The night angel trilogy, p.106
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.106

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Here,” Garuwashi said. He lifted Ceur’caelestos and Kylar saw the edges go blunt. “I’ll know when you’re ready.”

  Feir leaned up against a tree and whistled quietly.

  Garuwashi attacked again and within seconds, the dull sword scraped Kylar’s ribs. A few more seconds passed in furious ringing and the dull blade grazed his forearm, then jabbed his shoulder. But even as the blows rained down on him, Kylar began to remember his master Durzo’s merciless sparring. His fear receded. This was the same, except now Kylar had more endurance, more strength, more speed, and more experience than a year ago. And he’d beaten Durzo. Once. Kylar’s vision cleared and his pulse slowed from its frenzied hammering.

  “That’s it!” Garuwashi said. Ceur’caelestos went sharp once more and they began.

  Kylar was aware of Feir. The second-echelon Blade Master was seated cross-legged on the ground now, jaw slack. The man was muttering to himself, “Gabel’s Game to Many Waters to Three Mountain Castles—good, good—to Heron’s Hunt to—was that Praavel’s Defense? Goramond’s Dive to—what the hell? I’ve never—Yrmi’s Bout, good gods, some variation on Two Tigers? Harani Bulls to…”

  The fight accelerated, but Kylar felt a calm. He was, he realized, smiling. Madness! Yet it was so, and Garuwashi’s thin lips were drawn up in a little smirk of their own. There was beauty here, something precious and rare. Every man wished he could fight. Few could, and only one in a hundred years fought this well. Kylar had never thought to see another master on a par with Durzo Blint, but Lantano Garuwashi might even be better than Durzo, a little faster, his reach a little longer.

  Kylar dove behind a sapling a second before Garuwashi sheared it in two. As Garuwashi pushed aside the falling tree, Kylar thought. He only had one thing Lantano Garuwashi didn’t. Well, aside from invisibility.

  ~Oh, don’t use that! It wouldn’t be fair!~

  What Lantano Garuwashi didn’t have was years of fighting against someone better than he was. Kylar was studying Garuwashi’s style in a way Garuwashi had never needed to study anyone’s. It was straightforward. Garuwashi basically depended on his superior speed, strength, reach, technique, and flexibility to win. And—there!

  Kylar went through half of Lord Umber’s Glut and then modified it, twisting the last parry so Ceur’caelestos missed his cheek by a breath. His own sword gashed Garuwashi’s shoulder—but Garuwashi’s counter was already coming. Kylar threw up an arm and instinctively brought the ka’kari up along the ridge.

  White light blazed and threw thousands of sparks, as if Kylar’s arm were an enormous flint and Ceur’caelestos steel. Kylar’s arm burned.

  The warriors staggered back and Kylar knew that if Garuwashi had put any more force into that counter, it would have destroyed the ka’kari.

  ~Please… please don’t ever do that again.~

  “Who taught you that?” Garuwashi demanded, his face bright red.

  “I…” Kylar stopped, confused. His left arm was throbbing, bleeding where Ceur’caelestos had scraped it.

  “He means the combination, Kylar,” Feir said, his eyes wide. “That move’s called Garuwashi’s Turn. No one else is fast enough to do it.”

  Kylar fell back into a ready stance, not in fear now, but futility. He’d thrown his best at Garuwashi and barely scratched him. “No one taught me,” he said. “It just seemed right.”

  The anger dropped from Lantano Garuwashi’s face in an instant. This was a man, Kylar saw, of sudden passions, unpredictable, intense, dangerous. Garuwashi drew a white handkerchief and reverently wiped Ceur’caelestos clean of Kylar’s blood. He sheathed the Blade of Heaven.

  “I will not kill you today, doen-Kylar, peace rest with your blade. In ten years, you will be full in your prime. Let us meet then in Aenu and fight before the royal court. Masters such as we deserve to fight with minstrels and maidens and lesser masters in attendance. Should you win, you may have all that is mine, including the holy blade. Should I win, at least you will have had ten years of life and glory, yes? It will be an event anticipated for a decade and retold for a thousand.”

  In ten years Kylar would indeed be in his prime, and what Garuwashi wasn’t saying was that he would be past his own. Garuwashi would then be what, forty-five? Perhaps his speed and Kylar’s would be equal then. He would still have his reach, and both would have a lot more experience, but that was the more precious coin to Kylar. Would the Wolf care if Kylar waited ten years? Hell, if Kylar didn’t get himself killed, he wouldn’t even see the Wolf for… well, probably ten years. Then again, if Kylar died on this sword, he wouldn’t see the Wolf at all.

  Grimacing, Kylar said, “You tell me, if I promised you that I was going to get something for you, would you want it now or in ten years?”

  “If you try now, you’ll die. In ten years, you’ll have a chance.”

  A month ago, Kylar had one goal: to convince his girlfriend Elene that eighteen years as a virgin was quite enough. Then Jarl had been murdered while delivering the news that Logan Gyre was trapped in his own dungeon. Kylar’s loyalties to the living and the dead had given him two new goals that had cost him the first. He’d abandoned Elene as he’d sworn he wouldn’t in order to save Logan and avenge Jarl by killing the Godking. It had cost him an arm, a magical bond to the beautiful disaster named Vi Sovari, and an oath to steal Garuwashi’s blade.

  Now all Kylar wanted was to make sure his sacrifices hadn’t been for nothing, and then to go make things right with Elene.

  As if to punish him for his faithlessness, he now imagined her saying, “An oath you only keep when it’s convenient isn’t an oath at all.”

  “I can’t put it off,” Kylar said. “Sorry.”

  Garuwashi shrugged. “It is a matter of honor, yes? I understand. That is a—”

  “Pit wyrm!” Feir shouted, leaping to his feet.

  Kylar turned and all he could see was a hole tearing in space ten paces away, and through it, hell and rushing fire-cracked skin. In the forest, a big-nosed, big-eared Vürdmeister was laughing.

  8

  Piss. You’re different, Halfman,” Hopper said. He was a tall, lean, white-haired old eunuch who was training Dorian—Halfman, he reminded himself. Hopper handed him a pot.

  “What do you mean?” Halfman asked.

  “Two shits.” Hopper handed Halfman two more chamber pots. Halfman emptied half of the piss into each, swished it around, and emptied the pots into an enormous clay jar set in a wicker frame. “A piss for every two shits. The rest of the pisses go last. They’re easy. You get a puke or a slippery, you use two pisses on those. No one wants to smell that all day.”

  Halfman thought Hopper wasn’t going to answer him, but after they finished emptying the pots into the enormous clay jars—six of them today, it meant one more trip for Halfman than usual—Hopper paused. “I dunno. Look at how you sit all straight.”

  Cursing inwardly, Halfman slouched. He’d been forgetting. Thirty-two years of sitting up straight like a king’s son was dangerous. Of course, no one spent as much time with him as Hopper, but if the old eunuch had noticed, what would happen if Zurgah or an overseer or a meister or an aetheling did? His half-Feyuri appearance had already isolated him. He was regularly singled out for extra chores and beatings for imagined infractions. The nights he didn’t go to bed aching were rare.

  “Don’t forget yourself. Puke—how the girls manage to nick wine is beyond me—if you do, well…” Hopper lifted his sandal-clad feet one at a time and wiggled his big toes. Those two toes were all he had left. He’d been caught teaching the bored women of the harem a dance, he said, and the only reason he’d been let off so easily was because Zurgah liked him, and the dance hadn’t involved touching or speaking to the women. Other eunuchs, Hopper said, were killed for less. “Twenty-two years since my little dance. Twenty-two years I been with the chamber pots, and I’ll stay with ’em till I die. Now help me with the empties. You remember the process?”

  “One clean water rinses ten pisses
or four shits.”

  “Bright one, you. Help me rinse the first forty, then you can take pots out.”

  They worked together in silence. Halfman had made no progress finding the woman who would be his wife. The Citadel held two separate harems, and several women were kept apart from either one. Halfman had been assigned to the common harem.

  More than a hundred of Garoth Ursuul’s wives and concubines lived here—wives were the women who had produced sons, concubines those who had produced either daughters or nothing, which were considered equivalent. Given that Garoth Ursuul had to be near sixty, all of the women were surprisingly young. No one ever said what happened to the old wives.

  It was strange to be in his father’s harem. He was seeing a different and oddly personal side of the man who had shaped him in a hundred ways. Like most Khalidorans, the Godking favored solid women with wide hips and full buttocks. There was a northern saying, volaer ust vassuhr, vola uss vossahr. Literally, “a man’s horses and his brides should be big enough to ride.” Most of the common women were Khalidoran, but the Godking’s harems included all nationalities except the Feyuri. All were beautiful; all had large eyes and full lips; and he preferred taking them, Hopper said, as soon after their flowering as possible.

  Life in the harem, though, bore little relation to the stories southrons told. If it was a life of luxury, it was also one of enforced boredom.

  Each day, as he gathered the chamber pots from the concubines’ rooms, Halfman stole glances at the women. The first thing he noticed was that they were always fully clothed. Not only was the Godking out of the city, but winter was coming. With no possibility of being asked to serve any time soon, some of the women didn’t even bother brushing their hair or changing out of their bedclothes, though there seemed to be a form of social censure that kept anyone from slipping too far.

  “They used to sit there all winter, half-naked and made up like fertility whores, huddled around the fires and shivering like puppies in the snow,” Hopper said. “Now we give ’em a signal when His Holiness is on his way. Just wait’ll you see it. You’ve never seen anyone move so fast. Or if one of them’s called for by name, every last one of the others will descend on her. Khali’s blood, you can’t even see her for a good five minutes. Then when she comes out of that circle, you’d swear they traded her for the goddess herself. Much as they hate each other and scheme and gossip, when the Godking calls, they help each other. It’s one thing to gossip and lie about a woman,” Hopper lowered his voice, “but none of them wants to be the reason a girl gets sent to the aethelings.”

  Dorian’s stomach turned. So they knew. Of course they knew. Dorian’s seed class had been taught flaying on a disrespectful concubine. Dorian, as the first of the class, had been assigned her face. He remembered his pride as he had presented it to his tutor Neph Dada whole, even the eyelids and eyelashes intact. The ten-year-old Dorian had worn that face to dinner as a mask, making japes with his seed class while Neph smiled encouragement. God help him, he had done even worse things.

  What was he doing here? This place was sick. How could a people tolerate this? How could they worship a goddess that delighted in suffering? Dorian sometimes believed that countries had the kind of leaders they deserved. What did that say about Khalidor—with its tribalism and endemic corruption held in check only by its deep fear of the men who styled themselves Godkings? What did it say about Dorian? This was his people, his country, his culture—and once, his birthright. He, Dorian Ursuul, had survived. He’d demolished his seed class one at a time, pitting brother against brother until only he survived. He’d accomplished his uurdthan, his Harrowing, and shown himself worthy to be called the Godking’s son and heir. This, all of this, could have been his—and he didn’t miss it for a second.

  He loved many things about Khalidor: the music, the dances, the hospitality of its poor, its men who laughed or cried freely, and its women who would wail and keen over their dead where southrons stood silent like they didn’t care. Dorian loved their zoomorphic art, the wild woad tattoos of the lowland tribes, the cool blue-eyed maidens with their milk-white skin and fierce tempers. He loved a hundred things about his people, but sometimes he wondered if the world wouldn’t be a better place if the sea swept in and drowned them all.

  As sacrifices for abundant livestock, how many of those blue-eyed girls had laid their mewling firstborn sons on Khali pyres? For abundant crops, how many of those expressive men had caged their aged fathers in wicker coffins and watched them drown slowly in bogs? They wept as they did murder—but they did it. For honor, when a man died, if his wife wasn’t claimed by the clan chief, she was expected to throw herself on her husband’s pyre. Dorian had seen a girl fourteen years old whose courage failed her. She’d been married less than a month to an old man she’d never met before her wedding. Her father beat her bloody and threw her on the pyre himself, cursing her for embarrassing him.

  “Hey,” Hopper said, “you’re thinking. Don’t. It’s no good here. You work hard, you don’t have to think. Got it?” Halfman nodded. “Then let’s strap this on and you can work.”

  Together, they strapped the wicker basket to Halfman’s back. There were thongs that wrapped around each shoulder and his hips to help him bear the great weight of the clay pot full of sewage. Hopper promised to have another pot ready by the time Halfman got back.

  Halfman trudged through the cold basalt hallways. It was always dark in the slaves’ passages, with only enough torches burning so the slaves could avoid colliding.

  “I’m tired of banging toothless slaves,” a voice said around the next intersection of hallways. “I hear the new girl’s in the Tygre Tower. They say she’s beautiful.”

  “Tavi! You can’t call it that.” Bertold Ursuul was Dorian’s great-grandfather, and the man had gone mad, believing he could ascend to heaven if he built a tower high enough and decorated it solely with Harani sword-tooth tygres. His madness embarrassed Garoth Ursuul, so he’d forbidden the tower to be called anything but Bertold’s Tower.

  Dorian stopped. There was a torch at the intersection and no way he could retreat without being noticed. The aethelings—for no one else spoke with such arrogance—were coming toward him. There was no escape.

  Then he remembered. He was Halfman now, a eunuch slave. So he slouched and prayed that he was invisible.

  “I talk how I please,” Tavi said, coming into the intersection just as Halfman did. Halfman stopped, stepped aside, and averted his eyes. Tavi was a classic aetheling: good-looking if with a hawkish nose, well-groomed, well-dressed, an aura of command, and the stench of great power, despite being barely fifteen years old. Halfman couldn’t help but size him up instantly—this one would be the first of his seed class. This would have been one Dorian would have tried to kill early. Too arrogant, though. Tavi was the kind who needed to brag. He would never make it through his uurdthan. “And I can fuck who I please, too,” Tavi said, coming to a stop. He looked down each of the halls as if lost. His indecision froze Halfman in place. He couldn’t move without possibly moving into the aethelings’ path.

  “Besides,” Tavi said, “the harems are too closely guarded. But the Tygre Tower’s just got two dreads at the bottom, and her deaf-mute eunuchs.”

  “He’ll kill you,” the other aetheling said. He didn’t look pleased to be having this conversation in front of Halfman.

  “Who’s gonna tell him? The girl? So he’ll kill her, too? Fuck! Where are we? We’ve been walking this way for ten minutes. All these halls look the same.”

  “I said we should have gone the other—” the other aetheling began.

  “Shut up, Rivik. You,” Tavi said, speaking to Halfman. Halfman flinched as a slave would. “Khali, you stink! Which way is it to the kitchens?”

  Halfman reluctantly pointed back the way the aethelings had come.

  Rivik laughed. Tavi cursed. “How far?” Tavi asked.

  Halfman would have found some other way to answer, but Dorian couldn’t help hims
elf. “About ten minutes.”

  Rivik laughed again, louder.

  Tavi backhanded Dorian. “What’s your name, halfman?”

  “Milord, this slave is called Halfman.”

  “Ooh hoo!” Rivik hooted. “We got a live one here!”

  “Not for long,” Tavi said.

  “If you kill him, I’ll tell,” Rivik said.

  “You’ll tell?” The disdain and disbelief on Tavi’s face told Halfman that Rivik’s days as a sidekick were numbered.

  “He made me laugh,” Rivik said. “Come on. We’re already late for lecture, you know how Draef will try to turn that on us.”

  “Fine, just a second.” The vir rose to Tavi’s skin and he began chanting.

  “Tavi…”

  “It won’t kill him.”

  The magic was a slight concussion inches from Halfman’s chest. It threw him back into the wall like a rag doll. The wicker splintered and the clay pot shattered, geysering human waste over Halfman and the wall behind him.

  Rivik laughed louder. “We’ve gotta remember this next time we’re bored. Khali’s tits, it reeks! Imagine if we could break one of those pots in Draef’s room.”

  The aethelings left Halfman gasping on the floor, wiping ooze from his face. It was five minutes before he stood up, but when he did, it was with alacrity. In the fear and in the miming of fear, he had almost missed it. The newest concubine could only be one woman. His future wife was at the top of Bertold’s Tower, and she was in danger.

  9

  The pit wyrm tore through the hole in reality and went for Kylar. The great wyrm was tubular, at least ten feet in diameter, its skin cracked and blackened, fire showing through the gaps. When it lunged, its great bulk heaved forward and its entire eyeless front opened as it vomited its cone-like mouth. Kylar leapt as each concentric ring snapped out. Each ring was circled with teeth, and when the third ring caught a tree, teeth the size of Kylar’s forearm whipped around into the wood. The pit wyrm sucked itself forward, its lamprey-like mouth inverting as the rings bit into the wood in turn, shearing a ten-foot section out of the tree trunk before Kylar landed.

 
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