The spiders war, p.9
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       The Spider's War, p.9

           Daniel Abraham

  “I don’t know why you give him your money.”

  “Promises of danger, fortune, and passion? He’s the most entertaining thing in my life anymore. Now let’s open for work before Qort gets here and finds you idle enough to examine.”

  Damond stood by the quayside door, thin blade in one hand, white cloth in the other. Kana opened the door at his side and shouted into the darkness. The voices of the laborers and carters answered back, as they always did. There was a music to the work, and it was the last beautiful thing in Damond’s day.

  The first man to come in was a Dartinae, his body thin and lithe, his eyes glowing from within like his brain was afire. He looked from Kana to Damond and back again.

  “The fuck is this?”

  “New rules, Dabid,” Kana said. “State your name.”

  “You just called me by it. I’m Dabid Sinnitlong, just the same as I was last month.”

  “I know it,” Kana said. “What’s your business?”

  “Grain from the farms down by Sabbit township. Five hundredweight.”

  “Nice,” Kana said. “East or west bank?”

  “All west,” the Dartinae said. It was a lie, and they all knew it. Someday, Kana would lose patience, and Dabid would pay a thick fine or a slightly thinner bribe. But apparently this wasn’t that day.

  “Lucky for you that’s the cheap one,” Kana said, holding her hand out for the bill of lading. She passed her eyes over it, clicked the beads on her figuring board, and wrote a number at the bottom of the bill. She looked up at Damond and pointed three fingers at the Dartinae. It was the motion she was supposed to use so he’d know it was time.

  “Thumb, please,” he said, and the Dartinae held out his hand. Damon pricked it, squeezed out a single drop of blood, and wiped it with the white cloth. The smear of red was unremarkable, as they always were. “Pass,” Damond said.

  “Well thank God for that,” Dabid Sinnitlong said dryly. “How much are you dunning me for today, Kana?”

  “Same as I ever do,” the inspector said. “Now pay it and get out. I’ve a line behind you.”

  This was the banter, the human voices, that Damond would have been without if he’d followed the rules too close. His whole day would have been spent in silence, watching people come through the doorway, seeing their mouths move, watching the papers go back and forth from Kana’s desk. Then three fingers up, and he could hear his own voice traveling through his flesh rather than the air. Thumb, please, like he was underwater. Like he was one of the Drowned. The prick, the dot of blood, the swipe with the white cloth. Though by midday the cloth would get to looking pretty gory itself.

  As it was, Qort arrived in the middle morning, wandering in and out of the station at odd intervals so that Damond had to pretend he couldn’t hear the whole time. Still, listening was more diverting than the isolation of temporary deafness, even if he couldn’t say anything himself. Most of the morning was dull. A Yemmu woman coming up from the western Keshet to take up house with her cousin. A Tralgu man hauling poppy seeds for the cunning men’s shops. A Firstblood woman sneaking Timzinae goods out of Inentai for refugee families living in Lôdi. The river trades were more interesting for Damond because they spoke of the southern lands. He didn’t have much interest in anyplace with winters colder or darker than Borja.

  The Firstblood man came in just before the station shut for midday. He wore a robe the colorless brown of sparrows and stood before Kana with a patient smile, like there was a joke that only he was in on. Damond’s experience of Firstbloods was that a lot of them were smug like that, so he didn’t think much of it. Not at first.

  “State your name.”

  “Kirmizi rol Gomlek,” the man said.

  “What’s your business?”

  “I have come to take audience before your Regos.”

  Kana widened her eyes and bared her teeth. “Audience with the Regos, ah? The Regos know about that yet?”

  “She will,” the Firstblood said. “And from my words shall she profit greatly. There is a darkness that has fallen upon the world. Even now, it walks the streets of your city unfettered and free. I have come to cleanse it.”

  “Ah,” Kana said. Even if he had been deaf, Damond thought he would have recognized the tension and unease in her shoulders. He took a tighter grip on his blade. “How many in your party, then?”

  “We are seven,” the man said.

  “Coming from?”


  Kana nodded. “Where in Sarakal?”

  “Outside Inentai.”

  “Not inside it?”

  “We have been traveling among the towns for some time,” the man said.

  “Carrying anything for trade?”

  “Only truth, and that we give freely to all who listen.”

  “Right,” Kana said. “No papers, then? It’s ten lengths of silver for entrance.”

  The man took a purse from his belt, counted out ten coins, and placed them on the table before her, each one making a sharp tap as he placed it. Kana took them, looked to Damond, and lifted three fingers together.

  “Thumb, please,” Damond said. His heart was beating fast. It wasn’t possible, was it? It couldn’t be truth.

  The Firstblood scowled deeply. He turned his gaze to the blade, the bloodied cloth, and shook his head. “We will not need to do this. You would be foolish to insist.”

  “It’s a… it’s needed. Protocol,” Damond said, but in truth he did feel a bit silly. The Firstblood shook his head.

  “Listen to my voice, friend. There is no need. It would be foolish to insist. Better that we let this go. Better for you, and for me, and for your people. Nothing good can come from insisting. Better to let it go.”

  Damon’s throat thickened and he nodded, lowering the thin blade. A kind of deep embarrassment was spreading through him. Here he was, a guard of the city, poking strangers at the word of God alone knew who. Qort was likely having him do it just as a show of contempt.

  “Listen to my voice,” the Firstblood said again. “There is no—”

  The door opened and Ammu Qort came in. The Firstblood turned to him, anger in his eyes.

  “What’s the matter here, inspector?” the prime demanded.

  “Nothing, sir,” Kana said, sounding dazed. “It’s just this man—”

  “Is he processed?” Qort said.

  “He’s paid,” Damond said, not realizing that he was proving he hadn’t taken the wax. “But the blood… it seems like we should just—”

  Qort scooped the blade from Damond’s hand and grabbed the Firstblood’s wrist, and before any of them could speak, a tiny drop of crimson was on a corner of the white cloth. And in it, skittering wildly, a tiny black spider.

  “Fucking hell!” Qort shouted, jumping back.

  “Drop your weapons,” the Firstblood shouted. “You cannot win against me. You have already lost—”

  “His voice’s poison!” Qort shouted. “Don’t listen to him! Don’t hear him!”

  Some part of Damond understood and he screamed. It was wordless at first, but loud. And then, as he pushed the Firstblood back through the door to the quay, he added syllables. MA-LA-LAL-BAY-AB-ABA! ZA-MAM-BABA! Nonsense gabbling like a bored child singing in a yard, but it drowned out whatever the Firstblood was saying. His own blood seemed to rush white-hot in his veins as he pushed the Firstblood back. Kana was scrambling toward the loaders and dock guards, shouting at them, but Damond couldn’t hear her over his own screaming any more than he could hear the spider-infected thing.

  The Firstblood was trying to yell at him, but Damond’s voice was louder, and he shoved the man back, and back, and back again. BA-BA-YA-BA-MA-BABA! YE-BE-YE-BEY-BE! And Qort had a rope around the Firstblood man’s neck. The Firstblood reached for the noose, clawing at it. Damond stopped shouting.

  “Come on, you bastard!” Qort shouted. “Help me with this!”

  The rope around the man’s neck was tied on the other end to a stone anchor weight. Toge
ther, Damond and Qort pushed it to the river’s edge, and then into it. To their right the guards under Kana’s direction were throwing lit lanterns onto a boat that was trying to throw off its moorings. The anchor weight sank, hauling the Firstblood down behind it. Damond watched until all he could see were the soles of the Firstblood’s shoes, kicking in the gloom, then going still.

  Qort lay on the quay beside him, breathing hard. The prime’s expression was one of rage and triumph. Damond tried a smile.

  “Forgot the wax, sir. Sorry.”


  Marcus swung hard and low, but the blow didn’t connect. Yardem danced back just outside the arc of the attack and brought his own sword down. Marcus shifted, parrying with a hard clack of wood against wood. The impact stung his fingers. He stepped back as Yardem pressed his advantage. Marcus blocked, blocked again, dodged, and tried to slip under an attack. Yardem’s sword caught him just above the temple, and the world went a little quiet for a moment. He felt his mind willing his body to shift away, to raise his own blade in reply, but nothing happened. His hands and feet had gone sluggish, and he stumbled to the icy brickwork of the pit.

  “Sir?” Yardem said, his voice humming with concern. Marcus lifted his hand, waited until the world stopped spinning.

  “I’m all right. That was a good counter. Nice work.” He hauled himself to his feet. The fighting pit was ten yards across, and a little longer. The walls curved, but not into a circle the way they made them in the south. It still had corners. The poisoned sword leaned in one of them beside Marcus’s overcoat and Yardem’s less exotic blade. In the summer people would stand at the lip, or sit and dangle their legs. The cold made it a less enticing spectacle. Marcus didn’t care either way. Let them look, let them stay indoors by their fires. It didn’t change what he had to do.

  “Let’s go again,” Marcus said, taking a grip on the hilt of the wooden practice sword. “I’m good for it.”

  Yardem huffed out a white, frozen breath and raised his own false blade, but not fully to the ready. “Might want to discuss that, sir.”

  “You knocked me on the cob,” Marcus said. “Not the first time it’s happened. Come on. Take position.”

  “Comes a point where more training doesn’t gain you anything, sir.”

  “You think we’re there?” Marcus said through a tooth-baring grin.

  “Were an hour ago. Didn’t mention it.”

  Marcus let his shoulders sag. Truth was, he didn’t feel well. Hadn’t in a while. He sank to his haunches, leaning on the practice sword. He was breathing harder than he should have been. His back ached, and not with the vigorous burn of worked muscle. More like the sharp complaining of loose joints. He coughed and spat. The brick walls rose up on all sides, the looming wall of the gymnasium to the east, and the white winter sky above that. He wondered where the habit had begun of sinking practice pits into the ground. It wasn’t done for formal dueling. He pictured vast perches at the edges, and dragons looking down at them, slaves fighting each other for the masters’ pleasure. It seemed a little too plausible.

  “It’s not the sword,” he said.

  “Didn’t say it was, sir.”

  “No, but you thought it mighty loud. So don’t crawl up my back again about how I should leave it be more.”

  “Or let someone else take a turn carrying it,” Yardem said.

  “You think it’s rotting me from the inside out, and you’d pass it to someone else? That seems cruel of you.”

  “Fit across my back,” Yardem said. “Give you some time to find your strength.”

  “I know where my strength went,” Marcus said, pulling himself up. His scalp felt cold where the sword had taken it. Oozing blood, most likely. “It’s not the sword. It’s age.”

  “It’s both, sir.”

  “Well don’t paint it gold for me,” Marcus chuckled. “Tell me how you really see it.”

  “You’re past the age when most men in our profession have stopped,” the Tralgu said, his ears flat against his head. “Taken long-term duties running a guard company or opened a training camp or died. Instead, you’ve trekked across the world two times over, half died in the interior of Lyoneia, been hauled up mountaintops by a dragon, and strapped this blade across your back. You act as if you could go on forever, and your body’s starting to show you it isn’t truth.”

  “I was joking, Yardem. You can go ahead and paint it gold a little.”

  His second-in-command looked down and flicked an ear. “All right. You’ve got a mostly full head of hair, and that one girl at the inn still thinks you’re handsome.”

  “Fuck you,” Marcus laughed, walking across the brickwork to their things. His legs actually seemed to creak. Yardem was right about one thing, at least. There was such a thing as overtraining. They bundled the wooden swords together with a leather strap, and Yardem tossed them across his shoulder like a day soldier carrying a pack. Marcus pulled on his overcoat, and then the dark-green scabbard and hilt of the culling blade. As they walked toward the ladder, a figure appeared at the edge of the pit. The sole observer of their showfighter’s practice.

  If the last few years had worn Marcus down, they’d grown Cithrin up. She’d never have the shard-of-milk-ice paleness of her mother’s race, but she carried something of the Cinnae calm. She no longer showed the awkward girlishness that Master Kit and Cary had tried to train out of her back in ancient days. Back when they’d been smugglers running from an Antean army not yet fueled by the spite of dragons. She was a woman now. A young one, but experienced beyond her age.

  She’s not your daughter, Marcus thought. And yet, standing before her as Yardem climbed the ladder behind him, he felt the same mixture of pride and melancholy he imagined a Merian grown to womanhood might have called forth.

  “I need you,” she said.

  “And here I am,” Marcus said. “What’s the problem?”

  “I have a plan, or part of one, but it means the two of you talking.”

  Yardem grunted his way over the lip of the pit and leaned against the wooden railing. Marcus glanced at him.

  “We’re here,” Marcus said, settling the blade more firmly on his shoulder. “What is it we need to talk about?”

  “Not you and Yardem,” Cithrin said. “You and him.”

  “Well, God smiled,” Marcus said sourly.

  Inys stood on his perch, staring out over a slate-grey sea. The vast head turned as the three of them came close. The intelligence in the huge eyes was unmistakable, as was the weariness. Marcus hadn’t spent much time around the dragon since they’d come to Carse. There had been no end of people to serve Inys—bring him food, clean away his dung, sing and caper for him. Marcus understood it. Even felt some of the same urges to cater to the master of the fallen world. Almost all of humanity’s races had been built to serve the dragons and to read the feelings in their faces like sheepdogs watching the shepherd. For thousands of years, no one had suffered that burden, and now, with Inys suddenly among them, no one had any practice resisting it.

  Marcus had the feeling someone should, and he was fine with its being him. Part of the job. He had the sense that Inys knew it too. That, perhaps, it was why the dragon had a fondness for him.

  “Stormcrow,” Inys said, the words low and deep, “you return at last.”

  “So it seems,” Marcus said. “You’re looking ragged.”

  When Marcus had woken him, Inys had been sluggish from ages of stonelike sleep, but he’d been unscarred. The dark, shining scales had been dulled by dust, but perfect, row on unending row. Porte Oliva had changed that. Long streaks along the dragon’s side were roughened by scar. The huge wings had holes in them where Antea’s great spears had pierced them and pulled the dragon down. Weapons designed to slaughter dragons, and invented, it seemed, after Inys began his long hibernation. That they existed at all meant someone out there had shared Marcus’s opinion of the masters of the world and the dignity of being their slaves.

  Cithrin stepped betw
een them, taking the moment for her own. It was a good skill to have, in her position.

  “We’ve had more reports from the east. Birds now. Not just cunning men.”

  “That’s good,” Marcus said. “Half of what the cunning men make out winds up being dreams anyway. I’d rather we had an actual courier, though.”

  “I’m working on that,” Cithrin said.

  “What will it matter?” Inys said, his gaze turning back to the sea. “The world is empty anyway.”

  Cithrin ignored the comment. “For now all we know for certain is that Kiaria is no longer under siege, and the forces that were meant to hold Elassae are hunkered down in northern Birancour.”

  “Hunting you,” Marcus said.

  “Hunting me,” Cithrin agreed. “Geder was so fixated on that, he left himself open, and the Timzinae are taking advantage of the fact. There was fighting in Suddapal and along the coast. We don’t know how bad it was, but… people there have more reason to be angry than merciful.”

  “Mercy has no reason,” Inys sighed. “Mercy justified is only justice.”

  “Deep,” Marcus said.

  “We don’t know who’s in charge of the uprising,” Cithrin said. “That’s in part what the courier is going to find out for us. And Isadau is going too. Barriath’s given her a fast ship and a crew.

  “The good news is that the priesthood there has been closely identified with Anteans. Even if there is a schism, the priests hate the Timzinae and the Timzinae hate the priests. Komme’s fear—and I think it’s a fair one—is that when the chaos goes north into Inentai and Nus or west into the Free Cities, it’ll start reaching other races. Jasuru, Yemmu, Tralgu. People who might see a schismatic priest as an ally.”

  Marcus nodded. “And then fall to their unpleasant power, lift up another bunch of fanatics, and start the whole damned war over in miniature.”

  “Not miniature,” the dragon sighed, his breath pluming out yards from his mouth. “And not starting over. They will only carry it forward. More sides, more causes, more reasons to demonize and slaughter the slaves in the next valley. It was what Morade wrought.”

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