The black prism, p.19
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       The Black Prism, p.19

           Brent Weeks

  The blue wight convulsed. Blues hated surprises, hated not having foreseen something, hated having their plans disrupted. But they were also hard to read, the blue perfection of a luxin face preventing facial expression of emotions even as the magic in their veins slowly obliterated their capacity to feel them.

  But the surprise lasted only a moment. The giist sprinted straight for Gavin, its skin afire with blue, its eyes literally aglow, buggy, lit from within with refracting blue light. Gavin tossed the mag torch down in the sand in front of himself and threw open his red cloak, taking a wide stance on the side of the dune as the giist charged.

  Gavin’s hand swept up past the weapons harness, little fingers of red luxin plucking all the tiny daggers from their sheaths. As he took one great step forward with his left foot, he drafted a dozen thin barrels along his arm. Then his right arm whipped forward with all the energy coiled in his body added to the force of his will. The dozen tiny daggers became steel missiles as he flung them. They flew at incredible speed, one after the other.

  A blue shield sprang from the wight’s left arm and blossomed huge, to catch the splashing fire it expected from a red drafter with a mag torch. Instead, the steel daggers hit with a sound like hail on a tin roof. The shield pitted, cracked, cracked wide, and gaped open. The last three daggers sailed cleanly through. The first struck its cheek and deflected off its carapace. The next cut only the air next to its neck, and the last buried itself in the wight’s shoulder.

  The giist had already begun its counterstroke, though. It flung its right fist forward and five enormous spikes formed in the air around its hand and stabbed for Gavin’s stomach in a line so that even if he moved left or right, he’d still be skewered.

  Gavin cheated, of course. He drafted a solid platform beneath the sand to give himself a solid surface to jump off of and dove down the dune, flipping and landing in a great slide down the dune’s face.

  The giist whipped around, dropping its luxin spears and drafting a blue great sword in their place. It saw that Gavin had lost his spectacles in his dive, and it twitched a smile. Its cheek had been sliced by Gavin’s dagger, and a flap of skin peeled open, drooping toward earth, showing a crosshatched network of blood vessels and blue luxin, though the luxin was cracked and broken at the point of impact, capillaries oozing blood. The dagger in its left shoulder seemed to be hampering its motion, but it was nothing lethal.

  “You reds,” the giist said, its voice gravelly, as if it hadn’t spoken in some time. “So impulsive. You thought you could take me, alone, just because it’s sunset in a desert?”

  Gavin glanced at his spectacles lying on the sand above him. The giist saw it and swung its great sword. The blade elongated in midair, closing the full five paces, and smashed the red spectacles to bits, then shortened again.

  “You should leave murdering the Unchained to your Prism,” the giist said.

  The Unchained?

  Gavin said, “They told us the Prism was too important for you. They told us we should be able to handle one blue wight in the middle of a desert. They said Rondar Wit wasn’t that gifted.”

  The giist laughed. “Was that supposed to make me angry? I’m not Rondar any longer. The Prism’s empire crumbles over your head, slave. Join us. See what it is to be free. You have, what, perhaps five years left? Not long, not even for a drafter in their world. Why die for their false god? Why die for their lies? Why die, ever?”

  The giist was trying to recruit him? This was different. Gavin kept his eyes squinted. The less the giist saw his eyes, the less likely it was to notice how odd they were. “False god?” Gavin asked. Immortality?

  Slimy held blue luxin swiped along the insides of its bug eyes, from the inner corner to the outer. Blinking. “Surely you don’t believe in Orholam? Are you all corrupt, or just stupid? If Orholam himself chooses the Prism as the Chromeria has preached since Lucidonius, how could there be two Prisms in one generation? Or are you one of the mental cowards who shrugs and calls it a mystery, who says Orholam’s ways are ineffable?”

  It was one thing for a color wight to run: not even blues were immune to cowardice. But an attack on Orholam himself was a heresy that cut to the root of the world. If you called Orholam a fraud, and said everyone in power must know it, the Chromeria became the purveyor of lies, an oppressor who stole from you, not a friend who needed your help to sustain their worthy efforts. “I haven’t believed in Orholam for years,” Gavin said, honestly. “But why trade one superstition for another?”

  The giist glanced at Gavin’s shirt, noticing the buttons weren’t done properly. Good. Any time it spent looking at his buttons was time it didn’t spend looking at his eyes. “You stop believing lies so you can believe the truth, not so you can believe nothing at all. King Garadul has…” He trailed off, looking at Gavin suspiciously. Putting something together.

  “King Garadul, is he who leads the Unchained?” Gavin asked.

  “Who are you?” it demanded. “You aren’t nervous. And you should be.” It tore the dagger out of its shoulder, sealed the wound, and tossed the dagger aside. It drew a long, ball-handled matchlock pistol from the ragged pouch, began loading in a precise manner with the odd, quick, but absentminded mode blue wights sometimes had. It used blue luxin like an extension of its hands. Blue luxin ramrod, blue luxin fingers to hold the slow match, blue luxin to draw out the powder horn and a lead ball. It grabbed the still-burning mag torch from the sand and held it up to light the slow match. “Foolish, rash red drafter,” the giist said, glancing down at Gavin’s misbuttoned shirt. “You should always spend the extra to buy a mag torch in your own color.”

  “I did,” Gavin said.

  The giist’s eyes snapped from the white torch to Gavin’s eyes. Even through the buggy eye cover and the frozen luxin face, Gavin read realization in every line of the giist’s body.

  Before it could move, Gavin leapt forward with an insane scream.

  Taken off guard, the giist lost concentration on the luxin hand holding the mag torch, and that hand disintegrated, dropping the flaming brand. The giist didn’t forget its great sword or the pistol, though. It lifted the blade to impale Gavin, raised the pistol.

  Drafting parrying sticks of blue luxin in each hand, Gavin slapped the blade aside. He flung the giist’s hands wide. Letting the parrying sticks disintegrate, he drafted. A narrow blue blade sprang from his palm. He stepped close, inside the blue wight’s arms even as the pistol’s hammer clicked and the match slapped down. He slammed blade and palm into the giist’s chest, its carapace yielding with a popping sound. Gavin shed the remaining blue luxin with a flick of his arms and pulled in the hottest sub-reds he could handle into each hand. Flames curled around his fists as he clenched them.

  The pistol roared and went spinning harmlessly out of the giist’s hand.

  It staggered back, but Gavin stepped in close once again. He threw two quick jabs, left hand to the giist’s right eye, right hand to its left eye. The blue bug-eye lenses cracked, melted, releasing a quick burst of resin and chalk smells. It all happened so fast the blue wight couldn’t resist. Blues were slow to react when they found their presuppositions were wrong.

  Broken, the giist sank, sat, tried to catch itself, and fell on the sand. Despite its solid blue lidless eyes, despite the burned skin and the crosshatched blue luxin through the cut on its cheek, to Gavin it looked abruptly human once more.

  The startled look in those broken-haloed eyes.

  The red red blood spilling down its chest.

  And suddenly, the figure looked more like a man than like the monster that Gavin had found standing over Sevastian’s bed all those years ago, the window broken open behind him, light gleaming off blue skin and red blood.

  Gavin took a deep, unsteady breath. He’d stopped it this time. No innocents had died. And there was one decency left to extend, not because Rondar Wit deserved it, but in spite of the fact that he didn’t.

  “You gave the full measure, Rondar Wit. Your servic
e will not be forgotten, but your failures are blotted out, forgotten, erased. I give you absolution. I give you freedom. I—”

  “Dazen!” the giist shouted, hands clutching its wound, writhing.

  Gavin was so startled he lost his place in the funerary rite.

  “Dazen leads us, and the Color Prince is his strong right hand.” The giist laughed, blood flecking his segmented blue lips.

  “Dazen’s dead,” Gavin said, his gut twisting.

  “Light cannot be chained, Prism. Not even by you. You’re the heretic, not…” And then the darkness of death closed over the giist at last.

  Chapter 32

  Kip barely had time to get scrubbed down with towels, dressed in some soldier’s pants and a dry shirt and heavy boots—surprisingly enough, it all fit; apparently they were used to big soldiers out here—and plopped in front of a fire before Ironfist showed up. His tightly curled hair was damp, but otherwise there was nothing to give away that he had just been in the ocean too. He wore a regulation gray uniform like Kip’s, though with a gold seven-pointed star and two bars on his lapel, where Kip’s uniform was blank.

  “Up,” Ironfist said.

  Kip stood, rubbing his arms in what seemed a vain effort to get warm. “I thought you were a commander of the Blackguard. Why are you wearing a captain’s uniform?”

  Ironfist’s eyebrow barely twitched. “So you know Chromerian ranks?”

  “Master Danavis taught me all the military ranks of all Seven Satrapies. He thought—”

  “That’s nice. You have all your belongings?” Ironfist said.

  Kip scowled, at being interrupted and dismissed and at the thought of belongings. “I don’t have any stuff. I didn’t have that much to start with, and—”

  “So the answer is yes,” Ironfist said.

  So that was how it was going to be. “Yes,” Kip said. “Sir.” He was only a little sardonic with the sir, but Ironfist looked at him sharply, no humor at all in the one raised eyebrow. He really was very big. Not just tall, not just really tall. Rippling with muscle. Intimidating. Kip looked away. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I’m sorry you had to dive in and get me. I’m sorry I made you lose your spectacles. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

  Suddenly, to his complete horror, Kip felt tears welling up from nowhere. Orholam, no! But the pull was as irresistible as the riptide. His stomach convulsed as he tried to choke back the sob, but it escaped anyway. He was so sick of being weak. He was the child who couldn’t even hold on to the rope someone put in his hands. He hadn’t been able to do anything. He hadn’t saved Isa when she needed him. He hadn’t saved his mother. He hadn’t saved Sanson. He was powerless, stupid. When it had come down to it, he’d panicked. His mother was right about him.

  Half a dozen expressions rushed over Ironfist’s face in quick succession. He raised one hand awkwardly, lowered it, raised it again, and patted Kip’s shoulder. He cleared his throat. “I can requisition another pair.”

  Kip started laughing and crying at the same time, not because Ironfist was funny, but because the big man thought Kip was crying about his spectacles.

  “There you go,” Ironfist said. He thumped Kip’s shoulder with the side of his fist in what Kip thought was supposed to be a friendly manner—except it hurt. Kip rubbed his shoulder and laugh-cried harder.

  “Let’s go,” Kip said, shrinking back lest Ironfist tap one of his namesakes on his shoulder again and leave a smoking ruin.

  Ironfist’s eyebrows twitched up in a momentary expression of relief.

  “Almost as bad as dealing with a woman, huh?” Kip said.

  Ironfist stopped cold. “How’d…” he trailed off. “You are a Guile, aren’t you?”

  “What do you mean?” Kip asked.

  “Let’s go,” Ironfist said in a tone that brooked no argument. Kip didn’t hesitate. He didn’t know what precisely Ironfist would do to him if he didn’t obey, but knowing was a logical process. Fear was faster.

  Outside, he saw that they’d rigged up another boat on the ramp. He rubbed his clammy arms and stared at the sea. The tide was halfway in and getting worse, and the waves crashed powerfully over the rocks of Cannon Island. This boat was a small sailing dinghy. It didn’t look even as stable as the dory. And it was smaller. Kip’s stomach turned.

  “Commander?” one of the men said. “You sure? I wouldn’t want to go out on this even with experienced sailors. Especially if you’re going the long way.”

  Kip didn’t see the look that passed between the men, but he heard the soldier say, “Yes, sir,” quickly afterward.

  Cannon Island was in the middle of the current that flowed between Little Jasper and Big Jasper. Little Jasper Bay was calm, protected by a seawall, but Kip and Ironfist were headed the opposite direction, to circle three-quarters of Big Jasper in order to get to its bay.

  “Aren’t we going to the Chromeria?” Kip asked. He could see the tops of colored towers, only partially visible above the rocky body of Cannon Island. “Why can’t we go to their bay? It’s closer.”

  “Because we’re not going straight there,” Ironfist said. He gestured for Kip to get in and handed him an oar.

  The men pushed them off and Ironfist began rowing hard. Kip did his best to keep up with the big man, but almost immediately they began turning toward Kip’s side. Ironfist said nothing; he just switched sides and rowed hard a few times on Kip’s side until they were straight, then returned to his own side. The commander aimed them so they quartered the waves. Kip’s heart was constantly in his throat. The three- and four-foot-tall waves yielded to five- and six-foot-tall waves.

  And then Ironfist raised their little sail a third of the way. “Keep us straight,” he barked, working the lines. Kip felt like a headless chicken, flopping awkwardly from one side of the boat to the other, keeping them headed slowly forward, going up each wave with a lurch and swooping down the opposite side.

  “Down! Get down!” Ironfist shouted. Kip dropped just as the wind shifted and the sail swung from one side of the boat to the other, the boom whipping over his head. It snapped so hard against the ropes that Kip thought it might tear off or break.

  Orholam, that could have been my head.

  The dinghy leaned over hard, even with the sail only a third of the way raised, and jumped forward. Kip had barely gotten back up to his knees, and the sudden forward motion made him tumble backward, splashing into the cold dirty water at the bottom of the dinghy.

  “The rudder! Take the rudder!” Ironfist ordered.

  Kip grabbed the rudder and held it straight for a long moment, though the dinghy was turned too far away from the wind—taking the waves almost side on. He blinked seawater out of his eyes. Throw the rudder this way, it turns at the fulcrum there, and the boat turns… Got it.

  Part of the next wave sloshed over the gunwales as Kip threw the rudder hard toward the port side. A hard gust of wind made the dinghy bear down even farther in the water, then they popped up hard as they escaped the killing grip of the wave.

  Kip whooped as they sped forward, riding the waves, plowing through them at times now, rather than simply being at their mercy. But Ironfist didn’t share his joy. He was glancing up at the sky. He raised the sails a little more, and the dinghy picked up even more speed, leaning so hard to the port side that Kip thought they were going to capsize.

  When they reached the west side of Big Jasper, they were able to run before the wind. It was like flying.

  Ironfist kept glancing south, but the dark clouds there seemed to dissipate rather than gather, and by the time they turned into Big Jasper’s wind shadow, Kip could tell from Ironfist’s demeanor that they were out of danger.

  “There’s a small dock that we want, head straight,” Ironfist told him, raising their sail all the way.

  So Kip aimed them past galleys and galleasses, corvettes armed with a single gun mounted on a swivel, and galleons with fifteen cannons on each side. They stayed fairly far out so they wouldn’t interfere with t
he constant stream of ships coming in and out of the bay, the dinghies taking crews ashore.

  “Is it always like this?” Kip asked.

  “Always,” Ironfist said. “Bay’s too small, so to accommodate the number of boats needed to keep trade flowing smoothly there’s an elaborate system to determine who gets in first. It works…” He glanced up at a captain swearing loudly at the harborman standing on his deck with an abacus. The harborman looked singularly unimpressed. “For the most part.”

  Between having to veer sharply now and again to avoid other boats according to some ships’ etiquette that he didn’t understand, Kip didn’t get to catch more than a few glimpses of the city covering Big Jasper. And from what he saw, it did cover Big Jasper. There was a wall just above shore around the entire island—leagues of walls—but even that couldn’t hide the city as it rose on two hills. Aside from a few green patches—gardens? parks? mansions’ grounds?—there were buildings everywhere. Soaring bulbous domes in every color, everywhere. And people, more people than Kip had ever seen.

  “Kip. Kip! Port! Gawk later.”

  Kip tore his eyes off the island and turned to port, narrowly avoiding ramming a galleass. They sailed past under the evil eye of the galleass’s knotted-haired first mate. He looked like he was going to spit on them, but saw their uniforms and spat on his own deck instead.

  They proceeded into open water until they started to round the eastern side of the island. “Turn in here,” Ironfist said. Kip turned toward a little dock with a few small fishing boats moored to it. They docked and headed up to the wall. Kip tried not to gawk, though the wall itself was easily the biggest man-made structure he’d ever seen.

  Ironfist strode to the gate. The guards outside looked confused. “Captain?” Then they snapped sharp salutes, eyes wide. “Commander!”

  A smaller door inset to the larger gate was open, and Ironfist walked through, nodding to acknowledge the men. The city inside was too overwhelming for Kip to comprehend even part of it. But the part that hit him first was the smell.

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