The night angel trilogy, p.140
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.140

           Brent Weeks
 

  Now it was done. The Takedas’ home island, Horai, hadn’t expected an army for at least another six weeks. The leaders were totally unprepared, and having almost three thousand men to Solon’s four hundred did them no good. Before the Takeda army could be rallied, its commanders were dead, and Solon’s magic-enhanced voice had offered generous terms to the living. The rebellion was crushed and nearly all the dead were Takedas.

  With the first day of spring, the first day clear enough that the merchants would be on their boats preparing for the first spring runs, checking for damage, repairing sails and nets, shouting orders at men rusty from months spent ashore, Solon’s little fleet sailed into Hokkai harbor.

  They were greeted as heroes, and the crazy sailors who had joined Solon first were now soldiers in truth. Sailors dropped their gear to greet them, captains forgot their shouting, and the shorebound traders and vintners streamed through the streets to greet them. The flood carried them to the castle, and Solon’s heart thudded with fear and expectation. Kaede, please, my love, don’t take my glory as an insult. Without you, it all means nothing.

  The crowd brought him to Whitecliff Castle, shining in the spring sun. Kaede stood on the dais where months before she had almost been deposed. She wore an ocean blue nagika and a platinum tiara with sapphires. She raised her hands and the men and women quieted. “How fare the isles, Stormrider?”

  “The isles are at peace, Your Majesty.”

  The people cheered, but Kaede’s face was still somber. She let the people cheer, then raised her hands once more. “They say you are a mage, Stormrider.”

  “I am,” he said.

  The crowd grew quieter, noting the queen’s solemnity. That solemnity brought to not a few minds the questions people had asked when Solon had first been sent to school with the Midcyri magi: where would his loyalties lie?

  “They say you are a god, Stormrider, to have defied the winter seas alone.”

  “Neither a god, nor alone, Your Majesty. A loyal son of Seth who tracked the seas with men and women fearless as tygres, fiercer than storms, and hungrier than the seas. Not even winter seas could stop such from serving you.”

  The crowd stirred with hope, and Solon’s Stormriders swelled with pride that he should share the glory so liberally, but Kaede cut it off quickly. “They say you were our prince, Stormrider. They say I’ve stolen your throne.”

  Silence.

  “A prince I was, of an ancient house that my elder brother debased and dishonored. He broke the holy covenant between king and country, and I stand a prince no more. Should you command, I will sail to the sunset or to death’s rocky shores. I am but a man.” He lowered his voice, but still it carried across the silent crowd. “A man who loves you, my queen.”

  She stood silent and the crowd held its breath, but Solon could see her eyes shining. “Then Solon Stormrider, Solon Tofusin, come forward and receive your rewards as a mage, and a loyal son of Seth, and a man.”

  He was in a haze as the crowd pulled him forward, laughing and cheering and shouting. Kaede first presented him with a pendant with a glowing ruby lit from within, burning with ancient magics. He’d never seen it before, never heard of such an artifact, but before he could consider it, she put a crown on his brow. It was his father’s crown, a circlet of seven golden grape leaves mingled with seven golden waves. “A ruby fit for a mage, a crown fit for Seth’s most loyal son, and—if you will have me—a proud and troublesome woman ill-fit for any man.”

  “Except one,” Solon said, and he swept her into his arms and kissed her.

  72

  Vi didn’t know how Elene had explained it to Kylar, though she had known when by Kylar’s sudden burst of confusion and hope and longing through the bond. Tonight was the night. She’d gone over the magic a number of times with Sister Ariel. As Ariel had warned her, Vi wasn’t severing the bond, only partially suspending it.

  First, it was only suspended while Vi was actively using magic against it. If there was any good news, Vi thought, it was that Kylar was a virgin. That embarrassed him, but Vi thought it was extraordinary and kind of cute, which embarrassed him further. Now, though, she simply hoped it meant his lovemaking with Elene would be brief. Vi had told Elene—and Elene had decided not to tell Kylar—that the suspension of the bond worked only one way: Kylar wouldn’t feel Vi, but Vi would still feel him.

  Vi had her materials: an itchy wool robe that she hoped would distract her from whatever physical sensation bled through the bond, and a pitcher of wine for afterward to obliterate her thinking. Sister Ariel didn’t exactly approve, but she didn’t forbid it, either. Vi could only hope that Kylar was one of those men who promptly fell asleep after sex, because once she released the magic, he would feel her once more. If Kylar knew Vi was basically magically eavesdropping on his lovemaking, he would worry about it. Elene fully believed she would die by spring, and she deserved as much of Kylar’s attention as she could get.

  Kylar was coming up the steps. He and Elene had finished a romantic dinner in the kitchen—of course they couldn’t go out where people might see them—and Elene was leading him by the hand. Vi felt his anticipation and disbelief. He probed toward Vi, but she made herself a stone wall and began chanting.

  According to Sister Ariel, the weaves themselves weren’t that challenging; it was using them at the strength required for the time required that was difficult. Plus, Sister Ariel allowed, it was probably emotionally taxing. Ariel thought Vi could probably maintain them for twenty minutes.

  Sister Ariel could probably withstand the emotional tax forever. The words Bitch Wytch made their way into Vi’s chanting, but they didn’t have the force they used to. After all, it was Sister Ariel who had done all the research to make this possible. Was that her way of saying sorry?

  Layer upon layer of magic surrounded the bond, wreathing it like fog, and in moments Vi knew she was doing it right for two reasons. First, Kylar stopped, bewildered, as he was leaning forward to kiss Elene as they sat on the edge of their bed. Second, Vi could tell that he stopped leaning forward as he sat on the edge of his bed. Whatever Vi was doing to mute Kylar’s side of the bond, it seemed to be amplifying her own.

  Panic hit her, making it hard to breathe, but Kylar didn’t feel it. She could tell he didn’t feel her. He wondered at the absence and then joy spread through him like a fire. He pulled Elene into his arms and kissed her passionately.

  It was hard to breathe. Vi could only choke out a series of curses to keep the magic going. She’d kissed men, of course, and had dozens more kiss her. She’d avoided it when she could, wishing she could be as numb there as below, but it was part of her work to kiss convincingly. Feeling Kylar kiss Elene was something different. It was fresh and innocent and full of rejoicing. Then it deepened, and Vi felt Kylar’s surprise at the ferocity of Elene’s passion. He fell—was pushed?—back onto the bed, and she settled on his hips. Then he was kissing her again, fumbling with the ties of her dress.

  Vi cursed desperately, locking her eyes open, rubbing the wool across her forearm. It helped, a little, but Kylar’s joy and free desire still lived in her head. Elene must have said something, because Kylar laughed. Vi could hear it through the wall, but as she felt it, she knew she’d never heard Kylar laugh like that. Maybe Kylar had never laughed like that in his whole life. It was playful and free and accepted and accepting, a joy wild and strong and content. This was the Kylar Elene had always seen, and with a pang, Vi knew Elene deserved him.

  There was a tenderness so deep emanating through the bond that it ached, and Vi realized that of all things, Kylar was talking to Elene.

  “Put him in a bed chamber with a naked woman and he talks?” Vi said aloud, still working her Talent. “No wonder he’s still a virgin.” It was too bad the weaves weren’t harder, because she needed the distraction. Elene was scared, Vi realized, and embarrassed because she knew exactly what Vi was doing here in this room. Either way, Kylar was soothing her, lying by her side, his left arm under her
head and his right arm embracing her, caressing her while he spoke soft assurances and slowly awakened her passion.

  Vi had fucked so many times, with so many men, in so many ways, she thought she knew pretty much everything about sex. But Kylar and Elene, in their mutual ignorance, were experiencing something she never had. Their lovemaking fit into a pattern bigger than itself. There was no awkwardness even in their fumbling, because there was no fear of judgment.

  “Oh, fuck me, oh—” Vi’s voice squeaked and she lost the thought. Whatever Elene was doing, she was either naturally gifted or Kylar was extremely sensitive. Either way, the wave of pleasure through the bond was overwhelming. Vi’s cheeks felt like they were on fire.

  Then Vi felt Kylar’s mischievous grin—dammit, it felt exactly the same way it looked—and his own pleasure faded into the pleasure of pleasuring.

  “You bastard,” Vi said. “I hate you. I hate you I hate you I hate you.” When Vi fucked, she put on a persona like a mask, always. Kylar was making love as a whole man. Every aspect of himself was present—and Vi knew then that she loved him.

  She’d been attracted to things about Kylar from the first time she saw that damned mischievous grin in Count Drake’s house. She’d admired how he tried to leave the way of shadows, how he treated Elene and Uly. She appreciated his excellence in fighting. She’d felt a twinge of infatuation long ago—but then, she’d once been infatuated with Jarl, who was homosexual. In the past month, she’d even come to accept that she desired Kylar. But all those things weren’t love. Perhaps she never would have known what love was if she hadn’t talked so much with Elene, and if she hadn’t felt it daily in Kylar’s feelings for Elene.

  Something banged into the wall inches from Vi, and she gasped. Her eyes widened. The magic almost escaped her, and only her fear of what would happen if it did helped her regain control. She scrubbed the wool against her arm—fuck she hated wool! “Dead babies. Bearded women. Back hair so long you can braid it. Moon blood. The smell of the Warrens on a hot summer day. Unwashed whores. Vomit. Dead babies. Bearded women. Back hair so—oh shit!” Vi bit the wool and held onto the magic for dear life.

  A few moments later, Vi could breathe again. She checked the magic as a deep sense of ease and restfulness and well-being and intimacy and peace with the entire world rolled over Kylar. The magic was still intact. Vi grabbed the pitcher of wine and drank from it directly. “It’s a good thing you’re a virgin, Kylar. Were a virgin. I don’t think I could’ve handled that for much—”

  Vi realized something at apparently the same time Elene did: Kylar was still aroused. He asked a question, and Elene’s answer was unmistakably and passionately affirmative. Vi set the pitcher down with shaking hands. Pleasure arced through Kylar again.

  Oh gods, it was going to be a long winter.

  73

  As winter slowly faded in Khaliras, Dorian arrayed his army on the plain north of the city to face the invaders from the Freeze. The ground was still covered in melting snow that their feet churned into freezing slush. Every breath steamed a protest against battle in such conditions.

  The wild men who inhabited the Freeze always fought bravely, but their only tactic was to overwhelm a foe by throwing a larger army at it. Once engaged, they fought man to man, never as a unit. Since its founding, Khaliras had never been taken by the brutes, though a few times it had been a near thing. Garoth had always said that the wild men had proportionally more Talented men and women than any people in the world.

  The armies faced each other as the sky turned from inky blue to ice blue with the rising sun. Godking Wanhope’s lines were only three deep, arrayed over as much of the plain as twenty thousand men would stretch. The wild men’s army dwarfed his, and stretched much further and more thickly. There was no way Wanhope could keep them from flanking his army. In the middle of the wild men’s line there was one huge block that the men shunned. If Dorian’s reports were correct, he faced twenty-eight thousand krul, and even more wild men.

  Three-to-one odds. Dorian smiled, fearless. The current of prophecy was streaming past him, and he saw a thousand deaths. Ten thousand.

  “Milord, are you feeling well?” Jenine asked. Dorian hadn’t wanted her to have to see this, but he’d been counting on Jenine more and more, not only for her advice, either.

  He blinked and focused on her. Her futures were splitting off so sharply that he could barely see her as she was now, pretty, lips pale from the cold, bundled in furs. Flickering in front of her was a woman hugely pregnant with twins, and a woman with a crushed skull, features unrecognizable under the gore. “No, not well at all,” Dorian said. “But well enough that I won’t let my men die.”

  From this distance, the grotesque features of the krul weren’t visible, though their plainly naked gray flesh was. That nakedness gave Dorian hope. The krul were created with magic, but they were creatures of flesh. The cold would cripple and kill them eventually. It wasn’t easy to force the krul to wear clothing, as it wasn’t easy to rein them in from slaughter, but each could be done. That the wild men’s shamans hadn’t meant their control was tenuous.

  Dorian gave an order, and the slaves lowered his palanquin to the ground. Godking Wanhope stepped out and advanced onto the plain alone. Palming an obsidian knife, he shrugged off the priceless ermine cloak and let it fall to the mud. It was a gesture that would have infuriated him had he seen his father do it. Now, he understood. To protect what he loved, he had to keep control. To keep control, Wanhope had to be a god. A god was above ordinary concerns like ruining a cloak that cost more than fifty slaves.

  The currents of prophecy were rising at the pressure of seventy thousand futures that Wanhope held in his hands. On his choices, tens of thousands would live and die. He looked at the army opposing him and saw ten thousand ravens swirling over them, waiting to feed. He blinked, and the ravens were gone, then blinked again, and they were back. But they weren’t ravens. Nor did they only swirl over the wild men.

  Dorian turned, eyes wide. Wispy, dark figures swarmed over his entire army, clotted the air above his men, darting this way and that. Here six perched on a single man, their claws sunk deep into his flesh. There only a single dark figure spun around another warrior, stabbing in one place and then another, as if trying his defenses. But those were the exception. Almost every man in Dorian’s army had at least one figure clinging to him. And there were ranks among them; some were far more terrible. Dorian looked at General Naga nearby. A trio of the monsters clung to the man, two perched on his shoulders, one licking ephemeral blood from the general’s fingers.

  This close, Dorian could see their features. One had a cancer that swelled one eye grotesquely. Open, suppurating ulcers dotted their golden-skinned faces, dribbling black blood onto robes so black with that blood that Dorian could barely tell that they had once been white. It was those shredded robes, dripping ephemeral blood that made them all look like ravens. The cancered one dipped his claws into General Naga’s skull and drew them out again and licked its claws greedily. But they weren’t claws, they were finger bones, denuded of their golden flesh. It turned its good eye to Dorian. “What is he looking at?” it asked.

  The other cocked its head and it met Dorian’s gaze. “Us,” it hissed in wonder.

  “Odniar, ruy’eo getnirfhign em. Dirlom?” Dorian heard the voice. It was Jenine, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Why couldn’t he understand her, but he could understand these things? What were they, anyway?

  He looked back to the army across the plain. He saw the krul, but this time, he saw through their flesh. Each of them held one of these creatures. My God, these are the Strangers. Dorian saw them, and he understood. The Strangers carried hell with them wherever they went. They fed on human suffering not because it sustained them, but because it was a distraction from their own suffering; it was entertainment. Wearing flesh was no escape. Rather it was simply the best distraction of all, a chance to feel, if only for a time, to experience the pleasures o
f food and drink, if only in a muted way, and to kill. That was the pinnacle, to take away that which men had and which they had no more.

  “Odniar!” the voice was in his ear. Dorian turned and for a moment, he could see with his natural vision once more. Every one of his men was staring at him, fearful. Then his vision bifurcated and he could see fear rise like a fragrance from his men—to the delight of the swirling Strangers. He felt the fingers on his shoulders, bony fingers, but before he could turn to face what he knew must cling even to him, he felt natural fingers grab his bicep and squeeze hard.

  Jenine swam into his vision, which was natural once more, then it split. She was pregnant, right now, but not with twins. A Stranger spun in tight circles around her, but hadn’t yet found a place to rest. It wanted—by the God, it wanted their baby!

  Dorian cried out and saw a fresh wave of fear rise from his men. A mob of the Strangers, now aware of his awareness of them, had congregated around him. They were walling him in.

  “ODNIAR! Rodnia! Adimmt! Dornia. Dorian!” Jenine was whispering fiercely in his ear, her body pressed against him, turning him away from his men. He blinked, and saw only ground, and soldiers, and krul, and his wife. She’d called him back from madness, maybe using the thing which best anchored him to reality: his own name.

  “I’m back,” he said. “I’m here. Thank you.” He shook himself, willed himself not to see beyond the veil again. He looked over his shoulder, nodded to General Naga to let the frightened man see that Dorian was well, and then strode forward.

 
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