The night angel trilogy, p.69
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.69
 

           Brent Weeks

  The shops were all closed. The decent families were home for the night, and the inns and brothels were just starting to roar as Vi passed deeper into the southern section of the city. She was wearing white fawn-skin riding pants and a loose men’s tunic of cotton. Her red hair was pulled back in a simple tight ponytail. In Cenaria, the rainy season was starting, but here the summer lingered on and Vi believed in being comfortable as she traveled, fashion be damned. She only worried about fashion when she needed something from it. Still, after two hard weeks in the saddle, she wouldn’t mind a bath.

  She rode down the fourth bad street in a row, wondering why she hadn’t been mugged yet. She’d concealed all her weapons to make herself look totally vulnerable. What was wrong with these people?

  Twenty minutes later, someone finally stepped out of the shadows.

  “Nice night we’re having, innit?” the man said. He was scruffy, dirty, inebriated. Perfect. He held a cudgel in one hand and a wineskin in the other.

  “Are you robbing me?” Vi asked.

  Half a dozen teenagers came out of the shadows and surrounded her.

  “Well, I—” the man grinned, displaying two black front teeth. “This here’s a toll road and you’re going to have—”

  “If you’re not robbing me, get the hell out of my way. Or are you a complete idiot?”

  The smile disappeared. “Well, I am,” he said, finally. “Robbing you, that is. Tom Gray don’t get outta no bitch’s way.” Then he almost brained himself as he tried to drink from his cudgel instead of the wineskin. The boys laughed, but one of them took her black mare’s reins.

  “I need to see the Shinga,” she said. “Can you take me to him, or do I need to find someone else to mug me?”

  “You’re not going anywhere until you give me thirteen—”

  One of the boys coughed.

  “—er, fourteen silvers.” His eyes traced over her breasts, and he added, “And maybe a little somethin’ somethin’ besides.”

  “How about you take me to the Shinga, and I’ll leave your pathetic manhood intact?” Vi said.

  Tom’s face darkened. He threw the wineskin to one of the boys and stepped toward Vi, raising his cudgel. He grabbed her sleeve and yanked her out of the saddle.

  Using the momentum of his pull, Vi flipped off the saddle and kicked him in the face, landing lightly on her feet as Tom Gray went sprawling.

  “Can any of the rest of you take me to the Shinga?” she asked, ignoring Tom.

  They all looked confused at how Tom had ended up on the other side of the street with a bloody nose, but after a moment, a scrawny young man with a big nose said, “Shinga Sniggle don’t let us just come up to him any old time. But Tom’s friends with him.”

  “Sniggle?” Vi asked, smirking. “That’s not really his name, is it?”

  Tom picked himself up off the ground. He roared and charged Vi.

  Not even looking at him, she waited until he was two steps away and poked her foot into his hip in mid-stride. When his foot didn’t come forward to take the next step as he’d expected, he went skidding across the cobblestones at Vi’s feet. She didn’t break eye contact with the boy.

  “I, uh, yes, Barush Sniggle,” the boy said, looking at Tom. He didn’t seem to find anything comical about it. “Who are you?” he asked.

  She contorted her fingers into the thieves’ sign.

  “That’s a little different than ours,” the young man said. “Where you from?”

  “Cenaria,” she said.

  All of them took a step back. “No shit?” he said. “Cenarian Sa’kagé?”

  “Now you,” Vi said, grabbing Tom Gray by his greasy hair. “Are you going to take me to the Shinga? Or do I have to break something?”

  He swore at her.

  She broke his nose.

  He sputtered blood and swore again.

  “Slow learner, huh?” She hit him in his broken nose, and then grabbed his head. Jamming her fingers deep into the pain points behind his ears, she lifted him to his feet. He screamed with surprising vigor. It was unfortunate she’d broken his nose first, because he sprayed blood all over her. Vi didn’t mind, though. Nysos was the god of the potent liquids: blood, wine, and semen. It had been weeks since she’d given him an offering. Perhaps this would appease him until she found Kylar.

  She held her fingers deep in those pain points, letting Tom Gray scream, letting him spray blood over her shirt and face. The boys cowered back, about to break and run.

  “Enough!” a voice called from the darkness.

  Vi released Tom and he fell.

  A short, squat figure walked forward. “I am the Shinga,” he said.

  “Barush Sniggle?” she asked. Shinga Barush Sniggle had a potbelly, small eyes under lank blond hair, and a cruel mouth. He walked with a swagger despite his small size. Perhaps the hulking bodyguard by his side helped with that.

  “What do you want, wench?” the Shinga demanded.

  “I’m hunting. My deader’s name is Lord Kylar Stern. He’s about my height, light blue eyes, dark hair, athletic, about twenty years old.”

  “A deader?” Sniggle asked. “Like you’re a wetboy? A wet girl?”

  “Wasn’t Kylar the name of that guy who busted Tom’s chops a couple weeks ago?” the big-nosed young man asked one of the other teenagers.

  “Sounds like him,” another young man said. “Think he’s still staying with Aunt Mea. But he ain’t no lord.”

  “Shut up,” Barush Sniggle said. “You don’t say another damn word, you got me? Tom, get your ass off the ground and bring that bitch here.”

  Amazing. Kylar had made it so simple. He thought he was far enough away, was confident that everyone thought he was dead. She had all she needed now. It would be a simple matter to find him, and it would be an easy matter to kill him, too. She tingled with excitement. She still had a two-inch scar on her shoulder from him, despite having let one of those foul wytches heal her.

  “I think I might just have to take you back to my place,” Barush Sniggle said. “We’ll find out how much of a wet girl you are.”

  “Never heard that one before,” she said. The bodyguard had one of her arms, and a triumphant Tom Gray had the other.

  “She’s one hot bitch, ain’t she?” Tom Gray said, grabbing a breast.

  She ignored him. “Don’t make me do something you’ll regret,” she told the Shinga.

  “Can I have her after you’re done?” Tom asked. He squeezed her breast again and then he petted her hair.

  “DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR!” she yelled.

  Both the bodyguard and Tom flinched at her sudden fury. Barush Sniggle forced a laugh a moment later.

  “You little guttershite, you sewer froth, you touch my hair and I swear I’ll rip you apart,” Vi said, trembling.

  He swore at her and ripped out the leather thong that bound her hair back. Her hair fell loose around her shoulders for the first time in years. She stood exposed, naked, and the men were laughing.

  She went out of her mind. She was swearing, the Talent arching through her so powerfully it hurt. Her arms blasted through the men’s hold on them and her fists cracked Tom Gray’s and the bodyguard’s ribs simultaneously. Before Tom could double up, she grabbed his hair in one hand. She stabbed fingers at the corners of his eyes, deep into the sockets, and tore his eyes out. She spun and men were screaming and running and in her confusion and fury she didn’t even know which one to chase.

  Vi didn’t know how much time passed while she vented her shame and fury on the two men.

  When she came to herself, her hair covered with a blood-soaked rag, she was sitting on a stoop. The Shinga and the boys had fled. There was no one on the street except for her imperturbable horse, standing still until she called it as she trained it, and two man-shaped lumps lying in the street.

  Walking unsteadily toward the horse, she passed right by what had been Tom Gray and the bodyguard. The corpses were a ruin. She’d—Nysos—she’d never even drawn a
weapon, and she’d done this. Her stomach lurched and she vomited in the street.

  It’s just a simple job. The Godking will forgive me for not killing Jarl. I’ll be a master. I’ll never have to serve Hu Gibbet in the bed or anywhere else, not ever again. I kill Kylar, and then I’m free. It’s close, Vi. So close. You can make it.

  Sister Jessie al’Gwaydin was dead. Ariel was sure of it. The villagers hadn’t seen her for two months and her horse was still in the innkeeper’s stable. It wasn’t like Jessie, but taking risks was. Stupid girl.

  Sister Ariel knelt as she entered the oak grove, not to pray, but to extend her senses. This grove was as far toward the Iaosian Forest as the locals were willing to go. The villagers of Torras Bend prided themselves on their practicality. They saw nothing superstitious or foolish about giving the Hunter the same wide berth their ancestors had. The tales they had told her weren’t wild-eyed ravings. Indeed, they were believable because of their lack of detail.

  Those who entered the forest didn’t leave. Simple as that.

  So the villagers fished in the meandering Red River and collected wood right up to the edge of the grove, but there they stopped. The effect was jarring. Centuries-old oaks abutted directly on bare fields. In some places, younger oaks had been cut down, but once the trees reached a certain age, the villagers wouldn’t touch them. The oak grove had been slowly expanding for centuries.

  She felt nothing here, nothing beyond the cool of a forest, smelled nothing except clean damp air. When she rose and walked slowly through the low undergrowth, she kept her senses attuned, pausing frequently, stopping when she imagined she felt the slightest trembling in the air. It made for slow progress, but Ariel Wyant Sa’fastae was noted for her patience, even among the Sisters. Besides, it was recklessness that had gotten Jessie al’Gwaydin killed. Probably.

  Though it was only a mile wide, it took her a long time to traverse the oak grove. Each afternoon, after marking her progress, she returned to the inn and slept and took her only meal of the day—the weight was coming off, blast it, if slowly. Each night she returned to the forest, on the chance that whatever magics had been placed on the forest were affected by the time of day.

  On the third day, Ariel came within sight of the forest itself, and the line between the oak grove and the forest proper was stark—obviously magical. Still, she didn’t hurry her progress. Instead, she moved even more slowly, more carefully. On the fifth day, her patience paid off.

  Ariel was thirty paces from the line between oakgrove and forest when she felt the ward. She stopped so abruptly she almost fell down. She sat, heedless of the dirt, and crossed her legs. The next hour she spent simply touching the ward, trying to get a feel for its texture and strength, without using magic of her own.

  Then she began to chant softly. Though she worked long into the night checking and double-checking and triple-checking that she was right and that she hadn’t missed anything, the weaves were simple. One simply registered whether a human had crossed the boundary. The second, slightly more complicated, marked the intruder. It was a weak weave that clung to clothing or skin and dissipated after only a few hours. Cleverly, Ezra—Ariel was making an assumption, but she thought it was good one—had put the weave so low to the earth that it might mark the intruder’s shoes, so low that it would be covered by the undergrowth.

  The real cunning of it, though, was the placement. How many magi had seen the obvious line thirty paces beyond this and walked right through the trap before they raised their defenses?

  It would be easy to circumvent the trap now that she saw it, but Sister Ariel didn’t. Instead, she wrote her findings in her journal, and returned to Torras Bend. If she’d made any mistakes, she would die before she got back to the inn. It made for a tense walk. Her soul soared at the thought of dismantling Ezra’s ancient magic, but she didn’t give in to the temptations of arrogance.

  The Speaker’s letters were getting shriller, demanding that Ariel find Jessie, that Ariel do something to help her avert the rising crisis with the Chattel. Ariel kept her eyes open, hoping to find a woman who might serve her sister’s purposes, but the villagers of Torras Bend were careful to send away every child who showed the least Talent. Ariel wouldn’t find what Istariel needed here.

  So she ignored the letters. There was a time and a place for haste. It wasn’t here and it wasn’t now.

  25

  Viridiana Sovari?”

  Hearing her name made Vi skid to a stop in the crowded market. A dirty little man bobbed his head nervously. He extended a note toward her, but she didn’t take it. He was being careful not to stand close to her and he wasn’t ogling her, so she guessed that he had an inkling of what she was. He smiled obsequiously, shot a look at her breasts, then stared stubbornly at his feet.

  “Who are you?” she asked.

  “No one important, miss. Just a servant of our… mutual master,” he said, eyeing the crowd around them. Her heart turned to ice. No. It couldn’t be. He extended the note again, and as soon as she took it, he disappeared into the crowd.

  “Moulina,” the note read. “We are curious indeed how you knew Jarl was going to Caernarvon, but that you did know tells us that you are indeed the best. We also desire that you deal with Kylar Stern. We prefer him alive. If this is not possible, we require his body and all belongings, no matter how trivial. Bring them immediately.”

  Vi closed the note. It was impossible that the Godking knew where she was. Impossible that a note from him had beat her here. Impossible that Jarl could be here—Jarl, whose identity was supposed to be secret. Jarl, whom she’d been fleeing! Impossible to do what the Godking asked. But the greatest impossibility was the only impossibility now: it was impossible to escape. Vi was the Godking’s slave. There was no way out.

  Somehow Kylar had been roped into making the dinner for Uly’s birthday. Aunt Mea had said no man should be intimidated by a kitchen, and Elene had said that compared to the potions he made, a dinner and dessert should be easy, and Uly just giggled as they put him in a frilly lace apron and dabbed his nose with flour.

  So Kylar found himself with his sleeves rolled up, trying to figure out arcane cooking terms like blanching and roux and proofing. From Uly’s giggles, he suspected they’d stuck him with the hardest recipe they could find, but he played along.

  “What do I do after the jelly, uh, weeps?” he asked.

  Uly and Elene giggled. Kylar struck a pose with the spatula, and they laughed out loud.

  The door to the smithy opened and Braen walked in, dirty and smelly. He gave Kylar a flat look that made him lower the spatula, deflated, but he refused to wipe the flour from his nose. Braen turned his eyes to Elene and looked her up and down.

  “When’s dinner?” he asked her.

  “We’ll bring it out to your cave when it’s ready,” Kylar said.

  Braen grunted and told Elene, “You ought to find yourself a real man.”

  “You know,” Kylar said as Braen shuffled back toward the smithy, “I know a wetboy who’d like to pay that cretin a visit.”

  “Kylar,” Elene said.

  “I don’t like the way he looks at you,” Kylar said. “Has he tried anything with you?”

  “Kylar, not tonight, all right?” Elene said, nodding toward Uly.

  He was suddenly aware of the ring box in his pocket. He nodded. Putting a serious look on his face, he attacked Uly, who squealed, and flipped her upside down and draped her over his shoulder. He pretended not to realize she was there as he went back to cooking.

  Uly yelped, kicking her legs and holding onto the back of his tunic with a death grip.

  Aunt Mea came into the kitchen, clucking. “I can’t believe it, we’re all out of flour and honey.”

  “Oh, no,” Kylar said. “How am I going to make the fifth mother sauce?” He set down his spatula and hunched over, extending his hands through his legs. On cue, Uly slid headfirst down his back and grabbed his hands in time for him to pull her through his legs. She land
ed on her feet, breathless and laughing.

  “Isn’t it someone’s birthday?” Kylar asked.

  “Mine! Mine!” Uly said.

  He pulled silver out of each of Uly’s ears while she giggled. Two silvers—it was a bonus the noble had given him. It left him and Elene with nothing again, but Uly was worth it. When he put them in Uly’s hands, her eyes got big. “For me?” she asked like she couldn’t believe it.

  He winked. “Elene will help you find something good, all right?”

  “Can we go right now?” Uly asked.

  Kylar looked at Elene, who shrugged. “We can go with Aunt Mea,” she said.

  “I’ve got to peel the peas anyway,” Kylar said. They snickered. He smiled at Elene and marveled again at how beautiful she was. He was so in love he thought his chest would burst.

  Uly pranced to the door and showed Aunt Mea her coins. Elene touched Kylar’s arm. “Are we going to be all right?” she asked.

  “After tonight we are,” he said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’ll see.” He didn’t smile. He didn’t want to give it away. If he smiled, he’d grin like a fool. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face. He couldn’t wait for other things as well. He shook his head and went back to cooking. Contrary to what he’d said, the meal wasn’t hard to prepare. It was just messy. He slipped off his ring and put it on the counter before he picked up the raw meat—there wasn’t much romantic about smelling like dead cow.

  Elene and Uly and Aunt Mea had only been gone for about thirty seconds when there was a knock on the door. Kylar put down the spatula again and walked to the door. “What’d you forget this time, Uly?” he said as he grabbed a hand towel and opened the door.

 
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