The night angel trilogy, p.2
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.2

           Brent Weeks

  “Rat! Rat, I need you.”

  Azoth rolled over and saw Ja’laliel emerging from the guild’s building. His pale skin was beaded with sweat though the day wasn’t hot. He coughed unhealthily. “Rat! I said now.”

  Rat wiped his face, and seeing his rage cool so suddenly was almost more frightening than seeing its sudden heat. His face cleared, and he smiled at Azoth. Just smiled.

  “Hey-ho, Jay-Oh,” Azoth said.

  “Hey-ho, Azo,” Jarl said, coming to join Azoth and Doll Girl. “You know, you’re about as smart as a box of hair. They’ll be calling him Ratty Fatty behind his back for years.”

  “He wanted me to be one of his girls,” Azoth said.

  They were propped against a wall several blocks away, sharing the stale loaf Azoth had bought. The smells of baking, though less intense this late in the day, covered at least some of the smells of sewage, rotting garbage piled on the banks of the river, and the rancid bite of the urine and brains of the tanneries.

  If Ceuran architecture was all bamboo and rice fiber walls and screens, Cenarian architecture was rougher, heavier, lacking the studied simplicity of Ceuran design. If Alitaeran architecture was all granite and pine, Cenarian architecture was less formidable, lacking the deliberate durability of Alitaeran structures. If Osseini architecture was airy spires and soaring arches, Cenarian architecture only soared above one story in a few nobles’ manses on the east side. Cenarian buildings were everything squat and dank and cheap and low, especially in the Warrens. A material that cost twice as much was never used, even if it lasted four times as long. Cenarians didn’t think long term because they didn’t live long term. Their buildings frequently incorporated bamboo and rice fiber, both of which grew nearby, and pine and granite, which were not too far away, but there was no Cenarian style. The country had been conquered too many times over the centuries to pride itself on anything but survival. In the Warrens, there wasn’t even pride.

  Azoth absently ripped the loaf into thirds, then scowled. He’d made two about the same size, and one third smaller. He put one of the bigger pieces on his leg and handed the other big piece to Doll Girl, who followed him like a shadow. He was about to hand the small piece to Jarl when he saw Doll Girl’s face pucker in disapproval.

  Azoth sighed and took the small piece for himself. Jarl didn’t even notice. “Better one of his girls than dead,” Jarl said.

  “I won’t end up like Bim.”

  “Azo, once Ja’laliel buys review, Rat’ll be our guild head. You’re eleven. Five years till you get review. You’ll never make it. Rat’ll make Bim look lucky compared to you.”

  “So what do I do, Jarl?” Ordinarily, this was Azoth’s favorite time. He was with the two people he didn’t have to be afraid of, and he was silencing the insistent voice of hunger. Now, the bread tasted like dust. He stared into the market, not even seeing the fishmonger beating her husband.

  Jarl smiled, his teeth brilliant against his black Ladeshian skin. “If I tell you a secret can you keep it quiet?”

  Azoth looked from side to side and leaned in. The loud crunching of bread and smacking of lips beside him stopped him. “Well, I can. I’m not so sure about Doll Girl.”

  They both turned toward where she sat, gnawing on the heel of the loaf. The combination of the crumbs stuck to her face and her scowl of outrage made them howl with laughter.

  Azoth rubbed her blonde head and, when she kept scowling, pulled her close. She fought against him, but when he let his arm drop, she didn’t scoot away. She looked at Jarl expectantly.

  Jarl lifted his tunic and removed a rag he’d had tied around his body as a sash. “I won’t be like the others, Azo. I’m not just going to let life happen to me. I’m gonna get out.” He opened the sash. Tucked within its folds were a dozen coppers, four silvers, and impossibly, two gold gunders.

  “Four years. Four years I’ve been saving.” He dropped two more coppers into the sash.

  “You mean all the times Rat’s slapped you around for not making your dues, you’ve had this?”

  Jarl smiled and, slowly, Azoth understood. The beatings were a small price to pay for hope. After a while, most guild rats withered and let life beat them. They became animals. Or they went crazy like Azoth had today and got themselves killed.

  Looking at that treasure, part of Azoth wanted to strike Jarl, grab the sash, and run. With that money, he could get out, get clothes to replace his rags, and pay apprentice fees somewhere, anywhere. Maybe even with Durzo Blint, as he’d told Jarl and Doll Girl so many times.

  Then he saw Doll Girl. He knew how she’d look at him if he stole that sash full of life. “If any of us make it out of the Warrens, it’ll be you, Jarl. You deserve it. You have a plan?”

  “Always,” Jarl said. He looked up, his brown eyes bright. “I want you to take it, Azo. As soon as we find out where Durzo Blint lives, we’re going get you out. All right?”

  Azoth looked at the pile of coins. Four years. Dozens of beatings. Not only did he not know if he would give that much for Jarl, but he’d also thought of stealing it from him. He couldn’t hold back hot tears. He was so ashamed. He was so afraid. Afraid of Rat. Afraid of Durzo Blint. Always afraid. But if he got out, he could help Jarl. And Blint would teach him to kill.

  Azoth looked up at Jarl, not daring to look at Doll Girl for fear of what might be in her big brown eyes. “I’ll take it.”

  He knew who he’d kill first.


  Durzo Blint pulled himself on top of the small estate’s wall and watched the guard pass. The perfect guard, Durzo thought: a bit slow, lacking imagination, and dutiful. He took his thirty-nine steps, stopped at the corner, planted his halberd, scratched his stomach under his gambeson, checked in all directions, then walked on.

  Thirty-five. Thirty-six. Durzo slipped out of the man’s shadow and eased himself over the edge of the walkway. He held on by his fingertips.

  Now. He dropped and hit the grass just as the guard thumped the butt of his halberd on the wood walkway. He doubted the guard would have heard him anyway, but paranoia begat perfection in the wetboy’s trade. The yard was small, and the house not much bigger. It was built on the Ceuran design, with translucent rice paper walls. Bald cypress and white cedar formed the doors and arches and cheaper local pine had been used for the frame and the floors. It was spartan like all Ceuran houses, and that fit General Agon’s military background and his ascetic personality. More than that, it fit his budget. Despite the general’s many successes, King Davin had not rewarded him well—which was part of why the wetboy had come.

  Durzo found an unlocked window on the second floor. The general’s wife was asleep in the bed: they weren’t so Ceuran as to sleep on woven mats. They were, however, poor enough that the mattress was stuffed with straw rather than feathers. The general’s wife was a plain woman, snoring gently and sprawled more in the middle than to one side of the bed. The covers on the side she was facing had been disturbed.

  The wetboy slid into the room, using his Talent to soften the sound of his footsteps on the hardwood floor.

  Curious. A quick glance confirmed that the general hadn’t just come for a nocturnal conjugal visit. They actually shared the room. Perhaps he was even poorer than people thought.

  Durzo’s brow furrowed under his mask. It was a detail he didn’t need to know. He drew the short poisoner’s knife and walked toward the bed. She’d never feel a thing.

  He stopped. The woman was turned toward the disturbed covers. She’d been sleeping close to her husband before he got up. Not on the far side of the bed, the way a woman merely doing her marital duties would.

  It was a love match. After her murder, Aleine Gunder had planned to offer the general a quick remarriage to a rich noblewoman. But this general, who’d married a lowborn woman for love, would react quite differently to his wife’s murder than a man who’d married for ambition.

  The idiot. The prince was so consumed with ambition that he thought everyone else was, too.
The wetboy sheathed the knife and stepped into the hall. He still had to know where the general stood. Immediately.

  “Dammit, man! King Davin’s dying. I’d be surprised if he’s got a week left.”

  Whoever had spoken was mostly right. The wetboy had given the king his final dose of poison tonight. By dawn, he would be dead, leaving a throne in contention between one man who was strong and just, and another who was weak and corrupt. The underworld Sa’kagé was not disinterested in the outcome.

  The voice had come from the receiving room downstairs. The wetboy hurried to the end of the hall. The house was so small that the receiving room doubled as the study. He had a perfect view of the two men.

  General Brant Agon had a graying beard, close-trimmed hair that he didn’t comb, and a jerky way of moving, keeping his eyes on everything. He was thin and sinewy, his legs slightly bowed from a life in the saddle.

  The man across from him was Duke Regnus Gyre. The wing-backed chair creaked as he shifted his weight. He was a huge man, both tall and wide, and little of his bulk was fat. He folded ringed fingers on his belly.

  By the Night Angels. I could kill them both and end the Nine’s worries right now.

  “Are we deceiving ourselves, Brant?” Duke Gyre asked.

  The general didn’t answer immediately. “My lord—”

  “No, Brant. I need your opinion as a friend, not as a vassal.” Durzo crept closer. He drew the throwing knives slowly, careful with the poisoned edges.

  “If we do nothing,” the general said, “Aleine Gunder will become king. He is a weak, foul, and faithless man. The Sa’kagé already owns the Warrens; the king’s patrols won’t even leave the main roads, and you know all the reasons that’s only bound to get worse. The Death Games entrenched the Sa’kagé. Aleine doesn’t have the will or the inclination to oppose the Sa’kagé now, while we can still root them out. So are we deceiving ourselves in thinking that you’d be a better king? Not at all. And the throne is yours by rights.”

  Blint almost smiled. The underworld’s lords, the Sa’kagé Nine, agreed with every word—which was why Blint was making sure Regnus Gyre didn’t become king.

  “And tactically? We could do it?”

  “With minimal bloodshed. Duke Wesseros is out of the country. My own regiment is in the city. The men believe in you, my lord. We need a strong king. A good king. We need you, Regnus.”

  Duke Gyre looked at his hands. “And Aleine’s family? They’ll be part of the ‘minimal bloodshed’?”

  The general’s voice was quiet. “You want the truth? Yes. Even if we don’t order it, one of our men will kill them to protect you, even if it meant hanging. They believe in you that much.”

  Duke Gyre breathed. “So the question is, does the good of many in the future outweigh the murder of a few now?”

  How long has it been since I had such qualms? Durzo barely stifled an overpowering urge to throw the daggers.

  The suddenness of his rage shook him. What was that about?

  It was Regnus. The man reminded him of another king he’d once served. A king worthy of it.

  “That’s for you to answer, my lord,” General Agon said. “But, if I may, is the question really so philosophical?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You still love Nalia, don’t you?” Nalia was Aleine Gunder’s wife.

  Regnus looked stricken. “I was betrothed to her for ten years, Brant. We were each other’s first lovers.”

  “My lord, I’m sorry,” the general said. “It’s not my—”

  “No, Brant. I never speak of it. As I decide whether to be a man or a king, let me.” He breathed deeply. “It’s been fifteen years since Nalia’s father broke our betrothal and married her to that dog Aleine. I should be over it. I am, except when I have to see her with her children and have to imagine her sharing a bed with Aleine Gunder. The only joy my marriage has given me is my son Logan, and I can scarce believe her own has been better.”

  “My lord, given the involuntary nature of both of your weddings, could you not divorce Catrinna and marry—”

  “No.” Regnus shook his head. “If the queen’s children live, they will always be a threat to my son, whether I exile them or adopt them. Nalia’s eldest boy is fourteen—too old to forget that he was destined for a throne.”

  “The right is on your side, my lord, and who knows but that answers unforeseen may arise to these problems once you sit on the throne?”

  Regnus nodded unhappily, obviously knowing he held hundreds or thousands of lives in his hands, not knowing he held his own as well. If he plots rebellion, I’ll kill him now, I swear by the Night Angels. I serve only the Sa’kagé now. And myself. Always myself.

  “May generations unborn forgive me,” Regnus Gyre said, tears gleaming in his eyes. “But I will not commit murder for what may be, Brant. I cannot. I will swear fealty.”

  The wetboy slid the daggers back into their sheaths, ignoring the twin feelings of relief and despair he felt.

  It’s that damned woman. She’s ruined me. She’s ruined everything.

  Blint saw the ambush from fifty paces away, and walked right into its teeth. The sun was still an hour from rising and the only people on the twisting streets of the Warrens were merchants who’d fallen asleep where they shouldn’t have and were hurrying home to their wives.

  The guild—Black Dragon from the guild glyphs he’d passed—was hiding around a narrow choke point in the alley where guild rats could spring up to clog both ends of the street and also attack from the low rooftops.

  He had affected a bad right knee and pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders, the hood pulled low over his face. As he limped into the trap, one of the older children, a big as they called them, jumped into the alley ahead of him and whistled, brandishing a rusty saber. Guild rats surrounded the wetboy.

  “Clever,” Durzo said. “You keep a lookout before dawn when most of the other guilds are sleeping, and you’re able to jump a few bags who’ve been out all night whoring. They don’t want to explain any bruises from fighting to their wives, so they hand over their coins. Not bad. Whose idea was that?”

  “Azoth’s,” a big said, pointing past the wetboy.

  “Shut up, Roth!” the guild head said.

  The wetboy looked at the small boy on the rooftop. He was holding a rock aloft, his pale blue eyes intent, ready. He looked familiar. “Oh, now you’ve given him away,” Durzo said.

  “You shut up, too!” the guild head said, shaking the saber at him. “Hand over your purse or we’ll kill you.”

  “Ja’laliel,” a black guild rat said, “he called them ‘bags.’ A merchant wouldn’t know we call ’em that. He’s Sa’kagé.”

  “Shut up, Jarl! We need this.” Ja’laliel coughed and spat blood. “Just give us your—”

  “I don’t have the time for this. Move,” Durzo said.

  “Hand it—”

  The wetboy darted forward, his left hand twisting Ja’laliel’s sword hand, snatching the saber, and his body spinning in. His right elbow cracked against the guild head’s temple, but he pulled the blow so it wouldn’t kill.

  The fight was over by the time the guild rats flinched.

  “I said I don’t have time for this,” Durzo said. He threw back his hood.

  He knew he was nothing special to look at. He was lanky and sharp-featured, with dark blond hair and a wispy blond beard over lightly pockmarked cheeks. But he might have had three heads from the way the children shrank back.

  “Durzo Blint,” Roth murmured.

  Rocks rattled to the ground.

  “Durzo Blint,” the name passed through the guild rats in waves. He saw fear and awe in their eyes. They’d just tried to mug a legend.

  He smirked. “Sharpen this. Only an amateur lets his blade rust.” He threw the saber into a gutter clotted with sewage. Then he walked through the mob. They scattered as if he might kill them all.

  Azoth watched him stride into the early morning mists, disappea
ring like so many other hopes into the sinkhole of the Warrens. Durzo Blint was everything Azoth wasn’t. He was powerful, dangerous, confident, fearless. He was like a god. He’d looked at the whole guild arrayed against him—even the bigs like Roth and Ja’laliel and Rat—and he’d been amused. Amused! Someday, Azoth swore. He didn’t quite dare even think the whole thought, lest Blint sense his presumption, but his whole body yearned for it. Someday.

  When Blint was far enough away not to notice, Azoth followed.


  The bashers guarding the Nine’s subterranean chamber eyed Durzo sourly. They were twins and two of the biggest men in the Sa’kagé. Each had a lightning bolt tattooed down his forehead.

  “Weapons?” one said.

  “Lefty,” Durzo said in greeting, removing his sword, three daggers, the darts strapped to his wrist, and a number of small glass balls from his other arm.

  “I’m Lefty,” the other one said, patting down Blint vigorously.

  “You mind?” Durzo asked. “We both know if I wanted to kill anyone in there I could, with or without weapons.”

  Lefty flushed. “Why don’t I ram this pretty sword—”

  “What Lefty means is, why don’t you pretend not to be a threat, and we’ll pretend we’re the reason,” Bernerd said. “It’s just a formality, Blint. Like asking someone how they are when you don’t care.”

  “I don’t ask.”

  “I was sorry to hear about Vonda,” Bernerd said. Durzo stopped cold, a lance twisting through his guts. “Really,” the big man said. He held the door open. Glanced at his brother.

  Part of Durzo knew he should say something cutting or threatening or funny, but his tongue was leaden.

  “Um, Master Blint?” Bernerd said. Recovering, Durzo stepped into the Nine’s meeting room without raising his eyes.

  It was a place to inspire fear. Carved from black fireglass, a platform dominated the room. Nine chairs sat on the platform. A tenth chair sat above them like a throne. There was only bare floor facing the chairs. Those the Nine interviewed would stand.

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