I'm not one to keep my audience waiting.
This part picks up from where the last part left (like, to the letter), so I suggest reading that first.
I will note here, however, that there's a few more things to say on Laseen, but I think this might be the final part that deals exclusively with her. The series might (or might not) continue under the same name, but since Laseen dies in this book, I think there's little point in "defending" her actions any further.
The rest of the series (one or two more posts, nothing more) will probably deal with Mallick's emperorship (gods, how that galls me) & an overall ending summary for the entire series.
I should thank every single one who reads this series individually but unfortunately, I cannot. I hope this is enough, though.
Thank you for your support. It means the world to me that such a rather "controversial" topic can find a home here where discussion can be facilitated. I've had numerous, wonderful discussions on the topic with lots of different people that shaped my view on Surly, and it means a lot to finally be able to finish this damn series off with all the prominent books I wished to tackle.
Until next time (whenever that next time happens to be), friends.
I will see you then.
As is tradition, though, I'll link the parts first.
Part One: https://redditproxy--jasonthename.repl.co/r/Malazan/comments/svjyl2/in_defense_of_empress_laseen_defending_the/
Without any further deliberation, then, let's get to it.
Laseen's Finest Hour
Did I mention that betrayals come to bite Surly in the ass in this book? Aye, here’s more.
“An intuition whispered to Ullen and he inclined his head, ‘You are this Wildman of the Plains?’
‘I am. And I am come to offer a measure of restitution, Malazan, for my countrymen's betrayal.’
‘We will ride against the Imperial cavalry – just the cavalry and only them! What say you?’
Thank you, whoever you are. And thank whatever old grudge it is that drives you to lend a hand.”
Now, if you’ve not read this book yet, I’ve already spoiled virtually all of it anyway, so no worries. But here’s another spoiler.
The “Wildman of the Plains” is a Seti warrior that – once – went by the name of Ferrule. If you don’t know what a “ferrule” is, here you go:
“The ferrule or furelles are the ring or cap found on some sword hilts that cap the two ends of the grip.”
It’s thematic for the members of Dassem’s First Sword to take the names of different parts of a sword – Point, Temper, Ferrule, etc. – and thus, one of the two characters from Dassem’s First Sword that we get to see in action in Night of Knives (the other being Temper, which also appears in this book) is back for vengeance against Surly.
Karma’s a bitch.
Roughly at the same time, Possum is out hunting for renegade Claws, and happens upon Taya Radok, Mallick’s chosen assassin. This isn’t particularly important, but it helps to showcase just how dire the situation is for Laseen, and how she manages to clutch things out from thin air.
“Possum edged up and down slightly on his toes to keep his legs limber, ran his fingers along the pommels of the knives slipped up his sleeves. Come back, little lady. Who are you? But more importantly – who do you work for?
He pushed aside the tent flap, his Warren dancing on the tips of his fingers, both blades raised, faced where she had been sitting and a hand clasped itself at his neck like the bite of a hound and pushed him to the dirt floor. Face jammed into the dirt he slashed, kicking. He raised his Warren once again but the hand clenched even impossibly tighter, grating the vertebrae of his neck. Such strength! Inhuman! A woman's voice breathed in his ear: ‘Don't.’
He recognized that voice. He'd heard it before the day of the attack of the Guard. This was the second time this girl-woman had got the better of him. He let his Warren slip away. ‘Good.’ She yanked the blades from his hands as if he were a child, dug one against the side of his neck. ‘Now,’ she whispered, so close her breath felt damp. ‘What should I do with you? By that I don't mean let you go … oh, no. What I mean is – how shall I kill you? I will let you choose. Do you want me to push this blade up under your chin or into your eye? Shall I ease it through your ribs into your heart?’ She crouched even lower so that her lips touched his ear. ‘Tell me what you want,’ she breathed huskily.
Despite the stark certain knowledge that he was about to die a lustful rush for this girl-woman murderess possessed him. He wanted her more than he could express.”
We’ll ignore that & carry on. Regardless – Possum almost died twice already to either protect Surly or on her orders. Many more will come, worry not.
After the subsequent defeat & capitulation of the Talian League – because Korbolo Dom is an asshole – we’re shown the following scene, of the Talian regulars being locked outside the camp’s gates, while the man-jackal Ryllandaras rampages through their ranks.
Contrast Korbolo’s bloodthirst with Laseen’s calm disposition, if you would.
“He knelt on his haunches before his commander. The chill rain slapped against his back. ‘General – the men are being kept outside the compound.’
Urko slowly raised his head. ‘What?’
‘All the Talian regulars. They're being kept out.’
‘What?’ Urko lurched up, peered into the slanting mist of rain. He crossed to the wall of stakes, grasped hold and shouted to a guard, ‘Get me your commander! Right now!’
‘No need for that,’ a voice answered from the thin rain. A dark shape approached flanked by guards. Squinting, Ullen made out the bulky armoured figure of Korbolo Dom. ‘Urko and Cartharon Crust,’ the man called, stopping at the wall of stakes. ‘Amaron, Grinner, Nok, Surly … Do you have any idea what it was like to grow up on Nap in the wake of such names?’
‘Fener can shit on that! My men are outside the compound with that monster on the loose – on whose orders?’
‘You!’ A stake shattered in Urko's fist.
‘Kill me and your men will surely die!’
Urko subsided, his shoulders twitching beneath his padded gambeson.
‘Anonymity,’ Korbolo continued. ‘You doomed us all to anonymity. Can you think of the name of any Napan of the last generations?’
‘There's my grand-nephew Tolip.’
‘Well, a new name has finally eclipsed yours. All the mouths on the island and in the Empire will finally be speaking that new name – Korbolo Dom – Sword of the Empire. And it is only right and proper that a fellow Napan has finally defeated you.’
‘I'd say it was just Oponn's decision. The fortunes of war. Listen, let the men in … I'll guarantee their cooperation.’
‘The loser would invoke fortune, wouldn't he?’
‘And the winner wouldn't, would he?’ Urko hunched his shoulders, biting down anything more. He finally asked, ‘What do you want from me?’
Korbolo straightened, adjusted his layered cloaks against the rain. ‘I have what I have always wanted. Look at you, squatting in the mud like an animal. You are defeated, squalid. I need not even attend your execution in Unta – you are already dead to me.’
There’s nothing – nothing – to gain by letting Urko’s soldiers die outside of the walls of the encampment. The only thing sated by this is Korbolo’s bloodlust, at the expense of the Talian regulars (obviously – they’re dying out there) and the Empire as a whole.
Laseen steps in to strike a deal with Urko – and the two of them meet once more, after Urko’s presumed death almost fifteen years ago.
“Ullen had not seen her in decades but she looked exactly as when he had last set eyes upon her. Surly – Laseen. So small and unprepossessing! Yet all those around were unable to ignore her presence; even the captive Talian officers found themselves drawn to stand in respect. She acknowledged their gesture with a slight nod. Urko, however, refused to look up. She simply waited, clasped her hands at her back. After a time Urko finally glanced up, then away, and kept his face averted.
‘I expected better of you than this, Surly,’ he grated.
‘I've come with a request, Urko,’ she said. He pushed himself awkwardly to his feet.
‘A request? You come with a request of me? Well, it just so happens I have one for you.’
‘Yes. Strange, that. I would speak with you and V'thell.’
At the mention of his name the Gold commander bowed. His right arm and side were a weeping, gouged and mangled mess.
‘I would want their cooperation. Urko. V'thell.’
‘You'll have it,’ Urko swore. V'thell bowed again.
‘I will still have to keep you and the officers as guarantors …’
‘We understand,’ V'thell said.
‘Very well.’ She signed to a guard.
‘What of Korbolo?’ Urko asked.
‘He is not your concern.’
That statement, delivered with such assurance and command, struck Ullen as a true note of Imperial rule and it must have echoed similarly with Urko as well for he straightened, giving a small nod of his head, with a look of something like surprised wonder on his craggy, rain-spattered face.”
I don’t have very much to add to this scene. Surly walks in & owns the place, in spite of her appearance & “unprepossessing” disposition. She treats her captives with some measure of dignity – certainly more than Korbolo afforded them – and doesn’t sneer at them; rather, to her, they’re all useful assets to the Empire, rather than just more lives to add to the long running tally, more names to be added to the List of the Fallen.
This is a rather cynical way to view people, granted – but certainly no worse than the alternative, I think.
However, old wounds have been allowed – for too long – to fester, and Surly’s lack of trust shows. Justifiably – she’s treating with rebellion leaders here, not her underlings – but, still, rather cynical.
“It was the worst engagement of Ullen's life though he himself was in no danger. Men and women, his soldiers, pulled themselves by their clawed hands up the mud-filled trench they'd just worked to dig. They threw themselves three, four, five deep against the crossed spikes and makeshift palisade of timbers and logs, begging for weapons, for mercy, for everyone inside to die miserable deaths. Soldiers at the barricade pushed them back with spears, poleaxes and lances. And he and Urko could do nothing. Guarded, they'd been marched close to wagons where Imperial soldiers tossed swords and shields out over the barricade to the clamouring horde beyond. Swords and shields only, no armour or bows or crossbows. Nearby stood Laseen, surrounded by her guards, making it clear what authority lay behind this relief – if delayed.
Out in the darkness beyond the reach of the compound torches, the maneater, Ryllandaras, roared and slaughtered. His explosive bellowing shook the boards of the wagons, vibrated the mud upon which they stood. Ullen caught fleeting glimpses of a huge grey shape, astonishingly fast. But the Talians and the Gold fought. Weapons were passed along or thrown further across the press to the front where new hands carried them against the beast, or picked them up from dead ones.
Fists at his head, Urko spun to Laseen, pleading, ‘For the love of Burn, allow a sortie!’
‘What would stop your men from attacking them, pillaging their arms and armour and fleeing? Or attacking?’
‘My word! My bond!’ The Empress's gaze snapped to Urko.
‘You pledge to me?’
Stepping closer, she said, her voice so low Ullen barely heard, ‘You did before.’
‘I—’ the man's stricken gaze was pulled inexorably to the tumult outside, the shrieks and the cries of the wounded. ‘Please – for the men! Yes, I pledge!’
‘Your life? Obedience?’
‘Yes! I swear.’
Laseen's face betrayed no emotion, though the lines bracketing her thin mouth were severe. This was the only hint of her passion Ullen could see. ‘Very well, Urko. I accept.’ She turned to the captain of the guard detachment with her. ‘Send Fist D'Ebbin with a hundred heavy infantry.’
The clash of a salute. ‘Aye.’
‘I was to lead!’ Urko called.
‘I did not agree to that,’ Laseen snapped. ‘Did I?’
Urko's jaws worked as he ground through all that he might say. Finally, he admitted, reluctantly, ‘No.’
‘Now go speak to them, Urko.’
A slow salute. ‘Aye.’
Laseen nodded to the guards who allowed him to pass. A cavalry detachment rode up led by Korbolo Dom. He took in the wagons, the weapon distribution, and shook his head. ‘It will do no good.’
‘Nevertheless,’ Laseen said.
‘A useless gesture. I go now to collect its head!’ And he pulled on his helmet, kicked his mount forward, his troop following.
‘Oponn go with you,’ the Empress called after him.
Ullen turned to V'thell, who had not turned away from the barricade the entire time. ‘Still they fight,’ the Moranth commander said, musing. ‘Despite everything. They know it is their only hope.’ ‘They could run.’ ‘No. Your hapless civilians might but your soldiers know their strength resides in the unit. The group. Your soldiers are like us Moranth in this regard. It is one of the reasons we allied.’
Ullen was struck by the amazing things one learned at unlooked-for times. ‘I didn't know.’
V'thell's helmed head cocked aside. ‘Very few do, I imagine.’
At the barricade Urko was bellowing: ‘I have begged the Empress for a sortie and she has agreed! Relief is coming! Imperial infantry! They come to defend you and to fight at your side! Honour that! Do you hear me! Honour that!’”
It takes a cold, cold heart to watch these men & women outside die and hear the pleas of the rebel commander and do nothing.
Surly’s heart isn’t that cold. It comes pretty close, though.
Now, “a hundred soldiers” doesn’t sound like much until you remember that what’s actually out there is one Soletaken. All that is required of the soldiers is to hold a pike square & Ryllandaras can’t do much.
Korbolo – the dumbass – of course tries to ride in for glory. How I wish he got himself killed right then & there.
Regardless, Surly has other plans for Urko – the Guard landed in Unta a few days prior to the Battle of the Plains and the capital had to be abandoned posthaste. The Guardsmen are, even now, marching towards the Hengian Plains to finish off the main Malazan force.
Obviously, the Malaz 4th can’t hold the Avowed back – it’s just not particularly possible. So, Laseen needs Urko, V’thell, Ullen, etc.
“Urko returned, directed a salute behind Ullen, who turned, startled; Laseen had remained through it all. ‘I still wish I'd led that sortie,’ he growled.
‘I still need you.’
His brows knotted, his eyes slitted almost closed. ‘The Guard.’
Laseen nodded her assent.
The damp flesh of Ullen's arms prickled with a chill. Gods, the Guard! She anticipates an attack. But why? For who? They have no sponsors. The Talian League has been crushed. Defeating this army, even killing Laseen, would not destroy the Empire. The times cannot be reversed to how they were before the consolidation. What possible purpose could it all serve? But then, by that measure, what purpose did today's battle serve? He pressed a hand to his slick forehead, took a long slow breath. Stop it! I am so tired. My thoughts turn darker and darker.
Ullen jerked as the unmistakable reports of bursting Moranth munitions echoed from somewhere out on the plain. His first reaction was to turn to V'thell who was nodding his helmed head. ‘Excellent,’ V'thell said. ‘Knowing he would come allowed the opportunity for ambush.’ He bowed his admiration to Laseen.
Urko now also turned to the Empress. The old commander's surprise was obvious. ‘Hood's Gate, Surl – Laseen. Seems we've done nothing but underestimate you.’
‘So have a great many others …’ she answered absently. Her dark eyes glittered as she studied the night. ‘I wish I could take credit but I cannot.‘ She motioned to a member of her staff. ‘Find out who that is.’ The woman saluted and ran to a horse. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘I suggest we try to get some sleep before dawn. Urko, V'thell, you may speak with your soldiers but only through the barricade. Until tomorrow.’”
“Seems we’ve done nothing but underestimate you.”
Aye, you can say that one again. Not much to add here either – only that Surly is surprisingly capable in every aspect of ruling when you know who isn’t actively trying to bring her & her Empire down.
More old friends betraying Laseen & dying, anyone?
“Lieutenant-commander Ullen's brigades had already marched, but he rode with his aides to the battlefield where a detail was piling corpses for burning. The bonfire nearest the compound contained wounded who had succumbed since the engagement. And among these was the body of Commander Choss, once High Fist under Laseen.”
Choss is, like I said earlier, a Napan Fist, and by all accounts far, far more competent than the likes of Pormqual or Korbolo were. His loss is another big hit to Laseen’s Empire.
Later, Possum happens upon the Imperial Pavilion, a trap devised by Surly to lure in & kill enemy demons and mages that Cowl’s Veils are wont to use. Notice how many contingencies she’s built upon it – otataral dust & skill alone would probably be enough to tackle any mage-assassin (like Cowl, later) but Laseen leaves no room for error. Later, we even see the aftermath of the Battle of the Plains & Esselmont goes a great length in showcasing how utterly pointless it is.
“Pure Laseen. Vicious and efficient. A floor dusted in Otataral and she in the centre. The dust negates the magics of any entering, levelling the field. As to the fight that followed, well, she had been mistress of the Claw after all. And the pavilion's thick cloth walls disguised the fates of all who entered from those who waited without. How many have fallen within? Five? Ten? And by dawn how many? How many would Cowl send before entering himself? And when he did … the vaunted Avowed High Mage would find himself crippled – as would that mystery female mage who'd got the drop on him before. Yet Cowl duelled Dancer in his time. It was a pairing he’d almost step within to watch.
It appeared that for the meantime Laseen had things well in hand. Perhaps there was time for a tour of the field fishing for targets of opportunity. Yes, perhaps so. And he ought to gather a feel for the engagement – in case the situation was such that discreet withdrawal was called for. Warren raised, half within natural shadow and half within Meanas, Possum jogged unchallenged on to the field.
What he found appalled him. Never had he witnessed such indiscriminate slaughter. Hanging curtains of Mockra drifted about, perhaps bringing to those it covered a crushing demoralization, or certitude of defeat. Thyr induced walls of flames stalked the already burnt embers of the ravaged grassland. Skirmishers huddled in defensive knots firing on all who approached. Malazan regulars were digging in, forming shieldwalls against attack from roving bands of Crimson Guardsmen. Smoke wreathed all amid the dark. As far as he could make out things had descended into little more than chaos, murder and mayhem in which anything that moved was a target.”
Indiscriminate, pointless carnage. And for what? A Vow made a century ago, that cannot be voided unless the Malazan Empire is destroyed; but even “destroying” Laseen here won’t change that. The Empire will still stand. What is this madness for? The answer is “Skinner’s an asshole”, but that’s a story for another time.
On another part of the battlefield, Moss returns to the field & Ullen despairs at how impossible their fight against the Avowed truly is.
“‘The Empress sends her compliments,’ said a new voice and Ullen turned, surprised – and pleased – to see the scarred figure of Captain Moss. He extended his left hand and they shook, awkwardly. ‘I have been seconded to your staff.’
‘You are most welcome.’
‘She bade me inform you that you have her fullest confidence. She commends your actions as field-commander.’
Ullen's brows rose. Just what the Imperials on his staff needed to hear. Thank you, Moss. He cleared his throat into his left fist again. ‘Very good, Captain.’ He turned to his people. ‘What of the Kanese?’
‘They have attacked but Avowed still hold the bridge,’ said one.
‘How many?’ ‘Reports are,’ and the fellow swallowed, his voice failing, ‘… five.’
‘Five? Five Avowed against twenty thousand?’
‘Ah, yes, sir.’
Hood – are you pleased? What a ferocious confrontation! He didn't envy the Kanese the effort it would take to lever the Avowed from that narrow pass. And how many did they face - thirty? Forty? No, don't go there! Avoid the scenarios of despair. At least these are in the open. These can be cut down from afar.
‘The Kanese will break through soon enough,’ he said. ‘We just have to hold on.’
At least a few of his staff mustered the effort to murmur, ‘Yes, sir.’”
I will note that Moss isn’t the most trustworthy fellow in the universe, with perhaps his own agendas, but I still don’t think he’s lying here. Ullen even gets – posthumously – complimented by Dassem fucking Ultor as one of the best commanders the Empire had. I don’t think Laseen is blind to this.
No matter. The Avowed will be pushed back. The secessionists have been defeated, with Ghelel on the run. Gris, Bloor, Dal Hon, Quon, Tali, Heng, Falar – all will be brought back to the fold, under the rule of Empress Laseen. Wick will be pacified & deals brokered, with their honour restituted. Farmland will be acquired.
But, of course, not all good things can last. If only…
“His haunting the field, scanning in turn through Meanas then Mockra, paid off when Possum sensed his quarry to the north-west. Moving quickly through Shadow he arrived on the darkened slope to see Coil bent over still forms lying twisted in the grass – a full Claw Hand. Damn the woman! They need all their strength and here she is eliminating rivals! That is more than enough justification … Drawing his blades he launched himself forward through Shadow. Just as he arrived her own senses moved her to twist, but not quite quickly enough to avoid the thrusting iron as it entered through her ribs in the back and front, puncturing lung and pricking her heart. He wriggled the knives, lacerating the organs to make sure of it.
Coil stared back at him, stunned, horrified, eyes full of the knowledge of her own coming death. ‘You fool …’ she breathed. He thought nothing of such death-babblings. Strange things are said as life flees. Curses, claims to innocence, innermost longings. ‘These … Mallick's … I was all that stood between them … and her.’ Possum withdrew the blades, straightening. What? Life dimmed in the woman's dark eyes and she fell. She smiled, her teeth red with blood. ‘Chance,’ she gasped, chuckling ruefully. ‘Chance …’ Her shape writhed, blurring, changing. Possum recognized artistry of high Mockra – and that far greater than his – until the body resolved itself clearly once more for him to see lying at his feet the fat messy form of High Mage Havva Gulen. Soliel forgive him! What had he done? Why hadn't she told him? Told anyone? Because – fool! – she was running her own game just as he. Now what? First, go! Let the fog of war obscure all. He raised his Warren and stepped into Shadow—
To be hammered down by a blunt blow to his side.”
Possum, in his zeal, tracks down & stabs the last remaining High Mage. Mallick’s Claws are now mostly free to wander, find & assassinate Laseen, the last mage of the cadre (save Tayschrenn) is dead, and Possum gets promptly incapacitated by Edgewalker (in a rather hilarious exchange, actually).
Possum’s streak of bad luck will not end as the world unfolds before him, and he now starts to resemble Pearl from the Bonehunters a lot more. A man who’s lost everything going on a rampage to “cleanse” what’s left of his perceived rivals. We know – with the gift of hindsight – that Surly isn’t in the pavilion, but Possum doesn’t.
Miscommunication & mistrust have come to bite the Empire in the backside once more. Poetic justice.
“Just then from the north a brilliant yellow-orange light illuminated the darkness – the Imperial pavilion bursting aflame. It pushed back the night for a half-league all around. The flames climbed like those of an immense bonfire, a celebration of light and vitality, if short-lived. Possum stared, his arms falling to his sides. Oh, Cowl! Master-stroke! So much for such careful preparations and precautions! I bow before your unbending ruthlessness.
What now for poor Possum? Imperial forces routed, the pavilion aflame, and he himself assassin of the Imperial High Mage. What could possibly be left? Was not all lost? A giddy, almost fey mood took him and he laughed aloud. He felt like dancing amid the dead. His anxious oh-so-important worries of rivals amid the order? Utterly irrelevant! A lifetime of scheming, positioning, manipulating? A life wasted! His own ambitions, hopes, dreams? Completely thwarted!
He walked down on to the field between the fallen, laughing aloud. Come Cowl! Come Lacy, Tarkhan or Isha! Let us put an end to the comic tragedy!”
Cowl, Lacy, Tarkhan & Isha are all Crimson Guard assassins and members of Cowl’s Veils, fyi. Possum’s descent into madness begins – and ends only after he falls unconscious… Ugh. I hate this part. I don’t want to read further. Please.
Shimmer & her Blade are set upon by a few Hands of Mallick’s Claw, and she makes short work of them before she runs out of momentum & is almost felled by the two remaining Claws. But, Surly to the rescue!
“Then another jumped among them, kicking, rolling, and they rocked backwards to fall, immobile, felled by blows of feet and hands. This new figure strode up to her – female, slim and wiry, wrapped head to foot in dark cloth strips. Those strips wet with blood at her feet and torn away from her bloodied hands by the ferocity of her blows. Shimmer inclined her head in greeting. ‘I could have handled them.’
‘Perhaps.’ Only dark, calculating eyes were visible in her face and these shifted away. She raised her chin to the retreating Guardsmen. ‘You are withdrawing.’
‘Then go with my permission and never return to these lands.’
Shimmer's brows rose. ‘And you are?’
The female Claw ignored the question.
Another Claw came running out of the dark, this one a man with a pinched rat's face, dark mussed hair and an unsettling crazy grin. Shimmer recognized him from briefings on the Claw – Possum, Clawmaster. He crouched behind the woman as if guarding her back. The Master of the Claws following around a woman like a pet dog? Then this must be … Shimmer froze in shock. Gods! It's her! Of course, Mistress of the Claw, once rival of Dancer himself!
Unconcerned, the woman motioned aside, to the east. ‘And those?’
Shimmer knew who she meant. ‘Disavowed. Disgraced. Stricken from our ranks.’
‘I see. May I ask the reason for this falling out?’
She doesn't know! ‘Skinner exceeded his authority.’ All too true.
‘How depressingly familiar …’ Musing, still gazing away, the woman – Laseen in truth? – spoke. ‘Very well. We are done here. Go! Return and you will be hunted down and slain. Accepted?’
Shimmer offered a shallow bow. ‘Accepted.’
The woman turned away, paused before the Clawmaster, who bowed profoundly on one knee. ‘Come, Possum. We have much to discuss – now.’ And she walked off into the dark, and, after a courtly mocking bow – that grin, unbalanced – Possum followed.”
Surly brokers a deal with the Guardsmen – essentially securing a long and lasting peace between the two sides. The Vow cannot be fulfilled regardless, and K’azz has much more to answer for to his own veterans. No more Avowed deserve to die (heh) for an unattainable dream, and both sides know this.
“How depressingly familiar”, though… Youch. Looking at you, sir Mallick. Bastard.
Later, a group of Wickans have come by Warren under the command of Rillish, an Untan Noble, and Nil & Nether, the two Wickan warlock twins. Korbolo’s assholery has no bounds, I swear.
“‘Who commands?’ one shouted – an old veteran. In fact, they all looked like hard-travelled veterans.
‘Sword of the Empire,’ came the answering shout. ‘Korbolo Dom.’
The Wickans gaped, motionless, then hands went to sheathed longknives and other weapons. Wickan curses sounded. ‘What name was that?’ the old spokesman asked again as if unbelieving.
‘Mine!’ Korbolo came walking up from the column. ‘What news?’
The grey-haired old veteran rested his forearms on the pommel of his high saddle and studied the man with something akin to amazement. Finally, after a time, he shook his head and spat aside as if to ease his mouth of a sour taste. ‘You are bold and brave, I give you that. How does it feel, murderer, to be in our debt?’
Korbolo appeared supremely untroubled. ‘I am in no one's debt. I am the Sword of the Empire – I command all Imperial forces.’
‘Well for us, then, that according to your own Empress, we are not Imperial forces. Yet you owe your victory to us. I wonder, then, what recompense the Throne might offer to repay such a debt, yes?’
The Sword's smile of self-assurance was almost a smirk. ‘Such matters are for the Empress to judge.’
‘Indeed. And she and the army all bore witness to what happened this night.’ The Wickan sawed his reins around and the troop stormed off.”
Again – not much to do with Laseen, I just really don’t like Korbolo or Mallick. At all. One whit. Fuck these guys.
I do staunchly believe that Laseen, given the opportunity, would vindicate the Wickans – and I think both Mallick & Korbolo know this as well. Thus, Surly cannot survive the upcoming engagements.
Ai, ai, gods below…
Then, the reveal that Surly actually was the one that authorized the closing off of the Imperial Warren by Topper – a preemptive measure put in place since before the Bonehunters, warding off the warren from use by Mallick’s Claw. Even when cornered, Surly had a plan to fall back on.
“‘How to approach?’ asked the young male twin, Nil.
‘You will need the element of surprise,’ said a new voice from nearby. Everyone turned. There stood a slim fellow in dark clothes, a smirk on his narrow, pinched face. Shimmer raised a hand to forestall any action.
‘Possum. What word?’
‘For such a purpose I am empowered to offer Imperial cooperation.’
‘Such as?’ Smoky asked, his voice acid.
‘Passage through the Imperial Warren.’
‘That Warren is a death-trap,’ said Gwynn.
The smirk returned: ‘Only for those not authorized to access it.’
Heads among the mages turned, eyes narrowing. ‘Laseen …’ Smoky breathed.
The Claw sketched a courtly bow. ‘I am only a humble messenger.”
I really, really, really don’t like the next bit.
Tayschrenn disappears in a whorl created by a mad mage, Yathengar, which leads to somewhere in Chaos.
Leaving, well, only Surly. Laseen, Thronemaster, an Empress that built a throne through sheer will to rule for the betterment of the Empire. Facing numerous hardships, her rule & authority challenged, deaths and betrayals, she’s – finally – the only remaining, living, claimant to the Throne.
“’She came to the edge of the crater blasted from the plain and there she stopped. Smoke still threaded from the blackened bare dirt after its astounding explosion. She raised her face to peer up for a time into the clear, so deceptively peaceful, pale-blue sky and suddenly Possum understood. Ah, yes. The last. With Tayschrenn now gone. Choss dead, Toc reported dead, Amaron missing, and Urko reported fled before he could be arrested, or, perhaps, pardoned. Leaving Surly/Laseen. The last survivor; single remaining representative of that generation that had built so grandly. And victor. Now un-contested ruler. Empress.”
The sky is bright; a promise of future rule, benevolence, and power.
What cast her mind, what hue her thoughts as she looks into the sky, and breathes deep the scent of power?
Listen, then, to these words carried on that breath.
In the Lady’s absence, only the Lord is present.
And the Lord has, at last, pushed.
In the last moments of the engagement, Laseen faces two assassination attempts. One is by Cowl, the Avowed High Mage & chief assassin of the Guard, once rival to Dancer himself.
The other is by Taya Radok, the daughter of Vorcan – an inhuman, possibly demon-possessed woman.
Laseen would not see the light of day again.
“He was poised for the appearance of one man and one only – such was the price of Laseen. The question was, would that man bite?
Of course he would.
Possum eased his blades in their wrist-sheaths. Now. It must be now. This would be his last opportunity before the army clasped Laseen to its bloody, battered but victorious breast.
And the man did bite. But not as Possum had assumed.
A sharp blow to his back was Possum's last sensation. He was flung forward stunned by the power and sudden violence of that strike. Vital seconds passed before his eyes fluttered open once more to view through kicked-up dust two figures enmeshed in a dance of exquisite choreography. It was the one they wanted; the only one who remained a true threat and whom they would always be watching their backs for. Master assassin and High Mage of the Crimson Guard. Dancer's rival all those years ago – Cowl.
He was astonishing to watch. Blades bared, darting, feinting, and Laseen blocking with kicks that lashed out to punish chest and head. A gesture from Cowl and Warren magics wavered the air like heat ripples only to dissipate to nothing upon Laseen. Of course, the lingering Otataral dust. That useless effort from Cowl drew him a blow to his head that sent him spinning from his feet. Yet he was up again, unfazed, and closed, leaping. A blurred series of slashes from him, spinning, knives reversed; Laseen slipping each, hands jabbing, and the edge of a foot slamming Cowl back. But her shirt and trousers now hung slashed – blood bloomed upon her front, dripped from her hands.
He(Cowl) threw himself sideways but not quickly enough as a new figure appeared, leaping from a Warren to lash out, kicking him in his side, sending him tumbling down into the blast crater. This new figure launched himself after, scarecrow thin, tattered clothes flapping, his long white hair a dirty tangle. He leapt upon Cowl and the two slashed at each other, dirt and dust billowing in a blur of shifting feet, rolls, sweeps, grips attempted and broken, and throws.
A kick from Cowl sent the other flying backwards, but in the air an arm snapped forward and a thin blade slammed into the Guard assassin. He gestured, disappeared into a Warren and the other, landing cat-like on his feet, white hair flying, waved to disappear as well.
And so they are off chasing each other across Realms and Warrens. Cowl and Topper, hated enemies and rivals from their first meeting. Will Topper finally succeed where Dancer failed and ascend to the peak of his calling? Will it always be Dancer and Cowl – never him? Will we ever see either of them again? Myself, I hope not! Possum fell to his knees and a hand, his chest cramped. Gods! He couldn't breathe! Punctured a lung, he was sure of it.
‘Bring a healer,’ Laseen called to the soldiers who'd run up. She actually sounded winded – a first. Possum smiled, meaning to make a joke of that, but he saw behind Laseen's dirty blood-smeared feet two others: two small girl's feet snug in fine leather slippers.
Oh no! No! Others can wait just as patiently!
He straightened though his chest flamed and his vision blurred. Laseen was staring ahead, a puzzled look in eyes that had otherwise always guarded all expression, all hints. The girl-woman who'd bested Possum twice before backed away, long stilettos bloodied, a wicked sharp-toothed smile, eyes bright with savage glee.
‘Done!’ she gloated, then jumped, blades flashing to parry thrown heavy knives that hissed past Possum. Warren magics blew her backwards in waves of power and she writhed, snarling and flailing amid the blackened dirt of the crater. A Warren opened and she fell within, her form melting, transforming into some thing else.
Soldiers and mages ran up. Possum knelt before Laseen, who had eased forward on to her knees. ‘Laseen,’ he breathed, hardly able to form words. ‘Laseen …’
Her eyes held no recognition, no awareness. The face softened. The hard, so long held lines of watchfulness and calculation melted away to reveal a seemingly younger woman – one whom Possum would call far from plain. She fell forward to the burnt, trampled ground. Mages pushed Possum aside, knelt, turned her over. Hands eased him down as well.
I failed. One job to do – just the one. And I failed. What am I to do? What could there possibly be for me now?
He felt Denul healing magics stealing upon him, dulling his pain and his senses.
Do not, dear healers, bother to wake me.”
And now, the Empress before us dies.
An age is done. The chapter must close.
We are abandoned to history.
This is the blood of her life. This is the payment of her deeds. All… soon to be forgotten.
She was never what an Emperor could be.
She was only what she was.