1154th Year of Burn’s Sleep 96th Year of the Malazan Empire. The Last Year of Emperor Kellanved’s Reign.
The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.
The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. The Vane’s silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock’s Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory’s heights.
Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock’s Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist’s holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.
For Ganoes, the ancient fortification overlooking the city was too familiar to be of interest. This visit was his third in as many years; he’d long ago explored the courtyard with its heaved cobblestones, the Old Keep-now a stable, its upper floor home to pigeons and swallows and bats-and the citadel where even now his father negotiated the island export tithe with the harbour officials. In the last instance, of course, a goodly portion was out of bounds, even for a son of a noble house; for it was in the citadel that the Fist had his residence, and in the inner chambers that such affairs of the Empire as concerned this island were conducted.
Mock’s Hold forgotten behind him, Ganoes” attention was on the tattered city below, and the riots that ran through its poorest quarter.
Mock’s Hold stood atop a cliff. The higher land of the Pinnacle was reached by a switchback staircase carved into the limestone of the cliff wall. The drop to the city below was eighty armspans or more, with the Hold’s battered wall adding still another six. The Mouse was at the city’s inland edge, an uneven spreading of hovels and overgrown tiers cut in half by the silt-heavy river that crawled towards the harbour. With most of Malaz City between Ganoes” position and the riots, it was hard to make out any detail, beyond the growing pillars of black smoke.
It was midday, but the flash and thundering concussion of magery made the air seem dark and heavy.
Armour clanking, a soldier appeared along the wall near him. The man leaned vambraced forearms on the battlement, the scabbard of his longsword scraping against the stones. “Glad for your pure blood, eh?” he asked, grey eyes on the smouldering city below.
The boy studied the soldier. He already knew the complete regimental accoutrements of the Imperial Army, and the man at his side was a commander in the Third-one of the Emperor’s own, an elite. On his dark grey shoulder-cloak was a silver brooch: a bridge of stone, lit by ruby flames. A Bridgeburner.
High-ranking soldiers and officials of the Empire commonly passed through Mock’s Hold. The island of Malaz remained a vital port of call, especially now that the Korel wars to the south had begun. Ganoes had brushed shoulders with more than his share, here and in the capital, Unta.
“Is it true, then?” Ganoes asked boldly.
“Is what true?”
“The First Sword of Empire. Dassem Ultor. We heard in the capital before we left. He’s dead. Is it true? Is Dassem dead?”
The man seemed to flinch, his gaze unwavering on the Mouse. “Such is war,” he muttered, under his breath, as if the words were not meant for anyone else’s ears.
“You’re with the Third. I thought the Third was with him, in Seven Cities. At Y’Ghatan-”
“Hood’s Breath, they’re still looking for his body in the still-hot rubble of that damned city, and here you, are, a merchant’s son three thousand leagues from Seven Cities with information only a few are supposed to possess.” He still did not turn. “I know not your sources, but take my advice and keep what you know to yourself.”
Ganoes shrugged. “It’s said he betrayed a god.”
Finally the man faced him. His face was scarred, and something that might have been a burn marred his jaw and left cheek. For all that, he looked young for a commander. “Heed the lesson there, son.”
“Every decision you make can change the world. The best life is the one the gods don’t notice. You want to live free, boy, live quietly.”
“I want to be a soldier. A hero.”