Deadhouse Gates (The Malazan Book of the Fallen #2)


by Steven Erikson

PROLOGUE

What see you in the horizon's bruised smear

That cannot be blotted out

By your raised hand?

The Bridgeburners

Toe the Younger

1163rd Year of Burn's Sleep

Ninth Year of the Rule of Empress Laseen

Year of the Cull

He came shambling into Judgement's Round from the Avenue of Souls, a misshapen mass of flies. Seething lumps crawled on his body in mindless migration, black and glittering and occasionally falling away in frenzied clumps that exploded into fragmented flight as they struck the cobbles. The Thirsting Hour was coming to a close and the priest staggered in its wake, blind, deaf and silent. Honouring his god on this day, the servant of Hood, Lord of Death, had joined his companions in stripping naked and smearing himself in the blood of executed murderers, blood that was stored in giant amphorae lining the walls of the temple's nave. The brothers had then moved in procession out onto the streets of Unta to greet the god's sprites, enjoining the mortal dance that marked the Season of Rot's last day.

The guards lining the Round parted to let the priest pass, then parted further for the spinning, buzzing cloud that trailed him. The sky over Unta was still more grey than blue, as the flies that had swept at dawn into the capital of the Malazan Empire now rose, slowly winging out over the bay towards the salt marshes and sunken islands beyond the reef. Pestilence came with the Season of Rot, and the Season had come an unprecedented three times in the past ten years.

The air of the Round still buzzed, was still speckled as if filled with flying grit. Somewhere in the streets beyond a dog yelped like a thing near death but not near enough, and close to the Round's central fountain the abandoned mule that had collapsed earlier still kicked feebly in the air. Flies had crawled into the beast through every orifice and it was now bloated with gases. The animal, stubborn by its breed, was now over an hour in dying. As the priest staggered sightlessly past, flies rose from the mule in a swift curtain to join those already enshrouding him.

It was clear to Felisin from where she and the others waited that the priest of Hood was striding directly towards her. His eyes were ten thousand eyes, but she was certain they were all fixed on her. Yet even this growing horror did little to stir the numbness that lay like a smothering blanket over her mind; she was aware of it rising inside but the awareness seemed more a memory of fear than fear now alive within her.

She barely recalled the first Season of Rot she'd lived through, but had clear memories of the second one. Just under three years ago, she had witnessed this day secure in the family estate, in a solid house with its windows shuttered and cloth-sealed, with the braziers set outside the doors and on the courtyard's high, broken-glass-rimmed walls billowing the acrid smoke of istaarl leaves. The last day of the Season and its Thirsting Hour had been a time of remote revulsion for her, irritating and inconvenient but nothing more. Then she'd given little thought to the city's countless beggars and the stray animals bereft of shelter, or even to the poorer residents who were subsequently press-ganged into cleanup crews for days afterwards.

The same city, but a different world.

Felisin wondered if the guards would make any move towards the priest as he came closer to the Cull's victims. She and the others in the line were the charges of the Empress now – Laseen's responsibility – and the priest's path could be seen as blind and random, the imminent collision one of chance rather than design, although in her bones Felisin knew differently. Would the helmed guards step forward, seek to guide the priest to one side, lead him safely through the Round?

'I think not,' said the man squatting on her right. His half-closed eyes, buried deep in their sockets, flashed with something that might have been amusement. 'Seen you flicking your gaze, guards to priest, priest to guards.'

The big, silent man on her left slowly rose to his feet, pulling the chain with him. Felisin winced as the shackle yanked at her when the man folded his arms across his bare, scarred chest. He glared at the approaching priest but said nothing.

'What does he want with me?' Felisin asked in a whisper. 'What have I done to earn a priest of Hood's attention?'

The squatting man rocked back on his heels, tilting his face into the late afternoon sun. 'Queen of Dreams, is this self-centred youth I hear from those full, sweet lips? Or just the usual stance of noble blood around which the universe revolves? Answer me, I pray, fickle Queen!'

Felisin scowled. 'I felt better when I thought you asleep – or dead.'

'Dead men do not squat, lass, they sprawl. Hood's priest comes not for you but for me.'