The night angel trilogy, p.3
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.3

           Brent Weeks
 

  The chamber was a tight rectangle, but it was deep. The ceiling was so high it disappeared in the darkness. It gave those questioned the feeling of being interrogated in hell. That the chairs, walls, and even the floor were carved with little gargoyles, dragons, and people, all screaming, did nothing to cool the effect.

  But Durzo walked in with an easy familiarity. The night held no terrors for him. The shadows welcomed his eyes, hid nothing from him. At least that much is left me.

  The Nine had their cowls on, except for Momma K, though most knew there was no hiding their identities from Durzo. Above them, the Shinga, Pon Dradin, sat in his throne. He was as still and silent as usual.

  “Ith the wife dead?” Corbin Fishill asked. He was a fashionable, handsome man with a reputation for cruelty, especially toward those children in the guilds he managed. The laughter his lisp might have provoked somehow dried up under the ever-present malice on his face.

  “Things aren’t as you expected,” Durzo said. He gave his report briefly. The king would soon die, and the men whom the Sa’kagé had feared would try to succeed him would not press their claim. That left the throne to Aleine Gunder, who was too weak to dare interfere with the Sa’kagé.

  “I would suggest,” Durzo said, “that we make the prince promote General Agon to lord general. Agon would keep the prince from consolidating his power, and if Khalidor makes any move—”

  The tiny former slave master interrupted, “While we acknowledge your… complaint against Khalidor, Master Blint, we aren’t to squander our political capital on some general.”

  “We don’t have to,” Momma K said. The Mistress of Pleasures was still beautiful, though it had been years since she was the city’s most celebrated courtesan. “We can get what we want by pretending someone else asked for it.” Everyone stopped and listened. “The prince was willing to buy off the general with a political marriage. So we tell him that Agon’s price is a political appointment instead. The general won’t ever know, and the prince isn’t likely to ask about it.”

  “And that gives us leverage to reopen the slavery issue,” the slave master said.

  “I’ll be damned if we turn slavers again,” another said. He was a big man gone to fat, with heavy jowls, small eyes, and scarred fists befitting the master of the Sa’kagé’s bashers.

  “That converthation can wait. Blint doethn’t need to be here for that,” Corbin Fishill said. He turned his heavy-lidded eyes to Blint. “You didn’t kill tonight.” He let the statement hang, unadorned.

  Durzo looked at him, refusing to take the provocation.

  “Can you thtill do it?”

  Words were useless with a man like Corbin Fishill. He spoke the language of meat. Durzo walked to him. Corbin didn’t flinch, didn’t turn aside as Durzo came toward the platform, though several of the Nine were clearly nervous. Under Fishill’s velvet trousers, Blint could see his muscles bunch.

  Corbin kicked at Durzo’s face, but Durzo had already moved. He slammed a needle deep into Corbin’s calf and stepped back.

  A bell rang and a moment later, Bernerd and Lefty burst into the room. Blint crossed his arms and made no move to defend himself.

  Blint was tall, but his mass was all lean muscle and sinew. Lefty charged like a warhorse. Durzo merely extended both hands, unclenched, but when Lefty crashed into him, the impossible happened. Instead of crushing the smaller man, Lefty’s sprint ended instantly.

  His face stopped first, his nose popping against Durzo’s open hand. The rest of him continued forward. His body lifted parallel to the ground, then crashed to the stone floor.

  “Thtop!” Corbin Fishill shouted.

  Bernerd skidded to a halt in front of Durzo and then knelt by his brother. Lefty was moaning, his bleeding nose filling the mouth of a rat carved into the rock floor.

  Corbin pulled the needle out of his calf with a grimace. “What ith thith, Blint?”

  “You want to know if I can still kill?” Durzo put a small vial in front of the basher. “If that needle was poisoned, this is the antidote. But if the needle wasn’t poisoned, the antidote will kill you. Drink it or don’t.”

  “Drink it, Corbin,” Pon Dradin said. It was the first time the Shinga had spoken since Blint entered. “You know, Blint, you’d be a better wetboy if you didn’t know you were the best. You are—but you still take your orders from me. The next time you touch one of my Nine, there will be consequences. Now get the hell out.”

  The tunnel felt wrong. Azoth had been in other tunnels before, and if he wasn’t exactly comfortable with moving through the cloying dark by touch, he could still do it. This tunnel had started out like any other: rough cut, winding, and of course dark. But as it plunged deeper into the earth, the walls got straighter, the floor smoother. This tunnel was important.

  But that was different, not wrong. What was wrong was one step in front of Azoth. He squatted on his heels, resting, thinking. He didn’t sit. You only sat when you knew there was nothing you’d have to run away from.

  He couldn’t smell anything different, though the air was as heavy and thick as gruel down here. If he squinted, he thought could see something, but he was pretty sure that was just from squeezing his eyes. He extended his hand again. Was the air cooler just there?

  Then he was sure he felt the air shift. Sudden fear arced through Azoth. Blint had passed through here twenty minutes ago. He hadn’t carried a torch. Azoth hadn’t thought about it then. Now he remembered the stories.

  A little puff of sour air lapped at his cheek. Azoth almost ran, but he didn’t know which way was safe to run. He had no way to defend himself. The Fist kept all the weapons. Another puff touched his other cheek. It smells. Like garlic?

  “There are secrets in this world, kid,” a voice said. “Secrets like magical alarms and the identities of the Nine. If you take another step, you’ll find one of those secrets. Then two nice bashers with orders to kill intruders will find you.”

  “Master Blint?” Azoth searched the darkness.

  “Next time you follow a man, don’t be so furtive. It makes you conspicuous.”

  Whatever that meant, it didn’t sound good. “Master Blint?”

  He heard laughter up the tunnel, moving away.

  Azoth jumped to his feet, feeling his hope slip away with the fading laughter. He ran up the tunnel in the dark. “Wait!”

  There was no response. Azoth ran faster. A stone grabbed his foot and he fell roughly, skinning his knees and hands on the stone floor. “Master Blint, wait! I need to apprentice with you. Master Blint, please!”

  The voice spoke just over him, though when he looked, Azoth could see nothing. “I don’t take apprentices. Go home, kid.”

  “But I’m different! I’ll do anything. I’ve got money!”

  But there was no response. Blint was gone.

  The silence ached, throbbed in time with the cuts on Azoth’s knees and palms. But there was no help for it. He wanted to cry, but crying was for babies.

  Azoth walked back to Black Dragon territory as the sky lightened. Parts of the Warrens were shaking off their drunken slumber. Bakers were up, and smiths’ apprentices were starting forge fires, but the guild rats, the whores, the bashers, and the sneak thieves had gone to sleep, and the cutpurses, cons, sharps, and rest of those who worked the daylight were still asleep.

  Usually, the smells of the Warrens were comfortable. There was the permeating smell of the cattle yards over the more immediate smells of human waste glooping through wide gutters in every street to further foul the Plith River, the rotting vegetation from the shallows and backwaters of the slow river, the less sour smell of the ocean when a lucky breeze blew, the stench of the sleeping never-washed beggars who might attack a guild rat for no reason other than their rage at the world. For the first time to Azoth, rather than home, the smells denoted filth. Rejection and despair were the vapors rising from every moldering ruin and shit pile in the Warrens.

  The abandoned mill here, once used for hulling ri
ce, wasn’t just an empty building the guild could sleep in. It was a sign. Mills on the west shore would be looted by those so desperate they’d break past whatever bashers the mill owners hired. It was all garbage and rejection, and Azoth was part of it.

  When he got to the guild home, Azoth nodded to the lookout and slipped inside with no attempt at stealth. The guild was used to children getting up to piss in the night, so no one would think he’d been out. If he tried to sneak in, he’d just draw attention to himself.

  Maybe that was what furtive meant.

  Lying down in his usual spot next to the window, he slipped between Doll Girl and Jarl. It got cold here, but the floor was flat and there weren’t many splinters. He nudged his friend. “Jay-Oh, you know what furtive means?”

  But Jarl rolled away, grunting. Azoth poked him again, but Jarl wouldn’t move. Long night, I guess.

  Like all the guild rats, Azoth, Jarl, and Doll Girl slept close to each other for warmth. Usually Doll Girl got the middle because she was small and got cold so easy, but tonight Jarl and Doll Girl weren’t lying close to each other.

  Doll Girl scooted close and wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tightly, and Azoth was glad for her warmth. A worry gnawed at the back of his mind like a rat, but he was too tired. He slept.

  5

  The nightmare started when Azoth woke.

  “Good morning,” Rat said. “How’s my favorite little guttershite?” The glee on Rat’s face told Azoth that something was seriously wrong. Roth and Harelip stood on either side of Rat, almost bursting with excitement.

  Doll Girl was gone. Jarl was gone. Ja’laliel was nowhere to be seen. Blinking against the sunlight streaming through the guild home’s torn roof, Azoth stood and tried to orient himself. The rest of the guild was gone, either working, scavenging, or just deciding that now would be a good time to be outside. So they’d seen Rat come in.

  Roth stood by the back door, and Harelip stood behind Rat in case Azoth ran for the front door or a window.

  “Where were you last night?” Rat asked.

  “I had to piss.”

  “Long piss. You missed the fun.” When Rat spoke like that, totally flat, no affect in his voice, Azoth felt a fear too deep to shiver out. Azoth knew violence. He’d seen sailors murdered, had seen prostitutes with fresh scars, had a friend die from a vendor’s beating. Cruelty walked the Warrens holding hands with poverty and rage. But the dead look in Rat’s eyes marked him as more of a freak than Harelip. Harelip had been born without part of his lip. Rat had been born without a conscience.

  “What did you do?” Azoth asked.

  “Roth?” Rat lifted his chin at the big.

  Roth opened the door, said, “Good boy,” as if speaking to a dog, and grabbed something. He hauled it inside, and Azoth saw that it was Jarl. Jarl’s lips were swollen, both eyes black and so big he could barely see through the slits. He was missing teeth and he had crusted blood on his face from where his hair had been pulled so hard his scalp bled.

  He was wearing a dress.

  Azoth felt hot and cold tingles on his skin, a rush of blood to his face. He couldn’t show Rat weakness. He couldn’t move. He turned so he wouldn’t throw up.

  Behind him, Jarl let out a little whimper. “Azo, please. Azo, don’t turn away from me. I didn’t want—”

  Rat struck him across the face. Jarl fell to the ground and didn’t move.

  “Jarl’s mine now,” Rat said. “He thinks he’ll fight every night, and he will. For a while.” Rat smiled. “But I’ll break him. Time’s on my side.”

  “I’ll kill you. I swear it,” Azoth said.

  “Oh, are you Master Blint’s apprentice now?” Rat smiled as Azoth shot Jarl a look, feeling betrayed. Jarl turned his face to the floor, his shoulders shaking as he cried silently. “Jarl told us all about it, sometime between Roth and Davi, I think. But I’m confused. If Master Blint apprenticed you, why are you here, Azo? You come back to kill me?”

  Jarl’s tears stilled and he turned, grasping at straws.

  There was nothing to say. “He wouldn’t take me,” Azoth admitted. Jarl slumped.

  “Everyone knows he doesn’t take apprentices, stupid,” Rat said. “So here’s the deal, Azo. I don’t know what you’ve done for him, but Ja’laliel’s ordered me not to touch you, and I won’t. But sooner or later, this’ll be my guild.”

  “Sooner, I think,” Roth said. He wiggled his eyebrows at Azoth.

  “I have big plans for Black Dragon, Azo, and I won’t let you get in my way,” Rat said.

  “What do you want from me?” Azoth’s voice came out thin and reedy.

  “I want you to be a hero. I want everyone who doesn’t dare stand up to me themselves to look at you and start to hope. And then I will destroy everything you’ve done. I will destroy everything you love. I will destroy you so completely that no one will ever defy me again. So do your best, do your worst, do nothing at all. I win no matter what. I always do.”

  Azoth didn’t pay dues the next day. He hoped Rat would hit him. Just once, and he’d be off the pedestal, he’d just be another guild rat. But Rat didn’t hit him. He’d raged and swore, his eyes smiling, and told Azoth to bring double next time.

  Of course, he brought nothing. He merely extended an empty hand, as if already beaten. It didn’t matter. Rat raged, accused him of defying him, and didn’t lay a hand on him. And so it was, every dues day. Gradually, Azoth went back to work and started accumulating coppers to put in Jarl’s pack. The days were awful: Rat didn’t let Jarl speak to Azoth, and after a while, Azoth didn’t think Jarl even wanted to speak to him. The Jarl he knew disappeared by slow degrees. It didn’t even help when they stopped making him wear the dress.

  The nights were worse. Rat took Jarl every night while the rest of the guild pretended not to hear. Azoth and Doll Girl huddled together and in the quiet punctuated by low weeping afterward, Azoth lay on his back for long hours, plotting elaborate revenge that he knew he’d never carry out.

  He became reckless, cursing Rat to his face, questioning every order the boy gave and championing anyone Rat beat. Rat swore back, but always with that little smile in his eyes. The littles and the losers in the guild started deferring to Azoth and looking at him with worshipful eyes.

  Azoth could feel the guild reaching a critical mass the day two bigs brought him lunch and sat with him on the porch. It was a revelation. He’d never believed that any of the bigs would follow him. Why would they? He was nothing. And then he saw his mistake. He’d never made plans for what to do when bigs joined him. Across the yard, Ja’laliel sat, miserable, coughing blood and looking hopeless.

  I’m so stupid. Rat had been waiting for this. He’d arranged for Azoth to be a hero. He’d even told him. This wasn’t going to be a coup. It was going to be a purge.

  “Father, please, don’t go.” Logan Gyre held his father’s destrier, ignoring the predawn chill and holding back tears.

  “No, leave it,” Duke Gyre told Wendel North, his steward, who was directing servants with chests full of the duke’s clothing. “But I want a thousand wool cloaks sent within a week. Use our funds and don’t ask for repayment. I don’t want to give the king an excuse to say no.” He clasped gauntleted hands behind his back. “I don’t know what shape the garrison’s stables are in, but I’d like to have word from Havermere of how many horses they can send before winter.”

  “Already done, milord.”

  On every side, servants were coming and going, loading the wagons that would travel north with provisions and supplies. A hundred Gyre knights made their own last-minute preparations, checking their saddles, horses, and weapons. Servants who would be leaving their families said hurried goodbyes.

  Duke Gyre turned to Logan, and just seeing his father in his mail brought tears of pride and fear to Logan’s eyes.

  “Son, you’re twelve years old.”

  “I can fight. Even Master Vorden admits that I handle a sword almost as well as the soldiers.”

/>   “Logan, it isn’t because I don’t believe in your abilities that I’m making you stay. It’s because I do. The fact is, your mother needs you here more than I need you in the mountains.”

  “But I want to go with you.”

  “And I don’t want to leave at all. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we want.”

  “Jasin said Niner is trying to embarrass you. He said it’s an insult for a duke to be given such a small command.” He didn’t mention the other things Jasin had said. Logan didn’t consider himself quick-tempered, but in the three months since King Davin had died and Aleine Gunder had assumed the title Aleine IX—known condescendingly as Niner—Logan had been in half a dozen fights.

  “And what do you think, son?”

  “I don’t think you’re afraid of anyone.”

  “So Jasin said I was afraid, did he? Is that where you got the bruises on your knuckles?”

  Logan grinned suddenly. He was as tall as his father, and if he didn’t have Regnus Gyre’s bulk yet, their guards master Ren Vorden said it was only a matter of time. When Logan fought other boys, he didn’t lose.

  “Son, make no mistake. Commanding the garrison at Screaming Winds is a slight, but it’s better than exile or death. If I stay, the king will give me one or the other eventually. Each summer, you’ll come train with my men, but I need you here, too. For half the year you’ll be my eyes and ears in Cenaria. Your mother—” he broke off and looked past Logan.

  “Thinks your father is a fool,” Catrinna Gyre said, coming up behind them suddenly. She had been born to another ducal family, the Graesins, and she had their green eyes, petite features, and temper. Despite the early hour, she was dressed in a beautiful green silk dress edged with ermine, her hair brushed glossy. “Regnus, if you get on that horse, I never want to see you come back.”

  “Catrinna, we aren’t having this discussion again.”

 
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