The night angel trilogy, p.13
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.13
 

           Brent Weeks

  “And we’ll kill your lover. I believe her name’s Vonda?”

  “You can kill the bitch. But that might give you some trouble, considering she’s four months dead.”

  The lord general didn’t even pause. “And we’ll kill this ‘Momma’ Kirena who seems to be your only friend. Then we’ll come after you. I don’t want it to be this way, but this is what the king offers.”

  “You’re making two mistakes,” Master Blint said. “First, you’re assuming that I value other people’s lives more than my own. How can you know what I do and believe such a thing? Second, you’re assuming that I value my own life.”

  “Please understand. I’m under orders. Personally, I’d rather have nothing to do with you,” the lord general said. “I think it’s beneath the dignity of a king to hire criminals. I think it’s immoral and foolish for him to put money in your purse rather than chains on your wrists. I find you abhorrent. A wreck of a human being barely resembling what once must have been a man. But the king has decided we need a sellsword like you. I’m a soldier. I’ve been sent to get you, and I won’t fail.”

  “And you’re making a tactical blunder,” Master Blint said. “The king might kill my apprentice, my friend, and even me, but at the least, he will have lost his lord general. A poor trade.”

  “I don’t think he would find my death to be such a very great loss,” the lord general said.

  “Ah, figured that out, have you?” Blint asked. “This may be the first time you’ve seen me, Brant Agon, but it isn’t the first time I’ve seen you.”

  The lord general looked puzzled. “So you’ve seen me. So have half the people in the city.”

  “Does your wife still crowd your side of the bed? Sweet, isn’t it? Does she still wear that drab nightgown with the daisies embroidered on the hem? You really love her, don’t you?”

  Lord General Agon froze.

  “You call me abhorrent?” Durzo asked. “You owe me your life!”

  “What?”

  “Didn’t you ever wonder why you got a promotion instead of a knife in the back?”

  From his eyes, even Azoth could tell that the lord general had.

  “I was in your house the night King Davin died, when you and Regnus Gyre met. I was to kill your wife as a warning to you. Later, the prince would offer you a better marriage to a young noblewoman who would be able to give you sons. And I was authorized to kill both you and Regnus if you were plotting treason. I spared you—and I don’t get paid unless I leave corpses. I don’t expect your gratitude, lord general, but I demand your respect!”

  Lord General Agon’s face went gray. “You… you told Aleine that my price was the promotion. He thought he bought me off with a promotion rather than a wife.” Azoth could see him mentally reviewing comments he must have heard over the last four months, and getting sicker and sicker. “Why?”

  “You’re the illustrious general, the old war hero. You tell me.” Durzo sneered.

  “Putting me in charge of the army divided the Sa’kagé’s enemies. It kept the king from putting someone he could trust in charge of the military. You bastards have got people everywhere, don’t you?”

  “Me? I’m just a sellsword. I’m just a wreck of a human being.”

  The general’s face was still gray, but his back never bent an inch. “You’ve… you’ve given me much to think about, Master Blint. Though I still believe the murders you’ve committed merit hanging, I dishonored you and myself with my hasty words. I apologize. My apology, however, has no effect on the king’s determination that you serve him. I—”

  “Get out,” Master Blint said. “Get out. If you reconsider your threats, I’ll be here for a few minutes.”

  The general rose, and watching Master Blint carefully, walked to the door. He opened it, and kept his eyes on Master Blint until he closed the door behind himself. Azoth heard his steps echo down the hall.

  Master Blint stared at the door and scooted back from the table. Instead of relaxing now that the general was gone, he tensed. Everything about him spoke of potential action. He looked like a mongoose waiting for a serpent to strike.

  “Step away from the door, Azoth,” he said. “Stand by the window.”

  There was no hesitation. Azoth had learned that lesson. He didn’t have to understand; he just had to obey.

  He heard a crash on the stairs and loud cursing. Azoth stood by the window and looked at Master Blint, but the man’s pockmarked face betrayed nothing.

  Moments later, the door banged open. The lord general lurched in, sword drawn. “What have you done?” he roared. His knees bowed and he leaned heavily against the doorframe to keep from falling.

  Master Blint didn’t say anything.

  The general blinked and tried to straighten, but a spasm passed through his body as his stomach cramped. It passed, and he said, “How?”

  “I put a contact poison on the door latch,” Master Blint said. “It seeps right through the skin.”

  “But if we’d reached a deal…” the lord general said.

  “I’d have opened the door for you. If you’d worn gloves, I had other plans. Now I want you to listen very closely. The king is an incompetent, treacherous, foul-mouthed child, so I’m going to make this very clear. I’m a first-rate wetboy. He’s a second-rate king. I won’t work for him. If you want, you can hire me yourself: I’ll kill the king, but I won’t kill for him. And there’s no way you or he can pressure me.

  “I know he won’t believe that, because Aleine Gunder is the kind of man who believes he can get whatever he wants. So here’s why he’s going to believe.” Master Blint stood. “First, I’m going to leave a message for him tonight in the castle. Second, you’re going to investigate what happened to Count Yosar Glin. He was the client who betrayed me. Third, there’s what has already happened to you. And fourth—do sit, Agon, and put away the sword. It’s insulting.”

  Lord General Agon crashed into a chair. The long sword fell from his fingers. He didn’t appear to have the strength to pick it up. Regardless, his eyes were still clear, and he was hearing every word Master Blint said.

  “Lord General, I don’t care who he kills. I know you have this inn surrounded, that there are crossbowmen covering the windows of this room. They don’t matter. More important, the king’s threats don’t matter. I will be no man’s lapdog. I serve who I will, when I will, and I will never serve Aleine Gunder. Azoth, come here.”

  Azoth went to his master, wondering why Blint had used his name. He stood in front of Master Blint, who rested his hands on Azoth’s shoulders and turned him to face General Agon.

  “Azoth here is my best apprentice. He’s agile. He’s smart. He learns things after being told once. He works tirelessly. Azoth, tell the general what you’ve learned about life.”

  Without hesitation, Azoth said, “Life is empty. Life is meaningless. When we take a life, we aren’t taking anything of value. Wetboys are killers. That’s all we do. That’s all we are. There are no poets in the bitter business.”

  “Lord General,” Blint said, “are you with me?”

  “I’m with you,” the general said, fire raging in his eyes.

  Master Blint’s voice was ice. “Then know this: I’d kill my own apprentice before I’d let you use him against me.”

  The general jerked sharply in his chair as if shocked. He was staring at Azoth. Azoth followed his gaze to his own chest.

  Several inches of bloodied steel were protruding from him. Azoth saw them and felt an uncomfortable pushing, spreading sensation from his back all the way through his center. It seemed cool, then warm, then painful. He blinked his eyes slowly and looked back to the general, whose eyes were full of horror. Azoth looked at the steel.

  He recognized that blade. He’d cleaned it that day he went looking for Doll Girl. He hoped Master Blint would at least wipe it down before he brought it back for Azoth to clean. It had filigree on the blade that held blood if you let it dry there. Azoth had had to use the point of a stilet
to to pick it out. It took hours.

  Then Azoth was drawn to the location of the dagger. At that angle on a child’s chest, it would have clipped the fat vessel above the heart. If so, the deader would go down as soon as the dagger was drawn out. There would be a lot of blood. The deader would die within seconds.

  Azoth’s body jerked as the dagger disappeared. He was vaguely aware of his knees folding. He slumped over sideways and felt something warm spilling over his chest.

  The wood planks of the floor jostled him unmercifully as he sprawled over them. He lay facing up. Master Blint was holding a bloody dagger in his hand and saying something.

  Did Master Blint just stab me? Azoth couldn’t believe it. What had he done? He thought Master Blint had been pleased with him. It must have been Doll Girl. He must have still been mad about it. It had seemed things were going so well. There was white-gold light everywhere. And he was warm. So warm.

  20

  Your Majesty, please!”

  King Aleine Gunder IX threw himself down into his throne. “Brant, it’s one man. One!” He swore a stream of curses. “You’d have me send my family to the country for fear of one man?”

  “Your Majesty,” Lord General Brant Agon said, “the definition of ‘man’ might not cover Durzo Blint. I understand the implications—”

  “Indeed! Do you know the talk it will cause if I send my family away on a moment’s notice?” The king cursed again, unconsciously. “I know what they say about me. I know! I’ll not give them this to drool on, Brant.”

  “Your Majesty, this assassin is not given to idle threats. For the sake of all that’s holy, he murdered his own apprentice just to make a point!”

  “A sham. Come on, general. You were drugged. You didn’t know what was going on.”

  “My body was afflicted, not my mind. I know what I saw.”

  The king sniffed, then curled his lip as he caught the faint odor of brimstone in the air. “Dammit! Can’t those idiots make anything work?”

  One of the ducts that carried hot air from the Vos Island Crack just north of the castle had broken again. He doesn’t appreciate how much the engineers save us every year by heating the entire castle with pipes embedded in the very stones. He doesn’t care that the turbines spinning in the wind rising from the Crack give him the power of two hundred windmills. That he smells brimstone once a fortnight infuriates him. Agon wondered what god Cenaria had offended to deserve such a king.

  He should have pushed Regnus Gyre. He should have spelled it out to him more clearly. He should have lied to him about what would happen to Nalia’s children by Aleine. He could have served Regnus proudly. Proudly and honorably.

  “Maybe you saw him kill a boy,” the king said. “Who cares?” You should. Regnus would have. “It was obviously some street rat he picked up for the purpose of impressing you.”

  “With all due respect, sire, you’re mistaken. I’ve dealt with formidable men. I faced Dorgan Dunwal in single combat. I fought Underlord Graeblan’s Lae’knaught lancers. I—”

  “Yes, yes. A thousand goddam battles from my goddam father’s time. Very impressive,” the king said. “But you never learned anything about ruling, did you?”

  General Agon stiffened. “Not like you have, Your Majesty.”

  “Well, if you had, general, you’d know that you can’t damage your own reputation.” He cursed long and unfluently again. “Flee my own castle in the night!”

  There was no working with him. The man shamed Agon and should have shamed himself. Yet Agon was sworn to him, and he’d decided long ago that an oath measured the man who gave it. It was like his marriage; he wouldn’t take back his vows simply because his wife couldn’t give him children.

  But did vows hold when your own king had plotted to take your life? And not in honorable battle, but with an assassin’s blade in the night?

  That had been before Agon had sworn his allegiance to the man, however. Now that he had sworn, it didn’t matter that—had he known then what he knew now—he would have chosen to die rather than serve Aleine Gunder IX.

  “Your Majesty, may I at least have permission to hold an exercise tonight for my guards and include your mage? The Captain is in the habit of doing such things unannounced to keep the men at the ready.” Though I wonder why I preserve your empty head.

  “Oh, to hell with you, general. You and your goddam paranoia. Fine. Do as you please.”

  General Agon turned to leave the throne room. The king’s predecessor, Davin, had been empty-headed too. But he’d known it, and he’d deferred to his counselors.

  Aleine X, this king’s son, was only fourteen years old, but he showed promise. He seemed to have gotten some of his mother’s intelligence, at least. If X were old enough to take power, maybe I’d provoke this assassin. Dear God, maybe I’d hire him. General Agon shook his head. That was treason, and it had no place in a general’s mind.

  Fergund Sa’fasti had been appointed to serve in Cenaria more for his political acuity than his Talent. The truth was, he’d barely earned his blue robe. But his talents if not his Talent had served him well in Cenaria. The king was both stupid and foolish, but he could be worked with, if one didn’t mind petulance and showers of curses.

  But tonight Fergund was wandering the castle as if he were a guard. He’d appealed to the king, but Aleine IX—they called him Niner, short for “the nine-year-old” and not “the ninth,” only when drinking with friends—had cursed him and ordered him to do whatever the lord general said.

  As far as Fergund was concerned, Lord General Agon was a relic. It was too bad that he hadn’t been able to adapt to Niner. The old man had things to offer. Then again, the fewer counselors the king had, the more important Fergund became.

  Disgusted with his night’s assignment—what was he looking for, anyway?—Fergund continued his lonely circuit of the castle yard. He’d considered asking for an escort, but mages were supposed to be more deadly than any hundred men. If that wasn’t exactly true in his case, it didn’t do him any good to advertise the fact.

  The castle yard was an irregular diamond three hundred paces wide and almost four hundred long. It was bordered on the northwest and southeast by the river as the Plith—split for half a mile by Vos Island—came rushing back together south of the castle.

  The yard was animated with the sounds of men, horses, and dogs settling down for the night. It was early enough that men were still up gambling in the barracks, and the sounds of a lyre and good-natured cursing floated a short way into the dense fog.

  Fergund pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. The sliver of moon wasn’t doing much to penetrate the cold fog pouring off the rivers and through the gates. The wet air kissed Fergund’s neck and he regretted his recent haircut. The king had mocked his long hair, but Fergund’s lover had adored it.

  And, now that his hair was short, the king mocked him for that.

  The fog billowed strangely at the iron gate and Fergund froze. He embraced the power—embrace? he’d always thought it felt more like a wrestling match—and peered through the fog. Once he held it, the power calmed him. He could see nothing threatening, and his hearing and sight were sharper.

  Breathing deeply, Fergund made himself continue past the gate. He didn’t know if it was his imagination, but it felt like the fog pressed against the whole wall of the castle like an invading army and poured in through the breach of the iron gate. Fog pooled almost to his shoulders, and the torches mounted over the heads of the two guards did little to cut the mist.

  Nodding to them, Fergund turned and started walking back to the castle. He felt a weight between his shoulder blades as of eyes boring into him and repressed the urge to look over his shoulder. But as he walked toward the stables, the feeling only grew. The air felt heavy, so thick it was like walking through soup. The fog seemed to curl around him in his passing and lick at the back of his bare neck, taunting him.

  With the rising of the fog, the moon and stars totally disappeared. The wo
rld was enveloped in cloud.

  Fergund stumbled as he passed by the corner of the stables. He threw a hand out to steady himself against the wood, but felt something yielding for a moment before it disappeared. Something like he’d touched a man standing there.

  Staggering back in fear, Fergund clawed for the embrace. He could see nothing. There was no one there. Finally his Talent came to him. He caught a brief flicker of movement into the stables—but it might have been his imagination.

  Had he smelled garlic? Surely that could only be his imagination. But why would he imagine such a thing? He hesitated for a long moment. But he was a weak mage, not a weak man. He readied a fireball and drew his knife. He came wide around the corner, straining every sense magical and mundane.

  He jumped through the door and looked around frantically. Nothing. The horses were in their stalls, their odors mingling with the heavy fog. He could hear only the stamping of hooves and the even breathing of sleeping animals. Fergund probed the darkness for any sign of movement, but saw nothing.

  The longer he looked, the more foolish he felt. Part of him thought he should go deeper into the stables, and part of him wanted to leave now. No one would know that he’d left. He could go to the other side of the castle and wander there. On the other hand, if he single-handedly caught an intruder, the king would doubtless reward him well. If Niner was good for anything, it was rewarding his friends.

  Slowly, Fergund drew the fire he’d prepared into visible form. It flickered a little and then held, burning in his palm. A horse in the first stall snorted, suddenly shying back, and Fergund moved to shush the beast. But with fire in one hand and a gleaming knife in the other, the horse was hardly calmed.

  It whinnied loudly and stomped on the ground, waking its neighbors.

  “Shh!” Fergund said. “Relax, it’s only me.”

  But an unfamiliar man with magefire was too much for the animals. They started neighing loudly. The stallion in the second stall started kicking.

  “Wooja stop skearin’ ’orses?” a loud voice said behind him. Fergund was so startled he dropped his knife and lost the fire in his hand. He wheeled around. It was just the stable master, a squat, bearded man from the isle of Planga. Dorg Gamet came in behind Fergund, holding a lantern. He gave Fergund a look of pure disdain while the mage picked his knife gingerly out of a pile of horse droppings.

 
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