The black prism, p.11
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       The Black Prism, p.11

           Brent Weeks
 

  Gavin would be released; the boy would be killed.

  “I saw smoke,” Gavin said. “One of the ways I serve the Seven Satrapies is by dealing with color wights. I came to help.”

  “What are you doing in our kingdom?”

  “I wasn’t aware you’d closed your borders. Indeed, I wasn’t aware of this new ‘kingdom’ at all. This seems needlessly… hostile. Especially to wish to bar a servant of the realms like myself.” The myth of polite dialogue between disinterested, reasonable neighbors, that myth upon which so much of diplomacy rested, was clearly dead, so to turn the attention away, Gavin stepped right over its corpse. “Are you hiding something, King Garadul?”

  “You’re from Rekton, aren’t you, boy?” King Garadul asked. He wasn’t going to play Gavin’s game. “What’s your name? Who’s your father?”

  “I’m Kip. I’ve got no father. Most of us don’t. Not since the war.” It sent a lance through Gavin’s guts. He’d almost let himself forget. The False Prism’s War had wiped out dozens of these little towns. All the men, from boys who couldn’t grow a mustache to old men who had to use their spears as canes, had been pressed into service by one side or the other. And he and Dazen had sent them against some of the most talented drafters the world had known. Like lumber to a mill.

  “What about your mother, then?” King Garadul asked, irritated.

  “Her name was Lina. She helped at a couple of the inns.”

  Gavin’s heart stopped. Lina, the crazy woman who’d sent him the note, was dead. This boy, this fearful boy, was supposed to be his son? The only survivor from a town burnt to the ground stood here, and he was the only one who could cause Gavin grief. If Gavin had believed in Orholam, he’d have thought it a cruel prank.

  “Lina, yes, I think that was the name of the whore,” King Garadul said. “Where is she?”

  “My mother was no whore! And you killed her! You murderer!” The boy looked near tears, though of rage or grief Gavin couldn’t tell.

  “Dead? She stole something from me. You’ll take us to your house, and if we can’t find it, you’ll work for me until you pay it off.”

  Rask Garadul wasn’t going to have the boy work off his mother’s debt. Gavin had no doubt Rask was lying about the whole thing. It was merely an excuse to take the boy—who, if Rask was a king, was one of the king’s subjects. Most likely, Rask would kill him right in front of Gavin, just to salve his own pride. The boy meant nothing. He could have been a dog or a nice blanket for all Rask cared. He’d become a chit. Part of Gavin was sickened, and part of him reveled in it.

  Put me in a situation where I can’t win? Really? You think this is impossible for me? Let’s play.

  “The boy goes with me,” Gavin said.

  Rask Garadul smiled unpleasantly. He had a gap between his front teeth. He looked more like a bulldog baring its teeth than a man smiling. “You’re going to risk your life for this thief? Hand him over, Prism.”

  “Or what?” Gavin asked, deliberately polite, curious, as if he really wondered. Threats so often withered when you pulled them out into the light, naked.

  “Or my men will say how there was a big misunderstanding. We had no idea the Prism was here. If only he’d announced his coming. If only he hadn’t been confused and attacked my soldiers. We simply defended ourselves. It was only after his unfortunate death that we discovered our error.”

  Gavin smirked. He put a fist to his mouth to cover his chuckle. “No, Rask. There’s a reason I don’t travel with Blackguards: I don’t need them. You were just a snot-nosed boy during the False Prism’s War, so maybe you don’t remember what I can do, but I can tell that some of your men do. They’re the ones who look nervous. If your men attack, I will kill you. The White will be furious with me for a month or two. It will be a diplomatic problem, to be certain, but do you really think anyone cares what happens to the king of Tyrea? ‘King,’ not satrap, and thus a rebel. They’ll only want assurances that it won’t happen to them. We’ll make promises and apologies and pay the tuitions of all Tyrean students for a few years, and that will be the end of it. Your successor will doubtless be less belligerent.”

  Rask moved to speak, but Gavin wasn’t about to let him.

  “But let’s pretend for a moment that by some chance you actually killed me without being killed in turn. I see what you’re doing here: razing a town so you can raise an army. Founding your own Chromeria. The question is, do you think you’re ready, right now, for war? Because if I go back now, armed only with words, the Spectrum might not believe me. But if you kill me, that will be a more elegant testimony than any I could muster. And do you really think your version of what happened is the only version that’s going to get out? You are a young king, aren’t you? And here you were talking about spies just moments ago.”

  Silence stretched cool hands between them. Gavin had won as completely as he’d probably ever won a pure argument.

  “The boy is my subject and a thief. He stays.” Garadul’s whole body was quivering with fury. He wasn’t calling Gavin’s bluff. He was simply refusing to lose.

  Gavin hadn’t been bluffing. Nine times out of ten, he could probably kill every one of these soldiers and drafters—depending on how good the drafters were. And he’d probably emerge with nothing more than a singed eyebrow. Protecting the child during such a fight was another matter. Is it better that the guilty should perish, or that the innocent should live?

  And not all of the Seven Satrapies would be quite as quick to forgive as he’d pretended.

  “He’s no thief,” he said, looking to redirect the conversation from a pure I-win/you-lose bifurcation. “He’s got nothing but the clothes on his back. Whatever his mother may or may not have done, it’s nothing to do with him.”

  “Easy enough to test, isn’t it?” Rask asked. “Search him.”

  From the look on his face, apparently Kip was a thief. Unbelievable. Where was hiding whatever he’d stolen? Between rolls of fat?

  “No! It’s the last thing she gave to me! You took everything else. You can’t have it! I’ll kill you first!” There was a wildness in the boy’s voice that Gavin recognized immediately, even before Kip’s irises were flooded with jade green. The boy was going to attack King Garadul, his Mirrormen, and his drafters. Very brave, but more stupid.

  King Garadul’s drafters would see it too.

  Gavin threw his left hand up in a quick arc, forming a wall of red, green, yellow, and blue luxin intertwined between Kip and King Garadul’s men. With his right hand, he drafted a blue cudgel and clubbed Kip over the back of the head. The boy crumpled. Only Karris, Gavin thought, could have done it faster.

  A single red luxin fireball thrown by one of Garadul’s drafters hit the wall and sizzled as it plunged into Gavin’s shield, instantly extinguished.

  Everyone else stood stunned. Gavin released the shield. A few of the Mirrormen were looking again at the corpses of their comrades, maybe thinking that their deaths were no fluke. Rask Garadul alone seemed unfazed. He dismounted, walked over to the unconscious boy, and searched him roughly.

  Rask Garadul produced a slender rosewood case that had been tucked inside the back of Kip’s belt. He opened it a crack, shot a satisfied smile at Gavin, and tucked it in his own belt. He walked back to his horse and mounted.

  “A thief and an attempted assassin. Thank you for your service in foiling the attack, Lord Prism.” King Garadul motioned one of his men toward Kip. “I think that tree should support a noose. Will you be staying for the execution, Gavin?”

  So this is where it ends. This is the cost of my sins.

  “There was no attempt on your life, King Garadul. We both know that. The boy didn’t even draft. I was merely disciplining him as a Chromeria student for considering drafting without permission. You have the box, and you’ve already murdered the supposed thief, his mother. A harsh punishment to be sure, but this is your satrapy—er, ‘kingdom.’ It’s obvious he knew nothing of it except that his mother gave it to him.
Whatever claim you have to him pales in comparison to mine.”

  “He’s my subject, and therefore mine to do with as I will.”

  Only one card left. Gavin said, “You asked earlier why I came to this boiling latrine you call a country. Kip is the reason. My claim to him is greater than yours. He’s my bastard.”

  Rask Garadul’s eyes went stony, and Gavin knew he had won. No man would publicly claim a dishonor if it weren’t true. He also knew from that look, before the man even spoke, that he was going to have to kill Rask Garadul. But not today.

  “Your time is finished,” Rask Garadul said. “Yours and the Chromeria’s. You’re done. Light cannot be chained. Know this, Prism: We will take back what you’ve stolen. The horrors of your reign are almost at an end. And when it ends, I will be there. This I swear.”

  Chapter 18

  Karris floated the punt downstream until she rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. She didn’t think the soldiers had seen her leave, so she beached the punt on the opposite side of the river and found a hill from which she could see Gavin. She climbed the hill on her hands and knees. There were several trees and bushes and long grasses between them. Ideal. What wasn’t ideal was the distance. One hundred and twenty paces. She was a great shot, but the bow she’d brought was a simple recurve, not a longbow. Good and portable, very accurate to seventy paces. One twenty was a different question. She shuttled the mental abacus. She should be accurate within four feet, and she could shoot rapidly. If Satrap Garadul stood still, she could shoot four arrows within a few seconds, correcting for her mistakes. Good enough. At least, better than any of her other options. She scooted back from the top of the hill and strung her bow, checked the fletching and trueness of her arrows, and crawled back into position, hidden and deadly.

  When Gavin and the satrap talked for a few minutes, Karris relaxed. In conversation, Gavin could tie anyone in knots except maybe the White. Though Gavin was standing amid piles of Rask Garadul’s dead, now it was probably just a matter of how much the satrap would pay Gavin for troubling him.

  Making sure she could still see Gavin and that her weapons were close, Karris opened her pack. The White had told her not to read her orders until she’d left for Tyrea, so Karris had put the orders in the bottom of her pack, beneath a change of clothes, spare spectacles, cooking implements, a few flares and grenadoes—thank Orholam those hadn’t ignited when she fell during the fight, but they were worth the risk. She pulled out the folded note. As sensitive orders always were, it was made of the thinnest paper possible, the outer folds covered with scribbles so the translucent paper couldn’t simply be held up to the light to read what was within. The seal had a simple spell trigger: anyone who simply broke the seal would bring two luxin contact points together, and there would be a small but instant fire. It wasn’t foolproof, of course: any careful drafter could disarm it, or any non-drafter could simply cut around the seal, but sometimes simple precautions worked where more elaborate schemes did not.

  Karris checked on Gavin. Still talking. Good.

  Drafting a bit of green from the grass she was sitting on, she unhooked the trap on the seal. Gavin had told her not to believe what was on this note, which had been written by the White herself. So who was more likely to lie to her? Gavin, ten times out of ten. The thought made her sick to her stomach. No, she was getting ahead of herself. She almost put the note away—she could deal with this later.

  But her orders had to do with Tyrea, maybe even with Satrap Garadul, and the satrap was standing in her sight. The orders could be to kill him—or to make sure no one else did. She had to know right now.

  She opened the note. The White’s script was a little shaky, but still expressive and elegant. Karris translated the thin code automatically. “Inasmuch as purple may be the new color, we’d all be gratified to know the new fashions.” Infiltrate and ascertain the satrap’s intentions. The Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria are nervous about the new satrap and what he wants.

  There was a curlicue on the last “s” to let her know the formal code was ended, but the note continued. “I also have news of a fifteen-year-old boy in a town called Rekton. His mother claims he is G’s. If you have the chance, find out. I’d love to meet them.” Gavin had a bastard in Rekton. Bring mother and son to the Chromeria.

  Karris looked toward Gavin in time to see him draft a cudgel and crack it over the back of the boy’s head. It would have been either funny or alarming, except that she felt like she’d been hit the same way. She watched, dumbfounded, as Gavin threw up a luxin wall, quenched an attack, and kept talking—cool to the end.

  She was so stunned, she didn’t pick up the bow, didn’t draw. This was Rekton. That boy could draft. It was too much of a coincidence. She had been the one who insisted Gavin turn the flying contraption here. She felt a chill. For them to be here now was nothing less than Orholam’s hand moving. Karris knew Orholam didn’t care about her. She wasn’t important enough. So what was this? A test for Gavin?

  Fifteen years old. Son of a bitch. That child had been conceived while she and Gavin were betrothed.

  Gavin picked up the boy, straining—the boy was both tall and chubby—and threw him over a shoulder. Then he walked toward the river, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The man really was walking away from a satrap, leaving thirty of the satrap’s bodyguards dead. As always, Gavin was audacious, unstoppable, unflappable. The ordinary rules just didn’t apply to him.

  Never had.

  For a single, perilous moment, Karris was sixteen again, with everything she had known, everyone she had loved torn away. She’d wept that day, wept until she realized no one was going to comfort her. She’d drafted red to take comfort from its heat and fury. She’d drafted so much red it had almost killed her. Today, she didn’t even need to draft. The fury was there in a heartbeat. “Don’t believe what’s in your orders,” Gavin had said. Of course he had. The liar. The son of a bitch.

  That was why the White had told her not to open her orders immediately. She’d wanted Karris to cool off before she had to face Gavin. To not cause problems.

  Nice to see that the two most important people in her life were both manipulating her.

  Gavin drafted a scull onto the river and set the boy down. He didn’t hurry, merely let the current take him, not so much as turning. It must have been a near thing, then. He was treating Satrap Garadul like he was a dog and eye contact might provoke him. Being treated like a dog, well, Karris knew all about that, didn’t she?

  She found herself on her feet, striding back toward the river. Her spectacles had mysteriously found their perch on her nose. If Satrap Garadul weren’t just two hundred paces away, Karris thought she’d have hurled a fireball at Gavin’s head. He rounded the corner on the punt and saw the look on her face.

  He blanched. And, for once, said nothing.

  Karris stood on the bank of the river, trembling as he floated nearer and nearer.

  Gavin didn’t ask if she’d read her orders, he could tell. “Get in,” he said. “If you have that black cloak, cover yourself. Better that they don’t get a good look at you.”

  “Go to hell. I’ll make my own way,” Karris said.

  He extended a hand and blasted a fist-size hole in her punt with a bullet of green luxin. “Get in!” he commanded. “King Garadul’s coming any minute.”

  “King?” She drafted green luxin to cover the hole. It was petty and dumb, and curse Gavin for making her seem unreasonable. She hated him. She hated him with a passion that made all the world fade. Just let the horsemen come on her now.

  “He’s rejected the Chromeria, the Prism, the Seven Satrapies, Orholam himself. He’s set himself up as a king.” Gavin swept a hand toward her punt. Hundreds of tiny fingerling missiles flew from his hand and stuck quivering in the wood along the entire length and breadth of the punt, and then they burst all at once. Woodchip shrapnel and sawdust sprayed over both of them. Gavin said, “Slap me and be done with it, but get your ass i
n the boat.”

  He was right. Karris got in. This was not the time. She rummaged through her pack for the cloak and threw it on, pulling up the hood despite the heat. The boy was still unconscious. Gavin didn’t wait, as soon as she was in, he drafted the oars and straps. They hit the water, and the scull sped forward almost immediately. Karris looked back and wasn’t much surprised to see a dozen horsemen crest a hill, coming after them.

  But it was a hopeless pursuit. The land along the river wasn’t smooth, and Gavin’s scull was fast. Gavin and Karris said nothing, not even when the scull entered a long section of rapids. Karris helped widen the platform with flexible red luxin and stiffer green, giving it a wide and high lip. Gavin drafted slick orange onto the bottom of it so when they did hit rocks, they slid right over them.

  Within half an hour, they were certainly safe. Still Karris said nothing. How many times could one man hurt you this badly? She couldn’t even look at him. She was furious with herself. He’d seemed so different after the war. His breaking their betrothal had left her with nothing. She’d left for a year, and he’d seemed overjoyed when she came back. He’d respected her distance, never said anything when she had a few affairs to try to purge him from her mind. That had somehow made her more furious. But eventually, she’d been drawn back to the mystery of him, and slowly won over by this man who seemed so completely changed by the war.

  How many men come back from war better?

  None, apparently.

  And how many women come back smarter?

  Not this one.

  The river was joined by another tributary and widened considerably and Karris’s place at the prow, looking out for rocks, became unnecessary. It was a beautiful day. She took off the cloak and felt the sun’s rays—Orholam’s caress, her mother had told her when she was a little girl. Right.

 
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