The black prism, p.10
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       The Black Prism, p.10

           Brent Weeks
 

  The red drafter was advancing toward him, dismounted now, walking calmly, red swirling down into his hands again. Kip held his hands up, just as he had a hundred times when Ram was threatening to hit him. This time, a green shield formed, translucent, covering him from head to toe, its weight supported on the ground.

  The red drafter flicked a finger forward. A spark shot out, trailing a long red tail. It stuck to Kip’s shield, burning faintly, its red trail going all the way back to the drafter. Kip panicked and, only carrying the shield because it was stuck to his arms, dodged to one side. A much larger red missile roared out from the red drafter. It followed the tail toward the spark, curving in midair along that line.

  Kip was blown off his feet and thrown back a dozen feet. He felt the green shield crack with a report, as if it had been his own bones snapping.

  He lifted himself from the dirt in time to see one of the Mirrormen pursuing Sanson raise his long, sweeping cavalry sword and slash downward in midcharge. Kip couldn’t see Sanson, but the Mirrormen reined in and the second horseman reversed his grip on his lance and stabbed downward hard, once, twice, professionally, coolly.

  Both Mirrormen relaxed like men who’ve finished their work, and Kip knew Sanson was dead.

  He rolled over. The red drafter was standing over him. Kip was faintly surprised by how ordinary the man looked. A long face, dark eyes, roughly cut hair, crooked teeth revealed by his grimace. He was going to kill Kip, but without passion. Just a man following orders.

  Before Kip could gather magic one more time, the drafter imprisoned Kip’s arms in red sludge, sticky and thick. Kip couldn’t move.

  The drafter raised his bespectacled eyes toward the sun once more, magic spiraling like smoke down into his arms, filling him with power for the killing blow. A dense indigo dot appeared on his ear, then over his temple as his head moved, as if someone with a lantern letting out a single ray of light from somewhere in the forest was somehow focusing that little beam right on his—

  There was a roar, for just a fraction of a second, as if Kip were standing at the base of the waterfall once again. Something huge and yellow blasted into the red drafter so fast and hard it seemed the man disappeared. His body was thrown into the air, torn in half by the force of the collision. The red luxin sludge holding Kip fell into dust.

  Kip stood and looked in horror at what had been a man. The red of the drafter’s clothes now mingled with his blood, magic and violence mixed. But his entire upper body had been reduced to jelly. Kip looked to the forest.

  With the boy saved for the moment, Gavin ran toward the Mirrormen. Karris had headed down the hill to save the other boy running for the river, but she was already too late. The Mirrormen formed up with surprising discipline and speed. None of these men had bothered to bard their horses. Barding was heavy and awkward and tired the horses quickly, and the Mirrormen obviously hadn’t expected to run into any real opposition, much less drafters. That meant the horses were easily the most vulnerable targets. But Gavin didn’t like killing innocent beasts. Their masters? That was a different matter.

  He swept a hand in a sharp, hard arc, the air crackling like a succession of rocks exploding in a fire. A dozen blue globes, each half the size of his fist, shot out. The mirrored armor, working like a mirror reflecting light, reflected part of any luxin thrown against it, making it unravel. That was a big problem for a drafter trying to cut down a horseman with a luxin sword, but it was only protection, not invulnerability. The thin-walled luxin globes smashed against mirror armor—and sheared open, dumping out flaming red goo that splashed all over the Mirrormen, up and down their chests, into their visors, down the seams into their groins.

  With fire and screams and the sizzle of burning skin, the charge faltered. Gavin swept his other hand out and another dozen globes shot out. Men were crashing to the ground from their saddles, trying to roll and put out the fires. Others clawed at their flaming helmets, cooking. Still others were trying to continue the charge, half a dozen men lowering their lances—until the second wave of globes caught them.

  More than a dozen horses continued the charge, though. Even without their riders’ guidance, these horses were bred to war, and they ran toward Gavin.

  Gavin threw green wedges around himself like a clamshell and braced himself. The horses jostled him hard as they charged past, but left him standing.

  There were only three Mirrormen left uninjured, all of them men on the ends of the line who’d broken off the charge early. They were sawing their reins, turning tail to flee. Cowards, perhaps. But smart cowards. Gavin flicked fingers at each in turn. Superviolet luxin was fast, light, and invisible to almost everyone. Like a spider, each dot stuck to one of the men and then climbed up to the joint in their armor at the back of their necks.

  Three spiked missiles of yellow luxin sped along the superviolet spiderwebs trailing from those spiders to Gavin a moment later. With a meaty crunch, each missile punched through mail and into a spine. Three riders toppled from their galloping horses.

  With all the riders around him dead or dying, Gavin looked down the hill to see how Karris was doing against the last two Mirrormen. One was already down, and if anything, Gavin was surprised to see that the other was still alive—a fact that would no doubt change shortly.

  Four hundred years ago, when it had been founded, the Blackguard had been an Ilytian company, chosen as much for their proud relation to Lucidonius as for their martial skill. But when Ilyta lost influence in the Spectrum, the Blackguard had been forced to abandon choosing on the basis of province and instead had justified their elite position on function: when a drafter drafted, his skin filled with the color he was about to use. That meant in a fight, a paler-skinned Atashian or Blood Forester drafter was easier to predict. That justification had satisfied the Parians who were also darker-skinned, just fine. Since then, Blackguards had been mostly Parians or Ilytians, with Parians gradually becoming the majority as their political power waxed.

  But having based their protected status on their fighting prowess, the Blackguard had been forced to accept more than a dozen elite warrior-drafters from countries other than Paria and Ilyta over the last two centuries.

  Karris had joined them because it was impossible to deny her. She’d sparred with every member of the Blackguard and defeated all but four of them. She was simply the fastest drafter Gavin had ever seen, and after her Blackguard training, one of the most dangerous. And it meant nothing to her. At the rate she pushed herself, Gavin thought she’d be lucky if she lasted another ten years. Probably closer to five. It was like she was racing him to Death’s gates. But she wouldn’t die today.

  The other horseman charged her, his sword drawn. Karris stood her ground, only moving at the last second so that she was directly in the horse’s path. The horseman, expecting her to move the other way, was too surprised to change his course. Karris dropped to the ground just as the horse was about to trample her. With flexible fingers of green and red luxin extending from her own hands and crossed, she grabbed the cinch strap as the horse passed over her.

  The horse thundered past and for a moment Gavin thought she’d been trampled. Then he saw her flipped into the air. The luxin uncrossed and whipped her back toward the still-galloping horse. She crashed into the back of the horseman and almost spilled out of the saddle, but she scrambled and managed to maintain her seat behind him.

  The horseman flailed, having no idea what had just happened or what had hit him from behind. Karris drew her knife as she reached around his head with her other hand. She tore open his visor and buried the knife deep in his face. The man spasmed hard and both of them fell.

  Karris tried to push the horseman down so she’d land on him, but his foot never cleared the stirrup. Instead of a cushioned landing, she was spun hard backward by his body being yanked from under her, and then hit the ground and abruptly rolled forward. She had the good fortune to land on grass, though.

  Gavin looked at the boy they’d just killed thi
rty of Satrap Garadul’s elite bodyguards to save. He was maybe fifteen, chubby, awkward, with eyes round at what he’d just seen. The child turned and ran toward the river. At first Gavin thought he was fleeing in fear, but then he realized the boy was going to check on his friend, the one Gavin and Karris had come too late to save.

  “What is the meaning of this?” a man shouted.

  Gavin turned—and cursed himself. He’d been so concerned about the boy and Karris and what was happening down toward the river, he hadn’t been paying attention to what was happening up the road. The roar of the rapids and the waterfall had muffled the sound of hooves, but there was still no excuse. The man who’d shouted had the same weak chin that seemed to beg someone to stick a fist in it that he’d had sixteen years ago, the last time Gavin had seen him. His whole body was quivering with outrage as he took in the carnage that was all that remained of thirty of his supposedly invincible Mirrormen.

  But Satrap Garadul’s face changed the moment he saw Gavin. He drew rein even as half a dozen of his drafters and a score of his Mirrormen surrounded him. “Gavin Guile?”

  Chapter 17

  The White was going to kill him.

  Gavin deserved killing. The presence of Satrap Garadul himself changed everything. If these had merely been Satrap Garadul’s soldiers, as Gavin and Karris expected, Gavin could have killed the men and left. Satrap Garadul would be furious and would hunt the drafters who had done it, but he would have had no idea who he was after. It might have simply been that there was a powerful drafter living in—what was this worthless little town called? Rekton, that was it. Oh, the irony.

  It was too late to grab the spectacles Gavin kept in a pocket against such eventualities. With spectacles, with what he’d done, he was a mysterious polychrome. Without them, he could only be the Prism.

  So now the Prism himself had moved against Satrap Garadul, and there was no denying it. Rask Garadul knew him.

  “Gavin?” Satrap Rask Garadul said again. There was something odd in his tone of voice, an intensity, maybe a trap. He was dressed in mail with segments of plate worked in. Smaller segments, not requiring articulated joints. His was a poor country.

  He’d changed his seal. It used to be his family’s moon and two stars on a field sable, his personalized with a snarling fox. Now both fox and field had been done away with. The king’s new seal was a white chain, broken, on a black field. Gavin knew instantly that the symbol was important. Rask wasn’t merely repudiating his name and his father, whom he’d always despised as weak. This was new. Had he fallen under the sway of the heresy of the old gods that Gavin had heard rumors about? What was he doing? Why was he asking Gavin’s name when he already knew it was him? Was he giving Gavin an opportunity to lie, to say that he wasn’t the Prism?

  If Gavin did so, what would Rask Garadul do? Kill him and explain later to the Chromeria that it had been a mistake; through no fault of his own, he’d killed an attacker who’d disavowed being Gavin Guile. If Rask thought he was going to kill Gavin with a handful of drafters and a score of Mirrormen, he was wrong, but what else could it be? Maybe Satrap Garadul was simply as surprised to see Gavin as Gavin was to see him, and he didn’t know how to play this.

  If Gavin lied and Rask attacked, Gavin would have no choice but to kill him. If he killed Rask, he’d have to kill all of Rask’s men. And what would the satrapies make of that? More men were coming down the path behind the satrap even now. Gavin couldn’t kill them all. No matter how strong he was, if a hundred men fled in a hundred directions, some of them would get away. Word would get out that the Prism himself had come to Tyrea and assassinated the satrap without provocation.

  It didn’t matter that Satrap Garadul was massacring everyone in this town. It was his town; he could do with it as he saw fit. At one time, a Prism could have destroyed or killed one of his satraps at will, but that time was long past. Perhaps back when the Seven Satrapies had really been satrapies. No longer. His power was ceremonial, religious only. The Prism wasn’t supposed to interfere in the internal affairs of a nation—and Gavin had already more than just interfered. If he killed everyone here, and skimmed back to the Chromeria so he got home within a few days of having left, the Chromeria could plausibly deny that he was responsible. It was too far away for him to have come and gone.

  He would kill a man he’d never liked; he would stay out of trouble, and the only people to pay for it would be a bunch of soldiers in the most backward of the Seven Satrapies. Well, the boy might have to die too. Otherwise he could blackmail Gavin. And what would Karris think? Well, what did it matter what she thought? She was an impossibility for him already. He’d known he was going to lose what little he had with her today regardless.

  The man he’d once been wouldn’t have hesitated.

  What would you do, brother?

  It had been so long, Gavin wasn’t even sure anymore.

  “I am the High Lord Prism Gavin Guile,” Gavin said, bowing slightly, putting one hand behind his back and trying to wave off Karris.

  “So, Lord Prism,” Satrap Garadul said loudly, “is this how the Chromeria declares war?”

  “Strange that your thoughts should so quickly go to war, Satrap.”

  “Strange? No, it’s strange you should call me a satrap. You expelled the rightful satrap, my father, from Garriston, stole that city, our capital and only port, and have denied Tyrea’s people access to the Chromeria. Tyrea is a satrapy no more, and hasn’t been since your war, Prism. I am King Rask Garadul of Tyrea. You have murdered my personal guards. And you call it strange that war should occur to us?” Rask’s voice rose. “Perhaps you think Tyreans are bred to be slaughtered by the Chromeria’s lackeys?”

  There was a rumble among the Mirrormen that told Gavin this kind of talk was nothing new.

  “But surely the Chromeria wouldn’t send the Prism himself just to kill a few of my men.” Rask pretended to be thinking, but didn’t wait long enough for Gavin to get a word in. “No. The Prism would only come if there was something much more important to accomplish. Something that would ensure the Chromeria’s stranglehold on the Seven Satrapies continued. Tell me, Lord Prism, have you come to assassinate me?”

  One doesn’t send a lion to kill a rat.

  So help him, Gavin almost said it out loud.

  There was a rattle of armor and stomping of hooves as the Mirrormen and drafters pressed in closer to Rask Garadul. Gavin only heard it; he was looking down the hill. He’d avoided looking until now to avoid drawing attention to Karris. By now, she’d probably decided whether she was going to stay or go.

  She was almost gone, already starting down the swift-flowing river on a little punt. If Gavin knew Karris, though, she would stop and try to see what happened to him. After all, she was a Blackguard, and though their first responsibility was always to the White, his protection came in a close second. He wondered if she’d left because she trusted him, because she thought he could fend for himself, or because she had her own mission to accomplish and nothing could be allowed to interfere with that.

  The stout boy, on the other hand, was now almost directly behind Gavin. After Gavin had saved him once from Mirrormen, apparently he thought Gavin was his best hope to survive.

  “You misunderstand me, King Garadul,” Gavin said, turning once more, committed, letting the title stand. “I saw these men slaughtering the innocent citizens of your satrapy. I intervened to save your people. I believed I was doing you a favor.”

  “Doing me a favor by murdering soldiers in my uniform?”

  “Renegades, surely. Bandits. What sort of madman would burn his own town to the ground?”

  Many of the Mirrormen looked away or down and threw furtive glances at King Garadul. Clearly, not all of them had been happy to murder their countrymen. The king flushed. “I am king,” he declared. “I will not have my choices questioned. Especially not by the Chromeria. Tyrea is a sovereign nation. Our internal conflicts are no business of yours.” The soldiers went back to be
ing stony-faced.

  “Of course not. It’s simply… novel to find a king burning his own town and people. Murdering children. You can understand my confusion, I’m sure. My apologies for this misunderstanding. The Chromeria serves the Seven Satrapies. Tyrea included.”

  It was, perhaps, as well played as Gavin could manage. If they’d been standing before fifty nobles versed in the interplay of nations and respectful of diplomacy, it might have been enough. Rask Garadul would demand some monetary consideration, allowing it had been an honest and understandable error and preserving his own right to have been outraged, and Gavin would be understood to have won. Elegant and clean.

  But Rask Garadul was a young man and a new king. He was not standing in front of nobles, but in front of his men. He saw that he was losing, but with the bloody corpses piled on every side and his men looking askance at him, he didn’t think he could afford to lose. “Surely you haven’t come hundreds of leagues simply to patrol our kingdom for bandits? And unannounced, no less. One would think you’d snuck into our kingdom under cover of darkness, like some sort of spy.”

  Ah, not stupid either. When on a losing path, take a new one, quick. Gavin glanced once more at the boy, to see how he was holding up. Not well. He was practically quivering with terror. He had eyes only for Rask Garadul. Or was that rage?

  “A spy?” Gavin said lightly. “How droll. No no no. One has people to do that sort of thing. One doesn’t do it oneself. Surely you’ve been king long enough to know this?”

  “What are you doing here?” King Garadul demanded. Again, shockingly rude if they’d been in a court in any capital in the Seven Satrapies. He glanced at the boy, and Gavin knew he was lost. He could leave—he was the Prism, after all, and even killing thirty of Garadul’s Mirrormen wasn’t enough to justify his seizure or murder. Especially not under questionable circumstances. Rask would risk uniting the satrapies against Tyrea. Killing a satrap would be an outrageous breach; killing the Prism would be an unconscionable one. But Rask felt he was losing, and he was going to make Gavin pay for that. He was going to hurt him as badly as he could.

 

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