Home > Red Country (First Law World #3)(8)

Red Country (First Law World #3)(8)
Joe Abercrombie

‘Eighteen years.’

‘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!’

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