The night angel trilogy, p.12
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.12
 

           Brent Weeks

  They laughed together, Kylar desperately thankful that Logan had given enough context so he could figure out what “genitalia” meant. Did all nobles talk like this? What if next time Logan gave the punch line without the context? Logan pointed to a portrait on the library wall of a square-jawed bald man dressed in an unfamiliar style. “I have him to thank for that. My great-great-great grandfather, the art lover.”

  Kylar smirked, but he felt he’d been slapped. Logan knew things about his great-great-great grandfather. Kylar didn’t even know who his father was. There was a silence, and Kylar knew it was his turn to fill it. “I, uh, heard that the Grasq twins actually led like six battles against each other.”

  “You know their story?” Logan asked. “Not many people our age do.”

  Belatedly, Kylar realized the risk of posing as a story lover to this man who loved books—and could actually read them. “I really like old stories,” Kylar said. “But my parents don’t really have any use for me ‘wasting my time filling my head with stories.’ ”

  “You really do like stories? Aleine always starts pretending to snore when I talk about history.” Aleine? Oh, Aleine Gunder, Prince Aleine Gunder X. Logan’s world really was different. “Look at this,” he beckoned Kylar to the table. “Here, read this part.”

  Be happy to, if I could read. Kylar’s heart seized up. His disguise was still so fragile. “You’re making me feel like my tutors,” he said, waving it off. “I don’t want to read for an hour while you’re twiddling your thumbs. Why don’t you tell me the good parts?”

  “I feel like I’m doing all the talking,” Logan said, suddenly awkward. “It’s kind of rude.”

  Kylar shrugged. “I don’t think you’re being rude. Is it a new story, or what?”

  Logan’s eyes lit up and Kylar knew he was safe. “No, it’s the end of the Alkestia Cycle, right before the Seven Kingdoms fall. My father’s having me study the great leaders of the past. In this case, Jorsin Alkestes, of course. When they were under siege at Black Barrow, his right hand man, Ezra the Mad—well, it wasn’t Black Barrow yet, and Ezra didn’t go hide out in Ezra’s Wood for another fifty years or something—anyway, Ezra’s maybe the best magus ever, behind Emperor Jorsin Alkestes himself. They’re under siege at what’s now Black Barrow and Ezra starts making the most amazing stuff: the war hammers of Oren Razin; fire and lightning traps even un-Talented soldiers can use; Curoch, the sword of power; Iures, the staff of law; and then these six magic artifacts, ka’kari. They each look like a glowing ball, but the Six Champions can squeeze one and it melts and covers their whole bodies like a second skin and gives them power over their element. Arikus Daadrul gets this skin of silver liquid metal that makes him impervious to blades. Corvaer Blackwell becomes Corvaer the Red, the master of fire. Trace Arvagulania goes from grossly ugly to the most beautiful woman of the era. Oren Razin gets earth, weighs a thousand pounds and turns his skin to stone. Irenaea Blochwei gets the power of everything green and growing. Shrad Marden gets water and can suck the very liquid from a man’s blood.

  “The thing that has always made me curious is that Jorsin Alkestes was a great leader. He brought together so many Talented people, and lots of them were difficult and egotistical, and he put them in harness together, and they worked. But at the end, he insults one of his best friends, Acaelus Thorne, and gives a ka’kari to Shrad Marden instead, whom he doesn’t even like. Do you know Acaelus Thorne?”

  “I’ve heard the name,” Kylar offered. That much was true. Sometimes the guild rats would huddle around a window to one of the taverns when a bard visited, but they could only hear bits and pieces of the stories.

  “Acaelus was this amazing fighter but a noble fool. No subtlety. He hated lies, politics, and magic, but put a sword in his hand, and he’d go charging an enemy force solo if he had to. He was so crazy and so good that his men would follow him anywhere. But he was all about honor, and seeing lesser men honored before him was a huge insult. It was that insult that led Acaelus to betray Jorsin. How could Jorsin have missed it? He had to have known he was insulting him.”

  “What do you think?” Kylar asked.

  Logan scrubbed a hand through his hair. “It’s probably something boring, like that there was a war going on, and everyone was exhausted and starving and not thinking clearly and Jorsin just made a mistake.”

  “So what does that teach you about being a leader?” Kylar asked.

  Logan looked perplexed. “Eat your vegetables and get enough sleep?”

  “How about ‘be nice to your inferiors, or they might kick your ass’?” Kylar suggested.

  “Are you asking me to spar, Baronet Stern?”

  “Your exalted dukeliness, it will be my pleasure to take you down.”

  18

  Kylar stepped into the safe house, flushed from his victory. He’d got three touches to Logan’s two. Logan fought better, but as Momma K had told Kylar, he’d also grown a foot in the last year and hadn’t adjusted to his new height yet. “Not only did I just make Logan Gyre my friend,” Kylar said, “I also beat him in sparring.”

  Durzo didn’t even look up from the calcinator. He turned the flame up higher beneath the copper dish. “Good. Now never spar with him again. Hand me that.”

  Hurt, Kylar took a flask from under the whirling tubes of the alembic and gave it to him. Durzo poured the thick blue mixture onto the calcinator. For the moment, it sat there, still. Small bubbles began forming and within moments the mixture was boiling rapidly.

  “Why not?” Kylar asked.

  “Get the slops, boy.” Kylar grabbed the pig’s slop bowl and brought it to the table.

  “We fight differently from what any of this city’s sword masters teach. If you spar with Logan, you will adopt his by-the-book style and become a worthless fighter, or you’ll give away that you’re being taught something utterly different, or both.”

  Kylar scowled at the calcinator. His master was right, of course, and even if he weren’t, his word was law. The blue mixture was now a dark blue powder. Durzo lifted the copper plate from the flames with a thick wool pad and scraped the powder into the slop bowl. He grabbed another copper plate and poured more of the blue mixture into it and put it above the flames, setting the first aside to cool with a heavy mitt. “Master, do you know why Jorsin Alkestes would insult his best friend by not giving him a ka’kari?”

  “Maybe he asked too many questions.”

  “Logan said Acaelus Thorne was the most honorable of Jorsin’s friends, but he betrayed Jorsin and that led to the fall of the Seven Kingdoms,” Kylar said.

  “Most people aren’t strong enough for our creed, Kylar, so they believe comforting illusions, like the gods, or Justice, or the basic goodness of man. Those illusions fail in war. It breaks men. That’s probably what happened to Acaelus.”

  “Are you sure?” Kylar asked. Logan’s reading of it had been so different.

  “Sure?” Blint asked, scornfully. “I’m not sure about what the nobles here did seven years ago when they ended slavery. How would anyone be sure about what happened hundreds of years ago far away? Take that to the pig.” Kylar picked up the slops and took them to the pig they’d recently acquired for Master Blint’s experiments.

  As he was returning, he saw Blint staring at him as if about to say something. Then there was a small whoosh as flame leaped from the copper plate behind Master Blint. Before Kylar could flinch, Blint whirled around. A phantom hand stretched out from his hands and grabbed the metal plate directly from the fire and set it down on the table. Then the hand was gone. It happened so fast, Kylar wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it.

  The plate was smoking and what should have been blue powder was now a black crust. A black crust that Kylar had no doubt he would soon be scraping off until the copper shone.

  Blint swore. “See, you get caught up in the past and you become useless to the present. Come on, let’s see if that stinking pig’s still alive. Then we need to do something with your hair.”
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br />   The pig wasn’t still alive, and after the amount of poison it had ingested, it wasn’t safe to eat, so Kylar spent half the day cutting it into pieces and burying it. After that, Master Blint made him strip to the waist and rubbed a pungent paste through his hair. It burned his scalp and Blint made him keep it in for an hour. But when he finally rinsed the hair clean, Blint showed him his own reflection in the glass and he barely recognized himself. His hair was white blond.

  “Just be thankful you’re young, or I would have had to smear it on your eyebrows, too,” Blint said. “Now get dressed. The Azoth clothes. The Azoth persona.”

  “I get to go with you? On a job?”

  “Get dressed.”

  “I understand why ‘Apparent Consumption’ is nine hundred gunders. I’m sure you have to do multiple poisonings to mimic the disease,” the noble said. “But fifteen hundred for apparent self-murder? Ridiculous. Stab your man and put the knife in his hand.”

  “How about we start again,” Master Blint said quietly. “You speak as if I’m the best wetboy in the city, and I’ll speak as if there’s a chance this side of hell that I’ll take the job.”

  The tension sat thick in the upstairs room of the inn. Lord General Brant Agon wasn’t pleased, but he took a breath, ran a hand through his gray hair, and said, “Why does faking a suicide cost fifteen hundred gold?”

  “A properly staged suicide takes months,” Master Blint said. “Depending upon the deader’s history. If I’m after a known melancholic, that can be shortened to six weeks. If he’s tried to suicide before, it can be as little as a week. I gain access in one way or another and administer special concoctions.”

  Azoth was trying to pay attention, but there was something about being back in his old clothes that made the illusions of the last weeks come crashing down. Kylar was gone—and not because Azoth was following orders and pretending to be Azoth. Kylar had been a mask of confidence. It had fooled Logan, and it had fooled Azoth for a little while, but the mask had fallen away. He was Azoth. He was weak. He didn’t understand what he was doing here, or why, and he was scared.

  Blint continued, not so much as glancing at him, “The deader becomes depressed, withdrawn, suspicious. Symptoms gradually worsen. Then maybe a favorite pet dies. The target is already peevish and paranoid, and soon he lashes out at his friends. The friends who visit—at least those who take refreshment—grow irritable while they are with the deader. They quarrel. They stop visiting. Sometimes the target writes the note himself. Sometimes he even commits the suicide himself, though I monitor that closely to make sure he chooses an appropriate method for the effect desired. When given proper time, no one suspects anything but self-murder. The family itself will often hush up the details, and scatter what little evidence there is.”

  “By the High King’s beard, is such a thing possible?” the lord general asked.

  “Possible? Yes. Difficult? Very. It takes a considerable number of carefully mixed poisons—do you know that everyone reacts differently to poisons?—and a huge amount of my time. If a forged note is required, the target’s correspondence and journals are analyzed so that not only the handwriting, but also the writing style and even certain choices of wording are identical.” Durzo smiled wolfishly. “Assassination is an art, milord, and I am the city’s most accomplished artist.”

  “How many men have you killed?” the lord general asked.

  “Suffice it to say I’m never idle.”

  The man fiddled with his beard and continued looking through the handbill Master Blint had given him, obviously unsettled. “May I ask about others, Master Blint?” he said, suddenly respectful.

  “I prefer that you only inquire about those deaths you’re seriously considering,” Master Blint said.

  “Why is that?”

  “I value secrets very highly, as I must. So I don’t like to discuss my methodology. And, to be honest, knowing too much tends to frighten those who employ me. I had a client some time ago who was very proud of his defenses. He asked me how I’d fulfill a contract on him. He irritated me, so I told him.

  “Afterward, he tried to hire another wetboy to kill me. He was turned down by every professional in Cenaria. He ended up hiring an amateur.”

  “You give yourself the status of a legend,” the lord general said, his thin face pinching.

  Of course Durzo Blint was a legend! Who would hire him if they didn’t know that? At the same time, hearing Master Blint speak of his trade to a noble—to someone like Count Drake—was eerie. It was like Azoth’s two worlds were being pressed uncomfortably close to each other, and he could feel the noble’s awe in himself.

  In the guild, Durzo Blint had been a legend because he had power, because people were afraid of him, and he never had to be afraid of anyone. That was what had drawn Azoth to him. But this noble was awed for different reasons. To him, Durzo Blint was a creature of the night. He was a man who could come violate those things he held dear. He undermined all of what the lord general had thought safe. The man didn’t look afraid; he looked disgusted.

  “I’m not suggesting that I terrify every wetboy in the city.” Master Blint smiled. “The fact is that we professionals are, if not a close group, at least a small one. We’re colleagues, some of us even friends. The second wetboy he went to was Scarred Wrable—”

  “I’ve heard of him,” Brant Agon said. “Apparently the second best assassin in the city.”

  “Wetboy,” Blint corrected. “And a friend of mine. He told me what this client was doing. After that—well, if a military metaphor works better for you—it would be like trying a small raid on a city that was expecting it instead of an unsuspecting city. In the second case it might work, in the first it’s suicide.”

  “I see,” the lord general said. He paused for a moment, apparently surprised Master Blint knew who he was, then suddenly grinned, “And you’re a tactician, too.”

  “How so?”

  “You haven’t had many contracts taken out on you since you started telling that story, have you?”

  Master Blint smiled broadly. These were two men, Azoth saw, who understood each other. “Not a one. After all, diplomacy is an extension of warfare,” Blint said.

  “We usually say that warfare is an extension of diplomacy,” Brant Agon said. “But I think I agree with you. I once found myself outnumbered and forced to hold a position against the Lae’knaught for two days to wait for reinforcements. I had some captives, so I put them in a vulnerable position and told their guards we would receive reinforcements at dawn. During the fighting, the prisoners were allowed to get free and promptly told their superiors the news. The Lae’knaught army was so disheartened that they held back until we had been reinforced. That diplomacy saved our lives. Which brings us back to the matter at hand,” the lord general said. “I need some diplomacy that’s not on this list of yours. I’m afraid I’ve not been completely forthright with you, Master Blint,” the lord general said. “I’m here for the king.”

  Master Blint’s face went suddenly devoid of emotion.

  “I understand that by telling you that, we might lose the man who provided me with your name. But the king deems this to be worth risking the lives of both a contact and one of his ministers—namely, myself.”

  “You haven’t done anything foolish like surround the building with soldiers, have you?” Master Blint asked.

  “Nothing of the kind. I’m here alone.”

  “Then you’ve made one wise choice today.”

  “More than one. We’ve chosen you, Master Blint. And I’ve chosen to be honest with you, which I hope you appreciate.

  “As you know, the king’s wealthy, but not politically or militarily strong. That’s a bitter pill, but it’s not news. Our kings haven’t been strong for a hundred years. Aleine Gunder wishes to change that. But in addition to internal struggles of which you no doubt know more than I’d care to learn, the king has recently learned of some rather devious plots to steal vast sums of money not only from the
treasury, but—in a multitude of schemes—also from almost every nobleman in the country. The idea being, we think, that Cenaria becomes so impoverished that we’ll be unable to maintain an army.”

  “Sounds like a lot of money to steal without anybody noticing,” Master Blint said.

  “The Chancellor of the Exchequer has noticed—he’s the one arranging it. But no one else has noticed, yet. The schemes are little short of brilliant. The plot won’t even ripen for six or ten years. Men are being placed in key positions and as yet have done nothing wrong. There’s more, much more, but you don’t need to know it.”

  “What do I need to know?” Blint asked, his eyes heavy-lidded.

  “I’ve made a study of you, Master Blint,” the lord general said. “Though information about you is difficult to find. Everyone knows that the Sa’kagé holds an enormous amount of power here. People outside the country know it. Khalidor knows it.

  “The king needs you for more than a dozen jobs, spanning years. Some will involve simple assassination, some will involve information planting, and some will not involve killing at all, but simply being seen. Godking Ursuul must believe the Sa’kagé and its assets have an alliance with us.”

  “You want me to become a government agent.”

  “Not… exactly.”

  “And I suppose you’d give me a pardon for all I’ve done?” Master Blint asked.

  “I’ve been authorized to offer that.”

  Master Blint stood, laughing. “No, Lord General. Good day.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t take no for an answer. The king has forbidden it.”

  “I do hope you’re not planning on threatening my life,” Master Blint said.

  “First,” the lord general said, looking at Azoth for the first time, “we’ll kill the boy.”

  19

  Master Blint shrugged. “So?”

 
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