Excerpt: THE LADY by K.V. Johansen (Pyr)

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THE LADY, the second novel in K.V. Johansen‘s two-part Marakand series, is published today by Pyr Books. To celebrate the release, and just in case you weren’t aware of the novel (or series), here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite…

THE LADY

Chapter 1

The man had been like an older brother to him ever since his parents had got him hired into the caravan-mistress Gaguush’s gang, but sometimes Zavel could hate the self-righteous bastard of a Westgrasslander. Like now. All he had wanted was the loan of a few coins, but no, he got a tongue-lashing instead. As if Holla-Sayan had never had a drink or two more than sat well the next morning, or gone with an easy woman. And if that wasn’t what he was up to now, skulking down the street with his eyes running anxiously to those two slim figures who’d walked ahead and were now waiting arm in arm, a Grasslander caravaneer with the long braids of the road and another with her Nabbani-black hair cut short as a Marakander boy’s. That one looked around, wondering where her victim had got to.

Zavel had Holla-Sayan by the arm, stopping the man just walking off on him, and now he dug in his fingers. Gaped wordless a moment. Couldn’t be. And Holla had been right with them, a hand under the Nabbani’s elbow, all friendly, when Zavel had spotted the threesome, the Westgrasslander and the two women, one of whom was—Ivah. The past year hadn’t treated her well. She was gaunt and pallid, but cutting her long hair was no disguise at all; he knew the sly narrow eyes, yellow brown as his own, the delicate features and tight little mouth, bruised black as it was. She knew him, too. He saw her eyes widen in shock, and damn if she didn’t look to Holla-Sayan in some appeal.

“Holla!” He let go Holla-Sayan’s arm, pushed away from him. “Ivah! You murdering, bastard whore of the Lake-Lord, you—” His knife was in his hand and he leapt for her, reaching to grab her by the front of her coat, to jerk her close and into the stabbing blade, but he choked, jerked backwards himself by the hood of his coat, Holla, damn him, and he spun around, slashing. Holla-Sayan knocked his arm aside and a fist hit his jaw. He heard the thud of it, felt the jarring clack of his teeth. Then nothing.

*

Sense returned in retching, in white lights smearing and streaking his eyes. Zavel hunched up and groaned, realized the man bending over him groping in his pockets was probably not trying to be helpful, and hit him, hard, low, and everything he deserved, the sneaking Marakander thief. He found his knife and staggered away, leaving the man groaning and retching in turn behind him.

No sign of Holla-Sayan or the women. Sera curse him, Holla, sneaking off with Ivah, of all people. Of all the girls he could go chasing when he tired of the boss’s temper, he was whoring around with the damned dead Lake-Lord’s thrice-damned and treacherous, murdering pet wizard, the woman who’d cut Bikkim’s throat for him, or had haughty I’m-too-good-for-a-bondman’s-son Shaiveh do it for her to keep her own soft fingers clean. He’d have expected Holla to tear the throat of her as soon as look at her and leave her broken in the street for the real dogs to feast on.

Maybe that’s what Holla-Sayan had been about?

Not bloody likely, with that gentle hand under the arm he’d seen when he first glimpsed the man. Subtlety, sweet-talking her off into some private corner where he could kill her tidily out of sight, wasn’t Holla’s way. No, at the first sight, first sniff of her, the monster that possessed him should have taken over. The Blackdog should have been shaking her like a rat, had the throat of her there and then on the street without ever a thought for what danger that brought down on the rest of the gang from the Red Masks, the wizard-hunting mute priests of the Lady of Marakand. Even if they did hardly ever come out to the suburb.

The damned wizard had bespelled Holla-Sayan. That explained it. She had bespelled the whole gang, once upon a time, won herself a place with them, got herself made tutor to Pakdhala when they’d all thought her Holla’s bastard daughter, not knowing she was the goddess of Lissavakail, not knowing Holla-Sayan had been taken and possessed by the Blackdog. Monster mountain-spirit or not, Holla-Sayan hadn’t been immune to Ivah’s wizardry then. He’d fallen to it again, obviously. And how was Zavel supposed to rescue him? He didn’t want to end his life with his neck snapped like a rat’s, and Holla, once the dog took him over, was quite, quite mad. Anyway, Zavel had no idea where they’d gone. In bed somewhere, he supposed and damned if he was going to start checking every inn and tavern to save the fool from himself. Holla would come to his senses in time. Surely. It wasn’t like Ivah was even very pretty, to hold a man for long. Of course, you couldn’t call Gaguush pretty, either, and he’d married her, so maybe that wasn’t what Holla went looking for.

Zavel’s jaw ached, his head ached, he was tired and alone and he had no money. Hardly any money. A few coins left. He’d already had to pawn his father’s sabre, the only inheritance he had from either parent, because Gaguush refused again to advance him any pay on the next trip. They treated him like a child. At least he had enough for a bite to eat. He didn’t think he could chew. His jaw throbbed, and damned if Holla hadn’t loosened a few teeth for him. Something to drink, though, would settle his stomach, stop the spinning in his head, while he thought what to do about Holla.

A drink, and another, because the sweet thin wine did help, and the luck of the Old Great Gods was with him. He found a Marakander looking to play a game of tables, one of those who came out to the caravanserai suburb thinking the caravaneers all drunken barbarians with the wits of their own camels, and he won the first and third of the three-game match, made a decent purse off the game and more off the betting, which had mostly been against him. Made himself scarce thereafter, because he didn’t like the way the loser was eyeing him. He wasn’t so drunk as all that.

Zavel walked out into a battle.

Well, not quite. There had been an unusual number of people rushing in and out of the tavern, so he should have guessed something was afoot, but playing tables meant having your wits about you, and he had shut out the stir and fuss, though it had distracted his opponent to some advantage, in that last game.

The street, a crooked lane off the main road, was empty but for a couple of running caravaneers. Noise, though, cries and yells, and there was a reek of heavy smoke. He followed the running men, mostly to get himself away from the tavern as quickly as he could, with the pocket of his coat nicely heavy. He had the vague idea of heading for the pawnshop, which was down along closer to the graveyard at the Gore, and an even vaguer notion of seeing what all the noise was, in case Holla was doing something about Ivah at last, but when he rounded the corner onto the main road it was to a scene of chaos that took him right back to Lissavakail, where his father had died, where everything changed, and sometimes it seemed he’d lost not only the dead, but the living.

The road towards the Gore was obscured by black smoke. Buildings burned, scarlet flames climbing high, the air roaring with them. Screams and cries, the clash and ring of metal, animal roaring, too, came from there. Nearer, a smaller battle raged, women of the suburb and women of the road close engaged with Marakander temple guard in red tunics and leather armour, a twisting, tight knot of desperation. He couldn’t see who was winning, wasn’t such a fool as to rush into it, either way. Fighting street guard never came to any good end and temple guard—if they hauled you off before the Voice of the Lady, no, some assassin had murdered her, and the Lady, the goddess of the city, spoke for herself now, they said—if they hauled you off before the Lady, you’d certainly better hope the Old Great Gods had their hands over you, because nothing short of a miracle would save you then.

The caravaneers, outnumbered, broke and surged back. Zavel whirled to run with them; it was that or be taken gawking there by the temple guard pursuit. Sera damn him for a fool, he tripped and stumbled along and missed his chance to dart away up the lane again when someone helpfully grabbed his arm to steady him. They didn’t run far, just to get their backs against the corner made by a caravanserai’s outthrust entryway. Its gate was firmly shut. Spears were levelled at the fore, a wounded woman shoved away to the back.

“Here,” she gasped in passing, a Black Desert woman with tattoos the same red and black as the boss’s, but not so thick and heavy. Her lips were going grey. She pushed her blood-slippery spear into Zavel’s empty hands before staggering down, trying to bind up the wound in her own thigh with her headscarf. No one spared a hand to help. The temple guard came in a rush.

Lissavakail all over again, in miniature. Zavel chose his man and braced himself. He’d always had a good eye; the spear’s point found the weak join he’d marked at the neck, bit, and he thrust and twisted, jerked back, but the damned thing stuck and the man was a screeching, flailing dead weight, pulling it down, and he lost his grip on the slick shaft. It was all close-in work by then anyway, sabres and the stabbing swords of the Marakanders. Not the place for his knife, but he slashed to fend off a Marakander boy, kicked and screamed himself, trying to weave his way back out of it, out of the way of those who had sabres and shields and some chance of surviving.

New yells, sweeping from behind. The caravanserai doors had opened and more folk of the road, Marakanders too, rushed out, all armed. They crashed against the temple-guard flank and the guardsmen fell away, running, outnumbered now, hah. Zavel grabbed up an abandoned short sword and joined the pursuit. A man fell before him, tripped and rolling, and Zavel swung aside to finish him. Flat on his back, the man drew his legs back and kicked him in the gut before he could dodge. He lost his grip on the sword and fell himself, doubled up, nearly lost what little he had in his stomach, gasping for air, and then they were grappling together, kicking and punching, both of them grabbing for lost swords. The man got him by the braids, dragged him, half-rising, and Zavel kicked him down again, jabbed a knee in his belly, found his knife, but the guardsman seized him by the scalp this time and slammed him down against the road. Red fire lanced across sight and his ears roared. Vision blurred. He squirmed sideways. The guardsman’s two-foot staff was raised in his hand, teeth grimacing in a blood-masked face. The cudgel came down.

*

Someone was screaming in his dreams, shrill and terrified. His sister, Zavel thought, but he couldn’t remember which one. He lurched to hands and knees, squinting at over-bright light and gulping against sickness. Not a girl screaming, not one of his little sisters, murdered by the men of Tamghat the Lake-Lord or taken for bond-servants or who knew what dire fate, but certainly lost, long lost. Not his mother, who had walked into a sandstorm in her despair. No, in his nightmares she never cried out at all, but beckoned, beckoned, and grinned, while the red dust of Serakallash whipped around her and her skin dried to leather on her face . . .

He was not dreaming at all. A woman was screaming, her voice rising piercingly over the wind-storm roar of other voices. Muzzily, Zavel blinked sense back into his thudding head. He was going to be sick. He had been. His mouth was foul and he lay in reeking filth, the dust of the road made muck with blood and bile and wine. If he’d fallen on his back he’d be choked and dead now. He pushed himself to hands and knees, shaking and shivering with cold, and crawled. He’d been lying close up against a wall. He got his back against it and just sat a moment, trying to sort out how bad it was. The screaming drilled into him and his empty belly roiled as fingers found the swollen lump of his jaw, the broken, sticky-crusted egg-lump on his head, far worse. He remembered the guardsman’s cudgel. The man must have thought he was dead, or the Marakander bastard would have finished him. He’d had a sword.

No swords here now. There was his knife, though. He’d been lying on it. He crawled to pick it up, slow and shaky, found the sheath still in the big square pocket of his coat and the other still heavy with coin. That was something.

No Marakander guardsmen, street or temple, in sight. Whatever that boiling-over of rage had been about, the caravaneers must have won it. It was folk of the road mobbing the house across the street. He peered, blurrily. Desert folk and Grasslanders, Northrons and Westrons and Nabbani of the east. The woman screaming, she was Marakander, or at least, she was dressed like it, in a fine embroidered caftan, and they were dragging her stumbling down the steps. Not a shop, but a fairly grand, yellow-plastered house that would have looked less out of place in Palace Ward or by the Silvermarket. The porter lay limp before the door, and another, younger woman shouted, “Cowards! Traitors! Help her!” as she tried to struggle after the captive.

Someone stabbed the young woman in the midriff with a spear, and she just stood staring down at it, the dark stain spreading, till they jerked it away and she fell out of sight down the stairs, into the crowd, and a skinny man, another Marakander, staggered into the doorway, bleeding about the head. Mouth open, he slammed the door against the mob. Coward, too, or maybe wise. Zavel watched, a bit stunned, as if it were all a dream. That wasn’t a fight; that was filthy murder. In broad daylight—murky, smoke-dulled daylight. In law-bound Marakand.

The older woman kept on screaming and pleading.

“Let me go! I’ve done nothing to you, I’m no priestess! Help! Someone help! I’m a magistrate of the city, a magistrate of the suburb! You know me, Old Great Gods witness, you all know me, I had no part in this, I knew nothing of it, I’ve wronged no wizards—” and then the threats, “You’ve murdered my clerks. The Lady sees, the Lady knows, the Voice will speak your names, you’ll all die condemned in the cages for this, outlanders or no, you’re not beyond Marakand’s law . . . help! Help me!”

They dragged her away up the street, towards the city, and her cries changed again to wordless screaming.

Zavel staggered to his feet to follow, uncertainly, not even sure why, except that he didn’t know what was going on, and the only way to find out was to follow. The threat of temple guard and Red Masks seemed past. He snagged the sleeve of a man with caravaneer’s braids and Stone Desert tattoos.

“The temple—” he said. “They’ll come. They’d better let her—”

“Didn’t you see? The demons slew the Red Masks, and the Lady’s put to flight!”

“What?” But the man pulled away from him, outdistancing his unsteady steps. “What demons?” Zavel called, but nobody answered.

There were bodies, far more than had been mixed into the fight he’d taken part in; the street stank like a butcher’s market. Here the corpses were scattered like river-edge flotsam, in drifts and swirls amid the shops and warehouses and caravanserais just before the Gore, the triangle of land between the branching roads to the Riverbend and Sunset Gates. Zavel picked his way over men and women lying still, flies already settling in buzzing black carpets. Strange, how very still the dead, how different from the sleeping. You’d never mistake them. He wouldn’t. Not anymore. Folk of the road. Folk of the suburb. Temple guard. Many temple guard, in their red tunics and armour, and Red Masks, in crimson-lacquered scale and masked helmets, but people were pulling the helmets away and dragging them into rows, and there was none of the crowing he would have expected, the exuberance of victory over the feared and hated mute priests, only a horrible solemnity. What in all the cold hells had been happening?

No flies swarmed on the slain Red Masks.

There was weeping. People were seeking their own slain. There was crying and moaning, prayer and pleading. The wounded, the dying. He ignored them, ignored the burning buildings, the shouting, the knot of fighting that broke out between Marakanders of the suburb and caravaneers.

They weren’t his dead, his wounded, his friends, he wasn’t theirs; no one was left to claim him. If that temple guardsman had hit a bit harder, if Sera’s hand hadn’t been on him (if it was on him at all—his exiled Grasslander parents had never let their Serakallashi children be tattooed and claimed for the goddess of their birth), he might be one of those dead lying in the streets, and would Holla-Sayan have come looking for him, or Gaguush, or any of them? Probably not. Nobody had gone to look for his mother, when she walked into the dust-storm.

The gang dragging the magistrate took the northerly fork at the Gore and then crossed the bridge over the dry ravine to Riverbend Gate, where a sizeable crowd seethed and roared, beating against the timbers with what looked like the charred roof-beam of a house. There were street guard on the roofs of both the squat, square towers that flanked the gate, but they weren’t doing anything. Not worried by the improvised ram. People clawed rocks from the road and hurled them. Nobody among the attackers seemed to have a bow. What were they shouting? Murders, devil-lovers . . . Tamghati . . . ? Ketsim, Tamghat’s governor of Serakallash, had escaped, fled and formed a mercenary band from the Lake-Lord’s surviving followers. The temple had hired them, but they’d all been sent east to deal with some barbarian tribe that menaced the city, or so Zavel had heard.

“Send out the Lady!” they cried. “Give up the necromancer!”

Necromancer?

“Open the gate!” a new voice roared, a Red Desert man gripping the magistrate by an arm. “Captain, open the gate, or we kill the magistrate.”

The woman shrieked and tried to wrench herself away, but too many hands held her and she was flung back and forth like a child’s doll that had fallen prey to a puppy. Her ornately piled hair had come loose, spilling about her face in wild hanks.

“Let us in!” someone shouted, and most took up the chant. “Let us in, let us in.”

“We want the Lady!”

“Bring out the Lady!”

“Show us your false goddess . . .”

“. . . necromancer . . .”

“. . . devil!”

Devil? Zavel did not want to be here. Where was Holla-Sayan? Still off whoring with Tamghat’s wizard? Did these fools think they could do anything against a devil, if it did come to the gate? He began to struggle away, but more than he had followed the magistrate’s captors, and a crowd had closed up behind him, everyone shoving and shifting to keep their balance, trying to see, trying to hear. Many were taking up the cry of those closer to the gate, and the ones with the ram had propped the beam up like a ladder. Someone was inching up it like a cautious squirrel, though it didn’t reach high enough for him to gain the arch over the gate unless he meant to perch atop it like a bird. For a moment attention was distracted. Soldiers in grey tunics and leather armour leaned from the parapet over the gate and shoved at the head of the beam with spears. It slid sideways with a terrible slowness at first, while the climbing man clutched it and cursed, curses changing to a shriek as it passed its tipping point and plunged. Zavel didn’t see him hit, just heard the thump, the silence, the swell of roaring renewed.

“Devil’s servants!” shouted the ringleader of the hostage-takers. “Let us in to the necromancer, or the magistrate dies and her blood will be on your hands!”

“I’ll let you in,” an officer called down, and there was silence. He was an old man, grey-haired, weary-faced, with two black ribbons trailing from his helmet and two wide black bands on the hem of his grey tunic. A captain. He stood in a crenel of the wall, exposing himself to any missile, a hand gripping the edge of a merlon with fingers like claws, as if he really, really did not like his perch. No one threw a stone. Yet. “You and the magistrate, no other. We’ll talk about this.”

“Open your gates!”

“And let drunken murder loose on the folk of the city? You know I can’t do that.” The captain was trying to sound reasonable, to pretend he thought the man making the demands could be reasonable. “I don’t know anything of devils, but—”

“Open the gates! Open the gates!”

Zavel really did not want to be in the middle of this. His stomach churned and his skin was clammy, slick with sweat. He was going to be sick, he knew it. He needed to get out of this close and reeking crowd, get some air, a drink of water, needed to sit down somewhere quiet and let this damnable headache pass.

A couple of big Northrons had axes out and were hewing at the gate, long splinters slivering away. The crowd surged forward around a woman who’d got an improvised torch alight. They piled sticks and rags and dry dead weeds to kindle a fire. The ones about the magistrate were hurling her back and forth among them as she wailed like a baby, arms raised, clutching her head, trying to protect herself. They threw her to the ground and kicked her, took the butts of spears to her head and back as she rolled and hunched up small. The captain was gone from the crenel, and a spatter of arrows from above scattered them, left the ringleader lying dead, with others still or yelling, dragging themselves wounded. The magistrate tried to crawl but only flopped like a landed fish.

People shoved and shrieked and the guards above kept shooting, not a battlefield rain of arrows but carefully, picking targets. Zavel fell, unsteady on his feet, retching again, but he crawled anyway. Safer to keep low amid the legs. Someone walked on his hand, someone tripped on him, someone fell and didn’t move, and he half rose and scuttled, yelling with the rest, but in his dizziness he’d gotten turned the wrong way and he tripped over the battered magistrate. She moaned, not dead, but her face was a blood-slick pulp with only one eye, which stared wide and unseeing in its terror. Zavel yelled again and rocked away. But nobody had gone looking for his mother. Too late, they said. The sand took her. He dragged the magistrate’s arm over his shoulder, shouted at her, “Up, stand up, come on!” Somehow he heaved her up, though she dangled limp, feet fumbling. An arrow stuck the ground at his feet and he looked around wildly for shelter, any shelter, a bush would do. Nothing. Shouting. Guardsmen over the gate were dumping jar after jar of water down onto the fire, which hadn’t done more than stain the gate with soot, and the ram-carriers had fled, though some of the mob were sheltering behind a cart abandoned on the bridge, whatever beast had drawn it gone.

“The gate!” someone was yelling. “Old Great Gods, man, the gate, now, hurry!” and it was him that she shouted at, a guardswoman up on the tower, gesturing.

Zavel looked to see one leaf of the axe-scarred gate drawn back, just a hand’s-breadth. He didn’t for a moment understand, till the magistrate moaned again.

Great Gods, yes, the gate. He broke into an unsteady run, the magistrate a dead weight dragging half behind him. He caught a toe in the pit left by uprised paving stones and fell, both of them striking heavily, struggled up and heard voices behind him. Looked back. Shouldn’t have.

Blood-crazed men daring the arrows, running to overtake him. Arrows from the towers took some, gave the others pause, but a hurled javelin bit into the magistrate’s thigh as he dragged her on again, and then a man was hauling her from his grasp, another grabbing him, and he himself was pulled bodily through the gate as another thrown spear thudded against its timbers. It thumped shut again, the bars dropping home.

It was the grey-haired captain himself who had come out for the woman, and he swung her up like a child, running with her now, down the long arch of the gateway, turning through a dark doorway where guardsmen crowded. Zavel, with less urgency, was trundled after by other street guard.

He ended up in a windowless room with a table and a couple of chairs; they dumped him on a long bench along one wall, where he sat, a bit dazed. A watch-room, Zavel supposed, where the duty officer would be found and the clerks would scratch away at recording whatever it was the Marakanders were so keen on always writing down, yes, there were tablets and a big ledger on the table, and through another doorway a single, barred cell, the gate-fort’s gaol, where brawlers and curfew-breakers would cool their heels overnight. Not, for a change, his destination. Someone pounded him on the shoulder and said, “Good man!” He clenched his teeth, which made his jaw hurt worse, and shut his eyes, holding his throbbing head.

That brought a woman’s solicitous murmuring, and he was given a blanket, offered a cup of sweetened wine and a warm, wet towel for his wounds. Gentle, efficient hands bound up his head. It helped, at least when he lay down afterwards, eyes shut against the glaring clay lamps in the wall-niches opposite. He breathed carefully, to keep all within still and settled.

A hand on his shoulder shook him awake. Zavel rubbed his eyes. However long he’d been sleeping, it hadn’t been enough. A fraction of a watch, no more, maybe, but now he had a stiff back to go with his sick headache. The grey-haired captain was sitting at the table, with a clerk beside him, stylus and tablet in hand. Typical Marakanders: you couldn’t tell which folk their ancestors had come from. Like their languages and their very names, picked up bits of this and that. The clerk was a pugnacious-looking bastard for a soft-handed scribe, with his crooked, flattened nose. He’d be the one to fear most if he had to bolt, Zavel was sure. A young guardswoman helped him to sit up, smiling anxiously, and pressed a cup into his hand. He smiled back. Thick-curling hair and a dark, heart-shaped face, well worth smiling at. He wasn’t going to have to run. These were his friends, now. The cup was coffee this time, thick and steaming. He couldn’t stand the stuff, but it wasn’t exactly cheap, though even the poorest Marakanders made shift to drink it; it came all the way from beyond the Gulf of Taren and the Narrow Sea out of the south. You didn’t give your prisoners coffee, so he murmured his thanks and sipped it. The sweetness seemed to settle his stomach some.

The captain cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, young man, that Magistrate Tihma has taken the road to the Old Great Gods, Lady bless her.”

“I didn’t—” Of course they weren’t accusing him. “I didn’t know her name,” he amended, and added, “I’m sorry.”

“Your courage is all the greater for that,” the captain said earnestly. “To risk your life for a stranger . . .”

In the darkness behind him, a shadow stirred, and Zavel realized there was another man in the room, another guardsman. The other stepped forward. Temple guard, a man with a single ribbon to his helmet and a single dark stripe on his red tunic showing below the leather skirt of his armour. An under-officer of some sort.

“Captain Hassin would like to commend you,” the temple man said. “But I would like to know what other part you played in the uprising and assault on the gates.”

“None!” Zavel protested. “I—I was only passing by, I saw the—I saw Magistrate Tihma being pulled from her house and I followed. An old woman! I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what’s caused this madness in the suburb, it’s nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t let—it was just wrong, beating an old woman to death that way. I—I waited till I saw a chance I could help her. I—she made me think of my mother.”

The temple officer nodded. “Naturally.” He appeared to consider something, but Zavel had grown up in market bargaining and on the road; he wasn’t wet behind the ears when it came to such things, and the man had already decided whatever it was he affected to consider. Zavel’s stomach clenched.

“These are sad times for our city,” the temple officer said. “The Lady has always looked on the folk of the road as friends of the city, and it will be a great sorrow to her that the outlanders of the suburb have been so misled by the lies of this wizard.”

“Wizard?” Zavel asked, confused now. It had been demons, hadn’t it, that the caravaneer had told him of?

“A Grasslander woman—or Nabbani, I’ve heard both. A great wizard commanding demons. For a lifetime the Voice of the Lady has warned of the evil wizards would bring and it’s finally come to pass. We could use a man who might know how to keep his ears open—”

“Wait, this wizard. Sir. You said a Grasslander or a Nabbani? You don’t mean Ivah?”

“You know of her? Is that her name?”

“I don’t—probably. She’s a servant of Tamghat. The Lake-Lord, the one defeated by the goddess Attalissa last summer in Lissavakail in the mountains. I was—” Probably best not to claim any closer acquaintance with Attalissa. The Lady was said to fear other gods, too.

Both officers fixed him in a keen stare, waiting, and the clerk scratched swiftly at his wax.

“I—I just heard. I met her once or twice.”

“I came here to get a report on the assault on the gates for the Revered Right Hand of the Lady,” the temple man said. “But your witness could be much more useful than what Hassin here’s been able to tell me.”

The street-guard captain frowned at this. He didn’t like it. Well, if it came to a choice between street guard and temple, Zavel had a feeling the temple was the one to align himself with. Street guard were mere thief-takers, after all, and had to give way to the Lady’s men. Look at this one-stripe man walking all over the gate-captain, and in his own fort, too. The clerk looked up, glanced at his officer, and went back to scratching.

“Captain Hassin would like to give you a pat on the back and turn you loose,” the temple man went on. “I, however, think perhaps I should arrest you. You were clearly part of the assault. Perhaps you saw ‘rescue’ of the unfortunate magistrate as a way of ensuring your safety, when you realized the futility of storming the Lady’s gates?”

“I never thought at all! I just—”

“And you seem to have great knowledge of the leadership of this uprising. You know their commander’s name.”

“I only guess—”

“In her inner counsels, perhaps?”

“That traitor? I’d cut her throat if I got close enough! If it is her at all,” Zavel added hastily. “I never saw any evidence she was that great a wizard. A soothsayer, nothing more. But she was a liar, too. Probably she lied about that. And a murderer—”

“However,” said the temple officer, “perhaps I do believe you. I could arrest you. I should arrest you. However, if you were to volunteer to come with me, the Right Hand would likely take that as earnest of good intent and honest goodwill towards the Lady. Any information we can put together about this wizard, now, is bound to be an offering the Lady will approve.”

“If you can get me next to Ivah with a sabre in my hands, I’ll even join your temple guard,” Zavel said hotly. “I had nothing to do with whatever’s going on out there, I’m an honest caravaneer—”

“We do need your name and gang, for our records,” Captain Hassin said.

“No,” said the temple man decidedly, “you don’t. Young man.” And he came around the table, taking Zavel’s arm to help him up, a bit roughly. “That will be all, Hassin. Send your report to me—Lieutenant Surey of the second company—and be sure to include how Magistrate Tihma came to be murdered with an entire company of street guard looking on.”

He swept out, dragging Zavel stumbling with him.

A change in his fortunes, definitely, but whether for good or ill, Zavel wasn’t about to guess. If it gave him a chance at Ivah, though . . . and Holla was mad. Was he making war on a goddess now? It looked that way, if he was one of the demons the caravaneer had been going on about. The monster inside him had corrupted his soul and broken his mind, turned him against his friends and all right thinking. A devil in the city was lies and nonsense. Tamghati lies. Some scheme Ivah and Governor Ketsim had cooked up to turn the suburb against the goddess. Odds were Ketsim and his Tamghati mercenaries weren’t off fighting in the east after all, odds were they were coming back up the eastern road and would be at Marakand’s gates before you knew it. Ketsim and Ivah had been working closely together when they abducted Pakdhala—and the Lady’s people would not only give him a chance to pay the lying wizard back for that, and avenge his parents’ deaths, but maybe even reward him, if he could help them stop her. It wasn’t like he had a gang to go back to. Gaguush had sacked him when he asked her for money yesterday, and in his heart of hearts he’d known this time she meant it. Besides, he wasn’t happy bedding down for the night with a possessed madman sleeping so near, out in the empty desert, not at all. Holla’s pacing and prowling in the dark was enough to give anyone the creeps.

They were always telling him to grow up and take a man’s place in the world. Time he did.

***

From THE LADY by K.V. Johansen (Pyr Books, 2014). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. The first in the series, THE LEOPARD, is also published by Pyr Books (2014) and is out now.

Johansen-Marakand

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