The night angel trilogy, p.1
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Black Prism
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Without your sacrifices, the life I’m living now
would still be just an unlikely dream.
The Way of Shadows
Confidante, companion, best friend, bride.
They’re all for you.
It was all downhill after seventh grade. That was the year my English teacher, Nancy Helgath, somehow made me cool when she encouraged me to read Edgar Allan Poe to my classmates at lunch. They sat goggle-eyed as I read “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Berenice,” and “The Raven.” But I had eyes for only one: the tall, smart girl I had a crush on—and was terrified of—Kristi Barnes.
I soon started my first novel. I would go on to become an English teacher and a writer, and marry Kristi Barnes.
This book wouldn’t have happened without my mother—for more than the obvious reason. I started reading late, and when I did, I hated it. This wasn’t helped by a teacher who shouted “Choppy sentences!” at me for my inability to read aloud smoothly in the first grade. My mom took me out of school for a year to home school me (insert social awkwardness joke here), and her dedication and patience gave me a love for reading.
Thank you to my little sisters, Christa and Elisa, who begged for bedtime stories. An enthusiastic and forgiving audience is a must for a budding teenage storyteller. Any princesses in my books are their fault.
It’s one thing to love reading; it’s another to write. My high school English teacher, Jael Prezeau, is a teacher in a million. She inspired hundreds. She’s the kind of woman who could chew you out, cheer you on, make you work harder than you’ve ever worked for a class, give you a B, and make you love it. She told me I couldn’t break the grammar rules she taught me until I was published. It was a rule up with which I could not put. She tried.
In college, I briefly considered politics. Horror. A few people turned me from disaster. One was an industrial spy I met in Oxford. On reading a story I’d written, he said, “I wish I could do what you do.” Huh? Then my best friend Nate Davis became the editor of our college literary journal and held a contest for the best short story. Wonder of wonders, I won the cash prize, and realized I’d earned slightly better than minimum wage. I was hooked. (It was better than I would do again for a long, long time.) I started a new novel, and whenever I tried to do my homework, I could count on Jon Low to come knocking on my door. “Hey, Weeks, you got another chapter for me yet?” It was irritating and flattering at once. I had no idea I was being prepared for having an editor.
I must thank the Iowa Writers Program for rejecting me. Though I still sometimes wear all black and drink lattes, they helped me decide to write the kind of books I like rather than the books I ought to like.
My debt to my wife, Kristi, cannot be overstated. Her faith kept me going. Her sacrifices awe me. Her wisdom has rescued me from many a story dead end. To get published, you have to defy overwhelming odds; to marry a woman like Kristi, you have to knock them out.
My agent Don Maass has an understanding of story that I’ve not seen rivaled. Don, you’ve been a reality check, a wise teacher, and an encourager. You make me a better writer.
Huge thanks to the amazing editorial team at Orbit. Devi, thanks for your many insights, your enthusiasm, and your guidance ushering me through an unfamiliar process. Tim, thanks for taking a chance on me. Jennifer, you were my first contact at Orbit, and I have to tell you, the fact that I’d e-mail you a question and get an answer the same morning was a big deal. Of course, then you started sending me paperwork—and then I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Alex, thanks for your brilliant Web page design, the beautiful billboards, full page scratch-and-sniff ads in the New York Times, and those nifty little cardboard display stands at Borders. They’re fab. Lauren, thank you for taking my ones and zeros and making something real. Hilary, copyeditor extraordinaire, a special thanks for two words: bollock dagger. They made the novel.
I also want to thank all the other people at Orbit and Hachette who do the real work while we artists sit in cafés wearing black, drinking lattes. I’d mention you by name, but I don’t know your names. However, I do appreciate what you do to take my words and make something out of them. So, layout people, art people (by the way, Wow!), office go-fers, accountants, lawyers, and the mail guy, thanks.
Crazy dreamers need a lot of encouragers. Kevin, your being proud of me is about the best thing a little brother can get. Dad, one of my first memories is of sharing my worry with you about the space shuttle poking holes in the atmosphere and letting out all of Earth’s air. Rather than rushing to correct me, you listened—and still do. Jacob Klein, your encouragement and friendship over the years have been invaluable. You were there at the very beginning (4 A.M. in Niedfeldt, I think). To the Cabin Guys at Hillsdale College (Jon “Missing Link” Low, Nate “My Head Looks Like PK’s Butt” Davis, AJ “My Girlfriend Will Clean It Up” Siegmann, Jason “I Love Butter” Siegmann, Ryan “Mystery Puker” Downey, Peter “GQ” Koller, Charles “Sand Vest” Robison, Matt “No Special Sauce” Schramm), I couldn’t have shared a slum house with better wangs. Dennis Foley, you were the first professional writer who gave me time and guidance. You said you’d tell me if I should give up and get a real job—and that I shouldn’t. Cody Lee, thanks for the unbridled enthusiasm; it still makes me smile. Shaun and Diane McNay, Mark and Liv Pothoff, Scott and Kariann Box, Scott and Kerry Rueck, Todd and Lisel Williams, Chris Giesch, Blane Hansen, Brian Rapp, Dana Piersall, Jeff and Sandee Newville, Keith and Jen Johnson—thanks for believing in us and helping make the years of work and waiting not just tolerable, but fun.
Thanks to everyone over the years who, on finding out I was a writer, didn’t ask, “Oh, are you published?”
Last, thanks to you, curious reader who reads acknowledgments. You do realize the only people who usually read acknowledgments are looking for their own name, right? If you’re quirky enough to read acknowledgments without knowing the author, you and I are going to get along fine. Picking up a book by an author you’ve never read is a leap of faith. Here’s my offer: you give me a couple of pages, and I’ll give you a helluva ride.
Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes. He stared at the narrow space beneath the wall, trying to get his nerve up. The sun wouldn’t come up for hours, and the tavern was empty. Most taverns in the city had dirt floors, but this part of the Warrens had been built over marshland, and not even drunks wanted to drink standing ankle-deep in mud, so the tavern had been raised a few inches on stilts and floored with stout bamboo poles.
Coins sometimes dropped through the gaps in the bamboo, and the crawlspace was too small for most people to go after them. The guild’s bigs were too big and the littles were too scared to squeeze into the suffocating darkness shared with spiders and cockroaches and rats and the wicked half-wild tomcat the owner kept. Worst was the pressure of the bamboo against your back, flattening you every time a patron walked overhead. It had been Azoth’s favorite spot for
It was muddy now, and there would be no patrons, and Azoth had seen the tomcat leave. It should be fine. Besides, Rat was collecting guild dues tomorrow, and Azoth didn’t have four coppers. He didn’t even have one, so there wasn’t much choice. Rat wasn’t understanding, and he didn’t know his own strength. Littles had died from his beatings.
Pushing aside mounds of mud, Azoth lay on his stomach. The dank earth soaked his thin, filthy tunic instantly. He’d have to work fast. He was skinny, and if he caught a chill, the odds of getting better weren’t good.
Scooting through the darkness, he began searching for the telltale metallic gleam. A couple of lamps were still burning in the tavern, so light filtered through the gaps, illuminating the mud and standing water in strange rectangles. Heavy marsh mist climbed the shafts of light only to fall over and over again. Spider webs draped across Azoth’s face and broke, and he felt a tingle on the back of his neck.
He froze. No, it was his imagination. He exhaled slowly. Something glimmered and he grabbed his first copper. He slithered to the unfinished pine beam he had gotten stuck under last time and shoveled mud away until water filled the depression. The gap was still so narrow that he had to turn his head sideways to squeeze underneath it. Holding his breath and pushing his face into the slimy water, he began the slow crawl.
His head and shoulders made it through, but then a stub of a branch caught the back of his tunic, tearing the cloth and jabbing his back. He almost cried out and was instantly glad he hadn’t. Through a wide space between bamboo poles, Azoth saw a man seated at the bar, still drinking. In the Warrens, you had to judge people quickly. Even if you had quick hands like Azoth did, when you stole every day, you were bound to get caught eventually. All merchants hit the guild rats who stole from them. If they wanted to have any goods left to sell, they had to. The trick was picking the ones who’d smack you so you didn’t try their booth next time; there were others who’d beat you so badly you never had a next time. Azoth thought he saw something kind and sad and lonely in this lanky figure. He was perhaps thirty, with a scraggly blond beard and a huge sword on his hip.
“How could you abandon me?” the man whispered so quietly Azoth could barely distinguish the words. He held a flagon in his left hand and cradled something Azoth couldn’t see in his right. “After all the years I’ve served you, how could you abandon me now? Is it because of Vonda?”
There was an itch on Azoth’s calf. He ignored it. It was just his imagination again. He reached behind his back to free his tunic. He needed to find his coins and get out of here.
Something heavy dropped onto the floor above Azoth and slammed his face into the water, driving the breath from his lungs. He gasped and nearly inhaled water.
“Why Durzo Blint, you never fail to surprise,” the weight above Azoth said. Nothing was visible of the man through the gaps except a drawn dagger. He must have dropped from the rafters. “Hey, I’m all for calling a bluff, but you should have seen Vonda when she figured out you weren’t going to save her. Made me damn near bawl my eyes out.”
The lanky man turned. His voice was slow, broken. “I killed six men tonight. Are you sure you want to make it seven?”
Azoth slowly caught up with what they’d been saying. The lanky man was the wetboy Durzo Blint. A wetboy was like an assassin—in the way a tiger is like a kitten. Among wetboys, Durzo Blint was indisputably the best. Or, as the head of Azoth’s guild said, at least the disputes didn’t last long. And I thought Durzo Blint looked kind?
The itch on Azoth’s calf itched again. It wasn’t his imagination. There was something crawling up the inside of his trousers. It felt big, but not as big as a cockroach. Azoth’s fear identified the weight: a white wolf spider. Its poison liquefied flesh in a slowly spreading circle. If it bit, even with a healer the best an adult could hope for was to lose a limb. A guild rat wouldn’t be so lucky.
“Blint, you’ll be lucky if you don’t cut your head off after all you’ve been drinking. Just in the time I’ve been watching, you’ve had—”
“Eight flagons. And I had four before that.”
Azoth didn’t move. If he jerked his legs together to kill the spider, the water would splash and the men would know he was there. Even if Durzo Blint had looked kind, that was an awful big sword, and Azoth knew better than to trust grown-ups.
“You’re bluffing,” the man said, but there was fear in his voice.
“I don’t bluff,” Durzo Blint said. “Why don’t you invite your friends in?”
The spider crawled up to Azoth’s inner thigh. Trembling, he pulled his tunic up in back and stretched the waist of his trousers, making a gap and praying the spider would crawl for it.
Above him, the assassin reached two fingers up to his lips and whistled. Azoth didn’t see Durzo move, but the whistle ended in a gurgle and a moment later, the assassin’s body tumbled to the floor. There were yells as the front and back doors burst open. The boards flexed and jumped. Concentrating on not jostling the spider, Azoth didn’t move, even when another dropping body pushed his face briefly under water.
The spider crawled across Azoth’s butt and then onto his thumb. Slowly, Azoth drew his hand around so he could see it. His fears were right. It was a white wolf spider, its legs as long as Azoth’s thumb. He flung it away convulsively and rubbed his fingers, making sure he hadn’t been bitten.
He reached for the splintered branch holding his tunic and broke it off. The sound was magnified in the sudden silence above. Azoth couldn’t see anyone through the gaps. A few feet away, something was dripping from the boards into a puddle. It was too dark to see what it was, but it didn’t take much imagination to guess.
The silence was eerie. If any of the men walked across the floor, groaning boards and flexing bamboo would have announced it. The entire fight had lasted maybe twenty seconds, and Azoth was sure no one had left the tavern. Had they all killed each other?
He was chilled, and not just from the water. Death was no stranger in the Warrens, but Azoth had never seen so many people die so fast and so easily.
Even taking extra care to look out for the spider, in a few minutes, Azoth had gathered six coppers. If he were braver, he would have looted the bodies in the tavern, but Azoth couldn’t believe Durzo Blint was dead. Maybe he was a demon, like the other guild rats said. Maybe he was standing outside, waiting to kill Azoth for spying on him.
Chest tight with fear, Azoth turned and scooted toward his hole. Six coppers was good. Dues were only four, so he could buy bread tomorrow to share with Jarl and Doll Girl.
He was a foot from the opening when something bright flashed in front of his nose. It was so close, it took a moment to come into focus. It was Durzo Blint’s huge sword, and it was stuck through the floor all the way into the mud, barring Azoth’s escape.
Just above Azoth on the other side of the floor, Durzo Blint whispered, “Never speak of this. Understand? I’ve done worse than kill children.”
The sword disappeared, and Azoth scrambled out into the night. He didn’t stop running for miles.
Four coppers! Four! This isn’t four.” Rat’s face was so rage-red his pimples only showed as a scattering of white dots. He grabbed Jarl’s threadbare tunic and lifted him off the ground. Azoth ducked his head. He couldn’t watch.
“This is four!” Rat shouted, spit flying. As his hand slapped across Jarl’s face, Azoth realized it was a performance. Not the beating—Rat was definitely hitting Jarl—but he was hitting him with an open hand. It was louder that way. Rat wasn’t even paying attention to Jarl. He was watching the rest of the guild, enjoying their fear.
“Who’s next?” Rat asked, dropping Jarl. Azoth stepped forward quickly so Rat wouldn’t kick his friend. At sixteen, Rat was already as big as a man and he had fat, which made him unique am
Azoth held out his four coppers.
“Eight, puke,” Rat said, taking the four from Azoth’s hand.
“You gotta pay for Doll Girl, too.”
Azoth looked around for help. Some of the bigs shifted and looked at each other, but no one said a word. “She’s too young,” Azoth said. “Littles don’t pay dues till they’re eight.”
Attention shifted to Doll Girl, who was sitting in the dirty alley. She noticed the looks and withered, shrinking into herself. Doll Girl was tiny, with huge eyes, but beneath the grime, her features were as fine and perfect as her namesake’s.
“I say she’s eight unless she says different.” Rat leered. “Say it, Doll Girl, say it or I’ll beat up your boyfriend.” Doll Girl’s big eyes got bigger and Rat laughed. Azoth didn’t protest, didn’t point out that Doll Girl was mute. Rat knew. Everyone knew. But Rat was the Fist. He only answered to Ja’laliel, and Ja’laliel wasn’t here.
Rat pulled Azoth close and lowered his voice. “Why don’t you join my pretty boys, Azo? You’ll never pay dues again.”
Azoth tried to speak, but his throat was so tight that he only squeaked. Rat laughed again and everyone joined him, some enjoying Azoth’s humiliation, some just hoping to put Rat in a good mood before their turn came. Black hatred stabbed through him. Azoth hated Rat, hated the guild, hated himself.
He cleared his throat to try again. Rat caught his eye and smirked. Rat was big, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew how far he was pushing Azoth. He knew Azoth would crumple, afraid, just like everyone else.
Azoth spat a wad of phlegm onto Rat’s face. “Go bugger yourself, Ratty Fatty.”
There was an eternity of stunned silence. A golden moment of victory. Azoth thought he could hear jaws dropping. Sanity was just starting to reassert itself when Rat’s fist caught him on the ear. Black spots blotted out the world as he hit the ground. He blinked up at Rat, whose black hair glowed like a halo as it blocked the noon sun, and knew he was going to die.