Having enjoyed the GRRM-recommended S. L. Farrell's A Magic of Twilight last year, I was looking forward to it's sequel, A Magic of Nightfall (Canada, USA, Europe). Hence, I was quite happy when we were able to get an excerpt posted on the Hotlist.
There is already an extract on Farrell's website, so you might want to read that one first.
The following is excerpted from A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL. The novel is told in multiple viewpoints, but the sections below (with one exception) concentrate on the POV of one of the characters: the assassin called the “White Stone...” These sections are widely separated in the actual novel.
One small note: this is from the uncorrected galleys of the novel, and so may be slightly different from the actual text of the novel...
Hope you enjoy!
The White Stone
THERE WERE EASY KILLINGS, and there were hard ones. This was one of the easy ones.
The target was Honori cu’Belgradi, a merchant dealing in goods from the Magyarias, and a philanderer who had made the mistake of sleeping with the wrong person’s wife: the wife of the White Stone’s client.
“I watched him tup her,” the man had told the White Stone, his voice shaking with remembered rage. “I watched him take my wife like an animal, and I heard her call out his name in her passion. And now . . . now she’s pregnant, and I don’t know if the child is mine or . . ..” He’d stopped, his head bowed. “But I’ll make certain that he’ll do this to no other husband, and I’ll make certain that the child will never be able to call him vatarh. . . .”
Relationships and lust were responsible for fully half of the White Stone’s work. Greed and power accounted for the rest. There was never a dearth of people seeking the White Stone; if you needed to find the Stone, you found the way.
Honori cu’Belgradi was a creature of habit, and habits made for easy prey. The Stone had watched him for three days, and the man’s ritual never varied by more than a quarter turn of the glass. He would close his shop in Ville Serne, a town a half-day’s ride south of Brezno, then stroll to the tavernhouse on the corner of the next street over. He would stay there until four turns of the glass after third call, after which he would go to the rooms where the woman-the wife of the Stone’s client-waited for their nightly tryst.
On the way to those rooms, Honori would pass the alleyway where the Stone waited now. The Stone could already hear the footsteps in the cool night air. “Honori cu’Belgradi,” the Stone called as the figure of the man passed by the opening of the alley. Honori stopped, his face cautious, then eagerly interested as the Stone stepped into the light of the téni-lamps of the street.
“You know me?” cu’Belgradi asked, and the Stone smiled gently.
“I do. And I would know you better, my friend. You and I, we have a business arrangement to make.”
“How do you mean?” cu’Belgradi asked as the Stone stepped closer to him. So easy . . . Only a step away. A knife thrust’s distance apart, and cu’Belgradi tilted his head quizzically.
“Like this,” the Stone answered, looking around the street and seeing no one watching, and clapping cu’Belgradi on the shoulder as if the man were a long-lost friend. At the same time the hand holding the poisoned blade drove hard up under the man’s rib cage and twisted it up into the heart. Cu’Belgradi made a strangled, blood-choked cry, and the body was suddenly heavy against the Stone’s athletic build. The Stone half-dragged, half-carried the dying cu’Belgradi into the alleyway, laying the body quickly on the ground. Cu’Belgradi’s eyes were open, and the Stone dug into a cloak pocket and brought out two stones: both white in the dimness of the alley, though one was smooth and polished as if from much handling. The stones were placed on cu’Belgradi’s open eyes, the Stone pressing them down into the sockets. The one on the left eye the Stone left there; the gleaming, white, and smooth one over the right eye-the eye of the ego, the eye that held the image of the face it saw in its last moment-that one the Stone picked up again and placed back in a leather pouch around the Stone’s neck.
“And now I have you, forever,” the apparition known as the White Stone whispered.
A breath later, there was no one left alive in the alley, only a corpse with a white pebble over its left eye: a contract fulfilled.
* * *
The White Stone
The White Stone
THEY CAME TO HER AT NIGHT, those who the White Stone had killed. In the night, they stirred and woke. They gathered around her in her dreams and they talked to her. Often, the loudest of them was Old Pieter, the first person she’d killed.
She’d been twelve.
“Remember me . . .” he whispered to her in her sleep. “Remember me . . .”
Old Pieter was their neighbor in the sleepy village back on the Isle of Paeti, and she’d known him since birth, especially after her vatarh died when she was six. He was always friendly with her, joking and gifting her with animals he’d carved from oak branches, whittling them with the short knife he always carried on his belt. She painted the animals he gave her, placing them on a window shelf in her little bedroom where she could see them every morning.
Old Pieter kept goats, and when her matarh would let her, she sometimes helped him tend the small herd. The day her life changed, the day she started on the path that had led her here, she’d been out with Pieter and his goats near the Loudwhite, the creek falling fast and noisy from the slopes of Sheep Fell, one of the tall hills to the south of the village. The goats were grazing placidly near the creek, and she was walking near then when she saw a body in the grass: a doe freshly killed, its body torn by scavengers and flies beginning to buzz excitedly around the carcass. The doe’s head, on the long tawny neck, gazed forlornly at her with large, beautiful eyes.
“If ye look into that right eye, ye’ll see what killed her.” A hand stroked her shoulder and continued down her back before leaving. She started, not realizing that Old Pieter had come up behind her. “The right eye, it connects to a person’s or an animal’s soul,” he continued. “When a living thing dies, well, the right eye remembers the last thing they saw-the last face, or the thing that killed it. Look close into that doe’s eye, and ye’ll see it in there, too: a wolf, p’raps. It happens to people, too. Murderers, they been caught that way-by someone looking into the dead right eye of the one they killed and seeing the killer’s face there.”
She shuddered at that and turned away, and Old Pieter laughed. His hand brushed wisps of hair that had escaped her braids back from her face, and he smiled fondly at her. “Now don’t be upset, girl,” he said. “G’wan and see to the goats, and I’ll carve ye something new. . . .”
It was later in the afternoon when he came to her again, as she sat on the banks of the Loudwater watching the stream tumble through its rocky bed. “Here,” he said. “Do ye like it?”
The carving was a human figure, small enough to hide easily in her hand: nude, and undeniably female, with small breasts like her own budding from the chest. It was the hair that distressed her the most: a moon ago, a ca’ woman from Nessantico has passed through their town, staying at the inn one night on the road to An Uaimth. The woman’s hair had been braided in an intricate knot at the back of the head; entranced by this glimpse of foreign fashion, she had worked for days to imitate those braids-since then, she had braided her hair in that same manner every day.
It was braided now, just as the nude figure’s was, and her hand involuntarily went to her knot of hair on the back of her head. She wanted, suddenly, to tear it out.
She stared at the carving, not knowing what to say, and she felt Old Pieter’s hand on her cheek. “It’s you,” he told her. “You’re becoming a woman now.” His hand had cupped her head, and he brought her to him, pressing her tight against him. She could feel his excitement, hard on her thigh.
She dropped the doll.
What happened then she would never forget: the pain, and the humiliation of it. The shame. And after it was over, after his weight left her, she saw his belt lying on the grass next to her, and there in its sheath was his knife, and she took it. She took the hilt in hands that trembled and shook, she took it sobbing, she took it with her tashta ripped and half torn from her, she took it with her blood and his seed spattering her thighs, and she took it with all the anger and rage and fear inside her and she stabbed him. She plunged the blade low in his belly, and when he groaned and shouted in alarm, she yanked out the blade and plunged it into him again, and again, and again until he was no longer screaming and no longer beating at her with his fists and no longer moving at all.
Covered in her own blood and his, she let the knife drop, kneeling alongside him. His dead eyes stared at her.
“When a thing dies, the right eye remembers the last thing they see-the last face they saw. . . ..”
She half-crawled to the bank of the Loudwhite. She found a stone there, a white and water-polished pebble the size of a large coin. She brought the stone back and pressed it down over his right eye. Then she huddled there, a few steps away from him, until the sun was nearly down and the goats came around her bleating and wanting to go home to their stables. She woke as if from a sleep, seeing the body there, and she found that curiosity drove her forward toward it. Her hand trembled as she reached down to his face, to the pebble-covered right eye. She took the stone from that eye, and it felt strangely warm. The eye underneath it was gray and clouded, and though she looked carefully into it, she saw nothing there: no image of herself. Nothing at all. She clutched the pebble in her hand: so warm, almost throbbing with life. Her breath shuddered as she clutched it to her breast.
She left then, leaving his body there. She walked south, not north, and she took the pebble with her.
She would never return to the village of her birth. She would never see her matarh again.
The White Stone turned in her sleep. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, girl,” Old Pieter whispered in her dreams. “Didn’t mean to change you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. . . .”
* * *
The White Stone
SHE WATCHED THE ASSASSINATION attempt from within the crowd, unnoticed and safe. How terribly clumsy, she thought, as people gaped and shouted and screamed around her. Clumsy and stupid to boot.
A knife was a much better weapon than magic. Stealth was much better than a brute attack. You should be there to see your victim’s eyes when you strike. You should see yourself reflected in his pupils. You should feel the heat of the blood washing over your hands. She’d been taught her blade skills at an early age, in the warrens of An Uaimth.
Her body still had the scars of those lessons, and she’d thought more than once that she herself would die of them. Her teachers were the dregs of society, the dark and twisted folk who were too violent and too twisted and too damaged to be tolerated by polite society. They were dangerous, and she had found herself abused and used and injured by them more than once. But they had physical skills she wanted, gained with blood and pain and fury. She had learned those lessons well, taking from each what she could.
She was never again going to let someone take advantage of her. She was never going to be weak. She was never going to let herself be vulnerable.
She had to kill a few of her “teachers,” when they became too dangerous or when they tried to become too close, when they began to pry or to guess her secrets. She had left her calling card with each of them, a white pebble over the left eye. The White Stone . . . She’d begun to hear the name, whispered in the streets. He always leaves a stone on the left eye . . .
They always assumed it was “he”; that was protection, too. She could walk anywhere and never be suspected. And they never knew there were always two stones; that she took one from victim’s right eye to keep with her. To keep them with her.
That stone was in the small leather pouch tied around her neck, nestled between her breasts under her clothing. That was with her always.
She touched the pouch now as the crowds surged toward the dais, as the A’Hïrzg stood up covered in the blood of the assassin and the new Hïrzg raised his hands to the crowds and called out for them to be calm.
The White Stone smiled at that.
Death . . . Death was always calm.
* * *
DO I REALLY WANT to do this? Allesandra shivered at the thought.
It was, almost, too late to change her mind.
Alone, in the darkness of a narrow lane in Brezno on Draiordi evening, she waited where she’d been told. A man approached her, hobnailed boots clacking loudly on the cobbles, and Allesandra stiffened, suddenly alert. All her senses were straining, and she pressed a hand close to the knife hidden under the sleeve of her tashta, though she knew that if the White Stone were what he was rumored to be, no weapon would protect her if he decided to kill her. The man came close to her, his eyes on the shadows under the cowl of her tashta, assessing her.
“Ah,” the man said. “I guess you’re comely enough. Care to do some business with me, girlie?” he asked as he approached her, with the smell of beer trailing after him.
He thinks you’re a whore. This isn’t him. But, just to be certain, she opened her hand and showed him the gray-white, smooth pebble in her palm. He didn’t react. “I have a se’siqil that’s yours if you’re good to me,” the man said, and Allesandra closed her fingers around the stone.
“Be off with you,” she told him, “or I’ll call the utilino.” The man scowled, hiccuped, then brushed past her. He spat on the ground near her feet.
“Did you think it would be that easy?” At the sound of the voice, Allesandra started to turn, but a gloved hand gripped her shoulder and stopped her. “No,” the voice said. “Just keep standing there, looking across the street. I am the White Stone.” Husky, that voice, though pitched higher than she’d imagined. In her mind, she’d heard a deep, ominous voice, not this nondescript one.
“How do I know it’s you?” she asked.
“You don’t. Not now. You won’t know until you see the stone on the left eye of the man you want dead. It is a man, isn’t it?” There was a quiet chuckle. “For a woman, it’s always a man . . . or because of one.”
“I want to see you,” Allesandra said. “I want to know who I’m talking to, who I’m hiring.”
“The only ones who see the White Stone are those I kill. Turn, and you’ll be one of those-I know you, and that’s enough. Do I make myself clear, A’Hïrzg ca’Vörl?” Involuntarily, Allesandra shivered at the threat and the voice chuckled again. “Good. I dislike unnecessary and unpaid work. Now . . . You brought my fee, as Elzbet told you?”
“Good. You’ll place the pouch down at your feet, and place the stone you brought on top of it-it’s a light stone, as near white as you can find? You’d recognize it again?”
Again Allesandra nodded. Resisting the temptation to look back, she unlaced the pouch heavy with gold solas from the belt of her tashta and, crouching, put it on the cobbles of the street next to her feet. She placed the pebble on top of the soft leather and stood up.
“How soon?” Allesandra asked. “How soon will you do it?”
“In my own time and in the place of my own choosing,” the White Stone answered. “But within a moon. No longer than that. Who do you want me to kill?” the assassin asked. “What is his name?”
“You may not take the money when I tell you.”
The White Stone gave a mocking laugh. “You wouldn’t need me if the one you wanted dead weren’t well-placed and well-protected. Perhaps, given your history, it’s someone in Nessantico?”
“No?” There was, Allesandra thought, disappointment in the voice.
“Then who, A’Hïrzg? Who do you want dead badly enough that you would find me?”
She hesitated, not wanting to say it aloud. She let out the breath she was holding. “My brother,” she said. “Hïrzg Fynn.”
There was no answer. She heard a clatter out in the street to her right, and her head moved involuntarily in that direction. There was nothing there; in the moonlight, the street was empty except for a utilino just turning the corner a block away, whistling and swinging his lantern. He waved at her; she waved back. “Did you hear me?” she whispered to the White Stone.
There was no answer. She glanced down: pouch and stone were gone. She turned. There was a closed door directly behind her, leading into one of the buildings.
Allesandra decided it would not be in her best interest to open that door.
* * *
The White Stone
“MY BROTHER. Hïrzg Fynn.”
She had thought herself beyond surprise at this point, but this . . . She’d been in Firenzcia now for some three years, longer than she’d stayed anywhere in some time, but the work had been good here. She knew some of the history between Allesandra and Fynn ca’Vörl; she’d heard the rumors, but none of them spoke of a resentment this deep in Allesandra. And she herself had witnessed Allesandra saving her brother from an attack.
She found herself puzzled. She didn’t care for uncertainty.
But . . . that wasn’t her concern. The gold solas in the pouch were real enough, and she had heard Allesandra clearly, and the woman’s white stone sat in her pouch next to the stone of the right eye, the stone that held the souls of all those the White Stone had killed.
Her fingers scissored around the white stone now through the thin, soft leather of the pouch. The touch gave her comfort, and she thought she could hear the faint voices of her victims calling.
“I nearly killed you first . . . You were so clumsy then . . .”
“How many more? We grow stronger, each time you add another . .. .”
“Soon you’ll hear us always . . .”
She took her hand from the stone and the voices stopped. They didn’t always. Sometimes, especially recently, she’d been hearing them even when she didn’t touch the stone.
To kill a Hïrzg . . . This would be a challenge. This would be a test. She would have to plan carefully; she would have to watch him and know him. She would have to become him.
Her fingers were back around the stone again. “You’ve killed the unranked, you’ve killed ce’-and-ci’, and they are easy enough. You’ve killed ca’-and-cu’, and you know they’re far more difficult because with money comes isolation, and with power comes protection. But never this. Never a ruler.”
“You’re afraid . . .”
“. . . You doubt yourself . . .”
“No!” she told them all, angrily. “I can do this. I will do this. You’ll see. You’ll see when the Hïrzg is in there with you. You’ll see.”
They’ll know you. The A’Hïrzg will know you . . .
“No, she won’t. People like her don’t even see the unranked, as I was to her. My voice will be different, and my hair, and-most importantly-my attitude. She won’t know me. She won’t.”
With that, she plucked the pouch of golden coins from the bed and placed it in the chest with the other fees. From the chest, she pulled out the battered bronze mirror and looked at her reflection in the polished surface. She touched her hair, looked at the haunted, almost colorless eyes. It was time for her to become someone else. Someone richer, someone more influential.
Someone who could get close enough to the Hïrzg . . .