In those days the Black Company did not exist. This I know because there were laws and decrees that told me so. But I did not feel entirely insubstantial.
The Company standard, its Captain and Lieutenant, its Standardbearer and all the men who had made the Company so terrible, had passed on, having been buried alive at the heart of a vast desert of stone. "Glittering stone," they whispered in the streets and alleys of Taglios, and "Gone to Khatovar," they proclaimed from on high, the mighty making what they had been so determined to prevent for so long over into a great triumph once the Radisha or Protector or somebody decided that people ought to believe that the Company had fulfilled its destiny.
Anyone old enough to remember the Company knew better. Only fifty people had ventured out onto that plain of glittering stone. Half of those people had not been Company. Only two of those fifty had returned to lie about what had happened. And a third who had come back to retail the truth had been killed in the Kiaulune wars, far away from the capital. But the deceits of Soulcatcher and Willow Swan fooled no one, then or now. People simply pretended to believe them because that was safer.
They might have asked why Mogaba needed five years to conquer a Company that had passed on, squandering thousands of young lives to bring the Kiaulune domains under the Radisha's rule and into the realm of the Protector's twisted truths. They might have mentioned that people claiming to be Black Company had held out in the fortress Overlook for years after that, until the Protector, Soulcatcher, finally became so impatient with their intransigence that she invested her own best sorceries in a two-year project that reduced that huge fortress to white powder, white rubble and white bones. They might have raised these points. But they remained silent instead. They were afraid. With cause, they were afraid.
The Taglian empire under the Protectorate is an empire of fear.
During the years of defiance, one unknown hero won Soulcatcher's eternal hatred by sabotaging the Shadowgate, the sole gateway to the glittering plain. Soulcatcher was the most powerful sorcerer alive. She might have become a Shadowmaster to eclipse those monsters the Company had pulled down during its earlier wars on Taglios' behalf. But with the Shadowgate sealed she could not conjure killer shadows more powerful than the few score she had controlled when she worked her treachery on the Company.
Oh, she could open the Shadowgate. One time. She did not know how to close it again, though. Meaning everything inside would be free to wriggle out and begin tormenting the world.
Meaning that for Soulcatcher, party to so few of the secrets, the choice must be all or very little. The end of the world or making do.
For the moment she is making do. And pursuing continuous researches. She is the Protector. Fear of her steeps the empire. There are no challenges to her terror. But even she knows this age of dark concord cannot endure.
In their homes, in the shadowed alleyways, in the city's ten thousand temples, nervous whispers never cease. The Year of the Skulls. The Year of the Skulls. It is an age when no gods die and those that sleep keep stirring restlessly.
In their homes, in the shadowed alleyways or fields of grain or in the sodden paddies, in the pastures and forests and tributary cities, should a comet be seen in the sky or should an unseasonable storm strew devastation or, particularly, if the earth should shake, they murmur, "Water sleeps." And they are afraid.
They call me Sleepy. I was withdrawn as a child, hiding from the horrors of my childhood inside the comfort and emotional safety of daydreams and nightmares. Any time I did not have to work, I went away in there to hide. The evil could not touch me there. I knew no safer place till the Black Company came to Jaicur.
My brothers accused me of sleeping all the time. They resented my ability to get away. They did not understand. They died without ever understanding. I slept on. I did not waken fully till I had been with the Company for several years.
I keep these Annals today. Somebody must and no one else can, though the Annalist title never devolved upon me formally.
There is precedent.
The books must be written. The truth must be recorded even if fate decrees that no man ever reads a word I write. The Annals are the soul of the Black Company. They recall that this is who we are. That this is who we were. That we persevere. And that treachery, as it ever has, failed to suck the last drop of our blood.
We no longer exist. The Protector tells us so. The Radisha swears it. Mogaba, that mighty general with his thousand dark honors, sneers at our memory and spits on our name. People in the streets declare us no more than an evil, haunting memory. But only Soulcatcher does not watch over both shoulders to see what might be gaining ground.
We are stubborn ghosts. We will not lie down. We will not cease to haunt them. We have done nothing for a long time but they remain afraid. Their guilt cannot stop whispering our name.
They should be afraid.
Somewhere in Taglios, every day, a message appears upon a wall, written in chalk or paint or even animal blood. Just a gentle reminder: Water Sleeps.
Everyone knows what that means. They whisper it, aware that there is an enemy out there more restless than running water. An enemy who will, somehow, someday, lurch forth from the mouth of his grave and come for those who played at betrayal. They know no power that can prevent it. They were warned ten thousand times before they gave in to temptation. No evil can preserve them.
Mogaba is afraid.
Radisha is afraid.
Willow Swan is so afraid he barely functions, like the wizard Smoke before him, whom he indicted and tormented for his cowardice. Swan knew the Company of old, in the north, before anyone here recognized it as more than a dark memory of ancient terror. The years have seen no calluses form on Swan's fear.
Purohita Drupada is afraid.
Inspector-General Gokhale is afraid.
Only the Protector is not afraid. Soulcatcher fears nothing. Soulcatcher does not care. She mocks and defies the demon. She is mad. She will laugh and be entertained while being consumed by fire.
Her lack of fear leaves her henchmen that much more troubled. They know she will drive them before her, into the grinding jaws of destiny.
Occasionally a wall will carry another message, a more personal note: All Their Days Are Numbered.
I am in the streets every day, either going to work, going to spy, listening, capturing rumors or launching new ones within the anonymity of Chor Bagan, the Thieves' Garden even the Greys have not yet been able to extirpate. I used to disguise myself as a prostitute but that proved to be too dangerous. There are people out there who make the Protector seem a paragon of sanity. It is the world's great good fortune that fate denies them the power to exercise the fullest depth and sweep of their psychoses.
Mostly I go around as a young man, the way I always did. Rootless young men are everywhere since the end of the wars.
The more bizarre the new rumor, the faster it explodes out of Chor Bagan and the more strongly it gnaws the nerves of our enemies. Always, always, Taglios must enjoy a sense of grim premonition. We must provide them their ration of omens, signs and portents.
The Protector hunts us in her more lucid moments but she never remains interested long. She cannot keep her attention fixed on anything. And why should she be concerned? We are dead. We no longer exist. She herself has declared that to be the reality. As Protector, she is the great arbiter of reality for the entire Taglian empire.
But: Water Sleeps.
In those days the spine of the Company was a woman who never formally joined, the witch Ky Sahra, wife of my predecessor as Annalist, Murgen, the Standardbearer. Ky Sahra was a clever woman with a will like sharp steel. Even Goblin and One-Eye deferred to her. She would not be intimidated, not even by her wicked old Uncle Doj. She feared the Protector, the Radisha and the Greys no more than she feared a cabbage. The malice of evils as great as the deadly cult of Deceivers, their messiah the Daughter of Night and their goddess Kina, intimidated Sahra not at all. She had looked into the heart of darkness. Its secrets inspired in her no dread. Only one thing made Sahra tremble.
Her mother, Ky Gota, was the incarnation of dissatisfaction and complaint. Her lamentations and reproaches were of such amazing potency that it seemed she must be an avatar of some cranky old diety as yet undiscovered by man.
Nobody loves Ky Gota except One-Eye. And even he calls her the Troll behind her back.
Sahra shuddered as her mother limped slowly through a room gone suddenly silent. We were not in power now. We had to use the same few rooms for everything. Only a short while ago this one had been filled with loafers, some Company, most of them employees of Banh Do Trang. We all stared at the old woman, willing her to hurry. Willing her to overlook this opportunity to socialize.
Old Do Trang, who was so feeble he was confined to a wheelchair, rolled over to Ky Gota, evidently hoping a show of concern would keep her moving.
Everyone always wanted Gota to go somewhere else.
This time his sacrifice worked. She had to be in a lot of discomfort, though, not to take time to harangue all who were younger than she.
Silence persisted till the old merchant returned. He owned the place and let us use it as our operational headquarters. He owed us nothing, but nevertheless, shared our danger out of love for Sahra. In all matters his thoughts had to be heard and his wishes had to be honored.
Do Trang was not gone long. He came back rolling wearily. The man behind the liver spots seemed so fragile it had to be a miracle that he could move his chair himself.
Ancient he was, but there was an irrepressible twinkle in his eyes. He nodded. He seldom had anything to say unless someone else said something incredibly stupid. He was a good man.
Sahra told us, "Everything is in place. Every phase and facet has been double-checked. Goblin and One-Eye are sober. It's time the Company speaks up." She glanced around, inviting comments.
I did not think it was time. But I had said my piece when I was planning this. And had been outvoted. I treated myself to a shrug of despair.
There being no new objections, Sahra said, "Start the first phase." She waved at her son. Tobo nodded and slipped out.
He was a skinny, scruffy, furtive youngster. He was Nyueng Bao, which meant he had to be a sneak and a thief. His every move had to be watched. In consequence he was so generally observed that no individual examined in detail what he actually did so long as his hands did not stray toward a dangling purse of some treasure in a vendor's stall. People did not look for what they did not expect to see.
The boy's hands stayed behind his back. While they were there, he was not considered a threat. He could not steal. No one noticed the small, discolored blobs he left on any wall he leaned against.
Gunni children stared. The boy looked so strange in his black pajama clothing. Gunni raise their children polite. Gunni are peaceable folk, in the main. Shadar children, though, are wrought of sterner stuff. They are more bold. Their religion has a warrior philosophy at its root. Some Shadar youths set out to harass the thief.
Of course he was a thief! He was Nyueng Bao. Everyone knew all Nyueng Bao were thieves.
Older Shadar called the youngsters off. The thief would be dealt with by those whose responsibility that was.
The Shadar religion has its streak of bureaucratic rectitude, too.
Even such a small commotion attracted official attention. Three tall, grey-clad, bearded Shadar peacekeepers wearing white turbans advanced through the press. They looked around constantly, intently, oblivious to the fact that they traveled in an island of open space. The streets of Taglios are packed, day and night, yet the masses always find room to shrink away from the Greys. The Greys are all men with hard eyes, seemingly chosen for their lack of patience and compassion.
Tobo drifted away, sliding through the mob like a black snake through swamp reeds. When the Greys inquired about the commotion, no one could describe him as anything but what prejudice led them to presume. A Nyueng Bao thief. And there was a plague of those in Taglios. These days the capital city boasted plenty of every kind of outlander imaginable. Every layabout and lackwit and sharpster from the length and breadth of the empire was migrating to the city. The population had tripled in a generation. But for the cruel efficiencies of the Greys, Taglios would have become a chaotic, murderous sink, a hellfire fueled by poverty and despair.
Poverty and despair existed in plentitude but the Palace did not let any disorder take root. The Palace was good at ferreting out secrets. Criminal careers tended to be short. As did the lives of most who sought to conspire against the Radisha or the Protector. Particularly against the Protector, who did not concern herself deeply with the sanctity of anyone else's skin.
In times past, intrigue and conspiracy had been a miasmatic plague afflicting every life in Taglios. There was little of that anymore. The Protector did not approve. Most Taglians were eager to win the Protector's approval. Even the priesthoods avoided attracting Soulcatcher's evil eye.
At some point the boy's black clothing came off, leaving him in the Gunni-style loincloth he had worn underneath. Now he looked like any other youngster, though with a slightly jaundiced cast of skin. He was safe. He had grown up in Taglios. He had no accent to give him away.
Copyright © 1999 by Glen Cook. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Barns and Noble for the excerpt presented here.