Before They Are Hanged


"Nobody writes grittier heroic fantasy than Joe Abercrombie."

Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, for Realms of Fantasy

"Nobody writes grittier heroic fantasy than Joe Abercrombie."

Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, for Realms of Fantasy

Before They Are Hanged - UK Paperback

Book Two of The First Law

“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.” – Heinrich Heine

Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick.

Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much.

Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.

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    To Sand dan Glokta,
    Superior of Dagoska, and for his eyes alone.

    You will take ship immediately, and assume command of the Inquisition in the city of Dagoska. You will establish what became of your predecessor, Superior Davoust. You will investigate his suspicion that a conspiracy is afoot, perhaps in the city’s ruling council itself. You will examine the members of that council, and uproot any and all disloyalty. Punish treason with scant mercy, but ensure that your evidence is sound. We can afford no further blunders.

    Gurkish soldiers already crowd to the peninsula, ready to exploit any weakness. The King’s regiments are fully committed in Angland, so you can expect little help should the Gurkish attack. You will therefore ensure that the defences of the city are strong, and that provisions are sufficient to withstand any siege. You will keep me informed of your progress in regular letters. Above all, you will ensure that Dagoska does not, under any circumstances, fall into the hands of the Gurkish.

    Do not fail me.

    Arch Lector of his Majesty’s Inquisition.

    Glokta folded the letter carefully and slipped it back into his pocket, checking once again that the King’s writ was safe beside it. Damn thing. The big document had been weighing heavily in his coat ever since the Arch Lector passed it to him. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands, the gold leaf on the big red seal glittering in the harsh sunlight. A single sheet of paper, yet worth more than gold. Priceless. With this, I speak with the King’s own voice. I am the most powerful man in Dagoska, greater even than the Lord Governor himself. All must hear me and obey. As long as I can stay alive, that is.

    The voyage had not been a pleasant one. The ship was small and the Circle Sea had been rough on the way over. Glokta’s own cabin was tiny, hot and close as an oven. An oven swaying wildly all day and all night. If he had not been trying to eat gruel with the bowl slopping crazily around, he had been vomiting back up those small amounts he had actually managed to swallow. But at least below decks there was no chance of his useless leg giving way and dumping him over the side into the sea. Yes, the voyage has hardly been pleasant.

    But now the voyage was over. The ship was already slipping up to its mooring in amongst the crowded wharves. The sailors were already struggling with the anchor, throwing ropes on to the dock. Now the gangplank was sliding across from ship to dusty shore.

    ‘Right,’ said Practical Severard. ‘I’m going to get me a drink.’

    ‘Make it a strong one, but see you catch up with me later. We’ll have work to do tomorrow. Lots of work.’

    Severard nodded, lanky hair swaying around his thin face. ‘Oh, I live to serve.’ I’m not sure what you live for, but I doubt it’s that. He sauntered off, whistling tunelessly, clattered across the plank, down the wharf and off between the dusty brown buildings beyond.

    Glokta eyed the narrow length of wood with not a little worry, worked his hand around the handle of his cane, tongued at his empty gums, building himself up to stepping on to it. An act of selfless heroism indeed. He wondered for a moment whether he would be wiser to crawl across on his stomach. It would reduce the chance of a watery death, but it would hardly be appropriate, would it? The city’s awe-inspiring Superior of the Inquisition, slithering into his new domain on his belly?

    ‘Need a hand?’ Practical Vitari was looking at him sideways, leaning back on the ship’s handrail, red hair sticking up off her head like the spines on a thistle. She seemed to have spent the entire journey basking in the open air like a lizard, quite unmoved by the reeling of the ship, enjoying the crushing heat every bit as much as Glokta despised it. It was hard to judge her expression beneath her black Practical’s mask. But it’s a good bet she’s smiling. No doubt she’s already preparing her first report to the Arch Lector: ‘The cripple spent most of the voyage below decks, puking. When we arrived at Dagoska he had to be hoisted ashore with the cargo. Already he has become a laughing stock …’

    ‘Of course not!’ snapped Glokta, hobbling up onto the plank as though he took his life in his hands every morning. It wobbled alarmingly as he planted his right foot on it, and he became painfully aware of the grey-green water slapping at the slimy stones of the quay a long drop below him. Body found floating by the docks …

    But in the end he was able to shuffle across without incident, dragging his withered leg behind him. He felt an absurd pang of pride when he made it to the dusty stones of the docks and finally stood on dry land again. Ridiculous. Anyone would think I’d beaten the Gurkish and saved the city already, rather than hobbled three strides. To add insult to injury, now that he had become used to the constant lurching of the ship, the stillness of land was making his head spin and his stomach roll, and the rotten salt stink of the baking docks was very far from helping. He forced himself to swallow a mouthful of bitter spit, closed his eyes and turned his face towards the cloudless sky.

    Hell, but it’s hot. Glokta had forgotten how hot the South could be. Late in the year, and still the sun was blazing down, still he was running with sweat under his long black coat. The garments of the Inquisition may be excellent for instilling terror in a suspect, but I fear they are poorly suited to a hot climate.

    Practical Frost was even worse off. The hulking albino had covered every exposed inch of his milky skin, even down to black gloves and a wide hat. He peered up at the brilliant sky, pink eyes narrowed with suspicion and misery, broad white face beaded with sweat around his black mask.

    itari peered sidelong at the pair of them. ‘You two really should get out more,’ she muttered.

    A man in Inquisitor’s black was waiting at the end of the wharf, sticking close to the shade of a crumbling wall but still sweating generously. A tall, bony man with bulging eyes, his hooked nose red and peeling from sunburn. The welcoming committee? Judging by its scale, I am scarcely welcome at all.

    ‘I am Harker, senior Inquisitor in the city.’

    ‘Until I arrived,’ snapped Glokta. ‘How many others have you?’

    The Inquisitor frowned. ‘Four Inquisitors and some twenty Practicals.’

    ‘A small complement, to keep a city of this size free of treason.’

    Harker’s frown grew more surly yet. ‘We’ve always managed.’ Oh, indeed. Apart from mislaying your Superior, of course. ‘This is your first visit to Dagoska?’

    ‘I have spent some time in the South.’ The best days of my life, and the worst. ‘I was in Gurkhul during the war. I saw Ulrioch.’ In ruins after we burned the city. ‘And I was in Shaffa for two years.’ If you count the Emperor’s Prisons. Two years in the boiling heat and the crushing darkness. Two years in hell. ‘But I have never been to Dagoska.’

    ‘Huh,’ snorted Harker, unimpressed. ‘Your quarters are in the Citadel.’ He nodded towards the great rock that loomed up over the city. Of course they are. In the very highest part of the highest building, no doubt. ‘I’ll show you the way. Lord Governor Vurms and his council will be keen to meet their new Superior.’ He turned with a look of some bitterness. Feel you should have got the job yourself, eh? I’m delighted to disappoint you.

    Harker set off into the city at a brisk pace, Practical Frost trudging along beside him, heavy shoulders hunched around his thick neck, sticking to every trace of shade as though the sun were shooting tiny darts at him. Vitari zig-zagged across the dusty street as if it was a dance-floor, peering through windows and down narrow side-streets. Glokta shuffled along doggedly behind, his left leg already starting to burn with the effort.

    ‘The cripple shuffled only three strides into the city before he fell on his face, and had to be carried the rest of the way by stretcher, squealing like a half-slaughtered pig and begging for water, while the very citizens he was sent to terrify watched, dumbstruck …’

    He curled his lips back and dug his remaining teeth into his empty gums, forced himself to keep pace with the others, the handle of his cane cutting into his palm, his spine giving an agonising click with every step.

    ‘This is the Lower City,’ grumbled Harker over his shoulder, ‘where the native population are housed.’

    A giant, boiling, dusty, stinking slum. The buildings were mean and badly maintained: rickety shacks of one storey, leaning piles of half-baked mud bricks. The people were all dark-skinned, poorly dressed, hungry-looking. A bony woman peered out at them from a doorway. An old man with one leg hobbled past on bent crutches. Down a narrow alley ragged children darted between piles of refuse. The air was heavy with the stink of rot and bad sewers. Or no sewers at all. Flies buzzed everywhere. Fat, angry flies. The only creatures prospering here.

    ‘If I’d known it was such a charming place,’ observed Glokta, ‘I’d have come sooner. Seems the Dagoskans have done well from joining the Union, eh?’

    Harker did not recognise the irony. ‘They have indeed. During the short time the Gurkish controlled the city, they took many of the leading citizens as slaves. Now, under the Union, they are truly free to work and live as they please.’

    ‘Truly free, eh?’ So this is what freedom looks like. Glokta watched a group of sullen natives crowding round a stall poorly stocked with half-rotten fruit and flyblown offal.

    ‘Well, mostly.’ Harker frowned. ‘The Inquisition had to weed out a few troublemakers when we first arrived. Then, three years ago, the ungrateful swine mounted a rebellion.’ After we gave them the freedom to live like animals in their own city? Shocking. ‘We got the better of them, of course, but they caused no end of damage. After that they were barred from keeping weapons, or entering the Upper City, where most of the whites live. Since then, things have been quiet. It only goes to show that a firm hand is most effective when it comes to dealing with these primitives.’

    ‘They built some impressive defences, for primitives.’

    A high wall cut through the city before them, casting a long shadow over the squalid buildings of the slum. There was a wide pit in front, freshly dug and lined with sharpened stakes. A narrow bridge led across to a tall gate, set between looming towers. The heavy doors were open, but a dozen men stood before them: sweating Union soldiers in steel caps and studded leather coats, harsh sun glinting on their swords and spears.

    ‘A well-guarded gate,’ mused Vitari. ‘Considering that it’s inside the city.’

    Harker frowned. ‘Since the rebellion, natives have only been allowed within the Upper City if they have a permit.’

    ‘And who holds a permit?’ asked Glokta.

    ‘Some skilled craftsmen and so forth, still employed by the Guild of Spicers, but mostly servants who work in the Upper City and the Citadel. Many of the Union citizens who live here have native servants, some have several.’

    ‘Surely the natives are citizens of the Union also?’

    Harker curled his lip. ‘If you say so, Superior, but they can’t be trusted, and that’s a fact. They don’t think like us.’

    ‘Really?’ If they think at all it will be an improvement on this savage.

    ‘They’re all scum, these browns. Gurkish, Dagoskan, all the same. Killers and thieves, the lot of them. Best thing to do is to push them down and keep them down.’ Harker scowled out at the baking slum. ‘If a thing smells like shit, and is the colour of shit, the chances are it is shit.’ He turned and stalked off across the bridge.

    ‘What a charming and enlightened man,’ murmured Vitari. You read my mind.

    It was a different world beyond the gates. Stately domes, elegant towers, mosaics of coloured glass and pillars of white marble shone in the blazing sun. The streets were wide and clean, the residences well maintained. There were even a few thirsty-looking palms in the neat squares. The people here were sleek, well dressed, and white-skinned. Aside from a great deal of sunburn. A few dark faces moved among them, keeping well out of the way, eyes on the ground. Those lucky enough to be allowed to serve? They must be glad that we in the Union would not tolerate such a thing as slavery.

    Over everything Glokta could hear a rattling din, like a battle in the distance. It grew louder as he dragged his aching leg through the Upper City, and reached a furious pitch as they emerged into a wide square, packed from one edge to the other with a bewildering throng. There were people of Midderland, and Gurkhul, and Styria, narrow-eyed natives of Suljuk, yellow-haired citizens of the Old Empire, bearded Northmen even, far from home.

    ‘Merchants,’ grunted Harker. All the merchants in the world, it looks like. They crowded round stalls laden with produce, great scales for the weighing of materials, blackboards with chalked-in goods and prices. They bellowed, borrowed and bartered in a multitude of different languages, threw up their hands in strange gestures, shoved and tugged and pointed at one another. They sniffed at boxes of spice and sticks of incense, fingered at bolts of cloth and planks of rare wood, squeezed at fruits, bit at coins, peered through eye-glasses at flashing gemstones. Here and there a native porter stumbled through the crowds, stooped double under a massive load.

    ‘The Spicers take a cut of everything,’ muttered Harker, shoving impatiently through the chattering press.

    ‘That must be a great deal,’ said Vitari under her breath. A very great deal, I should imagine. Enough to defy the Gurkish. Enough to keep a whole city prisoner. People will kill for much, much less.

    Glokta grimaced and snarled his way across the square, jolted and barged and painfully shoved at every limping step. It was only when they finally emerged from the crowds at the far side that he realised they were standing in the very shadow of a vast and graceful building, rising arch upon arch, dome upon dome, high over the crowds. Delicate spires at each corner soared into the air, slender and frail.

    ‘Magnificent,’ muttered Glokta, stretching out his aching back and squinting up, the pure white stone almost painful to look at in the afternoon glare. ‘Seeing this, one could almost believe in God.’ If one didn’t know better.

    ‘Huh,’ sneered Harker. ‘The natives used to pray here in their thousands, poisoning the air with their damn chanting and superstition, until the rebellion was put down, of course.’

    ‘And now?’

    ‘Superior Davoust declared it off limits to them. Like everything else in the Upper City. Now the Spicers use it as an extension to the marketplace, buying and selling and so on.’

    ‘Huh.’ How very appropriate. A temple to the making of money. Our own little religion.

    ‘I believe some bank uses part of it for their offices, as well.’

    ‘A bank? Which one?’

    ‘The Spicers run that side of things,’ snapped Harker impatiently. ‘Valint and something, is it?’

    ‘Balk. Valint and Balk.’ So some old acquaintances are here before me, eh? I should have known. Those bastards are everywhere. Everywhere there’s money. He peered round at the swarming marketplace. And there’s a lot of money here.

    The way grew steeper as they began to climb the great rock, the streets built onto shelves cut out from the dry hillside. Glokta laboured on through the heat, stooped over his cane, biting his lip against the pain in his leg, thirsty as a dog and with sweat leaking out through every pore. Harker made no effort to slow as Glokta toiled along behind him. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to ask him to.

    ‘Above us is the Citadel.’ The Inquisitor waved his hand at the mass of sheer-walled buildings, domes and towers clinging to the very top of the brown rock, high above the city. ‘It was once the seat of the native King, but now it serves as Dagoska’s administrative centre, and accommodates some of the most important citizens. The Spicers’ guildhall is inside, and the city’s House of Questions.’

    ‘Quite a view,’ murmured Vitari.

    Glokta turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. Dagoska was spread out before them, almost an island. The Upper City sloped away, neat grids of neat houses with long, straight roads in between, speckled with yellow palms and wide squares. On the far side of its long, curving wall lay the dusty brown jumble of the slums. Looming over them in the distance, shimmering in the haze, Glokta could see the mighty land walls, blocking the one narrow neck of rock that joined the city to the mainland, the blue sea on one side and the blue harbour on the other. The strongest defences in the world, so they say. I wonder if we shall be putting that proud boast to the test before too long?

    ‘Superior Glokta?’ Harker cleared his throat. ‘The Lord Governor and his council will be waiting.’

    ‘They can wait a little longer, then. I am curious to know what progress you have made in investigating the disappearance of Superior Davoust.’ It would be most unfortunate if the new Superior were to suffer the same fate, after all.

    Harker frowned. ‘Well … some progress. I have no doubt the natives are responsible. They never stop plotting. Despite the measures Davoust took after the rebellion, many of them still refuse to learn their place.’

    ‘I stand amazed.’

    ‘It is all too true, believe me. Three Dagoskan servants were present in the Superior’s chambers on the night he disappeared. I have been questioning them.’

    ‘And what have you discovered?’

    ‘Nothing yet, unfortunately. They have proved exceedingly stubborn.’

    ‘Then let us question them together.’

    ‘Together?’ Harker licked his lips. ‘I wasn’t aware that you would want to question them yourself, Superior.’

    ‘Now you are.’

    One would have thought it would be cooler, deep within the rock. But it was every bit as hot as outside in the baking streets, without the mercy of the slightest breeze. The corridor was silent, dead, and stuffy as a tomb. Vitari’s torch cast flickering shadows into the corners, and the darkness closed in fast behind them.

    Harker paused beside an iron-bound door, mopped fat beads of sweat from his face. ‘I must warn you, Superior, it was necessary to be quite … firm with them. A firm hand is the best thing, you know.’

    ‘Oh, I can be quite firm myself, when the situation demands it. I am not easily shocked.’

    ‘Good, good.’ The key turned in the lock, the door swung open, and a foul smell washed out into the corridor. A blocked latrine and a rotten rubbish heap rolled into one. The cell beyond was tiny, windowless, the ceiling almost too low to stand. The heat was crushing, the stench was appalling. It reminded Glokta of another cell. Further south, in Shaffa. Deep beneath the Emperor’s palace. A cell in which I gasped away two years, squealing in the blackness, scratching at the walls, crawling in my own filth. His eye had begun to twitch, and he wiped it carefully with his finger.

    One prisoner lay stretched out, his face to the wall, skin black with bruises, both legs broken. Another hung from the ceiling by his wrists, knees brushing the floor, head hanging limp, back whipped raw. Vitari stooped and prodded at one of them with her finger. ‘Dead,’ she said simply. She crossed to the other. ‘And this one. Dead a good while.’

    The flickering light fell across a third prisoner. This one was alive. Just. She was chained by hands and feet, face hollow with hunger, lips cracked with thirst, clutching filthy, bloodstained rags to her. Her heels scraped at the floor as she tried to push herself further back into the corner, gibbering faintly in Kantic, one hand across her face to ward off the light. I remember. The only thing worse than the darkness is when the light comes. The questions always come with it.

    Glokta frowned, his twitching eyes moving from the two broken corpses to the cowering girl, his head spinning from the effort, and the heat, and the stink. ‘Well this is very cosy. What have they told you?’

    Harker had his hand over his nose and mouth as he stepped reluctantly into the cell, Frost looming just over his shoulder. ‘Nothing yet, but I—’

    ‘You’ll get nothing from these two, now, that’s sure. I hope they signed confessions.’

    ‘Well … not exactly. Superior Davoust was never that interested in confessions from the browns, we just, you know …’

    ‘You couldn’t even keep them alive long enough to confess?’

    Harker looked sullen. Like a child unfairly punished by his schoolmaster. ‘There’s still the girl,’ he snapped.

    Glokta looked down at her, licking at the space where his front teeth used to be. There is no method here. No purpose. Brutality, for it’s own sake. I might almost be sickened, had I eaten anything today. ‘How old is she?’

    ‘Fourteen, perhaps, Superior, but I fail to see the relevance.’

    ‘The relevance, Inquisitor Harker, is that conspiracies are rarely led by fourteen-year-old girls.’

    ‘I thought it best to be thorough.’

    ‘Thorough? Did you even ask them any questions?’

    ‘Well, I—’

    Glokta’s cane cracked Harker cleanly across the face. The sudden movement caused a stab of agony in Glokta’s side, and he stumbled on his weak leg and had to grab at Frost’s arm for support. The Inquisitor gave a squeal of pain and shock, tumbled against the wall and slid into the filth on the cell floor.

    ‘You’re not an Inquisitor!’ hissed Glokta, ‘you’re a fucking butcher! Look at the state of this place! And you’ve killed two of our witnesses! What use are they now, fool?’ Glokta leaned forward. ‘Unless that was your intention, eh? Perhaps Davoust was killed by a jealous underling? An underling who wanted to silence the witnesses, eh, Harker? Perhaps I should start my investigations with the Inquisition itself!’

    Practical Frost loomed over Harker as he struggled to get up, and he shrank back down against the wall, blood starting to dribble from his nose. ‘No! No, please! It was an accident! I didn’t mean to kill them! I just wanted to know what happened!’

    ‘An accident? You’re a traitor or an utter incompetent, and I’ve no use for either one!’ He leaned down even lower, ignoring the pain shooting up his back, his lips curling away to show his toothless smile. ‘I understand a firm hand is most effective when dealing with primitives, Inquisitor. You will find there are no firmer hands than mine. Not anywhere. Get this worm out of my sight!’

    Frost seized hold of Harker by his coat and hauled him bodily through the filth towards the door. ‘Wait!’ he wailed, clutching at the door frame, ‘please! You can’t do this!’ His cries faded down the corridor.
    Vitari had a faint smile around her eyes, as though she had rather enjoyed the scene. ‘What about this mess?’

    ‘Get it cleaned up.’ Glokta leaned against the wall, his side still pulsing with pain, wiped sweat from his face with a trembling hand. ‘Wash it down. Bury these bodies.’

    Vitari nodded towards the one survivor. ‘What about her?’

    ‘Give her a bath. Clothes. Food. Let her go.’

    ‘Hardly worth giving her a bath if she’s going back to the Lower City.’

    She has a point there. ‘Alright! She was Davoust’s servant, she can be mine. Put her back to work!’ he shouted over his shoulder, already hobbling for the door. He had to get out. He could hardly breathe in there.

    ‘I am sorry to disappoint you all, but the walls are far from impregnable, not in their present poor condition …’ The speaker trailed off as Glokta shuffled through the door into the meeting chamber of Dagoska’s ruling council.

    It was as unlike the cell below as it was possible for a room to be. It is, in fact, the most beautiful room I ever saw. Every inch of wall and ceiling was carved in the most minute detail: geometric patterns of frightening intricacy wound round scenes from Kantic legends in life-size, all painted in glittering gold and silver, vivid red and blue. The floor was a mosaic of wondrous complexity, the long table was inlaid with swirls of dark wood and chips of bright ivory, polished to a high sheen. The tall windows offered a spectacular view over the dusty brown expanse of the city, and the sparkling bay beyond.

    The woman who rose to greet Glokta as he entered did not seem out of place in the magnificent surroundings. Not in the slightest.

    ‘I am Carlot dan Eider,’ she said, smiling easily and holding her hands out to him as though to an old friend, ‘Magister of the Guild of Spicers.’

    Glokta was impressed, he had to admit. If only by her stomach. Not even the slightest sign of horror. She greets me as though I were not a disfigured, twitching, twisted ruin. She greets me as though I looked as fine as she does. She wore a long gown in the style of the South: blue silk, trimmed with silver, it shimmered around her in the cool breeze through the high windows. Jewels of daunting value flashed on her fingers, on her wrists, round her throat. Glokta detected a strange scent as she came closer. Sweet. Like the spice that has made her so very rich, perhaps. The effect was far from wasted on him. I am still a man, after all. Just less so than I used to be.

    ‘I must apologise for my attire, but Kantic garments are so much more comfortable in the heat. I have become quite accustomed to them during my years here.’

    Her apologising for her appearance is like a genius apologising for his stupidity. ‘Don’t mention it.’ Glokta bowed as low as he could, given the uselessness of his leg and the sharp pain in his back. ‘Superior Glokta, at your service.’

    ‘We are most glad to have you with us. We have all been greatly concerned since the disappearance of your predecessor, Superior Davoust.’ Some of you, I expect, have been less concerned than others.

    ‘I hope to shed some light on the matter.’

    ‘We all hope that you will.’ She took Glokta’s elbow with an effortless confidence. ‘Please allow me to make the introductions.’

    Glokta refused to be moved. ‘Thank you, Magister, but I believe I can make my own.’ He shuffled across to the table under his own power, such as it was. ‘You must be General Vissbruck, charged with the city’s defence.’ The General was in his middle forties, running slightly to baldness, sweating abundantly in an elaborate uniform, buttoned all the way to the neck in spite of the heat. I remember you. You were in Gurkhul, in the war. A Major in the King’s Own, and well known for being an ass. It seems you have done well, at least, as asses generally do.

    ‘A pleasure,’ said Vissbruck, scarcely even glancing up from his documents.

    ‘It always is, to renew an old acquaintance.’

    ‘We’ve met?’

    ‘We fought together in Gurkhul.’

    ‘We did?’ A spasm of shock ran over Vissbruck’s sweaty face. ‘You’re … that Glokta?’

    ‘I am indeed, as you say, that Glokta.’

    The General blinked. ‘Er, well, er … how have you been?’

    ‘In very great pain, thank you for asking, but I see that you have prospered, and that is a tremendous consolation.’ Vissbruck blinked, but Glokta did not give him time to reply. ‘And this must be Lord Governor Vurms. A positive honour, your Grace.’

    The old man was a caricature of decrepitude, shrunken into his great robes of state like a withered plum in its furry skin. His hands seemed to shiver even in the heat, his head was shiny bald aside from a few white wisps. He squinted up at Glokta through weak and rheumy eyes.

    ‘What did he say?’ The Lord Governor stared about him in confusion. ‘Who is this man?’

    General Vissbruck leaned across, so close his lips almost brushed the old man’s ear. ‘Superior Glokta, your Grace! The replacement for Davoust!’

    ‘Glokta? Glokta? Where the hell is Davoust anyway?’ No one bothered to reply.

    ‘I am Korsten dan Vurms.’ The Lord Governor’s son spoke his own name as though it was a magic spell, offered his hand to Glokta as though it was a priceless gift. He was blond-haired and handsome, spread out carelessly in his chair, a well-tanned glow of health about him, as lithe and athletic as his father was ancient and wizened. I despise him already.

    ‘I understand that you were once quite the swordsman.’ Vurms looked Glokta up and down with a mocking smile. ‘I fence myself, and there’s really no one here to challenge me. Perhaps we might have a bout?’ I’d love to, you little bastard. If I still had my leg I’d give you a bout of the shits before I was done.

    ‘I did fence but, alas, I had to give it up. Ill health.’ Glokta leered back a toothless smile of his own. ‘I daresay I could still give you a few pointers, though, if you’re keen to improve.’ Vurms frowned at that, but Glokta had already moved on. ‘You must be Haddish Kahdia.’

    The Haddish was a tall, slender man with a long neck and tired eyes. He wore a simple white robe, a plain white turban wound about his head. He looks no more prosperous than any of the other natives down in the Lower City, and yet there is a certain dignity about him.

    ‘I am Kahdia, and I have been chosen by the people of Dagoska to speak for them. But I no longer call myself Haddish. A priest without a temple is no priest at all.’

    ‘Must we still hear about the temple?’ whined Vurms.

    ‘I am afraid you must, while I sit on this council.’ He looked back at Glokta. ‘So there is a new Inquisitor in the city? A new devil. A new bringer of death. Your comings and goings are of no interest to me, torturer.’

    Glokta smiled. Confessing his hatred for the Inquisition without even seeing my instruments. But then his people can hardly be expected to have much love for the Union, they’re little better than slaves in their own city. Could he be our traitor?

    Or him? General Vissbruck seemed every inch a loyal military man, a man whose sense of duty was too strong, and whose imagination was too weak, for intrigue. But few men become Generals without looking to their own profit, without oiling the wheels, without keeping some secrets.

    Or him? Korsten dan Vurms was sneering at Glokta as though at a badly-cleaned latrine he had to use. I’ve seen his like a thousand times, the arrogant whelp. The Lord Governor’s own son, perhaps, but it’s plain enough he has no loyalty to anyone beyond himself.

    Or her? Magister Eider was all comely smiles and politeness, but her eyes were hard as diamonds. Judging me like a merchant judges an ignorant customer. There’s more to her than fine manners and a weakness for foreign tailoring. Far more.

    Or him? Even the old Lord Governor seemed suspect now. Are his eyes and ears as bad as he claims? Or is there a hint of play-acting in his squinting, his demands to know what’s going on? Does he already know more than anyone?

    Glokta turned and limped towards the window, leaned against the beautifully carved pillar beside it and peered out at the astonishing view, the evening sun still warm on his face. He could already feel the council members shifting restlessly, keen to be rid of him. I wonder how long before they order the cripple out of their beautiful room? I do not trust a one of them. Not a one. He smirked to himself. Precisely as it should be.

    It was Korsten dan Vurms who lost patience first. ‘Superior Glokta,’ he snapped. ‘We appreciate your thoroughness in presenting yourself here, but I am sure you have urgent business to attend to. We certainly do.’

    ‘Of course.’ Glokta hobbled back to the table with exaggerated slowness as if he were leaving the room. Then he slid out a chair and lowered himself into it, wincing at the pain in his leg. ‘I will try to keep my comments to a minimum, at least to begin with.’

    ‘What?’ said Vissbruck.

    ‘Who is this fellow?’ demanded the Lord Governor, craning forwards and squinting with his weak eyes. ‘What is going on here?’

    His son was more direct. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he demanded. ‘Are you mad?’ Haddish Kahdia began to chuckle softly to himself. At Glokta, or at the rage of the others, it was impossible to say.

    ‘Please, gentlemen, please.’ Magister Eider spoke softly, patiently. ‘The Superior has only just arrived, and is perhaps ignorant of how we conduct business in Dagoska. You must understand that your predecessor did not attend these meetings. We have been governing this city successfully for several years, and—’

    ‘The Closed Council disagrees.’ Glokta held up the King’s writ between two fingers. He let everyone look at it for a moment, making sure they could see the heavy seal of red and gold, then he flicked it across the table.

    The others stared over suspiciously as Carlot dan Eider picked up the document, unfolded it and started to read. She frowned, then raised one well-plucked eyebrow. ‘It seems that we are the ignorant ones.’

    ‘Let me see that!’ Korsten dan Vurms snatched the paper out of her hands and started to read it. ‘It can’t be,’ he muttered. ‘It can’t be!’

    ‘I’m afraid that it is.’ Glokta treated the assembly to his toothless leer. ‘Arch Lector Sult is most concerned. He has asked me to look into the disappearance of Superior Davoust, and also to examine the city’s defences. To examine them carefully, and to ensure that the Gurkish stay on the other side of them. He has instructed me to use whatever measures I deem necessary.’ He gave a significant pause. ‘Whatever … measures.’

    ‘What is that?’ grumbled the Lord Governor. ‘I demand to know what is going on!’

    Vissbruck had the paper now. ‘The King’s writ,’ he breathed, mopping his sweaty forehead on the back of his sleeve, ‘signed by all twelve chairs on the Closed Council. It grants full powers!’ He laid it down gently on the inlaid table-top, as though worried it might suddenly burst into flames. ‘This is—’

    ‘We all know what it is.’ Magister Eider was watching Glokta thoughtfully, one fingertip stroking her smooth cheek. Like a merchant who suddenly becomes aware that her supposedly ignorant customer has fleeced her, and not the other way around. ‘It seems Superior Glokta will be taking charge.’

    ‘I would hardly say taking charge, but I will be attending all further meetings of this council. You should consider that the first of a very great number of changes.’ Glokta gave a comfortable sigh as he settled into his beautiful chair, stretching out his aching leg, resting his aching back. Almost comfortable. He glanced across the frowning faces of the city’s ruling council. Except, of course, that one of these charming people is most likely a dangerous traitor. A traitor who has already arranged the disappearance of one Superior, and may very well now be considering the removal of a second …

    Glokta cleared his throat. ‘Now then, General Vissbruck, what were you saying as I arrived? Something about the walls?’

Reviews and Plaudits’s favourite book of 2007.

SFSite’s Reader’s Choice 2007.

“Nobody writes grittier heroic fantasy that Joe Abercrombie, and the second book in his The First Law series just proves the point in spades … Immediate, daring, and utterly entertaining, this second book provides evidence that Abercrombie is headed for superstar status.”

Jeff VanderMeer, Realms of Fantasy

“This grim and vivid sequel to 2007’s The Blade Itself transcends its middle volume status, keeping the reader engaged with complicated plotting and intriguing character development… Abercrombie leavens the bloody action with moments of dark humor, developing a story suffused with a rich understanding of human darkness and light.”

Publishers Weekly, 21/1/08, Starred Review

“Marvellously self-aware, character-driven stuff.”

Dave Bradley, SFX

“The story is by turns darkly humorous and incredibly well observed. The sheer number of brilliantly drawn characters is a joy to read and Abercrombie once again proves he is deft at changing voice as he changes point of view.”

Den Patrick, Dreamwatch

“Dark, deeply ironic, and full of character gems that will appeal to your cynical side, Before They are Hanged is as brilliant as its predecessor. Highly recommended.”

John Berlyne, SFRevu

“I’m not usually a fantasy fan, but Before They Are Hanged is one of the rare books that I didn’t want to put down and pulled out to read whenever I could. It’s certainly a worth addition to the series and if you like great stories, fantasy or otherwise, pick up this book and the first if you haven’t already.”

J. P. Frantz, SFSignal

“Abercrombie injects his sense of humour throughout but these laugh-out-loud moments do not detract from the fact that Joe has an incredible insight into the human condition … Before They Are Hanged is an excellent sequel from an author writing compelling, character-driven, adult fantasy, for readers who want to be entertained as well as challenged.”

Justin Thorne, SFFWorld

“This is a brisk tale and well-told … these are some of the most cynical people ever to appear in fantasy-fiction, and they spend a great deal of time striking sparks off each other with their doubts and skepticism, to great narrative effect.”

Simeon Shoul, Infinity Plus