The black prism, p.28
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       The Black Prism, p.28

           Brent Weeks
 

  She just hadn’t thought he’d ask for her so soon.

  Oddly, the first thing she thought of was, What do you wear for an audience with the Prism? Liv didn’t usually pay much attention to her choice of clothing. Maybe that was because when you only have a few changes of clothes, you wear what’s clean and despair of ever wearing what’s fashionable. That, of course, had changed instantly. Gavin had ordered that she be kept in an equivalent fashion to a Ruthgari bichrome, and that meant lots of clothes, a few jewels, and this huge apartment—literally five times larger than the one she’d lived in for the last three years. And though she might not have any money, now she had makeup. Now she had options, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. The idea of turning into a prissy girl like Ana made Liv’s stomach turn.

  The slave was still standing at the door, waiting to be dismissed with the pleasant, neutral expression of a woman ignoring the cluelessness of her superior.

  “Pardon me, caleen,” Liv said, “but would you help me?” Liv always felt awkward when it came to dealing with slaves. No one in Rekton had been rich enough to afford one, and the few slaves that came through working with the caravans were treated the same as other servants. Things were more formal at the Chromeria, and most of the other students had grown up having slaves or at least being around them, so Liv always felt like everyone else knew what to do, while she was all thumbs. She still felt weird calling a woman ten years her senior by the diminutive “caleen.”

  Of course, now that Liv was a bichrome, she was going to have to get used to it fast, or she was going to look like an idiot even more often than usual.

  The slave cocked an eyebrow like any twenty-eight-year-old would at any seventeen-year-old being foolish.

  “I don’t know what to wear,” Liv said in a rush. “I don’t even know what ‘at your earliest convenience’ means. Does that mean actually at my earliest convenience, or does it mean go right this moment, even if I were just wearing a towel?”

  “You can take a few minutes to dress appropriately,” the slave said.

  Liv stood paralyzed. Was what she was wearing now appropriate?

  “Most women called to the Prism’s room wear something more… elegant,” the slave said, eyeing Liv’s plain skirt and blouse.

  Maybe the fitted blue dress, then. Or that odd Ilytian black silk sheath. But that was more of an evening dress, wasn’t it? Or should she wear the shockingly small… Liv wrinkled her nose. There was something about the slave’s statement that made her nervous. She could just imagine a procession of beautiful women queued up outside the Prism’s door. Liv had never heard any gossip about who the Prism took to his bed, but she wasn’t exactly in the middle of the juicy gossip circles, and she could certainly imagine more than a few girls willing to dress or undress any way the Prism wanted. In addition to basically being the center of the universe, he was gorgeous, commanding, witty, smart, young, rich, and unmarried.

  Whoever had packed her drawers with cosmetics had bought mostly skin lighteners or darkeners. But with Liv’s kopi-and-cream-colored skin, she didn’t have a hope of looking as light as a west Atashian. Her eyes were too dark anyway. And with wavy hair, even with a darkener on her skin, she wasn’t going to look Parian. There was no hiding that she was Tyrean.

  All those other girls and women would look fantastic in their fancy dresses and perfect makeup. They’d feel comfortable, beautiful. Liv would feel like a fool and look like a tramp.

  How many of the women called to the Prism’s room had gone with ulterior motives? How many had been acting for one country or another? How many of the ones who hadn’t been co-opted had gone with their own agenda anyway? All of them? She wasn’t going upstairs to seduce Gavin Guile—to hell with Aglaia and her ilk—so why should she make herself look like she was?

  “To hell with it,” Liv said. She didn’t swear much, but it felt good right now. She threw down a dress that probably cost as much as she’d spent all last year. “It’s convenient for me to go right now.”

  The slave looked like she wanted to speak, but she stopped herself. “This way, ma’am.”

  After they headed up the luxlords’ lift, the slave led Liv to the Blackguards stationed there. The woman of the pair searched Liv for weapons. Thoroughly.

  Liv couldn’t help but feel a little violated. “They take their job seriously, don’t they?” she said as they finally led her to what Liv assumed was the Prism’s door.

  “Do you have any idea what it would mean for the world if the Prism died? He’s not always an easy man, but he’s a much better man than Prisms usually are. And there are many of us who would do anything for him. Anything. Remember that… ma’am.”

  Orholam’s prickly beard, but the slave woman was protective.

  The slave stopped at the door, knocked three times, and opened it. Liv stepped into the Prism’s room and found him sitting behind a desk, staring at her. His eyes were entrancing. Right now, they looked like diamonds, scattering light everywhere. He gestured to the chair across from him, and Liv sat.

  “Thank you, Marissia, you may go,” Gavin said to the slave. Then he turned his diamond eyes on Liv and said, “It’s time for that favor.”

  Chapter 42

  “Scout!” Corvan called. “She’s seen us. Sonuvabitch!”

  After Rekton, Corvan and Karris had decided to travel together. Both wanted to go after King Garadul’s army, if for different reasons: Karris to join it somehow, and Corvan to see if he could find some way to exact vengeance. It was a risk to trust Corvan Danavis, of all people, but he had saved Karris and his reputation from the war was sterling. Truth was, it was more dangerous to travel alone.

  They’d been following King Garadul’s army south for days, and not once had he put out scouts. He’d seemed so careless that now Karris and Corvan had walked right past a scout in a tree stand.

  As they stood at the edge of a wood, half a league behind the rear guard, the scout was sprinting to the east, down a slight hill, rather than going straight for the rear guard.

  “She’ll have a horse down in the gully there. You might be able to cut her off,” Corvan said. He was unslinging his great yew bow. “Shot’s too far. But I might get lucky.”

  Karris was already running. Away from the Umber River, Tyrea had rapidly become a scrub brush desert. In a few spots fed by underground springs, there were clumps of pine trees like the one she and Corvan had just left, but for the most part this land was rolling hills, often broken, something between a desert and a badland. It had made their pursuit of King Garadul’s army more and more difficult, because even though they were traveling by foot and thus didn’t kick up the huge quantities of dust that Garadul’s men and wagons did, they still could be seen. They had to decide at every hill whether they should go straight over and risk being seen, or go around and lose even more ground. An army didn’t travel fast, but it did travel straight.

  The scout was a good two hundred paces in front of Karris. Judging from the slight slope of the hill, and making a guess, Karris angled off to the right. Probably the scout would make it to her horse, but if Karris were within a hundred paces when the scout mounted, she wouldn’t be mounted for long.

  Something dove out of the sky and pierced the ground not five paces behind the fleeing scout. She didn’t even notice. Damn. Corvan had nearly hit a sprinting target at two hundred fifty paces. That close and he couldn’t have gotten just a little closer?

  The woman turned and angled more to the right. Corvan’s second arrow missed by a good fifteen paces, flying where she might have been if she’d run straight.

  Karris barreled on, heedless of the ground, hurdling tumbleweed and praying that she not step on the infrequent tough cactus that grew so low to the ground here that you never saw it until its spines stabbed through your shoes. And that wasn’t as bad as the rattling snakes. At the speed Karris was running, of course, there would be no warning rattle, just a strike. She pushed harder. Maybe if she ran fast enough, even a striking sn
ake might miss her.

  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Corvan’s next arrow streak into view. The shot was more than three hundred paces now, albeit with no wind, so Corvan was having to shoot halfway between the horizon and vertical simply for the arrows to make the distance. But this shot looked perfect.

  It dove and the scout crashed into the ground, full speed. Karris couldn’t believe her eyes. An impossible shot. Three hundred paces at a running target? She cut left, heading straight for the woman.

  Almost as soon as Karris turned, she saw Corvan’s arrow. Sticking out of the ground. Back where the scout had fallen. It hadn’t impaled her. It had tripped her.

  Even as Karris saw it, she saw the woman standing, her head swiveling toward Karris. She looked shaken, her palms bloody, a cut down the side of her face, but the woman started running regardless.

  Karris had easily covered a hundred of the two hundred paces between them, and as the scout had to go from a dead stop to sprinting, Karris made up more than half of that. She wasn’t even thirty paces back.

  No more arrows fell. They were out almost four hundred paces now. Even with a yew longbow this was an extreme distance. There was no way Corvan would risk an errant shot with Karris so close to their quarry.

  Karris fumbled with her necklace, trying to grab her eye caps. Even breaking stride that much gave the scout an edge, and she pulled away. Curse her, the woman ran like an antelope. But with the patience born of experience, Karris let her take the extra distance. Once she got the green-and-red eye caps on, the fight was over.

  She cracked apart the appropriate link of her necklace, watching the ground in front of her, ripped the luxin off, and slowed for a few steps to get the caps stuck perfectly around each eye socket.

  The scout cut hard left as the hill descended rapidly, shouting. Karris came after her, filling her right arm with red luxin and her left with green as she ran.

  The scout was shouting? To whom?

  Maybe she was shouting to her horse.

  Sure she is, Karris.

  In an instant, Karris was over the hill and barreling down the steep path straight into a camp. There were a dozen men waiting for her. At least two with nets. Two with catchpoles. Cudgels, staves. Swords sheathed. Not wanting to kill, but capture. A trap.

  Karris felt sick horror, the shot like a fist in her gut. Like she was sixteen again, her father dragging her to a boat, sailing away from Big Jasper. Her father’s boat had sailed past the family mansion, where she’d secretly—she thought—agreed to meet Dazen. Her brothers were there, lying in wait. They’d said they were going to teach Dazen a lesson for trying to destroy their family. But she’d seen murder in their eyes.

  She had been standing on the deck when an explosion had blown out all the windows of her room on the second floor of the mansion. She saw figures limned in fire, fighting.

  Something ripped off half the roof and explosion followed explosion. Bodies were hurled a hundred paces out into the water. Standing next to her on deck, her father paled. “You said he was coming alone, you stupid slut. Look what you’ve done! He must have brought an army!” Her father didn’t strike her, just grabbed her head and made her watch what she couldn’t have torn her eyes away from if she tried. In minutes, the only home she’d ever known was engulfed in flames.

  She’d been a child then. She’d been unable to think, unable to act. She wasn’t a child any longer, and she had pools of rage to draw from that that innocent hadn’t known.

  Karris used the height disparity of coming down the steep trail to leap at the first of the two horsemen who were side by side. He was holding a catchpole in both hands and he brought it up sideways, trying to block. He caught her extended foot, but she just let her kick collapse and slammed into him with both knees.

  Ribs crunched as she swept him out of his saddle. She rolled as she hit the ground, but had to catch herself with her right hand, which was holding her narrow ataghan, so she drafted a thin blade of green luxin from her left hand as she passed under the second horse. The blade passed through its belly easily.

  Karris was on her feet before the horse even reared in pain. She let the green luxin disintegrate as she charged one of the net men, switching her sword to her left hand. He was too stunned. He didn’t move, not even as she lunged full length, stabbing at his face, her right hand flinging a weak arc of fire behind her for distraction. The net man still didn’t move, and her lunge connected. The blade caught him between the eyes, skidded off the bone, and dove deep through his eye.

  Turning to follow the arc of fire she’d thrown, Karris saw a weighted net spinning toward her just as the arc of fire faded from the air. Perfect throw.

  But she waited, waited, switching sword hands again, until the net was between her and a man swinging a staff overhead at her.

  With a snapping pop-pop, Karris shot out two horseshoes of green luxin. One whistled harmlessly through the twisting, expanding net. But though it missed the net, the horseshoe did catch the staff-swinger in the cheek, blasting him off balance. The second horseshoe snagged the net as it passed through and whipped it back into several men, its leaden weights suddenly becoming a flail.

  The horse was rearing now, screaming in pain, a hideous sound. Its entrails spurted out in a bloody, ropy mass. But Karris barely heard it, barely saw it. She saw only chaos, and chaos was her friend, chaos was her advantage when fighting these odds.

  Men were falling away from her on every side. Karris flung little balls of fire at the tents nearest her, blocking her view, curse being short! Where was the man shouting orders? The tents went up in flames, but it didn’t seem to faze anyone but Karris. Everyone was fleeing.

  She was just beginning to get a sense of how many men were in this camp—there were dozens of tents, maybe a hundred men? Orholam, she had to get out! Then she heard a thunderous roar. The ground around her feet jumped into the air as musket balls struck and the concussion of their fire rolled over her.

  She looked up and saw a wide half-circle of musketeers, at least forty of them. Half were reloading in smooth, practiced motions. Unhurried. Well trained. The other half had their muskets, still loaded, trained on Karris.

  “The next volley takes your life, Karris White Oak!” a man shouted. He was lean, mounted, wearing rich garments that announced he was King Rask Garadul, if the smug expression on his face hadn’t. “The sword and the luxin. Now,” he said.

  Karris looked at the semicircle of blasted dirt in front of her, trying to gauge the accuracy of the king’s musketeers. Pretty damn good. They were only twenty paces away. It would take a miracle. King Garadul’s armor was, of course, mirrored, and he had Mirrormen and drafters to his left and right. What about Corvan?

  If Corvan ran as fast as she had, he might get here at any time—Karris always lost track of time once fighting started. Maybe he’d already seen what she had gotten into. Either way, not even he could do anything against these odds. He certainly couldn’t save Karris from twenty musketeers with an easy shot at her.

  Karris pulled off her eye caps and dropped them and threw her sword away and let the green and red dribble from her fingertips. Usually, when she let the luxin go, she felt less wild, less angry. Not this time.

  “Galan?” King Garadul said, gesturing to someone behind her.

  Karris was starting to turn when something heavy cracked her over the head.

  Chapter 43

  Kip followed Commander Ironfist up another flight of steps, which disgorged them in front of the biggest double doors Kip had ever seen. The doors were a slightly smoky glass filled with slow waves of every hue, a great lake of color.

  Commander Ironfist lifted one great silver knocker and pounded it onto the door three times. It was as if he’d thrown three rocks into a pond of light. Though the door itself didn’t move, the light within it cratered and threw ripples out in every direction. It took Kip’s breath away. He put a hand on the door, and where his fingers touched, tiny ripples formed.

>   “Don’t touch,” Ironfist barked.

  Kip pulled back his hand as if burned.

  “There are a few things you need to know before you go in, Kip,” Ironfist said. “First, it’s all real. We lose one out of every ten supplicants.”

  “Lose as in…”

  “They die. Second, you can make it stop whenever you want. There will be a rope put in your hand. Pull the rope, and it will ring a bell. They’ll stop immediately. Third, if you quit, you’re finished, you can’t stay. It costs a lot of money for a satrap to maintain a drafter, and not one of them will waste money on a coward. Gavin has instructed me that should you fail, I’m to give you enough silver to buy a small farm and put you on a ship to the destination of your choice. It’s better than most failures get, but you’ll not be allowed to return here ever again. You’re a shame enough as it is.”

  Apparently tact wasn’t part of the test. “I’m shameful?” Kip asked, a lump rising in his throat. Gavin hadn’t treated him like that.

  Ironfist blinked. “The life of a drafter is hard and short. I don’t have time for lies, no matter how comforting. You’re a bastard. That’s a common enough shame for a great man, but it’s a shame nonetheless. Anyone who can do simple arithmetic will know that you were sired while the Prism was betrothed to Karris White Oak, a woman most of us hold in high regard. Prisms are held to a higher standard, so you’re a greater shame than usual. Even if you’re excellent in every regard, you’ll be a shame. If you’re a failure, it’s worse. That’s the truth. Dressing it up in silk and lace isn’t going to change it.

  “Now, fourth, they say Orholam himself watches every initiation. Failing means failing him, farmboy. Ready?

  If Kip failed, he’d be put off the island. Not only would he shame the man who’d saved his life, but he would lose his only chance for retribution on the man who’d taken his mother’s.

 
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