The black prism, p.20
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       The Black Prism, p.20

           Brent Weeks
 

  Ironfist must have noticed the look on his face. “You think this is bad? You should try a city without sewers.”

  “No,” Kip said, looking at the hundreds of people in the streets, the three- and four-story buildings everywhere, the cobbled streets with tracks worn a hand’s breadth down into the stones. “It’s just that there’s so much.” And there was. Smells of cooking pork, spices Kip didn’t know, fresh fish, rotting fish, a thin odor of human waste and a stronger one of horse and cattle manure, and, overwhelming it all, the smell of unwashed men and women.

  The people parted naturally around Ironfist, and Kip followed in his wake, trying not to run into anyone as he shot glances at all the people. There were men wearing ghotras like Ironfist, but also bedecked in robes with checkered patterns and loud colors. There were Atashian men with their impressive beards: beads, braids, natural sections, and more beads and braids. There were Ilytian women with multilayered dresses and shoes nearly like stilts, making them a full hand taller. And a riot of colors everywhere. Every color in the rainbow, combined in every possible way. Ironfist looked back at Kip, amused.

  “Those soldiers at the gate,” Kip said, trying to take Ironfist’s attention off his being a bumpkin. “Those weren’t your men.”

  “No,” Ironfist said.

  “But they recognized you, and you didn’t recognize them, and they were really excited that they’d seen you.”

  Ironfist looked at Kip again, scowling. “How old are you again?”

  “I’m fift—”

  “The commander,” Ironfist said. As if that answered everything. He smirked as Kip scurried up beside him. “You’re the genius. Let’s hear it,” he said.

  Genius? I never acted like I thought I was that. But that was a distraction. This was a test. In fact, Ironfist had been testing Kip the whole time, Kip saw now. Putting him on the rudder had been a test, to see what he would do, how quickly he would figure it out, and if he would freeze up. Kip wasn’t even sure how well he’d done on that count.

  Ironfist was a commander. A commander, the commander. The commander. Oh. Oh my.

  “There’s only one company of Blackguards, isn’t there?” Kip asked.

  Like most of Ironfist’s expressions, this one was quick and quickly muted: the full white of his eyes around dark irises visible for a bare moment, then a little smirk to cover. “Not bad, given the obvious hint, I suppose.”

  “So you’re the sole commander of the most elite company in the Chromeria. That makes you like a general or something?”

  “Or something.”

  “Oh,” Kip said. “So that means I should probably be even more intimidated of you than I am right now, huh?”

  Ironfist laughed. “No, I think you’ve got it just about perfect.” He grinned.

  “What were you doing pulling guard duty on that rock?”

  “It is a bit more than a rock.”

  Put that way, it did make some sense. The Blackguard had to protect the Chromeria’s most important people, and a secret escape tunnel was the kind of thing you had to check yourself. “Still,” Kip said.

  They came to a much wider road and Ironfist—Commander Ironfist—turned onto it, heading west, the opposite direction of almost all of the traffic. He sighed. “It’s not a duty anyone wants, so it’s sometimes used as punishment. Let’s just say I’ve given the White reason to be displeased recently.”

  Kip said quietly, “Or that’s a cover so you can go out and check the maintenance of the tunnel.”

  “Except that a tunnel is… a tunnel. Don’t make things more complicated than they are, little Guile.”

  Huh? “Oh.” Ironfist could come from the Chromeria side and make sure the tunnel worked. He didn’t need to sail out to the island for that. Some genius I am. Embarrassed, Kip rushed to ask another question, and asked the question he knew he shouldn’t. “So what did you do to make him mad at you? You know, the White.”

  “Him?” Ironfist asked.

  “Her?”

  Ironfist turned in at a little house with an oxidized copper dome, unlocked the door, and pointed for Kip to go in. “There’s hard tack and cheese and olives in the kitchen. Latrine off to the left. Bed straight down the hall. You’re not to leave until I come get you tomorrow at dawn.”

  “But we came across those huge waves instead of waiting, I—I thought we were going straight to the Chromeria.”

  “I’m going straight to the Chromeria.”

  “While I just sit here all day?”

  “When you see what you have to do tomorrow, you’ll be glad you had the rest.” Ironfist moved to leave.

  “But, what—what are you going to do?”

  “I’m going to go get back in the White’s good graces.”

  Kip scowled as the door closed. There was a click. He was locked in. “That’s great,” he told the closed door. “I’ll just wait here. I’ve been meaning to catch up on my thumb-twiddling.” Grumbling, he made his way to the olives and cheese. Ten minutes later, he was asleep.

  Chapter 33

  Karris woke beneath a lean-to constructed of tree branches and a man’s cloak. It was either dusk or dawn. She guessed dawn from the dew on the ground. She examined herself with a soldier’s efficiency, moving each limb and digit experimentally, trying to gauge her own potential for movement, violent or otherwise. All her fingers and toes worked properly, but her entire left side was bruised. She must have not only crashed through the doorframe with her upper body there, but also landed on her left side, because her shin ached, her knee ached, there were gravel scratches on her hip, her breast felt like someone had mistaken it for a sawdust-filled training bag and punched it for an hour, and her shoulder—Orholam, her shoulder. She could breathe without much pain, though, which she hoped meant there weren’t any broken ribs, and she could still move her arm, although it almost made her black out to do so.

  Her right side hadn’t escaped undamaged either. She had long gravel scrapes on her right arm and her stomach, probably some to match on her back, and her neck was sore from Orholam knew what. She’d stubbed all the toes of her right foot—didn’t remember doing that either—and her left eye was swollen, not enough to block her vision, but enough to look real pretty. There was also a scratch on her forehead, several attractive lumps on her head, and—what the hell, a cut right on the tip of her nose?

  No, not a cut. A pimple. Unbe—A pimple? Now? Orholam hates me.

  Every one of her cuts and scratches had been smeared with some kind of ointment that smelled of berries and pine needles. Someone cleared his throat. “There’s more ointment to your right. I tended the more… obvious cuts.”

  Which Karris took to mean that Corvan hadn’t stripped her naked.

  “Thanks,” she grumbled. “What happened back there?”

  “Aside from the obvious?” Corvan asked, his voice flat.

  “In the church, downstairs. I’ve never seen red luxin that didn’t burn cleanly. If you drafted it wrong, it should have evaporated, not formed a crust. And what was that thing you were in?” Karris sat up, wincing. Her ankle hurt too. Ow, when had she twisted her ankle? She ignored it, and tried to remember all she knew about Corvan Danavis. He’d been a rebel, of course, but before he’d sided with Dazen, he’d been a scion of one of the great Ruthgari families. For nearly a hundred years, Ruthgar and the Blood Forest had been bound together in peace, the closest of allies. Noble families from Ruthgar had intermarried with the leading families of Blood Foresters, holding lands on either side of the Great River. Other peoples had begun referring to the countries as one, merging the Verdant Plains and the Blood Forest to call the joint country Green Forest. Vician’s Sin had put an end to that, and by a generation before the False Prism’s War, the countries were instead known as the Blood Plains. If one good thing had come from the False Prism’s War, it was that it had given Gavin the clout to finally end the interminable small-scale war constantly simmering between Ruthgar and the Blood Forest.

  Corv
an was a product of that conflict. Born into a warrior family, with some ungodly number of brothers (eight? ten?), he was, Karris thought she remembered, the last one alive. Karris barely remembered him from before the False Prism’s War. He was just another Ruthgari from old blood left suddenly penniless with little more than the fine weapons he carried and the fine clothes on his back. He’d been a monochrome, too, so his prospects of reclaiming wealth in some other land had been dismal. When the war had started, he’d joined Dazen immediately, like so many other dispossessed young lords with everything to gain.

  Karris had been fifteen years old, and she couldn’t remember Corvan personally at all. Which, she supposed, wasn’t too surprising, given all the attention she’d been getting from the Guile brothers. He’d been an adviser only for much of the war, but near the end of the war, Dazen had made him a general. Karris had heard Commander Ironfist credit that fact with Gavin winning the war—not calling Corvan Danavis incompetent, but the opposite. Commander Ironfist had said that if Corvan Danavis had been a general for the whole war, Gavin’s armies wouldn’t have even made it to the Battle of Sundered Rock. Ironfist had further said that if General Danavis hadn’t surrendered unconditionally after Sundered Rock, there might still be guerrillas fighting in half of the Seven Satrapies. Corvan’s grace in defeat had convinced his men to go home.

  Dipping her fingers into the bowl of ointment, Karris gave Corvan a look. He appeared confused. She began lifting her long shirt, ointment on her fingers, and he got it. He cleared his throat and turned away. Karris smeared ointment gingerly on the scrapes on her chest, giving herself time to think.

  With all that history, Karris expected Corvan Danavis would be some graybeard. This man was in his mid-forties, shaven except for a day or two’s stubble. His skin was lighter than most Tyreans, but much darker than Blood Forester pale, though he did perhaps have some freckles on his cheeks. His eyes were blue—no shock there, with the ludicrous amount of red he’d been able to draft. The luxin halo was only halfway through his irises—even less than Karris’s, despite his being probably twelve or fifteen years older than she was. There were perhaps red highlights in his dark hair, too, and his hair was wavy rather than kinky. And the general had been famous for his red mustache, which he’d kept trimmed except at the ends that dangled below his chin, where he’d tied red and gold beads. Maybe this was some other Corvan Danavis, or some man who’d taken his name, hoping to profit from the general’s good reputation. “They were on us before we knew what was happening,” Corvan said. “I’d counseled the village to send a boy or two for the levies but even I didn’t expect this kind of retribution. King Garadul came here not to teach us a lesson, but to teach the rest of Tyrea one. I’ve only run into his like once before.” General Delmarta, the Butcher of Ru, Karris guessed.

  “You saw the pyramid?” Karris asked, turning back to him.

  Corvan Danavis got very still. The side of his mouth ticked up in a snarl for the briefest instant. But when he turned his gaze to Karris, it was cool, in control. There wasn’t even a hint of fresh red luxin in his eyes, which spoke of astonishing control for a drafter his age. “I gathered those I could and pulled back to the church.” Was he hoping Garadul’s men would respect holy ground? “It’s the least flammable building in town” Corvan said, answering the unspoken question. “We fought, and we lost. The Delarias and the Sworrins couldn’t get the door to the basement open, and I was too busy fighting. Maybe I shouldn’t have fought at all. I think the chromaturgy just drew more soldiers. They overwhelmed us. I retreated downstairs.”

  “Alone?”

  He looked surprised at the question. “Everyone else was dead,” he said.

  Except for one young family, not ten paces from the stairs. Had Corvan fought at all, or had he immediately retreated downstairs and locked the door behind himself, dooming the townsfolk to fiery death? The soldiers had carried away their dead, and the fires had obscured most of the evidence of battle in the temple, so Karris couldn’t know for sure.

  “So this is where you tell me how you used the most flammable luxin to escape a fire,” Karris said.

  “Do you know why you blow on a flame when you’re starting a campfire?” Corvan asked. He didn’t wait for Karris to answer. “Because fire needs to breathe. I’m a monochrome, Lady White Oak. We have to be more creative than near-polychromes like you.”

  “Just tell me what you did,” Karris said. How did he know she was nearly a poly? She was still trying to decide if it was even possible that this could be General Danavis. In this backwater? And from a Blood Forester family? The eyes and freckles spoke of Blood Forester heritage, but with that skin? Of course, he had grown up in a noble family, and a family breeding its sons for war. The perfect combination for a warrior drafter was black skin with blue eyes. Even caramel skin was far better than pale Blood Forester skin to give a warrior an extra fraction of a second before their opponents knew what color they were drafting. So it was possible. Noble families had certainly married off their daughters and sons for lesser reasons. Fearing that your children wouldn’t look like natives of their own land might move far down the list of concerns when pure survival was at stake.

  “When I went downstairs,” Corvan continued, “I knew they’d come after me, so I covered every surface in the room with red luxin. I sealed the room completely and coated myself in the luxin as well. When the soldiers came in, I closed the door behind them and set it all afire. The conflagration devoured all the air in the room, and both the fire and the soldiers died.” So that was why the red luxin had had a crust rather than burning away cleanly. No air.

  “And the tubes?” Karris had crashed through some tubes when she’d fallen.

  “They led outside. So I could breathe.”

  “So why didn’t you leave after you killed them?”

  He stared hard at her. “Because if I didn’t wait until every last ember burned itself out, I’d be inviting the entire room to explode. As you might have noticed when you brought burning embers with you and made the entire room explode.”

  Oh.

  “Why is King Garadul gathering an army?” Karris said. “Why now?”

  “To assert himself, I’d imagine. New king, wants to show he’s tough. Does it have to be more complicated? Rask Garadul was always a crazy little bastard.”

  “If you really are Corvan Danavis, you just lied to me,” Karris said. A general of Corvan’s standing would have been delving into the possible strategies Rask might be pursuing. A general with Corvan’s record of success would have come up with a dozen already.

  Corvan paused, and if anything, Karris thought he looked pleased. “So little Karris White Oak is all grown up,” Corvan said. “Joined the Blackguard, and now a Chromeria spy.”

  “What are you talking about?” Karris said. She felt like she’d been hit in the stomach.

  “The only question is, who wants to kill you, Karris? Not only are you more conspicuous in Tyrea than even I am, what with that fine hair and fair skin, but you of all people? They sent you? Here?”

  “Why shouldn’t I be here? I came to research the southern desert reds—”

  “Seriously, Karris. Don’t demean us both. At the very least, I’m an enemy of your enemy. You’re here for information. I’ll give it, but not if you lie to me. If you go unprepared against these people, you’ll die.”

  He could have killed her in the church, Karris realized. Or he could have left her and let the fire do it. Corvan did have a sterling reputation, even among his enemies, and she needed to know what he knew. She surrendered, lifting her open hands. She winced. Ow, her left arm was killing her. “Why can’t I be here?” she asked.

  “Do you have any idea what happened to all the men and women who fought for Dazen?” Corvan asked.

  “They went home.”

  “It’s always harder for the losers to go home. Dazen’s armies were a motley bunch. A lot of bad men, and some good ones who’d been wronged.”

 
Like you,” Karris interjected sarcastically.

  “This isn’t about me. Point is, a lot of us couldn’t go home. Some went to Green Haven; the Aborneans accepted a few small communities, and the Ilytians claimed to be willing to take anyone, but the only thing anyone got from them was a clipped ear.”

  Karris shuddered. It was how the Ilytians marked slaves. They heated shears red-hot and cut the slave’s left ear nearly in half. The scar tissue kept the ear from ever fusing back together and made it easy to identify who was a slave.

  “Some of us were more fortunate,” Corvan said. “Our armies raged back and forth across this land for a few months, and the people here had no reason to love either side. We wiped out whole villages. Those that survived had nothing but young children, old men, and a few women. Most of the towns reviled the soldiers, and where former soldiers tried to stay by force, Rask’s father, Satrap Perses Garadul, wiped them out. But a few towns realized that if they were ever going to rebuild, they needed men. The alcaldesa of Rekton was one of those. She chose two hundred soldiers and let us stay, and she chose well. A few nearby towns did the same. Other men, of course, became bandits, and even Perses Garadul couldn’t hunt all of those down.”

  “How did you get to stay?” Karris asked. “As a general, you were more responsible for what happened to this country than most.”

  “My wife was Tyrean. We’d married a few years before the war. She was in Garriston when… when it burned. One of her retainers survived and saved our daughter and brought her to me. So I had a year-old little girl, and the alcaldesa took pity on me. The point is, people around here remember the war a little differently than Gavin’s people do.”

  Not terribly surprising, considering they got the ass-end of the deal.

  “They remember it as a fight over a woman,” Corvan said blandly.

  “That’s—that’s ridiculous!” Karris spluttered. Orholam have mercy.

 

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