The night angel trilogy, p.61
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.61

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Of course not someone,” Garoth said. “But some… group. I find a small conspiracy much easier to swallow than a conspiracy of every southron saint who ever lived.” He paused, following the idea. “Think about their very names—Shadowbane, Fireheart, Starfire?—those aren’t surnames. They’re assumed names. If I’m right, it may be that Garric Shadowbane, Ferric Fireheart, and Gaelan Starfire were the champions of this group, their avatars, as it were.”

  “And their avatar today…?” Neph asked.

  Garoth smiled. “Now has a name. This morning, my Ladeshian bard sang. The man who walked these halls with a ka’kari, who killed my son, was either the legendary Durzo Blint or his apprentice Kylar Stern. Durzo Blint is dead. So if Kylar Stern is this avatar…” Garoth stopped dead. “It would explain why those heroes were willing to destroy a ka’kari. Because they couldn’t use another. Because they’d already bonded one. They were the bearers of the black ka’kari.”

  “Your Holiness, is it not possible that rather than destroy those ka’kari they kept them?”

  Garoth considered it. “It’s possible. And Kylar might not be allied with them at all.”

  “In which case they might be trying to add the black to their collection,” Neph said.

  “We can’t know that. We can’t know anything until we get Kylar Stern. My songbird will make the perfect assassin. In the meantime, Neph, contact every meister and agent we have in the southlands and tell them to keep an eye out. I don’t care if it costs me this entire kingdom, get me Kylar Stern. Alive, dead, whichever, just bring me that damned ka’kari.”

  14

  The first weeks in Hell’s Asshole had been the darkest, before Logan had become a monster. He’d made his bargains with the devil and with his own body. He’d eaten the meat that came to him that awful day, and when Fin had killed Scab, Logan had eaten flesh again. Logan had to kill Long Tom for that meat, and that killing had made him a monster. Being a monster made him safe. But he wasn’t content to be safe. He wasn’t content to merely survive. Logan lived with the feral, primal side of himself, but he wouldn’t let that be all he was.

  He shared his meat. He’d given some to Lilly, not for sex as the other Holers did, but for decency. She’d given him the advice that kept him human. He also shared with the other monsters: Tatts and Yimbo and Gnasher. He kept the choicest parts for himself—at least the choicest parts he could bear to eat. Arms and legs were one thing, but eating a man’s heart, his brains, his eyes, cracking his bones to suck the marrow, that Logan wouldn’t do. It was a thin line, and one he knew he would cross if things got much worse, but for now, he’d sunk deep enough, so he shared for squeamishness and he shared for nobility.

  It was his first step to reclaiming his humanity. Fin would kill him the first chance he had. The monsters didn’t care, so it was still possible to get them on his side. It wouldn’t be loyalty, but anything might make all the difference.

  Gnasher was a different story. Logan stayed close to Gnasher. He figured that the simpleton was the least likely to betray him, although he’d learned early on why Gnasher had been given his name. Every night, Gnasher ground his teeth. It was so loud that Logan was surprised the man had molars left.

  The third week in, Logan woke to the sudden silence of Gnasher’s teeth and listened in the darkness. Gnasher was listening, and his ears must have been better than Logan’s, because a moment later, Logan heard footsteps.

  Two Khalidoran guards appeared above their grate and looked down with distaste. The first was the one they hated. He opened the grate as he always did, and tossed their bread down the hole as he always did. It didn’t matter that they knew he was going to do it, the monsters and the animals alike, even Logan, got up and stood around the Hole, hoping to get lucky with a bad throw. It only happened once or twice, but that was enough to keep their hope alive.

  “Watch this,” the guard said. He tore open the last loaf and pissed all over it, soaking it in urine. Then he tossed it in.

  Logan, being the tallest, got most of it. He devoured it instantly, ignoring the stench, ignoring the warm wetness dripping down his chin, ignoring the debasement.

  The Khalidoran roared with laughter. The second guard laughed uncertainly.

  The next day the second guard came back, alone. He had bread, and it was clean, and he threw it to them, one loaf for each prisoner. With a thick accent and not looking any of them in the eye, he promised that he would bring bread every time he had a shift that he didn’t share with Gorkhy.

  That gave them all strength and hope and a name for the man they hated above all others.

  Slowly, society returned. That first night, everyone had been so overwhelmed just to have bread that they hadn’t even tried to steal loaves from each other. As they gained strength, they did fight. Within a few days, the mute Yimbo tangled with Fin and got killed. Logan watched, hoping for an opportunity to get Fin, but the fight was over too quickly. Fin’s knife was too much of an advantage.

  When the bread came, Logan made sure he got more than most—not only for the status, but to stay strong. He’d already lost every ounce of fat he’d ever had, and now he was losing his muscle. He was all sinews and lean hard muscles, but he was still big and he needed his strength. Still, he shared what he could with Lilly and Gnasher and Tatts.

  More than two months in he made a breakthrough. He’d been feeling nervous, getting more and more on edge about Fin, with his damn sinew ropes that kept getting longer. Logan slept and woke to the sound of the demons that he now sometimes imagined made the howling noise—it wasn’t wind, he was sure of that. It was either demons or the spirits of all the poor bastards who’d been thrown into the Hole over the centuries. His head throbbed in time with the howling. His jaw ached. He’d been grinding his teeth all night.

  Then he found his humanity.

  “Gnash,” he said. “Gnasher, come here.”

  The big man looked at him blankly.

  Logan scooted over and very slowly put his hands on Gnasher’s jaw. He was afraid that Gnasher might snap at him—and if Gnasher bit him, down here an infection and death were more likely than not—but he reached up anyway. Gnasher looked puzzled, but he let Logan slowly massage his jaw. In moments, the look on the simple man’s face changed. The tension in his face that Logan had assumed was part of his deformity relaxed.

  When Logan stopped, the man roared and grabbed Logan. Logan thought that he was going to die, but Gnasher just hugged him. When Gnasher released him, Logan knew he had a friend for life, no matter in this Hole life was nasty, brutish, and short. He would have wept—but he had no capacity for tears.

  She had to kill Jarl.

  Vi stood outside of Hu Gibbet’s safe house and leaned her head against the doorframe. She needed to go inside, face Hu, get ready, and go kill Jarl. As simple as that, and her apprenticeship would be done and she’d never have to face Hu again. The Godking had even promised she could kill Hu if she wanted.

  During the year Vi had spent learning the trade at Momma K’s, Jarl had been her only friend. He had gone out of his way to help, especially in her first weeks when she’d been such a disaster. Because of his handsome, exotic Ladeshian features, quick tongue, intelligence, and warmth, everyone had liked Jarl, and not just the men and women who lined up for his services. (Lined up only figuratively, of course. Momma K would never tolerate anything so crass as a queue in the Blue Boar.) But Vi had always felt a kind of special bond between them.

  Vi stopped thinking. She had a job to do. She checked the door again for traps. There were none. Hu got careless when he had company. She opened the door slowly, standing to one side and holding her open hands in the gap. Sometimes when Hu was blasted on mushrooms, he attacked first and didn’t ask questions. When no attack came, Vi walked in.

  Hu sat bare-chested in the corner of the cluttered front room in a rocking chair, but the chair was still and his eyes were closed. He wasn’t asleep, though. Vi was intimately attuned to her master’s every nua
nce; she knew how he breathed when he really slept. He held crochet hooks in his hands and a tiny, nearly completed white wool cap. A baby’s bonnet this time, the sick fuck.

  Pretending to believe he was asleep, Vi glanced in the bedroom. Two women were lying in the bed. Vi ignored them and started gathering her gear.

  Finding Jarl would be no problem. She had only to put out word that she wanted to meet with him, and he’d welcome her. His guards would make sure she had no weapons, but after a time alone with him, they’d relax or Jarl would dismiss the guards and she could kill him with her bare hands. The problem was how not to kill Jarl.

  She wasn’t going to do it. Fuck the Godking. But the only way the Godking would excuse her disobedience in this was if she could do something else that pleased him even more.

  Vi unlocked a wide cabinet and slid a drawer out. It held her collection of wigs, the best money could buy. Vi had become an expert at taking care of them, styling them, putting them on, and affixing them firmly enough for the rigors of her trade at a moment’s notice. There was something comforting about the tug on her scalp of a firm ponytail, sometimes drawn so tight under her wig that it gave her a headache. At Momma K’s, Vi had been introduced to a Talented courtesan who told Vi she could teach her to change the color or style of her own hair with the Talent, but Vi wasn’t interested. She might share her body, or Hu might take her body, but her hair was her own, and it was precious to her. She didn’t even like men to touch the wigs, but she could tolerate it. When she whored, she wore a wig for the slight margin of disguise it gave her—flaming redheads weren’t that common outside Ceura. When she was working as a wetboy, she wore her hair in that same tight ponytail. It was sensible, controlled, and efficient, just like her. The only time her hair hung loose was in the few minutes before bedtime, and then only when she was alone and safe.

  After selecting a fine, straight chin-length black wig and a long, wavy brunette, Vi grabbed the creams she needed to dye her eyebrows and makeup to darken her complexion, then packed her weapons.

  She was tying her saddlebags closed when a hand grabbed her breast and squeezed viciously. Vi gasped, flinching in pain and surprise, and hating herself a moment afterward. Hu chuckled low in her ear, pressing his body against her back. “Hello, gorgeous, where’ve you been?” he asked, trailing his hands down to her hips.

  “Working. Remember?” she said, turning with difficulty. When he let her turn, she knew he was still blasted.

  He wrapped himself around her, and the revulsion and hatred warred for one moment with the familiar passivity before losing. She let him push her head to one side so he could nuzzle her neck. He kissed her gently, then stopped. “You’re not wearing that perfume I like,” he said, still mellow, but with a note of surprise in his voice that she could be so stupid. Vi knew him well enough to know he was a hairsbreadth from violence.

  “I’ve been working. For the Godking.” Vi didn’t let the smallest iota of fear sneak into her voice. Showing fear to Hu was like throwing bloody meat to a pack of wild dogs.

  “Oooh,” Hu said, abruptly mellow once more. His eyes were widely dilated. “I’ve been having a little party. Celebrating.” He waved toward the bedroom. “I got a countess and a… damn, can’t remember, but the other one’s a wildcat. You wanna join us?”

  “What are you celebrating?” Vi asked.

  “Durzo!” Hu said. He released Vi abruptly and danced in a little circle, grabbing another mushroom off a table and popping it in his mouth, and trying to grab one more, but missing. “Durzo Blint is dead!” He laughed.

  Vi scooped up the mushroom he’d missed. “Really? I heard that rumor, but you’re sure?” Hu had always hated Durzo Blint. The two were mentioned in the same breath as the city’s best wetboys, but usually Durzo’s name came first. Hu had killed men for saying that, but he’d never gone after Durzo. If he’d thought he could kill Durzo, she knew, he would have.

  “Momma K was friends with him, and she didn’t believe he was dead, so she took some men to where he was buried—and sure enough! Dead dead dead.” Hu laughed again. He grabbed the mushroom from Vi, then stopped dancing. “Unlike his apprentice, the job you fucked up.” He took a flask of poppy spirits and drank. “I was going to go kill him, you know, just to piss off Blint’s ghost. A hundred crowns I wasted in bribes, and turns out he left the city. Whoa,” he rocked on his feet. “That one was potent. Help me sit down.”

  Vi’s chest tightened. That was her answer. Kylar Stern was the Night Angel. He’d killed the Godking’s son. Killing Kylar was the only thing that might please the Godking enough for him to forgive for not killing Jarl. She grabbed Hu’s arm and guided him to his chair, making sure he avoided the razor-lined baby bonnet. “Where is he, master? Where did he go?”

  “You know, you don’t come around enough. After all I’ve done for you, you bitch.” His face turned ugly and he pulled her roughly into his lap. The minutes before Hu passed out were dangerous: he might fumble weakly as a drunk, and then use the crushing strength of his Talent to compensate and hurt or kill her accidentally. So she fell into his arms, quiescent, making herself numb. Hu was distracted by her body. He tried to caress her, but fumbled his hand across the folds of her tunic instead.

  “Where is Blint’s apprentice, master?” Vi asked. “Where did he go?”

  “He moved to Caernarvon, gave up the way of shadows. Who’s the best now, huh?”

  “You’re the best,” Vi said, easing off his lap. “You’ve always been the best.”

  “Viridiana,” Hu said. She froze. He never called her by her full name. She turned warily, wondering if the mushrooms had been harmless, the poppy wine just water. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d pretended intoxication to test her loyalty. But Hu’s eyes were half-lidded, his figure totally relaxed in his chair. “I love you,” Hu said. “These bitches got nothing…” his words trailed off and his breath took on the cadence of sleep.

  Vi suddenly wanted to bathe. She grabbed her saddlebags and her sword. Then stopped.

  Hu was unconscious. She was sure of it. She could draw her blade and bury it in his heart in less than a second. He deserved it a hundred times over. He deserved a hundred times worse. She took the hilt in her hand and drew the blade slowly, silently. She turned and looked at her master, thinking of a thousand humiliations he’d inflicted on her. A thousand defilements until he’d broken her. It was hard to breathe.

  Vi turned on her heel, sheathed the sword, and flung the saddlebags over her shoulder. She got as far as the door, then paused. She walked back to the bedroom. The women were awake now, one blasted with a glassy-eyed stare, the other one buck-toothed and busty.

  “Hu gets bored,” Vi said. “I give you a coin flip chance of living through every day you spend with him. If you want to leave, he’s asleep now.”

  “You’re just jealous,” the buck-toothed one said. “You just want him for yourself.”

  “Your funeral,” Vi said, and left.

  15

  Is the Sa’kagé at war, or not?” Brant asked.

  Jarl shifted in his seat. Momma K said nothing. She was letting him lead, if he could.

  The safe house had taken on the appearance of a war room, that was sure. Brant had brought maps. He was gathering data on Khalidoran troop strength, noting where each unit was stationed, where food and supplies were distributed, and constructing a chart of the Khalidoran military hierarchy, cross-referenced with where the Sa’kagé had informants, along with ratings of the informants’ reliability and access.

  “That’s a more difficult question to answer than—” Jarl said.

  “No,” Brant said. “It’s not.”

  “I feel that we’re in a kind of war—”

  “You feel? Are you a leader or a poet, sissy boy?”

  “Sissy boy?” Jarl demanded. “What’s that mean?”

  Momma K stood up.

  “Sit down,” both men said.

  They looked at each other, scowling. Momma K sniffe
d, and sat. After a moment, Jarl said, “I’m waiting for an answer.”

  “Do you have a dick or do you just suck them?” Brant asked.

  “Are you hoping to get lucky?” Jarl asked.

  “Wrong answer,” Brant said, shaking his head. “A good leader is never snide—”

  Jarl punched him in the face. The general collapsed. Jarl stood over him, and drew a sword. “That’s how I lead, Brant. My enemies underestimate me, and I hit them when they aren’t expecting it. I listen to you, but you serve me. The next time you make a dick comment, I’ll have yours fed to you.” His face was cool. He brought the sword up between Brant’s legs. “That’s not an idle threat.”

  Brant found his crutch, stood with Jarl’s help and brushed off his new clothes. “Well, we’ve just had a teachable moment. I’m touched. I think I’ll write a poem. Your answer is…?”

  The poem comment almost set Jarl off. He was about to say something when he saw Momma K’s mouth twitch. It was a joke. So this is military humor. Jarl shook his head. This was going to be a challenge.

  Good gods, the man was a bulldog. “We’re at war,” Jarl said, not liking the feeling of giving in.

  “How good is your grip on the Sa’kagé?” Brant asked. “Because I’ve got serious problems here. Or rather, you do.”

  “Not great,” Jarl said. “The Khalidorans have had a galvanizing influence, but revenue is way down, and command is breaking down: people not reporting to superiors, that sort of thing. A lot of people think the occupation is bound to get easier now. They want business as usual.”

  “Sounds smart of them. What’s your master plan to oppose them?”

  Jarl frowned. There was no master plan, and Brant made that seem incredibly stupid. “We—I—had planned to see what they did. I wanted to learn more about them and then oppose them however I needed to.”

  “Does it strike you as a good idea to let your enemy launch fully formed stratagems on you and then be forced to react from a position of weakness?” Brant asked.

 
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