Joe Abercrombie




The sunrise was the colour of bad blood. It leaked out of the east and stained the dark sky red, marked the scraps of cloud with stolen gold. Underneath it the road twisted up the mountainside towards the fortress of Fontezarmo-a cluster of sharp towers, ash-black against the wounded heavens. The sunrise was red, black and gold.

The colours of their profession.

“You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.”

She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. “Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.” She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. “But I’ll hear more.”

He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. “Your hair is like to… a veil of shimmering sable!”

“You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.”

“Shit.” He squinted up at the clouds. “Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!”

“I’ve got stones in my face, now?”

“Lips like rose petals?”

She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. “That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.”

“Harder every day,” he muttered. “That jewel I bought looks wonderful well on you.”

She held up her right hand to admire it, a ruby the size of an almond, catching the first glimmers of sunlight and glistening like an open wound. “I’ve had worse gifts.”

“It matches your fiery temper.”

She snorted. “And my bloody reputation.”

“Piss on your reputation! Nothing but idiots’ chatter! You’re a dream. A vision. You look like…” He snapped his fingers. “The very Goddess of War!”

“Goddess, eh?”

“Of War. You like it?”

“It’ll do. If you can kiss Duke Orso’s arse half so well, we might even get a bonus.”

Benna puckered his lips at her. “I love nothing more of a morning than a faceful of his Excellency’s rich, round buttocks. They taste like… power.”

Hooves crunched on the dusty track, saddles creaked and harnesses rattled. The road turned back on itself, and again. The rest of the world dropped away below them. The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink. The river crept slowly into view, winding through the autumn woods in the base of the steep valley. Glittering like an army on the march, flowing swift and merciless towards the sea. Towards Talins.

“I’m waiting,” he said.

“For what?”

“My share of the compliments, of course.”

“If your head swells any further it’ll fucking burst.” She twitched her silken cuffs up. “And I don’t want your brains on my new shirt.”

“Stabbed!” Benna clutched one hand to his chest. “Right here! Is this how you repay my years of devotion, you heartless bitch?”

“How dare you presume to be devoted to me, peasant? You’re like a tick devoted to a tiger!”

“Tiger? Hah! When they compare you to an animal they usually pick a snake.”

“Better than a maggot.”




She could hardly deny that one. Silence settled on them again. A bird trilled from a thirsty tree beside the road.

Benna’s horse drew gradually up beside hers, and ever so gently he murmured, “You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.”

That brought a smile to the corner of her mouth. The corner he couldn’t see. “Well. Facts are facts.”

She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.

“They’ve strengthened the walls since last year,” muttered Benna. “I wouldn’t fancy trying to storm the place.”

“Don’t pretend you’d have the guts to climb the ladder.”

“I wouldn’t fancy telling someone else to storm the place.”

“Don’t pretend you’d have the guts to give the orders.”

“I wouldn’t fancy watching you tell someone else to storm the place.”

“No.” She leaned gingerly from her saddle and frowned down at the plummeting drop on her left. Then she peered up at the sheer wall on her right, battlements a jagged black edge against the brightening sky. “It’s almost as if Orso’s worried someone might try to kill him.”

“He’s got enemies?” breathed Benna, eyes round as saucers with mock amazement.

“Only half of Styria.”

“Then… we’ve got enemies?”

“More than half of Styria.”

“But I’ve tried so hard to be popular…” They trotted between two dour-faced soldiers, spears and steel caps polished to a murderous glint. Hoofbeats echoed in the darkness of the long tunnel, sloping gradually upwards. “You have that look, now.”

“What look?”

“No more fun today.”

“Huh.” She felt the familiar frown gripping her face. “You can afford to smile. You’re the good one.”

It was a different world beyond the gates, air heavy with lavender, shining green after the grey mountainside. A world of close-clipped lawns, of hedges tortured into wondrous shapes, of fountains throwing up glittering spray. Grim guardsmen, the black cross of Talins stitched into their white surcoats, spoiled the mood at every doorway.



“Let’s make this the last season on campaign,” Benna wheedled. “The last summer in the dust. Let’s find something more comfortable to do. Now, while we’re young.”

“What about the Thousand Swords? Closer to ten thousand now, all looking to us for orders.”

“They can look elsewhere. They joined us for plunder and we’ve given them plenty. They’ve no loyalty beyond their own profit.”

She had to admit the Thousand Swords had never represented the best of mankind, or even the best of mercenaries. Most of them were a step above the criminal. Most of the rest were a step below. But that wasn’t the point. “You have to stick at something in your life,” she grunted.

“I don’t see why.”

“That’s you all over. One more season and Visserine will fall, and Rogont will surrender, and the League of

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