The night angel trilogy, p.74
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.74

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Fair enough, Sister Ariel. I accept your correction—until the day Cenaria has a king. Now if you’ll excuse me?”

  “One moment,” she said as he stood. “I’m going to draw the power, but I swear by the White Seraph that I won’t touch you with it. If you must kill me, I won’t try to stop you.”

  She didn’t wait for him to respond. He saw a pale iridescent nimbus surround her. It shifted quickly through every color in the rainbow in deliberate succession, though some colors seemed somehow thicker than others. Was that an indication of her strength in the various disciplines of magic? He readied the ka’kari to devour whatever magic she threw at him—hoping he remembered what he had done before, and not sure that he did—but he didn’t strike.

  The nimbus didn’t move. Sister Ariel Wyant merely inhaled deeply through her nose. The nimbus disappeared. She nodded her head, as if satisfied. “Dogs find you very odd, don’t they?”

  “What?” he asked. It was true, but he’d never thought much of it.

  “Maybe you can tell me,” she said, “why, after days of hard riding, don’t you smell of sweat and dirt and horse? Indeed, you have no scent whatsoever.”

  “You’re imagining things,” he said, backing away. “Goodbye, Sister.”

  “Until we meet again, Kylar Stern.”

  33

  Momma K stood on a landing overlooking the warehouse floor. Agon’s Dogs, as they’d taken to calling themselves, were training under his watchful eye. The force had shrunk to a hundred men, and Momma K was sure that by now its existence was well-known. “Do you think they’re ready?” she asked as Agon labored up the stairs on a cane.

  “More training would make them better. Battle will make them better faster. But it will cost lives,” he said.

  “And your wytch hunters?”

  “They’re no Ymmuri. Ymmuri can riddle a man with arrows from a hundred paces while galloping away from him. The best I can hope for is ten men who will get in range, stop, shoot, and move on before the fireballs get to them. My hunters aren’t worthy of the bows they carry—but they’re a damn sight better than anything else we have.”

  Momma K smiled. He was underplaying his men’s capabilities. She’d seen those men shoot.

  “What about your rent girls?” Agon asked. “This mission will cost lives. Are they ready for that?” He stood close beside her as they watched his men spar.

  “You would have been amazed if you could have seen their faces, Brant. It was like I gave them their souls back. They’d been dying inside, and now they’ve come back to life, all at once.”

  “No word yet from Jarl?” Agon’s voice was tense and Momma K could tell that, for all that he had clashed with the young man, Agon was worried for him.

  “There wouldn’t be. Not yet.” She put her hands on the rail and accidentally brushed his fingers.

  Brant looked at her hand and then in her eyes and quickly away.

  She winced and pulled her hand away. Decades ago, Agon had been arrogant, not obnoxious with it but merely full of youthful confidence that he could do pretty much anything better than pretty much anyone else. That was gone now, replaced by a sober understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. He was a man well tempered by the years. Gwinvere had known men ruined by their wives. Small women who felt so threatened they undercut their husbands for so many years that those men no longer trusted themselves. Such women had made Momma K wealthy. She knew men with perfectly good wives who were regulars, men addicted to the brothels as others were addicted to wine, but much of her business came from men desperate to be considered manly, strong, good lovers, noble.

  It was one of the many ironies of the business that they came to a brothel for that.

  Men, Momma K believed, were too simple to ever be truly safe from the temptations of a house of pleasure. It had been her business to make sure those temptations were multifaceted, and she’d been good at her business. Her establishments weren’t just whorehouses. She had meeting rooms, smoking rooms, dignified parlors, lecturers on all the topics men love. The food and drink were always finer than her competitors’ and priced lower. At her best establishments, she brought in chefs and wine masters from all over Midcyru. As a restaurateur, she would have been a dismal failure. The food side of her business operated at a loss every year. But at her houses, men who came for the food stayed to spend their coin other ways.

  The few Brant Agons of the world didn’t bang her girls for two reasons: they were happy at home, and they didn’t walk through the doors in the first place. She was sure Agon had been derided for that. Men who didn’t frequent the houses of pleasure were always mocked by those who did.

  Brant had conviction, integrity. He reminded her of Durzo.

  The thought sent a lance through her stomach. Durzo had been dead three months. Gods, how she missed him! She’d been helplessly in love with Durzo. Durzo was the only man in her life who would ever understand her. She’d been too terrified of that to let love grow. She’d been a coward. She’d starved their relationship of honesty, and like a plant potted in a shallow bowl, the relationship had been stunted. Durzo was the father of her child. He’d only found out a few days before he died.

  Momma K was fifty now, almost fifty-one. The years had been kind to her, at least most days they seemed so. She usually looked fifteen years younger than she was. Well, at least ten. If she tried, she thought she still had what it would take to seduce Brant.

  Once a whore, always a whore, huh, Gwin? She used to despise old women who clung to their lost youth by their lacquered fingernails. Now she was one. Part of her wanted to seduce Brant just to prove to herself that she still could. But she didn’t want to seduce Brant. It had been years since she’d taken a man to her bed. For all the thousands of times it had been work, there had been times she’d liked or admired her lover of the moment. And there had been Durzo. The night they conceived Uly, he’d been so blasted on mushrooms that he hadn’t been much of a lover, but to have the man she loved share her bed had filled her to overflowing. She was so shot through with love and grief that she’d wept during their lovemaking. Even in his drugged state, Durzo had stopped and asked if he was hurting her. After that, it had taken all her skill to bring him to completion. Durzo had been a tender man when it came to taking his pleasure.

  Now their child was being raised by Kylar and Elene. It was the only deception she didn’t regret. With those two, Uly would do well.

  But she was tired of deceit. Tired of taking and never giving. She didn’t want to seduce Brant. She knew he wanted her, and his wife was probably dead. Probably, but he couldn’t know. Wouldn’t know. Ever. How long would a man like Brant Agon wait for the woman he loved?

  Forever. That’s the kind of man he is.

  Thirty-some years ago, they’d met at a party, her first ever at a noble’s home. He’d fallen instantly in love with her and she’d allowed him to court her, never telling him what she did, what she was. He’d been gallant, confident, determined to make his mark on the world, and so sweetly careful in his courting that he hadn’t asked her for a kiss for a month.

  She’d indulged in the fantasy. He would marry her, take her away from all the horrors she wanted so desperately to leave behind. She hadn’t had that many noble clients, yet. It was possible, wasn’t it?

  The night of their first kiss, a noble had referred to her as the sweetest harlot he’d ever had. Brant overheard it, instantly challenged the man to a duel, and killed him. Gwinvere had fled. The next day, Brant had learned the truth. He enlisted and tried to get himself honorably killed fighting on the Ceuran border.

  But Brant Agon had been too capable to die. Eventually, despite how he despised bootlicking and politicking, his merit had pulled him through the ranks. He married a plain woman from a merchant family. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage.

  “How long will it take to get everything ready?” she asked. She would hope Brant’s infatuation had died. She would help him dodge the truth. She was g
ood at that, at least.

  “Gwin.”

  She turned and looked him in the eye, her mask in place, eyes cool. “Yes?”

  He blew out a great breath. “I loved you for years, Gwin, even after…”

  “My betrayal?”

  “Your indiscretion. You were what? Sixteen, seventeen? You deceived yourself first, and I think you suffered for it more than I did.”

  She snorted.

  “Regardless,” he said. “I bear you no ill will. You are a beautiful woman, Gwin. More beautiful than my Liza ever was. You are so brilliant that I feel I have to sprint just to keep up with you jogging. I felt quite the opposite with Liza. You… affect me profoundly.”

  “But,” she said.

  “Yes. But,” he said. “I love Liza, and she has loved me through a thousand trials, and she deserves all that I have to give. Whether or not you have tender feelings for me, while I have hope that my Liza lives, I would ask—beg—that you would help me remain true to her.”

  “You’ve chosen a hard road,” she said.

  “Not a road, a battle. Sometimes life is our battlefield. We must do what we know to do, not what we want to do.”

  Gwinvere sighed, and yet somehow felt lighter. Dodging Brant’s attraction could have so easily turned into dodging his presence, and she needed to work closely with him now. Is honesty so easy? Could I have just said, “Durzo, I love you, but I fear you’ll destroy me”? Brant had just offered her his vulnerability, confessed her effect on him, and yet seemed not weaker but stronger for it. How was that? Is truth so powerful?

  She swore then, in her own heart, that she would not tempt this man for her own vanity. Not in her voice, not in accidental touches, not in her dress, she would lay down every weapon in her arsenal. The resolution made her feel oddly… decent. “Thank you,” she said. She smiled companionably. “How long till they’re ready?”

  “Three days,” Brant said.

  “Then let us make the night run red.”

  34

  Solon dropped the two leather five-hundred-weight bags he carried and grabbed Dorian as the prophet tottered. At first, he didn’t understand what Dorian had said.

  “What are you talking about?”

  Dorian pushed Solon’s steadying arm away. He put on his cloak and sword belt and picked up two pairs of manacles. “This way,” he said, grabbing one of the bags from Solon and heading down the open road away from the wall.

  The land leading to the wall was rocky, barren ground. It had been cleared of trees out to a hundred and fifty yards, and though the road was broad enough for twenty men abreast, it was rutted and pitted from the wear of many feet and wagons over ground that alternated between soil and solid rock.

  “Khali is coming,” Dorian said before Solon could ask what was happening again. “I gave up my prophetic gift in case she captures me.”

  Solon couldn’t even answer.

  Dorian stopped beneath a black oak that grew on a rocky outcropping that hung over the road. “She’s here. Not a half a league away.” Dorian didn’t even take his eyes off the tree. “It’ll have to do. Make sure you only step on rock. If they see tracks, they’ll find me.”

  Solon didn’t move. Dorian had finally gone crazy. The other times it had been obvious: he’d simply been catatonic. But now, he seemed so rational. “Come on, Dorian,” Solon said. “Let’s go back to the wall. We can talk about this in the morning.”

  “The wall won’t be there in the morning. Khali will strike at the wytching hour. That gives you five hours to get the men out of there.” Dorian hoisted himself up on the ledge. “Throw the bags up to me.”

  “Khali, Dorian? She’s a myth. You’re trying to tell me that a goddess is half a league from here?”

  “Not a goddess. Perhaps one of the rebel angels expelled from heaven and given leave to walk the earth until the end of days.”

  “Right. I suppose she’s brought a dragon? We can talk about—”

  “Dragons avoid angels,” Dorian said. Disappointment etched his features. “Are you going to abandon me now when I need you? Have I ever lied to you? You thought Curoch was a myth too, before we found it. I need you. When Khali comes through the wall, I’ll go out of my mind. You’ve seen me when I thought I could use the vir for good. That was like one part wine and ten parts water; this is pure liquor. I will be lost. Her very presence brings out the worst. The worst fears, the worst memories, the worst sins. My hubris will come out. I might try to fight her, and I’ll lose. Or my lust for power will break me and I’ll join her. She knows me. She will break me.”

  Solon couldn’t take the look in Dorian’s eyes. “What if you’re wrong? What if it is the madness you’ve warned about for so long?”

  “If the wall stands at dawn, you’ll know.”

  Solon threw the bags up to Dorian and then climbed carefully up the rock, making sure he didn’t leave so much as a footprint.

  “What are you doing?” he asked as Dorian smiled at him and poured the gold onto the ground. Next Dorian pulled on the manacles and the iron chains holding them together tore apart as if they were made of paper. He dropped a manacle onto the pile of coins and it fell into the coins as if they were liquid. The other three manacles followed and the piles of coins shrank each time. Dorian reached through the gold and pulled out each of the manacles, now sheathed in gold, and placed one on each of his wrists. He stretched the iron of the second pair and locked those manacles around his thighs just above the knee.

  It was amazing. Dorian had always said that his power with the vir had dwarfed his Talent, yet here he was, molding gold and iron artfully and effortlessly.

  In another moment, Dorian had shaped the rest of the coins into four narrow spikes and what looked like a bowl. He stopped, and now he concentrated. Solon could feel the brush of spells flowing past him, sinking into the metal. After two minutes, Dorian stopped and spoke under his breath to the black oak.

  “There will be a contingent with her, the Soulsworn,” Dorian said. “They’ve given up much of what it is to be human to serve Khali. But they aren’t the danger. She is. Solon, I don’t think you can defeat her. I think you should take the men away from here. Take them somewhere where their deaths might accomplish something. But… if she makes it to Cenaria, Garoth Ursuul’s sons will make two ferali. They will use them on the resistance. This I have seen.”

  “You didn’t really do it, did you? You didn’t really destroy your gift,” Solon said.

  “If I don’t see you again, my friend, may the God go with you.” Dorian said. He fused the gold spikes to the manacles and knelt behind the tree. He slid the spikes into the wood with unnatural ease. His hands were set high and far apart. As he knelt there, obviously ready to pray his way through whatever ordeal he thought was coming, Solon felt a stab of envy. This time, it wasn’t for Dorian’s power or Dorian’s lineage or Dorian’s simple, humble integrity. He envied Dorian’s certainty. Dorian’s world was very clear. To him, Khali wasn’t a goddess or a figment of the Khalidorans’ imagination or just an ancient monster who’d conned the Khalidoran people into worshipping her. She was an angel who’d been expelled from heaven.

  In Dorian’s world, everything had a place. There was a hierarchy. Things fit. Even a man with Dorian’s vast powers could be humble, because he knew others were far above him, even if he never met one of them. Dorian could name evil without fear and without rancor. He could claim that some did evil or served it without hating them. Solon had never known anyone like that. Except perhaps Count Drake. Whatever happened to him? Did he die in the coup?

  “What does all this do?” Solon asked, picking up what had been a gold bowl. Now, it was something between a helmet and a mask. It would fit completely over Dorian’s head, with only two small holes in the nose for breathing. He turned it over. It was a perfect sculpture of Dorian’s face, weeping tears of gold.

  “It will keep me from seeing her, from hearing her, from shouting out to her, from moving from this place. It will
keep me from indulging in the last temptation—believing myself strong enough to fight her. I hope it will also keep me from using the vir. But I can’t bind myself magically. I need you to do it for me. After she’s passed, I’ll be able to escape when the sun rises and refills my Talent, so you needn’t worry for me. If you need your gold, it will be here.”

  “You’re leaving, no matter what.”

  Dorian smiled. “Don’t ask where.”

  “Good luck,” Solon said. There was a lump in his throat that reminded him of how good it had felt not to be alone again. Even fighting with Dorian and Feir had been better than peace without them.

  “You’ve been a brother to me, Solon. I believe we’ll meet again, before this is done,” Dorian said. “Now hurry.”

  Solon fit the gold helmet over Dorian’s head and bound it with the strongest magic he could, completely emptying his glore vyrden to do it. He’d do no more magic until sunrise. It wasn’t a comforting thought. As he climbed down from the rock outcropping, he swore that he saw bark growing over Dorian’s arms where they otherwise would have been exposed.

  From the road, Dorian was invisible. “Goodbye, brother,” Solon said. Then he turned and strode toward the wall. Now he just had to convince Lehros Vass that he wasn’t stark raving mad.

  35

  The Godking perched on the fireglass throne he’d ordered cut from the rock of the Maw. To him, the sharp-edged blackness was a reminder, a goad, and a comfort at once.

  His son stood before him. His first son, not just the seed of his loins. The Godking spread his seed far and wide. He never considered the weeds that took hold to be sons. They were just bastards, and he gave them no thought. The only ones who mattered were the boys who would be Vürdmeisters. The training, though, was more than most could survive. Only a few boys out of scores of wytchborn survived to become his aethelings, his throne-worthy sons. Each of those had been given an uurdthan, a Harrowing to prove his worth. So far, only Moburu had succeeded. Only Moburu would he acknowledge as his son. And still not yet his heir.

 
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