The night angel trilogy, p.105
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.105

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Kill it!” the underlord screamed.

  Wreathed in blue flames that whipped and crackled in long streams behind him, Kylar was already flipping clear of the circle. Staying visible and burning, he ran straight north, as if heading back to the “Khalidoran” camp. Men dove out of his path. Then Kylar extinguished the flames, went invisible, and came back to see if his trap had worked.

  “Form up!” the underlord shouted, his face purple with rage. “We march to the forest! It’s time to kill some wytches, men! Let’s go! Now!”

  6

  Eunuchs to the left,” Rugger said. The Khalidoran guard said. He was so muscular he looked like a sack full of nuts, but the most noticeable lump was the wen bulging grotesquely from his forehead. “Hey, Halfman! That means you!”

  Dorian shuffled into the line on the left, tearing his eyes away from the guard. He knew the man: a bastard who’d been whelped on some slave girl by one of Dorian’s older brothers. The aethelings, the throne-worthy sons, had tormented Rugger unrelentingly. Dorian’s tutor, Neph Dada, encouraged it. There was just one rule: they couldn’t do harm to any slave that would keep him from performing his duties. Rugger’s wen had been little Dorian’s work.

  “You staring at something?” Rugger demanded, poking Dorian with his spear.

  Dorian looked resolutely at the floor and shook his head. He’d altered his appearance as much as he dared before coming to the Citadel to ask for work, but he couldn’t take any illusion too far. He would be beaten regularly. A guard or noble or aetheling would notice if a blow didn’t hit the proper resistance or if Dorian didn’t flinch appropriately. He’d experimented with altering the balance of his humors so that he might stop growing a man’s hair, too, but the results had been horrifying. He touched his chest—now mercifully back to male proportions—just thinking about it.

  Instead, he’d practiced until he could sweep his body with fire and air so as to be hairless. With the speed his beard came in, it would be a weave he would have to use twice a day. A slave’s life included little privacy, so speed was essential. Mercifully, slaves were beneath notice—as long as they didn’t draw attention to themselves by staring at guards as if they were freaks.

  Slouch or die, Dorian. Rugger smacked him again, but Dorian didn’t move, so Rugger moved down the line to harass others.

  They were standing outside the Bridge Keep. Two hundred men and women were at the keep’s west gate. Winter was coming, and even those who’d had good harvests had been beggared by the Godking’s armies. For the smallfolk, it hardly mattered if the army passing through was enemy or friend. One looted, the other scavenged, but each took what it wanted and killed anyone who resisted. With the Godking emptying the Citadel to send armies both south into Cenaria and north into the Freeze, the coming winter would be brutal. All the people in the line were hoping to sell themselves into slavery before winter arrived and the lines quadrupled.

  It was an icy clear autumn morning in the city of Khaliras, two hours before dawn. Dorian had forgotten the glory of the northern stars. In the city, few lamps burned—oil was too precious, so few terrestrial fires tried to compete with the ethereal flames burning like holes in the cloak of heaven.

  Despite himself, Dorian couldn’t help but feel a stirring of pride as he looked over the city that could have been his. Khaliras was laid out in an enormous ring around the chasm that surrounded Mount Thrall. Succeeding generations of Ursuul Godkings had walled in semicircles of the city to protect their slaves and artisans and merchants until all the semicircles of different stone had connected to shield the whole of the city.

  There was only one hill, a narrow granite ridge up which the main road snaked in switchbacks designed to encumber siege weapons. At the top of the ridge the Gate Keep sat like a toad on a stump. And just on the other side of the rusty iron portcullis’s teeth lay Dorian’s first great challenge.

  “You four, go,” Rugger said.

  Dorian was third of four eunuchs, and all shivered as they approached the precipice. Luxbridge was one of the wonders of the world, and in all his travels, Dorian had never seen magic to rival it. Without arches, without pillars, the bridge hung like a spider’s anchor line for four hundred paces between the Gate Keep and the Citadel of Mount Thrall.

  The last time he’d crossed Luxbridge, Dorian had only noticed the brilliance of the magic, sparkling, springy underfoot, coruscating in a thousand colors at every step. Now, he saw nothing but the building blocks to which the magic was anchored. Luxbridge’s mundane materials were not stone, metal, or wood; it was paved with human skulls in a path wide enough for three horses to pass abreast. New heads had been added to whatever holes had formed over the years. Any Vürdmeister, as masters of the vir were called after they passed the tenth shu’ra, could dispel the entire bridge with a word. Dorian even knew the spell, for all the good it did him. What made his stomach knot was that the magic of Luxbridge had been crafted so that magi, who used the Talent rather than the foul vir that meisters and Vürdmeisters used, would automatically be dropped.

  As perhaps the only person in Midcyru who had been trained as both meister and magus, Dorian thought he had a better chance of making the crossing than any other magus. He’d bought new shoes last night and fitted a lead plate inside each sole. He thought he’d eliminated all traces of southern magic that might cling to him. Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out.

  Heart thudding, Dorian followed the eunuchs onto Luxbridge. At his first step, the bridge flared weirdly green and Dorian felt his feet tingling as vir reached up around his shoes. An instant later it stopped, and no one had seen it. Dorian had done it. Luxbridge felt that he was Talented, but Dorian’s ancestors had been smart enough to know that not every Talented person was a mage. The rest of Dorian’s steps, shuffling like the other nervous eunuchs’, brought sparks out of the magic that made the embedded skulls seem to yawn and shift as they stared hatefully at those who passed overhead. But they didn’t give way.

  If Dorian felt some pride at the genius of Luxbridge, the sight of Mount Thrall brought only dread. He’d been born in the bowels of that damned rock, been starved in its dungeons, fought in its pits, and committed murder in its bedchambers and kitchens and halls.

  Within that mountain, Dorian would find his vürd, his destiny, his doom, his completion. He would also find the woman who would become his wife. And, he feared, he would find out why he had cast aside his gift of prophecy. What was so terrible that he wanted to throw away his foreknowledge of it?

  Mount Thrall was unnatural: an enormous four-sided black pyramid twice as tall as it was wide and extending deep below the earth. From Luxbridge, Dorian looked down and saw clouds obscuring whatever depths lay below. Thirty generations of slaves, both Khalidoran and captured in war, had been sent into those depths, mining until they gasped out their last breaths in the putrid fumes and added their own bones to the ore.

  The pyramid of the mountain had been sheared straight down one edge and flattened, leaving a plateau in front of a great triangular dagger of mountain. The Citadel sat on that plateau. It was dwarfed by the mountain, but as one approached, it became clear that the Citadel was a city unto itself. It held barracks for ten thousand soldiers, great storerooms, vast cisterns, training places for men and horses and wolves, armories, a dozen smithies, kitchens, stables, barns, stockyards, lumberyards, and space for all the workers, tools, and raw materials needed for twenty thousand people to survive a year under siege. And even at that, the Citadel was dwarfed in comparison to the castle that was Mount Thrall, for the mountain was honeycombed with halls and great rooms and apartments and dungeons and passages long forgotten that bored into its very roots.

  Neither the Citadel nor the mountain had been full in decades and with the armies sent north and south, the place was even quieter than usual. Khaliras was now home to only the smallfolk, a skeleton crew of an army, less than half of the kingdom’s meisters, enough functionaries to keep the reduced business of the ki
ngdom operating, the aethelings, and the Godking’s wives and concubines and their keepers.

  Head among those keepers was the Chief Eunuch, Yorbas Zurgah. Yorbas was an old, soft, perfectly hairless man, even shaving his head and plucking his eyebrows and eyelashes. He sat huddled in an ermine cloak to ward off the morning chill at the servants’ gate. Before him was a desk with a parchment unrolled on it. His blue eyes studied Dorian dubiously.

  “You’re short,” Chamberlain Zurgah said. He himself had a typical eunuch’s height.

  And you’re fat. “Yes, my lord.”

  “ ‘Sir’ will suffice.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Chamberlain Zurgah stroked his hairless chin with fingers like sausages encased in jeweled rings. “You have an odd look about you.”

  In his youth, Dorian had rarely seen Yorbas Zurgah. He didn’t think the man would remember him, but anything that caused greater scrutiny was dangerous.

  “Do you know the penalty for a man who attempts entry to the harem?” Zurgah asked.

  Dorian shook his head and looked steadfastly at the ground. He clenched his jaw and, without raising his eyes, tucked his hair back behind his ears.

  It was what he considered a stroke of genius; he’d given himself silver streaks in his hair, paired with slightly pointed ears and several webbed toes. They were features that only one tribe in Khalidor possessed. The Feyuri claimed to be descended from the Fey folk and were equally despised for that and their pacifism. Dorian appeared to be half Feyuri, which was exotic enough and from a group despised enough that he hoped no one would stop to think how his Khalidoran half made him look a lot like Garoth Ursuul. It also explained why he was short. “It’s the… other reason they call me Halfman, sir.”

  Yorbas Zurgah clicked his tongue. “I see. Then here are the terms of your indenture: you will serve whatever hours are asked of you. Your first tasks will include emptying and cleaning the concubines’ chamber pots. Your food will be cold and never as much as you’d like. You are forbidden to speak with the concubines and if you have trouble with this, your tongue will be torn out. You understand?”

  Dorian nodded.

  “Then only one thing remains, Halfman.”

  “Sir?”

  “We have to make sure you’re a halfman after all. Remove your trousers.”

  7

  Lantano Garuwashi sat in Kylar’s path, his sword naked across his lap. Mountainous Feir Cousat stood beside him, meat-slab arms folded. They blocked a narrow game trail that led along the southern edge of the Hunter’s Wood. Feir muttered a warning as Kylar approached.

  Garuwashi’s sword was unmistakable. The hilt was long enough for one or two hands; pure mistarille inscribed with gold runes in Old Ceuran. The slightly curving blade was inscribed with a dragon’s head, facing the tip of the blade. As Kylar came closer, the dragon breathed fire. The flames traveled within the blade, and before them, Ceur’caelestos turned clear as glass. The flames rolled out farther as Kylar approached. Kylar brought the ka’kari to his eyes and saw Ceur’caelestos in the hues of magic.

  That was when he knew the sword was the product of another age. The magics themselves had been crafted to be beautiful—and Kylar couldn’t understand the least of them. He sensed playfulness, grandeur, hauteur, and love. Kylar realized he had a tendency for getting into things that were way over his head. Not least of which was trying to steal such a sword from Lantano Garuwashi.

  “Drop the shadows, Kylar, or I’ll help you drop them,” Feir said.

  Fifteen paces away from them, Kylar dropped the shadows. “So, mages can see me when I’m invisible. Dammit.” He’d suspected as much.

  Feir smiled joylessly. “Only one in ten men. Nine in ten women. I can only see you within thirty paces. Dorian could’ve seen you half a mile away, through trees. But I forget myself. Baronet Kylar Stern of Cenaria, also known as the Night Angel, war son of wetboy Durzo Blint, this is War Leader Lantano Garuwashi the Undefeated, the Chosen of Ceur’caelestos, of the Aenu Heights Lantanos.”

  Kylar clasped his left hand to his stump and bowed in the Ceuran style. “War Leader, the many tales of your deeds attest to your prowess.”

  Garuwashi rose and slid Ceur’caelestos into its sheath. He bowed and his mouth twitched. “Night Angel, likewise the few tales of yours.”

  The horizon was brightening, but it was still dark in the forest. It smelled like rain and coming winter. Kylar wondered if they would be the last smells he would experience. He smiled on the rising tide of despair. “We seem to have a problem,” Kylar said. Several, actually.

  “What’s that?” Garuwashi asked.

  I can’t fight you invisible without killing Feir first, and even if I did, neither of you merits death. “You have a sword I need,” Kylar said instead.

  “Are you out of your—” Feir asked, but cut off at Garuwashi’s raised hand.

  “Forgive me, Night Angel,” Garuwashi said, “but you’re not left-handed, and you move like the loss of your sword hand was recent. If you so desire death that you would challenge me, I will not deny you. But why would you?”

  Because I made a deal with the Wolf. Mere hours afterward, Kylar had found Durzo’s note that ended, “MAKE NO DEALS WITH THE WOLF.” Maybe this was why. I can’t win.

  ~Not unless I give you a hand,~ the ka’kari said in Kylar’s mind. The black metal ball that lived within Kylar spoke rarely, and it wasn’t always helpful when it did. You’re hilarious, Kylar thought back at it.

  Garuwashi’s eyes flicked down to Kylar’s wrist. Feir was agog.

  Kylar glanced down and saw jet black metal writhing from his stump. It resolved itself slowly into a hand. He tried to make a fist, and it did. Are you joking?

  ~I’m not that cruel. By the way, Jorsin Alkestes didn’t like the idea of his enemies coming back to life. If that sword kills you, you’re really dead.~

  Funny, the Wolf failed to mention that. Kylar wiggled the black fingers. He even had some sensation in them. At the same time, the hand was too light. It was hollow, the skin thinner than parchment. Hey, while you’re doing miracles…

  ~No.~

  You didn’t even listen!

  ~Go ahead.~ It felt like the ka’kari was rolling its eyes. How did it do that? It didn’t even have eyes.

  Can you fix its weight?

  ~No.~

  Why not?

  The ka’kari sighed. ~I stay one size. I’m already covering all your skin and making a hand for you. Invisibility, blue flames, and an extra hand not enough for you?~

  So making a dagger of you and throwing it would be a bad idea?

  The ka’kari went silent in a huff, and Kylar grinned. Then he realized he was grinning at Lantano Garuwashi, who had sixty-three deaths tied to his hair, and eighty-two in his eyes.

  “You need a minute?” Garuwashi asked, lifting an eyebrow.

  “Uh, I’m ready now,” Kylar said. He drew his sword.

  “Kylar,” Feir said. “What are you going to do with the sword?”

  “I’m going to put it somewhere safe.”

  Feir’s eyes widened. “You’re taking it into the Wood?”

  “I was thinking I’d throw it in.”

  “Good idea,” Feir said.

  “Perhaps a nice idea. But not a good one,” Garuwashi said. He closed the distance between them in an instant. The swords rang together in the staccato melody that would climax in death. Kylar decided to feign a tendency to overextend on his ripostes. With a swordsman as talented as Lantano Garuwashi, he should only have to show the weakness twice and spring the trap the third time.

  Except that the first time he overextended, Garuwashi’s sword was into the gap, raking Kylar’s ribs. He could have killed Kylar with that thrust, but he held back, wary of a trap.

  Kylar staggered back, and Garuwashi let him regroup, his eyes showing disappointment. They’d barely crossed swords for five seconds. The man was too fast. Ridiculously fast. Kylar brought the ka’kari to his eyes and was even mo
re stunned.

  “You’re not even Talented,” Kylar said.

  “Lantano Garuwashi needs no magic.”

  ~Kylar Stern surely does!~

  Kylar felt an old familiar shiver, an echo from his past. It was the fear of dying. With Alitaeran broadswords, Kylar could have crushed Garuwashi with the brute strength of his Talent. Against the elegant Ceuran sword, Kylar’s Talent did almost nothing for him. “Let’s get on with it,” Kylar said.

  They began again, Garuwashi feeling Kylar out, even giving ground, seeing what Kylar could do. But there was no holding back. Kylar had seen that. Soon Kylar would tire and try something desperate. Garuwashi would be waiting for it—how many desperate men had he seen in sixty-three duels? Surely every man who had survived the first clash of blades had the same sick feeling in his stomach that Kylar had now. There was no room for self-delusion once the blades began singing.

  Something changed on Garuwashi’s face. It wasn’t enough to tell Kylar what he was going to do; but it was enough to tell him that Garuwashi thought he knew Kylar’s strengths. Now he would end it.

  There was a beat. Kylar waited for Garuwashi to advance, those damn long arms of his unbelievably quick, the stance fluid and sure.

  “You feel it, don’t you?” Garuwashi asked, withholding his attack. “The rhythm.”

  “Sometimes,” Kylar grunted, his eyes not leaving Garuwashi’s center, where he would see any movement begin. “Once, I heard it as music in truth.”

  “Many died that day?” Garuwashi asked.

  Kylar shrugged.

  “Thirty highlanders, four wytches, and a Khalidoran prince,” Feir said.

  Lantano Garuwashi smiled, not surprised at Feir’s knowledge. “Yet today you fight woodenly. You are stiff, slower than usual. Do you know why? That day you faced death no less than you do today.”

  Wrong, but I didn’t know that then.

  “Today,” Garuwashi continued, “you are afraid. It narrows your vision, tenses your muscles, makes you slow. It will make you dead. Fight to win, Kylar Stern, not to not lose.” It was disconcerting to hear good advice from the man who was about to kill him.

 
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