I met Joe at Supa Nova earlier this year and found him to be a first rate cove, not at all stuck up, a bloke whose urine would probably be worth a long sip on a hot afternoon. I put off reading his books for a while, because somebody told me they were very sad. In that they were brilliant, but the reading of them would leave you feeling melancholy. And who needs that?
What fucking tosh.
I ripped through the audiobook of Red Country last week and enjoyed it as much as I did the Rothfuss novels, which stood out as books of the year for me. Both of them are working the sword-n-sandal scam, but in very different ways. There is a meaty, gristly nasty fucking realism about Abercrombie's prose which is leavened by some of the funniest characterisation and ink black humour I've long encountered.
I enjoyed it so much I'm going to set it as the Bookclub title after Chasm City. Joe might even drop into the chat at some point over the weekend.
We have an very long extract this week, and one worth your undivided attention if you want to come back at lunch. It's the second chapter in the book, which introduces one of the principle narrators, and some of my favorite villains. It was also where I realised Red Country was going to be a funny book, even if a dark one:
Red Country. Chapter Two. The Easy Way
‘I have suffered many disappointments.’ Nicomo Cosca, captain general of the Company of the Gracious Hand, leaned back stiffly upon one elbow as he spoke. ‘I suppose every great man faces them. Abandons dreams wrecked by betrayal and finds new ones to pursue.’ He frowned towards Mulkova, columns of smoke drifting from the burning city and up into the blue heavens. ‘I have abandoned very many dreams.’
‘That must have taken tremendous courage,’ said Sworbreck, eyeglasses briefly twinkling as he looked up from his notes.
‘Indeed! I lose count of the number of times my death has been prematurely declared by one optimistic enemy or another. Forty years of trials, struggles, challenges, betrayals. Live long enough . . . you see everything ruined.’ Cosca shook himself from his reverie. ‘But it hasn’t been boring, at least! What adventures along the way, eh, Temple?’
Temple winced. He had borne personal witness to five years of occasional fear, frequent tedium, intermittent diarrhoea, failure to avoid the plague, and avoiding fighting as if it was the plague. But he was not paid for the truth. Far from it.
‘Heroic,’ he said.
‘Temple is my notary. He prepares the contracts and sees them honoured. One of the cleverest bastards I ever met. How many languages do you speak, Temple?’
‘Fluently, no more than six.’
‘Most important man in the whole damn Company! Apart from me, of course.’ A breeze washed across the hillside and stirred the wispy white hairs about Cosca’s liver-spotted pate. ‘I so look forward to telling you my stories, Sworbreck!’ Temple restrained another grimace of distaste. ‘The Siege of Dagoska!’ Which ended in utter disaster. ‘The Battle of Afieri!’ Shameful debacle. ‘The Years of Blood!’ Sides changed like shirts. ‘The Kadiri Campaign!’ Drunken fiasco. ‘I even kept a goat for several years. A stubborn beast, but loyal, you’d have to give her that . . .’
Sworbreck achieved the not-inconsiderable feat of performing an obsequious bow while sitting cross-legged against a slab of fallen masonry. ‘I have no doubt my readers will thrill to your exploits.’
‘Enough to fill twenty volumes!’
‘Three will be more than adequate—’
‘I was once Grand Duke of Visserine, you know.’ Cosca waved down attempts at abasement which had, in fact, not happened. ‘Don’t worry, you need not call me Excellency – we are all informal here in the Company of the Gracious Hand, are we not, Temple?’
Temple took a long breath. ‘We are all informal.’ Most of them were liars, all of them were thieves, some of them were killers. Informality was not surprising.
‘Sergeant Friendly has been with me even longer than Temple, ever since we deposed Grand Duke Orso and placed Monzcarro Murcatto on the throne of Talins.’
Sworbreck looked up. ‘You know the Grand Duchess?’
‘Intimately. I consider it no exaggeration to say I was her close friend and mentor. I saved her life at the siege of Muris, and she mine! The story of her rise to power is one I must relate to you at some stage, a noble business. There are precious few persons of quality I have not fought for or against at one time or another. Sergeant Friendly?’
The neckless sergeant looked up, face a blank slab.
‘What have you made of your time with me?’
‘I preferred prison.’ And he returned to rolling his dice, an activity which could fully occupy him for hours at a time.
‘He is such a wag, that one!’ Cosca waved a bony finger at him, though there was no evidence of a joke. In five years Temple had never heard Sergeant Friendly make a joke. ‘Sworbreck, you will find the Company alive with joshing good fun!’
Not to mention simmering feuds, punishing laziness, violence, disease, looting, treachery, drunkenness and debauchery fit to make a devil blush.
‘These five years,’ said Temple, ‘I’ve hardly stopped laughing.’
There was a time he had found the Old Man’s stories hilarious, enchanting, stirring. A magical glimpse of what it was to be without fear. Now they made him feel sick. Whether Temple had learned the truth or Cosca had forgotten it, it was hard to say. Perhaps a little of both.
‘Yes, it’s been quite a career. Many proud moments. Many triumphs. But defeats, too. Every great man has them. Regrets are the cost of the business, Sazine always used to say. People have often accused me of inconsistency but I feel that I have always, at any given junction, done the same thing. Exactly what I pleased.’ The aged mercenary’s fickle attention having wandered back to his imagined glorious past, Temple began to ease away, slipping around a broken column. ‘I had a happy childhood but a wild youth, filled with ugly incidents, and at seventeen I left my birthplace to seek my fortune with only my wits, my courage, and my trusty blade . . .’
The sounds of boasting mercifully faded as Temple retreated down the hillside, stepping from the shadow of the ancient ruin and into the sun. Whatever Cosca might say, there was little joshing good fun going on down here.
Temple had seen wretchedness. He had lived through more than his share. But he had rarely seen people so miserable as the Company’s latest batch of prisoners: a dozen of the fearsome rebels of Starikland chained naked, bloody, filthy and dead-eyed to a stake in the ground. It was hard to imagine them a threat to the greatest nation in the Circle of the World. It was hard to imagine them as humans. Only the tattoos on their forearms showed some last futile defiance.
Fuck the Union. Fuck the King. Read the nearest, a line of bold script from elbow to wrist. A sentiment with which Temple had increasing sympathy. He was developing a sneaking feeling he had found his way onto the wrong side. Again. But it’s not always easy to tell when you’re picking. Perhaps, as Kahdia once told him, you are on the wrong side as soon as you pick one. But it had been Temple’s observation that it was those caught in the middle that always get the worst of it. And he was done with getting the worst.
Sufeen stood by the prisoners, an empty canteen in one hand.
‘What are you about?’ asked Temple.
‘He is wasting water,’ said Bermi, lounging in the sun nearby and scratching at his blond beard.
‘On the contrary,’ said Sufeen. ‘I am trying to administer God’s mercy to our prisoners.’
One had a terrible wound in his side, undressed. His eyes flickered, his lips mouthed meaningless orders or meaningless prayers. Once you could smell a wound there was little hope. But the outlook for the others was no better. ‘If there is a God, He is a smarmy swindler and never to be trusted with anything of importance,’ muttered Temple. ‘Mercy would be to kill them.’
Bermi concurred. ‘I’ve been saying so.’
‘But that would take courage.’ Sufeen lifted his scabbard, offering up the hilt of his sword. ‘Have you courage, Temple?’
Sufeen let the weapon drop. ‘Nor I. And so I give them water, and have not enough even of that. What is happening at the top of the hill?’
‘We await our employers. And the Old Man is feeding his vanity.’
‘That’s a hell of an appetite to satisfy,’ said Bermi, picking daisies and flicking them away.
‘Bigger every day. It rivals Sufeen’s guilt.’
‘This is not guilt,’ said Sufeen, frowning towards the prisoners. ‘This is righteousness. Did the priests not teach you that?’
‘Nothing like a religious education to cure a man of righteousness,’ muttered Temple. He thought of Haddish Kahdia speaking the lessons in the plain white room, and his younger self scoffing at them. Charity, mercy, selflessness. How conscience is that piece of Himself that God puts in every man. A splinter of the divine. One that Temple had spent long years struggling to prise out. He caught the eye of one of the rebels. A woman, hair tangled across her face. She reached out as far as the chains would allow. For the water or the sword, he could not say. Grasp your future! called the words inked into her skin. He pulled out his own canteen, frowned as he weighed it in his hand.
‘Some guilt of your own?’ asked Sufeen.
It might have been a while since he wore them, but Temple had not forgotten what chains felt like. ‘How long have you been a scout?’ he snapped.
‘You should know by now that conscience is a shitty navigator.’
‘It certainly doesn’t know the country out here,’ added Bermi.
Sufeen spread wide his hands. ‘Who then shall show us the way?’
‘Temple!’ Cosca’s cracked howl, floating from above.
‘Your guide calls,’ said Sufeen. ‘You will have to give them water later.’
Temple tossed him the canteen as he headed back up the hillside. ‘You do it. Later, the Inquisition will have them.’
‘Always the easy way, eh, Temple?’ called Sufeen after him.
‘Always,’ muttered Temple. He made no apology for it.
‘Welcome, gentlemen, welcome!’ Cosca swept off his outrageous hat as their illustrious employers approached, riding in tight formation around a great fortified wagon. Even though the Old Man had, thank God, quit spirits yet again a few months before, he still seemed always slightly drunk. There was a floppy flourish to his knobbly hands, a lazy drooping of his withered eyelids, a rambling music to his speech. That and you could never be entirely sure what he would do or say next. There had been a time Temple had found that constant uncertainty thrilling, like watching the lucky wheel spin and wondering if his number would come up. Now it felt more like cowering beneath a storm-cloud and waiting for the lightning.
‘General Cosca.’ Superior Pike, head of his August Majesty’s Inquisition in Starikland and the most powerful man within five hundred miles, was the first to dismount. His face was burned beyond recognition, eyes darkly shadowed in a mask of mottled pink, the corner of his mouth curled up in what was either a smile or a trick of the ravages of fire. A dozen of his hulking Practicals, dressed and masked in black and bristling with weaponry, arranged themselves watchfully about the ruin.
Cosca grinned across the valley towards the smouldering city, unintimidated. ‘Mulkova burns, I see.’
‘Better that it burn in Union hands than prosper under the rebels,’ said Inquisitor Lorsen as he got down: tall and gaunt, his eyes bright with zeal. Temple envied him that. To feel certain in the right no matter what wrongs you took part in.
‘Quite so,’ said Cosca. ‘A sentiment with which her citizens no doubt all agree! Sergeant Friendly you know, and this is Master Temple, notary to my company.’
General Brint dismounted last, the operation rendered considerably more difficult since he had lost most of an arm at the Battle of Osrung along with his entire sense of humour, and wore the left sleeve of his crimson uniform folded and pinned to his shoulder. ‘You are prepared for legal disagreements, then,’ he said, adjusting his sword-belt and eyeing Temple as if he was the morning plague cart.
‘The second thing a mercenary needs is a good weapon.’ Cosca clapped a fatherly hand on Temple’s shoulder. ‘The first is good legal advice.’
‘And where does an utter lack of moral scruple feature?’
‘Number five,’ said Temple. ‘Just behind a short memory and a ready wit.’
Superior Pike was considering Sworbreck, still scribbling notes. ‘And on what does this man advise you?’
‘That is Spillion Sworbreck, my biographer.’
‘No more than a humble teller of tales!’ Sworbreck gave the Superior a flamboyant bow. ‘Though I freely confess that my prose has caused grown men to weep.’
‘In a good way?’ asked Temple.
If he heard, the author was too busy praising himself to respond. ‘I compose stories of heroism and adventure to inspire the Union’s citizens! Widely distributed now, via the wonders of the new Rimaldi printing press. You have heard, perhaps, of my Tales of Harod the Great in five volumes?’ Silence. ‘In which I mine the mythic splendour of the origin of the Union itself?’ Silence. ‘Or the eight-volume sequel, The Life of Casamir, Hero of Angland?’ Silence. ‘In which I hold up the mirror of past glories to expose the moral collapse of the present day?’
‘No.’ Pike’s melted face betrayed no emotion.
‘I will have copies sent to you, Superior!’
‘You could use readings from them to force confessions from your prisoners,’ murmured Temple, under his breath.
‘Do not trouble yourself,’ said Pike.
‘No trouble! General Cosca has permitted me to accompany him on his latest campaign while he relates the details of his fascinating career as a soldier of fortune! I mean to make him the subject of my most celebrated work to date!’
The echoes of Sworbreck’s words faded into a crushing silence.
‘Remove this man from my presence,’ said Pike. ‘His manner of expression offends me.’
Sworbreck backed down the hillside with an almost reckless speed, shepherded by two Practicals. Cosca continued without the slightest hint of embarrassment.
‘General Brint!’ and he seized the general’s remaining hand in both of his. ‘I understand you have some concerns about our participation in the assault—’
‘It was the lack of it that bothered me!’ snapped Brint, twisting his fingers free.
Cosca pushed out his lips with an air of injured innocence. ‘You feel we fell short of our contractual obligations?’
‘You’ve fallen short of honour, decency, professionalism—’
‘I recall no reference to them in the contract,’ said Temple.
‘You were ordered to attack! Your failure to do so cost the lives of several of my men, one a personal friend!’
Cosca waved a lazy hand, as though personal friends were ephemera that could hardly be expected to bear on an adult discussion. ‘We were engaged here, General Brint, quite hotly.’
‘In a bloodless exchange of arrows!’
‘You speak as though a bloody exchange would be preferable.’ Temple held out his hand to Friendly. The sergeant produced the contract from an inside pocket. ‘Clause eight, I believe.’ He swiftly found the place and presented it for inspection. ‘Technically, any exchange of projectiles constitutes engagement. Each member of the Company is, in fact, due a bonus as a result.’
Brint looked pale. ‘A bonus, too? Despite the fact that not one man was wounded.’
Cosca cleared his throat. ‘We do have a case of dysentery.’
‘Is that a joke?’
‘Not to anyone who has suffered the ravages of dysentery, I assure you!’
‘Clause nineteen . . .’ Paper crackled as Temple thumbed through the densely written document. ‘“Any man rendered inactive by illness during the discharge of his contractual obligations is to be considered a loss to the Company.” A further payment is therefore due for the replacement of losses. Not to mention those for prisoners taken and delivered—’
‘It all comes down to money, doesn’t it?’
Cosca shrugged so high his gilt epaulettes tickled his earlobes. ‘What else would it come down to? We are mercenaries. Better motives we leave to better men.’
Brint gazed at Temple, positively livid. ‘You must be delighted with your wriggling, you Gurkish worm.’
‘You were happy to put your name to the terms, General.’ Temple flipped over the back page to display Brint’s overwrought signature. ‘My delight or otherwise does not enter the case. Nor does my wriggling. And I am generally agreed to be half-Dagoskan, half-Styrian, since you bring my parentage into—’
‘You’re a brown bastard son of a whore.’
Temple only smiled. ‘My mother was never ashamed of her profession – why should I be?’
The general stared at Superior Pike, who had taken a seat on a lichen-splattered block of masonry, produced a haunch of bread and was trying to entice birds down from the crumbling ruin with faint kissing sounds. ‘Am I to understand that you approve of this licensed banditry, Superior? This contractual cowardice, this outrageous—’
‘General Brint.’ Pike’s voice was gentle, but somewhere in it had a screeching edge which, like the movement of rusty hinges, enforced wincing silence. ‘We all appreciate the diligence you and your men have displayed. But the war is over. We won.’ He tossed some crumbs into the grass and watched a tiny bird flit down and begin to peck. ‘It is not fitting that we quibble over who did what. You signed the contract. We will honour it. We are not barbarians.’
‘We are not.’ Brint gave Temple, then Cosca, then Friendly a furious glare. They were all, each in his way, unmoved. ‘I must get some air. There is a sickening stench here!’ And with some effort the general hauled himself back into his saddle, turned his horse and thundered away, pursued by several aides-de-camp.
‘I find the air quite pleasant,’ said Temple brightly, somewhat relieved that confrontation at least was over.
‘Pray forgive the general,’ said Pike ‘He is very much committed to his work.’
‘I try always to be forgiving of other men’s foibles,’ said Cosca. ‘I have enough of my own, after all.’
Pike did not attempt to deny it. ‘I have further work for you even so. Inquisitor Lorsen, could you explain?’ And he turned back to his birds, as though his meeting was with them and the rest a troublesome distraction.
Lorsen stepped forward, evidently relishing his moment. ‘The rebellion is at an end. The Inquisition is weeding out all those disloyal to the crown. Some few rebels have escaped, however, scattering through the passes and into the uncivilised west where, no doubt, they will foment new discord.’
‘Cowardly bastards!’ Cosca slapped at his thigh. ‘Could they not stand and be slaughtered like decent men? I’m all for fermentation but fomentation is a damned imposition!’
Lorsen narrowed his eyes as though at a contrary wind, and ploughed on. ‘For political reasons, his Majesty’s armies are unable to pursue them.’
‘Political reasons . . .’ offered Temple, ‘such as a border?’
‘Precisely,’ said Lorsen.
Cosca examined his ridged and yellowed fingernails. ‘Oh, I’ve never taken those very seriously.’
‘Precisely,’ said Pike.
‘We want the Company of the Gracious Hand to cross the mountains and pacify the Near Country as far west as the Sokwaya River. This rot of rebellion must be excised once and for all.’ Lorsen cut at imaginary filth with the edge of his hand, voice rising as he warmed to his subject. ‘We must clean out this sink of depravity which has too long been allowed to fester on our border! This . . . overflowing latrine! This backed-up sewer, endlessly disgorging its ordure of chaos into the Union!’
Temple reflected that, for a man who professed himself opposed to ordure, Inquisitor Lorsen certainly relished a shit-based metaphor.
‘Well, no one enjoys a backed-up sewer,’ conceded Cosca. ‘Except the sewer-men themselves, I suppose, who scratch out their wretched livings in the sludge. Unblocking the drains is a speciality of ours, isn’t it, Sergeant Friendly?’
The big man looked up from his dice long enough to shrug.
‘Temple is the linguist but perhaps I might in this case interpret?’ The Old Man twisted the waxed tips of his grey moustaches between finger and thumb. ‘You wish us to visit a plague upon the settlers of the Near Country. You wish us to make stern examples of every rebel sheltered and every person who gives them shelter. You wish us to make them understand that their only future is with the grace and favour of his August Majesty. You wish us to force them into the welcoming arms of the Union. Do I come close to the mark?’
‘Close enough,’ murmured Superior Pike.
Temple found that he was sweating. When he wiped his forehead his hand trembled. But what could he do?
‘The Paper of Engagement is already prepared.’ Lorsen produced his own sheaf of crackling documents, a heavy seal of red wax upon its bottom corner.
Cosca waved it away. ‘My notary will look it over. All the legal fiddle-faddle quite swims before my eyes. I am a simple soldier.’
‘Admirable,’ said Pike, his hairless brows raised by the slightest fraction.
Temple’s ink-spotted forefinger traced through the blocks of calligraphy, eyes flickering from one point of interest to another. He realised he was picking nervously at the corners of the pages and made himself stop.
‘I will accompany you on the expedition,’ said Lorsen. ‘I have a list of settlements suspected of harbouring rebels. Or rebellious sentiment.’
Cosca grinned. ‘Nothing more dangerous than sentiment!’
‘In particular, his Eminence the Arch Lector offers a bonus of fifty thousand marks for the capture, alive, of the chief instigator of the insurrection, the one the rebels call Conthus. He goes also under the name of Symok. The Ghosts call him Black Grass. At the massacre in Rostod he used the alias—’
‘No further aliases, I beg you!’ Cosca massaged the sides of his skull as if they pained him. ‘Since suffering a head-wound at the Battle of Afieri I have been cursed with an appalling memory for names. It is a source of constant embarrassment. But Sergeant Friendly has all the details. If your man Conshus—’
‘What did I say?’
‘There you go! If he’s in the Near Country, he’ll be yours.’
‘Alive,’ snapped Lorsen. ‘He must answer for his crimes. He must be made a lesson of. He must be put on display!’
‘And he’ll make a most educational show, I’m sure!’
Pike flicked another pinch of crumbs to his gathering flock. ‘The methods we leave to you, captain general. We would only ask that there be something left in the ashes to annexe.’
‘As long as you realise a Company of mercenaries is more club than scalpel.’
‘His Eminence has chosen the method and understands its limitations.’
‘An inspirational man, the Arch Lector. We are close friends, you know.’
‘His one firm stipulation, clear in the contract, as you see, is that you avoid any Imperial entanglements. Any and all, am I understood?’ That grating note entered Pike’s voice again. ‘Legate Sarmis still haunts the border like an angry phantom. I do not suppose he will cross it but even so he is a man decidedly not to be trifled with, a most bloody-minded and bloody-handed adversary. His Eminence desires no further wars at present.’
‘Do not concern yourself, I avoid fighting wherever possible.’ Cosca slapped happily at the hilt of his blade. ‘A sword is for rattling, not for drawing, eh?’
‘We have a gift for you, also.’ Superior Pike indicated the fortified wagon, an oaken monster bound in riveted iron and hauled by a team of eight muscular horses. It was halfway between conveyance and castle, with slitted windows and a crenelated parapet about the top, from which defenders might presumably shoot at circling enemies. Far from the most practical of gifts, but then Cosca had never been interested in practicalities.
‘For me?’ The Old Man pressed his withered hands to his gilded breastplate. ‘It shall be my home from home out in the wilderness!’
‘There is a . . . secret within,’ said Lorsen. ‘Something his Eminence would very much like to see tested.’
‘I love surprises! Ones that don’t involve armed men behind me, anyway. You may tell his Eminence it will be my honour.’ Cosca stood, wincing as his aged knees audibly clicked. ‘How does the Paper of Engagement appear?’
Temple looked up from the penultimate page. ‘Er . . .’ The contract was closely based on the one he had drawn up for their previous engagement, was watertight in every particular, was even more generous in several. ‘Some issues with supply,’ he stammered, fumbling for objections. ‘Food and weaponry are covered but the clause really should include—’
‘Details. No cause for delay. Let’s get the papers signed and the men ready to move. The longer they sit idle, the harder to get them off their arses. No force of nature so dangerous to life and commerce as mercenaries without employment.’ Except, perhaps, mercenaries with employment.
‘It would be prudent to allow me a little longer to—’
Cosca came close, setting his hand on Temple’s shoulder again. ‘Have you a legal objection?’
Temple paused, clutching for some words which might carry weight with a man with whom nothing carried any weight. ‘Not a legal objection, no.’
‘A financial objection?’ offered Cosca.
‘Then . . . ?’
‘Do you remember when we first met?’
Cosca suddenly flashed that luminous smile of which only he was capable, good humour and good intentions radiating from his deep-lined face. ‘Of course. I wore that blue uniform, you the brown rags.’
‘You said . . .’ It hardly felt possible, now. ‘You said we would do good together.’
‘And haven’t we, in the main? Legally and financially?’ As though the entire spectrum of goodness ranged between those twin poles.
‘And . . . morally?’
The Old Man’s forehead furrowed as though it was a word in a foreign tongue. ‘Morally?’
‘General, please.’ Temple fixed Cosca with his most earnest expression. And Temple knew he could be earnest, when he truly believed. Or had a great deal to lose. ‘I beg you. Do not sign this paper. This will not be war, it will be murder.’
Cosca’s brows went up. ‘A fine distinction, to the buried.’
‘We are not judges! What happens to the people of these towns once the men get among them, hungry for plunder? Women and children, General, who had no part in any rebellion. We are better than this.’
‘We are? You did not say so in Kadir. You persuaded me to sign that contract, if I recall.’
‘And in Styria, was it not you who encouraged me to take back what was mine?’
‘You had a valid claim—’
‘Before we took ship to the North, you helped me persuade the men. You can be damned persuasive when you have a mind.’
‘Then let me persuade you now. Please, General Cosca. Do not sign.’
There was a long pause. Cosca heaved in a breath, his forehead creasing yet more deeply. ‘A conscientious objection, then.’
‘Conscience is,’ muttered Temple hopefully, ‘a splinter of the divine?’ Not to mention a shitty navigator, and it had led him into some dangerous waters now. He realised he was picking nervously at the hem of his shirt as Cosca gazed upon him. ‘I simply have a feeling this job . . .’ He struggled for words that might turn the tide of inevitability. ‘Will go bad,’ he finished, lamely.
‘Good jobs rarely require the services of mercenaries.’ Cosca’s hand squeezed a little tighter at his shoulder and Temple felt Friendly’s looming presence behind him. Still, and silent, and yet very much there. ‘Men of conscience and conviction might find themselves better suited to other lines of work. His Majesty’s Inquisition offers a righteous cause, I understand?’
Temple swallowed as he looked across at Superior Pike, who had now attracted a twittering avian crowd. ‘I’m not sure I care for their brand of righteousness.’
‘Well, that’s the thing about righteousness,’ murmured Cosca, ‘everyone has their own brand. Gold, on the other hand, is universal. In my considerable experience, a man is better off worrying about what is good for his purse than what is simply . . . good.’
Cosca squeezed still more firmly. ‘Without wishing to be harsh, Temple, it isn’t all about you. I have the welfare of the whole company to think of. Five hundred men.’
‘Five hundred and twelve,’ said Friendly.
‘Plus one with dysentery. I cannot inconvenience them for the sake of your feelings. That would be . . . immoral. I need you, Temple. But if you wish to leave . . .’ Cosca issued a weighty sigh. ‘In spite of all your promises, in spite of my generosity, in spite of everything we have been through together, well . . .’ He held out an arm towards burning Mulkova and raised his brows. ‘I suppose the door is always open.’
Temple swallowed. He could have left. He could have said he wanted no part of this. Enough is enough, damn it! But that would have taken courage. That would have left him with no armed men at his back. Alone, and weak, and a victim once again. That would have been hard to do. And Temple always took the easy way. Even when he knew it was the wrong way. Especially then, in fact, since easy and wrong make such good company. Even when he had a damn good notion it would end up being the hard way, even then. Why think about tomorrow when today is such a thorny business?
Perhaps Kahdia would have found some way to stop this. Something involving supreme self-sacrifice, most likely. Temple, it hardly needed to be said, was not Kahdia. He wiped away a fresh sheen of sweat, forced a queasy smile onto his face and bowed. ‘I remain always honoured to serve.’
‘Excellent!’ And Cosca plucked the contract from Temple’s limp hand and spread it out to sign upon a sheered-off column.
Superior Pike stood, brushing crumbs from his shapeless black coat and sending birds scattering. ‘Do you know what’s out there, in the west?’
He let the question hang a moment. Below them the faint jingling, groaning, snapping could be heard of his Practicals dragging the prisoners away. Then he answered himself.
‘The future. And the future does not belong to the Old Empire – their time is a thousand years past. Nor does it belong to the Ghosts, savages that they are. Nor does it belong to the fugitives, adventurers and opportunist scum who have put the first grasping roots into its virgin soil. No. The future belongs to the Union. We must seize it.’
‘We must not be afraid to do what is necessary to seize it,’ added Lorsen.
‘Never fear, gentlemen.’ Cosca grinned as he scratched out the parting swirl of his signature. ‘We will seize the future together.’