The night angel trilogy, p.48
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.48

           Brent Weeks
 

  If it wasn’t his fault and it were someone else, Kylar would have chuckled.

  “Father!” the little girl cried out. She squirmed out of Elene’s lap. Still staring at Kylar, Elene barely noticed her go. Uly threw her arms around Kylar and hugged. “Mother said you’d come! She swore you’d save us. Is she with you?”

  Tearing his gaze away from Elene, whose eyes had suddenly narrowed, Kylar tried to pry the little girl loose. “Uh, you must be Uly,” he said.

  Mother? Did she mean Momma K? Or her nurse? He’d straighten out this “father” business later. What was he going to say? “Sorry, your mother’s probably dead and I’m the one who killed her but I changed my mind about it and gave her the antidote so it’s not my fault if she is dead, and I killed your father last night, too. I’m his friend. Sorry.”

  He bent down so she could look him in the eye. “Your mother isn’t with me, Uly. But I am here to save you. Can you be very very quiet?”

  “Quiet as a mouse,” she said. The kid was fearless. Either she had no sense, or Elene had done a helluva job calming her fears.

  “Hello, Elene,” he said, standing.

  “Hello, whatever your name is.”

  “His name’s Durzo, but we can call him Zoey,” Uly said. Kylar winked at her, glad for the interruption. Even if children were generally intolerable, she’d averted a conversation he wasn’t interested in having—especially not now, not here.

  Elene glanced at Uly then back to him, her eyes asking, Is she yours? Kylar shook his head. “You coming?” he asked.

  She scowled. He took it for a yes.

  “Follow me,” he told Uly. “Quiet as a mouse, right?” Best to get moving, and fast. Messy emotional issues could wait until later, or never.

  They followed as he walked, visible and nervous, to the ramp. Elene walked holding Uly’s hand and stopped as Kylar went ahead. When they got to the carvings of teeth, Elene pulled Uly close and began speaking to her in soothing tones.

  Kylar walked up the ramp and eased the door open a crack.

  The door shook as three arrows smacked into the wood.

  “Shit!” Kylar said.

  It had been too easy. Kylar should have known. He’d been counting on the chaos to throw everyone off. Locking the door again, Kylar snapped the key off in the lock. Let the bastards break it down.

  “Back up the tunnel!” he said, pulling Elene into a jog. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be here. I’ll protect you. Just listen for my voice,” he said as the black ooze of the ka’kari bubbled out of his pores.

  If Elene were startled to have him disappear before her eyes, she hid it well. She jogged, pulling Uly along. “Do I need to run?” she asked the empty air.

  “Just walk fast,” Kylar said.

  The gate that led underground to the castle was unguarded. Thank the gods for that. Maybe the chaos of taking over an entire country would help him. Maybe a patrol outside had just stumbled across the bodies.

  Kylar locked the gate and broke off the other key. They climbed a staircase slowly and emerged in a service hallway in the castle proper.

  From the hallway, they quickly came upon an intersection. Down one hall, off-duty Khalidoran soldiers were slouching against a wall and sharing a joke. Kylar stopped Elene and walked toward them, then heard one of them call something to someone inside the open room behind them.

  If he killed them, whoever was in that room would sound an alarm. He could make it, but Elene and Uly wouldn’t. He went back to Elene.

  “Go when I say,” he said. “Now.”

  Elene threw her shawl over her head and struggled across the hallway, her back bent and her face down, one foot turned in and dragging along the floor. She looked like an old crone. And she blocked most of Uly from view.

  It took her longer to get across the opening, but when one of the soldiers saw her, he didn’t even say anything to the others.

  “Nice trick,” Kylar said, catching up with her as she resumed her normal fast stride.

  “Where I grew up, stupid girls don’t stay virgins,” Elene said.

  “You grew up on the east side,” Kylar said. “It’s not exactly like the Warrens over there.”

  “You think it’s safer to work around oversexed nobles?”

  “Where are we going?” Uly asked.

  “Shh,” Kylar said as they approached another intersection. The hallway they had been following led to the kitchens. From the raucous voices there, though, that wasn’t the way to take Elene and Uly. The door to the right was locked, and the hall left was clear.

  Kylar pulled out his picks, risking the possibility of someone stepping out of the kitchens. He didn’t like the idea of following the path of least resistance.

  The lock came open quickly, but something heavy had been wedged against the door on the other side. Probably a servant had done his best to block it during the coup.

  “Where are we going?” Uly asked again.

  Kylar had known her cuteness would grate on him; he’d just hoped it would take longer than this. He let Elene hush her this time.

  With his Talent, he could kick through the door and whatever was blocking it—but the noise would bring whoever was in the kitchens, and Kylar felt a sense of urgency. He didn’t want to leave the girls here while he scouted.

  “Left,” he whispered.

  This corridor twisted and rose up several flights of steps. Kylar heard the jingling of mail and the slap of feet in hobnailed boots behind them.

  “Hurry!” he said. The men behind them were moving at a slow jog, so they weren’t chasing escaped prisoners but just responding to orders. Kylar dropped back to the staircase and caught a brief glimpse of at least twenty men.

  He ran to catch up with Elene and Uly. They were passing doors, and heedless of who might hear, Kylar started testing the latches. Every one was locked.

  “Why are we going to the throne room?” Uly asked.

  Kylar stopped. Elene stared at Uly, looking as surprised as he felt. “What?” he asked.

  “Why are we going—”

  “How do you know where we’re going?” Kylar asked.

  “I live here. Mother’s a maid. Our room’s just—”

  “Uly, do you know a way out? A way that doesn’t go to the throne room? Quick!”

  “I’m not supposed to come up here,” she said. “I get in trouble.”

  “Dammit!” Kylar said. “Do you know a way out or not?!”

  She shook her head, frightened. That would have just been too easy, wouldn’t it?

  “Great with children, aren’t you?” Elene said. She touched Uly’s cheek and squatted on her heels to look her in the face. “Have you come up here, Uly?” Elene asked gently. “We won’t be angry if you have, I promise.”

  But Uly was too frightened to say anything.

  The footsteps were getting closer.

  “Move!” Kylar said, grabbing Elene’s hand to get her running, making her drag the brat.

  He didn’t like this. It was too tidy. Too convenient that there was only one path.

  One path. That’s it! There’s never just one path in this castle. Kylar scanned the walls and ceilings as he ran. He didn’t even try the doors that they passed. They turned another corner. Kylar skittered to a stop.

  He shimmered back into visibility. “Elene, do you see that third panel?” He pointed up.

  “No,” she said. “But what do I need to do?”

  “Push on it. I’ll lift you. There are secret corridors throughout the castle. Find your way out. Maybe Uly can help you.”

  She nodded and Kylar squatted against the wall. Elene hitched up her skirts and stepped on his thigh. She scowled as she realized that climbing up on him would drape her skirts over his head, but she didn’t hesitate to step up to his shoulders and finally into his hands. She walked her hands up the wall for balance. Then Kylar stood and extended his hands, lifting her high into the air.

  Elene pushed the panel open and slipped inside a crawl
space. She had turned around by the time Kylar picked up Uly.

  “Can you catch?” he asked.

  “I’d better,” she said. The footsteps were almost on top of them.

  Kylar tossed Uly up in the air easily. Damn but the Talent is useful.

  Elene caught her and started to slip until her own shoulders were sticking out over space. Then she must have braced herself against something inside the crawl space, because she stopped. She grunted, and with Uly wiggling to help, was able to pull the girl up with her.

  “Oh, I’ve been here,” Uly said.

  Kylar took out a dagger and tossed it up to Elene.

  She caught it. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

  “Aside from the obvious?” he asked.

  “Thanks. Now come on. There’s room. Hurry.”

  Kylar didn’t move. Dorian said, ‘If you do the right thing twice, it will cost you your life.’ Blint said, ‘There are things more valuable than life.’ The count said, ‘You can’t pay for all you’ve done. But you aren’t beyond redemption. There’s always a way out. And if you’re willing to make the sacrifice, the God will give you the chance to save something priceless.’

  He looked at Elene. Something priceless indeed. He smiled at her. She looked at him like he was crazy.

  “Kylar, hurry!”

  “It’s a trap, Elene. If they lose me here, they’ll search the hidden passages. I can’t protect you in the crawl-spaces, they’re too cramped. Get out of the castle. Go to Jarl at the Blue Boar, he’ll help you.”

  “They’ll kill you, Kylar. If it’s a trap you can’t—”

  “I did look,” he interrupted. He smirked. “And you’ve got great legs.”

  He winked—and disappeared.

  63

  Vürdmeister Neph Dada damned Roth Ursuul for the hundredth time of the day. Serving an aetheling of the Godking was supposed to be an honor. Like all the Godking’s honors, this one came with strings attached. If an aetheling failed his uurdthan, his Vürdmeister was punished with him. And obedience was required. Total obedience, except in things that might displease the Godking.

  Which was why Neph was cursing. He wasn’t precisely disobeying Roth, but he was undoing something the prince had begun. Something, in fact, that Roth believed he had accomplished. Something that it was taking all of Neph’s abilities to stop. Mercifully, Roth had been too busy securing the castle and the city to ask where his Vürdmeister was. Besides, he had sixty meisters to command now, three of them Vürdmeisters almost as powerful as Neph. If Roth had sent men after him, the small servant’s room Neph had commandeered was isolated enough that they had never been able to find him.

  His work—his petty deceit, and rebellion, and gamble for the Godking’s favor—lay stretched out on the bed. She was a beautiful girl—not that the Godking needed another beautiful girl—but she had spirit. Fiery, intelligent, and best of all a widowed, virgin bride, and a princess. Jenine Gyre was a prize indeed. A prize to crown the Godking’s harem. A prize Neph had snatched from the very jaws of Death.

  Every Vürdmeister as old as he was knew volumes about preserving life, of course. It was in their own self-interest as they grew old. But I am a genius. A genius.

  His plan had crystallized as Roth had ranted, meaningless words exploding from the boy like diarrhea. As usual. His cut had been fortunate. Just one side of the neck, not so deep that it cut the windpipe. Neph let her bleed until she was losing strength, then tickled a little tendril of magic against her diaphragm to push the air from her lungs, two more to close her eyes, a fourth to seal the wound on her neck, some quick movement to take attention away from her body so no one would notice that she was still breathing, and the girl had been his.

  He’d killed seven serving girls looking for the right kind of blood for her. Sloppy work. He should have done better, but it had been enough. He’d decided to leave the scar. It gave the princess a certain something. And as a finishing touch, he’d found a girl in the city who looked like the princess and had her head mounted over the east gate with the rest of the royal family’s. If you got the right color of hair and styled it correctly, all you had to do was beat the face enough, and it could look like anyone’s head. Still, he thought, he’d done brilliant work, even if it had been exhausting.

  Tomorrow morning, the Godking would arrive and he’d dispense either favor or punishment to Roth Ursuul. Either way, Neph would prosper.

  Something made him pause before he went out the door. Something felt odd outside. He walked to his window, threw open the wooden shutters—no glass for the servants’ rooms—and stared through the hole into the ghastly Cenarian statue garden.

  The meisters had set up their camp there, figuring it to be a center of power. Vürdmeister Goroel had always enjoyed thumbing his nose at the conquered countries’ gods and dead kings. It was pure playacting not to take rooms in the castle, but when the meisters went to war, Goroel liked to show the Godking that they were roughing it. Insufferable.

  A man climbed up onto one of the statues. Neph couldn’t see his features clearly, but he certainly wasn’t Khalidoran. Sethi? What’s a Sethi man with a sword doing climbing a statue in the middle of a war? A giant of a blacksmith with blond hair stood below him, looking around anxiously. Neph shook his head. Vürdmeister Goroel wouldn’t take such an insult lightly.

  “Wytches of the Godking!” the man shouted, his voice booming, amplified a dozen times over with magic. A mage? “Wytches of the false Godking, hear me! Come to me! This day, on this rock, you will be shattered! Come and let your arrogance find its reward!”

  Had he not spoken heresy, the wytches might have let Vürdmeister Goroel deal with him, but heresy would be stopped. Must be stopped. Instantly. Fully thirty meisters drew on their vir.

  Neph’s magical senses exploded. He lurched against the wall and collapsed. It felt like a thousand demons were screaming in unison into each of his ears. Magic like a bonfire—like a second sun—exploded through the castle. Neph felt his vir tingling, burning as magic washed toward him. He hadn’t been holding his vir, and that was surely the only thing that saved him. The power pouring through the castle was more magic than he’d ever imagined. More magic than the Godking himself could wield.

  Specks of magic leapt up to meet it. The meisters, Neph could tell. The meisters who hadn’t already been holding their vir grabbed it. They might as well have been flies trying to extinguish a bonfire with the wind from their wings. The magic sought them out, wrapped around them, burned them to pillars of ash. He could feel the tendrils of their power snapping, bursting apart one by one.

  The conflagration was in the courtyard, in that odd Cenarian statue garden. Should Neph stay here and live? Did he dare go face that fire? What would this titan of a mage do if Neph dared to confront him? What would the Godking do to him if he didn’t?

  An odd, detached thought came to Kylar as he opened the last door and walked toward the throne room. That’s why those guards outside the Maw were nervous—they were bait. Now I am, too.

  His next thought was of Durzo’s creed: Life is empty. It was a creed Durzo himself had betrayed, an empty creed. It neither saved life nor made it better. For a wetboy, it made life safer because it obliterated his conscience. Or tried to. Durzo had tried to live that creed and had found himself too noble for it.

  Kylar wondered what had brought him to this. He was ready to die. Was it pride, that he thought he could defy any odds? Was it duty to Durzo, that he thought he had to pay back the debt of his life by saving Uly? Was it revenge, that he hated Roth so much that he would die to kill him? Was it love?

  Love? I’m a fool. He felt something for Elene, it was true. Something intense and intoxicating and unreasonable. Maybe it was love, but what did he love, Elene or an image of her, glimpsed from afar, pieced together with the glue of assumption?

  Maybe it was just some last vestige of romanticism that had brought him here, some sludge left over from the stories of princes and heroes
Ulana Drake had read to him. Maybe he’d spent too long with people who believed in false virtues like valor and self-sacrifice that Durzo had tried to teach him to despise. Maybe he’d been infected.

  But why he was here didn’t really matter. This was the right thing to do. He was worthless. If his empty life could ransom Elene’s life, then he would have accomplished something good. It would be the only thing he had ever done that he could be proud of. And if he gave Uly a chance too, so much the better.

  He’d have his own chance, too: his chance at Roth. Kylar had gone into other fights feeling confident, but this was different. As he stepped into the short hall to the throne room, Kylar felt at peace.

  A high-pitched whine cut the air. The men who’d been standing in the room looking to the door adjusted their grips on their weapons.

  A magical alarm to tell them I’ve arrived, then.

  There were highlanders, of course. He’d expected that. But he hadn’t expected thirty. And there were wytches. He’d expected that, too. But not five.

  The doors at the dead end where he’d lifted Elene and Uly banged open and another ten highlanders poured in behind him.

  Taking a few quick steps, Kylar leapt into the throne room at the level of the floor, hoping to make it past the first attacks. The room was huge, the ivory and horn throne set above the seats of the assembly by two broad sets of seven steps separated by a flat landing. Roth sat in the throne, flanked by two wytches. The others stood on the landing. The highlanders were spread around the perimeter of the room.

  The leap took him past the whirring swords of two highlanders who were cutting blindly at the air in front of the door, hoping to get lucky and hit the invisible wetboy.

  Drawing Retribution from its back scabbard, Kylar rolled to his feet.

  A swarm of tiny hands appeared in the air as the wytches chanted. The hands were looking for him, plucking at him. They seethed over the ground leaping and clawing at each other as they groped for him.

 
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