The night angel trilogy, p.6
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.6

           Brent Weeks
 

  “So eager for death, little one?”

  Azoth couldn’t shake his head, couldn’t shake loose. The shadow had a hand like iron over his face. Slowly, he realized it was Master Blint.

  “Five days, kid. Five days you had to kill him.” He was whispering in Azoth’s ear, the faintest hint of garlic and onions laced through his breath. In front of them, Rat was talking with the guild, laughing and making them laugh with him. Some of Azoth’s lizards were there, laughing too, hoping to escape Rat’s notice.

  So it begins already. Whatever Azoth had accomplished was already coming apart. The rest of the lizards were gone. Doubtless they’d come crawling back later to see what had happened. Azoth couldn’t even be mad at them for it. In the Warrens, you did what you had to to survive. It wasn’t their failure; it was his. Blint was right: the bigs on either side of Rat were ready. Rat himself was ready. If Azoth had charged out there, he would have died. Or worse. All the time he’d had to plan, and he’d done nothing. He would have deserved that death.

  “Calm now, kid?” Blint asked. “Good. Because I’m going to show you what your hesitation cost.”

  Solon was ushered in to dinner by an old man with a stooped back and a smartly pressed uniform adorned with gold braid and the Gyre’s soaring white falcon on a field sable, which over the centuries had become barely recognizable as the gyrfalcon it was. A northern falcon. And not Khalidoran or even Lodricari, gyrfalcons were only found in the Freeze. So the Gyres are hardly more native to Cenaria than I am.

  Dinner was set in the great hall, a strange choice to Solon’s mind. It wasn’t that the great hall wasn’t impressive—it was too much so. It must have been almost as large as Castle Cenaria’s own great hall, adorned with tapestries, banners, shields of long-dead enemies, enormous canvasses, statuary in marble and gold leaf, and a ceiling mural depicting a scene from the Alkestia. In the midst of such grandeur, the table was dwarfed to insignificance, though it was fifteen paces long.

  “Lord Solon Tofusin, of House Tofusin, Windseekers of Royal House Bra’aden of the Island Empire of Seth,” the old man announced. Solon was pleased that the man had either known or dug up the appropriate titles, even if Seth was scarcely an empire these days. Solon walked forward to greet Lady Gyre.

  She was an attractive woman, stately, with the dark green eyes and the dusky skin and delicate bones of House Graesin. Though she had an admirable figure, she dressed modestly by Cenarian standards: the neckline high, the hemline coming down almost to her slim ankles, the gray gown fitted but not tight.

  “Blessings, my Lady,” Solon said, giving the traditional Sethi open-palmed bow, “may the sun smile upon you and all storms find you in port.” It was a little much, but so was having three people dine in a hall large enough to have its own weather.

  She hmmphed, not even bothering to speak to him. They sat and servants brought out the first course, a mandarin duck soup with fennel. “My son warned me of what you were, but you speak quite well, nor have you seen fit to put metal through your face. And you’re wearing clothes. I’m quite pleased.” Evidently the good duchess had heard about her son’s luck with sparring Solon and didn’t appreciate having her son humbled.

  “Is it true, then?” Logan asked. He was at one end of the table, his mother at the other, and Solon unfortunately in the middle. “Do the Sethi really go naked on their ships?”

  “Logan,” Catrinna Gyre said sharply.

  “No. If I may, Lady Gyre, that’s a common misperception. Our island splits the hottest current in the Great Sea, so it’s quite warm there even in the winter. In the summer, it’s nearly intolerable. So though we don’t wear as much clothing or as heavy clothing as people do here, we aren’t without our own standards of modesty.”

  “Modesty? You call women who run about on boats half-naked modest?” Lady Gyre asked. Logan looked enrapt by the idea.

  “Not all of them are modest, of course. But to us, breasts are about as erotic as necks. It might be pleasant to kiss them, but there’s no reason to—”

  “You go too far!” Lady Gyre said.

  “On the other hand, a woman who shows her ankles is obviously hoping not to go below decks alone. Indeed, Lady Gyre,” he lifted an eyebrow and pretended to look at her ankles, though they were too far away and on the other side of table legs. “Sethi women would think you quite brazen.”

  Catrinna Gyre’s face went ashen.

  Before she could say anything, though, Logan laughed. “Ankles? Ankles? That’s so… dumb!” He wolf-whistled. “Nice ankles, mother.” He laughed again.

  A servant arrived with the second course, but Solon didn’t even see him set it down. Why do I do this? It wouldn’t be the first time his sharp tongue had cut his own throat.

  “I see that your lack of respect isn’t confined to striking Lord Gyre,” the duchess said.

  Now he’s Lord Gyre. So, the men weren’t stupid; they weren’t babying Logan; she’d probably ordered them not to hit Logan in practice.

  “Mother, he was never disrespectful to me. And he didn’t mean to disrespect you, either.” Logan looked from his mother to Solon, and found stony gazes on each. “Did you, Lord Tofusin?”

  “Milady,” Solon said, “my father once told me that there are no lords on the practice field because there are no lords on the battlefield.”

  “Nonsense,” she said. “A true lord is always a lord. In Cenaria we understand this.”

  “Mother, he means that enemy swords cut nobles as surely as they cut peasants.”

  Lady Gyre ignored her son and said, “What is it that you want from us, Master Tofusin?”

  It was a rude thing to ask a guest, and not least for addressing him as a commoner. Solon had been counting on the Gyres’ courtesy to give him long enough to figure out that very thing. He had thought that he could watch and wait, dine with the Gyres at every meal, and be afforded a fortnight or two before he announced any intention of his plans. He thought he might like the boy, but this woman, gods! He might be better off with the Jadwin seductress.

  “Mother, don’t you think you’re being a little—”

  She didn’t even look at her son; she just raised her palm toward him and stared at Solon, unblinking.

  So that’s how it is.

  Logan wasn’t just her son. For all that he was only a boy, Logan was Catrinna Gyre’s lord. In that contemptuous gesture, Solon read the family’s history. She raised her hand, and her son was still young enough, still inexperienced enough, that he went silent like a good son rather than punished her like a good lord. In that contempt and the contempt she’d greeted him with, Solon saw why Duke Gyre had named his son Lord Gyre in his own absence. The duke couldn’t trust his own wife to rule.

  “I’m waiting,” Lady Gyre said. The chill in her voice made his decision.

  Solon didn’t like children, but he loathed tyrants. Damn you, Dorian. “I’ve come to be Lord Gyre’s adviser,” he said, smiling warmly.

  “Ha! Absolutely not.”

  “Mother,” Logan said, a touch of steel entering his voice.

  “No. Never,” she said. “In fact, Master Tofusin, I’d like you to leave.”

  “Mother.”

  “Immediately,” she said.

  Solon didn’t move, merely held his knife and two-pronged fork—he was glad he remembered how the Cenarians used the things—over his plate, willing himself not to move.

  “When are you going to let Lord Gyre act like Lord Gyre?” he asked her.

  “When he’s ready. When he’s older. And I will not be questioned by some Sethi savage who—”

  “Is that what the duke commanded you when he named his son lord in his absence? Let Logan be lord once he’s ready? My father once told me that delayed obedience is really disobedience.”

  “Guards!” she called.

  “Dammit, mother! Stop it!” Logan stood so abruptly his chair clattered to the ground behind him.

  The guards were halfway to Solon’s chair. They suddenly
looked caught, conspicuous. They looked at each other and slowed, vainly tried to approach quietly, their chain mail jingling with every step.

  “Logan, we’ll speak about this later,” Catrinna Gyre said. “Tallan, Bran, escort this man out. Now.”

  “I am the Gyre! Don’t touch him,” Logan shouted.

  The guards stopped. Catrinna’s eyes flashed fury. “How dare you question my authority. You second-guess your mother in front of a stranger? You’re an embarrassment, Logan Gyre. You shame your family. Your father made a terrible mistake in trusting you.”

  Solon felt sick, and Logan looked worse. He was shaken, suddenly wavering, about to fold. The snake. She destroys what she should protect. She shatters her own son’s confidence.

  Logan looked at Tallan and Bran. The men looked wretched to be so visibly witnessing Logan’s humiliation. Logan shrank, seemed to deflate.

  I have to do something.

  “My Lord Gyre,” Solon said, standing and drawing all eyes. “I’m terribly sorry. I don’t wish to impose on your hospitality. The last thing I would wish to be is an occasion for strife in your family, and indeed, I forgot myself and spoke too frankly to your mother. I am not always attuned to… tempering the truth for Cenarian sensibilities. Lady Gyre, I apologize for any offense you or your lord may have taken. Lord Gyre, I apologize if you felt I treated you lightly and will of course take my leave, if you will grant it.” A little twist on the if you will grant it.

  Logan stood straighter. “I will not.”

  “My lord?” Solon painted puzzlement on his face.

  “I’ve found too much tempering and not enough truth in this house, Lord Tofusin,” Logan said. “You’ve done nothing to offend me. I’d like you to stay. And I’m sure my mother will do all she can to make you feel welcome.”

  “Logan Gyre, you will not—” Catrinna Gyre said.

  “Men!” Logan said to the guards loudly to cut her off. “Lady Gyre is tired and overwrought. Escort her to her chambers. I’d appreciate it if one of you would watch her door this night in case she requires anything. We will all dine in the usual room in the morning.”

  Solon loved it. Logan had just confined his mother to her chambers and put a guard on the door to keep her there until morning, all without giving her an avenue for complaint. This boy will be formidable.

  Will be? He already is. And I’ve just chained myself to him. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. He hadn’t even decided to stay. Actually, half an hour ago, he’d decided not to decide for a few weeks. Now he was Logan’s.

  Did you know this would happen, Dorian? Dorian didn’t believe in coincidences. But Solon had never had his friend’s faith. Now, faith or no faith, he was committed. It made his neck feel tight, like wearing a slave collar two sizes too small.

  The rest of an excellent meal passed in silence. Solon begged his lord’s leave and went looking for the nearest inn that served Sethi wine.

  10

  Her face was destroyed. Azoth had once seen a man kicked square in the face by a horse. He’d died wheezing on broken teeth and blood. Doll Girl’s face was worse.

  Azoth looked away, but Durzo grabbed a handful of his hair and turned him back. “Look, damn you, look. This is what you’ve done, boy. This is what hesitation costs. When I say kill, you kill. Not tomorrow, not five days later. You kill that second. No hesitation. No doubts. No second thoughts. Obedience. Do you understand the word? I know better than you do. You know nothing. You are nothing. This is what you are. You are weakness. You are filth. You are the blood bubbling out of that little girl’s nose.”

  Sobs burst from Azoth’s throat. He thrashed and tried to turn away, but Durzo’s grip was steel. “No! Look! This is what you’ve done. This is your fault! Your failure! Your deader did this. A deader shouldn’t do anything. A deader is dead. Not five days from now—a deader is dead as soon as you take the contract. Do you understand?”

  Azoth threw up, and still Durzo held his hair, turning him so his vomit didn’t splatter on Doll Girl. When he was done, Durzo turned him around and let go. But Azoth turned away, not even wiping the puke from his lips. He looked at Doll Girl. She couldn’t last long. Every breath was labored. Blood welled, dribbled, dripped, slid onto the sheets, onto the floor.

  He stared until her face disappeared, until he was only seeing red angles and curves where once that doll-pretty face had been. The red angles went white-hot and branded his memory, searing him. He held perfectly still so the scars on his mind would give a perfect image of what he’d done, would perfectly match the lacerations on her face.

  Durzo didn’t say a word. It didn’t matter. He didn’t matter. Azoth didn’t matter. All that mattered was the bloody little girl lying on bloody sheets. He felt something inside collapsing, something squeezing the breath out of his body. Part of him was glad; part of him cheered as he felt himself being crushed, compacted into insignificance, into oblivion. This was what he deserved.

  But then it stopped. He blinked and noticed there were no tears in his eyes. He wouldn’t be crushed. Something in him refused to be crushed. He turned to Durzo.

  “If you save her, I’m yours. Forever.”

  “You don’t understand, boy. You’ve already failed. Besides, she’s dying. There’s nothing you can do. She’s worthless now. A girl on the street is worth exactly what she can get for whoring. Saving her life is no kindness. She won’t thank you for it.”

  “I’ll find you when he’s dead,” Azoth said.

  “You’ve already failed.”

  “You gave me a week. It’s only been five days.”

  Durzo shook his head. “By the Night Angels. So be it. But if you come without proof, I’ll end you.”

  Azoth didn’t answer. He was already walking away.

  She wasn’t dying fast, but she was certainly dying. Durzo couldn’t help but have a certain detached professional rage. It had been sloppy, cruel work. With the horrible wounds on her face, it was obvious that she had been intended to live and live with hideous scars that would forever shame her. But instead, she was dying, wheezing out her life through a broken bloody nose.

  There was nothing he could do for her, either. That was quickly evident. He’d killed both of the bigs who had been guarding her after the butchery, but he suspected that neither of them had been the cutter. They had both seemed a little too horrified at the evil they were part of. Some part of Durzo that still had a shred of decency demanded he go kill the twist who had done this immediately, but he’d tended to the little girl first.

  She was lying on a low cot in one of the smaller safe houses he owned in the Warrens. He cleaned her up as well as he could. He knew a lot about preserving life: he’d learned that as he learned about killing. It was just a matter of approaching the line between life and death from the opposite side. So it was quickly apparent that her wounds were beyond his skills. She’d been kicked, and she was bleeding inside. That would kill her even if the blood she was losing from her face didn’t.

  “Life is empty,” he told her still form. “Life is worthless, meaningless. Life is pain and suffering. I’m sparing you if I let you die. You’ll be ugly now. They’ll laugh at you. Stare at you. Point at you. Shudder. You’ll overhear their questions. You’ll know their self-serving pity. You’ll be a curiosity, a horror. Your life is worth nothing now.”

  He had no choice. He had to let her die. It was only kind. Not just, perhaps, but kind. Not just. The thought ate at him, and her ugliness and blood, her wheezing, ate at him.

  Maybe he needed to save her. For the boy. Maybe she would be just the goad to move him. Momma K said Azoth might be too kind. Maybe from this Azoth would learn to act first, act fast, kill anyone who threatened him. The boy had already waited too long. It was a risk either way. The boy had sworn himself to Durzo if he saved her, but what would having this cripple around do to a boy? She’d be a living reminder of failure.

  Durzo couldn’t allow Azoth to destroy himself over a girl. He wouldn’t allow it.
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  The wheezing decided him. He wouldn’t kill her himself, and he wasn’t such a coward that he’d run away and let her die alone. Fine. He’d do what he could to save her. If she died, it wasn’t his fault. If she lived, he’d deal with Azoth.

  But who the hell could save her?

  Solon stared at the dregs of his sixth glass of, to be charitable, lousy Sethi red. Any honest vintner on the island would have been ashamed to serve such dreck at their least favorite nephew’s coming of age. And dregs? The glass must have been at least half dregs. Someone needed to tell the innkeeper this wine wasn’t meant to be aged. It was supposed to be served within a year. At the outside. Kaede wouldn’t have tolerated it.

  So he told the innkeeper. And realized from the look on the man’s face that he’d already told him. At least twice.

  Well, to hell with it. He was paying good money for bad wine, and he kept hoping after a few glasses he might not notice just how bad it was. He was wrong. Every glass just made him a little more irritable about the poor quality. Why would someone ship a bad wine all the way across the Great Sea? Did they actually make a profit on it?

  As he put down another silver, he realized it was because of homesick fools like himself that they made a profit on it. The thought made him sick. Or maybe that was the wine. Someday he’d have to convince Lord Gyre to invest in Sethi wines.

  He slumped further in his chair and waved for another glass, ignoring the few other patrons and the bored innkeeper. This was really an inexcusable exercise in self-pity, the likes of which he would have whipped out of Logan Gyre if he saw him indulging in something so juvenile. But he’d traveled so far, and for what? He remembered Dorian’s smile, that mischievous little grin the girls never stopped cooing over.

  “A kingdom rests in your hands, Solon.”

  “What do I care about Cenaria? It’s half a world away!”

 
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