The Night Angel Trilogy, p.10Brent Weeks
“Not like Rat?”
“How is he?” Azoth said, trying to cover.
“Why don’t you tell me? You’re the one who killed him.”
Azoth opened his mouth, but seeing two littles in Momma K’s front room, stopped.
“Blint made you kill Rat to see if you could do it, didn’t he?” Jarl asked, his voice low.
“No. Are you crazy?” In his head, he could hear the echoes of Master Blint’s voice from their training: “Word gets out. Word always gets out.”
Hurt filled Jarl’s eyes, and he said nothing for a long time. “I shouldn’t push, Azoth. I’m sorry. I should just thank you. Rat… he messed me up bad. I’m so confused all the time. I hated him, but sometimes…. When Rat disappeared and I saw you walking away with Blint…” Jarl blinked rapidly and stared away. “Sometimes I hate you. You left me with no one. But that’s not right. You didn’t do anything wrong. Just Rat… and me.”
Azoth didn’t know what to say.
Jarl blinked furiously again. “Shut up, Jarl. Shut up.” He dashed the tears from his eyes with fists. “What do you need?”
There was something Azoth should say, he knew it. Some assurance he should give, but he didn’t know what it was. Jarl had been his friend—was his friend, wasn’t he?—but he’d changed. Azoth had changed. He was supposed to be Kylar now, but instead, he was just a fraud straddling two worlds and trying to hold on as they tore apart. Whatever the cataclysm named Rat had left Azoth holding onto, one thing was certain. A chasm had opened between him and Jarl, and Azoth was afraid to even approach it, didn’t understand what it was, didn’t know anything except that it made him feel dirty and scared. Jarl was letting him put the walls back up by asking his simple question—a simple question that could be answered simply, a problem that they could actually resolve.
“Doll Girl,” Azoth said. He felt relieved to back away from his once-friend and guilty that he felt relieved.
“Oh,” Jarl said. “You know she got…?”
“Is she all right now?”
“She’s alive. But I don’t know if she’s going to make it. They make fun of her. Without you around, she isn’t like she used to be. I’ve been sharing my food with her, but the guild’s falling apart. Things are too bad. We don’t have enough food.”
The guild, not our guild. Azoth kept his face blank, refused to show how much that hurt. It shouldn’t have hurt. He was the one who’d wanted out, he was the one who left, but it still made him feel empty.
You will be alone. You will be different. Always.
“Ja’laliel’s almost dead; turns out Rat stole his review money. And now they lost the waterfront to Burning Man, and others are closing in.”
Jarl’s face twisted. “If you’ve got to know, they threw me out of Black Dragon. Threw us all out. Didn’t want buggers and Rat-lovers, they said.”
“You don’t have a guild?” Azoth asked. It was a disaster. Guild rats without a guild were fair game for anyone. That Jarl had stayed alive since being expelled was surprising, that he’d had food to share with Doll Girl was amazing, and that he was willing to was humbling.
“Some of us have banded together for a little while. They call us the Buggers. I’m going to try to join Two Fist on the north side. Rumor is they might get the market on Durdun soon,” Jarl said.
That was Jarl. Always had a plan.
“They’re willing to take Doll Girl, too?”
He was answered with guilty silence.
“I asked. I did, Azoth. They just won’t do it. If you—” Jarl’s mouth opened to say more, then closed.
“I’m not going to make you ask, Jarl. I’ve been looking for you to give it back.” Azoth lifted his tunic and unwrapped the sash full of coins. He handed it to Jarl.
“Azoth, this—this is twice as heavy as it was.”
“I’ll take care of Doll Girl. Give me a couple weeks. Can you take care of her for that long?”
Jarl’s eyes were filling with tears, and Azoth was afraid his would too. They called each other Jarl and Azoth now, not Jay-Oh and Azo.
Azoth said, “I’m going to tell Momma K how smart you are and see if she has work for you. You know, if things don’t work out with Two Fist.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“Azo?” Jarl said.
Jarl hesitated, swallowed. “I just wish…”
“Me too, Jarl. Me too.”
The price of disobedience is death. The words kept running through his head every day as Azoth planned his disobedience.
Azoth’s training was brutally hard, but it wasn’t brutal. In the guilds, a Fist might beat you to make a point and make a mistake that left you permanently maimed. Master Blint never made mistakes. Azoth hurt exactly as much as Blint wanted him to. Usually, that was a lot.
But so what? Azoth had two meals a day. He could eat as much as he wanted, and Blint worked the soreness out of his muscles every day as they trained.
At first everything was curses and beatings. Azoth couldn’t do anything right. But curses were just air, and beatings were just momentary pain. Blint would never maim Azoth, and if he chose to kill him, there was nothing Azoth could do to stop him anyway.
It was the closest thing to safety he’d ever known.
Within weeks, he realized he liked the training. The sparring, the blunted practice weapons, the obstacle courses, even the herb lore. Learning reading with Momma K was hard. But so what? Two hours of frustration a day was nothing. Azoth’s life was good.
Within a month, he realized that he was Talented. It wasn’t obvious, and if he hadn’t been so keyed in to Master Blint’s every mood and reaction, he would never have noticed, but now and then, he’d see a faint look of surprise as he mastered some new skill more quickly than Master Blint had expected.
It made him work all the harder, hoping to see that look not once a week, but once a day. For her part, Momma K made him decipher squiggles for longer than he could imagine. She had a way of smiling and saying just the right thing that it pulled him along through the hours. Words were power, she said. Words were another sword for the man who wielded them well. And he would need them if the world was to believe that he was Kylar Stern, so Momma K worked with him on his alternate identity, quizzing him with likely questions other nobles would ask, helping him come up with harmless stories about growing up in eastern Cenaria, and teaching him the rudiments of etiquette. She told him Count Drake would teach him the rest once he went to live with the Drakes. When Azoth walked in the Drakes’ door, she said, he would be Kylar forever after. Blint would train him in a safe house on the east side. Momma K would meet with him in one of her homes on the east side. Only when he started accompanying Blint on jobs would he return to the Warrens.
Azoth worked hard for her and without complaint except for one time when he got disgusted at his own stupidity and threw a book across the room. He worked in the hell of Momma K’s displeasure for a week until he brought her some flowers he’d stolen and she forgave him.
He’d given Jarl plenty of money to take care of Doll Girl, but Jarl wouldn’t be able to just give her the money; someone would steal it. The worst part of it was that she was alone. Mute and with a horribly beaten face, she wouldn’t be making any friends, either.
The price of disobedience is death, Master Blint had said. And he’d forbidden him to see Doll Girl again. Ever.
Momma K told Azoth that Master Blint would eventually come to like him and trust him, but that when he said things like that, for now Azoth should take it as law. That made Azoth hopeful—until she clarified: street law, which was immutable and omnipotent; not the pathetic king’s law. It was a shame, because Azoth had to see Doll Girl one last time.
When he did get his chance, it was through no guile of his own. Master Blint had a job, so he simply left Azoth to his own devices. He left a list of chores, too, but Azoth k
He threw himself into his work with a fury. He dusted the weapons room, climbing up on a ladder to reach the higher rows of weapons and the equipment out of his reach. He checked and cleaned the wood practice weapons. He oiled and cleaned the weapons Master Blint had used recently. He worked a different kind of oil into the leather targets and dummies that Master Blint made him attack by the hour. He checked the seams on the ones Master Blint himself had kicked, and finding several burst, sewed them shut again. He wasn’t very good with a needle, but Master Blint tolerated less than perfect work here—if nowhere else. He swept the floor, and as always, didn’t throw the dirt out into the street, but collected it in a small bin. Master Blint didn’t want him to leave the safe house. Not ever, unless he was under direct orders.
He found himself cleaning one of Blint’s daggers a second time. It was a long thin blade with tiny gold filigree. Through chance or age, the gold was thin in the grooves that had been etched for it, so blood had collected in every narrow groove of the filigree—Blint had used this blade recently, and he must have been in a hurry when he sheathed it. So Azoth found himself using the point of another fine dagger to pick out the blood.
He should have soaked the blade in water and then scrubbed it vigorously, but this was his last chore. It was still three hours until he was supposed to be at Momma K’s. If he had to work on chores until then, it wouldn’t be his fault that he didn’t leave.
“What happens if you do nothing?” Blint had asked him. “Nothing. There’s a price and a terrible freedom to that, boy. Remember it.” Master Blint had been speaking of making your move on a deader when things looked risky, but Azoth could feel the burden of those words now.
If I do something, what’s the worst that could happen? Master Blint kills me. That was pretty bad. The odds of it were low, though. Unlike other wetboys who might spend their whole lives in the Warrens, Master Blint only took jobs from people who could afford his prices. That usually meant nobles. That always meant east side. So he’d be on the opposite side of the city from Azoth.
The real worst case if I do nothing? Doll Girl dies.
He put down the dagger with a grimace.
Finding Doll Girl was easier said than done. The Black Dragon guild had ceased to exist. It was just gone. Kylar went to their old territory and found that it had been swallowed by Red Hand, Burning Man, and Rusty Knife. The old Black Dragons scrawled on buildings and aqueducts were already fading. He wore a pair of daggers, but he didn’t have to use them. Once, he was stopped by some Burning Men, but one of the bigs used to be one of his lizards. The boy spoke a few words to the others who were about to try to rob Azoth, and they eased away. The lizard never said a word to him.
He crisscrossed their old territory half a dozen times, but he never found Doll Girl. Once, he thought he saw Corbin Fishill, someone he’d always known was important, and who he now knew—Master Blint had told him—was one of the Nine. But all the guild rats he saw kept their distance.
Time was running out when Azoth finally thought of the old bakery. Doll Girl was there, alone. She had her back to him, and for a moment, he paused, afraid to get her attention. Then she turned.
Rat’s sadism was evident. A month hadn’t been long enough for her wounds to heal. It had only been long enough to show both what her face must have looked like for the last weeks, and what it would look like for the rest of her life. Rat had beaten her first, just beat her into submission or unconsciousness. Then he’d taken a knife to her face.
One deep cut looped from the corner of her left eye to the corner of her mouth. It had been stitched with dozens of tiny stitches, but the resulting scar would tug the corner of Doll Girl’s mouth up into an unnatural grin forever. Her other cheek bore a broad X-shaped cut, which was matched again by a smaller X across her lips in front. Eating, smiling, frowning—moving her mouth at all must have been excruciating. One of her eyes was still swollen, and Azoth wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to see out of it again. The rest of the wounds looked like they would fade. A scab on her forehead, the barest yellow around her other eye as the black faded, and a nose that must have been reset because Azoth was sure Rat had broken it.
All in all, her face was, and was supposed to be, a testament to cruelty. Rat wanted anyone who ever looked at Doll Girl to know that she hadn’t just had an accident. He wanted everyone to know that this had been done deliberately. For a moment, Azoth wished Rat’s death had been even more horrible.
Then time seemed to start again. He was staring at Doll Girl, staring at his friend’s face with open horror. Her eyes, that had been so full of surprise and sudden hope, brimmed full with tears. She covered herself and turned away, crying silently, her thin shoulders shaking.
He sat next to her. “I came as soon as I could. I’ve got a master now and I had to disobey him just to be here, but I couldn’t leave you here. Things have been bad, huh?” She started sobbing.
He could just imagine the names they must have called her. Sometimes he wanted to kill everyone in the Warrens. How could they make fun of Doll Girl? How could they hurt her? It was a miracle she was still alive. A miracle, and Jarl. Jarl must have risked his life a dozen times.
Azoth scooted over and pulled her close. She turned and clung to him as if her tears would wash her away. He held her and cried.
Time passed. Azoth felt like he’d been squeezed dry. He wasn’t sure how long he’d held her, but he knew it had been too long. “I have good news,” he told her.
She looked up at him with those big brown eyes.
“Come with me,” he said.
Doll Girl followed him out of the Warrens, over the Vanden Bridge, and to Count Drake’s. Her eyes widened as they headed toward the count’s house, and further when the old porter opened the door for Azoth and showed them in.
Count Drake was in his office. He rose and ushered them in, somehow not even registering surprise at how awful Doll Girl’s face looked. He was a better person than Azoth.
“Has Azoth told you why you’re here, young lady?” the count asked. The name was a deliberate choice, Azoth saw. Doll Girl was part of Azoth’s life—she wouldn’t be part of Kylar’s. She wasn’t going to know his new name.
Doll Girl shook her head shyly, clinging to Azoth.
“We’ve found a family for you, Doll Girl,” Count Drake said. “They want you to come and be their daughter. They’re going to take care of you. You’ll never have to sleep on the streets again. They serve in a house here on the east side. If you don’t want to, you never have to go back to the Warrens ever again.”
Of course, it had all been a little more involved than that. Count Drake had known the family for some time. They had taken in other slaveborn orphans over the years, but couldn’t afford to feed another. So Azoth had sworn that he would provide for her out of his wages, which were already generous, and which Master Blint had told him would increase as he became more useful. Count Drake hadn’t been enamored of keeping any secret from Master Blint, but after Azoth had explained what had happened, he’d been willing to help.
Doll Girl clung to Azoth, either not understanding or not believing what the count had just said.
Count Drake stood. “Well, I’m sure you have some things you probably wish to tell her, and I need to get the coach in order, so if you’ll excuse me?” He left them alone, and Doll Girl looked at Azoth with accusing eyes.
“You never were dumb,” he said.
She squeezed his hand, hard.
“My master ordered me not to see you. Today is the last time we ever get to see each other.” She tugged on his hand, face pugnacious. “Yes, ever,” he said. “I don’t want it to be this way, but he’ll kill me if he finds out I defied him even this much. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”
She was crying again and there was nothing he could do.
“Don’t leave me.”
The voice sent a lance of ice down his spine. He turned, incredulous. It was a little girl voice, exactly like you’d expect if you didn’t know Doll Girl was a mute.
“Please?” Doll Girl said. It was a pretty voice, incongruous coming out of a beaten mask of a face Rat had left her.
Azoth’s eyes filled with tears again, and he ran out the door—
Straight into someone tall and lean and as hard as if he’d been cut out of solid rock. Azoth fell on his butt and stared up in horror.
Master Blint’s face was purple with fury. “You dare?” he shouted. “After all I’ve done for you, you defy me? I just killed one of the Nine and what do you do? You walk around the killing ground for two hours, so everyone knows Blint’s apprentice was there. You may have cost me everything!”
He swept Azoth off the ground as if he were a kitten and hit him. Azoth’s tunic tore in Blint’s hand as he fell back from the force of the blow. But Blint came forward, and this time his closed fist crashed against Azoth’s jaw.
Azoth’s face rebounded off the count’s floor and he barely saw Doll Girl flying at Master Blint as the huge black sword cleared its sheath.
“Don’t hurt her!” Azoth shouted. Insanely, he threw himself at Blint and grabbed Retribution’s blade, but Blint was a force of nature. He didn’t even slow as he scooped Doll Girl up and deposited her in the hall. He locked the door, unlocked it, and relocked it in rapid succession. He turned back to Azoth, but whatever he was about to say died. The great black sword was still locked in Azoth’s hands, cutting to the bone. Except that now it wasn’t black. The blade was glowing blue.
Incandescent blue fire surrounded Azoth’s hand, burning cold into his cut fingers, spreading down the blade—
“No, not that! It’s mine!” Blint cried. He flung the sword aside as if it were an adder, away from both of them. If there had been fury in his eyes before, now it turned to absolute unreasoning rage. Azoth didn’t even see the first blow. He didn’t even know how he’d reached the floor again. Something wet and sticky was blocking out his vision.
The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes