet.

‘Because I got close enough,’ the fisherwoman said levelly. ‘It needed doing. And because he killed my husband.’

Which raised more questions than it answered, since Yulan had heard nothing about a dead husband before. He was not allowed the time for answers, though.

‘Not done,’ Hamdan called. ‘Told you.’

Yulan and Corena looked to the archer, then followed the line of his pointing arm out over the island and onto the sea. A boat was there, sleek and low in the water, racing on full sails across the wind. It cut through the waves with a fierce determination Corena’s scow could never have matched.

Yulan squinted at the figures near the prow, veiled in spray as the boat sped down the flank of the island. One of them was Lake, he thought, and his heart sank. Corena was already running for the tiny rowboat that had carried them ashore. Even Yulan, with his near-endless ignorance of the sea and the vessels that rode it, could tell it was futile. Kottren’s Orphanidon was making for the fishing scow, rocking at anchor a hundred paces offshore, and he would reach it before anything could be done.

‘Can you hit anyone on that boat from here?’ Yulan quietly asked Hamdan.

The archer was tugging an arrow free from one of the bodies. He straightened and wiped the barbed point clean on his sleeve, gazing out at the pirates with one eye half closed against the sun.

‘Maybe. Wouldn’t want to stake my life on it.’

‘You wouldn’t have to; only his. The Orphanidon’s standing up at the prow, I think.’

‘Oh, well in that case I’ll have a try. You might want to call back our captain-assassin, though. She goes out there, good chance she’s not coming back and I’m not sure how we get home then.’

Yulan trotted after Corena, who was struggling to launch the rowboat from where they had wedged it in an angle between rocks. He watched Hamdan’s arrow arch out as he ran. The shaft seemed almost slow as it vaulted from island to boat and smacked into the gunwale, no more than a hand’s span from Lake’s midriff. The Orphanidon looked calmly towards them and then sank down out of sight.

‘Bastard wind, bastard waves,’ Yulan heard Hamdan growling behind him as he caught up with Corena and took hold of her arm.

‘You’ll just get yourself killed,’ he said as he pulled gently at her.

She shook him off, and glared at him with such ferocity he could almost believe she would strike him.

‘That’s my boat they’re going for,’ she snapped.

‘And you can’t stop them. Look: your crew already knows it.’

The handful of men aboard Corena’s scow were hurriedly – in panic, more or less – hauling up the anchor, unfurling the sails. The old, tired fishing boat was turning slowly as the wind got to grips with it, but already Lake’s vessel was coming in a wide sweep around the tip of the island. However hard and fast the fishermen worked, however skilled their handling, neither labour nor talent would be enough.

‘Faster, faster,’ Corena was muttering, her body all but trembling with impotence.

‘What do you think?’ asked Hamdan as he came to stand beside them, staring out just as they did at the gradually unfolding hunt over the glittering waves.

‘I think we’d best get to the castle,’ Yulan said. ‘Make sure there’s none there still inclined to fight us. Steal ourselves one of Kottren’s own ships. Maybe save those children from something even worse than what they’ve already lived.’

‘Sounds simple enough,’ Hamdan said wryly. ‘Apart from that Orphanidon out there.’

‘The man he was guarding’s dead, so by rights we shouldn’t be of much interest to him any more.’

‘He seems more interested than not at the moment,’ Hamdan sighed.

Lake looked to have a dozen or more of Kottren’s followers with him. Some of them were gathering around the front and near flank of their boat, hefting grappling hooks and poles, as they remorselessly closed on the lumbering scow. Others stood with shields ready to catch arrows now that they had learned Hamdan’s range.

‘Your arm all right?’ Hamdan asked.

Yulan absently pressed a hand to his upper arm. The pain was mounting now, a hot, sharp ache. Nothing too troubling, though.

‘It’s not my sword-arm, so it’ll do. We can patch it up later.’

The vessels were lurching into a clumsy embrace. Ropes and hooks dragged them closer, bound them together. Some of Corena’s crew were leaping into the water even as Lake’s men scrambled from the deck of the hunter to that of the hunted. Corena hung her head.

‘To the castle,’ Yulan said. ‘We might not have much time now.’

Corena did not look back as they walked away, climbing the same path Kottren had so recently descended. That surprised Yulan. The screams of a thousand agitated gulls put a more immediate thought into his head.

He trotted back and prised one of the long staffs from a dead hand, then rejoined Hamdan and Corena. He held it high above their heads just in time for the wheeling birds to start attacking it.

VII

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A grey outcrop of rock a few dozen strides from the castle’s landward entrance gave the three of them shelter. They sat with their backs to it while Hamdan roughly bound Yulan’s arm with a makeshift bandage. The rock was patterned with a hundred white streaks of dried gull-waste.

Every so often, Hamdan would pause in his ministrations to stretch up and check the castle for signs of activity. The gatehouse must once have been quite imposing. Now it was a toothless maw, crumbling and empty of gate or door. Just a dark gullet into the dark body of the stronghold.

Staring out in the other direction, Yulan watched Lake’s boat laboriously zig-zagging its way up the side of the island with Corena’s scow. Both were in the hands of the late Corsair King’s men now. Both had an unforgiving task in hand, working their way against the wind back towards the berthings beyond the castle.

‘We were not told Kottren had taken your husband from you,’ Yulan said as matter-of-factly as he could.

Corena, watching the boats just as he did, said nothing at first and then, ‘Why should you have been?’

‘Because we might have asked for another to bring us here, that’s why,’ grunted Hamdan, pulling the knot of the bandage tight a little less gently than Yulan would have liked.

‘And there’d have been none,’ Corena said. There was more than a hint of anger in her voice. ‘No one else would come out here. You know what Kottren Malak did to those he caught on the sea? Cut their sinews and tendons, then bound them in their own nets. And threw them overboard. That’s what he did to my husband.’

‘So it’s his boat you captain now,’ Yulan said.

‘It was.’

Tears were welling at the corners of her eyes; not falling, but gathering there. They did not reveal themselves in her voice. Yulan could see them. Hamdan did not.

‘We would have done what we said we would do, one way or the other,’ Hamdan muttered as he lifted his head once more to survey the castle. ‘Not sure you’ve made it any easier for us, or for your people.’

‘And I’d do the same again, a thousand times. You’d have done what? Bargained with him? Threatened him? Tricked him into overreaching himself? He never meant you anything but harm, always meant to seize my boat. You play games, because it’s all coins and caution for you. It’s not your love he’s drowned, not your homes he’s burned. I’ve ended it, in the name of my husband, and I care not one fingernail for anything else.’

Yulan held up a placatory hand in the face of her mounting passion.

‘So be it,’ he said gently. ‘So be it. But if there’s more killing needed now, will you let us do it?’

Corena glowered at him. She blinked those unshed tears away.

‘Maybe,’ she said, and Yulan knew that was all he was going to get from her.

‘I’m seeing nothing,’ Hamdan said. ‘Everyone hiding away, you think?’

Yulan shuffled round to get a better view of the castle. It squatted there on the high end of the island in mute, grey immobility. Not a single figure could be seen in the gateway, atop the walls, atop the keep beyond.

‘Only one way to find out,’ Yulan murmured. He glanced back over his shoulder towards the boats butting their way through waves and wind. ‘Best to do it before the odds set themselves properly against us.’

Yulan went first, running in a low stoop for the nearest corner of the gatehouse. He pressed himself against the stonework to one side of the gateway. Hamdan watched from the half-shelter of the rock, arrow notched to bowstring. The archer’s eyes darted between Yulan and the crenellated walls above.

Yulan waited, gathering himself and his memories of what lay within into one clear and purposeful unity. He remembered a doorway on each side of the gatehouse, about halfway in, stairways to the towers and walls. Height was what they needed. Hamdan nodded, and Yulan spun into the castle.

He ran straight for the opening on the right-hand side of the passageway. He could see the empty courtyard beyond the inner gateway but he ignored it. Such places could be made into killing grounds by even the most inept of defenders.

He bounded as fast as the darkness would allow up the spiralling stair. The wound in his arm did not enjoy it, but speed was everything now. Every passing moment was another in which Kottren’s followers might find some courage from somewhere, and another bringing Lake closer – the only one of them who probably had courage to spare. If he chose to apply it to a dead man’s cause.

Pale daylight above told Yulan he was nearing the end of the stair. He slowed, lest he run onto a spear awaiting him. He quietened his tread, and heard Hamdan and Corena below him, beginning their own more cautious ascent.

A low opening gave out onto the footway atop the wall. The stair carried on, coiling its way up to the roof of the gatehouse itself. Yulan stopped and looked out along the battlements. There was a man there, sure enough. He must have been squatting down to hide himself from Hamdan’s view before. Now he was in a half-crouch, waiting for someone to appear just as Yulan was doing. He had an axe – more of a hatchet, really – in one hand, a short knife in the other. And he had fear in his eyes.

‘We’re not here for you,’ Yulan said levelly, staying back within the confines of the staircase. The moment when he had to crouch to pass through the narrow aperture between them would be the other man’s chance, if he had the wit to recognise it.

‘Get out my way,’ the man rasped.

He was not just afraid, Yulan realised. He was terrified. An agitation boiled within him, making his eyes jerk and his hands tremble. It could not just be Yulan’s arrival that made him so, could it?

Yulan stepped quickly out onto the battlements. The man shuffled back a little, but did not yield.

‘Set down your weapons,’ Yulan commanded. ‘I can’t let you pass with them still in hand.’

For a couple of breaths, Yulan saw before him a man who did not know what to do; then that man was gone and replaced by one who did.

‘Your king is dead,’ Yulan snapped, and suspected his words were not even heard.

The axe was raised, the knife withdrawn ready to stab in low. As the man rushed him, Yulan went to meet the axe. Clamping his hand about the upraised wrist and holding it there awoke darts of pain in his upper arm. He blocked the knife easily enough with his sword as it came in. He smashed his forehead against the bridge of his opponent’s nose, putting all the strength and weight into the blow he could. Bone and gristle crunched beneath the impact. It was so hard that Yulan himself was a little dazed.

Kottren’s man was much worse than dazed. He staggered back on legs that had gone loose and soft. Blood bloomed across his face. The knife fell from his hand. Yulan lunged in and ducked under the still high axe-arm. He got his shoulder into the man’s armpit, his free hand onto the back of the man’s belt, and heaved. He could only manage a couple of steps like that, but it was all he needed. He lifted and shoved the man backwards to the battlements and with a last great effort from arm and legs toppled him over. The man howled as he fell, a brief cry that crumpled into a dull thump.

Hamdan


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led Corena out onto the battlements. He came cautiously, eyes darting this way and that like a wolf approaching bait. Yulan looked down at the man he had flung out of the castle. He had thought he might ask Hamdan to end any misery he saw down there with an arrow, but there was no need. The man was folded and broken in a way that spoke only of death.

Hamdan glanced down at the corpse.

‘I’m surprised you found someone to kill,’ the archer muttered. ‘This place is quiet as quiet gets.’

‘What’s that?’ Corena asked, and the two Massatans turned.

They all three stared across at the keep, not one of them knowing at first what it was that they saw.

A black shape pulled itself out from one of the windows partway up the structure. It was like watching a huge, thick-haired spider with only four legs scale the skin of the keep. The great stone blocks had been eroded and fissured by time, leaving a profusion of handholds and crevices. Though the creature moved slowly, it did so with little apparent effort. Just a measured, gangly ascent in the morning sunshine. Climbing towards the crenellations that surmounted the keep.

‘What is  that?’ Corena asked softly again.

‘An ape,’ Yulan and Hamdan said at the same time.

‘It was in the menagerie,’ Yulan said. ‘It must have got loose somehow.’

The animal made its slow way to the battlements and lifted itself almost casually atop them. It sat for a moment, legs folded away out of sight, spindly arms draped across the stone. It looked around, and for a moment it seemed that its gaze met Yulan’s across the wide space between them. He imagined it to be squinting against the light. Nothing hostile in its regard, just a simple momentary observation. Then the ape slipped down behind the stonework.

‘Well, that’s not a thing I expected to see,’ Hamdan said, puffing out his cheeks.

‘There was worse than apes caged in there,’ Yulan said thoughtfully. ‘If they’ve all got out …’

Screams cut him short. Not cries of pain, or anger: terror, from the mouths of children. The shouts of men were mixed in there, but it was the children Yulan heard. The raw sound made him wince. It was coming from within the keep, low down. Perhaps from the menagerie hall, Yulan thought.

‘Sounds like something worse might have come out to play, sure enough,’ Hamdan said as he drew an arrow and set it to the bowstring. ‘What else did he have in there?’

‘Lion, wolf, corpse-lizard,’ Yulan said. He was already moving towards the nearest tower, and the stairway that would carry him down into the courtyard. ‘Other things I didn’t know or couldn’t see.’

‘We want to go down there?’ Hamdan asked. He sounded doubtful, even though he followed.

The screams were moving, echoing, spilling out from the keep through windows and doorways. There were thumps and crashes, and the sound of running feet.

‘We do,’ Yulan said over his shoulder.

‘I’m not hearing any animals,’ Hamdan observed.

Figures were spilling from the keep’s main door. Men and women came rushing out into the courtyard, one after another. The children – Kottren’s children and a few others – were there, running on bare feet with their ragged clothes flapping about them. Still screaming, some of them.

Yulan flew down the tight spiral of the staircase, smacking his injured arm more than once against the stone. He saw himself as if from outside his body, just for the space of a few heartbeats, and recognised that there was excitement coursing through him. There was, in all this, a terrible kind of urgent aliveness he had seldom known before.

He ran out onto the cobblestones of the courtyard. Some of those who had fled from the keep were already stumbling or running beneath the gatehouse, making for the bleak open ground beyond. Others had paused and turned to look back at the towering stone mass. Three of the children were among them. They stood close to Yulan, their backs to him. Two of them were holding hands.

Yulan put his own, huge, hand on the shoulder of the nearest.

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

She – it was a girl, beneath the smudges of dirt and the matted, knotted hair – looked up at him in fear.

‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said at once. ‘We can help.’

Hamdan and Corena arrived beside him, but the girl paid them no heed. Nor did she reply to Yulan. She only looked once more at the keep, and began to back away from it slowly and with hesitant steps. Yulan let his hand slip from her shoulder, feeling the bones of her shoulder sharp and hard beneath his fingers. She had not eaten well for a long time.

‘I suppose we can kill a lion, if that’s what it takes,’ Hamdan said, though he did not sound enthusiastic about the prospect. And even as he said it, they all saw that it was not a lion they faced.

The walls of the keep came alive. One section of the stonework shrugged, spilling grit and dust. It bulged out, the great rough-hewn blocks grinding against one another. The stones shifted and shaped themselves, swelling like a bubble in a thick soup. Then the movement raced across the face of the keep, a wave in granite, and swept onto and along the curtain wall. In its wake debris fell, the wall swayed, cracks erupted in all directions.

A sound like a rockfall, or of boulders being rolled along in a flood, boomed around the courtyard. Yulan and all the rest stood transfixed, turning their heads slowly to follow the impossible sight. It was as if some mad giant had taken hold of the stone walls and shaken them, sending a ripple rushing through them. That ripple surged through and around a corner tower, shaking it so violently that its top split asunder and collapsed in on itself in a pluming cloud of mortar and dust.

That was when Yulan decided it was time to run.

‘Come!’ he shouted above the rumbling ruin, and pulled at the children who still stood beside him.

In the event, they had all gone no more than a couple of paces before the destruction ended, with all the sudden violence it had begun. The moving contortion of the stonework swayed across the front of the castle until it collided with the gatehouse and there it snapped out of existence, blowing huge chunks of masonry apart. The gatehouse itself shivered and slumped. One half of it groaned and sank into a slide of disarticulated blocks and rubble, spitting out a great choking blast of dirt and pulverised stone which engulfed the courtyard.

Caught in it, just as he had more than once been caught in a desert sandstorm, Yulan covered his nose and mouth with one hand. Beside him, he heard Hamdan hawking and spitting.

‘We’re in trouble now,’ the archer said, and Yulan had never before heard such grim sincerity in his voice.

‘Of the worst kind,’ Yulan coughed. ‘They’ve got a Clever.’

VIII

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Corena had asked them what an Orphanidon was. She did not need to ask about a Clever, of course. Even the most isolated, most far-flung of folk knew about Clevers: the few people who could tap the raw stuff of the four entelechs, the pure and inchoate essences that made up the world and all its contents. Bearers of great power, and of great burdens since the exercise of that power leeched away their own strength and life.

In all likelihood, Corena had never seen a Clever, unless it was some untrained hedge-witch wandering the land in defiance of the strictures of the School. Yulan had, though. The Free counted several among its ranks, and upon that simple fact was built much of its great reputation and might. He had seen them do things beyond imagination, channelling the pure, formless essence of the entelechs and giving it shape and power in the physical world. And he had seen them pay the price for those deeds in fevers and slumbers, frailties and withering.

So Corena knew what the word meant. But as Yulan watched her, he suspected that it was possible to know without really understanding. She did not look frightened enough for full understanding.

They were huddled – Yulan and Hamdan and Corena and the three children, with half a dozen others – in what had once been a stable. It leaned up against an undamaged stretch of the castle’s wall, off to one side of the keep. Its timbers were so rotted by worm and rain that it would probably have collapsed without that support. Certainly it had not served as a stable for many, many years. There was nothing there but a midden piled up in one corner that stank of decay and human excrement.

The whole courtyard had a fine layer of dust spread over it now. So too did Yulan’s face and clothes. He tried to brush it away, but it was stubbornly persistent stuff.

From where they crouched, they could see the doors to the keep. They could see as well the half-wrecked gatehouse. It might be possible to climb out over or through the mound of rubble there, but it would not be easy or fast.

At Yulan’s side, Hamdan was shouting questions. It sounded like anger, though Yulan knew it was as much alarm. Perhaps even fear.

‘Who’s the Clever?’ Hamdan shouted at the men and women cowering in the furthest corner of the stables. ‘Who is it? Are they an Aestival? A Vernal? What?’

He was asking what kind of Clever they faced. Which of the four entelechs – Vernal, Aestival, Autumnal, Hibernal – he or she was most in tune with, most capable of calling forth. It was obvious from the faces of those Hamdan addressed that they did not know the answer, perhaps did not even understand the import of the question. In truth, it hardly mattered. A Clever was a Clever.

‘Hush,’ Yulan murmured.

Hamdan looked at him.

‘I’d say we’ve got roughly no time at all to come up with a way out,’ Yulan said. ‘Lake’s close, if he’s not already here.’

‘Time’s not favouring us, right enough,’ Hamdan conceded.

‘Maybe Corena was right,’ Yulan said. ‘She said it’s all coins and caution for us, and she’s not wrong. Maybe I should have taken Kottren’s head the first moment I set eyes on him.’

‘No, you shouldn’t,’ Hamdan hissed. ‘You didn’t take his head because we didn’t know what would happen next if you did. Doing something without knowing what’ll follow is the last arrow in your quiver, not the first. Everyone’s got their own reasons for fighting, but people give us the coin because we’re supposed to be good at it and caution’s a part of that.

‘Look around you. Doesn’t this look like a bad idea from top to bottom? The mad bastard’s dead and he’s still managed to trap us in one of his cages, sure as any of his beasts.’

‘All of us,’ Yulan agreed with a brief backward glance.

‘You want to try and get them all out,’ Hamdan said. Not challenging this time.

‘Don’t you?’

‘The children. Yes.’

Hamdan had left a son behind in Massatan lands, Yulan knew. He had never asked why the archer had left, for it was not in his nature – or Massatan habit – to delve into another man’s history or heart. He had the sense, though, that it had not been a hard choice or a source of much regret save for that one thing: the child.

‘We have to get down to the boats, and do it before Lake reaches them, to have much of a chance,’ Yulan said.

He turned about and said to no one in particular, to everyone, ‘Is there a way down to the harbour without going through the keep?’

Several of those who had lived within these shabby walls nodded. One of the children – the oldest perhaps, though Yulan still found age hard to read amid the grime and ill health – quietly and cautiously said, ‘There’s a door at the …’

But she fell silent as if a knife had cut her voice, staring with wide eyes over Yulan’s shoulder. He turned to see what had so alarmed her, even as he heard Hamdan cursing and felt the archer surging to his feet.

In the midst of the courtyard, the ground was heaving. A section of cobblestones the width of a man’s outstretched arms was lumping up as if alive. Yulan stood beside Hamdan. Behind them, people were crying out in fear.

‘That’ll be us out of time, then,’ said Hamdan.

What arose before them, what shaped itself from the stone and dirt and dust of the ground, was horrible. A memory gone awry of the human form. Stunted and contorted, blunt-limbed. A cankerous outgrowth of the earth itself, clad in the yard’s cobbles like plated skin.

‘Run for that door, wherever it is,’ Yulan shouted over his shoulder.

He heard them doing as he commanded, vaguely aware of the direction of their flight, but he reserved his attention for the monstrous apparition that lurched towards him and Hamdan. The thing’s short legs never parted from the ground. They merged with it – they were of  it – so that it should not have been able to move. Could not have, were it not a manifestation of the entelechs given shape by a Clever and thus unmoored from the laws of the possible.

Hamdan launched an arrow at the unnatural form, and the shaft shivered and rebounded from its stone armour. Dust shook loose at the figure’s every stride, wreathing it. Its bones of earth and rock sighed and scraped as it moved.

Hamdan slung his bow across his shoulder and drew his short-sword.

‘Arrows won’t serve,’ he said glumly.

‘Put some space between us,’ Yulan said, already drifting sideways himself.

He frowned at the impossible opponent before him. It was all wrong. Nothing like anything the skilled Clevers who served the Free would ever make from their power. To clothe the limitless potential of an entelech in this mockery of the human form was needless. To choose a form so small – the figure barely stood as tall as his chest – was oddly half-hearted.

Yet it was enough to kill both him and Hamdan, of course. More than enough, with its stone hide and cudgel arms. Only if it could catch them, though. There was the glimmer of hope in this darkness. It was – so far – imprecise and heavy in its movements. It would be too much to hope that it would remain so; it could be as fast and strong as the Clever who made it wished, if they were willing to spend enough of their own vitality on its making. But they might be able to occupy it long enough that the others could reach the boats alive.

Hamdan, it seemed, had greater ambitions than mere delay. He darted in and put a savagely precise slash into the seam between two cobblestones, midway along the thing’s outstretched arm. His blade cut through and burst out the other side in a cloud of dirt and loose earth. Parts of that arm fell away. What remained re-formed itself.

The earthen figure twisted and lashed out at the archer, a sudden vigour to its movement. The blow caught him across the back. Glancing, but hard enough to spin him about and stagger him and have him crying out in pain.

Yulan rushed forward. His eyes mapped that rocky skin as he ran. He tracked the shifting and sliding of cobbles across its flank, the flowing of the earth and pebbles beneath them. The moment came, the opening, and he swept his sword through its side, where the ribs would have been were it a living thing. The blade rattled against stones, inside the mass, shook in his hand, but it did not stop. Gouts of earth and rock burst out. The Clever-made monster slumped and sagged.

But it flung out more limbs, thin tendrils sprouting from its torso that engulfed him so suddenly he was powerless to avoid them. It embraced him in fierce dust and stone and squeezed. He was taller than it, and his arms were still free. He hammered down at one of the arms holding him with the hilt of his sword. It did nothing but jar his arm and scrape the skin from the side of his hand.

For an unreal moment as he felt the air rushing out from his lungs, his chest tightening and trembling, he was looking down at the upturned head of the thing that would kill him. And he saw it change. He saw its fabric crumble and become fine dust that gathered and clumped and made of itself a distant image of a face. Lips, and the bump of a nose, and blank, smooth spaces where eyes should lie. It stared blindly up at him, and he stared back. Into the face of a child.

The lips parted and, from out of the dark hollow behind them, dust spoke to him. Just once, but he heard it quite clearly.

‘Stay,’ it said. In the voice of a little girl.

Then the head and face erupted, burst apart sand in a gale, as Hamdan’s sword cut through. Grit blasted at Yulan’s face, almost blinding him, but he spun his sword in his upraised hands. He turned its point downward and plunged it into the roiling mass of earth where the head had been. He sank it down as far as it would go and then twisted and hauled with all his strength, ripping the blade out sideways.

In an instant the crushing coils about him fell away. It all fell away, crashing into a pile of cobblestones and earth. He fell among it, gasping for breath.

Hamdan had his arm at once and hauled him unceremoniously to his feet.

‘Everyone else is out that door, so we’d best be after them, I’d say,’ Hamdan snapped.

Yulan coughed and spat dust.

‘It’s a girl,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘The Clever who’s trying to kill us. It’s one of Kottren’s children.’

IX

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The Sorentines had been a strange people in many ways. Their ascent from being just one more people among many to lords of a vast realm had been so rapid that they carried many of their oldest traditions up with them, barely changed. It was the evidence for one of those that told Yulan he had been right about this castle being their handiwork.

The postern gate at the base of the castle’s rearmost corner tower was framed by the gaping maw of a bull. Carved from the same hard stone as the walls themselves, its horns stretched an arm’s length on either side. To open the iron-bound door and walk through was to enter into the great bull’s mouth. Its flared nostrils formed the lintel, its tongue the step. Quite why the Sorentines had been so wedded to the image of the bull, Yulan did not know or care. That this one might give him a way out of the trap sprung by the Corsair King’s death, he did care about.

The sight that greeted them as he and Hamdan passed through the bull’s mouth was not as comforting as he might have hoped, though. They stood upon a precipitous high ledge, suddenly exposed to the buffets of the sea breeze. Down below, what felt dizzyingly far below, was the little cove in which Kottren had kept his humble, motley fleet. And between ledge and cove ran a steep, narrow staircase cut into the very face of the near vertical cliffs that held the castle aloft. The steps were rough-hewn and lacked the width for more than a single file descent.

The prize they sought was there waiting for them, though. Down in the cove at the foot of the stair, where the sea was blue and calm, rested three vessels. They rocked gently at anchor. Corena and the rest – the three children and four others of Kottren’s former subjects – were already halfway down the stair, racing for that prize.

‘Nice of them to wait for us,’ Hamdan grunted as he slammed the door shut behind them.

‘I wouldn’t have wanted them to,’ Yulan said.

He was regarding the steps that waited him uneasily. To his eye, they looked perilously uneven, slippery and generally treacherous. He had never been greatly enamoured of heights.

‘You’re sure it’s a child?’ Hamdan asked him gravely.

‘That wasn’t anyone who really knows what they’re doing, was it? Did you ever see one of our own Clevers do anything so imprecise, so wild?’

‘I suppose not,’ Hamdan conceded.

‘No. That was all instinct. Nothing measured or practised about it.’

Yulan’s mind was back in those moments in the menagerie when he had first seen the children. The girl Kottren had summoned to fetch food, with her pallor and scabs and crooked fingers and eyes that looked diseased. He had thought her appearance a result of hardship and an uncaring father, but of course it could have been the signs of a Clever ravaged by the flowing through her of a power no one had ever taught her how to properly ration or control. It had not even occurred to him at the time.

‘It’s not one of those three we’re trying to save, is it?’ Hamdan asked.

‘No.’ Yulan shook his head. ‘I know who it is. She’s just a little girl.’

They began their cautious descent. The steps were damp, glistening with the spray of the last storm. This face of the island was in deep shadow. No sun could reach it to cook away the moisture. Seagulls and other ocean birds wheeled close in, screeching at these human interlopers. Some had nests along the cliffs – not close, but close enough – and their droppings had stained the steps here and there.

It all made Yulan tense and attentive as he set one foot down after another. He could not help but spread his arms a touch, seeking a balance he did not really need for anything but comfort. The wind was unhelpful. This had not been the kind of danger he had expected joining the Free to bring. The prospect of dying with honour upon the blade of an enemy did not trouble him too greatly; falling off a stairway to be dashed upon rocks or drowned in an uninterested sea was not how he wished to end his days.

Directly above the calm waters of the cove, atop the sheer cliff, was the rear of the castle’s keep. There were balconies there, built out from the stonework. Intended no doubt to give the place’s original inhabitants a fine view, a refreshing breath of the sea air. Yulan did not see the appeal. He brought his gaze down again, to focus upon more immediate and pressing concerns. And to his considerable relief, found Corena and the rest waiting just ahead, at the edge of the little bay.

They stood on a wide platform made from vast slabs of worked stone. It had been laid over a tiny beach of shells. Ahead, cupped in the protective embrace of curving lines of boulders, waited the boats. On the left, to Yulan’s surprise for it had been invisible from above, a deep cave sank into the body of the island beneath the castle. The sea reached in there, too far back to make out its end. There must be a quay or landing stage within, he reasoned, for the stair was no fit way to load or unload ships. The Sorentines had burrowed through the body of the island itself to connect castle to ocean.

Yulan felt something he would not have thought himself capable of: an urgent desire to get aboard a boat and set sail. He glanced at Corena.

‘We all follow you now, captain.’

At which, without hesitation, she plunged into the water and began wading towards the nearest of the Corsair King’s orphaned vessels. The gentle waves lapped at her chest as she leaned into them and strode on.

‘Wait there until I tell you it’s seaworthy,’ she called back over her shoulder.

Yulan squatted down on his haunches beside the three children. They looked at him, all of them, with wide eyes.

‘One of your sisters is a Clever. Is that right?’

‘Her name’s Enna,’ the oldest of the three said.

‘What’s your name?’ Yulan asked the girl.

‘Navene.’

‘Listen, Navene, do you think your sister might really want to hurt us, or you? Can we talk to her, perhaps?’

‘I don’t know. She’s not … she’s not the same as us. She’s strange.’

Yulan ran a hand back through his long hair. For all that he had half-expected that answer, he did not like it.

‘She was father’s favourite, once he saw what she could do,’ Navene murmured. ‘He wanted us all to be like her then. Really wanted. He said he would scourge it out of us, make us wake up just as he did her.’

‘Scourge?’ Yulan said.

She tugged the collar of her ragged shirt down from her shoulder, twisted a little to show him the top of her back. There were scars there. Old ones, laid into her skin by a whip.

Hamdan was watching too, and Yulan heard the archer sucking in breath through clenched teeth. Wordlessly, Hamdan reached out and took Navene’s hand in his own for a moment. He pushed her sleeve up a little way. Her forearm was slightly crooked, a knot in the bone halfway along its length. Neither he nor Yulan said anything, but they both recognised a break that had never been allowed or helped to heal properly.

‘Man needed killing, just like you said,’ Hamdan muttered. He said it to Yulan, though he was smiling gently at Navene as he spoke.

‘Does Enna know your father’s dead?’ Yulan asked.

And Navene nodded. ‘She’s very upset.’

At the very moment she spoke the words, the castle above them gave a muffled, sonorous boom. Yulan looked up – they all did – in time to see a plume of brownish dust and debris spouting out from one of the high windows.

‘Upset, right enough,’ Hamdan said.

He edged away a short distance and beckoned Yulan to follow him.

‘If this Enna doesn’t know what she’s doing …’ Hamdan whispered softly enough that no one else should hear, ‘if she loses control of the entelechs she’s playing with, we could get a Permanence here. Then, most likely, there’s not one of us getting off this piece of rock alive.’

A Permanence. Yulan had heard tales of them, never seen one. He knew only what everyone knew: a Clever overwhelmed by the raw power they wielded could be snuffed out like a candle flame, becoming only the vessel by which a Permanence was born. Not a merging and mingling of the entelechs such as was all the normal substance and sentiment of the world, but a pure and potent expression of a single entelech. Ungovernable, unpredictable, set loose in the world. And once loosed, something no sword or bow could ever hope to oppose. Some, like the Bereaved, had killed thousands. Some, like the Unhomed Host, had reshaped the history of the world. It was not a possibility Yulan wanted to contemplate.

He stared up at the castle above them. Dull thumps and groans were emanating from it still. Breakings and grindings. He could not shed from his mind the thought of a frightened girl, grief-stricken and enraged. A power she must barely understand coursing through her, giving form and strength to the feelings that possessed her. Trapped, as much as any of them, by her father’s death.

He sighed and lowered his gaze. Hamdan had moved away, and when Yulan looked for him he found him standing at the edge of the water. He had his bow in one hand, the smallest and youngest of the children in the other. She sat on his supportive arm and had her hands locked behind his neck. She looked comfortable there.

‘Too deep for the little ones,’ Hamdan said. ‘This here’s Estrell, and it seems she’s decided to come with me. You’d best get one up on your back, too.’

Yulan turned to the two other children: Navene and a boy, smaller and frailer than her. Navene was glowering at him.

‘I can manage,’ she said stubbornly.

Perhaps she could. Yulan was not sure. Her frame looked devoid of strength. She probably did have the height to keep her head above water, though. He beckoned the boy to come closer, and tried to smile reassuringly.

‘What do I call you?’ he asked.

‘Tessunt.’

The boy’s voice was rough and thin, as if he had a throat sickness. His cheeks were sunken.

‘Climb up on my back and hold on tight, Tessunt.’

Yulan knelt and turned his back to the boy. The movement set his face towards the open sea and that was why he was the first to see the death of their hopes. He felt Tessunt’s arms come across his shoulders, felt the boy’s knees clasping around his waist, and even as he was feeling those things he was staring at the boats rounding the rocks at the mouth of the cove and heading in. Lake’s sleek raider and lumbering along behind it, quite some way behind it, Corena’s scow.

He stood up so suddenly that Tessunt almost slipped from his back, and he had to reach back to hold the boy there.

‘Corena!’ he shouted, only to find that Tessunt had such a tight lock on his neck the sound came out half-choked.

‘Loosen off a bit there,’ Yulan said, and as soon as the pressure on his throat grew less he cried out more heartily: ‘Corena!’

She stopped, with the water up almost to her shoulders now, and turned. Yulan nodded out towards the approaching vessels, and Corena waded a few paces back to get a clear view. He saw her cock her head slightly to one side. There were men, perhaps half a dozen of them, gathered near the prow of the leading boat. Yulan could see swords and spears at the ready.

Corena began striding back towards the platform on which the rest of them stood.

‘Can’t get past that,’ she called.

X

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Yulan threw a quick glance back up the stairway to the postern gate. That did not, to put it mildly, look like a promising or quick path to safety. He sprang down into the water, almost falling as his feet sank into sand and Tessunt’s weight jolted on his back.

‘Into the cave,’ he shouted.

He did not lo


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ok back as he ploughed through the water. He could hear others plunging into the sea, and struggling just as he did to move towards the dark oval of the cave. Little more promising than the vertiginous stair, he knew, but there must at least be doorways and passages in there that would be defensible, and less exposed.

The water shallowed a little as he passed into the gloom. Still the ebb and flow of gentle waves tugged at his legs and the yielding sand beneath his feet hampered him. He ventured a pause and twist of his neck to be sure the rest followed. It was no great surprise to find that while Hamdan and Corena and the children were there in his wake, the four men and women who had followed thus far were not. They were still dry-shod, standing and waving towards the seaborne newcomers. False friends, spotting a better wager on the horizon in the form of Lake and his warriors. It was no loss.

Deeper in, beneath the great mass of stone, there were oil lamps burning on the walls of the tunnel. Yulan followed that light. There looked to be a long, narrow quay built into the side of the cave back there, and beyond it a wide pair of doors that stood open. A bull’s head was sculpted above it. The unsteady light of the lamps threw its writhing shadow over the stonework.

Yulan slowed. He let Hamdan, still carrying Estell, and Navene surge past him. Navene was struggling, he could see. Tiring already from the dull opposition of the water. Corena was only a few strides behind, pushing through that same water almost as if it was not there. Silvery echoes of the splashes shivered around the cave.

Beyond, out in the daylight, Lake’s boat came. It ground and rasped its hull along that of one of the others moored there. It yawed and rocked out a flat-bellied sway across the cove. Men began to leap from its gunwale into the water. Some fell, but they rose, the sea cascading from their heads and shoulders. The Orphanidon jumped down. He saw Yulan and stood there, better than waist-deep, and held up sword and shield in … what? Challenge, perhaps, or salute.

Yulan stopped Corena as she brushed past him.

‘Take the boy,’ he said in a carefully measured tone. He did not want to frighten the child.

Corena glanced over her shoulder and nodded silently. But Tessunt tightened his grip about Yulan’s neck.

‘Don’t want to,’ the boy said.

From the splashing and scraping, Yulan could tell that Hamdan had reached the quay and was climbing out, or dragging Navene up. He patted Tessunt on the leg.

‘Go to Corena, child. Go now.’

The Orphanidon and his men were drawing near. They could not run, but they had the strength to barge a way through the sea. They were always going to be faster than the three children, in or out of the water.

Yulan shrugged Tessunt loose and swung him across to Corena.

‘Take them up, Hamdan,’ he shouted.

He saw the archer hesitate for a moment, looking from Yulan to the approaching gang of Kottren’s men.

‘I’ll be there soon,’ Yulan said.

Hamdan nodded and reached down to heave Corena and Tessunt up onto the ledge. No debate, no argument. Yulan was grateful for that. He did not need to explain that only by stretching out the time between hunters and hunted might this come to a happy end. He did not need to explain that someone had to go with Corena and the children, for fear of what might lie ahead, just as someone must stay behind to win that time.

Those thoughts done with, Yulan set them aside. Only the moment now, only what was before him. He edged cautiously backwards, closing the distance between him and the doorway through which he could already hear Hamdan and the others hurrying.

Lake was not coming in the first rank of the enemy. He followed just behind, alone among them all in looking calm, composed. Ahead of him, three men advanced across almost the whole width of the cave, their thighs piling up bow waves ahead of them. They were widely scattered, which would have been the right way to do it on land. Yulan thought it a mistake with hip-high water to hamper and slow any movement. There was some small hope yet that he was not about to die.

One of the warriors snapped his arm backwards and forwards, launching a spear at Yulan’s chest. He swayed and slapped the shaft away with the flat of his sword, sending it spinning point-over-tail to clatter against the cave wall.

‘Yield,’ Lake called out sharply. His voice reverberated from the stone.

Yulan only shook his head.

The three lead warriors tried to rush him, but of course they could not. The sand did not give their feet purchase; the water and waves tugged at their legs. The spray clouded their vision. Yulan took them as they came.

He turned the point of one spear down so hard and fast it buried itself in sand and bucked its length out of its wielder’s hands. Yulan killed him. He caught another man on the side of the head with an elbow, and managed to put a gash into his neck as he fell. The third was less rash, less clumsy, and Yulan had to meet sword with sword. The clash of blades was an assault upon the ears in those hard confines. It did not last long. A few hacks and parries and Yulan’s greater strength and precision told. His opponent let his sword dip into the water and Yulan had the space to lay a hard backhanded slash across the man’s face.

The water rocked. Curls and currents of blood were in it, almost black in the muted light. Lake was standing before Yulan now. The Orphanidon restrained those men behind him with outstretched sword and shield.

‘Kottren Malak is dead,’ Yulan said.

‘I know it,’ Lake replied. ‘I saw the deed done.’

He took a long step forward, brushing past the floating, limp arms of a corpse.

‘Then there’s no need for this,’ insisted Yulan, easing himself back. ‘Whatever service you owed him is done. All we’re trying to do is leave.’

‘The man might be dead, the service is not,’ said Lake. ‘No one ever told you it was Kottren Malak I guarded or served, sellsword.’

Yulan suppressed the frown that twitched beneath the surface of his face.

‘I was brought here – and paid – to keep his daughter safe,’ the Orphanidon said. ‘It is her I promised to guard and serve, not her father. He is gone but the promise remains. You stand between me and my ward, and I judge you a threat to her.’

‘She’s a Clever, most likely unhinged by grief. I’m no threat to her unless she is one to me.’

‘So you say. But I would take counsel with my ward, and mean to do it now.’

With that, Lake surged forward, shield before his chest like a battering ram. It was different from the very first instant of their engagement. Yulan was the faster, the stronger, but Lake was unlike any opponent he had ever faced. All direct in one moment, cutting at Yulan’s flanks with savage aggression; all feints and deceits in the next, flashing the shield across Yulan’s face and shifting his footing in ways that belied his intent.

It was only speed that kept Yulan alive in those first desperate flurries of blow and block. There was no time for stratagem, only reaction and survival. He fell back as best he could, hoping to get close enough to the quay to swing himself up out of the water. As soon as his weight was on his back foot, Lake would press in and test his balance. As soon as he lashed out with his sword, the Orphanidon was ducking or twisting himself tantalisingly out of reach. Always the water was there, like leaden hands about Yulan’s legs, limiting him and robbing him of freedom.

Yulan felt his flank touch the side of the quay. He pushed himself backwards along it. Seawater was dripping from his arms. He could feel it wet over his face. He spat it from his lips and tasted the gritty salt of it. He could smell the oil burning in the guttering lamps. Everything was sharp to his senses. He was present as he had seldom been before.

‘You fight well,’ Lake said.

A sliver of hope there, in the pulses of hurried breath. The rapid rising and falling of the Orphanidon’s chest. The man was not young, after all. Drips fell from Yulan’s brow. He did not brush them away.

‘And you like to talk,’ he said to Lake.

‘There are few things I like, in truth. The Empire taught me that.’

Lake was edging closer. He left no simple openings for Yulan to punish. Yulan was willing to wait. Time was what he sought to purchase here, after all.

‘I thought I served something worthy of the service,’ Lake continued, ‘but it was not so. I thought I had ten thousand brothers and sisters, but it was not so. Pledge yourself to lies and liars and in time they will betray you.’

‘I believe it,’ Yulan said.

A thin, reedy whistle pierced the air. Yulan dared a snatched glance to the side. He was all but level with the wide, open doors at the back of the quay. Beyond them he glimpsed a broad ramp sloping up. That was where the distant whistle came from: Hamdan making an invitation.

‘We neither of us fight for our own cause here,’ Yulan said. He wanted respite as much as Lake now. A few breaths to gather himself, to think. ‘Seems folly for either of us to die today.’

The Orphanidon smiled coldly.

‘I doubt you believe that. I fight for a promise freely made, and that is the only thing I would die for today or any other day. It is the last vestige of honour I have left to me.

‘And you … you are of the Free. None but fools think the Free fight only for treasure. I have heard it said that you always find a way to make another’s cause your own. Wise or not, it is what you do.’

Yulan flailed his sword and arm through the water, sending up a sheet of spray into Lake’s face. He let the movement carry his body round and sprang, throwing a leg onto the quay and rolling. In the corner of his eye he saw Lake hunching behind his shield, the water breaking over its wooden surface. He saw the Orphanidon’s sword flashing yellow reflections of the lamps as it darted up and down.

The blade struck sparks from the edge of the quay a finger’s width from Yulan’s foot. He flowed into a crouch and swung his own sword round into the space where Lake would be if he tried to follow up out of the water. The Orphanidon was not so foolish. The shield was there instead, and it turned Yulan’s blow aside.

Yulan rose to his feet and stepped towards the open door. That saved him, for a spear spiralled in and passed across the back of his head, so close he felt it in his hair. It hit the wall and rebounded, quivering. Yulan thanked his luck and ran.

The Sorentines had cut a long and wide sloping passageway with a vaulted roof up from that subterranean harbour. Yulan sprinted up it into darkness, for there were no torches or oil lamps here. He almost turned his ankle over in a groove running down the length of the ramp. Cursing he ran on, ignoring the twinge of protest in that joint. Long, long ago, there must have been carts hauled up and down, their wheels riding in the grooves. Not now. Now there was only damp and the dark and silence.

A silence broken by a strange, trilling whistle from up ahead. It sounded vaguely familiar to Yulan, but he could not place it. Hamdan, he supposed, but what it meant he had no idea. An alarm? His stride faltered, skipped a beat.

And out of the gloom came a splinter of movement that sighed past his eyes. An arrow. He lurched to the side and pressed himself to the arching wall in time to avoid the second, and then the third that went straight and true as stooping falcons down the long slope towards the figures at the foot of the passageway. He heard at least once the distinctive thud of arrow meeting flesh, and a startled cry. After that, there was no more movement. No pursuit.

Yulan trotted on and up. His ankle ached, but not too much. The knife wound in his upper arm was throbbing, but distantly. He was alive when he could as easily – more easily – not have been. On another day, Lake would have had him. There was a unique kind of exhilaration to be had in knowing that this was not that other day. But then, it was still early.

XI

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Hamdan was waiting in the doorway of an old storage cellar. As Yulan passed through, the archer heaved the great oaken door closed behind him and hammered a wedge in beneath it with his foot.

The chamber was a mess. There was only the light of a couple of lanterns to see by, but it was enough to know this was where Kottren Malak had hoarded much of his loot. Barrels were stacked along half of one wall, rolls of cloth and heaps of fishing net strewn over and between them. There were tall clay jars with cork stoppers; oars leaning in one corner, boathooks and spears and pitchforks in another. A chest here and there, long loops of chain and boat tackle hanging on the walls. A neglected heap of clothes that smelled of rot and mould. A sorry and meagre treasury, all in all. Hardly worth a single death, let alone the many that had followed upon the Corsair King’s heels.

Corena was at the far end of the cellar with the children, peering through another doorway into a rising stairwell.

Yulan gave Hamdan a grateful pat on the shoulder.

‘I’m glad you waited.’

Hamdan shrugged.

‘What else would I do? We’re the Free, you and I. Unless we’re different from just about everyone else riding under that banner, it means we’re all we’ve got. We always wait. Until we can’t.’

Yulan nodded.

‘I’m impressed,’ Hamdan was saying. ‘Not many can say they’ve faced an Orphanidon and lived.’

‘Once an Orphanidon. He is good, but old. Probably not as sharp a blade as once he was.’

‘Oh, I know,’ Hamdan grunted. ‘I was just trying to be encouraging. If it’d been a young one, still in the Empire’s service, I might not have bothered waiting.’

They walked the length of the cellar. Yulan heard the skittering of rats behind some of the barrels. He thought – though this might be imagining – that he could hear the whispery scuttling of beetles in there too.

‘See anything?’ he asked Corena as he peered over her shoulder up the shadowy spiral of the stairway. ‘Hear anything?’

She did not have to answer. The castle above them provided its own response. A low howl of wind, then the crash and groan of something falling or moving. The cracking and creaking of stone that made Yulan think of fissures opening. None of it promising. None of it certain of provenance, but to Yulan’s ear it had the ominous sound of a young Clever, half-maddened by grief and anger. Raging, searching, wailing. Hurting.

‘It’s not easy shooting along a sloping passage, you know,’ Hamdan observed, as if they were taking their ease in an alehouse. ‘You’re supposed to get down when I give a grass-shrike whistle.’

‘That second whistle? I didn’t know what that meant.’

‘Did you never go hunting before you left the drylands?’ asked Hamdan incredulously.

‘Of course I did. Often. We used our hands for quiet talking, and if we needed calls it was a black plover to stay down and still.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, really. A black plover’ll sit on its nest so stubborn you can pick it up.’

‘Well, I know that.’ Hamdan looked thoughtful. ‘Makes sense. Don’t know why we used a grass-shrike.’

‘Are you two forgetting where we are?’ muttered Corena. ‘On a sinking ship is where, and I don’t hear anyone saying which way we should swim.’

‘Not forgetting it, no,’ said Hamdan.

‘So which way are we swimming?’ Corena demanded.

‘I’ve got half an idea about that,’ Yulan said.

And he did have an idea. He did not like it, and he did not think anyone else was going to like it much, but it was all he had.

‘We need to get up and out of here before we can do anything else,’ he said. ‘No other choice.’

‘Always wanted to meet an angry child-Clever,’ Hamdan sighed. ‘Help me block up that other door a little better first. At least we may be able to delay your Orphanidon long enough that we only need to have one nightmare at a time.’

Yulan led the way up the spiral that would carry them once more into the castle, sword in one hand, lantern taken from the wall of the cellar in the other. He was beginning to feel cold. His clothes were sodden and heavy, sucking all the warmth from his limbs. The children, he knew, were shivering behind him. They had not been well dressed in the first place, and certainly not for thrashing about in the sea. He could hear someone’s teeth rattling.

It was not helped by the fact that the higher they rose, the closer they came to whatever awaited them above, the more restless the air grew. It shifted and gusted, blowing cold across the face. Where it should have been still, here in this tight stair deep in rock, it had life and movement.

Yulan could think of two possible reasons for that. Either the fabric of the fortress above them was so rent, so damaged, that the winds coming off the sea flowed through it without let or hindrance; or it was Enna, giving form and intent directly to the air. Neither was a comforting notion.

They emerged into a short corridor that ran off to both left and right. Yulan looked this way and that before stepping out from the stairwell. He struggled for a moment to orientate himself. The only windows were tiny slits high at each end of the corridor, each showing only a thin bar of featureless sky. The dim sound of waves told him which way the sea, and the back of the keep, lay. That was what he wanted.

He led the others to a corner and held them just short of it with a silent spreading of his fingers. From around that corner, the shifting air was bringing an unsettling sound: heavy, rasping breathing.

He edged forward and looked into the new stretch of passageway, into the glare of unexpected daylight. A hole had been torn open, right through the keep from top to bottom, admitting the glare of a sun now high in the sky. Yulan could hear the cries of seabirds, and beneath that harsh surface the rumbling, faltering breath of the beast that lay in the corridor. A great bear, a cave-dweller, was sprawled there, half crushed beneath great slabs of masonry that had plunged down from the roof and walls above.

Its hindquarters were pinned – and surely broken – by massive stonework. Its jowls were bloody and trailing strings of thick saliva. Its mangled tongue sprawled limply from its jaws. But it was not dead, and its eyes went to Yulan as soon as he emerged before it.

Beyond the crushed beast, he could see what he sought: an old and part-rotten door that by his reckoning must open onto one of the balconies at the rear of the keep.

‘Wait here,’ he whispered over his shoulder, and advanced cautiously upon the bear.

He had not gone more than a pace or two before he was startled into immobility by a shuddering that passed through the walls and floor, the very bones of the whole castle. It shook mortar and dust into little clouds that drifted in the sunlight streaming in from above.

He had no concept of what the creation of a Permanence would be like. He barely had a clear notion of what it really meant, if the little girl somewhere here was truly being consumed by the very forces she had called up. Would it sound like this? Would it be the ceaseless movement of air that should be still, the trembling of an entire castle?

There was nothing he could do about any of that right now, so he concentrated on that which he could affect. He stood by the bear, just out of reach of its huge paws and massive teeth. It rumbled and growled and tried to lift its boulder-like head. Tried to reach for him, he guessed. Following its instinct and its fear even in its crippled state.

Yulan planted his sword deep, straight down into the back of the bear’s neck just behind its head. It died without another sound.

The door that led out onto the balcony was jammed, so long had it been unused. Yulan kicked it out, splitting the soft and rot-riddled planks and knocking it off one of its rusted hinges. Its condition did not fill him with confidence about the state of the balcony. His first step was hesitant. The stonework of the platform and balustrade was pitted and corroded, crusted in places with salt. It felt solid, though.

He brought the rest of them out there. To face the immense expanse of the sea, rolling away to a vast arc of the horizon. A thousand thousand white-flecked waves, rank upon rank of them to the very limit of sight. It was dwarfing. But it was not what Yulan was interested in.

He looked down instead. Over the edge of the balcony and down to the still, quiet bay and its harbour directly below. One boat – the one that had carried Lake on his sweep around the island – was already easing its way out from the cove, butting into the larger waves beyond its shelter. Yulan could just make out a handful of figures on the deck, none he could really recognise. The four people they had left at the harbourside, perhaps, or some of Lake’s men deserting him. Not Lake himself, of that Yulan was sure.

Four boats remained, serenely resting in that little sanctuary. There was no one to be seen. As Yulan had hoped and assumed, Lake and whatever warriors had stayed at his side were on their trail, not guarding the anchorage.

The height made him uncomfortable. It seemed a great abyss, the straight drop from balcony to the crystalline waters away down there beneath castle and cliff. He steeled himself and turned to Corena.

‘Can we jump?’

He heard Hamdan groaning behind him, though he was sure the archer must have guessed his intent before now. He paid no heed to that, keeping his attention locked upon Corena. She leaned out and peered down at the glistening sea, at the boats in their quiet mooring.

‘Yes,’ she said with just enough confidence to make Yulan believe her. ‘It’s shallow, but it shouldn’t kill you if you stretch your arms out, bend your knees.’

‘Carrying a child?’ he asked her.

That put a flicker of doubt into her face. Her eyes slipped from his, searched out the children.

‘The girls should manage it on their own. The boy …’ Her voice trailed off.

‘That’s what I thought,’ Yulan said calmly. ‘You have to go first, and you need to take Tessunt with you.’

She thought about it for a moment and then nodded.

‘Choose us a boat and unmoor the others so that they drift, or break on the rocks or … anything, so that no one can quickly come after us,’ Yulan said. As if he were asking something easy of her, almost nothing.

‘Yes,’ Corena said. As if he was indeed asking something easy.

Because, Yulan wondered, she has already done harder things than she would once have thought possible? Or because she has already done the one and only thing she wanted to do – kill the Corsair King – and she cares nothing about what happens after? He did not know which, if either, was true. And he doubted it mattered. If she would attempt it, that was enough. Everything from this moment on was attempt. Nothing more.

He turned to the three children, who were watching him with fretful, frightened eyes. He sank down so that his face was on a level with theirs.

‘Corena here is going to jump down with Tessunt,’ he said. ‘She will ready a boat for us. You two girls, I need to ask something a bit harder of you. Can I do that?’

They nodded.

‘I need you two to wait here for Hamdan and me to come back. We have to go and do something, then we’ll come back to you and we’ll all jump down together. Is that all right?’

He did not know if it was trust he was seeing in their eyes, but he felt the burden of it settling upon him even so.

‘We’ll be back very soon. If anyone else comes before us, or if anything bad seems to be happening, you just jump. Don’t wait for us. Jump down to Corena and she’ll carry you away from here. Do you understand?’

Again the nods.

‘Brave girls,’ he said. It sounded foolish, yet it was true and what else was there to say?

They stood, the four of them, and watched Corena clamber onto the balustrade. Yulan lifted Tessunt up to her. The boy did not want to go and whispered, ‘No,’ in Yulan’s ear.

‘It’ll be fine,’ Yulan whispered back. ‘This lady here, she’s the only one of all of us who knows about boats and water and things like that. She’ll keep you safe.’

Corena stood there for a moment, Tessunt wrapped around her, his eyes clamped tight shut. Then she was gone, before even Yulan was quite ready for it. She jumped out and away from the balcony, one arm outstretched, the other holding Tessunt tight.

They all leaned out to watch her plummet down. Her hair streamed in the wind. Tessunt was wailing. Then Corena hit the water with what seemed terrible force. A foaming white fountain rose and she and the child were lost in it. Swallowed. Only to reappear a moment later. Corena was half-swimming, half-wading towards the nearest of the boats. Tessunt was coughing and spluttering.

‘See?’ Yulan turned to Navene and her sister, meticulously concealing the uneasy feeling the sight had woken in the pit of his stomach. ‘It’s easy.’

XII

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‘We’ve already agreed we can’t swim, haven’t we?’ Hamdan said.

He was following Yulan around the cooling corpse of the cave bear, clambering over the heaped rubble that had trapped it.

‘That boy’s done it,’ Yulan observed. ‘Those girls are ready for it. I’m sure we can manage.’

‘Merkent does like to say that the Free always finds a way, but there’re ways and then there are ways …’ whispered Hamdan glumly. ‘And don’t you pretend you’re looking forward to it any more than I am.’

‘Oh, I’m not,’ Yulan said with heartfelt conviction.

‘Probably doesn’t matter,’ Hamdan observed, ‘since I reckon you’re about to get us killed, more likely than not.’

‘We’ve got to try,’ Yulan said, peering cautiously around a corner. Finding nothing amiss, he led the way on. Deeper into the keep.

‘The Orphanidon says he’s bound to the girl. Alone, they might each be worse than Kottren Malak ever was. Together … I don’t know. I don’t know how far we get, however fast a boat we’ve got, if they decide they don’t want us to go. And what if she’s not lost yet? What if this Enna’s still there to be saved?’

‘I’ve not got the blood of a leader running through my veins, son,’ Hamdan smiled. ‘Merkent seems to reckon you might have and believe me, I don’t envy you for it. All I know is, we probably don’t get far from here if we leave behind a crazed Clever who doesn’t want us to, and neither do those waifs you’ve adopted. You ready to kill another child to save those three if you have to?’

Yulan shook his head at that, not in denial but to loosen the question’s grip. He did not have to answer it yet, and did not want it tangling up his thoughts like a creeping vine, distracting him.

The building was groaning around them. A wind was blustering back and forth. There were seams of light, Yulan realised, leaking through jagged cracks in the walls. The bear’s fate was on his mind.

‘Being part of the Free, and all of this – it can’t just be about the payment, and feeling alive,’ he muttered. ‘We have to be trying to finish what we start. Doing what’s needful. Always finding a way, like you say.’

‘Spoken like …’ Hamdan almost laughed. ‘… well, spoken like someone who might be about to get himself killed, and me along with him.’

Of the two huge doors that opened onto the menagerie hall, one was hanging at a graceless angle, its metalwork twisted. The other was shattered. Less than half of it remained attached to the hinges. The rest lay in pieces and splinters in the corridor outside, strewn around the mangled hunk of knotted iron that must have exploded out through it. That iron was, Yulan guessed, the remains of one of the doors from the cages within.

He exchanged a glance with Hamdan, and saw in the archer’s eyes the same serious concentration he felt in himself. They kept a fair distance between them as they entered the hall, one drifting left, the other right. There were no torches or lamps here now, as there had been when last Yulan stood in this chamber. There was light, though, for there were holes in the walls. A gap in the ceiling. Rubble was scattered across the floor. A wind ruffled Yulan’s hair. He advanced slowly.

‘Enna?’ he said.

The girl was sitting almost exactly in the centre of the hall. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them. Her head was down, her face hidden, tucked away into that cave made by arm and knee. All around her, the empty cages began to shake. Their open doors swung back and forth. Their bars clattered and trembled as if in the grip of some tremendous tempest. But there was no tempest. Only the same constant swirling of agitated air that pervaded the rest of the keep. And a little girl sitting alone in the midst of it all.

Alone apart from the dead. There were bodies on the floor, men and women alike. Each one with the inimitable loose emptiness of death. And there was the rent corpse of the great lizard that had once resided in one of those cages. The huge


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reptile had been torn almost in half by some huger, fiercer foe. Its entrails were spread across the flagstones.

Enna slowly lifted her head.

‘Who killed my father?’ she asked.

There was an ominous weight to her tone, even though her voice was strangulated and stretched out and unmistakably that of a young child. The rattling of the cages almost drowned it out. Yulan could see the anguish in her red eyes quite clearly. Those eyes had been veined with red the first time he saw them; now dark crimson was their only colour save the black of the pupil. Blood vessels had ruptured in there.

‘Who killed my father?’ Enna asked again, more forcefully. She seemed to be looking at them, but Yulan could not tell whether she was blind or not.

Out of the side of his eye, he caught the movement of Hamdan raising his bow. Yulan hissed and shook his head.

‘Not yet,’ he said.

One of the cages screeched as it buckled, the bars folding like straw. Its door twisted, tore itself from its hinges and crashed down, ringing like a dull bell on the stone floor.

‘Enna,’ Yulan called. ‘Can you hear me?’

The floor was shaking beneath their feet.

‘Who killed my father?’ the girl cried out, the cry all grief and anger and despair boiling around one another in hopeless bewilderment.

‘Enna, it is …’ Yulan began, and lost the rest of the words when a knot of air, solid as a giant fist, punched him in the centre of his chest and staggered him. The same gust howled on and barrelled into Hamdan, sending the arrow he had got to his bowstring flashing up harmlessly to strike the roof.

Enna was rising unsteadily to her feet. No, not to her feet, Yulan realised. Onto hands and knees. Crawling, in her stained and loose gown, towards them. Or perhaps towards the doors.

‘Give him back,’ she was raging, and the need in her cry was enough to break his heart.

He made to close on her, not even knowing what he would do if he reached her. He could see the image of him embracing her in his inner eye, but he was acutely aware too of the weight of his sword in his hand.

In the event, he did not reach her. The floor bucked beneath his feet, kicking him up. As his feet left the floor so the flailing wind took hold of him and tumbled him. He was swept backwards, helpless as a straw on a storm, and slammed into the wall to one side of the doors. The back of his head smacked against stone. He fell to his knees, his vision blurred. There was a roaring in his ears, blasting at him from within the air itself.

He blinked and saw Enna rising unsteadily to her feet, hobbling past him into the open doorway. There were strips of blood across the back of her gown. Old welts, re-opened, bleeding once more. Anguished memories of the past and its terrible, tangled meanings all raw and fresh in her body.

Beyond her, Hamdan had been thrown down just as Yulan had. He was scrabbling for his bow.

‘We’re all going,’ Enna was saying. ‘We’re all going to find him. All together.’

She glanced at Yulan as she turned in the doorway and stood there upon the threshold of the wrecked menagerie. Her red gaze fell upon him, though he did not believe she really saw him, or knew him. The awful extremity of her distress and fury destroyed cages, but it was not setting her free.

‘I hate you,’ she said. ‘Where are they? Who killed my father? I want everyone.’

Again the walls and the roof and the floor trembled. A fever had hold of the castle, and shook it. Blocks of stone fell and shattered with thunderous booms.

Yulan pushed himself up and forwards. He drew back his sword and swept it in at Enna’s head. Fearing, as he had never done before, what he was about to do and what it would mean to him. But the sword never reached the child. Another blade blocked it and pushed it back.

Lake stepped between Enna and Yulan. He had his shield up over his head. Debris from the arch of the doorway, and from the roof above, pattered onto it.

‘She is my charge, my promise,’ the Orphanidon said.

The shield dipped suddenly and an arrow Yulan had not even seen coming smacked into it and stood there like a quill. Yulan took a step back. He was not as steady on his feet, or as clear-sighted, as he would have wished to be if he must face Lake once more.

‘She’s going to shake this castle to pieces,’ he said. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’

As if in confirmation of his words a piercing screaming of metal erupted behind him. First one of the cages, then another and another unfolded like an opening flower, the bars tearing themselves free and spreading. Splaying out.

‘Enna,’ the Orphanidon shouted without looking at her. His eyes darted between Yulan and Hamdan. Between sword and arrow, both aimed at him.

‘Enna,’ Lake cried again. ‘It is Lake. I can help you, child. I can keep you safe.’

Yulan could not clearly see the girl behind the Orphanidon.

‘I can’t hold it,’ he heard her say. ‘I can’t send it back. It’s all wrong. I just want everyone to …’

Whatever the last word she spoke, Yulan did not hear it. None of them did, for a storm rushed out from her. A wind such as Yulan had never known, with weight and malice and irresistible strength. It flung him backwards, spinning and sliding him across the floor. As he went, helpless, he lost hold of his sword. He saw Lake hurled high, almost to the ceiling, and coming spinning down like a loose-limbed doll. He saw Hamdan tumbling, trying to roll with the blast.

Stone slipped from stone and the furthest section of the hall began a slow collapse. The grinding rumble was engulfing and deafening, but Yulan heard Enna through it: screaming not with a human voice but with the voice of the sky, howling out the tempest.

And then it was snapped out. As if a door had been slammed shut. The air passed in an instant from chaos to calm. The noise quietened. Enna’s cry was gone. As Yulan lifted his heavy head, peering through shifting veils of dust, he saw that she herself was gone. The doorway stood empty.

XIII

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Yulan rolled onto his front and pushed himself up. Every muscle ached. His sword lay close by. He picked it up. Hamdan was lying unmoving, close to the far wall. Yulan limped across to the archer. His ankle throbbed with the memory of the twist he had given it in the passage up from below.

As he knelt at Hamdan’s side, searching for signs of life, he heard a wet moan and looked round. Lake was impaled upon one of the splayed bars of a cage. The round iron shaft had punched through the shoulder of the Orphanidon’s shield-arm. The ageing warrior was trying to pull himself free. A fatal wound, Yulan guessed, feeling a distant, unexpected kind of regret at the thought.

Hamdan was not dead yet, at least. The archer stirred beneath Yulan’s hand.

‘Get up,’ Yulan said.

‘Easy for you to say,’ Hamdan rasped indistinctly.

Yulan heaved him to his feet and got his shoulder under Hamdan’s arm. He half-dragged him towards the door.

‘Find a way, you lazy bastard,’ he hissed, for want of anything more helpful, and was rewarded with a grudging snort of a laugh.

Together they stumbled their way out into the passage, weaving around chunks of fallen stonework and great cracks laid into the floor. Hamdan’s strength grew bit by bit, and Yulan was grateful as the weight laid across his own shoulders diminished.

When they came to the corner, ready to turn and work their way past the dead bear to the waiting balcony, a sound behind him made Yulan pause and look. Enna was there in the corridor, back by the doors to the menagerie hall. She had one hand pressed to the wall and was leaning against it. Her head was down so that her lank hair hid her face.

‘Where are my brothers and sisters?’ Yulan heard her groan. ‘I want them. Now.’

A rising wind brushed Yulan’s cheeks and he felt hope carried away upon it. He glimpsed a future and felt it pulling him, irresistible.

He shook Hamdan off and pushed the archer inelegantly towards the bear, and the balcony beyond it. He did not know if Hamdan had seen or heard Enna.

‘Make sure the girls are safe,’ he said without taking his eyes off Enna. ‘Get them down to the boats, if they haven’t gone already.’

‘What?’ Hamdan said, sounding still dazed.

‘Now!’ Yulan shouted. ‘Jump. I’ll be a step behind you, that’s all.’

The archer hesitated. Yulan glared at him, gathering up all the command and authority he could.

‘Go!’ he snarled. ‘Ready the boat.’

Hamdan frowned and moistened his lips, licking away the dust of the crumbling castle.

‘I’ll see the girls are safely gone, but I’m not jumping without you,’ he muttered as he moved towards the dead bear. He sounded weary, pained. But firm.

Yulan only nodded, and started back towards Enna. His battered body was rebelling, protesting every step. He forced it on. Do what’s needful, he told himself, and his limbs and his heart.

Enna was not reacting to his approach. Unless the rumbling shivers that passed through the walls and floors were reaction. Somewhere outside, Yulan heard a great crashing and booming. Another tower surrendering out there along the walls, probably. He imagined the whole keep collapsing and spilling back and down into the cove below. Vast slabs of stone raining upon water, boats. He moved more quickly.

Lake came reeling out from the hall between Yulan and Enna. The Orphanidon’s shield was gone. His left arm hung limp at his side, and that whole flank from shoulder to waist was drenched in blood. His tunic was heavy with the stuff.

Yulan knew a dying man when he saw one. Lake’s eyes denied it, refused it. They were as sharp and full of intent as ever, fixed upon Yulan.

‘Leave her be, sellsword,’ Lake hissed.

Yulan grimaced in frustration.

‘You want a Permanence here?’ he snapped. ‘Is that what you want?’

‘You don’t know,’ Lake insisted.

Behind him, Enna was moaning. Trembling.

‘Hold firm, girl,’ Lake said, ‘Just for another moment.’ And he lunged at Yulan.

A man so maimed should not have been a threat. But Yulan was all bruises and pain and weariness, and Lake was, in the end, still an Orphanidon. The Empire of Orphans had crafted him from childhood, and made him a weapon. He had disavowed that history but he remained a weapon.

Their blades clashed and Yulan could feel that there was strength yet in Lake’s one good arm. He gave ground, feet searching for the safe spaces between rubble and cracks. Even amid desperation, his mind found the distance to see in himself a half-buried reluctance. There was some small part of him that still did not want to commit to this, to the violence and death. He saw no such reluctance in Lake’s steady gaze. And he knew, as only one who had come alive out of past violence could, that commitment was half the fight.

Yulan set his rear foot to the ground, and both hands to the hilt, and hammered a flurry of slashing blows in at Lake. The Orphanidon found the speed from somewhere to block or turn each, angling his own blade to send Yulan’s glancing away.

Lake gave an abrupt, shuffling dance forward of his feet and launched a kick into Yulan’s midriff. Like a thread through the eye of a needle, he found the one instant in which sword’s movement, balance, weight all conspired to hold Yulan there, unable to avoid the blow. It numbed his stomach and sent him staggering back, almost tripping over the debris that littered the passage.

For a moment he was hunched over, struggling for breath and composure. Lake might have killed him then, had he not been just as spent. The Orphanidon swayed unsteadily. For that one moment, he seemed to lack the strength to hold his sword up and its tip touched the floor.

Enna wailed, half-scream, half-fury. From her hand, pressed against the wall, a thousand cracks suddenly webbed out through the stonework. The greatest of them raced straight ahead, ripping itself along the length of the corridor, spitting out fragments of stone. The whole keep shook. Greater convulsions still wracked the walls and ceiling. From Yulan’s left, a tempest of destruction erupted. That whole wall seemed to tear itself apart and an all-consuming hail of rock splinters and shattered masonry and misting mortar filled his world and senses.

He felt the skin of his face being lacerated. He felt the blast punching that whole side of his body. He felt the dust filling his nose and mouth. Some larger, blunter hunk of debris slammed against the side of his head and he fell.

In darkness he lay. Lost. Hearing collapse and thunder as if from very far away. Feeling the flagstones beneath his cheek shivering. Body and mind were empty.

Then: Get up, his own voice whispered within him. Get up.

He blinked. Blood in his eyes. Pain in his temple.

Get up .

He coughed as he levered himself up onto one knee. His vision was blurred, as if water coursed down over the whole world. His ears rang, the ringing laid over the sound of the castle quaking and tumbling. Some huge block of the ceiling crashed down beside him, and he barely noticed it.

Dimly, he saw Lake slumped against the wall to one side of the passageway. He was trying to push himself upright, using his sword like the walking stick of a fallen old man. Further on, Enna was there. Taking one short step after another. And beyond her … what? Yulan blinked again. There was something there, behind Enna. Some shape. Some movement.

The lion came, impossibly, out of the darkness, out of the veiling mists of grit and mortar and took hold of Enna. Feeble, emaciated, the lion came and shook her. She made no sound, and nor did it. Quietly, it simply took her shoulder in its mouth and shook her like a doll.

Yulan stared, barely understanding what he saw. Experiencing it as if it were a waking dream. Lake turned to look and cried out.

‘No!’ the Orphanidon roared, and as if the sound summoned up strength he heaved himself to his feet and lumbered towards the beast and the child.

Lake’s sword came up, and in the same moment the roof came down. Finally broken, all its decades or centuries of resilience defeated, the castle began to fold in on itself. A rain of stone in deep, deafening surrender. It engulfed everything in front of Yulan, snatching away his view of Enna, Lake, lion in an instant. It fell around him, beating at his back.

He turned and stumbled away. As fast as he could, on feet he could hardly feel any more, on a floor that rocked and pitched like the deck of a boat. At the corner, he saw Hamdan ahead, in the midst of climbing over the great back of the corpse-bear.

‘Get out!’ Yulan tried to shout, surprised at how faint and weak his voice sounded. ‘It’s all coming down!’

And it did, in their wake as they struggled and strove to reach the balcony. All the Sorentines’ handiwork fell in on itself. Yulan could not breathe, could not hear. Saw only dimly. Until he was at the door to the balcony and there was sky before him.

Hamdan was there for a moment, and then gone, throwing himself out into the air. Yulan took one hobbling stride, another, and planted his hand on the balustrade and vaulted clumsily over.

‘I can’t swim!’ he cried pointlessly as he fell, because there was nothing else in his head but that one very simple thought.

XIV

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Being dragged from the water was at once an immense relief and distinctly painful. Corena leaned down and snagged Yulan’s collar with a boathook and heaved him in close to the side of the boat. It was rough. Less so, though, than the flailing around he had been doing after the sea rushed up from very far below and hit him. It had felt much like being hit with a door.

‘Is anyone coming after us?’ Corena asked him as he lay sprawled on the deck, as wet as he had ever been.

‘No,’ he gasped. And that was all he could say.

Hunched on the last rock, as far from the shattered remnants of the castle as it could get without wetting its feet, was the black ape. As they drifted slowly past, it watched them with all the solemnity of an old and wise man. Yulan read no entreaty, no hostility, no accusation in its gaze. Yet the sombre gravity of it struck him. The sheer indifferent acceptance in the creature’s eyes that it had somehow survived and come out unscathed from the mayhem of the Corsair King’s fall. The madness did not seem to have touched the ape, which simply sat on a rock and observed the passing of a boat.

‘Can we get in any closer?’ Yulan asked Corena on impulse.

She eyed him as if he had lost whatever sense he might once have had.

‘I’m curious,’ was the only explanation he could offer.

He and Corena and Hamdan stood along one side of the boat, holding it in against the rocks with poles. The sea wanted to bear it off and carry it out into the landless expanse. It took a good deal of effort, a good deal of leaning the poles hard into crannies, to hold the boat steady even for a short time.

‘Hurry up,’ Yulan grunted.

The ape looked at them. It looked at the poles and at the boat as it gently rose and fell. With languorous care it unfolded its arms, set its weight on its knuckles and picked its way over the weed-cloaked rocks.

It climbed up into the back of the boat, as far as it could be from the vessel’s human occupants, and settled itself there in the stern. It spent a little time picking at something caught beneath one of its fingernails. And then shuffled round, almost as if it wanted to watch the island receding into the distance, or the pale wake that trailed behind them.

The children lay down to sleep beneath canvases Corena had found stowed beneath benches. To Yulan’s amazement they did sleep, quickly and deeply.

Corena did not, of course. She stood tall at the tiller in the dwindling light with the sky turning orange and purple behind her. The ape had not liked that, her intrusion upon a space it thought it had claimed for its own. But Corena was master of a new ship, better than the scow she had left in the cove, and she was not minded to have her captaincy questioned by an animal she had not invited aboard. She scowled at the ape until it yielded, and curled itself in to a corner.

‘Why is there an ape on the boat?’ Hamdan asked placidly.

He and Yulan sat cross-legged in the prow. Both exhausted. Bone-weary, Yulan would have called it. A bag of aches and pains, emptied out of all strength. But also of all worries, just for now. His mind had settled into the stillness of a deep pool. Neither was ready for sleep, though. Neither could put the day aside quite yet.

‘I’m not sure,’ Yulan admitted. ‘It seemed … I don’t know. It seemed cruel to just leave it there. I thought perhaps it wanted to leave, but did not know how to ask. Who would want to stay in that place, after all?’

‘And what are you going to do with your new friend, exactly?’

Yulan shrugged.

‘I’m not ready to be father, or brother, to an ape. There’ll be somewhere for it to go, I’m sure. Someone who wants it. Perhaps Merkent will have an idea or two.’

Hamdan shook his head, smiling.

‘On the whole, you know, there’s two reasons people join the Free. Either they think it’ll make them rich, or they’re looking for something they’ve not found anywhere else. The ones who last are the ones who find that something.’

‘And what is it I’m looking for?’

‘No idea. I imagine you’ll know it when you find it, though. You just need to get a bit more serious about staying alive long enough to figure it out.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ Yulan said.

He blinked and wrinkled his nose. His still contentment was fading. A familiar feeling was returning.

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ he said.


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