The night angel trilogy, p.62
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.62

           Brent Weeks

  “That’s more a rhetorical bludgeon than a question, general,” Jarl said.

  “Thank you,” the general said. Momma K suppressed a smile.

  “What do you propose?” Jarl asked.

  “Gwinvere ruled the Sa’kagé in total secrecy, with puppet Shingas, right?”

  Jarl nodded.

  “So who’s been the puppet Shinga since Khalidor invaded?”

  Jarl winced. “I, uh, haven’t exactly installed one.”

  “Not exactly?” Brant arched a bushy gray eyebrow.

  “Brant,” Momma K said. “A little gentler.”

  Brant adjusted his arm in its sling, wincing. “Look at it from the street, Jarl. For more than a month, they’ve had no leader. Not just a bad leader. None. Gwinvere’s little government has been helping everyone and so far it’s going well, but your Sa’kagé thugs—sorry, people—have been in the same boat as everyone else. So why keep paying dues? Gwinvere was able to be a shadow Shinga, because there was never a threat like this. This is a war. You need an army. Armies need a leader. You need to be that leader, and you can’t do that from the shadows.”

  “If I announce who I am, they’ll kill me.”

  “They’ll try,” Brant said. “And they’ll succeed unless you can collect a core of competent people who are absolutely loyal to you. People willing to kill and to die for you.”

  “These aren’t soldiers from good families who’ve been brought up on loyalty and duty and courage,” Jarl said. “We’re talking about thieves and prostitutes and pickpockets, people who only think about themselves and their own survival.”

  “And that’s what they’ll say,” Momma K said so quietly Jarl barely heard her, “unless you see what they may be, and make them see it.”

  “When I was a general, my best soldiers came from the Warrens,” Brant said. “They became the best because they had everything to gain.”

  “So what exactly do you propose?” Jarl asked.

  “I propose you work yourself out of a job,” Brant said. “Give your crooks a dream of a better life, a better way for their children, and a chance to see themselves as heroes, and you’ll have yourself an army.”

  He paused to let it sink in, and soon Jarl’s heart was pounding, his mind racing. It was audacious. It was big. It was a chance to use power for more than just keeping power. He could see the outlines of a plan starting to fit together. His mind was already tapping what people he would place in which positions. Fragments of speeches were glomming together. Oh, it was seductive. Brant wasn’t just telling Jarl to give the crooks a dream; Brant was giving Jarl a dream. He could be a different type of Shinga. He could be noble. Revered. If he were successful, he could probably even become legitimate, be given real titles by whichever noble family he put back in power. Gods, it was seductive!

  But it meant revealing himself. Committing himself. Right now, he was a secret. Everyone thought he was just a retired rent boy. Less than a dozen people knew he was the Shinga. If he wanted to, he could just stop communicating with them. If he didn’t try, he couldn’t fail.

  “Jarl,” Momma K said, her voice gentle. “Just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it’s a lie.”

  He looked from one to the other of them, wondering how deeply they read him. Momma K probably read him to the core. It was scary. He should have suspected something just by her silence, but he couldn’t be angry with her. She’d had more patience with him than he deserved.

  Work myself out of a job. Elene had said she couldn’t imagine Cenaria without the Sa’kagé polluting everything, but Jarl could. It would be a city where birth on the west side didn’t mean hopelessness, exploitation, time in the guilds, poverty, and death. He’d been lucky to get a job working for Momma K. The Warrens offered almost no honest jobs, certainly not for orphans. The Sa’kagé was fed directly from a self-renewing underclass of whores and thieves who abandoned their children as they themselves had been abandoned before. But it could be different, couldn’t it?

  Just because it’s a dream doesn’t mean it’s a lie. They were suggesting he inject hope into the Warrens. “Fine,” Jarl said. “On one condition, Brant: if they kill me—whichever they it happens to be—I want you to write a poem for my funeral.”

  “Agreed,” the general said, grinning, “and I’ll make it real emotional.”


  Kylar sat on the bed in the darkness looking at Elene’s sleeping form. She was the kind of girl who just couldn’t stay up late, no matter how she tried. The sight of her filled him with such tenderness and wretchedness he could hardly bear it. Since she’d promised not to ask him to sell Retribution, she’d been true to her word. No surprise there, but she hadn’t even hinted.

  He loved her. He wasn’t good enough for her.

  He’d always believed that you became like those you spent your time with. Maybe that was part of it. He loved all the things about her that he wasn’t. Openness, purity, compassion. She was smiles and sunshine, and he belonged to the night. He wanted to be a good man, ached for it, but maybe some people were just born better than others.

  After that first night, he’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t kill again. He would go out and train, but he wouldn’t kill. So he trained for nothing and honed abilities he’d sworn not to use. Training was a pale imitation of battle, but he would be satisfied with it.

  His resolution held for six days, then he was down at the docks and found a pirate savagely beating a cabin boy. Kylar had only intended to separate them, but the pirate’s eyes demanded death. Retribution delivered it. On the seventh night, he’d been practicing simply hiding outside a midtown tavern, trying to avoid places that were likely to bring him across pimps or thieves or rapists or murderers. A man had passed by who ran a circle of child pickpockets—a tyrant who kept the children in line through sheer brutality. Retribution found the man’s heart before Kylar could stop himself On the eighth night, he’d been in the nobles’ district, hoping to find less violence there, when he heard a nobleman beating his mistress. The Night Angel came in invisibly and broke both the man’s arms.

  Kylar held Retribution in his lap, looking at Elene. Every day, he promised himself he wouldn’t kill, not ever again, and he hadn’t killed for six nights. But part of him knew that was because he’d been lucky. The worst part of it was that he didn’t feel guilty for the murders. He’d felt awful every time he’d killed for Durzo. These kills did nothing. He felt guilty only for lying.

  Maybe he was becoming a Hu Gibbet. Maybe he needed killing now. Maybe he was becoming a monster.

  Each day he worked with Aunt Mea. Durzo had rarely praised Kylar, so he’d never realized how much he had learned from the old wetboy, but as Kylar spent hours with Aunt Mea, cataloguing her herbs, repackaging some of them so they would keep longer, throwing out those that had lost their potency, labeling the rest with dates and notes on their origins, he began to see how much he did know. He was nowhere near Durzo’s level of proficiency, but the man had had a few centuries on him.

  He had to be careful, though. Aunt Mea used many herbs medicinally that he had used for poison. She had once set aside the roots of a silverleaf, saying they were too dangerous and that she could only use the leaves. Without thinking, he’d drawn up a chart of the lethal doses of the plant’s leaves, roots, and seeds by their various preparations, whether in a tincture, a powder, a paste, or a tea, cross-referenced by body weight, sex, and age of the—he almost wrote of the “deader,” and only changed it to “patient” at the last second. When he looked up, Aunt Mea was staring at him.

  “I’ve never seen such a detailed chart,” she said. “This is… very impressive, Kylar.”

  He tried to be more careful after that, but they consistently ran into the same problems. Over his career, Durzo had experimented thousands of times with all kinds of herbs. When he’d had a deader that he could kill without a deadline, he’d tried five or six different herbs. Kylar was beginning to appreciate that Durzo had probably known mo
re about herbs than anyone alive—though he had usually been hired to kill healthy people, so sometimes what Kylar knew was useless.

  One day, a man came to Aunt Mea’s shop desperate for help. His master was dying and four other physickers had been unable to help him. Aunt Mea sometimes did more than midwifing so the servant had come to her as a last resort. But Aunt Mea had been gone. Kylar had felt too awkward to go to the sick man’s house, but after quizzing the servant, he’d made a potion. He heard later that the man recovered. It was strangely warming. He’d saved a life, just like that.

  Still, he felt guilty living on Aunt Mea’s charity. He’d spent several weeks putting her shop in order, because despite her gift for working with people, her organization skills were abominable. But he hadn’t done anything valuable for her. He wasn’t making her any money. Elene had gotten a job as a maid, but the pay was barely enough to cover their food. Braen was getting more and more surly, muttering about freeloaders, and Kylar couldn’t blame him.

  Kylar brushed his fingertips over Retribution. Every time he strapped the blade on, he acted as judge and executioner. The blade had become the emblem of his oath-breaking.

  Not tonight. Kylar put it back in its box and, gathering his Talent, leapt out the window. He crossed the roofs to find Golden Hair’s house and put everything else out of his mind. He had to worry all day long; he wasn’t going to ruin his nights too.

  The whole family was there, asleep in their little one-room shack. Kylar turned to go but something stopped him. The girl and her father were asleep. The mother’s lips were moving. At first, Kylar thought she was dreaming, but then her eyes opened and she got out of bed.

  She didn’t light any candles. She briefly looked out the narrow window, where Kylar stood invisible. She looked afraid, so much so that he double-checked his invisibility. But her eyes weren’t fixed on him. He looked behind himself, but there was nobody in the street. Golden Hair’s mother shivered and knelt by the bed.

  Praying! Sonuvabitch. Kylar was at once embarrassed and angry to witness something so personal. He wasn’t sure why. He cursed silently and turned to go.

  Three armed men were coming down the street. Kylar recognized two of them as the guys who’d chased Golden Hair the other night.

  “She’s a wytch, I’m telling you,” one of the thugs said to the man Kylar didn’t recognize.

  “It’s true, Shinga, I swear,” the other said.

  You’re joking. Caernarvon’s Shinga himself was checking out some thugs’ story about a wytch? A wytch! As if a wytch would have tripped the men rather than killing them.

  Kylar heard something and looked back inside. The woman had woken her husband and both were praying now. It was odd, because from their bed, there was no way they could have seen the Sa’kagé thugs. Maybe the woman had some Talent.

  Praying for protection. Kylar sneered, and the small mean part of him wanted to leave. Let their God solve his own problems. Kylar got as far as turning his back, but he couldn’t do it.

  “Barush,” one of the thugs whispered to the Shinga. “What do we do?”

  The Shinga slapped the man.

  “Sorry! Sorry!” the man whined. “I mean, Shinga Sniggle, what do we do?”

  “We kill them.”

  Good gods. It was stunning. The Sa’kagé here was such a bad parody of a Sa’kagé that Kylar wanted to laugh. Except it wasn’t funny. The Shinga slapped men to get their respect? In Cenaria, when Pon Dradin had looked at men with less than full approval, they wilted. And he hadn’t even been the real Shinga.

  Kylar almost left from sheer disgust. The ineptitude!

  Still, one didn’t need much to kill. A wetboy knew that.

  Oh, it made a lovely quandary, didn’t it? Here he was, maybe one of the most skilled killers in the world. He could kill all three men before they could make a sound. And yet he couldn’t even hurt them. In front of him were the dregs of the underworld, and they would kill while he couldn’t. Lovely.

  They were only twenty paces away. “What if… what if she uses wytchery again, Shinga?” Of course they didn’t bother to formulate their plan before they got to the target. That would be a bit professional.

  Barush Sniggle snorted, approaching the door. “I ain’t afraid of that shit.”

  As Kylar saw the man’s eyes, his hand went to his back—but Retribution was gone. His momentary surprise was enough to break him free of the killing impulse. He’d sworn. Damn him, he’d sworn. There had to be another way. Tonight, there would be another way.

  So Kylar materialized in front of the Shinga. Or rather, parts of him did. He let some light shine through the ka’kari that covered him so that he appeared with a smoky translucence. The curve of an oily-iridescent black bicep shimmered in and out of visibility, then the curve of broad shoulders, the V of his torso, the lines of his chest muscles—all of them exaggerated so they seemed larger than they were. They faded in and out of sight like a ghost.

  Barush Sniggle froze, and then Kylar topped it with his masterstroke. The ka’kari became solid over his eyes, making them gleam like metallic black jewels in midair. Then the rest of his face appeared, covered in a mask of black shimmering metal molded to his skin. It was menacing. It was more than menacing. It was the very face of Judgment, of Retribution made flesh, and at what Kylar saw within the Shinga’s eyes—hatredenvygreedmurder betrayal—the mask became fierce. Kylar had to dig his fingernails into his palms to keep from ending him.

  The Shinga dropped his cudgel, nerveless. Kylar wasn’t surprised; he knew what the man was seeing—because, well, because he’d practiced it in the mirror.

  “This family,” Kylar said in a voice as silky soft as a stalking cat, “is under my protection.”

  He brought his left hand up and flexed it. With a hiss, the ka’kari slid out into a long, smoking punch dagger. Low blue fire sprang up in his eyes. It was totally gratuitous—it spoiled his night vision, not to mention feeling unpleasant, but the effect was worth it.

  The Shinga shook, petrified, his mouth slack, and Kylar saw a stain spreading on the man’s trousers and a puddle collecting around his feet.

  “Run,” Kylar said, showing a glimpse of blue fire in his mouth. I’m not going to taste anything for a week.

  The thugs broke and ran, dropping their weapons, but Kylar felt no satisfaction. Just when he thought he couldn’t paint himself any further into a corner, he’d done so brilliantly. What had Durzo Blint told him more than a decade ago? “A threat’s a promise, boy. On the street, you can lie about everything except your threats. An empty threat is surrender.”

  Feeling sick, Kylar looked into the house. The woman and her husband were still kneeling by their bed, holding hands. They hadn’t seen or heard anything. As Kylar looked in, though, the woman squeezed her husband’s hand.

  “We’re going to be all right,” she finally said aloud. “I can tell. I feel better now.”

  I’m glad one of us does.

  “Not that long ago, you in this room were wives, mothers, a potter, a brewer, a seamstress, a ship captain, a glass blower, an importer, a moneychanger,” Jarl said.

  This was Jarl’s sixth time preaching and it hadn’t gotten easier. As he looked around at the rent girls and bashers of the Craven Dragon gathered before their shift, he saw awkwardness. They were whores now—and not by choice. Most didn’t like to acknowledge that they had ever been anything else. It was too hard.

  “Not that long ago,” Jarl said. “I was a bender.”

  That lifted eyebrows, though Jarl bet they already knew he’d been a rent boy. He’d chosen the slur on purpose, to show it had no power over him. Even among whores, rent boys were second-class. They might be adored by the girls, but the clientele treated male prostitutes like dirt. A whore—though a whore—was still a woman, but a bender was something less than a man. That the new Shinga used to be one wasn’t the kind of thing one would expect him to admit, much less announce.

  “Not that long ago, the Sa’kagé
was primarily smuggling riot weed and tobacco and whiskey,” he said.

  Together, Jarl and Momma K had set up a lot of new brothels since the invasion. Most of them barely broke even, but that wasn’t the point. They’d done it to protect as many women and men as they could. The Craven Dragon, however, was one of the lucrative ones because it catered to the exotic. There was a girl named Daydra who could have been Elene Cromwyll’s twin, without the scars. Virginal was her gig. Her suitemate, Kaldrosa Wyn, played a Sethi pirate. There were silk-clad Ladeshians and heavily kohled Modainis and bell-wearing Ymmuri dancing girls.

  “Now,” Jarl said, and paused, “you’re whores, I’m the Shinga, and the Sa’kagé still smuggles the same damned things. Like nothing’s changed. But I’ll tell you something: I’ve changed. I got out. I’m different. I took my second chance and did something with it, and you can, too.” It was the only part of the sermon Jarl thought might be a lie.

  He’d asked Momma K about it. “Why don’t people argue about whether the earth is flat?” she asked.

  Jarl shrugged. “It’s general knowledge.”

  “Exactly,” she said. “The things that evoke passion are the things we can’t know for certain.”

  “Ah, like the gods,” Jarl said.

  “It doesn’t matter whether you’re sure everything you say is true. It matters that you passionately want to believe they’re true—because then you’ll be compelling. And in the end, what matters is not whether the girls believe your arguments. What matters is that they believe in you.”

  It was the kind of thing the old Momma K would have said. Jarl was vaguely disappointed. She had seemed different after the coup, after Kylar had poisoned her and given her the antidote. Perhaps the pressure of looking in the face of unrelenting evil was destroying her hope. But her pragmatism had the ring of truth, so Jarl preached on.

  Jarl hadn’t banged since he’d become Shinga. He hadn’t slept with a man since he left Stephan’s house the night of the invasion, but he hadn’t slept with a woman, either. He’d survived all his life by doing what he had to, always building his web of friends and influence, always looking to the future when he wouldn’t have to whore.

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