To help promote the release of the US edition of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold (Canada, USA, Europe), the folks at Orbit granted me permission to post this teaser extract.
The dice came up six and one. The highest dice can roll and the lowest. A fitting judgem0ent on Friendly’s life. The pit of horror to the heights of triumph. And back.
Six and one made seven. Seven years old, when Friendly committed his first crime. But six years later that he was first caught, and given his first sentence. When they first wrote his name in the big book, and he earned his first days in Safety. Stealing, he knew, but he could hardly remember what he stole. He certainly could not remember why. His parents had worked hard to give him all he needed. And yet he stole. Some men are born to do wrong, perhaps. The judges had told him so.
He scooped the dice up, rattled them in his fist, then let them free across the stones again, watched them as they tumbled. Always that same joy, that anticipation. Dice just thrown can be anything until they stop rolling. He watched them turning, chances, odds, his life and the life of the Northman. All the lives in the great city of Talins turning with them.
Six and one.
Friendly smiled, a little. The odds of throwing six and one a second time were one in eighteen. Long odds, some would say, looking forward into the future. But looking into the past, as he was now, there was no chance of any other numbers. What was coming? Always full of possibilities. What was past? Done, and hardened, like dough turned to bread. There was no going back.
"What do the dice say?"
Friendly glanced up as he gathered the dice with the edge of his hand. He was a big man, this Shivers, but with none of that stringiness tall men sometimes get. Strong. But not like a farmer, or a labourer. Not slow. He understood the work. There were clues, and Friendly knew them all. In Safety, you have to reckon the threat a man poses in a moment. Reckon it, and deal with it, and never blink.
A soldier, maybe, and fought in battles, by his scars, and the set of his face, and the look in his eye as they waited to do violence. Not comfortable, but ready. Not likely to run or get carried away. They are rare, men that keep a sharp head when the trouble starts. There was a scar on his thick left wrist that, if you looked at it a certain way, was like the number seven. Seven was a good number today.
"Dice say nothing. They are dice."
"Why roll ’em, then?"
"They are dice. What else would I do with them?"
Friendly closed his eyes, closed his fist around the dice and pressed them to his cheek, feeling their warm, rounded edges against his palm. What numbers did they hold for him now, waiting to be released? Six and one again? A flicker of excitement. The odds of throwing six and one for a third time were three hundred and twenty-four to one. Three hundred and twenty-four was the number of cells in Safety. A good omen.
"They’re here," whispered the Northman.
There were four of them. Three men and a whore. Friendly could hear the vague tinkling of her night-bell on the chill air, one of the men laughing. They were drunk, shapeless outlines lurching down the darkened alley. The dice would have to wait.
He sighed, wrapped them carefully in their soft cloth, once, twice, three times, and he tucked them up tight, safe into the darkness of his inside pocket. He wished that he was tucked up tight, safe in the darkness, but things were what they were. There was no going back. He stood and brushed the street scum from his knees.
"What’s the plan?" asked Shivers.
Friendly shrugged. "Six and one."
He pulled his hood up and started walking, hunched over, hands thrust into his pockets. Light from a high window cut across the group as they came closer. Four grotesque carnival masks, leering with drunken laughter. The big man in the centre had a soft face with sharp little eyes and a greedy grin. The painted woman tottered on her high shoes beside him. The man on the left smirked across at her, lean and bearded. The one on the right was wiping a tear of happiness from his grey cheek.
"Then what?" he shrieked through his gurgling, far louder than there was a need for.
"What d’you think? I kicked him ’til he shat himself." More gales of laughter, the woman’s falsetto tittering a counterpoint to the big man’s bass. "I said, Duke Orso likes men who say yes, you lying-"
"Gobba?" asked Friendly.
His head snapped round, smile fading from his soft face. Friendly stopped. He had taken forty-one steps from the place where he rolled the dice. Six and one made seven. Seven times six was forty-two. Take away the one …
"Who’re you?" growled Gobba.
"Six and one."
"What?" The man on the right made to shove Friendly away with a drunken arm. "Get out of it, you mad fu-"
The cleaver split his head open to the bridge of his nose. Before his mate on the left’s mouth had fallen all the way open, Friendly was across the road and stabbing him in the body. Five times the long knife punched him through the guts, then Friendly stepped back and slashed his throat on the backhand, kicked his legs away and brought him tumbling to the cobbles.
There was a moment’s pause as Friendly breathed out, long and slow. The first man had the single great wound yawning in his skull, a black splatter of brains smeared over his crossed eyes. The other had the five stab wounds in his body, and blood pouring from his cut throat.
"Good," said Friendly. "Six and one."
The whore started screaming, spots of dark blood across one powdered cheek.
"You’re a dead man!" roared Gobba, taking a stumbling step back, fumbling a bright knife from his belt. "I’ll kill you!" But he did not come on.
"When?" asked Friendly, blades hanging loose from his hands. "Tomorrow?"
Shivers’ stick cracked down on the back of Gobba’s skull. A good blow, right on the best spot, crumpling his knees easily as paper. He flopped down, slack cheek thumping against the cobbles, knife clattering from his limp fist, out cold.
"Not tomorrow. Not ever." The woman’s shriek sputtered out. Friendly turned his eyes on her.
"Why aren’t you running?" She fled into the darkness, teetering on her high shoes, whimpering breath echoing down the street, her night-bell jangling after.
Shivers frowned down at the two leaking corpses in the road. The two pools of blood worked their way along the cracks between the cobblestones, touched, mingled and became one. "By the dead," he muttered in his Northern tongue.
Friendly shrugged. "Welcome to Styria."