The night angel trilogy, p.115
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.115

           Brent Weeks
 
She knew it was destructive. She knew it would eat her alive. Only weeks ago, she’d killed a man, and she hadn’t felt the wash of hatred she felt now.

  Elene knew she was being disobedient, holding onto her resentment, her righteous wrath. But it made her feel powerful to hate the woman who’d done her wrong. Vi deserved hatred.

  The punt docked in a small slip magically shielded from the rain and the boatman pointed her to a line. Elene joined two dozen other people, mostly women, who had come to petition the Chantry. An hour later, when she gave her name and asked to see Vi, the Sister found a note about her and sent a tyro running.

  Several minutes later, an older maja with the loose skin and ill-fitting clothes of a woman who’s lost too much weight too fast came out. “Hello, Elene. My name is Sister Ariel. Come with me.”

  “Where are you taking me?”

  “To see Uly and Vi. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” Sister Ariel turned and walked away without waiting for a response.

  Many steps later, they stopped at a hospital floor with hundreds of beds, lining the circumference of the Seraph. Most of the beds were empty, but Sisters with green sashes moved among those that were occupied, sometimes touching the walls, which immediately turned transparent, letting in the diffuse morning sun.

  “Is Uly ill?” Elene asked.

  Sister Ariel said nothing. She led Elene past dozens of beds. Some of the girls on them had arms or legs wrapped in gauze, and here and there, ancient-looking magae slept, but most of the injured had no obvious wounds. Magical wounds, Elene supposed, didn’t always leave evidence on the body.

  Finally, they stopped at a bed, but the woman on it wasn’t Uly, it was Vi. It took Elene’s breath away. She had thought from the glimpse of the redhead on the trail that she’d never seen Vi before, but she had. Vi had been at the fateful last party at the Jadwin estate. That night, Vi had come as a blonde, wearing a dress that was a scandal in red. Elene remembered the swirl of emotions she’d felt that night clearly: shock that someone would wear such revealing attire, judgment, fascination. Elene—and every other man and woman—hadn’t been able to take her eyes off the woman. Immediately after those first emotions, without ever losing her outrage, she’d felt jealousy, longing, the sick-stomach sensation of not measuring up to such beauty, wishing that she could attract such stares, and knowing she never would—and would never wear such clothes even if she could—but wishing all the same that she might, just for a few moments. Vi was that woman, and if anything, with her glossy flaming red hair rather than what must have been a blonde wig, Vi was even more striking.

  Then, as Elene stepped closer to the bed, she saw Vi’s other ear. She wore a single earring, mistarille and gold, sparkling in the morning light coming through the walls. It was half of the exact pair of beautiful wedding earrings Elene had pointed out to Kylar. The wash of emotions Elene had already been feeling suddenly had a boulder dropped in it. This was her competition? This… creature had ringed Kylar? No wonder he’d chosen her. What man wouldn’t?

  Unnoticed, Sister Ariel had come to stand beside Elene, and now she spoke, her voice barely a whisper. “When she’s asleep, I see what a beautiful woman Viridiana would have been.”

  Elene shot a look at the Sister. Like she could be more beautiful?

  “She is brittle and sick and hard and abused. Her character is as base as her body is beautiful. You’ll see, when she wakes. She is a walking tragedy. The trade she was taught would wreck anyone with a soul. You know that from Kylar’s experience. But Vi didn’t just learn a sick trade, she learned under Hu Gibbet—all too often literally under him, from the time she was a child. Whenever I—old and fat as I am—see her asleep, I still get jealous. I still forget that Vi’s beauty has been no friend to her.” Sister Ariel paused, as if captured by a thought. “In fact, the only friend she ever had—male or female—was Jarl, and the Godking compelled her to kill him.”

  Elene didn’t want to hear it. “What’s wrong with her? I mean, why is she here?”

  Sister Ariel sighed. “Our initiation doesn’t only require aptitude, it requires focus. Vi has aptitude to an almost appalling degree. She is as Talented as she is beautiful. I was and am worried that learning that may spoil her. Learning our art properly takes patience and humility, and women with enormous Talent tend to lack both. So I pushed her into the initiation immediately. With what she’s done and been through in the last weeks, she had no focus at all, almost no will even to live. It was nearly a death sentence.” She shrugged. “Elene, I know Vi has done you great wrong. These marriage rings are ancient. I’m studying the rings now to see if it’s even possible to break the bond. I don’t have high hopes. And I know—she confessed—that she ringed Kylar when he was unconscious. The other Sisters don’t know that. It is considered one of the greatest crimes among us. Even if she did do it to save a country, and to save Kylar himself, Vi surely deserves whatever vengeance you would give her. If you choose, you should be able to wake her. If you wish to stay here at the Chantry, rooms will be provided for you. If you wish to speak with Uly, she should be finishing her morning classes in two hours. I will be in my room if you need me. Ask any tyro—any of the young women dressed in white—and they will take you wherever you wish to go.”

  With that, Sister Ariel left Elene alone with Vi.

  Elene looked around as the Sister disappeared. There was suddenly no one else in sight. She touched the knife at her belt. She could kill Vi and simply leave. She’d killed now. She knew how.

  She squeezed her eyes tight shut. God, I can’t do this.

  After a long moment, she breathed, unclenched her jaw, willed herself to relax, opened her eyes.

  Vi lay as before, beautiful, peaceful, graceful. But instead of imagining her again at the Jadwin estate, attracting lust and jealousy like a lodestone, Elene imagined her as a child. Vi had been a beautiful child in the Warrens as Elene had been a beautiful child in the Warrens. Neither had emerged unscathed. Elene looked at Vi and chose to fix that child-Vi in her mind’s eye, the beautiful, carefree little girl with flame-red hair before the Warrens had sullied her.

  She’s never had a friend. Elene didn’t know if it was her own thought or the One God’s voice, but she knew instantly what He was calling her to do.

  Elene breathed deeply, frozen to the spot. It’s too hard, God. There’s no way. Not after what she’s done. I want to hate her. I want to be strong. I want to make her pay. She spoke, and raged, and complained about the justice of making Vi suffer, and through it all, the God said nothing. Yet through it, she felt His presence. And when she was finished, He was still there, and Elene knew her choice was simple: obey or disobey.

  She breathed deeply one more time, then sat in the chair beside Vi’s bed and waited for her to wake.

  From the stairs, staring through a crack in the door, Sister Ariel breathed for the first time in what seemed like many minutes. She released her Talent and eased the door shut. Another gamble, another win. She hoped her luck didn’t run out any time soon.

  25

  After a two-hour wait with the nervous master of the docks, the Mikaidon came to collect Solon. The Mikaidon was the keeper of civil order in Hokkai, an office that not only put him in charge of law enforcement but also gave him considerable political clout, as he was the only person who could investigate and search noble persons and properties. Solon recognized him. “Oshobi,” he said. “You’ve risen in the world.”

  Oshobi Takeda grunted. “So it is you.” He wore the regalia of his office like a man who used it as armor, not ornamentation. Oshobi was perhaps thirty, muscular, and imposing. He wore his plumed helm open, of course, showing the electrum rings of Clan Takeda framing his right eye, with six steel chains connecting behind his head to his left ear. The fishes on his helm were gilded, as was his galerus, the leather and plate armor covering his left arm. His trident was as tall as he was. The type of net that dangled over his back, draping cloak-like from spikes on his shoulders, was usually edged w
ith lead weights to help it spread out when thrown. Oshobi’s net was weighted with small daggers. It could be used not only as a net, but as a shield or even a flail by a skilled warrior. Given the numerous scars and rippling muscles on Oshobi’s bare chest, Solon guessed that a skilled warrior was exactly what Oshobi Takeda had become. He had grown into his name. Oshobi meant the great cat, or tiger, but Solon remembered the older boys calling him Oshibi: little pussy. Solon couldn’t imagine anyone calling him that anymore.

  “I request the honor of an audience with Empress Wariyamo,” Solon said. It was a calculated statement, not asserting his own status, and recognizing hers.

  “You’re under arrest,” Oshobi told him. In a blink, he lifted the net from the spikes on his shoulders. He looked like he wanted an excuse to use it.

  The man was a cretin. Solon was a mage and Oshobi should remember it. Of course, Solon didn’t look like one. After his decade serving Duke Regnus Gyre, he looked as hard and scarred as a warrior himself, albeit one with unnaturally white hair growing in. “On what charge? I do have certain rights, Mikaidon. If not as a prince,” he brushed his unpierced cheek, “then certainly as a nobleman.” His heart fell. So Kaede was furious. Should he be surprised?

  “Your brother gave up all the Tofusins’ rights. You can walk, or I can drag you.”

  What did my brother do? Solon had been at various schools learning magic for his brother’s entire reign and Dorian’s prophecies had sent Solon to Cenaria at the time of Sijuron Tofusin’s death. They hadn’t been close; Sij was a decade older than he was, but Solon’s memories of him were pleasant. Apparently, Oshobi’s weren’t.

  Solon said, “That’s a tough one, Oshibi.”

  Oshobi flicked the butt of his trident at Solon’s head. Solon caught the haft squarely in his hand and looked at the Mikaidon contemptuously.

  “I’ll walk,” Solon said. His heart was turning to lead. During Sijuron’s reign, Solon had been crisscrossing Midcyru with Dorian and Feir, searching for Curoch, so he hadn’t been surprised that he hadn’t heard much from home. And then, when he’d concealed his own identity and headed to Cenaria to serve one of Dorian’s prophecies, he hadn’t told anyone back home where he was going. But now, the silence seemed ominous. And in the years since, he hadn’t been able to dispel his ignorance. From the necessity of keeping his identity secret, Solon had avoided all Sethi he saw, and those who saw him spotted the lack of clan rings and avoided him as an exile. But even the usual news one might hear from foreigners had mostly been lacking, as though the Sethi people hadn’t wanted to share anything with outsiders.

  But as they made their way to the castle, Solon soaked in the scents and sights of his old home and some of his tension eased. This land was balm to him. He’d forgotten how much he’d missed the red hills of Agrigolay. As the Mikaidon’s stout, four-wheeled chariot rolled up the cobblestone road to the imperial palace, Solon’s eyes were drawn to the west. As in most cities, the approach to the palace was jammed with buildings, homes, and shops as densely as possible. But in Seth, only the eastern side of the Imperial Way had buildings. The west side was centuries-old vineyards, rolling over the hills in perfect rows as far as the eye could see. The grapes hung heavy on the vine, and there were men checking their ripeness. The harvest would be any day.

  Most kingdoms required their lords to offer a certain number of men for war every summer. In Seth, the levies were needed in fall, for the grapes. Already, Solon saw, enormous broad baskets had been stacked at the ends of the rows. There was no need for walls to protect the vineyards. The wines of Seth were its pride and its life’s blood. No Sethi citizen would harm the vines, nor suffer a stranger to do so, and the theft of cuttings from these vines had precipitated war between Seth and Ladesh. The loss of half a dozen ships had been counted a small price when they successfully sank the Ladeshian merchantman that was carrying the cuttings back to Ladesh to begin rival vineyards, along with its escort. Ladesh had its silk monopoly, but anyone who wanted great wine bought it from Seth.

  To Solon, like most Sethi, the vineyards were rich not only with beauty but also with meaning. The cycle of planting and grafting and pruning and nurturing and waiting—all resonated with meaning for every citizen.

  They came over the last rise and Solon saw Whitecliff Castle for the first time in twelve years. It was white marble, a testament to the vast wealth the empire had enjoyed at its height: no white marble was quarried on the islands, and shipping it across an ocean was so expensive that every time Solon saw the castle he was awed and almost ashamed of his ancestors’ wastefulness. Outbuildings, smithies, barracks, servants’ housing, barns, kennels, granaries, and storehouses ringed the hill cheek by jowl within the granite walls, but the crown of the hill was all castle. Steps broad enough for horses led up the first tier into the outer hall. The outer hall had a roof but no walls, leaving it oddly open to the elements. Enormous grooved marble pillars held a majestic roof of marble, onyx, and stained glass.

  At the base of the steps, Oshobi drew his team to a halt. “Are you going to make this easy or hard?” he asked.

  “I’m here to solve problems, not cause them,” Solon said.

  “Too late for that,” Oshobi said. “There’s a room for you on the first floor.”

  Solon nodded. A visiting noble would be put on the second floor, and he should have rated the third floor, but it was better than the dungeon, and it would give Kaede time to decide what to do about him.

  They climbed the steps together, drawing only a few looks. Oshobi was obviously a familiar sight, and Solon’s clothing was Cenarian, not Sethi, so from a distance, he supposed the lack of rings wasn’t remarkable. Besides, it was almost harvest time, and everyone had too many things to do.

  Sky watchers had aided the construction of the outer hall, so the stained glass panels provided art appropriate to the season. Currently, the sun lit the whole outer hall purple with scenes of harvest and grape crushing, women dancing in vats with their skirts held up higher above their ankles than absolutely necessary and men clapping and cheering them on. Elsewhere there were scenes of war, of sailing, of fishing, of grand balls, of festivals to Nysos. Some of the panels were brighter than others, reminding Solon of when he was a boy and a rare hailstorm had broken dozens of the panels. He remembered his father cursing their ancestors. Who would use glass for a ceiling? Of course there was no choice but to replace the broken panes, though the price was ruinous. One couldn’t let one’s entryway fall into a shambles.

  Oshobi and Solon walked through the great black oak doors into the inner entry. Here, white staircases framed each side of the room, a great imperial purple carpet led further into the palace, and gold and marble statuary lined the hall. As they headed past the stairs to a side door, however, one of the smallest, oldest men Solon had ever seen came to Oshobi. The man stopped before he said anything, however, and gaped at Solon. He was the old Wariyamo chamberlain, a slave who had chosen to stay with the family permanently rather than take his freedom on the seventh year, and he obviously recognized Solon. After a moment, he recovered and whispered to Oshobi, who promptly reversed direction and gestured for Solon to follow him into the great hall.

  They walked through the great hall, past decorative geometric patterns and starbursts—all designed with swords and spears. It was another wasteful display meant to send a message to visiting emissaries: we have so many armaments, we decorate with them. It was, Solon thought, a more reasonable waste than the stained glass. The great hall was empty except for the guards at the far door, and both of them were too young to recognize Solon. They opened the doors to the inner court promptly, so Oshobi wouldn’t even have to slow. Oshobi led Solon past the great throne from which Solon’s father and brother had ruled, and headed into the inner court.

  The doors opened at the base of stairs, braced by lions. They ascended twenty-one steps, and Solon felt his throat tightening. Then he saw her.

  Kaede Wariyamo had black hair and perfect olive skin
. Her eyes were deep brown, nose stately, mouth wide and full, neck slender. In keeping with the impending harvest, her hair was bound in a single tail and her nagika was simple cotton. A nagika was a dress that looped over one shoulder, the cloth gathered to the opposite hip and falling long to the floor, fully covering the ankles, leaving one breast bare. It wasn’t, as Solon had explained to Midcyri on numerous occasions, that Sethi men didn’t find breasts pleasing or innately feminine. They simply weren’t erotic in the same way. In Seth, a man would comment on a woman’s breasts as a Midcyran commented on a woman’s eyes. But after ten years in Midcyru, Solon’s pulse quickened to see the woman he loved and who’d once loved him so exposed. Kaede was twenty-eight years old now, and most of the innocent girl he had known had receded from her face. The intelligence had come more to the fore, and a steel that had once been buried deep now lay close to the surface. The holes of the clan piercings on her right cheek had long closed, but the dimples remained, showing the world she had not been born an empress.

  Solon thought she was more beautiful than ever. He remembered the day he had left to train with the magi. He had kissed that slender neck, caressed those breasts. He could still remember the smell of her hair. It had been in this very room, where they’d thought no one would find them. He had wondered often when she would have made him stop, or if. But they’d never found out. Her mother, Daune Wariyamo, had found them and berated them both, calling him such foul names that had he been a little older he would have thrown her from the palace. Nor had she spared her daughter the vitriol. Solon had failed Kaede there. He had allowed his own shame to keep him from protecting Kaede, who was even younger and more vulnerable. It was only the first of his regrets with her.

  “Oh, Kaede,” he said, “your beauty would shame the very stars. Why did you never write?”

  The sudden softness in her eyes steeled. She slapped him, hard.

  “Guards! Take this bastard to the dungeon.”

 
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