The night angel trilogy, p.8
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.8

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Another test?” Azoth’s shoulders slumped. His voice was flat, deflated. He couldn’t even spare the energy for outrage. “You can’t. I did everything you said.”

  “No more tests. I’m giving you one more chance to reconsider. You’ve done everything I asked. But this isn’t the life you want. You want off the street? I’ll give you a bag of silver and apprentice you to a fletcher or an herbalist on the east side. But if you come with me, you trade everything for it. Once you do this work, you’ll never be the same. You will be alone. You will be different. Always.

  “And that’s not the worst of it. I’m not trying to scare you. Well, maybe I am. But I’m not exaggerating. I’m not lying to you. The worst of it, kid, is this: Relationships are ropes. Love is a noose. If you come with me, you must forswear love. Do you know what that means?”

  Azoth shook his head.

  “It means you can bang as many women as you want, but you can never love one. I won’t allow you to ruin yourself over a girl,” Durzo’s voice filled with violence. His hands were claws on Azoth’s shoulders, his eyes predator’s eyes. “Do you understand?”

  “What about Doll Girl?” Azoth asked. He must have been tired. He knew mentioning her was a mistake before he finished the question.

  “You’re ten, eleven years old? You think you love her?”

  “No.” Too late.

  “I’ll let you know if she lives, but if you come with me, Azoth, you will never talk to her again. You understand? You apprentice to my fletcher or the herbalist, you can see her as much as you want. Please, kid. Take it. This might be your last chance for happiness.”

  Happiness? I just don’t want to be afraid anymore. Blint wasn’t afraid. People were afraid of him. They whispered his name in awe.

  “You follow me now,” Blint said, “and by the Night Angels, you belong to me. Once we start, you become a wetboy or you die. The Sa’kagé can’t afford to do it any other way. Or you stay, and I’ll find you in a few days and take you to your new master.”

  Blint stood and brushed his still-damp hands as if washing them of the matter. He turned abruptly and strode into the shadows of an alley.

  Stepping out from the niche he’d been standing in, Azoth looked down the street toward the guild home, a hundred paces away. Maybe he didn’t need to go with Blint now. He’d killed Rat. Maybe he could go back and everything would be all right.

  Go back to what? I’m still too little to be the guild head. Ja’laliel’s still dying. Jarl and Doll Girl were still both maimed. There would be no hero’s welcome for Azoth. Roth or some other big would take over the guild, and Azoth would be afraid again, as if nothing had ever happened.

  But he promised me an apprenticeship! Yes, he’d promised, but everyone knew you didn’t trust adults.

  Blint was still confusing. It didn’t sound right how he talked about Doll Girl, but just now Azoth had seen something in the wetboy. There was something in him that cared. There was something in the legendary killer that wanted the best for Azoth.

  Azoth didn’t believe that Doll Girl was worthless just because she wasn’t pretty anymore. He didn’t know if he could kill again. He didn’t know what Blint would do to him or why. But whatever that something was that he had seen in the wetboy, it was far more precious to Azoth than all his doubts.

  Down the street, Jarl stepped out of the guild home. He saw Azoth, and even from that distance, Azoth saw him smile, white teeth brilliant against his Ladeshian skin. From the blood on the back porch and Rat’s absence, they must have guessed that he was dead. Jarl waved and started hurrying toward Azoth in the dazzling sunlight.

  Azoth turned his back on his best friend and stepped into the shadows’ embrace.

  12

  Welcome home,” Master Blint’s voice was tinged with sarcasm, but Azoth didn’t hear it. The word home held magic. He’d never had a home.

  Durzo Blint’s house crouched deep in the Warrens underneath the ruins of an old temple. Azoth stared in open wonder. From the outside, it looked like there was nothing here, but Blint had several rooms—none of them small.

  “You’ll learn to fight here,” Blint said, locking, unlocking, and relocking each of three bolts on the door. The room was wide and deep, and crammed with equipment: various targets, pads filled with straw, and every kind of practice weapon, beams suspended above the ground, strange tripods with wood appendages, cables, ropes, hooks, and ladders.

  “And you’ll learn to use those.” Blint pointed to the weapons lining the walls, each neatly outlined in white paint. There were weapons of every size and shape from single-edged daggers to enormous cleavers. Blades straight or curving, one- or two-edged, one-or two-handed, with different colors and patterns of steel. Swords with hooks, notches, and barbs. Then there were maces, flails, axes, war hammers, clubs, staves, pole arms, sickles, spears, slings, darts, garrotes, short bows, longbows, crossbows.

  The next room was just as amazing. Disguises and equipment lined the walls, each painstakingly outlined. But here there were also tables covered with books and vials. The books bristled with bookmarks. The jars covered a huge table and were filled with seeds, flowers, leaves, mushrooms, liquids, and powders.

  “These are the base ingredients for most of the poisons in the world. As soon as Momma K teaches you how to read, you’ll read and memorize most of what’s in these books. The poisoner’s art is an art. You will master it.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “In a couple of years, when your Talent quickens, I’ll teach you to use magic.”

  “Magic?” Azoth was feeling more exhausted by the second.

  “You think I accepted you because of your looks? Magic is essential to what we do. No Talent, no wetboy.”

  Azoth started to totter, but before he could collapse, Master Blint grabbed him by the back of his ragged tunic and guided him to the next room. There was only one pallet and Blint didn’t set him on it, but guided him instead to a spot by a small fireplace.

  “First kills are hard,” Blint said. He seemed to be speaking from far away. “Some time this week, you’ll probably cry. Do it when I’m gone.”

  “I won’t cry,” Azoth vowed.

  “Sure. Now sleep.”

  “Life is empty. When we take a life, we aren’t taking anything of value. Wetboys are killers. That’s all we do. That’s all we are. There are no poets in the bitter business,” Blint said.

  He must have left while Azoth slept, because Azoth now held a sword small enough for an eleven-year-old in his fist, feeling awkward.

  “Now attack me,” Blint said.

  “What?”

  The side of Blint’s sword smashed into Azoth’s head.

  “I order. You obey. No hesitations. Got it?”

  “Yes, sir.” Azoth climbed to his feet and picked up the sword. He rubbed his head.

  “Attack,” Blint said.

  Azoth did, wildly. Blint deflected his blows or stepped to one side so that Azoth fell over from the force of his own swings. All the while, Blint spoke.

  “You aren’t making art, you’re making corpses. Dead is dead.” He parried quickly and Azoth’s blade went skittering across the floor. “Grab that.” Blint walked after Azoth and engaged him again. “Don’t play with your kills. Don’t go for the one-thrust beautiful finish. Cut someone twenty times and let them collapse from blood loss—then finish them. Don’t make it beautiful. You aren’t making art, you’re making corpses.”

  And so the lessons continued, physical action with a continuously running monologue, each lesson summarized, demonstrated, and summarized again.

  In the study: “Never taste death. Every vial, every jar in here is death. If you’re working with death, you’ll get powders, pastes, and salves on your hands. Never lick the death on your fingers. Never touch death to your eyes. You’ll wash your hands with this liquor and then this water, always into this basin which is used for nothing else and will only be emptied where I show you. Never taste death.”

 
; On the street: “Embrace the shadows…. Breathe the silence…. Be ordinary, be invisible…. Mark the man…. Know every out….”

  When he made mistakes, Blint didn’t yell. If Azoth didn’t block correctly, he was merely drawing his wage when the wood practice sword crashed into his shin. If he couldn’t recite the lessons of the day and expand on any that Blint asked about, he got cuffed for every one he forgot.

  It was all even-handed. It was all fair, but Azoth never relaxed. If he failed too much, just as dispassionately as Master Blint cuffed Azoth, he might kill him. All it would take would be for Blint to not pull one blow short. Azoth wouldn’t even know he’d failed until he found himself dying.

  More than once he wanted to quit. But there was no quitting. More than once, he wanted to kill Blint. But trying would mean death. More than once, he wanted to cry. But he’d vowed he wouldn’t—and he didn’t.

  “Momma K, who’s Vonda?” Azoth asked. After his reading lessons, she took a cup of ootai before they started on politics, history, and court etiquette. After he trained with Blint all morning, he studied with her through the afternoon. He was exhausted and sore all the time, but he slept through the whole of every night and woke warm, not shivering. The gnawing voice and debilitating weakness of hunger was only a memory.

  He never complained. If he did, they might make him go back.

  Momma K didn’t answer immediately. “That is a very delicate question.”

  “Does that mean you won’t tell me?”

  “It means I don’t want to. But I will because you may need to know, and the man who should tell you won’t.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she continued, her voice was flat. “Vonda was Durzo’s lover. Durzo had a treasure and Khalidor’s Godking wanted it. You remember what I taught you about Khalidor?”

  Azoth nodded.

  Momma K opened her eyes and lifted her eyebrows.

  He grimaced, then recited. “Khalidor is our northern neighbor. They’ve always said Cenaria and most of Midcyru is theirs, but they can’t take it because Logan’s dad is at Screaming Winds.”

  “The pass at Screaming Winds is highly defensible,” Momma K suggested. “And the prize?” When Azoth looked at her blankly, she said, “Khalidor could go around the mountains the long way, but they don’t because…”

  “Because we’re not really worth it, and the Sa’kagé runs everything.”

  “Cenaria is corrupt, the treasury is empty, the Ceurans raid us from the south—and the Lae’knaught holds our eastern lands, and they hate Khalidorans even more than they hate most mages. So yes, we’re not worth taking.”

  “Isn’t that what I said?”

  “You were right, but not for all the right reasons,” she said. She sipped her ootai again, and Azoth thought she’d forgotten his original question, or that she hoped he had. Then she said, “To get Durzo’s treasure, the Godking kidnapped Vonda and proposed a trade: the treasure for Vonda’s life. Durzo decided that his treasure was more important, so he let her die. But something happened, and Durzo lost his treasure too. So Vonda died for no reason whatsoever.”

  “You’re mad at him,” Azoth said.

  Momma K’s voice had no inflection whatever, and her eyes were dead. “It was a great treasure, Azoth. If I were Durzo, I might’ve done the same, except for one thing….” She looked away. “Vonda was my little sister.”

  13

  Solon caught the edge of the halberd with his long sword and heaved it aside, then stepped in and kicked one of Logan’s men in the stomach. A few years ago, that kick would have reached his helmet. He supposed he should be thankful that he could beat the Gyre’s guards at all, but that was what came of having as his best friends a prophet and a second-echelon blade master. Feir would have words about how fat I’ve let myself get. And slow.

  “My lord,” Wendel North said, approaching the fighting men.

  Logan stepped away from a match he was losing and Solon followed him. The steward gave Solon a flat stare, but didn’t protest his presence. “Milord, your mother has just returned.”

  “Oh? Where was she, Wendel, uh, I mean, Master North?” Logan asked. With the men, he did better, but acting the lord to a man who had probably been in charge of spanking him a few weeks ago was beyond Logan right now. Solon didn’t allow himself to grin, though. Let Lady Gyre undermine Logan’s authority. He would have no part of that.

  “She spoke with the queen.”

  “Why?”

  “She put forth a petition for guardianship.”

  “What?” Solon asked.

  “She is asking the crown to appoint her to be duchess until the duke returns, or until my lord reaches the age of majority—which in this country, Master Tofusin, is twenty-one.”

  “But we have my father’s letters appointing me,” Logan said. “The king can’t interfere with a house’s appointments unless they’re guilty of treason.”

  Wendel North pushed his glasses up his nose nervously. “That’s not altogether true, milord.”

  Solon looked back at the guards, who were beginning to quit sparring and drift closer. “Back to it, dogs!” They jumped to obey.

  “The king may appoint a guardian to an underage lord if the previous lord of that house hasn’t left the necessary provisions,” Wendel said. “It comes down to this: your father left two copies of the letter appointing you lord in his absence. He gave one to your mother, and the other to me. As soon as I heard where Lady Catrinna went, I checked my copy, which I kept under lock and key. It’s gone. Forgive me, Lord Gyre,” The steward flushed. “I swear I had no part in this. I thought I had the only key.”

  “What did the queen say?” Solon asked.

  Wendel blinked. As Solon had guessed, Wendel knew, but he hadn’t wanted to let Solon know how extensive his network of eyes-and-ears was. After a moment, the steward said, “The matter might have been handled fairly easily, but the king doesn’t let the queen make any decisions without him. He interrupted them while they were speaking. He said that he would take the matter under advisement. I’m sorry. I don’t know what that means.”

  “I’m afraid I do,” Solon said.

  “What?” Logan asked.

  “Who’s your family’s solicitor?”

  “I asked you first,” Logan said.

  “Boy!”

  “Count Rimbold Drake,” Logan said, sulking a little.

  “It means we need to speak with Count Drake. Now.”

  “Do I have to wear the shoes?” Azoth asked. He didn’t like shoes. You couldn’t feel the ground to know how slick it was, and they pinched.

  “Nah, we’ll go see Count Drake with you wearing a nobleman’s tunic and barefoot,” Durzo said.

  “Really?”

  “No.”

  For all the times Azoth had envied the merchants’ and lords’ sons at the markets, he’d never thought of how uncomfortable their clothes were. But Durzo was his master now, and he was already impatient with how long it was taking Azoth to get ready, so Azoth kept his mouth shut. He hadn’t been Durzo’s apprentice for long, and he still worried the wetboy would throw him out.

  They walked across Vanden Bridge to the east side. To Azoth, it was a revelation. He’d never even tried to cross Vanden Bridge and hadn’t believed the guild rats who claimed to have made it past the guards. On the east side of the river, there were no ruins, no empty buildings at all. There were no beggars on the streets. It smelled different, foreign, alien. Azoth couldn’t smell the manure of the cattle yards at all. Even the gutters were different. There was only one every third street, and none in the major streets. People didn’t just throw their slops and sewage out the windows and let them accumulate until they gradually flowed away. Here, they carried them to the third street and dumped them there to flow down stone channels in the cobblestone streets so that even those streets were safe to walk in. Most alarming, though, was that the people smelled wrong. Men didn’t smell of sweat and their labors. When a woman passed, she smelled only ligh
tly of perfume rather than overpoweringly of it with the stale odors of sweat and sex laced underneath. When Azoth asked Blint about it, the wetboy just said, “You’re going to be a lot of work, aren’t you?”

  They passed a wide building that was billowing steam. Glistening, perfectly coifed men and women were emerging. Azoth didn’t even ask. “It’s a bath house,” Blint said. “Another Ceuran import. The only difference is that here the men and women bathe separately, except in Momma K’s, of course.”

  The owner of the Tipsy Tart greeted Blint as Master Tulii. He answered her with an accent and an effete attitude and ordered his carriage brought around.

  Once they were under way, Azoth asked, “Where are we going? Who’s Count Drake?”

  “He’s an old friend, a noble who has to work for a living. He’s a solicitor.” When Azoth looked puzzled, Master Blint said, “A solicitor is a man who does worse things within the law than most crooks do outside it. But he’s a good man. He’s going to help me make you useful.”

  “Master?” Azoth asked. “How’s Doll Girl?”

  “She’s not your problem anymore. You’re not to ask about her again.” A minute passed as the streets rolled by. Durzo finally said, “She’s in bad shape, but she’ll live.”

  He said nothing more until they were shown into the count’s tiny estate.

  Count Drake was a kindly looking man of perhaps forty. He had a pince nez tucked in a pocket of his vest and he limped as he closed the door behind them and took a seat behind a desk piled high with stacks of papers.

  “I never thought you’d take an apprentice, Durzo. In fact, I seem to remember you swearing it—and swearing at great length,” the count said.

  “And I still believe every word I said,” Durzo said gruffly.

  “Ah, you’re either being terrifically subtle or making no sense at all, my friend.” Count Drake smiled, though, and Azoth could tell it was a real smile, without malice or calculation.

 
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