The night angel trilogy, p.125
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.125

           Brent Weeks
 

  “You still killed him. That had to be upsetting.”

  “You’re not playing with me, are you? You didn’t send some other wetboy to talk with Queen Graesin?”

  “I didn’t send anyone. I didn’t arrange for the ambassadors to be insulted. I haven’t moved against Terah Graesin.” Yet. “Get out of the city for a while, Ben. Durzo probably just wanted to make sure you didn’t take any more jobs for the woman who ordered his death.”

  Ben Wrable nodded, unthinking, and that unthinking nod confirmed what Momma K had suspected: it was indeed Terah Graesin who’d ordered Durzo killed. The bitch. Well, she’d get hers. Soon.

  44

  The Great Hall was filled with the cream of the realm, though given the hardships of the last year, that cream was more like watered milk. Many of the lords and ladies of the realm wore garments they wouldn’t have had their servants wear a year ago. The number of nobles was also considerably reduced. Some had been killed in the coup or at Pavvil’s Grove. Others had sided early with the Godking and had since fled. The chamberlain had done his best to fill in the ranks and bedeck the Great Hall appropriately, but the pageantry seemed thin. For once, however, there was no criticism. It was too hard to critique the royal guards’ threadbare uniforms hastily patched with the colors of House Graesin while wearing a stained dress and borrowed jewels.

  Kylar stepped in through a servants’ entrance. He had no wish to be announced; he just wanted to see the effects of his handiwork. There was, however, one problem with the servants’ entrance: it was full of servants.

  “Milord? Milord?” a cheerful man asked.

  “Uh, that will be all,” Kylar said. If I use you to cover these clothes, are you going to eat a hole in the crotch?

  ~Hard to say.~ The ka’kari seemed to smirk.

  “Ah, milord? Is milord lost?” The cheerful servant didn’t wait for an answer. “Milord may follow me.” He turned and began walking, and Kylar had no choice but to follow. Some servants, he thought, were too smart for their own good.

  The servant marched him to the main entrance and handed him off to the chamberlain, a humorless man who looked him up and down, cocking his head like a bird. “You’re out of order, marquess, you were to enter after your lord.”

  Kylar swallowed. “I’m sorry, you’ve mistaken me. I’m Baronet Stern. You needn’t announce—”

  The chamberlain double-checked his list. “Duke Gyre informed me pointedly that I was to announce you.” He promptly turned and struck the ground with his staff. “Marquess Kylar Drake, Lord of Havermere, Lockley, Vennas, and Procin.”

  Feeling like he wasn’t in control of his own body, Kylar walked forward. Eyes turned toward him, and more than once he heard “Wolfhound.” Logan hadn’t only legitimized Kylar by giving him a real title, unlike the baronetcy of Lae’knaught-held lands, he’d promoted him to dizzy heights. A marquess was beneath only the dukes of Cenaria. Kylar’s chest tightened. It was a real title, with real lands and real responsibilities. Worse, Logan must have worked with Count Drake to have Kylar formally adopted. Kylar’s bogus pedigree had been wiped clean. Logan was putting his own integrity behind Kylar. It was his last attempt to save Kylar from himself.

  Kylar took his place to Logan’s left in the front row. Logan smiled, and the bastard was so charismatic Kylar felt himself smiling along with him, too astonished to be pissed off.

  “Well well, my friend,” Logan said. “I half expected you to be slinking around up in the rafters. So glad you decided to join us mortals on the ground.”

  “Uhm, rafters, right. So overdone.” Kylar cleared his throat, flabbergasted. “You’re causing quite the scandal.”

  Still facing the front, Logan said, “I won’t give up my best friend without a fight.”

  Silence. “You honor me,” Kylar said.

  “Yes, I do.” Logan smiled, clearly proud of himself, but charmingly so.

  “Did Momma K…?”

  “I came up with this all by myself, thank you, though Count Drake augmented it.”

  “The adoption?”

  “The adoption,” Logan confirmed. “Six rows back. Left side.”

  Kylar looked, and the blood drained from his face. In a section of poorer barons, a middle-aged blond lord and lady in even more modest clothing than most stood under the Stern banner. Beside them was a young man, as dark as they were light: their son, Baronet Stern.

  “That might have been… awkward,” Kylar said.

  “We all need friends, Kylar,” Logan said. “Me most of all. I’ve lost almost everyone I can trust. I need you.”

  Kylar said nothing. He noticed Logan’s clothing for the first time. The duke was wearing a somber tunic and trousers, finely cut, but unrelievedly black. They were mourning clothes. Logan was still mourning Jenine, his whole family, many of his retainers, and perhaps Serah Drake as well. That old sick feeling rose in Kylar’s stomach once more. Logan and Count Drake both were gambling their honor, which to each of them was his most sacred possession, on Kylar. Terah Graesin’s assassination now would be more than a tragic difference of opinion. To Logan, it would be betrayal.

  There was nothing to do. Marquess Kylar Drake sat in the front row, with eyes constantly on him. Perhaps the Night Angel could invisibly drop from the rafters and scoop up the deadly crown, but Marquess Drake could only watch the consequences of his choices unfurl. Kylar stood as Terah Graesin was announced, as she strode regally to the front, as the patr and the priest lifted prayers and blessed her coronation. Finally, the two divines and Duke Wesseros together lifted the crown from its purple pillow.

  Not yet. Dear God, not yet. Kylar hadn’t even thought of what would happen to those crowning Terah if she was already sweating. Symbolizing all the gods and the land itself, the three men placed the crown on Queen Graesin’s brow.

  Nothing happened. She accepted a scepter from Duke Wesseros and a sword from Lord General Graesin, held each for a long moment, then handed each back. The men bowed low, then she bade them rise as she sat. The men retreated, and Kylar’s heart edged back out of his throat. Trumpets pealed and Kylar jumped. Everyone stood and applause thundered through the Great Hall.

  The queen smiled as everyone cheered. She stood and gestured generously with her hands. Doors banged open on every side and a procession of servants streamed in, bearing tables and food. Musicians and jugglers mingled with the crowds as the servants rearranged the room for a feast. Kylar barely saw it. His eyes were latched on Terah Graesin.

  Logan clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, that’s that, huh?” Kylar didn’t turn. “Come, Marquess Drake, tonight you sit at the high table.”

  45

  Kylar allowed Logan to usher him to a seat between a nattering forty-year-old third cousin of the Gunders, who was hoping to press a claim to the Gunder duchy, and Momma K, who was seated at Logan’s right. She smiled at Kylar’s open wonder.

  “Don’t tell me he got you a title, too,” Kylar said.

  “You forget, Kylar, I’ve been to more court functions than you have—although I admit, not many in the last decade. To the abiding fury of every eligible woman in the room, Duke Gyre chose to escort me this evening.”

  “Really?” Kylar asked, incredulous. Belatedly, Kylar remembered that Gwinvere Kirena had been the courtesan of an age, though she’d retired by the time Kylar knew her. She had doubtless escorted many of the lords in this very room to similar functions. He knew there had been a convenient fiction early in her career that Gwinvere was a visiting Alitaeran countess, but after a time, even that had been unnecessary. A woman as beautiful, as charming, as graceful a dancer, as skilled a singer, as adept a conversationalist, and as discreet as Gwinvere Kirena was the exception to many rules.

  Momma K raised an eyebrow.

  “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean…”

  Logan came to his rescue, he said, “I asked her before anyone else could. I find there are so few beautiful women in this realm intelligent enough to form complete sentences.”
>
  “Yawp,” Momma K said, in a perfect coastal Ceuran drawl. “Where’s thet spittoon?”

  Kylar laughed out loud. The truth was more likely that wearing mourning clothes and showing up with an older woman were the best ways Logan could fend off unwanted advances. If Logan had shown up with a young woman as his escort—or none at all—the matchmakers would have started in on him, mourning clothes or no mourning clothes. Kylar was still chuckling when he saw Terah Graesin, a few places beyond Logan, and his laughter died.

  “Kylar?” Momma K asked. “Is something wrong?”

  He shook himself. “I keep waiting for her head to explode.” To his right, the nattering grasper gasped. He ignored her. He couldn’t take his eyes off the queen. She drank. She leaned close to Lantano Garuwashi on her right and shared private observations. She jested with a lord at one of the lower tables who’d spilled his wine over his wife. She chatted with her brother who sat at her left. All the while, her death was waiting.

  Kylar had expected it to explode soon after the crown was placed on her head, while she was still standing alone before the lords. Now, if he’d put too much philodunamos under her crown, he might kill others, too. Luc Graesin, though a relative innocent, wouldn’t be much of a loss. But Lantano Garuwashi? Killing the legendary Ceuran would be disastrous.

  “What I don’t understand,” Logan was saying to Momma K, “is why, out of all people, you are pushing Jarl’s proposals.” The name made Kylar pay attention.

  “If I said it was because Jarl gave me hope, would you believe me?” Momma K asked.

  A troubled look crossed Logan’s face, and Kylar saw the old naive Logan briefly at battle with the Logan who’d spent months in the Hole. “I’d believe that was part of it,” he said.

  She smiled. “The fact is, Jarl’s plans are not just good for the Rabbits—they’re good for everyone. Do you know how much the average Rabbit spends when he visits a whorehouse?” She laughed at the look that crossed Logan’s face. “I was being rhetorical, Your Grace. Three silver pieces. One on drink, two for the girl. I make one silver in profit. The average merchant buys wine, a meal, sometimes tobacco, sometimes riot weed, then a girl. I keep more than a crown in profit. And when nobles visit? Desserts, dancers, bards, jugglers, aperitifs, fine wines, plus other services you’d probably prefer I not mention. I take seven crowns in profit. So, if you were a cutthroat merchant queen, which would you choose?”

  Logan’s cheeks were pink, but he nodded. “Point taken.” Kylar could barely believe his eyes. Logan, talking calmly about the economics of prostitution?

  “The problem with how the people have looked at the Rabbits is that they see them as grubby, uncultured, and dangerous. I see them as potential customers.”

  “But you’re not hurting for money. You own, what? half of the, uh, houses of pleasure in this city?” Logan said. Momma K gave a feline smirk, and at that expression, Kylar realized that she didn’t own half the city’s brothels. She owned them all. “And I’ve heard you don’t pay taxes, ever. Even if we were able to figure out exactly which magistrates in this city take bribes and which don’t—” as Logan said it, Kylar realized Logan was speaking with the one woman in the city who could tell him—“if we removed them, you would suddenly have a raft of expenses you never had before. I can’t imagine you’d come out ahead. If you were the city’s most astute merchant, would you choose taxes or no taxes?”

  “In the past twenty years, I’ve had nobles seize entire brothels no less than fifteen times. Banks I had an interest in have been seized ten times. I’ve lost sixty bouncers to nobles who resented being thrown out. In a particularly bad year, a certain high noble took a taste to killing whores, and I lost forty-three girls. When someone finally killed him, his father retaliated by burning six of my brothels to the ground, one of them with all of my employees locked inside.” The coldness in Momma K’s eyes was frightening. “So, while we can debate how many months without taxes pays for a seized brothel, ledger sheets can’t explain what it is to find your young protégé has been kidnapped. They can’t tell you what it is to live wondering how long it will be before the twist tires of her, and whether he will then kill her or release her. Your Grace, I have learned to use this city’s corruption, but I shall not weep to see it destroyed.”

  Momma K’s face was turned toward Logan, so Kylar couldn’t read it, but her voice carried the ring of truth, and he heard depths to the stories that Logan couldn’t know. Momma K had been Shinga during all those atrocities. With all the Sa’kagé’s resources, she could have brought her own justice to every case through men like Durzo Blint. But with every prostitute’s death or ill-treatment, she had to decide if justice was worth the possible retaliation. After that nobleman had burned her brothels, Momma K could have sent a wetboy after him—but she’d have risked splitting apart the city in civil war. No wonder she’d turned into such a hard woman.

  “I had no idea such things took place,” Logan said.

  Beyond him, Queen Graesin put a hand on her crown and adjusted it on her forehead. A bolt of lightning arced through Kylar, but nothing happened. He willed his muscles to relax and stabbed the untouched filet on his plate.

  “The question is, is it possible?” Logan was saying. “I mean, building a few bridges over the Plith isn’t going to change things. We’d be fighting against established interests.”

  “We ended slavery, and we did it without a war. The time is ripe. People have seen so much tumult in the last year that one more upheaval—if it gives them hope—could change everything. The Nocta Hemata showed the city that the Rabbits can be brave. Pavvil’s Grove showed that they’re willing to bleed for this country. Things can be made new.”

  Yes, as soon as the queen’s head explodes.

  There was something about the way she said “we ended slavery.” She didn’t mean we as in we, Cenaria. If she had become Shinga around the time Count Drake left the Sa’kagé, that meant she’d either been part of abolition movement, or she had decided not to oppose it despite the enormous profits it made for the Sa’kagé. She had to be part of the reason Count Drake’s enemies hadn’t killed him. Kylar wondered at her, this woman who had taught him to read, who had championed him to Durzo, who had helped end slavery and gave the guild rats a safe place to stay in the winter. At the same time, she had ordered dozens or even hundreds of kills. She had bribed magistrates, established dens of gambling and prostitution and riot weed, extorted honest shop keepers, sprung crooks from gaol, crushed her competitors by every means, and enriched herself every step of the way. She was a fearsome woman indeed. Kylar was glad that she’d always liked him.

  But none of these ideas would leave the ground while Terah Graesin reigned. Yesterday she had sealed the Warrens. Tomorrow she was going to build new bridges?

  Logan and Momma K continued their discussion, but Kylar stopped listening and merely watched. Logan asked piercing questions about the city’s trades and economics, who moved what, where merchants bought which goods, what the tariffs were with different countries, how merchants avoided the more egregious taxes. That moved into history and seamlessly into what they thought of the current state of the country, from who had been hurt worst by the wars to who had cooperated with Khalidor and how much of that would be held against them, to which lands no longer had lords and who was pressing claims to them. As Kylar watched, he realized that this must be what it was like for a neophyte soldier to watch him fight. Logan and Momma wove names and histories and connections among nobles licit and illicit and business dealings and rumors through their speech like masters of the loom. Though Logan was clearly less experienced and had access to only the licit half of the city’s information, he still surprised Momma K from time to time with his analyses. And even as they were obviously engrossed in their own conversation, Logan took time to exchange pleasantries with Lantano Garuwashi at his left, who seemed intent on the queen anyway, and to make eye contact with the nobles at the lower tables who sought his glance, and tha
nk the servers and even applaud the beaming new court bard who was terrifically talented even if he did look like a frog.

  Beyond Logan, Terah Graesin was focused on her triumph, and enjoying it, accepting congratulations, drinking—dammit, poison would have worked—and flirting openly with both Lantano Garuwashi and her brother. There Kylar saw a microcosm of two reigns. Logan intent on bettering a country, Terah intent on herself.

  And as the evening progressed, he realized that someone had cleaned the crown before the queen donned it. It put a decision Kylar had thought he’d already made back in his lap.

  It was good to be with his friends. Here, at the high table, Kylar was suddenly legitimate, and no longer alone. He could stay here with the people he admired and loved. Momma K and Count Drake and Logan could be his companions for the rest of his life. He could find Elene and bring her back and give her this life. A life beyond the shadows. Maybe he didn’t have to be the wolf in the cold.

  Gods! He was immortal! Would it be so bad to let himself have one lifetime of happiness? Drake and Momma K had ended slavery while a corrupt king reigned. Surely between Logan and Count Drake and Kylar and Momma K they could mitigate whatever damage a foolish queen did.

  From the middle of the table, Queen Graesin caught Kylar staring at her. She winked.

  As the feast ended, Queen Graesin stood and headed for one of the adjoining rooms arm in arm with Lantano Garuwashi. Lantano Garuwashi was graceful and intimidating in his broad, loose pants that draped like a skirt, and a silk shirt with starched tabs over his wide shoulders, leaving his heavily muscled arms bare. The rest of the high table stood next and Kylar moved to follow her. Logan put a hand on his arm and pulled a fat ring engraved with horses off a finger. “This is a symbol of your new office, Marquess.” From a pocket, he produced another, much smaller signet ring shaped with what looked like tiny dragon. Kylar recognized it. “This is the ring of House Drake. Take them. There’s life beyond the shadows.”

 
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