The night angel trilogy, p.5
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.5

           Brent Weeks
 

  “I don’t need it,” Solon said.

  The chuckling stopped and the men looked at him.

  “You want to spar without armor?” Logan asked.

  “I don’t want to spar at all, but if it is your will, I shall consent—but I won’t fight with a practice blade.” The men hooted at the prospect of seeing this short Sethi fight their giant, unarmored. Only Marcus and one or two others looked troubled. With the thick armor Logan wore, there was little danger that he would be seriously injured, even with a sharp sword. But the danger was there. In his eyes, Solon saw that Logan knew it too. He was suddenly doubting if he should have been quite so brash with someone who he knew nothing about, someone who might well wish him harm. Logan was looking again at Solon’s stocky build.

  “Milord,” Marcus said, “maybe it would be best if—”

  “Agreed,” Logan said to Solon. He pulled his helmet on and locked the visor. He unlimbered his sword and said, “Ready when you are.”

  Before Logan could react, Solon jabbed his fingers through the boy’s visor and grabbed the nosepiece. He yanked Logan forward and twisted. The boy slammed into the ground with a grunt. Solon drew a knife from Logan’s belt and held it to the boy’s eye, his knee resting on the side of Logan’s helmet, holding it in place.

  “Do you yield?” Solon asked.

  The boy’s breaths were labored. “I yield.”

  Solon released him and stood, brushing the dust from the leg of his breeches. He didn’t offer to help Lord Gyre stand.

  The men were quiet. Several had drawn swords, but none moved forward. It was obvious that if Solon had meant to kill Logan, he would have already done it. No doubt they were thinking about what Duke Gyre would have done to them if such a thing had happened.

  “You’re a fool boy, Lord Gyre,” Solon said. “A buffoon performing for men you may one day have to ask to die for you.” He said Duke Gyre, surely Dorian said Duke Gyre. But he sent me here. Surely he would have sent me to the garrison directly if he meant the duke. The prophecy wasn’t about me. Dorian couldn’t have known that I would be held up, that I would get to the city this late. Could he?

  Logan removed his helmet, and he was red-faced, but he didn’t let his embarrassment flare into anger. He said, “I, I deserved that. And I deserved the manhandling you just gave me. Or worse. I’m sorry. It is a poor host who assaults his guests.”

  “You know they’ve been losing on purpose, don’t you?”

  Logan looked stricken. He glanced at the man he’d been fighting as Solon arrived, then stared at his own feet. Then, as if it took an effort of will, he raised his eyes to Solon’s. “I see that you speak true. Though it shames me to learn it, I thank you.” And now his men looked ashamed. They’d been letting him win because they loved him, and now they had shamed their lord. The men weren’t just pained, they were in misery.

  How does this boy command such loyalty? Is it just loyalty to his father? As he watched Logan look at each of the men in turn—staring until each met his gaze and then looked away—Solon doubted that. Logan let the pained silence sit and grow.

  “In six months’ time,” Logan said, addressing the men, “I will serve at my father’s garrison. I will not sit safely in the castle. I will fight, and so will many of you. But since you seem to think sparring is entertainment, very well. You will entertain yourselves by sparring until midnight. All of you. Tomorrow, we will start training. And I expect all of you to be here an hour before dawn. Understood?”

  “Yes, sir!”

  Logan turned to Solon. “Sorry about that, Master Tofusin. About all of it. Please call me Logan. You’ll stay for dinner, of course, but can I also have the servants prepare a room for you?”

  “Yes,” Solon said. “I think I’d like that.”

  8

  Every time Vürdmeister Neph Dada met with Rat, it was in a different place. Rooms in inns, cellars of boat shops, bakeries, east side parks, and dead-end alleys in the Warrens. Ever since Neph had figured out that Rat was afraid of the dark, he’d made sure they always met at night.

  Tonight, Neph watched Rat and his bodyguards enter the tiny old overfull graveyard. It wasn’t as dark as Neph would have hoped; taverns and game halls and whorehouses huddled not thirty paces away. Rat didn’t dismiss his bodyguards immediately. Like most parts of the Warrens, the graveyard was less than a foot above the waterline. The Rabbits, as the natives of the Warrens were called, buried their dead directly in the mud. If they had the money, they erected sarcophagi above ground, but ignorant immigrants had buried their dead in coffins after some riot or another years ago, and the ground had swollen above those graves as the coffins fought to float to the surface. Several had broken open, their contents devoured by feral dogs.

  Rat and his bodyguards looked sick with fright. “Go on,” Rat finally said to his bigs, nonchalantly picking up a skull and tossing it at one of them. The boy stepped back quickly and the skull, weak with age or disease, shattered on a stone.

  “Hello, child,” Neph rasped into Rat’s ear. Rat flinched and Neph smiled his gap-toothed smile, his long, sparse white hair falling in a greasy trickle to his shoulders. Neph stood so close the boy took a step back.

  “What do you want? Why am I here?” Rat asked.

  “Ah, petulance and philosophy all bound up in one.” Neph shuffled closer. He’d grown up in Lodricar, east of Khalidor. The Lodricari thought men who distanced themselves so much that you couldn’t even smell their breath were hiding something. Merchants in Cenaria who dealt with the Lodricari complained bitterly about it, but stood close eagerly enough when Lodricari coins were at stake. But Neph didn’t stand close for cultural reasons. He hadn’t lived in Lodricar for half a century. He stood close because he liked to see Rat’s discomfort.

  “Ha!” Neph said, exhaling a gust of rotten air over Rat’s face.

  “What?” Rat said, trying not to edge back.

  “I haven’t given up on you yet, you great stupid boy. Sometimes you manage to learn despite yourself. But that’s not what I’m here for. Not what you’re here for, either. It’s time to move. Your enemies are arrayed against you but not yet organized.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “I know more than you think, Ratty Fatty.” Neph laughed again, and spittle flew onto Rat’s face. Rat almost struck him then, Neph could tell. Rat had become a guild Fist for a reason. But of course he’d never hit Neph. The old man knew he looked frail, but a Vürdmeister had other defenses.

  “Do you know how many boys your father has whelped?” Neph asked.

  Rat looked around the graveyard as if Neph hadn’t already checked for anyone eavesdropping. The boy was hopelessly stupid. Stupid, but capable of cunning, and utterly ruthless. Besides, Neph didn’t have many choices. When he’d come to Cenaria, he’d been placed in charge of four boys. The most promising one had eaten some bad meat in the first year and died before Neph had even known he was sick. This week, the second had been killed in territory fight between guilds. That left Neph with only two. “His Holiness has fathered one hundred and thirty-two boys the last time I counted. Most of those lacked Talent and were culled. You are one of forty-three who are his seed. I’ve told you this before. What I haven’t told you is that each of you is given a task, a test to prove your usefulness to your father. If you pass, you may one day become Godking yourself. Can you guess what your task is?”

  Rat’s beady eyes glittered with visions of opulent splendor.

  Neph slapped him. “Your task, boy.”

  Rat rubbed his cheek, trembling with rage. “Become Shinga,” he said quietly.

  Well, the boy aimed higher than Neph would have guessed. Good. “His Holiness has declared that Cenaria will fall, as will all the southlands. The Sa’kagé is the only real power in Cenaria, so, yes, you will become Shinga. Then you will give your father Cenaria and everything in it—or, more likely, you will fail and die and one of your brothers will do this.”

  “There are others in the c
ity?” Rat asked.

  “Your father is a god, but his tools are men, and thus fail. His Holiness plans accordingly. Now my little failure-in-waiting, what is your brilliant plan to deal with Azoth?”

  Rage roared high in Rat’s eyes once more, but he controlled it. One word from Neph, and Rat would be one more corpse floating in the Plith by morning, and they both knew it. In truth, Neph was testing him. Cruelty was Rat’s greatest asset—Neph had seen Rat’s bloodthirstiness cow older boys who might have killed him—but it was worthless if he couldn’t control it.

  Rat said, “I’ll kill Azoth. I’ll make him bleed like—”

  “What you can’t do is kill him. If you do, he will be forgotten; another will take his place. He must live broken, where all the world can see him.”

  “I’ll beat him in front of everyone. I’ll break his hands and—”

  “What happens if his lizards rush to defend him?”

  “They, they wouldn’t. They’re too afraid.”

  “Unlike other boys I know,” Neph said, “Azoth isn’t stupid. He knew what it meant when those bigs came to him. He may have even been planning for this all along. The first thing he’ll expect is that you’ll get scared and try to beat him. So he’ll have a plan for it.”

  Neph watched the realization settle on Rat that he might actually lose control of the guild. If he lost the guild, he’d lose his life.

  “But you have a plan,” Rat said. “A way I can destroy him, don’t you?”

  “And I might even share it,” Neph said.

  It was coming. Azoth could feel it as he lay on the floor, surrounded by his lizards, his guild. His. Fifteen littles and five bigs. Half the littles in Black Dragon and a quarter of the bigs were his now. They slept peacefully around him, probably even Badger, who was supposed to only be feigning sleep.

  Azoth hadn’t slept for four days. The night he’d come home from talking to Blint and every night since, he’d lain awake, plotting, doubting, feverish with excitement about a life without Rat. And the rising light of day had melted his plans with the fog. He’d called those who stood with him his lizards as a joke—they certainly weren’t dragons—but the children had taken the name proudly, deaf to the despair in the label.

  During the days, he’d acted, given orders, formed his pathetic lizards into a force, done anything to keep his mind off killing Rat. How long would Rat wait? The time for a purge was now. Everyone was waiting to see what Rat would do. Everyone was still sure that he would do something. If he didn’t, though, and soon, his faithful would start to doubt him, and he’d lose the guild in an instant.

  Azoth had even given orders for three of the littles he trusted most to guard Doll Girl at all times. Then he’d doubted himself. It wasn’t a good use of the strength he had. He needed those littles bringing him information: listening to the others in the guild, searching the other guilds to see if any of the neighboring guilds would like the lizards to join them. Besides, what could three littles do against all of Rat’s bigs? Children who were eight, ten, and eleven respectively weren’t going to stop Rat’s fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. He’d ended up assigning two of the bigs who had joined him first to watch over her, and had kept her close during every waking hour.

  He was slipping, though. The nights without sleep were catching up with him. His mind was a muddle. It was only a matter of time until he made a stupid mistake. And all of it was because he didn’t have the guts to kill Rat.

  He could do it tonight. It would be easy, really. Rat had gone out before midnight with two bigs, but when they got back, he’d fall asleep instantly. The bastard never had trouble sleeping. Azoth had the shiv. He even had a real knife that one of the bigs had stolen. All he had to do was walk up to Rat and stick it in him. Anywhere in the stomach would work. Even if Rat’s dragons were loyal enough to take him to a healer, they’d certainly take all of his money. What healer was going to work for free on a guild rat? All Azoth had to do was wait until five minutes after Rat got back, then get up to piss. On his way back in, he’d kill him.

  It was the only way Doll Girl would ever be safe.

  He knew what becoming a wetboy would mean. Everything would change. Wetboys were knives in the dark. Azoth would learn how to fight, how to kill. He wouldn’t just learn how, he’d do it. Blint would expect him to kill. That niggled at him like a stare from Doll Girl that wouldn’t really count unless he met her eyes. But he didn’t think much about the specifics of murdering. He held onto that image of Durzo Blint, laughing at the entire guild. Durzo Blint, laughing at Rat and his little army. Durzo Blint, fearless. Durzo Blint, who Azoth could be.

  Blint would take him away. Azoth wouldn’t lead Black Dragon. He wouldn’t even lead his lizards. But he didn’t want to. He didn’t want the littles looking at him like he was their father, the bigs who towered over him looking at him like he knew what he was doing, like he would keep them all safe. He couldn’t even keep himself safe. This was all a fraud. He was a fraud. He’d been set up, and they didn’t even see it.

  The unmistakable sound of the front door being moved aside heralded Rat’s return. Azoth was so scared he would have wept if he hadn’t told Badger to stay awake. He couldn’t weep in front of his bigs. He was sure Rat would come over to him, have the bigs lift him up, and take him away to some horrific punishment that would make Jarl’s look easy. But true to form, Rat pushed into his harem, lay down, and was asleep in seconds.

  A wetboy wouldn’t cry. Azoth tried to slow his breathing, tried to listen to see if Rat’s bodyguards were asleep, too.

  Wetboys weren’t afraid. They were killers. Other people were afraid of them. Everyone in the Sa’kagé was afraid of them.

  If I lie here and try to sleep again, I might sleep here with nothing happening for another night or another week, but Rat will get me. He’ll destroy everything. Azoth had seen the look in his eyes. He believed Rat would destroy him, and he didn’t believe that it would be a week before he did. It’s either that or I kill him first. In his mind, Azoth saw himself as a hero, like something out of a bard’s tale: giving Jarl his money back, giving Ja’laliel enough to buy review, everyone in the guild loving him for killing Rat, and Doll Girl speaking for the first time, approval glowing in her eyes, telling how brave he was.

  It was stupid, and he couldn’t afford stupidity.

  He had to piss. Azoth got up angrily and walked out the back door. Rat’s bodyguards didn’t even shift in their sleep as he walked past them.

  The night air was cold and rank. Azoth had been spending most of the collection money to feed his lizards. Today, he’d bought fish. The ever-hungry littles had gotten into the entrails and eaten them and gotten sick. His urine arcing into the alley, he thought that he should have had someone watching out for that. It was just something else he’d missed.

  He heard a scuffing sound from inside and turned, lacing his breeches up. Looking into the darkness, though, he saw nothing. He was losing it, jumping at sounds when there were three score guild rats pressed together in the house, sleeping, moaning on empty bellies, and rolling into their neighbors.

  Suddenly, he smiled and touched the shiv. There might be a hundred things he didn’t know and a thousand more he couldn’t control, but he knew what he needed to do now.

  Rat had to die; it was that simple. What happened to Azoth after he did it didn’t even matter. Whether they thanked him or killed him, he had to kill Rat. He had to kill him before Rat got to Doll Girl. He had to kill him now.

  And with that, the decision was made. Azoth held the shiv up along his wrist and stepped inside. Rat would be sleeping wedged in with his harem. It would only be two steps out of Azoth’s way. Azoth would pretend to stumble in case the bigs were watching, and then plunge the shiv into Rat’s stomach. He would stab him over and over until Rat was dead or he was.

  Azoth was within four steps of his attack when he came in sight of his own sleeping space.

  Badger was lying on his back in the darkness, a thin li
ne drawn across his neck, black on white skin. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving.

  Doll Girl’s space was empty. She was gone, and so was Rat.

  9

  He lay in the darkness, too stunned to weep. Even in his sudden blind shock, Azoth knew that Rat’s bigs couldn’t be asleep. This was what they had been waiting for. Azoth had left for the barest minute, and they had taken Doll Girl. It wouldn’t even do him any good to wake the whole guild. In the darkness and confusion, he’d never know just which of Rat’s bigs was gone. And what would he do even if he knew? Even if he knew who was gone, he wouldn’t know where they’d gone. Even if he knew where they’d gone, what would he do?

  He lay in the darkness, stumbling over thoughts, staring at the sagging ceiling. He’d heard them. Damn him forever. He’d heard the sound and didn’t even go look.

  He lay in the darkness, finished. The watch changed. The sun rose. The guild rats stirred, and he stared at the sagging ceiling, waiting for it to collapse on him like everything else. He couldn’t have moved if he wanted to.

  He lay in the light. Children were shrieking, littles pulling at him, shouting something. Something about Badger. Questions. It was all words. Words were wind. Someone shook him, but he was far away.

  It wasn’t until long after that that he woke. There was only one sound that could have brought him out of his trance: Rat, laughing.

  Tingles shot across his skin and he sat upright. He still had the shiv. There was dried blood on the floor, but Azoth barely saw it. He stood and started walking toward the door.

  That terrible laugh rang out again, and Azoth ran.

  The moment he stepped through the door, out of the corner of his eye he saw the shadow of the doorframe elongate and snap forward. It was as fast as a trapdoor spider he’d once seen, and just as effective. He slammed into the shadow like he’d run into a wall. His head rang as he was pulled back into the deep shadows between the guild building and the ruin next to it.

 
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