The night angel trilogy, p.93
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.93

           Brent Weeks
 

  For a long moment, Logan didn’t answer. When it emerged, his voice was low and stern, “What else can I do?”

  “The One God says he will provide an escape from every temptation.”

  “I don’t believe in your god, Drake.”

  “Truth doesn’t depend on your belief in it.”

  Logan shook his head slowly, like a bear emerging emaciated after months of hibernation. “Marrying Terah is no temptation. My father married a beautiful, poisonous woman and I saw what it did to him.”

  “A lesson you would do well to heed. The difference being that your mother wasn’t capable of nearly as much destruction.”

  Logan’s eyes flashed, the bear slowly raising his head to tower above all others. “If there’s a way out that doesn’t destroy us, you tell me what it is! I don’t want to marry—”

  “I didn’t say marriage was the temptation.”

  “Then what is?”

  “Power,” Count Drake said, thumping his cane.

  “Damn it, man! It’s marry her or doom us all. You think I haven’t figured out a way to get the majority of these people to follow me? I have! I could take maybe two-thirds of them and leave. That would leave a third to die. You want me to ask thousands to die so I can avoid a bad marriage?

  “No, Logan.” Count Drake leaned on his cane. He looked like he needed its support. “My question is, can you be the king that you need to be with such a queen beside you? Terah Graesin was caught off guard today. You caught her in a moment of weakness. That won’t happen again.”

  “Well, thank for you illustrating the bleakness of my future,” Logan said. “But if you can’t help me escape it, help me get dressed.”

  “My king,” Count Drake said, “sometimes the way out of a hole isn’t climbing.”

  “Get out,” Logan said.

  Count Drake bowed and left sadly.

  Logan lifted the circlet and put it on his head. Momma K had seen to it that he looked a king. He had been shaved, his hair cut, his body anointed with oils and adorned with furs. He was dressed in a fine dark gray tunic and cloak trimmed with white samite. He’d reached the age of majority immediately before the coup, but he’d forgotten to choose his own sigil. Now he saw that Momma K had chosen one for him. It incorporated the Gyre’s white gyrfalcon on a field sable, but his falcon wore broken chains on its feet, and the sable field was a black circle reminiscent of the Hole. The gyrfalcon’s wings were spread. It was a worthy sigil. His father would have been proud.

  What would you do, father? As a young man, his father had married to save the family. With the benefit of hindsight, would he have done it again?

  The tent flap opened and Momma K stepped inside. She looked at him with a shallow but genuine compassion. She couldn’t understand. She’d never loved as Logan had loved. To her, it must look like this was the obvious choice. Marry Terah, deal with the problems later. In his position, Momma K would scheme and manipulate and have Terah killed if it came it to it.

  “It’s time,” she said.

  “The sigil is perfect,” Logan said. “Thank you.”

  “Did you notice the wings?” she asked. “The wingtips extend beyond the circle, Your Majesty. The gyrfalcon will always fly free.”

  Together, they walked up onto the platform. It was a circle almost the same size as the Hole. It was a circle to symbolize the perfect, eternal, unbreakable nature of marriage. As Logan climbed, with thousands of eyes turned on him, to take his place right at the center, where the fall to death had been, his heart lurched. He felt sick, claustrophobic. He remembered stretching over the Hole, stretching as far as he could. For what? For pissed-on bread he wouldn’t give to an animal.

  Music began playing and his pissed-on bread stepped up daintily onto the platform.

  Part of Logan was ravenous for her, as he had been ravenous in the Hole. For the past three months, he’d been so weak, so starved, so preoccupied with surviving that he’d barely spared a thought for sex. Before the Hole, it seemed he’d barely spared a thought for anything else. Now that he was out and regaining his strength, that old Logan was coming back. Terah Graesin was tall and lithe, her curves almost boyish, but her smile was all woman. She moved like a woman who knew what men liked and knew that she had it. The starving, greedy part of Logan wanted to fuck her.

  And pissed-on bread always looked so good, until you tasted it. But at least it filled you up, no matter how you felt about it afterward. At least he’d have sex. By all the gods; at twenty-one, he was still a fucking virgin!

  The irony of the thought made him smile grimly. Terah saw the smile and smiled back. She did look fantastic. Her hair was teased up into—well, something fancy. Logan wondered how many tailors had been cursing at each other for the last two hours as they’d somehow altered one of her dresses into a wedding dress. It was the traditional green of fertility and new life, slim cut to Terah’s slim body, with ornate groom ties up the back, and a long expanse of leg exposed that was certainly not traditional but welcome nonetheless. It was completed with a stylish veil symbolizing chastity that worked perfectly with the dress, if not so well with the woman in it.

  Well, I’ll have as much sex as I want, if her reputation is at all deserved. The thought sloshed in his stomach like warm piss. No, better not to think about her reputation.

  Whatever he felt, Terah Graesin somehow pulled off what he had thought was impossible. She was sexy and regal at the same time—to her it was all power, whether it came from her status or her personality or her body. They were all tools to impose her will.

  Power. Count Drake said the temptation was power.

  Terah came to stand beside him and took his hand shyly. The people cheered. It was just like Jenine Gunder had taken his hand when her father had announced their marriage. Logan swallowed his rising gorge. For Jenine, it had been a spontaneous act. Terah had been at that dinner. She’d seen what Jenine had done and how people had approved. She was imitating Jenine deliberately.

  “Relax,” Terah said. “You’re five minutes away from everything you ever wanted.”

  You’re a fool if you believe that, Terah. Logan painted a smile on his face and willed his body to relax. No, it wasn’t what he would have chosen, but he would be able to change everything. He could defeat King Ursuul. He could root out the Sa’kagé. He could abolish the poor laws. He could…

  That was it. That was what Count Drake meant. That was the temptation of power. He’d turned his ambition in his own mind. It isn’t for me, he’d told himself, it’s for the people. But that wasn’t altogether true, was it? He’d liked ordering Gorkhy’s death; he’d liked dismissing the count: Logan spoke and things happened. People obeyed. He’d been so powerless for so long in the Hole that the idea of never being subject to anyone was honey on his tongue.

  Fine, Count Drake, I understand. Now where’s the way out?

  It was too late. On one side stood a hecatonarch in his rich cloak—a hundred colors for the hundred gods. On the other stood a man in simple brown robes, a patr of the One God. Duke Wesseros took his place in the middle. Terah had made sure that their marriage would be performed in triplicate. The cheering crescendoed as fifteen thousand people shouted themselves hoarse for the couple they thought would save them.

  “May I address the people?” Logan asked.

  “Absolutely not,” Terah said. “What kind of a ploy is this?”

  “It’s not a ploy. I just wish to speak to those who will bleed and die for us. I haven’t had the chance to do that.”

  “You’re going to set them against me,” Terah said.

  “How about,” Duke Wesseros said, “how about Logan swears not to say anything negative about you? And if he does, I’ll step in and stop him? Is that acceptable, my lord?”

  “Yes.”

  “My lady?” Duke Wesseros said, “He is their king.”

  “Make it quick.”

  “Logan, five minutes,” Duke Wesseros said. He stepped close and lowered his voice. “
And may the spirit Timaeus Rindder inspire you.”

  It was a contingent declaration of support. Timaeus Rindder had been an orator of such skill he’d turned a chariot race loss into a coup, though he had been bound by exactly the restrictions that Duke Wesseros had put on Logan. In framing the rules the way he had, Duke Wesseros was saying, “If you can get the people on your side, I’ll come, too.”

  “My friends, tomorrow we will stand together in the clash and roar of battle.” Logan had barely spoken the first sentence when his words were doubled and redoubled in volume. He paused, then saw Master Nile standing near the front, smiling. Logan pretended that it wasn’t important, and in a moment, everyone else did, too. “Tomorrow, we will face a foe whose face we know. You have seen his face darkening your doors. You have seen his boots muddying your floors. You have seen his torches setting fire to your fields. You’ve felt his fists and whips and scorn, but you refused to yield!”

  Logan’s nerves and self-criticism—Could I have said that better? Is my voice steady? Why is it so hard to get a full breath?—faded as he looked at the upturned faces of the people who would be his people. He’d had no idea just a few months ago who the Cenarian people were. He’d known and loved the Gyre’s smallfolk, but had shared the noblemen’s fashionable disdain for the unwashed masses. How easy it was to ask a nameless, faceless mob to die.

  “My friends, I spent the last three months in the depths of Hell’s Asshole. I was trapped with the shit and the stink of humanity. I spent my time fearing death and things worse than death. They took my clothes. They took my dignity. I saw the good suffer with the evil. I saw a woman violated and a woman kill herself so she wouldn’t be violated again. I saw good men and bad make their deals with the darkness. And I made my own. To survive.

  “My friends, I was imprisoned beneath the ground. You were imprisoned above it. You knew the fears I knew. You saw the horrors I saw, and worse. We had friends killed. We knew that to resist was to die… and my friends, my people, we looked at the odds against us and we saw no hope. We fled. We hid.” Logan paused, and the people were silent.

  “Were you there with me?” Logan asked. “Did you feel rage? Did you feel powerless? Did you watch evil and do nothing to oppose it? Were you ashamed?”

  The men and women didn’t look to the left or the right, afraid that their neighbors would see the tears in their eyes. Their heads nodded, yes, yes.

  “I was ashamed,” Logan said. “Let me tell you what I learned in the Hole. I learned that in suffering, we find the true measure of our strength. I learned that a man can be a coward one day and a hero the next. I learned that I’m not as good a man as I thought I was. But the most important thing is this: I learned that though it costs me dearly, I can change. I learned that what has been broken can be made new. Do you know who taught me that? A prostitute. In a bitter woman who made her living in shame, I found honor, courage, and loyalty. She inspired me and she saved me.

  “Today, there are women here who taught you the same lessons. Many of you are ashamed of your mothers and your wives and your daughters who were raped, who were pressed into sexual slavery at the castle, who sold themselves in brothels so they might survive. You’ve shunned them, rejected them.

  “But I say your wives, mothers, and daughters have shown us how to fight. They gave us the Nocta Hemata. They have given us courage. They have shown us the road from shame to honor. Let every woman who fought that night stand forth!”

  A few women stepped forward immediately. Bolstered by their courage, others emerged. Men moved aside silently. In moments, a crowd of three hundred women gathered in front of the platform. Some let tears fall, but their backs were straight, their chins high. Men in the ranks were openly weeping now. Not just the men who must have known this small sample, but men from the countryside, men who must have known their own women to be shamed and dishonored, men who were now ashamed of themselves.

  “Today,” Logan said. “I declare you the inaugural members of the Order of the Garter. A garter, because you have taken shame and turned it to honor. Display it with pride and tell your grandchildren of your courage forever. And no man shall ever join your order unless he displays the highest levels of heroism and courage.”

  The people cheered. It was the best thing Logan had ever done.

  “I’m afraid,” Logan said, quieting the crowd, “that your garters aren’t ready yet. It seems we don’t have all the materials on hand. You see, we’re going to make them out of the Khalidoran battle flags.”

  They cheered.

  “What do you say, men? You think we can help them out?”

  They cheered louder.

  “Now brothers, please, welcome your beloved. They need you. And sisters, welcome these shamed and broken men. They need you.

  “There are just a few more things for me to say.” Logan breathed deeply. He’d gone longer than he intended already. He hadn’t established the Order of the Garter to gain support. It was just something that needed to be fixed. But somehow, wherever he looked, he saw faces full of hope.

  “A few months ago, I didn’t want to be king,” Logan said, “but something changed me in the Hole. Before the Hole, I could see you as a mob. Now, I see you as brothers and sisters. I can ask you to bleed with me, to die with me, and I do. Many of us will bleed tomorrow, and some of us will die.” He looked down at the Hole on which he stood. Is this your way out, Count Drake? Oh, father, would this make you proud? “I can ask you to bleed to throw off your chains, but I cannot ask you to bleed for my ambition.”

  The crowd quieted.

  “In the Hole, I learned that a man or woman may wield power over life and death, but there is no power over love. My friends, I love you and this nation and the freedom we will win. But I feel no love for this woman. I will not marry Terah Graesin, not this day, not ever.”

  “What?” Terah Graesin yelled. She stepped forward. “Stop him, Havrin!”

  But Duke Wesseros held her back and Master Nile didn’t amplify her voice. “Terah,” the duke said, “if you try to stop him now, it’ll be civil war right here.”

  A roar was going through the crowd and men were looking at their neighbors, unsheathing their weapons, and trying to see who would join which side.

  “STOP!” Logan cried, and his voice boomed over the assembly. He held his hands up. “I won’t have a single man die to make me king, much less a thousand.” He turned. “Lady Graesin, will you swear fealty to me?”

  Her eyes flashed and this time Master Nile did amplify her voice. “Not if it cost a thousand thousand lives!”

  Logan held his hands up to forestall the furor. “My friends, we have no hope of defeating Khalidor if we are not united. So,” he turned to Terah Graesin, who looked less than beautiful with a rage-splotchy face, “grant me that you will establish the Order of the Garter and that you will pardon my followers of all crimes up to this day… grant me that, and I will swear fealty to you.”

  Terah Graesin hesitated only a moment. Her eyes were wide with disbelief, but she recovered before any cry could go up. “Done,” she said. “Swear it now.”

  Logan knelt and reached toward the center of the platform where Terah stood. In the perfect inverse of a gyrfalcon stretching its wings beyond the black circle of submission and imprisonment, he reached his hand back in. It made all the difference.

  Sometimes the only way out of the Hole isn’t climbing. He touched her foot in the oath of submission.

  “In recognition of your valor,” Queen Graesin said in a tone that dripped poison. “You will have the honor of leading the first charge. Your honeyed words will doubtless impress the Vürdmeisters.”

  61

  Kaldrosa Wyn stood with hundreds of women at the front of the crowd, all of them in various states of shock, disbelief, and tears. There were too many emotions to hold them all in. Usually Kaldrosa Wyn hated crying. Now, her tears were a relief.

  She felt as if her heart had just tripled in size. Duke Gyre amazed her. He
re was a man who set aside the greatest ambition in the world for love. He’d cracked the hard shell of bitterness she’d been growing around her heart. He’d turned them from whores to heroes. He was a saint, and that bitch was going to send him to his death.

  Then the throng was around her and the other women, men pushing into the lines, looking for their spurned beloved. Next to Kaldrosa, Daydra was sobbing. A bear of a man pushed through the mob to get to her, and as she saw him, her cries crescendoed. He was an older man, her father, and his eyes were streaming, snot dribbling into his great bushy moustache. Before he could say a word, Daydra fainted. He caught her as she fell and lifted her into his arms as easily as a baby. Another couple embraced next to Kaldrosa, just squeezing, squeezing.

  Kaldrosa tried not to hate these women for their joy. She did feel new, different, the mountain of shame sliding off her shoulders. But Tomman was surely back in Cenaria. Would he be so quick to forgive? Would she ever again get to lie in his arms after lovemaking, in that time when all things were made new?

  The crowd was beginning to thin, and the women who’d not found their lost loves were clumping together. They looked at each other and they knew each other, even women who’d never met. They were sisters. But even then, they were not alone. The goodwives who’d listened to the speech from the back and had known that there would be girls left over had finally pushed their way through the ranks of men and—strangers all—they embraced and wept together.

  Off to one side, Kaldrosa Wyn saw Momma K, watching. There were no tears in the great woman’s eyes, but though her back was as straight as a rod, she looked like she wished there had been a man who pushed through the crowd for her. Kaldrosa was starting to walk toward her, marveling at her own bravery—go to comfort Momma K!—when she saw him.

  He was wearing the uniform of one of General Agon’s wytch hunters: a strange short bow in one hand, a quiver on his back and boiled leather armor over a dark green tunic piped with yellow. But as he scanned the crowd, her fierce, fiery Tomman looked scared. Then their eyes met.

 
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