The night angel trilogy, p.32
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.32

           Brent Weeks

  “Um,” Kylar said. Then Viridiana bent over to pick up the water buckets again.

  She must have had six feet of cleavage, because Kylar was totally lost in it. His mouth opened, but no words came out. It was with an unseemly amount of effort that he pulled his eyes up. Viridiana was watching him, and even as his face got hot, he saw that she was anything but displeased. With a deft twist, she released her tightly bound hair, and it cascaded around her face in long curls. “Are you ready for your bath, my lord?”

  “No! I mean—I mean—”

  “You want to bathe after,” she said, walking forward. She reached behind her back and started opening buttons.

  After? Kylar stepped back, but his resistance was crumbling. Why not? What the hell have I been waiting for? For Elene? Viridiana filled his vision, full lips, gorgeous hair that he could practically feel already in his fingertips, on his chest. Those breasts. Those hips. And she wanted him. It would be sex, just sex, not lovemaking. Not some grand expression of romance and commitment. Just passion. Simpler. More like Momma K’s version of things. Less like Count Drake’s version. But damn. Her body was more persuasive than a room full of scholars.

  His calves hit his bed and he almost fell. “I, I don’t really feel very comf—”

  Her hand came up to his chest, and then she slammed it into him. He was falling back as her other hand came up from behind her dress in a glimmering metallic arc.

  By the time his back hit the bed, she was straddling him, her knees pinning his arms to his sides, one hand grabbing his hair, the other pressing the knife to his neck.

  “Comfortable?” she asked, finishing his sentence. She wasn’t kidding with the knife; it was pressed against the side of his neck just at the point where a little pressure would break the skin, and it was poised over an artery. As his lungs filled with gasps of air, he had to try not to move his neck.

  “Ah, shit,” he said. “You’re Hu Gibbet’s apprentice, Vi. Viridiana, Vi, how’d I miss it?”

  She smiled joylessly. “Who’re you working for? The prince was my deader.”

  “Seriously. How embarrassing. To be taken in by another wetboy. Hmm. Or are you a wetgirl?”

  “Not the way you’re hoping.” She ground her hips against him and he blushed.

  She pinched his cheek. “You aren’t too ugly, you know. It’ll be a shame to kill you.”

  “The shame’s all mine, I assure you.”

  “Don’t feel bad,” she said. “Part of my Talent is a glamour. It’s to your credit you weren’t actually drooling.”

  “You mean those are an illus—”

  “Move your hands and die,” she said. “The body’s real, thanks.”

  “I should say thank you, but this knife at my throat is muting my appreciation some.”

  “If you’re trying to charm your way out of this, you need practice. Who’re you working for?”

  “You’re working for the king,” Kylar said. “Aren’t you?”

  “Backbone,” she said. “I like that.”

  “Wetting myself would be awfully messy for both of us,” Kylar said. She chuckled and he smiled as charmingly as he could. “Was that better?”

  “Better. I’ll give you one for effort. I took this job from the king. He was a little peeved that you killed his son. So I take his money, but I take my orders from Roth. Last chance now,” she pressed the knife a little further into his skin and he had to lean his head as far to the side as he could to keep it from cutting him.

  “Maybe you can appreciate my dilemma,” Kylar said, straining his neck. “If I don’t answer, you’ll kill me painfully but it will take a while. If I do answer, you’ll kill me quickly but soon.”

  “Or you can try to string this out for as long as you can and hope someone saves you. You’re smart. I suppose you’d have to be. We’ve all been curious why Blint would choose an apprentice without the Talent. I guess smart wins it.”

  “You all? You’ve been taking bets on me? Wait, they say I don’t have the Talent?”

  “Like they say, there are no secrets worth knowing in the Sa’kagé,” Vi said. “So you aren’t going to tell me who you were working for, are you? Probably just another one sent by Roth. When he wants a job done, he makes sure it gets done. There’s even a rumor he got Lady Jadwin to do it, but I know a wetboy’s work when I see it.”

  “You’re kind of chatty, aren’t you?” Kylar said.

  If he had a hand free, he would have slapped himself. Note: when attempting to buy time, do not criticize the prolixity of your captor.

  Her beautiful face turned ugly for half a second, and Kylar saw the Hu Gibbet in her. Then she smiled, but Hu didn’t leave her eyes. “In the next life,” she said. “Work on that charm.”

  The next feeling would be the glide of a knife, the flesh of his neck parting, warmth. Kylar’s muscles bunched with need and desperation.

  There was a knock on the door. “Kylar?” the count said. Vi flinched and turned her head.

  Kylar threw his head to the side and bucked, trying to throw her off. Or that’s what he told his body to do. Instead, he felt energy pouring through him like lightning on a leash. A brief euphoria, power swelling through him, well-being as if he’d been sick his entire life and now felt health for the first time. It was the Talent that Durzo had always said he had, and now it was his.

  Vi flew into the air, but she held onto Kylar’s hair and one of her legs got tangled with one of his. So instead of flying off him, she flew up and then crashed back down on top him. She tried to slash him, but both of his hands were up now, and he caught both of her arms and rolled.

  They fell off the bed and he landed on her. She grunted and raised a knee between his legs. It was like the sun exploding in his pants. He groaned and it was all he could do not to let go of her hands as she rolled on top of him.

  “Kylar?” the count shouted through the door. “Do you have a lady in there?”

  I wouldn’t call her a lady. Kylar’s stones hurt so bad, he could barely move, much less fight. “Help!”

  “You’re pathetic,” she said.

  He could only grunt.

  She launched herself off of him. He struggled to his feet as the door burst open, but he was too slow. She was already throwing her knife at Count Drake.

  The count threw himself to the side, and the knife sailed past him harmlessly. Instantly, he had a throwing knife in his own hand, but he hesitated. Vi saw his hand raised and leaped for the window.

  Kylar grabbed the knife from the count’s hand and threw it as Vi disappeared through the window. He thought he saw it sink into her shoulder. He grabbed the sword that was secreted under his bed, but when he looked out the window, she was gone.

  The count looked shaken. He was holding a red arrow in his other hand. “I hesitated,” he said. From anyone else, it would have been a concession of defeat, but Count Drake sounded victorious. “After all these years, I wondered, but it’s true. I really have changed. Thank you, God.”

  Kylar looked at him strangely. “What are you talking about?”

  “Kylar, we have to talk.”


  I’ll be dead in a day or two, so please pay attention, Jarl,” Momma K said.

  Jarl hesitated for a moment, and then sipped the ootai she’d poured him.

  Damn, but the boy can be cold. But then, that was why she was having this talk with him, rather than with anyone else. “Tomorrow or the next day, Kylar or Durzo will come here and kill me,” she said. “Because I sent Kylar to kill a man he thought was Hu Gibbet, but actually was Durzo, disguised as Hu. Whichever one lived through their fight now knows that I lied, and that I betrayed them both. I know that you were once friends with Kylar, Jarl—”

  “I still am.”

  “Fine. I wasn’t going to ask you to avenge me. I’m ready for justice. Life from here is just a series of disappointments anyway.” Was that pity in the boy’s eyes? She thought it was, but she didn’t care. He’d understand if he liv
ed to be this old.

  “What can I do to help you, Momma K?”

  “I don’t want you to help me. Things are happening fast, Jarl. Maybe too fast. Roth’s making a play at becoming Shinga. I suspect we’ll be hearing the sad news that Pon Dradin is dead any time now.”

  “You’re not going to warn him? You’re just going to let Roth kill him?”

  “Two reasons, Jarl. Knowing either of them could cost you your life. Are you ready to be a player on this stage?”

  He scowled, actually thought about it, and then nodded.

  “First, I’m going to let Pon Dradin die because I’ve been compromised. Roth blackmailed me into betraying Durzo and Kylar. I won’t share how. I’ve been humiliated enough. All that matters is that Roth owns me. I can’t oppose him in any way that he might detect or suspect or it will cost me something I value more than my life. So I’m going to die. I want you to replace me.”

  “You want me to take your seat on the Nine?”

  She smiled into her ootai. “I was never just the Mistress of Pleasures, Jarl. I’ve been the Shinga for nineteen years.” She had some satisfaction in the way her unflappable protégé’s eyes widened. He sank back in his chair.

  “Gods,” he said. “That explains a few things.”

  She laughed, and for what felt like the first time in years, she really felt like laughing. If exposing your throat always felt like this, she thought she understood for the first time why Durzo had loved the danger in his work. It made you appreciate being alive, standing this close to death.

  “Tell me how it works,” he said.

  It was what she would have said in his place. She would have accepted what the Shinga had said about her death and immediately started looking for how it would affect her, rather than expressing any sorrow that the Shinga would be dead. Or perhaps, in Jarl’s place, she would have given some moue of sorrow that her mistress would die, but it would have been a lie. Jarl gave no such pretense, and maybe she could respect him for that. He’d learned her lessons well. But it still hurt.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. He sounded like he really meant it. Maybe he did. Or maybe he was just sorry that she was sinking into such softness that at the approach of her death she who had taught him how to manipulate his own pities and loves should want him to do that toward her. She couldn’t tell. Jarl was what she had made him to be. It was worse than looking in a mirror.

  “Everyone in the Sa’kagé knows who their boss is. The smarter ones know who their representative on the Nine is. Of course, the Shinga’s identity is an open secret, which means not a secret at all. Put that together, and if you pool a few thieves and whores, you can figure out the entire power structure of the Sa’kagé. That’s been fine for the last fourteen years, because things have been so stable.”

  “Was that stability because of your leadership, or just luck?” Jarl asked.

  “My leadership,” she said honestly. “I had the last king killed and put Aleine on the throne, so we haven’t had pressure from above, and I’ve handled all the pressures from within. But the normal state of any Sa’kagé is upheaval, Jarl. Thieves and murderers and cutpurses and whores don’t tend to stay united. Assassinations are common. During your life it’s been far more peaceful than ever before.

  “The first five years I was Shinga, we lost eight ‘Shingas.’ Six were assassinations from outside. Two I had to have killed myself because they tried to take my power. Only two seats on the Nine remained unchanged. For the last fourteen years, Pon Dradin has been able to indulge his vices freely so long as he attended the meetings and kept his mouth shut and didn’t step out of line. I never expected him to last so long.”

  “So only the Nine know who’s really the Shinga?”

  “And the wetboys, but they take a magically binding oath of service. The system does have its drawbacks. Pon is nearly as rich as I am just from kickbacks and bribes, and every new member of the Nine finds out that he’s been sucking the wrong toes for however long it took to climb the ranks. It irritates some of them mightily, but it also keeps some people off the Nine who don’t belong there. Best of all, it’s kept me alive and in power.”

  “What does Roth mean to this?”

  “Roth has just joined the Nine. He isn’t in on the secret. That’s why Pon will die sometime today or tomorrow. Roth thinks killing him will make him Shinga. But that actually exposes the greatest flaw in all my secrecy: if only eight people know who the real Shinga is, Roth only has to convince those eight that he is the Shinga now.”

  “If the rest of the Nine are so afraid of him, how do I take his power?” Jarl asked.

  Momma K smiled. “Exactly that. You take it. I won’t leave you defenseless, of course.” She reached into her desk and pulled out a small book. “My spies. I hope I don’t need to tell you that the longer it is before you burn this book, the less your life is worth.”

  He took the book. “I’ll memorize it immediately.”

  She leaned back in her chair. “He’s in a strong position, Jarl. People are terrified of him.”

  “So that’s everything?” Jarl asked.

  “You’ll forgive me if I don’t tell you where all my riches are stored. An old woman has to protect herself, just in case I live through this. Besides, if I die, you’ll have plenty of time to find it all.”

  “Can I ask your advice?” he asked. She nodded. “I followed the men you asked about,” Jarl said.

  Momma K nodded. She didn’t prod Jarl with questions. They’d worked together for long enough that she knew he would tell her everything.

  “They were definitely wytches. They attempted an ambush on Regnus Gyre with a small retinue north of the city. Most of his men were wiped out, and all of them would have been except that he had a mage with him.”

  Momma K raised an eyebrow.

  “I was viewing them from a distance, but Regnus and the mage quarreled afterward and rode separate directions. My guess was that Lord Gyre didn’t know his man was a mage.”

  “This mage defeated three wytches?”

  “Everything spectacular came from the wytches, but when the smoke cleared—and I mean that literally—he was the only one standing. The man fought with his wits. He stalled two of the wytches until Lord Gyre’s soldiers could cut them down. He made a horse trample the third. I don’t understand magic, so maybe there was more I didn’t see, but that was what it looked like.”

  “Go on.”

  “Lord Gyre had only one man left after he and the mage quarreled. They took a circuitous route through the city and arrived at his manse after midnight. You’ve heard what was there?”

  “Twenty-eight dead. Hu Gibbet was given free rein.”

  “Roth’s orders?” Jarl asked.

  She nodded. “Unfortunately, the wetboys’ oath does have a number of loop holes.”

  “It was horrific. Anyway, Lord Gyre persuaded the men who came to arrest him to join him instead, and they are now hiding at a cousin’s house, trying to quietly gather as much support as they can. The mage is Sethi, first name Solon. I couldn’t find anything else yet. As of half an hour ago, he was staying at the White Crane.”

  “You never disappoint, Jarl.”

  He was about to ask a question when there was a knock on the door. A maid came in and handed a slip of paper to Momma K. She handed it to Jarl. “The cipher’s in the front of your book.”

  In a minute, he had it decoded. “Pon Dradin’s dead.” Jarl looked up at her. “What do I do now?”

  “That, my apprentice,” she said. “Is your problem.”

  “Kylar, I want to talk about your future.”

  This should be brief.

  Count Drake pulled his pince nez from his vest pocket and didn’t put them on. He just waved them as he spoke. “I’ve got a proposal for you, Kylar. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and Kylar, you’re not cut out to be a wetboy. No, listen to me, I want to give you a way out, son. Kylar, I want you to marry Ilena.”

br />   “I know it seems abrupt, but I want you to think about it.”

  “Sir, she’s only fifteen.”

  “Oh, I don’t mean now. What I propose is that, well, Kylar, that you get betrothed. Ilena’s been infatuated with you for years, and I propose that we give it a couple of years to see if anything comes of it, while you’re… well, while you’re learning my business.”

  “I’m not sure I understand, sir. In fact, I’m sure I don’t understand.”

  The count slapped his pince nez against his hand. “Kylar, I want you to—I want to give you the chance to leave the life you’re in. Learn my business and take it over for yourself someday. I’ve spoken with the queen, and with her permission, I’ve found out that we could transfer my title to you. You’d be a count, Kylar. It’s nothing special, I know, but it would make you legitimate. You could be what you’ve been pretending all these years.”

  Kylar’s mouth dropped open. “Transfer your title? What do you mean, transfer it?”

  “Oh, Kylar, the title hasn’t done me any good anyway. Bah! I don’t have any sons to pass it on to anyway. You need it and I don’t. Anyway, I want to do this, even if the whole betrothal with Ilena doesn’t appeal to you. This would give you time, Kylar. Time to figure out what you want to do with your life. It cuts you free. Free of them.”

  Free. Out of the Sa’kagé. It was the most noble gesture Kylar had ever heard of—and after last night, it was too late.

  Kylar looked at the floor and nodded. “It won’t work, sir. I’m sorry. Believe me, I’m… You’ve been more than kind to me, far kinder than I deserve. But I don’t think that”—he nodded toward the picnic Logan and Serah were sharing—“is for me.”

  “I know you’re planning on leaving, Kylar.”

  That was the count. Right to it. “Yessir,” Kylar said.


  “I meant to be gone already.”

  “Then maybe the God led me to speak with you now. Durzo told you not to listen to my preaching, I suppose?” Count Drake was looking out the window, but his voice was aggrieved.

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