The night angel trilogy, p.97
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.97

           Brent Weeks
 

  It would be a messy, slippery, awkward place to fight. That was a mixed blessing. Between the fences and the mud, the Khalidoran heavy cavalry would be cautious and slow. Making a heavily armored horse carrying a heavily armored man jump over a fence onto muddy ground was a good way to kill both. On the other hand, it would slow Agon’s men, too, and that meant it would give the Khalidoran wytches more time to fling fire and lightning.

  Agon drew his horse up before his foot soldiers and archers. He had no horsemen except for his Sa’kagé guards and wytch hunters.

  Having heard Logan speak last night, Agon knew that if he were here now, Logan would have made these men see themselves as part of something vast and good. Logan would have given each of them a hero’s heart. Under Logan, these men wouldn’t hesitate a second to give their lives. Those who survived, even if they lived maimed for the balance of their lives, would count themselves blessed to have shared the field with the man. Agon wasn’t like that.

  “I am a simple man,” Agon told the group lined up to face the horrors of magic and death. “And I have only simple words to give you. Most of you have fought with me before, and it…” Gods, were those tears? He blinked them away. “It honors me that you would have me lead you again. This will be no easy fight. You know that. But we fight an evil that cannot be allowed to win. It is up to us to stop this evil, and today is our only chance.

  “Men, if we win, I will be stripped of command, so if you do what I’m about to ask you, you may be punished, but I ask you regardless. Duke Gyre has been given the… honor of leading the first charge.” The men rumbled at that. They knew what the queen was hoping. Agon held up a hand. “If he survives the first charge, I ask that you guard him with your lives.” Agon dared say no more. If they won, the queen would doubtless hear of everything he’d said.

  His men were left sober and dutiful, ready. Agon wished he were the kind of leader who left them cheering and fiery-eyed, but this, with these men, would do.

  He rode toward the conferring lords to get last-minute instructions, not that he intended to obey them. Agon had thought long and hard about how to charge a force that included wytches, and he thought he’d come up with a better strategy than any of these peacocks could. But it brought him close for the last time to Logan.

  “My lord,” Agon said.

  Logan smiled. “General,” he said. He looked dashing in his family armor, though it had taken some alterations to make sure it didn’t hang loose on his bony frame.

  Agon struggled to find words. “Sir,” he said. “You will always be my king.”

  Logan put his hand on the general’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. He said nothing, but his face told Agon everything.

  Then a Sethi woman on horseback emerged from the line. Agon didn’t recognize her. She was armored, wearing a sword and carrying a lance.

  “My lord,” she said, addressing Logan. “Captain Kaldrosa Wyn. We’ve arrived.”

  “What are you talking about?” Logan asked.

  She raised a hand and the ranks of men parted in curiosity as thirty women armored as Kaldrosa was came through the ranks, each leading a horse. Not all of them were beautiful, and not all of them were young, but all them were members of the Order of the Garter.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” Logan asked.

  “We’re here to fight. Everyone wanted to come, but I limited it to women who have some experience fighting. We’re pirates and merchant guards and pit fighters and archers, and we’re yours. You have given us new lives, my lord. We won’t let her throw yours away.”

  “Where did you get the arms?”

  “The women who can’t fight all helped,” Captain Wyn said.

  “And thirty horses?”

  “Momma K,” Agon guessed, scowling.

  “Yes,” Momma K’s voice rang out behind them. Thank the gods, at least she wasn’t armed. “Duke Gyre, your steward found a few fine warhorses that the queen’s auditors somehow… overlooked. You’ll find these ladies eager to accept any order that includes fighting.”

  “These women aren’t—” Logan stopped. He wasn’t about to insult them. He lowered his voice. “They’ll be slaughtered.”

  “Momma K didn’t ask us to do this,” Kaldrosa Wyn said. “She told us we were fools. But we wouldn’t be swayed. Sir, yesterday you took away our shame. You gave us honor. It’s fragile yet. Please don’t take it away.”

  “What’s going on here? What are these whores doing in front of my army?” Terah Graesin shouted, reining her horse in viciously by Agon.

  “They’re fighting for you,” Agon said. “And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

  “Oh, I can’t, can I?” Terah asked.

  “No, because of that.” Agon pointed. In the first hazy light of dawn, the Khalidoran army was advancing.

  As Kylar and Vi ascended from the Maw into Castle Cenaria, the hot stink in the air faded and even the taint of Khali seemed to hang less heavily. He’d walked these halls just four months ago, taken some of the same passageways on his way to kill Roth Ursuul. This time, however, he used a different strategy.

  By now, Khalidorans would know all the castle’s secrets: the back passages and false walls, the spy holes and hidden doors. This time, there would be no taking the tunnels right into the throne room. But this far from the throne room and the king’s chambers, the tunnels were safer for Vi, who couldn’t become invisible. So an hour before dawn, they entered the passages and moved silently over the heads and behind the backs of scores of soldiers.

  Kylar didn’t think they could have any idea he was coming, so he hoped their presence only meant that with a battle looming, Garoth Ursuul wanted more security. The sheer numbers of soldiers worried him. With a battle coming, an ordinary commander would leave a skeleton crew at the castle.

  The king’s chambers were in the west wing. Kylar and Vi left the tunnels in an empty servant’s room at the base of the last flight of steps before the king’s apartments. Kylar poked his head out into the hall.

  The door to the king’s bedchamber was at the end of a long, wide hallway. Two highlanders with spears stood guarding the door. Other than the numerous doors to servants’ rooms that lined the halls, the hall offered no cover. Again, Kylar thought, not a problem for him, but a serious problem for Vi. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought her along. Momma K thought he would need her, but it was starting to look like she’d just slow him down. He was going to have to take down both guards by himself. It was possible, but each man had a bell rope to sound an alarm. Kylar had no doubt he could kill them both, but killing both and getting them away from their ropes?

  Stepping back into the room Kylar said, “Why don’t you wait here until they’re—”

  Vi was topless, unfolding a dress she’d taken from her pack. Kylar gaped, frozen. When his eyes finally lifted, Vi’s expression was perfectly casual. He turned his head, blushing. A pack hit him in the stomach. “Grab the bodice, would you?” Vi said.

  He pulled the bodice out of the pack and handed it to her as she wriggled into a tight servingwoman’s dress. She leaned over and pulled up the legs of her pants so they wouldn’t show under the dress, again giving Kylar an eyeful. He coughed.

  She grabbed the bodice from his nerveless fingers. “Seriously, Kylar, stop acting like such a virgin—” Virgin! How he absolutely loathed the word! “I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve seen a woman naked.”

  Actually, it was, but Kylar would have died—for real—before he admitted it to Vi. Elene had never let him see her breasts, though she hadn’t always stopped his hands from straying into that golden territory. She’d always wanted to save everything she could for when they were really married. And if Kylar had eroded those boundaries somewhat—bastard—every step seemed huge, a precious gift. It had been vastly frustrating then, but as Vi laced the bodice rapidly and adjusted the amount of cleavage, it was different. For Vi, showing her breasts was nothing. She didn’t even turn as she grabbe
d each breast within the bodice and pulled it this way and that to show it to best advantage. Kylar had thought that Elene’s were the ultimate of all breasts, but Vi’s breasts were fuller, larger. You couldn’t look at her and not notice her breasts. It automatically made her sexual—and yet… and yet, to her, they were just tits. Tools.

  Elene was less blatantly sexual, maybe less sexual, period. But there was something cheap about Vi’s sexuality, something that told Kylar she took no joy from it. That had been taken from her, taken by her mother’s lecherous lovers, by Hu Gibbet, by Momma K’s clients and casual fucking. Kylar’s emotions skittered from aroused to mournful.

  Vi picked up a wicker laundry basket and stuffed it full of clothes, including her own tunic. Under the last tunic, she secreted a dagger.

  “How do I look?”

  The outfit did look oddly familiar. She’d shown substantially less cleavage that day, in keeping with the modesty of the Drake household, but they were exactly the same clothes Vi had worn when she tried to kill him. “Son of a bitch,” he said.

  She chuckled and turned, modeling for him. “Does it make my butt look big?”

  “You get your big ass in the hall.”

  She laughed and put the basket on her hip. She was provocative, gorgeous, tempting, and now she had to add fun to the mix? Dammit, he’d almost kissed her outside! No doubt he’d be wearing a knife in his back if he’d done it, but for a second he’d even thought that she wanted him to. She sashayed down the hallway, and the Khalidorans’ eyes locked onto her. One of them muttered an oath.

  “Hello,” Vi said, coming to stand in front of the guard on the left. “I’m new here and I was wondering if—” Her knife slashed so deeply across the man’s neck it almost decapitated him.

  Kylar broke the other man’s neck with a sharp twist and a meaty crack.

  Vi looked over where he was—or wasn’t, since he was invisible.

  “Un-fucking-believable,” she said. She cleaned the dagger and put it back in the basket. “Fine, you come in after ten seconds or as soon as you hear my voice. If the Godking wakes up, I’ll distract him and you kill him. If he stays asleep, I’ll take him.”

  She opened the door slowly and silently and stepped inside.

  A few moments later, she came out. Her face was green. “He’s not there,” she said.

  “What’s wrong?” Kylar tried to step past her, but she blocked him.

  “You don’t want to go in there.”

  He pushed past her.

  The room was full of women. They stood frozen, like statues in various poses. One, on all fours, naked, supported a sheet of glass on her back, forming a table. Another, a tall noblewoman Kylar recognized but couldn’t name, stood on tiptoe, stretching seductively, one arm and one leg wrapped around a post of the Godking’s massive four-poster bed. Chellene lo-Gyre sat, legs crossed in her shift, in a wing-backed chair. Kylar didn’t know anything about her except her reputation for a fiery temper. Her expression showed it, as did her disheveled hair and the tension in her lean muscles. Most of the women were naked, the rest wore little. Two, on their knees, held a washbasin. Two others held a mirror. One was manacled to the wall, a scarf around her neck. Kylar’s breath stopped.

  It was Serah Drake. Like all of them, she wasn’t as still as a statue; she was a statue. With a little cry, Kylar touched her face, touched the lips he’d once kissed. They were as yielding as living flesh, but cool, and there was no life in her open, shining eyes. Her flesh—all of the women’s flesh—had been frozen in place with some magic, then left here. As art.

  Beneath the scarf, Kylar could see the bruises circling Serah’s neck. He looked away. There were two ways to die when hanged: if you fell far enough, your neck would break and you’d die quickly, otherwise you strangled slowly. Serah had died the hard way.

  He stepped away, but everywhere his eyes turned, he saw gruesome detail. The women wearing bracelets concealed gashed wrists; chemises concealed pierced hearts; those wearing more clothing did so to conceal the imperfections of their taxidermy: they were the ones who’d thrown themselves from their balconies and now had bulges where no bulges belonged.

  Kylar staggered like a man drunk. He needed air. He was going to throw up. He burst out onto the Godking’s wide balcony.

  She sat on the stone railing, feet hooked through the posts for balance, leaning far back, naked, a nightgown in her hand, fluttering in the wind like a flag. Mags.

  Kylar screamed. Talent leaked through his fury and the scream reverberated over the castle, echoing back from the courtyard far below. All life in the castle stopped. Kylar didn’t notice, nor did he notice the ka’kari rushing over his skin, the face of judgment covering his anguish.

  He hammered a palm down on the stone railing and crushed it on one side of Mags, then again on her other side, then he lifted her and carried her back inside. The feeling of her skin, so like living skin, was obscene. But her limbs were locked in place. He laid her on the bed, then tore the bolts holding Serah Drake to the wall. He laid Serah beside her sister. As he covered them, he saw that each girl’s left foot was signed in a bubbly script, as if their corpses were art: Trudana Jadwin.

  Vi was staring saucer-eyed from him to the shattered six-inch stone railing. “Fucking fuck,” she whispered. “Kylar, is that you?”

  He nodded stiffly. He wanted to remove the mask of judgment, but he couldn’t. He needed it right now.

  “I checked the concubines’ rooms,” Vi said. “Nothing. He must already be in the throne room.”

  Kylar’s stomach flipped. He jerked involuntarily.

  “What?” Vi asked.

  “Bad memories,” Kylar said. “Fuck it. Let’s go.”

  Dawn was coming. By killing the two guards, they’d tipped their own hourglass. Someone would check the men’s post soon—probably at dawn. Worse, the Cenarian army’s glass was already draining. The battle would begin soon and then the nasty surprises would start. If Logan were to have a chance to be king, Kylar needed to hand him a victory. Killing Garoth Ursuul would unman the Khalidorans.

  They walked through the halls brazenly, Vi in her serving girl uniform, and Kylar invisible but flitting from doorway to doorway as if he weren’t, in case any meisters were wandering the halls. As they came to the last hallway, they passed six of the largest highlanders Kylar had ever seen. Kylar dodged behind some statuary as he saw that the highlanders were accompanied by two Vürdmeisters. Most curious of all, the protection seemed to be for one woman—apparently one of the Godking’s concubines or wives—all wrapped up in robes and veils so that not an inch of her skin showed.

  When Kylar drew his knives to kill them, Vi laid a hand on his arm. He turned judgment’s eye on her and she flinched, but she was right. A fight here was a distraction that might jeopardize the real mission, and there was nothing that was going to stop Kylar from killing Garoth Ursuul.

  Kylar’s stomach was a riot. It didn’t quiet even when the group rounded a corner and disappeared. This was the same hallway he’d stood in with Elene and Uly, when he’d gone to his first death.

  He calmed. Garoth Ursuul was far more powerful than Roth Ursuul, but Kylar was more powerful now, too. He was more confident. He’d been a boy trying to prove he was a man then, now he was a man making a choice, knowing what it might cost.

  He smiled recklessly. “So, Vi, you ready to kill a god?”

  66

  The men perched on the crest of a hill south of the battlefield: six of the Sa’seurans’ most powerful magi. Their clothing betrayed none of that. Each dressed in the plain clothes of a trader from his own homeland: four Alitaerans, a Waeddryner, and a Modaini. Their sturdy packhorses even bore a respectable amount of trade goods, and if their mounts were a little better than most traders would own, they weren’t so fine as to attract comment. But if the men’s clothes didn’t betray them, their bearing did. These were men who strode the earth with the assurance of gods.

  “This oughtn’t be pretty,” the
Modaini said. Antoninus Wervel was a short butter-tub of a man with a bulbous, florid nose and a fringe of brown hair combed over his shiny pate. In the Modaini fashion, he wore kohl around his eyes and had darkened and lengthened his eyebrows. It gave him a sinister look. “How many meisters you figure they’ve got?” he asked one of the Alitaeran twins, Caedan.

  The gangly youth twitched. Caedan was one of two Seers in the group, and he was supposed to be spotting. “Sorry, sorry. I was just—are that man’s bodyguards all women?”

  “Surely not.”

  “They are,” Lord Lucius said. He was the leader of the expedition, and the other Seer. But he was more interested in the opposing side. “The Khalidorans have at least ten meisters, probably twenty. They’re standing close together.”

  “Lord Lucius,” Caedan said timidly. “I think they’ve got six Vürdmeisters there, back farther, in the middle. It looks like they’re gathered around something, but I can’t tell what it is.”

  The butter-tub hmmphed. “How many of the Touched fight for Cenaria?” He said it to irritate the Alitaerans. In Modai, touched meant Talented, not crazy as it did in Alitaera.

  Caedan was oblivious. “There’s a man and woman in the Cenarian lines, both trained, standing together. Several others untrained.”

  “And among the Ceuran raiders?”

  “I haven’t seen the Ceurans since they went around the bend.”

  The other young Alitaeran, Jaedan, looked unhappy. He was the identical twin of the young Seer, with the same handsome features, same floppy black hair, and totally different gifts.

  “Why are they being so stupid?” he asked. “We all saw the Lae’knaught army coming up from the south. Five thousand lancers who hate the Khalidorans more than anything. Why don’t the Cenarians wait until they get here?”

  “They might not know the Lae’knaught are coming,” Lord Lucius said.

  “Or they might not be coming. They might be waiting to pick off the victor. Or Terah Graesin might want all the glory for herself,” Wervel suggested.

 
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