The night angel trilogy, p.26
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.26

           Brent Weeks
 

  He released Elene deliberately, stepped back. Her eyes were red, but still shining as she dabbed her tears away with a handkerchief. A sudden desire to sweep her into his arms and kiss her crashed over him in a wave. He blinked, held himself still until reality could reassert itself. He opened his mouth, couldn’t say a thing, couldn’t ruin it. He tried again, ready to lay out his lies, couldn’t. Relationships are ropes. Love is a noose. Durzo told me. He gave me a chance. I could have been a fletcher, an herbalist. I chose this.

  “I was ordered never to see you. By my master.” His tongue was leaden. “Durzo Blint.”

  He could tell even Elene had heard of Durzo Blint. Her eyes tightened in confusion. He could see her working through it: if Durzo was his master, that meant… He saw a quick little disbelieving smile, as if she were about to say, “But wetboys are monsters, and you’re not a monster.” But then the smile faded. Why else would her Azoth never contact her? How else would a guild rat disappear so completely?

  Her eyes grew distant. “When I was hurt, I remember you arguing with someone, demanding that he save me. I thought it was a dream. That was Durzo Blint, wasn’t it?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you… now you’re what he is?” Elene asked.

  “Close enough.” Actually, I’m not even a full-fledged horror, I’m just an assassin, a hack.

  “You apprenticed with him so he would save me?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. “You became what you are because of me?”

  “Yes. No. I don’t know. He gave me a chance to leave after I killed Rat, but I didn’t want to be afraid anymore, and Durzo was never afraid, and even as an apprentice, he paid me so well that I could—” he stopped.

  Her eyes narrowed as she puzzled it out. “That you could support me,” she finished. She put her hands over her mouth.

  He nodded. Your beautiful life is built on blood money. What was he doing? He should be lying to her, the truth could only destroy. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you. I—”

  “You’re sorry?!” Elene interrupted him. He knew what the next words out of her mouth would be: You’re a failure. Look at what you’ve done to me. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “You’ve given me everything! You fed me on the streets when I was too young to find food for myself. You saved me from Rat. You saved me when your master was going to let me die. You put me with a good family who loved me.”

  “But—aren’t you mad at me?”

  She was taken aback. “Why would I be mad at you?”

  “If I hadn’t been so arrogant, that bastard wouldn’t have come after you. I humiliated him! I should have been watching. I should have protected you better.”

  “You were eleven years old!” Elene said.

  “Every scar on your face is my fault. Gods, look at you! You would have been the most beautiful woman in the city! Instead, you’re here, giving crusts to beggars.”

  “Instead of where?” she asked quietly. “Do you know any girls who’ve been prostitutes since they were children? I do. I’ve seen what you saved me from. And I’m grateful for it every day. I’m grateful for these scars!”

  “But your face!” Kylar was on the edge of tears again.

  “If this is the worst ugliness in my life, Azoth, I think I’m pretty lucky.” She smiled, and despite the scars, the room lit up. She was breathtaking.

  “You’re beautiful,” he said.

  She actually blushed. The Drake sisters were the only girls Kylar knew who blushed, and Serah didn’t blush anymore. “Thank you,” she said, and touched his arm. At her touch, shivers went through him.

  He looked into her eyes, and then he blushed, too. He’d never been so mortified in his life. Blushing! That only made it worse. She laughed, not a laugh at him in his discomfort, but a laugh of such innocent joy it pained him. Her laugh, like her voice, was low, and it brushed over him like a cool wind on a hot day.

  Then her laughter passed and a look of profound sorrow stole over her face. “I’m so sorry, Azoth—Kylar. I’m sorry for what you’ve had to pay to put me here. I don’t even know what to think. Sometimes it seems the God’s hand doesn’t reach very far into the Warrens. I’m sorry.” She looked at him for a long time and another tear tracked down her cheek. She ignored it, just absorbing him. “Are you a bad man, Kylar?”

  He hesitated. Then said, “Yes.”

  “I don’t believe you,” she said. “A bad man would have lied.”

  “Maybe I’m an honest villain.” He turned away.

  “I think you’re still the boy who shared his bread with his friends when he was starving.”

  “I always took the biggest piece,” he whispered.

  “Then we remember differently,” Elene said. She heaved a deep breath and brushed her tears away. “Are you… are you here for work?”

  It was a shot in the solar plexus. “There’s a wetboy coming to kill someone at the party tonight and steal something. I need an invitation to get in.”

  “What are you going to do?” she asked.

  In truth, Kylar had barely thought about it. “I’m going to kill him,” he said. And it was the truth. Hu Gibbet was the kind of twist who started killing beggars when he had to go too long between jobs. He needed murder like a drunkard needs wine. If Kylar came and stole the silver ka’kari first, Hu Gibbet would come after him. Hu was a full wetboy, and reputed to be as strong of a fighter as Durzo. Kylar’s only chance to kill him would be to catch him off-guard. Tonight.

  Elene still didn’t look at him. “If you’re a wetboy, you’ve got other ways to get in. You must know forgers. Kylar Stern must have contacts. Maybe an invitation from me would be the easiest way in, but that’s not why you came. You came here to case the place, didn’t you?”

  His silence was answer enough.

  “All these years,” Elene said, turning her back, “I thought Azoth was dead. And maybe he is. Maybe I helped kill him. I’m sorry, Kylar. I’d give my life to help you. But I can’t give you what’s not mine to give. My loyalty, my honor, belongs to the God. I can’t betray my lady’s trust. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

  It was a gentler banishment than he deserved, but banishment all the same. Kylar hunched and curled his fingers into arthritic claws and left. He turned once he reached the gate, but Elene wasn’t even watching him go.

  37

  Like all good ambushes, this one came at a time and place where they least expected it. Solon and Regnus and his men had made it down the mountains, over the central plains, and had come within two miles of Cenaria’s sprawling northern edge.

  Duke Gyre and his men were between two wide rice paddies on the raised road when they came upon a man leading a cart horse. Several peasants were working in the paddies, but they were dressed simply, trouser legs rolled up to their knees, obviously devoid of armor or weapons. The carter pulled his old horse to the side, looking at the men in armor intently.

  Solon should have noticed it earlier, of course. Peasants didn’t wear long sleeves in the paddies. But it wasn’t until he was within twenty paces of the carter that he saw it. The Vürdmeister dropped the horse’s reins and brought his wrists together, green fire roaring down his vir and filling each hand. He clapped his wrists together and wytchfire spurted forward.

  The wytchfire hit the guard to Solon’s left and went right through him. The magic was designed to melt off in layers like an icicle as it punched through each man. It was the size of a man’s head as it went through the first man, then the size of a man’s fist as it hit the second, then the size of a man’s thumb as it hit the third. In an instant, all three were dead, flames roaring off their flesh, burning on the blood that spilled out of the men as if it were oil.

  A second later, wytchfire hit the guards from each side as a Vürdmeister on either side of the road hurled death into their midst. Another three men dropped.

  That left Solon, Duke Gyre, and two guards. It was a tribute to the men’s discipline that they
did anything at all, but Solon knew they were doomed. One guard rode right. Duke Gyre and the other guard rode left, leaving Solon to take care of the Vürdmeister on the road.

  Solon didn’t move. The Vürdmeister had set their ambush so they’d have ample time to get off two or three balls of wytchfire. Twelve swordsmen were no match for three wytches.

  There was no time to weigh the consequences. Not even time to draw the sunlight streaming onto the paddies into magic. Solon drew directly on his glore vyrden and threw three tiny sparks through the air. They flew as fast as arrows and somehow avoided hitting the duke or his guards. Both Vürdmeister were gathering green fire again as the sparks, each hardly as big as a fingertip, touched their skin.

  They weren’t even close to lethal. Solon didn’t have enough magic to face even one Vürdmeister alone, much less all of them together. But the sparks shocked them. A small shock, but enough to tense their muscles for a second and totally break their concentration. Before they could gather their wits, three swords descended with all the force of three galloping horses and three battle-hardened arms, and the two wytches to either side of the road died.

  Solon threw the spark at the wytch on the road last, and the man blocked it. Indeed, it wasn’t so much blocking as merely snuffing. The spark flew toward him and then died as if it were a fiery twig being dropped in the ocean. His counterattack was a gush of fire that roared toward Solon with the sound and rage of a dragon’s breath.

  There was no blocking it. Solon flung himself from the saddle and threw another spark as he fell to the ground and rolled off the road.

  The wytch didn’t even bother to quench the spark as it flew a good ten feet wide of him. He turned, bridling almost fifty feet of fire as if it were a living thing and turning it in his hands to follow Solon.

  The spark hit the cart horse’s flank. The old beast was already terrified by the blood, the sounds, and the flash of unnatural fire. It jerked against the cart and then reared and lashed out with its hooves.

  The Vürdmeister never even heard the horse’s whinny beneath the roar of the flames. One second, he was reining the stream of fire down the bank of the road onto Solon, and the next, a hoof caught him in the back. He dropped on all fours, not knowing anything but that something was terribly wrong. He gasped and turned to see the horse regain its balance. Then horse and cart ran right over the man, crushing him into the road.

  Solon pulled himself out of the water and mud of the rice paddy as the cart horse ran as it must not have run in ten years. His own horse was dead, of course, its skull a smoking ruin and the smell of burnt hair and cooked meat mingling over its half-ruined corpse.

  The wytchfire was barely smoldering on the bodies of the dead guards now. Even as he watched, it guttered out. Wytchfire spread horribly fast, but only lasted about ten seconds.

  Ten seconds? Has it only been that long?

  The sound of hooves brought Solon back into reality. He looked up at Duke Gyre, whose face was still and hard.

  “You’re a mage,” the duke said.

  “Yes, my lord,” Solon said heavily. The lines were written now, by Solon’s silence. The duke had no choice. Confronted with such a surprise, a more clever man would have pretended to have known Solon was a mage all along. Then he could have decided what to do with him later. Duke Gyre was too straightforward for that. It was his strength and his weakness.

  “And you’ve been reporting on me to other mages.”

  “Only, only to friends, my lord.” It was weak, and it made him sound weak to say it, Solon knew, but he couldn’t imagine that it could all disappear like this. Surely his friendship with Regnus, surely ten years of service were worth more than this.

  “No, Solon,” Duke Gyre said. “Loyal vassals don’t spy on their lords. You’ve saved my life this day, but you’ve been betraying me for years. How could you?”

  “It wasn’t—”

  “For my life, I give you yours. Begone. Take one of the horses and go. If I ever see your face again, I’ll kill you.”

  “Stay with him,” Dorian had said. “His life depends on it. A kingdom depends on it. ‘By your word—or silence—a brother king lies dead.’ ” But he’d never said how long Solon had to serve his Lord Gyre, had he? Solon bowed low in front of his friend and took a bridle from Gurden, who looked too stunned for emotion. Solon mounted and turned his back on Lord Gyre.

  Did I save Cenaria today, or doom it?

  38

  Kylar’s afternoon had been frantic. He’d had to get Logan to get someone else to get him an invitation, and then when he’d tried to find Durzo, the wetboy was gone, leaving a typically terse note: “On a job.” Durzo didn’t often give Kylar a lot of detail on his jobs, but lately Kylar felt that he was being more and more excluded, as if Durzo were trying to create space between them so that it would be easier to kill Kylar when the time came.

  Durzo’s absence had meant that Kylar didn’t have to confess to talking with Elene, botching it, and probably tightening security at the Jadwin estate all at once, so it wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Now, because he’d told Logan he was coming to the party, he had to come without a disguise, but because he’d told Elene he was coming, if she saw him, she’d report him immediately.

  That was why he’d come in a carriage, even though it would seem odd for a young noble alone not to ride. The carriage stopped at the gate and he handed his invitation to Birt. The man didn’t recognize him, of course. He just looked over the invitation carefully and waved him in. Kylar was glad to see the man. If he was still guarding the door, it meant that the Jadwins didn’t have enough guards to replace all the ones who’d worked earlier in the day and still guard the party. Maybe they hadn’t believed Elene. After all, how would a serving girl know about the plots of wetboys?

  Kylar took one step out of his carriage and froze. The carriage directly in front of his was open and a whip-thin man was stepping out of it. It was Hu Gibbet, all in chocolate leather and silks like a lord, long blond hair combed and gleaming, smiling with the disdain of a man superior to those around him. Kylar ducked back into his carriage. So it was true. He counted to ten and then, afraid that his driver would wonder what he was doing and maybe call attention to him, he stepped out of the carriage himself. He saw Hu disappearing inside. Kylar followed, producing the invitation again for the guards in front of the monstrous white oak door.

  “So have you gotten the old goat’s permission?” Prince Aleine asked.

  Logan looked at his friend on the other side of the long table heaped high with every delicacy the Jadwins thought would impress their guests. The table was near one of the walls of the vast great hall of white marble and white oak. Against the monochrome background, the nobles were a riot of color. Several of the realm’s most influential hecatonarchs, priests of the hundred gods, mingled in their myriad-colored robes. A band of minstrels in flamboyant cloaks and makeup fought for attention with lords and ladies high and low. Terah Graesin had shown up to the last big party two weeks ago in a scandalously low-cut red gown with a soaring hem. Terah was eighth in line for the throne, after the prince, the Gunder daughters, Logan, and her father Duke Graesin, and she adored the attention her position gave her. Her daring had touched off a new fashion, so this week all the gowns were either red or dared to expose more leg or breast or both than most prostitutes did. This was fine for Terah Graesin, who was somehow able to look glamorous instead of cheap. Most women weren’t so fortunate.

  “I spoke with the count this morn—” Logan said when he was suddenly silenced as breasts went past. No, not just breasts. The breasts. They were perfect. Not precipitously exposed, but perfectly shaped, these floated past him, held in a gossamer embrace of fabric rejoicing to cling to such nubile curves. Logan didn’t even see the woman’s face. Then, as she walked past, the sweet curves of swaying hips and a flash of lean, muscular calves.

  “And?” the prince asked. He looked at Logan expectantly, holding a plate with little samples of every
delicacy on the table. “What’d he say?”

  Logan face flamed. Too much time in the wilds. Except that that wasn’t really true. His eyes seemed unattached to his mind at all, controlled directly from elsewhere. He moved further down the line, trying to remember what he’d been saying, his plate still empty as he rejected a few delicacies fricasseed, flambéed, or frosted. “He said—ah, my favorite!” Logan started heaping strawberries on his plate, grabbed a bowl, and filled it with chocolate fondue.

  “Somehow I’m sure whatever Count Drake said, it wasn’t ‘ah, my favorite,’ ” Prince Aleine said, arching an eyebrow. “If he said no, you don’t have to be embarrassed. Everyone knows Count Drake is a little off. Their family mixes with commoners.”

  “He said yes.”

  “Like I said,” the prince said. “He’s a little off.” He smiled and Logan laughed. “When are you going to propose?”

  “Tomorrow. It’ll be my birthday. Then no one can stop me.”

  “Does Serah know?” the prince asked.

  “She suspects that I might do it soon, but she thinks that I need some time to consolidate my household and speak with my parents about it first.”

  “Good.”

  “What do you mean?” Logan asked.

  They had reached the end of the long table. The prince stepped close to him. “I wanted to give you a birthday present myself. I know you’ve got feelings for Serah and I respect that, but Logan, you’re a duke’s son. Tomorrow you’ll become one of the most powerful men in the realm, behind only the other dukes and my family. My father would love for you to marry Serah, and we both know why. If you marry her, you’ll set your family back from the throne for two generations.”

  “Your Highness,” Logan said, awkward.

  “No, it’s true. My father fears you, Logan. You are admired, respected, even held in awe here. That you’ve been gone half of every year hasn’t alienated you like my father hoped. Instead, it’s made you romantic. The hero off fighting for us on the borders, keeping the Khalidorans at bay. The king fears you, but I don’t, Logan. His spies look at you and they can’t believe that you are what you appear to be: a scholar, a fighter, and a loyal friend of the prince. They’re schemers, so they see schemes. I see a friend. There are those who would destroy your family, Logan, by any means, and they won’t tell me what they’re planning—but I won’t allow it. In fact, I’ll do all I can to stop it.” He looked down, grabbed a bit of fried plantain off a plate. “I’m here tonight to do a favor for my father. In return, he promised to give me whatever I ask. Whatever I ask.”

 
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