The night angel trilogy, p.53
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.53
 

           Brent Weeks

  Mists rose from the Plith River on either side of the castle and slid under the rusty teeth of the iron portcullises to chill the crowd. The Graavar had been broken into fifteen groups of thirteen each, and they alone had no weapons, armor, or tunics. They stood in their trousers, pale faces fixed, but sweating instead of shivering in the cool autumn morning.

  There was never commotion when the Godking inspected his troops, but today the silence ached despite the thousands gathered to watch. Garoth had gathered every soldier possible and allowed the Cenarian servants and nobles and smallfolk to watch as well. Meisters in their black-and-red half-cloaks stood shoulder to shoulder with robed Vürdmeisters, soldiers, crofters, coopers, nobles, field hands, maids, sailors, and Cenarian spies.

  The Godking wore a broad white cloak edged with ermine thrown back to make his broad shoulders look huge. Beneath that was a sleeveless white tunic over wide white trousers. All the white made his pallid Khalidoran skin look ghostly, and drew sharp attention to the vir playing across his skin. Black tendrils of power rose to the surface of his arms. Great knots rose and fell, knots edged with thorns that moved not just back and forth but up and down in waves, pressing out from his skin. Claws raked his skin from beneath. Nor were his vir confined to his arms. They rose to frame his face. They rose to his bald scalp and pierced the skin, forming a thorny, quivering black crown. Blood trickled down the sides of his face.

  For many Cenarians, it was their first glimpse of the Godking. Their jaws hung slack. They shivered as his gaze passed over them. It was exactly as he intended.

  Finally, Garoth selected one of the pieces of straw from Neph Dada and broke it in half. He threw away one half and took twelve full-length pieces. “Thus shall Khali speak,” he said, his voice robust with power.

  He signaled the Graavar to climb the platform. During the liberation, they had been ordered to hold this yard to contain the Cenarian nobles for slaughter. Instead, the highlanders had been routed, and Terah Graesin and her nobles had escaped. That was unacceptable, inexplicable, uncharacteristic for the fierce Graavar. Garoth didn’t understand what made men fight one day and flee the next.

  What he did understand was shame. For the past week, the Graavar had been mucking stables, emptying chamber pots, and scrubbing floors. They had not been allowed to sleep, instead spending the nights polishing their betters’ armor and weapons. Today, they would expiate their guilt, and for the next year, they would be eager to prove their heroism. As he approached the first group with Neph at his side, Garoth calmed the vir from his hands. When the men drew their straws, they must think it not the working of magic or the Godking’s pleasure that spared one and condemned another. Rather, it was simple fate, the inexorable consequence of their own cowardice.

  Garoth held up his hands, and together, all the Khalidorans prayed: “Khali vas, Khalivos ras en me, Khali mevirtu rapt, recu virtum defite.”

  As the words faded, the first soldier approached. He was barely sixteen, the least fringe of a mustache on his lip. He looked on the verge of collapse as his eyes flitted from the Godking’s icy face to the straws. His naked chest shone with sweat in the rising morning light, his muscles twitching. He drew a straw. It was long.

  Half of the tension whooshed out of his body, but only half. The young man next to him, who looked so alike he must have been his older brother, licked his lips and grabbed a straw. It was short.

  Queasy relief washed over the rest of the squad, and the thousands watching who couldn’t possibly see the short straw knew that it had been drawn from their reactions. The man who’d drawn the short straw looked at his little brother. The younger man looked away. The condemned man turned disbelieving eyes on the Godking and handed him the short straw.

  Garoth stepped back. “Khali has spoken,” he announced. There was a collective intake of breath, and he nodded to the squad.

  They closed on the young man, every one of them—even his brother—and began beating him.

  It would have been faster if Garoth had let the squad wear gauntlets or use the butts of spears or the flat of blades, but he thought it was better this way. When the blood began flowing and spraying off flesh as it was pummeled, it shouldn’t get on the squad’s clothing. It should get on their skin. Let them feel the warmth of the young man’s blood as he died. Let them know the cost of cowardice. Khalidorans did not flee.

  The squad attacked with gusto. The circle closed and screams rose. There was something intimate about naked meat slapping naked meat. The young man disappeared and all that could be seen was elbows rising and disappearing with every punch and feet being drawn back for new kicks. And moments later, blood. With the short straw, the young man had become their weakness. It was Khali’s decree. He was no longer brother or friend, he was all they had done wrong.

  In two minutes, the young man was dead.

  The squad reformed, blood-spattered and blowing hard from exertion and emotion. They didn’t look at the corpse at their feet. Garoth regarded each in turn, meeting the eyes of every one, and lingering on the brother. Standing over the corpse, Garoth extended a hand. The vir poked out of his wrist and extended, clawlike, ragged, and gripped the corpse’s head. Then the claws convulsed and the head popped with a wet sound that left dozens of Cenarians retching.

  “Your sacrifice is accepted. Thus are you cleansed,” he announced, and saluted them.

  They returned his salute proudly and took their places back in the formation in the courtyard as the body was dragged away.

  He motioned the next squad. The next fourteen iterations would be nothing but more of the same. Though tension still arced through every squad—even the squads who’d finished would lose friends and family in other squads—Garoth lost interest. “Neph, tell me what you’ve learned about this man, this Night Angel who killed my son.”

  Cenaria Castle wasn’t high on Kylar’s list of places to visit. He was disguised as a tanner, a temporary dye staining his hands and arms to the elbow, a spattered woolen tradesman’s tunic, and a number of drops of a special perfume his dead master Durzo Blint had developed. He reeked only slightly less than a real tanner would. Durzo had always preferred disguises of tanners, pig farmers, beggars, and other types that respectable people did their best not to see because they couldn’t help but smell them. The perfume was applied only to the outer garments so if need arose, they could be shed. Some of the stench would still cling, but every disguise had drawbacks. The art was matching the drawbacks to the job.

  East Kingsbridge had burned during the coup, and though the meisters had repaired most of its length, it was still closed, so Kylar crossed West Kingsbridge. The Khalidoran guards barely glanced at him as he passed them. It seemed everyone’s attention—even the meisters’—was riveted to a platform in the center of the castle yard and a group of highlanders standing bare-chested in the cold. Kylar ignored the squad on the platform as he scanned for threats. He still wasn’t sure if meisters could see his Talent, though he suspected they couldn’t as long as he wasn’t using it. Their abilities seemed much more tied to smell than magi’s—which was the main reason he’d come as a tanner. If a meister came close, Kylar could only hope that mundane smells interfered with magical ones.

  Four guards stood on each side of the gate, six on each segment of the diamond-shaped castle wall, and perhaps a thousand in formation in the yard, in addition to the two hundred or so Graavar highlanders. In the crowd of several thousand, fifty meisters were placed at regular intervals. In the center of it all, on the temporary platform, were a number of Cenarian nobles, mutilated corpses, and Godking Garoth Ursuul himself, speaking with a Vürdmeister. It was ridiculous, but even with the number of soldiers and meisters here, this was probably the best chance a wetboy would have to kill the man.

  But Kylar wasn’t here to kill. He was here to study a man for the strangest job he’d ever accepted. He scanned the crowd for the man Jarl had told him about and found him quickly. Baron Kirof had been a vassal of the Gyres. With h
is lord dead and his lands close to the city, he’d been one of the first Cenarian nobles to bend the knee to Garoth Ursuul. He was a fat man with a red beard cut in the angular lowland Khalidoran style, a large crooked nose, weak chin, and great bushy eyebrows.

  Kylar moved closer. Baron Kirof was sweating, wiping his palms on his tunic, speaking nervously to the Khalidoran nobles he stood with. Kylar was easing around a tall, stinking blacksmith when the man suddenly threw an elbow into Kylar’s solar plexus.

  The blow knocked the wind from Kylar, and even as he hunched over, the ka’kari pooled in his hand and formed a punch dagger.

  “You want a better look, you get here early, like the rest of us did,” the blacksmith said. He folded his arms, pushing up his sleeves to show off massive biceps.

  With effort, Kylar willed the ka’kari back into his skin and apologized, eyes downcast. The blacksmith sneered and went back to watching the fun.

  Kylar settled for a decent view of Baron Kirof. The Godking had worked his way through half of the squads, and Sa’kagé bookies were already taking bets on which number out of each group of thirteen would die. The Khalidoran soldiers noticed. Kylar wondered how many Cenarians would die for the bookies’ callousness when the Khalidoran soldiers went roaming the city tonight, in grief for their dead and fury at how the Sa’kagé fouled everything it touched.

  I’ve got to get out of this damned city.

  The next squad had made it through ten men without one drawing the short straw. It was almost worth paying attention as the men got more and more desperate as each of their neighbors was spared and their own chances became grimmer. The eleventh man, fortyish and all sinew and gristle, pulled the short straw. He chewed on the end of his mustache as he handed the straw back to the Godking, but otherwise didn’t betray any emotion.

  Neph glanced to where Duchess Jadwin and her husband were seated on the platform. “I examined the throne room, and I felt something I’ve never encountered before. The entire castle smells of the magic that killed so many of our meisters. But some spots in the throne room simply… don’t. It’s like there was a fire in the house, but you walk into one room and it doesn’t smell like smoke.”

  Blood was flying now, and Garoth was reasonably certain that the man must be dead, but the squad continued beating, beating, beating.

  “That doesn’t match what we know of the silver ka’kari,” Garoth said.

  “No, Your Holiness. I think there’s a seventh ka’kari, a secret ka’kari. I think it negates magic, and I think this Night Angel has it.”

  Garoth thought about that as the ranks reformed, leaving a corpse before them. The man’s face had been utterly destroyed. It was impressive work. The squad had either worked hard to prove their commitment or they hadn’t liked the poor bastard. Garoth nodded, pleased. He extended the vir claw again and crushed the corpse’s head. “Your sacrifice is accepted. Thus are you cleansed.”

  Two of his bodyguards moved the corpse to the side of the platform. They were stacked there in their gore so that even though the Cenarians couldn’t see each man’s death, they would see the aftermath.

  When the next squad began, Garoth said, “A ka’kari hidden for seven hundred years? What mastery does it bestow? Hiding? What does that do for me?”

  “Your Holiness, with such a ka’kari, you or your agent could walk into the heart of the Chantry and take every treasure they have. Unseen. It’s possible your agent could enter Ezra’s Wood itself and take seven centuries’ worth of artifacts for you. There would then be no more need for armies or subtlety. At one stroke, you could take all Midcyru by the throat.”

  My agent. No doubt Neph would bravely volunteer to undertake the perilous task. Still, the mere thought of such a ka’kari occupied Garoth through the deaths of another teenager, two men in their prime, and a seasoned campaigner wearing one of the highest awards for merit that the Godking bestowed. That man alone had something akin to treason in his eyes.

  “Look into it,” Garoth said. He wondered if Khali knew of this seventh ka’kari. He wondered if Dorian knew of it. Dorian his first acknowledged son, Dorian who would have been his heir, Dorian the prophet, Dorian the Betrayer. Dorian had been here, Garoth was sure of it. Only Dorian could have brought Curoch, Jorsin Alkestes’ mighty sword. Some magus had appeared with it for a single moment and obliterated fifty meisters and three Vürdmeisters, then disappeared. Neph was obviously waiting for Garoth to ask about it, but Garoth had given up on finding Curoch. Dorian was no fool. He wouldn’t have brought Curoch so close if he thought he might lose it. How do you outmaneuver a man who can see the future?

  The Godking squinted as he crushed another head. Every time he did that, he got blood on his own snow-white clothing. It was deliberate—but irritating all the same, and there was nothing dignified about having blood squirt in your eye. “Your sacrifice is accepted,” he told the men. “Thus are you cleansed.” He stood at the front of the platform as the squad took its place back on the parade ground. For the entire review, he hadn’t turned to face the Cenarians who were sitting on the platform behind him. Now he did.

  The vir flared to life as he turned. Black tendrils crawled up his face, swarmed over his arms, through his legs, and even out from his pupils. He allowed them a moment to suck in light, so that the Godking appeared to be an unnatural splotch of darkness in the rising morning light. Then he put an end to that. He wanted the nobles to see him.

  There wasn’t an eye that wasn’t huge. It wasn’t solely the vir or Garoth’s inherent majesty that stunned them. It was the corpses stacked like cordwood to each side and behind him, framing him like a picture. It was the blood-and-brain-spattered white clothing he wore. He was awesome in his power, and terrible in his majesty. Perhaps, if she survived, he’d have Duchess Trudana Jadwin paint the scene.

  The Godking regarded the nobles and the nobles on the platform regarded the Godking. He wondered if any of them had yet counted their own number: thirteen.

  He extended his handful of straw toward his nobles. “Come,” he told them. “Khali will cleanse you.” This time, he had no intention of letting fate decide who would die.

  Commander Gher looked at the Godking. “Your Holiness, there must be some—” he stopped. Godkings didn’t make mistakes. Gher’s face drained of color. He drew a long straw. It was several moments before it occurred to him not to appear too relieved.

  Most of the rest were lesser nobles—the men and women who’d made the late King Aleine Gunder IX’s government work. They had all been so easily subverted. Extortion could be so simple. But it gained Garoth nothing to kill these peons, even if they had failed him.

  That brought him to a sweating Trudana Jadwin. She was the twelfth in the line, and her husband was last.

  Garoth paused. He let them look at each other. They knew, everyone who was watching knew that one or the other of them would die, and it all depended on Trudana’s draw. The duke was swallowing compulsively. Garoth said, “Out of all the nobles here, you, Duke Jadwin, are the only one who was never in my employ. So obviously you didn’t fail me. Your wife, on the other hand, did.”

  “What?” the duke asked. He looked at Trudana.

  “Didn’t you know she was cheating on you with the prince? She murdered him on my orders,” Garoth said.

  There was something beautiful about standing in the middle of what should be an intensely private moment. The duke’s fear-pale face went gray. He had clearly been even less perceptive than most cuckolds. Garoth could see realization pounding the poor man. Every dim suspicion he’d ever brushed aside, every poor excuse he’d ever heard was hammering him.

  Intriguingly, Trudana Jadwin looked stricken. Her expression wasn’t the self-righteousness Garoth expected. He’d thought she’d point the finger, tell her husband why it was his fault. Instead, her eyes spoke pure culpability. Garoth could only guess that the duke had been a decent husband and she knew it. She had cheated because she had wanted to, and now two decades of lies were colla
psing.

  “Trudana,” the Godking said before either could speak, “you have served well, but you could have served better. So here is your reward and your punishment.” He extended the straws toward her. “The short straw is on your left.”

  She looked into Garoth’s vir-darkened eyes and at the straws and then into her husband’s eyes. It was an immortal moment. Garoth knew that the plaintive look in the duke’s eyes would haunt Trudana Jadwin for as long she lived. The Godking had no doubt what she would choose, but obviously Trudana thought herself capable of self-sacrifice.

  Steeling herself, she reached for the short straw, then stopped. She looked at her husband, looked away, and pulled the long straw for herself.

  The duke howled. It was lovely. The sound pierced every Cenarian heart in the courtyard. It seemed pitched perfectly to carry the Godking’s message: this could be you.

  As the nobles—including Trudana—surrounded the duke with death in their hearts, every one of them feeling damned for their participation but participating all the same, the duke turned to his wife. “I love you, Trudana,” he said. “I’ve always loved you.” Then he pulled his cloak up over his face and disappeared in the thudding of flesh.

  The Godking could only smile.

  As Trudana Jadwin hesitated over her choice, Kylar thought that if he had taken Momma K’s job, now would be the perfect moment to strike. Every eye was on the platform.

  Kylar had turned toward Baron Kirof, studying what shock and horror looked like on his face, when he noticed that only five guards stood on the wall beyond the baron. He recounted quickly: six, but one of them held a bow and a handful of arrows in his bow hand.

  A harsh crack sounded from the center of the yard, and Kylar caught a glimpse of the back section of the temporary platform splitting off and falling. Something flashing scintillating colors flew up into the air. As everyone else turned toward it, Kylar turned away. The sparkle bomb exploded with a small concussion and an enormous flash of white light. As hundreds of civilians and soldiers alike cried out, blinded, Kylar saw the sixth soldier on the wall draw an arrow. It was Jonus Severing, a wetboy with fifty kills to his name. A gold-tipped arrow streaked toward the Godking.

 
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