The night angel trilogy, p.39
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.39

           Brent Weeks
 

  Logan, their prince.

  Suddenly, it became so simple. Duty and desire became one for the first time in years. “Captain Arturian,” Agon barked in his command voice, so that every royal guard heard him. “Captain! What’s your duty if the king dies?”

  The squat man blinked. “Sir! My duty would be to protect the new king. The prince.”

  “Long live the king,” Agon said.

  The king was staring at him, confused. His eyes widened as Agon’s sword swung back.

  Aleine was halfway through a curse when Agon’s sword struck his head off.

  King Aleine Gunder IX’s corpse hit the table and knocked over chairs before coming to rest on the floor.

  Before any of the guards could attack him, Agon raised his sword over his head with both hands.

  “I’ll answer for this, I swear. Kill me if you must, but now your duty is to the prince. Save him!”

  For a second, none of them moved. The rest of the panic in the hall seemed far away. The ladies screaming, men shouting, servants armed only with meat knives trying to defend their retching lords, shouts of “Treachery!” and “Murder!” ringing in the air.

  Then Captain Arturian shouted, “The king is dead; long live the king! To the prince! To King Gyre!”

  Together, Agon, the king’s guards, and a dozen knife-wielding nobles ran from the Great Hall.

  Before Kylar got within sight of West Kingsbridge, he slowed to a walk. He willed himself to be a shadow, and looked at himself. He looked like a raggedly cut piece of darkness. That was good; Durzo had told him that the ragged edges obscured the humanness of his figure and made a wetboy harder to recognize. Kylar thought that his Talent would also be muffling his steps—he wanted it to—but he had no idea if it was. He couldn’t afford to find out the hard way.

  He rounded the corner and saw the guards. West Kingsbridge was controlled with a large gate like the castle’s own gates. Hand-thick oak reinforced with iron, twenty feet high and spiked along the top, with a smaller gate inset. The big, mailed guards looked nervous. One was fidgeting, awkwardly turning his whole head to look to the sides. The other was more calm, pointedly staring every direction except down to the river. Kylar came closer. He recognized the men despite their helmets, and not only because the twins had matching lightning bolt tattoos on their faces. They were bashers, and good ones: Lefty—he was the one with the crooked nose—and Bernerd.

  Kylar looked where Bernerd wasn’t looking. In the darkness, an unwieldy barge squatted on the river like a beached sea cow. Its doors were open, but no one held any lights. But darkness no longer affected Kylar’s eyes. If he’d had more time, he would have marveled about that—as night fell, if anything his vision improved as the shadows became more uniform.

  Through the open doors of the barge, he saw rank upon rank of soldiers. Each wore Cenarian livery, but with a red kerchief tied around one arm. Common soldiers with kerchiefs on their left, officers with them on their right.

  The soldiers weren’t Cenarian. Under their helmets, secreted in the shadows of the night, Kylar saw the stark, cold features of northmen: hair as black as a raven’s wing and eyes as blue as frozen lakes. They were big, raw-boned men, weathered and hardened from exposure to the elements and battle. So they weren’t just Khalidorans. They were Khalidoran highlanders, the Godking’s fiercest, most elite troops. All of them.

  In daylight, that would be obvious to any Cenarian in the castle. But at night, it would take time for the Cenarian soldiers to realize that they were being attacked by a foreign enemy. The Cenarian soldiers would figure out that the armbands were what the Khalidorans were using to identify each other, but it would take time. Each new group that encountered the Khalidorans would have to learn it for themselves.

  Kylar saw another barge pulling up the river, only a hundred paces away. Khalidoran highlanders tended to be broader and deeper of chest than most Khalidorans, and while a few free tribes still held out in the mountains, those who had been absorbed into the empire had become its most feared fighters.

  Four or five hundred highlanders. Kylar couldn’t tell, but he guessed that the other barge was full of the elite soldiers too. If so, Khalidor meant to take the castle tonight. The rest of the country would crumple like a body deprived of its head.

  Several wytches were talking as they climbed the switchbacks from the water up to the bridge. They were scanning the sky over the castle, apparently looking for some sign.

  Indecision held Kylar frozen. He had either to get inside to save Logan—surely Roth would have either Hu or Durzo kill all the dukes, especially after all of Logan’s fighting on the Khalidoran border. Just as surely, the murder would happen shortly, if it hadn’t already. Kylar could go inside and try to stop the hit, or could try to oppose the Khalidorans out here.

  By myself? Madness.

  But just watching the barge pull closer to the bridge made him furious. He knew he should feel no loyalty to Cenaria, but he was loyal to Logan and Count Drake. If this army got into the castle, it would be a massacre.

  So he needed to fight inside and outside. Great.

  Kylar looked at the Sa’kagé impostors manning the bridge. Bashers wouldn’t know or care about the bridge’s defenses, much less have the discipline to dismantle them. All they had done was turn the crank that lifted the massive iron river gate.

  Then, in the sky above the castle, Kylar saw a long arc of blue-green flame. He started walking.

  The wytches looked pleased. They conferred with an officer, who started barking orders. One of the Khalidorans raised a torch and waved it twice. Lefty and Bernerd took torches of their own, walked to either side of the bridge, and waved twice.

  All clear. Right.

  Kylar drew Retribution. As it hissed out of the scabbard, the bashers turned. Lefty blinked and leaned forward. With the torches in their hands blotting out their night vision, all they saw was a thin strip of dark metal bobbing and floating through the air. Then it moved with terrible speed.

  In a moment, both men were dead. Kylar replaced the torch he’d plucked from Bernerd’s hand and checked the men on the barges. They had already formed up and were walking, single-file, up the narrow switchbacks that led to the bridge.

  Grabbing the keys off Bernerd’s body, Kylar opened the gate and slipped through the inset door. The crank and the release for the river gate were there. The gate itself was simply a massive, counterweighted portcullis that could drop into the water. In this case, onto a ship.

  Kylar threw the release. The river gate dropped two feet—and didn’t crunch. It clanged. Kylar looked over the side of the bridge. The river gate had slammed down onto magical stops that glowed and sparked in the darkness. Wytches were on the deck of the first barge, shouting.

  He ran into the guard station. There was a fire pit with a cauldron full of stew, cooking paraphernalia, a helmet, several cloaks, chests for the men’s personal belongings, and a set of knucklebones on the low table. There was a closet full of old broad carpets stuffed in fat buckets.

  Kylar rushed out of the guard station. Surely the king wouldn’t have left his military bridge with only that defense. The pilings of the bridge were wood sheathed in iron—impervious to fire. The sheathed wood still got wet, but couldn’t breathe and release the water it absorbed, so every beam rotted within years and had to be replaced.

  Why would the king be so particular about fire?

  And then Kylar saw why. Along either side of the bridge were long wooden beams set on pivots. On the end of each beam was a huge clay globe as wide as Kylar was tall. At least part of the clay was molded over iron because a mooring rope was tied to an iron loop at the top of the globe. Several small handles also protruded from the sides.

  Pulling on one handle, Kylar found a bracket. As he slid it out, a wash of oil fumes swept over his face.

  It took him several precious seconds of staring at the entire contraption to understand. The arms would swing out over the side of the bridge, holding t
he globes full of oil, then drop them onto any boat passing underneath—and hopefully set it on fire in spectacular fashion.

  He rushed back to the gate and grabbed the torches the guards had been carrying. He closed and locked the gate quickly. The advance party of Khalidorans were almost to the bridge.

  What am I doing?

  The first barge was just starting under the bridge. There was no time. Kylar kicked a safety latch holding the beam in place and pushed on it. It didn’t move. He stumbled and almost tripped over taut ropes at his feet, cursed, and flung himself against the beam again. Hadn’t the damned soldiers ever greased this thing?

  Finally it occurred to him to use his Talent. He felt power flowing through him—he could lift a wagon on his back. He pressed against the beam and could feel himself shimmering, the ragged black covering and uncovering his skin as he redirected his Talent.

  If I’m lucky, they won’t even know I’m here until it’s too late.

  A ball of crackling green wytchfire flew over the globe, missing it by a yard. Yells sounded from below. Whether the wytches saw Kylar or just his torches, they weren’t pleased.

  Kylar pushed against the beam, but with nothing to brace his feet against, he just slid across the planks. The beam barely moved.

  A ball of wytchfire caromed off the globe and ricocheted up into the sky. Kylar ignored it. Something white was blooming above the deck of the barge—now directly under him. A small creature took shape in front of a red-haired wytch and started flying up like a hummingbird. The wytch chanted, his vir-marks thick with power, directing the creature.

  Kylar heaved and the ropes at his feet tripped him hard.

  The homunculus took shape as it zoomed toward Kylar. It was small, barely a foot tall, and pasty pale. It wore the likeness of the red-haired wytch like ill-fitting clothes. It landed on the globe gently and then rammed steely claws into the iron as if it were butter. It turned to Kylar and hissed, baring its fangs.

  Kylar scuttled back and almost fell off the edge of the bridge.

  A concussion thudded below. The air in front of the red-haired wytch rippled like a pond absorbing the shock of a thrown rock. Something was moving as if it were just under the surface of the air. Something huge. Reality itself seemed to be stretching—

  And tearing. Kylar saw hell and rushing skin as reality itself ripped under the pressure of the wyrm’s passage.

  It was coming for him.

  Twenty feet from him, reality frayed and tore. Kylar had one glimpse of a gigantic, lamprey-like circular mouth. It seemed to throw its mouth inside out in a spiny cone. Then the narrowest ring of teeth hit the homunculus and the teeth snapped in the opposite direction, tearing into the pasty creature. Each successive circle of teeth pulled and snapped onto everything surrounding the homunculus with hideous strength, the cone inverting, sucking everything in.

  The last, widest row of teeth snapped closed on the widest part of the iron globe and the pit wyrm whipped back into its hole as suddenly as it had emerged. The air rippled again and then faded as if nothing had happened.

  The homunculus was gone. So was three quarters of the globe, clay crunched and iron sheered off as if it were lard. Oil dribbled onto the water beside the barge. The soldiers cheered. The first barge had passed the bridge, and the second barge was just emerging.

  Feeling weak, Kylar scooted back and almost fell on ropes again. He cursed loudly. Then his eyes followed the ropes. They were connected to a pulley system—attached to the beam.

  “I’m an idiot!” Grabbing a rope, Kylar pulled it hand over hand as fast as he could. The arm supporting the second globe swung out over the side of the bridge smoothly and easily. Kylar heard a yell, and two green missiles flew past.

  Next to the pulley, there was another rope. Thin. Probably important.

  Kylar yanked it and the beam holding the clay globe suddenly dropped. The globe dropped with it. For a moment, Kylar was afraid that he’d just dropped his only weapon straight into the water, but the mooring rope swung the globe like a pendulum a foot above the river. The globe slammed into the second barge at the waterline.

  There was no explosion. The side of the boulder that struck the barge was iron beneath a patina of fired clay. It burst through the side of the barge as if the hull were birchbark and blasted through crowded ranks of highlanders.

  The rest of the globe was clay. It disintegrated. The oil that filled the globe splashed violently over men and their gear, soaking the wood decks.

  Kylar looked at the barge from above. A nice hole gaped at the waterline and the men inside were screaming, but he’d hoped for something more impress—

  BOOM!

  The barge exploded. Flames leaped out of the hole the globe had made and tore it to three times its original size. Fire burst from the portholes. The doubled and redoubled screams of men were swallowed in the sudden roar of flames.

  Men who’d been standing on the deck of the ship were thrown off their feet, and not a few of them into the water. Their armor dragged them hopelessly under the gentle waves.

  As quickly as it had sprung up, the gush of fire disappeared. Smoke continued to roll out of the portholes, and men were streaming up onto the deck. The barge listed heavily. An officer, bleeding from a gash on his head, was bellowing orders, but to no avail. Soldiers leapt from the deck to swim for the shore that looked so close—and dropped like rocks. The water wasn’t deep, but with heavy armor, it was deep enough.

  Having paused for several moments to turn from feeding on oil to feeding on wood, the fire advanced again like an insatiable beast. Fire roared up out of every deck on the ship, and even as the barge drifted forward, Kylar saw that it wasn’t going to make it to shore. A few men had the sense to tear off their armor before they leaped overboard, and others were clinging to bridge pilings, but at least two hundred highlanders would never fight on Cenarian soil.

  The gate behind Kylar shook as something struck it. He cursed himself. He shouldn’t have stayed, shouldn’t have watched while he could have been running.

  No Cenarian soldiers had come running during his battle, and weren’t coming even now, two minutes after the first signal. However bad this was, whatever was happening at the castle must be worse.

  The gate blew apart and wytches aglow with power strode through its smoking remains.

  Kylar ran for the castle.

  53

  With Neph Dada and a dozen soldiers in Cenarian livery trailing behind him, Roth sprinted across the catwalk. He reached a small room, turned right, and pounded up a narrow set of stairs.

  It was a dizzying maze of corridors, walkways, and service stairs, but it would get Roth and his men to the north tower twice as fast as any other route. Time was of the essence. So many plans that Roth had planted, watered, and coaxed into bloom over the past years were bearing fruit tonight. Like a greedy child, he wanted to taste every one and let the bloody juices spill down his chin.

  The queen and her two younger daughters were dying right now, Roth realized with regret. It was too bad. Too bad he wouldn’t get to see it. He hoped nobody would move the bodies before he could come inspect them. He’d given orders, but though he trusted Hu Gibbet to carry them out meticulously, this was a war. There was no telling what would happen.

  There was no help for it, though. There was no way he would have missed watching the king die.

  How exquisite that was! If Roth hadn’t been dodging around corners, he’d have burst out laughing.

  He’d planned to have a bolt cranked in his crossbow and pointed at the king’s forehead all night. He’d planned to be the one to kill the king himself, but Captain Arturian’s security had been too tight. Roth had been able to get into the Great Hall, but he hadn’t been able to bring a weapon. It had been a small disaster. If Durzo Blint hadn’t come through for him, the entire plot would have failed. Father would have killed him.

  But it didn’t fail. Durzo had come through for him, and what a virtuoso performance it had bee
n. The poisoning of the guests had been brilliant. Roth had been in the kitchens as the food tasters had tried every dish, and not a one had even been ill. The delivery of the king’s poison had been a marvel of athleticism. The concoction itself had worked even better than Blint had promised. Roth would find more work for that man. With Durzo as his tool, Roth would dispense such exquisite agonies as he’d never before imagined. Herbs! He’d never even thought of their potential. Durzo would be just the one to guide him in all their uses. Who would have imagined that herbs given to the king would push Agon over the edge?

  He had positively giggled when the lord general had relieved the fool king of his head. It had been better than doing it himself. He’d never had the particular thrill of watching a man commit what he himself must have seen as treason. There was something very fine about seeing a man damn himself.

  Roth and his men had tarried in the Great Hall just long enough to see that the lord general and his men had taken the bait and were on their way, and then they had run.

  If he had planned this right—and Roth planned everything right—he’d taste even finer fruits than Agon’s betrayal tonight. Father would be so pleased.

  Six hundred of the Godking’s elite highlanders were to arrive at the castle within the next half hour. A thousand more would arrive at dawn. The king had told Roth that he wanted to lose less than half of those by the time he arrived with an occupying army the next day.

  Roth thought he would lose less than a quarter. Perhaps far less. He’d pass his uurdthan brilliantly. The Godking would appoint Roth King of Cenaria, and take the title of High King for himself. In time, he’d pass the entire empire to Roth.

  Pushing future glories from his mind, Roth came to a stop in the last narrow corridor as his men caught up. The door before him would open on unseen hinges into the stairway at the bottom of the north tower. Roth motioned to his men.

  They slammed the hidden door open and burst into the hall, swords flashing. The two honor guards posted at the base of the tower didn’t stand a chance. They barely had time to register surprise before they were dead.

 
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