The night angel trilogy, p.63
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.63

           Brent Weeks
 

  That future had arrived so suddenly he didn’t know what to do with it. Freedom lay useless in his hands. He didn’t know how to feel. It reminded him of Harani iron bulls. He’d never seen one, of course, but it was said they captured the young calves and bound them to a stake with thick chains. By the time the iron bulls were full grown—more than fifteen feet high at their mighty shoulders—they could snap the chains, but they didn’t. Their handlers staked them out with thin rope. The iron bulls were so sure they couldn’t get free, they never tried.

  Jarl had been chained to sex and pleasing his clientele for so long that now he felt sexless. He’d never had a choice before. Most of his clients were men, but there had been women too, from the entire range of levels of attractiveness. Now that he had a choice, he couldn’t make it. He couldn’t have said with any certainty whether he would have preferred men or women if the life of a rent boy hadn’t been forced on him.

  The girls at the brothels treated him differently now. They looked at him differently. They flirted.

  It was terrifying. Flirtation carried demands. There were appropriate and inappropriate responses to learn and he didn’t know the rules of sex outside a brothel. His regulars had always spoken of it as being unsatisfying—but then their experiences couldn’t exactly be representative or everyone would be regulars at a brothel, wouldn’t they?

  He was losing his focus. He couldn’t think about this now. Hope had to be sold as a whole package.

  “Of all the women in the Warrens,” Jarl said, “you’re the luckiest. You were lucky enough to become whores here.” He shook his head. “Lucky enough to become whores. Six months ago, most of you would have crossed the street rather than pass a whore. Now you are whores, and I’m the Shinga, and the Sa’kagé is still doing the same damn things.

  “King Ursuul thinks you’re finished. He plans to let the winter kill off most everyone in the Warrens. He figures that by the time the food riots get going, everyone will be so weak his soldiers will have no trouble with us. He figures that the Sa’kagé is too passive and too greedy to stop him. He plans to split us apart by offering us scraps off his table to destroy each other. The funny thing is,” Jarl said, “he’s right. We’ve learned that in the spring he’s bringing down another army and a few thousand colonists, all of them men. He plans to kill everyone in the Warrens except you. Again, you’ll be the lucky ones. You’ll be married off to whichever Khalidoran buys you.

  “Now maybe the Khalidorans will change and they’ll stop with the beatings and the bedroom humiliations once you’re their wives. Ursuul expects that you are such cowards you’ll hold onto that diseased hope. He expects that sick hope to paralyze you until it’s too late, until your men are dead, your friends are scattered, and the Sa’kagé’s strength is broken. In a year, you’ll start bearing sons for your new Khalidoran husbands and have the joy of watching them turn into monsters who treat their wives as their fathers treat you. It’ll be normal. You’ll bear daughters who will think it’s normal to be kicked and spit on and forced to—well, you know all the things they’ll be forced to do. Your daughters won’t resist. They’ll look to your cowardice and believe that such is a woman’s lot. It’ll be normal. That’s what the king expects will happen, and he’s been right about everything so far.”

  Jarl had them now. He could see the horror in their eyes. Most rent girls thought only of today. They weren’t stupid. They knew they couldn’t work the sheets forever, but because they didn’t see any good options for the future, they decided not to think about the future at all. It was too crushing.

  These women were in survival mode. Raising the specter of bearing their own daughters into the same life forced them to think beyond themselves, beyond today. And Jarl hadn’t been lying. These women would be the best off. If he could sell the women who had the most to lose, half the battle would be won.

  “Things have changed in the last few months for each of us, for each of you and for me. Now I say it’s time for things to change for all of us together. I say it’s time for the Sa’kagé to change. We’ve been at war and we’ve been losing. Do you know why? Because we haven’t been fighting. The Khalidorans want us to quietly die? Fuck ’em. We’ll fight in ways they’ve never seen. The Khalidorans are going to starve us? Fuck ’em. If we can smuggle riot weed, we can smuggle grain. They want to kill your men? We’ll hide ’em. They want to conduct raids? We’ll know where they’re going before they do. They want to gamble? We’ll cheat. They want to drink? We’ll piss in their beer.”

  “What can we do?” one of the girls asked. It was a planted question.

  He smiled. “Right now? I want you to dream. I want you to think—not about going back to what we had before Khalidor came—I want you to dream of something better. I want you to dream of a day when being born in the Warrens doesn’t guarantee dying in the Warrens. I want you to dream of getting a second chance and what could happen for this city and this country if everyone got a second chance. Dream of raising your children in a city where they don’t have to be afraid all the time. A city without corrupt judges or Sa’kagé extortion. A city with a dozen bridges over the Plith, and not a guard on one of them. A city where things are different—because of us.

  “I know you’re scared right now. Your shift starts in a few minutes, and you have to go face those fuckers again. I know. It’s fine to be frightened, but I’m telling you, be brave inside. The time is coming when you will be needed. If the nobles want to win this war and take this country back, they’re going to need us, and our help is going to come at a price. Our price is a city that’s different, and you and I get to decide how. You and I have that power. So for now, we can go on with things as usual, or we can dream and get ready. Out of everyone in the Warrens, you ladies have the most to lose.” He walked over to the pirate girl Kaldrosa Wyn and touched her cheek beneath one blackened eye.

  “But tell me, is this what you gave up your husband for? A crown for a black eye, one more when they hurt you so bad you can’t work the next day? Is this what you deserve?”

  Tears leaked from Kaldrosa’s eyes.

  “I say hell no. You came here because it was the best you could do. You get a crown for a black eye because it’s the best Momma K could negotiate. As your Shinga, I’m here to tell you that the best isn’t good enough. We’ve been thinking too small. We’ve been trying to survive, and I for one am sick of surviving. The next time I hear a scream of pain, I want it to come from a Khalidoran throat.”

  “Hell yes,” one of the girls whispered.

  He could see passion burning in their eyes now. Gods, they looked fierce!

  Jarl raised a hand. “For now, just watch, just wait. Be ready. Be brave. Because when our chance to roll the bones comes, we’re gonna cheat and we’re gonna roll three sixes.”

  “Honey,” Elene said, shaking Kylar gently. “Honey, get up.”

  “Ass,” he said.

  “What?”

  “AAASSSS.”

  Elene laughed. “You do look like someone sat on you,” she said, hugging him. She sniffed and grimaced. “And you do stink…”

  “Ass,” he said, wounded.

  “Honey. We’ve got to go shopping today, remember?”

  He grabbed a pillow and pulled it over his head. Elene leaned over to grab the pillow, but Kylar wouldn’t let go of it. So she sang the good morning song. It consisted of the words good and morning, repeated thirty-seven times. It was one of Kylar’s favorites. “GOOD morn-ing, good MORN-ing, good morning, GOOD morning…”

  “ASS assing, ass ASSing, ass assing,” Kylar harmonized into the pillow.

  She pulled on the pillow and Kylar grabbed her and flipped her onto the bed next to him. He was so strong and so quick there was no resisting. He pulled the pillow away, rolled on top of her, and kissed her.

  “Uhn uhn!” she said. Oh, his lips felt good.

  “What?” he asked thirty seconds later.

  “Morning mouth,” she said, grimacing. It was a lie,
of course. With the way his lips felt, she wouldn’t have cared if he did have bad breath. But he didn’t. His breath never smelled. Not just never smelled bad; he could chew mint leaves or moldy cheese and his breath wouldn’t smell at all. It was the same with the rest of his body. Put perfume on him, and it just disappeared. Probably something to do with the ka’kari, he’d guessed.

  So now he smiled his mock-predatory smile. “I’ll show you morning mouth,” he said. He pushed through her flailing hands and kissed her neck, and then lower on her neck, and then he was pulling down the neckline of her dressing gown and her hands weren’t flailing anymore and his lips—

  “Ah! Shopping!” she rolled out of his arms. He let her go.

  Kylar flopped back on the bed and she pretended to straighten her dress while she admired the muscles of his bare torso. Aunt Mea had taken Uly out for the day. The house was empty. Kylar was so cute when his hair was squashed from sleep, and he was gorgeous, and his lips were the most amazing things in the world. Not to mention his hands. She wanted to feel his skin against hers. She wanted to put her hands on his chest. And vice versa.

  Sometimes in the morning they cuddled while he was barely conscious, and it had become her favorite time of day. Once or twice her shift had ridden up during the night and she had found herself spooned against him, skin to skin. Well, maybe her shift didn’t ride up all by itself, and she wouldn’t have dared it if she didn’t know he’d been out for hours the night before and wouldn’t possibly wake up.

  It made her warm just thinking about it. Why not? part of her asked. So there were the religious reasons. Can an ox and a wolf be yoked together? She didn’t even know if Kylar believed in the God. He always got uncomfortable when she talked about it. Her foster mother had told her to make her decisions before she got her heart involved, but that was water under the bridge and down the river and around the bend. Uly needed her. Kylar needed her, and she had never been needed like that before. Kylar made her feel beautiful and good. He made her feel like a lady. He made her feel like a princess. He loved her.

  He practically was her husband. They said they were married, they lived together, slept in the same bed, acted as father and mother to Uly. Probably the only reason she hadn’t already made love with Kylar was that by the time he actually touched her most nights, she was so tired she could barely move. If he tried in the morning what he did at night, she’d have surrendered her maidenhead in about five seconds. She could almost feel his breath in her ear. She imagined doing some of the things Aunt Mea had talked about so blithely—things that had set her face burning, but sounded ever so wonderful. She was feeling so brazen that she even knew which one she’d try first.

  Didn’t the scriptures say “let your yes be yes and your no be no”? She’d said she was Kylar’s wife. He’d said he was her husband. She’d take him past the ringery Aunt Mea had told her about and they could formalize things in the Waeddryner way later. Afterward.

  Kylar sat up in bed and she leaned close behind him, her hands moving to the ties of her dressing gown. She opened it.

  “Gods,” Kylar said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek without turning around far enough to see the rest of her, “I’ve got to piss like a warhorse.”

  He stood and started pulling on clothes. For a moment, Elene was frozen. Her dressing gown hung open, her body exposed.

  “What are we shopping for?” Kylar asked, pulling his tunic over his head.

  She had barely laced up her dress when his head poked out of his tunic.

  “Well?” he asked.

  “What?” She felt like someone had just dumped cold water over her head.

  “Oh, Uly’s birthday, right? We getting her a doll or something?”

  “Yes, that’s it,” she said. What had she been thinking?

  17

  Tenser performed his job capably enough, Vürdmeister Neph Dada thought. At one point, he even managed to cough up blood. For the time being, his performance would be remembered as cold-blooded defiance. Once he was exonerated, it would be reinterpreted as brave defiance.

  The man Tenser was alleged to have murdered, the Cenarian Baron Kirof, had never been found. But on the troth of the Cenarian captain of the guard who said he’d seen Tenser do the deed, Tenser was quickly found guilty. The announcement of his punishment from the Godking’s own mouth had garnered gasps. The Cenarian nobility had expected a fine, perhaps imprisonment with credit for time already served, maybe deportation to Khalidor. That he would be thrown into the Hole was viewed as worse than a death penalty. Of course, that was the point.

  Tenser couldn’t very well infiltrate the Sa’kagé if he were dead or deported. By doing time in the worst gaol in the country, he would earn unrivalled credibility with the Sa’kagé. When Baron Kirof was produced—alive—Tenser would be exonerated and he would again have all the access of a Khalidoran duke—but, more important, he would pretend to hold an abiding hatred for the Godking for his false imprisonment. Duke Tenser Vargun would offer the Sa’kagé whatever they wanted. And then he would destroy them from within.

  The Godking, as always, had more than one plan. By punishing a Khalidoran duke so severely, he showed that he was a just ruler. The Cenarians who were wavering would have one more excuse to submit. They would go back to their lives and the noose would only tighten on the rebels as their friends abandoned them.

  At the same time, the news of Tenser’s imprisonment would overshadow anything else, so today he was releasing dozens of criminals from the Maw and incarcerating hundreds of suspected rebels. With the shocking news about Tenser, people would barely notice.

  After the sentence was announced, Neph escorted Tenser and the guards to the Hole.

  Tenser looked at him suspiciously. A lot of Khalidorans didn’t think much of their long-vanquished Lodricari neighbors, but with Tenser, the antipathy seemed both general and personal. “What do you want?”

  “Just to share some news that might be helpful,” Neph said. He couldn’t hide his pleasure. “Baron Kirof has disappeared. Someone kidnapped him, apparently.”

  The blood drained from Tenser’s face. If the baron was lost, he would never leave the Hole.

  “We’ll find him,” Neph said. “Of course, if we find him dead…” Neph chuckled. If Kirof was dead, Vargun was useless. If useless, a failure. If a failure, dead. With magic, Neph opened the iron gate that separated the castle’s tunnels from the Maw’s. “My lord? Your cell awaits.”

  Jarl rubbed his temples. They’d been interviewing prisoners released from the Maw all day. The prisoners had only learned of the coup after the fact, when wytches appeared, searching for something. The wytches left empty-handed, so it didn’t seem important.

  What was important was that a former brothel manager called Whitey had been awake when two guards had led a prisoner toward the Hole. He’d been awake and he’d stayed awake. He swore that neither the two guards nor their prisoner, a big blond naked man, had left.

  Furthermore, Whitey recognized one of the guards, a foul man who’d been on Jarl’s payroll, whom Jarl had sent to the castle with a very specific task. The wytches coming after them had gone as far as the Maw, but there had been no sounds of fighting, no indications that they had seen anyone. It was impossible, and Whitey couldn’t make any sense of it.

  Jarl dismissed Whitey. “Is it possible?” he asked Momma K.

  “What do you think,” she said, stating the question.

  “What are you talking about?” Brant Agon asked.

  “It proves he was alive later than we thought,” Jarl said.

  “And we know that the head they put up wasn’t his,” Momma K said. “That’s suggestive.”

  “Gods,” Jarl said.

  “What?” Brant asked. “What?”

  “Logan Gyre,” Jarl said.

  “What? He was killed in the north tower,” Brant said.

  “What would you do if you had just killed a guard deep in the Maw and were changing into his clothes when you saw si
x wytches were coming your way? There’s only one way out, and that way was blocked by the wytches,” Jarl said.

  Brant was thunderstruck. “You’re not saying Logan jumped into the Hole,” Brant said. He’d been down to the Hole once.

  “I’m saying Logan Gyre might still be alive,” Jarl said.

  “Hold on,” Momma K said. She got up and started looking through a stack of papers. “If I recall correctly… ah, here. Remind me that we need to give this girl a bonus. She has a regular who likes to brag. ‘Gorkhy throws their bread down the Hole and watches them try to grab it without falling in. He says at least three of the prisoners have been…’ ” Momma K cleared her throat, but when she continued her voice was level. “ ‘Three of the prisoners have been eaten by the others in the time Gorkhy’s been starving them.’ She describes ‘a giant of a man almost seven feet tall. Several times he’s been able to reach bread that Gorkhy tried to throw down the Hole. Gorkhy has special hatred for the man, the one they call King.’ ” Momma K looked up. “This report is only three days old.”

  Quietly, Brant said, “No one like that has been thrown in the Hole in the last ten years.”

  All three of them sat back.

  “If this Gorkhy tells his superiors about a giant of a man named King…” Momma K said.

  “Logan will die that day,” Jarl said.

  “We have to save him,” Brant said.

  Jarl and Momma K shared a look.

  “We need to think where this fits in with our strategy,” Momma K said.

  “You’re not thinking of leaving him there,” Brant said.

  Momma K examined her blood-red nails.

  “Because that isn’t an option,” Brant said. “He’s the only man we could possibly rally the country behind. Jarl, if you really want to do what you’ve said, this is your chance. If you rescue Logan, he’ll give you lands and titles and a pardon. So don’t tell me that you’re even thinking of leaving our king in that hell.”

 
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