Gardens of the Moon: Book One of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson
It’s the 1154th year of Burn’s Sleep. Ganoes Paran looks down on riots in the Mouse Quarter of the ancient imperial capital of Malaz City. He’s young, the son of a wine merchant. Magic battles rage below. We don’t know anything, except that it’s a tumultuous time. High ranking men are dead. A soldier – a Bridgeburner, an elite – pauses to speak to Ganoes. The boy asks, is it true? Did the dead man betray a god? And the Bridgeburner answers like this:
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.
Another Bridgeburner with a pockmarked face and a fiddle stops by. He’s only a few years older than Ganoes’ twelve, but speaks his opinions like a peer. The soldiers discuss the out-of-control mages laying unnecessary waste to the Mouse Quarter. They discuss a woman, Surly, who dislikes protectiveness, who takes a new name that means “Thronemaster,” who acts with efficient brutality when the Emperor isn’t around.
And here she is Herself, the woman who was Surly but is now Laseen, blue-skinned, flanked by Claw bodyguards. Ganoes is stunned by the Bridgeburner’s informality with a woman of immense and frightening power. The Bridgeburner, the Commander of the Bridgeburners, calls Laseen out on the destruction in the city, only to be ripped a new one and told to get out of town.
Laseen leaves. Ganoes and the Commander look back out over the town. They have this exchange:
“One day I’ll be a soldier,” Ganoes said.
The man grunted. “Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking up the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.”
Ganoes scowled. “You’re not like the other soldiers I’ve talked to. You sound more like my father.”
“But I’m not your father,” the man growled.
“The world,” Ganoes said, “doesn’t need another wine merchant.”
The commander’s eyes narrowed, gauging. He opened his mouth to make the obvious reply, then shut it again.
Malaz City is burning. The air gains the sweet reek of burning pigs.
It’s now the 1161st year of Burn’s Sleep. An old woman and a fishergirl stand by the side of a road, watching a massive column of soldiers pass. The old woman mentions the kin she sent to war before Laseen, “in the days of the Emperor.” The fishergirl barely listens.
Her bright eyes darted among the soldiers passing before her. The young men atop their high-backed saddles held expressions stern and fixed straight ahead. The few women who rode among them sat tall and somehow fiercer than the men. The sunset cast red glints from their helms, flashing so that the girl’s eyes stung and her vision blurred.
The fishergirl exchanges small talk with the old woman Rigga, then says, “Isn’t it wonderful?” of the column. The woman Rigga’s hand shoots out, snagging the fishergirl painfully by the hair. There’s a prophecy to deliver. Rigga the old woman is also Riggalai the seer and wax-witch. The fishergirl will be given a sword and a horse and sent across the sea to war, and shadow will take her soul.
Rigga is saying, “Look to the Lord spawned in Darkness; his is the hand that shall free you, though he’ll know it not–” when a soldier interrupts. The old woman is harassing a pretty young one. The soldier’s gauntleted hand cracks across the old woman’s head. Her dead body flops to the ground. The candles that signal necromancy roll out of her bag. The soldiers ride off. Only dust remains in their wake.
The girl is broken in some deep emotional way. She speaks of her father in her own voice until she suddenly speaks in another voice entirely. Shadows pour across the road. A hand falls on her shoulder. Two men are near, both black-clad, one hooded and tall, the other shorter. They speak like old-time companions about the dead seer.
The shorter man raises his arms. The air rends, blackness fades, and seven huge Hounds now sit in the road. “Something to gnaw on Laseen’s mind,” the shorter man says with a giggle. The short one is Ammanas. The tall one, Cotillion. The Hounds catch up with the column of soldiers; the fishergirl can hear their screams. Ammanas tells the fishergirl she’s the pawn of a god now, and everything else fades away.
Switch scenes. A captain rides alongside a woman called Lorn, the Adjunct to the Empress, which makes her Laseen’s personal servant. The captain is not entirely pleased or comfortable to have such a woman nearby. She points out that he survived the purges of the Empress after her ascendance. They have 1100 soldiers with them to patrol where they’re going. He tells her, “The carnage stretches half a league from the sea, Adjunct, and a quarter-league inland.”
They reach a hill’s summit and look beyond. Crows and gulls’ cries fill the air. Beneath a carpet of feeding birds lie nearly four hundred corpses of men and horses. The captain explains: all these dead had arms drawn. They fought. All the dead are the Empress’s troops. The carnage is horrific. One man rides out of the gory scene to greet them: Ganoes Paran from the prologue, now a lieutenant. He reports that a fishing village nearby is also full of its dead. But, a man and his daughter are missing. The wounds to the dead have been made by “natural weapons.” Teeth. No evidence is left behind, no scat, no hair.
Lorn and Ganoes share barbed conversation – he’s a noble, and nobles rarely take commissions. Ganoes speaks of the horrors he’s seen with a bluntness that verges on rude. He’s therefore surprised when Lorn bogarts him from his current position to become an officer on her own staff.
She tells the truth as she knows it (or as she’s willing to tell it): the deaths of the 400 were a diversion from a mighty sorcerer’s hidden deed. She sends him to the next town over to ask about a fisherman and his daughter. Before he’s off, though, Lorn makes Ganoes’ captain look into any new recruits, either young women or old men, in the Empress’s forces. The captain agrees, sourly.
(And good GOD I forgot how long these chapters were. We’ll just adjourn for today. And perhaps cut down on the detail in the future.)