The night angel trilogy, p.9
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.9

           Brent Weeks
 

  Despite himself, Durzo smiled, too. “They’ve been missing you, Rimbold.”

  “Really? I wasn’t aware of anyone shooting at me for some time.” Durzo laughed, and Azoth almost fell out of his chair. He hadn’t thought the wetboy was capable of laughter.

  “I need your help,” Durzo said.

  “All I have is yours, Durzo.”

  “I want to make this boy new.”

  “What are you thinking?” Count Drake asked, looking at Azoth quizzically.

  “A noble of some sort, relatively poor. The kind who gets invited to social events but doesn’t attract attention.”

  “Hmm,” Count Drake said. “The third son of a baron, then. He’ll be upper nobility, but nobody important. Or wait. An eastern baron. My second cousins live two days’ ride beyond Havermere, and most of their lands have been seized by the Lae’knaught, so if you want an ironclad identity, we could make him a Stern.”

  “That will do.”

  “First name?” Count Drake asked Azoth.

  “Azoth,” Azoth said.

  “Not your real name, son,” the count said. “Your new name.”

  “Kylar,” Durzo said.

  The count produced a piece of blank paper and put on the pince nez. “How do you want to spell that? K-Y-L-E-R? K-I-L-E-R?”

  Durzo spelled it and the solicitor wrote it down. Count Drake grinned. “Old Jaeran punning?”

  “You know me,” Durzo said.

  “No, Durzo, I don’t think anyone does. Still, kind of ominous, don’t you think?”

  “It fits the life.”

  For about the hundredth time, Azoth felt like he was not simply a child but an outsider. It seemed everywhere there were secrets that he couldn’t know, mysteries he couldn’t penetrate. Now it wasn’t just muted conversations with Momma K about something called a ka’kari, or Sa’kagé politics, or court intrigues, or magic, or creatures from the Freeze that were imaginary but Durzo insisted did exist, or others that he insisted didn’t, or references to gods and angels that Blint wouldn’t explain to him even when he did ask. Now it was his own name. Azoth was about to demand an explanation, but they were already moving on to other things.

  The count said, “How soon do you need this and how solid does it have to be?”

  “Solid. Sooner is better.”

  “I thought so,” the count said. “I’ll make it good enough that unless the real Sterns come here, no one will ever know. Of course, you’re still left with a rather significant problem. You have to train him to be a noble.”

  “Oh no I don’t.”

  “Of course you…” the count trailed off. He clicked his tongue. “I see.” He adjusted his pince nez and looked at Azoth. “When shall I take him?”

  “In a few months, if he lives that long. There are things I need to teach him first.” Durzo looked out the window. “Who’s that?”

  “Ah,” Count Drake said. “That’s the young Lord Logan Gyre. A young man who will make a fine duke one day.”

  “No, the Sethi.”

  “I don’t know. Haven’t seen him before. Looks like an adviser.”

  Durzo cursed. He grabbed Azoth’s hand and practically dragged him out the door.

  “Are you ready to obey?” Durzo demanded.

  Azoth nodded quickly.

  “See that boy?”

  “You call that a boy?” Azoth asked. The young man the count had called Logan Gyre wore a green cloak with black piping, fine black leather boots polished to a high sheen, a cotton tunic, and a sword. He was twenty paces from the door and was being shown in by a porter. His face looked young, but his frame made him look years older than Azoth. He was huge, already taller than Azoth would probably ever be and thicker and wider than anyone he knew, and he didn’t look fat. Where Azoth felt awkward and clumsy in his clothes, Logan looked comfortable, confident, handsome, lordly. Just looking at him made Azoth feel shabby.

  “Start a fight with him. Distract the Sethi until I can get out.”

  “Logan!” a girl cried out from upstairs.

  “Serah!” Logan called, looking up.

  Azoth looked at Master Blint, but he was gone. There was no time to say anything. It didn’t matter whether he understood or not. There were mysteries he wasn’t allowed to understand yet. He could only act or wait, obey or disobey.

  The porter opened the door and Azoth stepped back around the corner, out of sight. As Logan stepped inside and looked up the stairs, a smile curving his lips, Azoth stepped around the corner.

  They collided and Azoth landed on his back. Logan almost tripped over him as Azoth rolled to the side and caught Logan’s foot in the stomach.

  “Oof!”

  Logan caught himself on the banister. “I’m so sorry—”

  “You fat ape!” Azoth staggered to his feet, holding his stomach. “You clumsy guttershite—” he cut off as he realized all the curses he knew would mark him as coming from the Warrens.

  “I didn’t—” Logan said.

  “What’s going on?” the girl asked from the top of the stairs. Logan looked up, a guilty look flashing across his face.

  Azoth punched him in the nose. Logan’s head rocked back.

  “Logan!” the Sethi man shouted.

  But Logan’s mild expression was gone. His face was a mask, intense, but not furious. He grabbed Azoth’s cloak and lifted him off the ground.

  Azoth panicked; he threw punches blindly, screaming, his fists grazing Logan’s cheeks and chin.

  “Logan!”

  “Stop it!” Logan shouted in Azoth’s face. “Stop it!” Azoth went crazy, and Logan’s intensity flashed into fury. He shifted his hands and held Azoth off the ground with one, then buried his other fist in Azoth’s stomach once, twice. The wind rushed from Azoth’s lungs. Then a fist the size of a sledge flattened his nose, blinding him with instant tears and pain.

  Then, amid distant shouting, he felt himself being spun in a tight circle and—briefly—flying.

  Azoth’s head slapped against hardwood and the world flashed bright.

  14

  Logan had insisted on going upstairs to help the countess take care of young Kylar Stern. He was mortified, and apparently not solely because he’d lost his temper in front of Count Drake’s pretty daughter. For Solon, it had been an instructive ten seconds.

  Count Drake and Solon were left alone. The count led him to his office. “Why don’t you sit down?” the count said, taking his own seat behind his desk. “Where are you from, Master Tofusin?”

  It was either courtesy or bait. Solon chuckled. “That’s the first time I’ve been asked that question.” He gestured to himself as if to say, Just look at my skin.

  The count said, “I don’t see any clan rings, or any scars where they’ve been removed.”

  “Well, not all Sethi wear the rings.”

  “I was under the distinct impression that they did,” Count Drake said.

  “What is this? What are you after?”

  “I’m curious about who you really are, Master Tofusin. Logan Gyre is not only a fine young man whom I regard almost as a son, he’s also suddenly the lord of one of the most powerful houses in the land. I’ve never seen you or heard of you, and suddenly you’re his adviser? That strikes me as peculiar. I don’t care that you’re Sethi—if you are—but I’ve spent some time on Hokkai and Tawgathu, and the only Sethi who don’t pierce their cheeks are the exiles stripped of clan and family. But if you are an exile, you should have scars from your rings being torn out, and you have none.”

  “Your knowledge of our culture is admirable, but incomplete. I am of House Tofusin, Windseekers of the Royal House. My father’s appointment was to Sho’cendi.”

  “An ambassador to the red mages?”

  “Yes. Sho’cendi accepts students from all over the world. As I had no magical talent, I received my education among the merchants and nobles, who are not as tolerant. Not having the rings made life a little easier. There’s more to it than that, but I don’
t think the rest of my story is any of your business.”

  “Fair enough.”

  “What took you to Seth?” Solon asked.

  “Slavery,” the count said. “Before I became fully part of the movement that finally ended slavery here seven years ago, I thought a more moderate path might work. I went to Hokkai to see if I could learn ways to make slaves’ lives better.”

  From the small size of his house—which was very small for a noble, even one as low as a count—Solon knew that Count Drake hadn’t been one of the slavers who felt guilty about his newfound wealth. He must have been a real crusader all along.

  “It’s totally different in Seth,” Solon said. “The Year of Joy changes everything.”

  “Yes, I advanced the idea here, even got the law passed, but the Sa’kagé immediately suborned it. Instead of every slave being freed on the seventh year, slaves were to be freed seven years from the beginning of their indenture. The Sa’kagé claimed it was simpler, that it would be ridiculous to buy a slave in the sixth year and own them for only a month or a week. Of course, in practice, the Sa’kagé’s people kept the records, so where in your country, the seventh year is full of celebration as every slave is freed, here the years passed and slaves were never freed. Slaves became slaves for life. They were beaten, scourged, given to the Death Games, their children sent to the baby farms.”

  “I’ve heard those became truly awful,” Solon said.

  “The Sa’kagé set them up, saying that they would be places where the children of prostitutes might be redeemed. Slaves, true, but redeemed. It sounded good, but it gave us places like the House of Mercy. Sorry, I shouldn’t go on. It was a dark time. Is that boy ever coming down?”

  “Maybe we should get started,” Solon said. “I don’t think this will wait, and from the way Logan was looking at your daughter, they might be talking a while.”

  The count chuckled. “Are you testing me now?”

  “Does Duke Gyre know?”

  “Yes. He and I are friends. Regnus is loath to demand control of Logan’s flirtations, given the circumstances of his own marriage.”

  “I’m not familiar with those. Can you enlighten me?” Solon asked.

  “It’s not my place. Anyway, Logan and Serah will grow out of it. What appears to be the problem?”

  “Catrinna Gyre.”

  “Careful,” the count said.

  “Did the duke give you letters that declared his son Lord Gyre in his absence?”

  “He spoke of it, but he had to leave quickly. He said his steward would bring them.”

  “Lady Gyre has stolen the letters and destroyed them. Then she went to the queen.”

  “She went to whom?” The count was astonished.

  “Is that unusual?”

  “They have no love for each other. What happened?” Count Drake asked.

  “Lady Gyre asked to be made Logan’s guardian. The king overheard them. He came in and said he would take it under advisement. What does that mean?”

  Count Drake removed his pince nez and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It means that if he acts quickly, he can appoint a guardian for Logan.”

  “Will Catrinna Gyre do such a poor job?” Solon asked.

  Count Drake sighed. “Legally, the king can put anyone in Logan’s place that he wants so long as they’re related to him, which means almost anyone in the nobility. And once he’s got a guardian in place, even Regnus won’t be able to rescind the appointment. Catrinna has just delivered House Gyre to the king.”

  “But you’re Duke Gyre’s solicitor—and he told you his wishes. Doesn’t that carry any weight?” Solon asked.

  “If the king were interested in the truth, yes. As is, to save the Gyres, we’d need the Gyre family parchment, the duke’s Great Seal, and a reckless willingness to forge a state document. The king holds court in half an hour. I’d guess this will be the first item on the agenda. There’s just no time.”

  Solon cleared his throat and produced a roll of heavy parchment and a large seal.

  Count Drake grinned and snatched the parchment. “I think I suddenly like you, Master Tofusin.”

  “Wendel North helped me with the wording,” Solon said. “I thought I’d leave the signature and the seal to you.”

  Count Drake rummaged through his desk, found a letter from the duke, and laid it on top of the writ of guardianship. With quick, sure strokes, he forged the duke’s signature flawlessly. Count Drake looked up guiltily and said, “Let’s just call it an artifact of a misspent youth.”

  Solon dribbled sealing wax on the parchment. “Then here’s to misspent youth.”

  “Next time you’ll move,” Blint said as Azoth groaned his way back into consciousness.

  “I don’t think I’ll ever move again. My head feels like someone threw it against a wall.”

  Blint laughed, the second time Azoth had heard him do that recently. He was sitting on the edge of Azoth’s bed. “You did well. They thought you were embarrassed because you got knocked down in front of Drake’s daughter, so they decided it was all harmless kid stuff. The young lord Gyre was mortified that he hit you—apparently he’s a real big friendly giant, never loses his temper. The fact you’re about a quarter his size and Serah was furious with him also helps. They were all quite impressed.”

  “Impressed? That’s stupid.”

  “In their world fighting has rules, so fighting means risking embarrassment and pain and at worst risking your looks if you get a broken nose or an unfortunate scar. It doesn’t mean dying or killing. In their world, you can fight a man and then become his friend. In fact, you’re going to play it so Logan does become your friend, because with a man like him, you can only come out of this as a great friend or a terrible enemy. Do you understand that, Kylar? We’ll work together on your new identity soon.”

  “Yes, sir. Sir, why didn’t you want Master Tofusin to see you? That’s why you made me fight Logan, isn’t it? To be a distraction?”

  “Solon Tofusin is a magus. Most magi—that’s male mages—can’t tell if you’re Talented just by looking at you. On the other hand, most magae—female mages—can. There are disguises against their sight that I’ll teach you later, but I didn’t have the time to do it and I didn’t feel like going upstairs and jumping out a window.”

  Azoth was confused. “But he doesn’t act like a mage.”

  “And how would you know?” Durzo asked.

  “Uh…” Azoth didn’t think saying, “He isn’t like the mages in stories” was going to please Durzo.

  “The truth is,” Durzo said, “Solon hasn’t told Logan or anyone else that he’s a mage, and you won’t tell anyone either. When you know a man’s secrets, you have power over him. A man’s secret is his weakness. Every man has a weakness, no matter…” Master Blint’s voice dropped to nothing, his eyes suddenly distant, lifeless. He stood and left without a word.

  Azoth closed his eyes, confused. He wondered about his new master. He wondered about the guild. He wondered if Ja’laliel had bought review. He wondered how Jarl was doing. Most of all, he wondered about Doll Girl.

  “Hey-ho, Azo.”

  “Hey-ho, Jay-Oh,” Azoth said. Even as he gave the words the same stress he always had, Azoth felt part of himself die. This was supposed to be one of his last outings as Azoth. Soon, he would have to become Kylar. He would walk differently, talk differently. He wouldn’t ever visit his old neighborhoods in the Warrens. But now he saw that Azoth’s world was already dying, that he would never connect with Jarl again. It had nothing to do with the lies Kylar would tell, and everything to do with Rat. It was different now. It always would be.

  Azoth and Jarl looked at each other for a long moment in the common room of Momma K’s house. It was almost midnight, and the guild rats would soon be shooed out of the house. They were welcome in the common room all day, but they were allowed to sleep here only in the winter, and then only if they obeyed her rules: no fighting, no stealing, no going anywhere but the kitchen and the
common room, and no bothering the adults who visited. Any guild rat who broke the rules got his entire guild banned from Momma K’s for the winter. Usually, it was a death sentence for the offender, because it meant the whole guild would have to sleep in the sewers to stay warm, and they would kill him for that.

  Still, the place was always crowded. There was a fireplace and a floor covered with soft rugs good for sleeping on. Those rugs had once been clean, but were now stained from their filthy bodies. Despite the damage, Momma K never got mad at them—and every few months, new rugs showed up. There were durable chairs the guild rats were allowed to sit on, toys, dolls, and piles of games they could play. Sometimes Momma K even brought them treats. Here they gambled and bragged and gossiped freely with anyone who was here, even children outside their own guild. It was the only place the guild rats were allowed to resemble children. It was the only safe place they knew.

  Coming back, it looked different. What had seemed so recently the very lap of luxury now was just a plain room, with plain furnishings and simple toys because the guild rats would ruin anything better. They would stain everything and break anything delicate, not from malice but from ignorance. The place was the same; it was Azoth who had changed. Azoth—or Kylar, whichever he was—marveled at the stench of the guild rats. Didn’t they smell themselves? Weren’t they ashamed, or was it just him, ashamed to see what he had been?

  As he always did after his reading lesson with Momma K, Azoth had looked for Jarl. But now that they were face to face, neither could find anything to say.

  “I need your help,” Azoth said finally. There was no way to cover what he wanted. He wasn’t here to visit a friend. He was here to do a job.

  “My help?”

  “I need to know what’s happened to Doll Girl. Where is she? And I need to know what’s happening with the guilds.”

  “I guess you wouldn’t know.”

  “No.” Guilds weren’t part of his life now. Nothing was like it used to be.

  “Your master hit you?” Jarl asked, looking at Azoth’s black eyes.

  “I got this in a fight. He does hit me, but not like—” Azoth cut off.

 
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