The night angel trilogy, p.20
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.20
 

           Brent Weeks

  A white snake slid onto the table with a thump. Kylar barely had time to register what it was before it struck at his face. He saw its mouth open, huge, fangs glittering. He was moving back, but too slowly.

  Then the snake disappeared and Kylar was falling backward off the stool. He landed flat on his back but bounced up to his feet in an instant.

  Blint was holding the snake behind the head. He had grabbed it out of the air while it was striking. “Do you know what this is, Kylar?”

  “It’s a white asp.” It was one of the most deadly snakes in the world. They were small, rarely growing longer than a man’s forearm, but those they bit died within seconds.

  “No, it’s the price of failure. Kylar, you fight as well as any non-Talented man I’ve ever seen. But you’re no wetboy. You’ve mastered the poisons; you know the techniques of killing. Your reaction speed is peerless; your instincts are good. You hide well, disguise well, fight well. But doing those things well is shit, it’s nothing. An assassin does those things well. That’s why assassins have targets. Wetboys have deaders. Why do we call them deaders? Because when we take a contract, the rest of their short lives is a formality. You have the Talent, Kylar, but you aren’t using it. Won’t use it. You’ve seen a little of what I have to teach you, but I can’t teach it to you until you tap your Talent.”

  “I know. I know,” Kylar said, refusing to meet his master’s gaze.

  “The truth is, Kylar, I didn’t need an apprentice when you came along. Never did. But I heard a rumor that an ancient artifact was hidden in Cenaria: the silver ka’kari. They say Ezra the Mad himself made it. It’s a small silver ball, but when you bond it, it makes you impervious to any blade and it extends your life indefinitely. You can still be killed any way that doesn’t involve metal, but immortality, Kylar! And then you came along. Do you know what you are? Did that maja Drissa Nile tell you?”

  Durzo knew about Drissa Nile? “She said I was broken.”

  “The ka’kari were made for people ‘broken’ like you are. There’s supposed to be an attraction between people who are vastly Talented but don’t have a conduit and the ka’kari. You were supposed to call it, Kylar. You don’t know how to bond it, so you’d call it, hand it over, and I’d be immortal.”

  “And I’d still be broken,” Kylar said bitterly.

  “Once I had it, we could have Drissa study it. She’s a great healer. Even if it took her a few years, it would have been fine. But we’re running out of time,” Durzo said. “Do you know why I can’t just let you be an assassin?” Even now he sneered.

  Kylar had wondered a hundred times, of course, but he’d always figured it was because Blint’s pride wouldn’t let him have a failed apprentice.

  “Our Talent allows us to swear a magically binding oath of service to the Shinga. It keeps the Shinga safe, and it keeps us above suspicion. It’s a weak compulsion, but to break it a wetboy would have to submit himself to a mage or a meister, and all the mages in this city work for the Sa’kagé and only an idiot would submit to a meister. You’ve become a skilled assassin, Kylar, and it’s making the Shinga nervous. He doesn’t like being nervous.”

  “Why would I ever do anything against the Shinga? It would be signing my own death warrant.”

  “That’s not the point. Shingas who aren’t paranoid don’t live long.”

  “How could you never tell me all this?” Kylar demanded. “All the times you’ve beaten me for not using my Talent—it’s like beating a blind man because he can’t read!”

  “Your desperation to use your Talent is what calls the ka’kari. I was helping you. And I’m going to help you some more.” He gestured to the snake in his hand. “This is motivation. It’s also the kindest poison I know.” Master Blint held Kylar with his eyes. “Getting that ka’kari has always been your final test, boy. Get it. Or else.”

  The air took on a chill. There it was. Kylar’s last warning.

  Master Blint put away the snake, collected a few of his weapons, grabbed the bag he already had packed, and picked Retribution off its pegs on the wall. He checked the big black blade, then slid it back into its scabbard. “I’m going to be gone for a while,” he said.

  “I’m not coming with you?”

  “You’d get in the way.”

  Get in the way? The casual way Blint said it hurt almost as much as the fact that it was true.

  30

  I don’t like it,” Solon said.

  Regnus Gyre stared into the winds that blew his silver hair almost straight back. The Twins were quiet today, so there was only the sound of the wind rushing over the wall. He listened to the wind as if it were trying to tell him something.

  “After ten years, a summons,” Solon said. “Why would the king do such a thing on the eve of your son’s majority?”

  “What’s the best reason to gather all your enemies in one place?” Regnus asked, barely raising his voice enough to be heard over the wind. It was still cold even in late spring. Screaming Winds was never warm. The north wind cut through wool, made a mock of the beards and long hair the men grew to hold some extra iota of heat in.

  “To smash them,” Solon said.

  “Better to smash them before they can gather,” Regnus said. “The king knows that I’ll do everything in my power to be home for my son’s ascendance. That means traveling fast. That means a small escort.”

  “Clever of him not to command a small escort,” Solon said. “I’d have put such subtlety beyond him.”

  “He’s had ten years to think about this, my friend, and the help of his weasel.” His weasel was Fergund Sa’fasti, a magus who was not exactly Sho’cendi’s finest moralist. Fergund also knew Solon by sight and would gladly tell the world Solon was a magus if he thought it would cause mischief. Fergund was why Solon had been staying with Regnus year-round as Logan took more responsibilities at court.

  It was, he was beginning to think, a serious mistake.

  “So you think they’ll attack us on the way?” Solon asked.

  Regnus nodded into the wind.

  “I don’t suppose I’ll be able to convince you not to go?” Solon asked.

  Regnus smiled, and Solon couldn’t help but love the man. For all that it had crippled his house and destroyed any ambitions Regnus might have had for the throne, taking command of Screaming Winds had given Regnus life.

  There was fire in Regnus Gyre, something fierce and proud like a warrior king of old. His command had clear authority, and the power of his presence made him father, king, and brother to his men. In the simple fight against evil, he excelled, even reveled. The highlanders of Khalidor, some of whom had never bowed the knee to any man, were warriors. They lived for war, thought it a disgrace to die in bed, believed the only immortality was immortality through deeds of arms sung by their minstrels.

  They called Regnus the Rurstahk Slaagen, the Devil of the Walls, and in the last ten years, their young men had smashed themselves against those walls, tried to climb them, tried to sneak past them, tried to bribe their way through them, climbed over the Twins and tried to descend on Screaming Winds from behind. Every time, Regnus had crushed them. Frequently, he did it without losing a man.

  Screaming Winds was made of three walls at the three narrowest points in the only pass between Cenaria and Khalidor. Between the walls were killing fields sown thick by Regnus’s engineers with caltrops, pits, snares, and deadfalls of rock from the surrounding mountains. Twice clans had made it past the first wall. The traps had reaped such a harvest of death that none had survived to tell what they found beyond it.

  “It could be genuine, I suppose,” Solon said. “Logan says he has become close friends with the prince. Maybe this is the prince’s influence at work.”

  “I don’t think much of the prince,” Regnus said.

  “But he thinks a lot of Logan. We can hope that the prince takes after his mother. This may even be her work.”

  Regnus said nothing. He wouldn’t say Nalia’s name, not even now.
>
  “Hope for the best, plan for the worst?” Solon asked. “Ten of our best men, extra horses for all of us, and go down the coast road instead of the main road?”

  “No,” Regnus said. “If they’ve set one ambush, they’ll have set two. We might as well make them play their gambit on open ground.”

  “Yessir.” Solon only wished he knew who the other players were.

  “You still write letters to that Kaede woman?”

  Solon nodded, but his body went rigid. His chest felt hollow. Of course the commander would know. A letter sent every week, and never a one received.

  “Well, if you don’t get a letter after this one, at least you’ll know it’s not because yours are boring.” Regnus clapped a hand on Solon’s shoulder.

  Solon couldn’t help but smile ruefully. He didn’t know how Regnus did it, but somehow in his company it was as easy to face heartbreak as it was to face death.

  Momma K sat on the balcony of an estate that had no business being where it was. Against all tradition and sanity, Roth Grimson’s opulent estate had been built in the middle of the Warrens.

  She didn’t like Roth and never had, but she met few people in her work that she did like. The fact was, she had to deal with Roth because she couldn’t afford to ignore him. He was one of the Sa’kagé’s rising stars. Not only was he intelligent, but everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. After the guild wars, he had emerged as the guild head of the Red Bashers, and had promptly taken over half of the Warrens.

  Of course, the Sa’kagé had stepped in, only beginning with Durzo’s assassination of Corbin Fishill, but it had taken years to get things truly settled. There had been, of course, curiosity among the Nine at how Roth had managed his guild so well that they’d claimed so much territory. And Roth obviously hadn’t liked her questions, but he’d accepted them. A word from her and he’d never be on the Nine. Another word, and he’d be dead. He was smart enough to know that.

  Roth was in his late twenties. A tall, formidable young man who carried himself like a prince among dogs. Close-set blue eyes, dark hair, a penchant for fine clothing: today he wore a gray tunic decorated with the Plangan knotwork that was just coming into fashion, matching breeches, and high boots worked in silver. He wore his black hair lightly oiled, a wavy lock sometimes drooping into his eyes.

  “If you ever tire of working for our Master of Coin, you’d do well in one of my brothels. The men would adore you.” She threw that out just to see how he’d take it.

  He laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

  With a wave, he signaled the servants to bring their breakfast. Their little table graced the edge of the balcony, and they sat beside each other. Apparently, Roth wanted her to admire his estate. Probably he was hoping she’d ask him why he’d built here.

  She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Besides, she’d already looked into it. The reasons were good enough, she knew. He had some waterfront, which would allow him to do some smuggling, though the dock was too small for high profitability and royal attention. He’d also been able to purchase the land for a pittance, though he’d had to hire so many bashers during the construction he’d lost the savings. When the poor had been displaced, both the honest and the thieves among them had been eager to steal whatever they could from the fool who would build a manse on their side of the river. The bashers had probably beaten hundreds. Momma K knew that they had killed at least half a dozen. It was death to be found on Grimson’s grounds without permission.

  The walls were high, lined with crushed glass and metal spikes that stood as pointed shadows in the dawn light. Bashers manned those walls, men who were both efficient and enjoyed their work. None of the locals tried to intrude anymore. The amateurs had either already tried and paid the price or knew of others who had. The professionals knew they could cross Vanden Bridge and find easier pickings.

  His gardens were beautiful, if given to flowers and plants that kept low to the ground so that his archers didn’t have their killing angles obscured. The splashes of vermilion, green, yellow, and orange of his gardens were a stark contrast against the grays and dingy browns of the Warrens.

  The servants brought the first course, halved blood oranges with a caramelized sugar crust. Roth opened with a comment on the weather. Not a particularly inspired choice, but Momma K didn’t expect more.

  He moved on to commenting on his gardens as the servants brought hot sweetbread. He had the newly rich’s irritating propensity for revealing how much things had cost. He should have known that she would be able to tell from the quality of the service and the meal exactly how much he was spending on this estate of his. When would he get to the point?

  “So there’s going to be an opening on the Nine,” Roth said. Abruptly done. He should have divulged an amusing anecdote from his work and used that to lead here. Momma K was starting to doubt this one.

  “Yes,” she said. She let it sit. She wasn’t going to make this easy. The sun was just rising above the horizon and the sky was turning a glorious orange. It was going to be a scorching day; even at this hour she barely needed the shawl around her shoulders.

  “I’ve been working with Phineas Seratsin for six years. I know the job better than anyone.”

  “You’ve been working for the Trematir, not with him.”

  His eyes flashed, but he said nothing. A dangerous temper, then. Master Grimson didn’t like to be corrected.

  “I think your spies must not be smart enough to have seen the amount of work I do versus what that old man does.”

  She lifted an eyebrow. “Spies?”

  “Everyone knows you have spies everywhere.”

  “Well. Everyone knows. It must be so, then.”

  “Oh, I see,” Roth said. “It’s one of those things everyone knows but I’m not supposed to mention because it’s rude.”

  “There are people within this organization with whom it is dangerous to be rude, boy. If you’re asking for my vote, you’d do well to make a friend of me.”

  He motioned to the servants, who took their plates and replaced them with cuts of spiced meats and a lightly broiled egg dish with cheese.

  “I’m not asking,” he said quietly.

  Momma K finished her eggs and began on the braised meat. Delightful. The man must have brought a chef from Gandu. She ate and looked at the lightening sky, the sun rising slowly over the great iron gate to Grimson’s estate. If he took that comment back, she’d let him live.

  “I don’t know how you have such influence on the Nine, but I know I need your vote, and I will have it,” Roth said. “I will take your vote, or I will take your niece.”

  The meat that a moment ago had seemed so delightfully spiced, that seemed to melt in Momma K’s mouth, suddenly tasted like a mouthful of sand.

  “Pretty girl, isn’t she? Adorable little braids. It’s so sad about her mother dying, but wonderful that she had a rich aunt to find her a place to live, and in the castle itself, no less! Still, a rich old whore ought to have done better than have her niece raised by a serving woman.”

  She was frozen. How did he find out?

  The ledgers. Her ledgers were done all in code, but Phineas Seratsin was the Sa’kagé’s Master of Coin. He had access to more financial records than the next five people in the kingdom combined. Roth must have followed the records and found payments made to a serving woman in the castle. She was a frightened woman. A single threat from Roth and she’d have folded.

  Roth stood, his plate already empty. “No, do sit. Finish your breakfast.”

  She did, mechanically, using the time to think. Could she spirit the girl away? She couldn’t use Durzo for this, but he wasn’t the only wetboy she knew.

  “I am a cruel man, Gwinvere. Taking a life is…” Roth shivered with remembered ecstasy. “Better. Better than any of the pleasures you sell. But I control my appetites. And that’s what makes us human rather than slaves, isn’t it?”

  He was pulling on a thick leather glove. The po
rtcullis of his gate was rising as he spoke. Outside, Momma K saw dozens of ragged peasants gathered. Obviously, this was a daily ritual.

  Below, four servants were carrying a table laden with food into the garden. They set it down and walked back inside.

  “These wretches are slaves to their appetites. Slaves, not men.”

  The starving peasants behind pushed forward and those in front were pushed inside. They looked at the spiked portcullis above them and then at Roth and Momma K. But their eyes were mostly on the food. They looked like animals, hunger driving them wild.

  A young woman made a break for it. She sprinted forward. After she had only taken a few steps, others followed her. There were old men and young, women, children, the only thing they seemed to have in common was desperation.

  But Momma K couldn’t see the reason for their frenzy. They reached the food and tore into it, stuffing pockets full of sausages, stuffing their mouths full of delicacies so rich they’d probably be sick later.

  A servant handed an arbalest to Roth. It was already drawn and loaded.

  “What are you doing?” Momma K asked.

  The peasants saw him and scattered.

  “I kill by a very simple pattern,” Roth said, lifting the weapon. He pressed the trigger plate and a young man dropped with a bolt in his spine.

  Roth set the point of the arbalest down, but instead of cranking the winch to draw back the string, he grabbed the string with his glove and drew it back by hand. For the barest moment, black tattoo-like markings rose up as if from beneath the surface of his skin and writhed with power. It was impossible.

  He shot again and the young woman who had been the first to run for the table fell gracelessly.

  “I feed my little herd every day. The first week of the month, I kill on the first day. The second week, the second day.” He paused as the arbalest drew level again. He shot and another woman dropped as a bolt blew through her head. “And so on. But I never kill more than four.”

 
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