The night angel trilogy, p.112
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.112

           Brent Weeks
 

  Before them, Luxbridge reformed itself. Dorian stepped back into his lead-lined shoe and tested it on the bridge. It flared green and began to turn transparent. He had simply used too much Talent too recently for the thin defense of the lead plating to be adequate, so he stretched the vir forth once more and reached under the bridge to steady it.

  “We must go quickly,” he told Jenine. “Stay close.”

  She nodded, biting her lip. By the God, she was beautiful. She was worth it.

  Dorian stepped onto Luxbridge, and it held. It was even more eerie, he thought, to walk across the span without the skulls. Looking at the harmless skulls of the dead scared him less than looking at clouds far beneath his feet.

  In moments, they made the crossing. The guards standing at the Gate Keep gaped and dropped to their knees. Dorian recognized Rugger.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. Rugger looked up, sure he was about to die. Dorian Healed the man’s wen with a touch. Without the ugly protuberance, Rugger wasn’t half bad-looking. Rugger’s hands went to his forehead, disbelieving.

  Hand in hand, Dorian and Jenine stepped through the iron portcullis and looked over the city from their perch.

  Paerik’s army wound through the city and out onto the plain. The front of it was just beginning the climb up the ridge where Dorian and Jenine stood. The men and women on the leading edge weren’t soldiers; they were meisters and Vürdmeisters, two hundred strong. And they were already halfway to Dorian. They couldn’t help but have been aware of the magical firestorm he just been part of. Every one of them had their eyes fixed on him.

  “Are we going to die?” Jenine asked.

  “No,” Dorian said. “These people have lived under tyranny so long, they have no idea what to do after you’ve killed their leader. One more bluff, and we’re on our way home.” What home is that, Dorian?

  “You really think you can bluff that?” Jenine asked, pointing to the entire army.

  Dorian smiled, and he realized how long it had been since he’d thought about the future. He was no prophet now, but yes, he was sure. He was about to gamble it all for one last time. A few orders, a few curses, maybe a few deaths, and he and Jenine would be on their way to Cenaria. It would work. It could, anyway.

  Something cold touched his cheek. Dorian blinked.

  “What?” Jenine asked, seeing the hope die in his face. “What’s wrong?” She followed his eyes up.

  “It’s snowing,” he said softly. “The passes will be closed. We’re trapped.”

  In the distance, barely audible beneath the hiss of falling snow, Dorian thought he heard Khali laughing.

  Snow made the worst weather for invisibility. In Cenaria, snow usually melted as soon as it hit the ground, but tonight it was sticking long enough to show footprints. The sleet itself gave shape to Kylar’s body as it ran down his limbs. Kylar had to move as slowly toward the Ceuran camp as if he were an assassin. At least he still remembered how to sneak. And at least the clouds blocked the moon. Still, it was cold. As usual, Kylar was only wearing underclothes beneath the ka’kari, and it wasn’t enough.

  He tugged at his earring, pushing down the distant awareness of Vi. Shivering, Kylar climbed a rocky knoll to get a better view. The Ceurans had four men camped on the windy hill, huddled around a banked fire, with oil-soaked torches nearby so they could give signals to the army below. Kylar sat five paces from a weary sentry. The man was a peasant foot soldier rather than a sa’ceurai. His armor was made of plates sewn onto fabric. Rather than being fastened with leather, which was durable but would harden and shrink if it got wet too often, Ceurans always fastened their armor with ruinously expensive Lodricari silk laces.

  After the Battle of Pavvil’s Grove, Garuwashi’s plan had been to pull the Cenarian army east after his “Khalidoran” raiders while the main strength of his own army swept behind them and took the capital. It would have worked, but for something he never could have foreseen: walls.

  Most of Cenaria’s old walls had been cannibalized for their stones. By the time Kylar was a child, generations of Rabbits too poor to pay for masonry had finally left the Warrens without walls. The richer east side had seen a similar if slower erosion. But in the last few months while Kylar was gone, walls had appeared around the entire city. It was breathtaking. With Cenaria’s endemic corruption, it would have taken five generations of kings and millions of crowns to equal what Garoth Ursuul’s cruelty and magic had done in two months. Of course, he’d also had a ready supply of stone from all the houses Terah Graesin’s followers had abandoned. And when those ran out, they simply demolished more homes and took what they needed.

  Now, the Ceuran army was laid out in a crescent hugging the south and east of the city. On finding walls, Garuwashi’s generals had prepared a siege until their leader could join them—which he had, by now. The west side of the city was an alternately boggy and rocky peninsula that held the Warrens. West of that was the ocean. North of the city were mountains and only one crossing of the Plith River. Garuwashi had contented himself with burning that bridge so he could concentrate his forces on the east side of the Plith and the two gates he would probably assault.

  Garuwashi’s army camped like the raiders Kylar had seen at the edge of Ezra’s Wood. Tents made up a grid pattern, with small streets separating the tents and wider streets between platoons, commanders’ tents at regular intervals, couriers’ tents next to those, and latrines and fires laid out with precision.

  What they didn’t have were wagons. Whatever tunnels the Ceurans had taken were evidently not big enough, or too steep, or too claustrophobic for horses. Garuwashi had sacrificed everything for speed. The war leader himself had probably only caught up to his army in time to see the horror of the walls for himself. And now it was snowing.

  This was not going to be a protracted siege. When Terah Graesin had left Cenaria, those who had followed her had put their possessions to the torch to keep them from falling into Khalidoran hands. How many granaries had gone up in those fires? Perhaps a better question was, how many bakeries and mills and warehouses were left? For their part, Lantano Garuwashi’s men had the freedom of movement, but all the crops had been taken into the city long ago. Lantano’s men could raid villages a few days out—but without horses, they couldn’t bring the food back quickly, and they could only bring what they could carry. Even if they stole horses and built a few wagons, that would take time—and they had an entire army to feed.

  Each side was going to be absolutely desperate within days.

  Logan’s force outside the walls wasn’t likely to do much to sway the balance, not without communication with Terah Graesin. If they could tell the queen to hold on and not do anything stupid, Logan could use his cavalry to destroy any attempts Garuwashi made at foraging. In a standoff involving thirteen thousand foot soldiers, a few hundred horses could make all the difference. If Terah didn’t do anything stupid.

  Which meant someone needed to talk to her.

  ~Someone? Let me guess.~

  Kylar had six hours until dawn. It was going to be a busy night. Before he left, just for fun, he tied the silk laces of the sentry’s leggings together.

  19

  I’m sorry, Jenine,” Dorian said. “I’m sorry we didn’t leave earlier.” With snow falling now, they would have had to leave a week ago to make it through the passes. A week ago, he hadn’t even found Jenine yet. There was nothing he could have done differently. Still.

  “You did everything you could. You were magnificent,” Jenine said. The way she said it, with such bravery and unguarded admiration, told him she expected to die. Of course she did. Twenty thousand good reasons for that were marching through the city. She was so brave it made Dorian ache.

  “I love you,” he said. It just slipped out. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she put a finger on his lips.

  “Thank you,” she said. She reached up and kissed him gently.

  It shouldn’t have meant so much, those words, that kiss, coming from a gir
l who thought she was about to die, but they were liquid fire and hope and life to Dorian.

  “We do have one chance,” he said.

  “We do?”

  He shook himself and Halfman—at least the Feyuri ears and eyebrows and the less comfortable portions of his eunuch disguise—burst apart and disintegrated.

  Rugger gasped. “Dorian?” he blurted out.

  Dorian glared at him. Rugger dropped to his face. “Your Holiness,” he said.

  It was that simple. Garoth Ursuul had ruled absolutely, and if one disregarded the moral dimensions, he’d ruled efficiently and well. His death left a vacuum, and a people that expected to be ruled as they had been. They were a people accustomed to obeying orders instantly. Dorian and Jenine ran across Luxbridge and into the castle.

  From somewhere deep in his mind, Dorian dredged up the correct sequences and shifted the halls so that the front gate led to the Lesser Hall, which then led to the Greater Hall, and finally to the throne room. The stones ground and shook, and obeyed him.

  Before going to the throne room, Dorian ran to his old barracks. Hopper refused to open the door, so Dorian had to break it open. He quickly apologized to the terrified concubines, who all looked at him like they should know him, but didn’t. Hopper recognized him faster and dropped to his face.

  “Hopper, dammit, I don’t have the time. Go to the Godking’s chambers and get me the finest clothes you can as fast as you can. I need you girls to dress Jenine appropriately, and then I need two or three of you to be throne ornaments—but it’s dangerous. Only volunteers, and only if you can be ready in five minutes.”

  “I don’t want to leave you,” Jenine said as he moved to go.

  “If this is going to work, you must,” Dorian said.

  She started to protest, then nodded. He ran from the room.

  He didn’t go to the throne room. He went to his brothers’ dormitories. They were littered with bodies. The aethelings had grasped what the Godking’s death meant immediately. Several times in his search, Dorian saw younger children hiding beneath beds or in closets. He left them unharmed. All he was looking for were amplifiae, and in several of the rooms, he found many. The older aethelings had collected or created as many amplifiae as they could, knowing that one day they might be the difference between life and death. Dorian scooped as many as he could carry and ran to the throne room.

  The throne room itself had been the site of one of the worst battles. Twenty dead aethelings and two Vürdmeisters sprawled in the shit and stench of death. Two young men were still alive, though too badly hurt to use the vir. Dorian stilled their hearts and took his throne amid the stench of burnt flesh and hair and the coppery smell of blood. All the amplifiae he had gathered were useless to him. He had some power left, but it would kill him to use what he would need to overmatch the number of Vürdmeisters marching toward the throne room right now.

  Jenine and Hopper and two young concubines jogged into the hall, Hopper as awkward as his namesake.

  “You look stunning,” Dorian told Jenine. She was wearing green silks and emeralds. “Ladies,” he told the concubines, “your bravery will not be forgotten.”

  “They’re across the bridge,” Hopper said. He produced some of Garoth’s magnificent clothing, and the women stripped Dorian and dressed him as quickly as they could.

  Dorian thought of the meisters hurrying here even now. Would they go slowly enough to try to read the residue of the battles they passed? What would they make of the gap in Luxbridge? He draped the heavy gold chains of office around his neck.

  “You, there. And you, over there,” he told the concubines. “Jenine, on the floor beside the throne. Sorry there’s no chair. Hopper, over by the door in case I need you.”

  He sat then in the great onyx throne and as he put his hands on the sinuous arms of the chair, he felt connected to the whole Citadel, but most especially to its heart—its empty heart now, where Khali should have been. Dorian thanked the God that she wasn’t there. He didn’t know if he could survive that. He could feel the meisters approaching the great doors, so through the throne that made the Citadel like part of his body, he threw the doors open with a crash.

  The meisters and Vürdmeisters hesitated. There were hundreds of them, and they took in the carnage of the dead aethelings and the easy majesty of the man on the throne at once. Most of them had obviously expected to see Paerik. Their jaws dropped. Others had known, had been able to read the vir to know he died—and, as usual, hadn’t shared their knowledge with their fellows, hoping it would give them an edge.

  “Enter,” Dorian commanded, amplifying his voice enough that all could hear, but not booming as an amateur would. Vürdmeisters would not be cowed by a simple weave, and using it too forcefully would make them suspect him.

  He let those who were able to read the battle read it. Then he waited. He let them look around the room, stare at the women, stare at the magic, even glance at Hopper. He let them look at him, let those who remembered him gasp and mutter about who he was. Dorian the heir, returned from the dead. Dorian, the rebel. Dorian, the defiant. Dorian, the erased. He waited, and it made him remember when his father had been grooming him to rule. They had walked one day together in a wheat field.

  “How do you keep such ambitious people in your grip?” Dorian had asked.

  Garoth Ursuul had said nothing. He simply pointed to a stalk of wheat that grew above its fellows and lopped its head off.

  These men were the ones who had survived generations of that process. None of them spoke for ten seconds, twenty, a minute. Dorian waited until he was sure one young Vürdmeister was about to speak. Then with his vir, he flung a staff at the man.

  Two hundred shields sprang up in the throne room. The amplifiae hit the young wytch’s shield and fell to the ground. Dorian favored them with a condescending look and slowly the meisters lowered their shields. The young man who’d been about to speak scooted forward and picked up the staff, looking abashed. Then Dorian threw another amplifiae to the meister on his right. She caught it. Then he threw another and another until he’d dispensed all of the dozens he had, even his own.

  There weren’t enough for every meister, of course, but there were enough to make Dorian’s point. A king didn’t arm his enemies.

  Dorian raised his vir to the surface of his skin, and brought them not only into his arms, but up around his face. He allowed them to break through his scalp and form a living crown. There was pain there, pain as they broke his skin and as they broke through channels of power that he had blocked long ago. He was powerful again now. Powerful and dread.

  “Some of you recognize me as Dorian, first seed, first aetheling, first survivor of training, first to accomplish his uurdthan, first son of Garoth Ursuul.”

  “But Dorian is dead,” one of the younger meisters said, deep in the crowd.

  “Yes, dead,” Dorian said. “You have read the chronicles. Dorian is dead these twelve years. As now Paerik is dead. And Draef is dead. And Tavi. And Jurik. And Rivik. And Duron, and Hesdel, and Roqwin, and Porrik, and Gvessie, and Wheriss, and Julamon, and Vic. Dead, all of those who questioned my resolve. So now each of you has a choice. Will you question my resolve and try to take this throne, or will you gather my enemies and bring them to me?”

  Dorian’s face was perfectly impassive. It had to be. He had no Talent left, and no vir left if he wanted to live. The throne had some interesting powers, but not enough to destroy two hundred meisters.

  He wondered suddenly if any of them realized how fragile he was. It wouldn’t take an attack to destroy Dorian. It would only take a single sneer.

  But these were men schooled not to sneer at authority, no matter how much they despised it. The moment stretched unbearably, and then one young man hit his knees before his Godking. Then another. Then it was a rush not to be the last.

  This, at least, I owe you, father. You cruel, brutal, amazing man. They called you a god and you made them believe it.

  The new Godking
affected not to be surprised. He started issuing orders, and they obeyed, running to secure the safety of the concubines, running to capture the living aethelings, running to take care of the armies, to summon the leaders of the city and the highland and lowland chiefs, to gather the meisters who had gone into hiding during the fighting.

  “What have I done?” Dorian asked Jenine quietly when it was done.

  She didn’t answer. There were still men and meisters in the throne room. It should have felt good to assume so much power, so much power to change everything he’d hated about his homeland. Instead, he felt trapped.

  “Your Holiness,” the young red-haired Vürdmeister who had been the closest to opposing him said. “If… if Dorian is dead, Your Holiness, what may we call you?”

  Godking Dorian was impossible, of course. Not only because his father had wanted him dead. Dorian didn’t want Solon or Feir or any magus to ever hear of this. Better they think him dead. Looks like I had to go through the shit one way or the other, huh, God? But the God didn’t answer. The God was far away, and Dorian’s challenges were here, immediate and deadly.

  “I am… Godking Wanhope.” Wanhope was an archaic word that meant despair. When he looked at Jenine, she looked frightened but resolute. He squeezed her hand. She’s worth it. We’ll make it through this. Somehow.

  20

  As Vi descended from the pass in the afternoon, the snows became sleet and finally rain. Forests yielded to farms, though she met no one on the road. Anyone with sense was inside. Vi rounded a corner and found herself staring at Sister Ariel, sitting on a mare with all the grace of a sack of potatoes. In contrast to how miserably drenched Vi was, the Bitch Wytch wasn’t even wet. An inch above her skin and clothing, the rain sheared away, ran in rivulets over an invisible shell, and dropped to the ground. She smiled beatifically. “Hello, Vi. It’s good to see you’re alive. I received a very odd message this morning telling me to expect you.”

 
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