The black prism, p.36
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       The Black Prism, p.36

           Brent Weeks

  It was a strange kindness. They could have just blindfolded her, of course, but blindfolds slip. But most captors would have painted the wagon black and made her live in darkness. This was just as effective, but a lot more work. If a drafter couldn’t see her color, or didn’t have lenses and white light, she couldn’t draft. Karris was about as close to helpless as she got. She hated the feeling with a passion.

  She threw on the slip and the shapeless violet dress, and immediately scratched the paint. It had been heat-dried by a sub-red. She would be able to chip it eventually, but with the only light coming in through the violet curtains and violet glass, it wasn’t going to matter anyway. Still, she tried. She couldn’t help herself. Under the layer of violet paint was a layer of black. Under that, the wood was a dark mahogany. No luck.

  The wagon began rolling within minutes.

  That night, after she was fed a hunk of black bread and given water in a blackened iron cup, two drafters came in, their skin already full of red and blue luxin respectively. Behind them came, of all things, a tailor. She was a tiny woman who barely came up to Karris’s shoulder. She took Karris’s measurements rapidly, never writing them down, just committing them to memory. Then she stared at Karris’s body for a long time, studying her like a farmer studying a rocky sidehill that he needed to plow. She double-checked her measurement of Karris’s hips, and then left without a word.

  Over the next five days, Karris learned little. Apparently her wagon was close to the cooking wagons, because all she heard all day was the rattle of pots at every bump in the road. The shadowy figures of horsemen, maybe Mirrormen, sometimes passed close enough to her covered windows for her to see their silhouettes. If they spoke, though, she could never make out the words. At night, she was given food in a blackened iron bowl, with a blackened iron spoon and black bread and water, never wine—damn them, they even thought of the red of wine. A Mirrorman accompanied by a drafter took her chamber pot, bowl, spoon, and cup each night after sunset. When she kept the spoon one night, hiding it under a pillow, they didn’t say a word. Neither did they give her water the next day. When she surrendered the spoon, she was given water again.

  The boredom was the worst. There were only so many push-ups you could do in a day, and anything more strenuous was impossible. There were no musical instruments, no books, and certainly no weapons or drafting to practice.

  On the sixth night, two blues came in. “Choose a position that’s comfortable,” one of them said. Karris sat on her little pallet, hands folded in her lap, ankles crossed, and they bound her arms and legs in about five times the amount of luxin necessary. Then they put violet spectacles over her eyes and left.

  King Garadul entered the wagon, carrying a folding camp chair. He wore a loose black shirt over his shirt, which Karris could barely see, and voluminous black pants over his pants. Karris understood being careful around her, but this was ridiculous. The king settled into the camp chair. He stared at her wordlessly.

  “I don’t suppose you remember me,” he said. “I met you once, before the war. Of course, I was just a boy, three years younger than you, and you were already head over heels for… well, one of the Guile boys, I can’t remember which. Maybe you can’t either. There seemed to be some confusion for a time, wasn’t there?”

  “You’re a real charmer, aren’t you?” Karris asked.

  “You might be surprised,” he said. He shook his head. “I always thought you were a beautiful girl, but the stories of you took on a life of their own. A tragic love triangle between the two most powerful men in the world sort of demands a beautiful girl, doesn’t it? I mean, otherwise, why would two men tear the world apart? For her insights about history? Her witty repartee? No. You were a pretty girl made beautiful by the bards’ need to make some sense of what you wrought. Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I was so in love with you it kept me up nights. You were my first great unrequited love.”

  “I’m sure you’ve had many. Or do women pretend to find you attractive, now that you’re king?” Karris asked.

  Temper, Karris, temper. But the truth was, it wasn’t the red that made her say that. She’d always hated to perform for others, to do just what they wanted.

  He scowled. “The shrewish tongue somehow was omitted from the panegyrics. Or is that a new addition?”

  “I feel a bit freer to speak my mind these days. I already destroyed the world, what’s one man’s ego?” Karris said.

  “Karris, I was on my way to pay you a compliment before you made us descend to this unpleasantness.”

  “Oh, dear. Please do go on then, there’s nothing that would mean more to me than to hear praises from the Butcher of Rekton.”

  He rubbed his palms together thoughtfully. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Karris.” He kept using her name. She didn’t like it. “I hope you know I took no joy in what I ordered there, but I also hope you understand that that small monstrosity will forestall larger ones in the future. You’re familiar with the manuscript called The Counselor to Kings?”

  “Yes,” Karris said. “Loathsome advice and cruelty that not even he had the stomach to countenance, when he himself ruled.” The Counselor asked whether it was better for a ruler to be loved or feared. Both was best, he decided, but if a ruler had to choose, he should always choose to be feared.

  “His advice was good. He was simply personally weak. I don’t hold that against him. The fact is, Karris, when kings aren’t feared, they end up having to instill fear eventually, at grievous prices. That’s what happened at Ru. That’s what happened at Garriston. Those men you loved—or at least bedded—learned the lesson eventually, but because they learned it late, what they had to do was far worse than destroying one little village. So tell me, how can you hold the death of a thousand against me, but not the death of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, against them?”

  Karris hadn’t been allowed to see the royal steps at Ru, stained with the blood and shit of hundreds murdered coldly one at a time and thrown down the steps to the gaping, horrified crowds below. She’d been kept from going to Garriston even after the war, where tens of thousands—they didn’t even know how many—had perished in the red luxin fires of the besieged city. That was Gavin’s and Dazen’s doing. Somehow, it had never seemed possible that men she knew so well would have done such things. Men she thought she knew so well.

  “The people of this land are my people. I am no mere satrap, no guardian of some other man’s land; I am king. These people belong to me. To kill a thousand of my own was to cut a chunk out of my own flesh. But cancers have to be cut out. I am this land. My people work this land and bring forth crops at my good pleasure. I protect them and provide for them, and they in turn must render to me of their crops and of their sons. Those who would not are rebels, traitors, thieves, and heretics, apostates. They defy the holy compact. To defy me is to defy the gods’ order. I had to do this because my father wouldn’t. If he had hanged half a dozen mayors when they first defied him and refused to send levies, that thousand would be alive now. He was weak and wanted to be loved. No one may acknowledge it during my life, but by killing that thousand in Rekton, I saved many more. This is what it is to be a king.”

  “You’re awfully passionate in your defense of decapitating babies and stacking their heads.” The gods’ order, not Orholam’s?

  “Karris, you’re making me understand why men beat their wives.” King Garadul rubbed his black beard, but made no move to strike her. “By making the display so awful, I ensured it would be seared into every mind that saw it. Do you think the dead care what happened to their bodies? Better that their example save the living than that I bury them all in a hole and my descendants have to kill their descendants. That monument will stay for a dozen generations. That is the legacy I will leave to my children’s children, a secure rule, without the need to commit such massacres themselves. And the reason I tell you, Karris, is that I had hoped you of all people might understand. You’re a woman now, not some frigh
tened little girl surrounded by great men. You’re a woman who’s seen great men and terrible deeds. I had hoped you might understand the burdens of greatness. At least a little. Perhaps I give you too much credit.”

  Karris swallowed, trembling with rage and maybe a little fear. There was a sick logic to everything he said, but she had seen the bodies. The blood. The piled-up heads.

  “As I wanted to say earlier,” King Garadul said. He took a deep breath, clearly pushing away his frustration, and continued. “You were a very pretty girl, but only pretty, despite the tales. But you, to my great delight and surprise, are one of the few women I’ve ever seen who’s gotten more beautiful as you’ve aged. You look better at thirty than you did at twenty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you look better at forty than you do now. Of course, I’m sure it helps that you haven’t squeezed six or ten brats out of your crotch. Most pretty girls do manage to find a husband before they get so old, but let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.”

  Real charmer. What was it with King Garadul, did he just say everything that popped into his idiot head?

  “Yours is, indeed, a face to inspire poets. This, however”—he gestured to her vaguely, she wasn’t sure what he meant—“this must change. You have shoulders like a man.” The bastard! How did he know how much she hated her shoulders? Whenever the fashions were such that she could hide her shoulders, they showed off her upper arms, or vice versa. And he’d said exactly what she said to herself at least once a week: I have shoulders like a man. But the king wasn’t done. “Your ass looks like a ten-year-old boy’s. Maybe it’s that dress. We’ll hope so. And your breasts. Your poor magnificent breasts. Where have they gone? They were bigger when you were fifteen! Your training ends now. I’ll allow you to resume dancing and riding when you no longer resemble a starved Dark Forest pygmy.”

  “I won’t be here that long,” Karris said. She frowned. Had she just admitted she looked like a starved pygmy?

  “Karris, my dear. I’ve waited for you for fifteen years. And whether or not you know it, you’ve been waiting for me, too. You and I don’t settle for second best. Why else would you still be unmarried? So we can wait a few months. I’ll come visit you when your dress is done.” He glanced around. “Oh, and I noticed you’ve nothing in here to entertain you. It must get boring. It’s good for a woman to excel in the pleasant arts. I’ll have my mother’s psantria brought in for you. That’s what you play, isn’t it?” He smiled and went out.

  The worst part of it was that Karris did feel thankful. A little. The bastard.

  Chapter 53

  Kip and Liv went straight to the Blackguards watching the lift. “We need to see the Prism,” Liv said.

  “Who’re you?” the man asked. He was short, Parian of course, and built like a cornerstone. He looked at Kip. “Oh, are you the Prism’s bas—” He coughed. “Nephew.”

  “Yes, I’m his bastard,” Kip said angrily. “We need to see him now.”

  The Blackguard looked over at his compatriot, a man just as muscular, but toweringly tall. “We’ve had no orders on how the Prism wants his… nephew treated,” the man said.

  “He just went to sleep not twenty minutes ago,” the other said. “After being up all night.”

  “It’s an emergency,” Liv said.

  They seemed unmoved, a little of a who-the-hell-is-this-girl creeping into their faces.

  “Someone just tried to kill me,” Kip said.

  “Stump, get the commander,” the tall one said. Stump? The short Blackguard’s name was actually Stump? Because the Blackguards were both Parian, who traditionally had descriptive names like Ironfist, Kip had no idea if that was a nickname or really his name.

  “He took third watch last night,” Stump said, his mouth twisting.

  “Stump.” Pulling rank.

  “Awright, awright. I’m going.”

  Stump left and the taller Blackguard turned and rapped on the door, three times, pause, two times. Then, after five seconds, he repeated it.

  A room slave opened the door almost before the Blackguard finished knocking. A pretty woman with the unsettlingly pale skin and red hair of a Blood Forester, she was fully dressed and alert despite the early hour and the darkness of the chamber behind her.

  “Marissia,” Liv said. “So good to see you again.” Her voice didn’t sound totally sincere.

  The slave appeared none too pleased to see Liv. Kip wondered why Liv had used the slave’s name, then. He thought you were only supposed to do that with slaves with whom you were friendly.

  From deep in the chamber, they heard Gavin’s voice, deep and scratchy from just waking, “Ummgh, give me a—” Whatever else he said, it was lost in bass and pillows. A moment later, all the windows banged open and light streamed in from all sides, nearly blinding everyone, and eliciting a loud groan from the Prism on his bed.

  “That’s brilliant magic!” Liv said. “Look at that, Kip!” She pointed at a dark purplish-black strip of glass around the glass walls that encircled the whole chamber.

  “What are you—Are you forgetting why we’re here?” Kip asked.

  “Oh, sorry.”

  Gavin was squinting at them. “Marissia, kopi, please.”

  The woman bobbed. “First closet, third from the left.” Then she left.

  “Kopi’s in the closet?” Gavin asked. “What the hell? Who puts kopi—and why aren’t you serving me?” The door closed behind her. “And where’s my favorite shirt—oh, closet. Damned woman.”

  “Clearly a morning person,” Liv said under her breath.

  Kip snorted before he could stop himself.

  Gavin had been looking down as if feeling trapped, but now he shot Kip a look. “This had better be important.” He threw off his covers and walked toward the closet. He wasn’t wearing anything.

  Kip had seen Gavin’s forearms, with hemp ropes for muscles, and he’d known his father was lean, but seeing his whole body was half awe-inspiring and half a slap in the face. Kip’s shoulders were as broad as Gavin’s, and his arms were probably as big around as Gavin’s, but even now—not after exertion, not filled from hard labor—but now, after sleeping, Gavin’s body was one smooth curving muscle meeting another, over and over, without an ounce of softness anywhere. Apparently sculling and skimming around the entirety of the Seven Satrapies did that to a man.

  How did I come from this?

  Next to him, Kip grew aware of Liv staring, openmouthed. She didn’t avert her eyes, even as Gavin had to rummage through the closet.

  “Liv,” Kip said under his breath.

  “What?” she asked, glancing away, her cheeks bright. “He’s the Prism. It’s practically my religious duty to give him my full attention.”

  Gavin, who’d seemed oblivious to them, grabbed some clothing and said, without looking at them, “Ana, staring is rude.”

  Liv blushed harder and sank into herself, horrified.

  “Her name’s Liv,” Kip said.

  “I know her name. Now what is it?” Gavin demanded, pulling on a dazzling white silk shirt with gold piping.

  The door opened behind Kip, and Marissia and Commander Ironfist stepped into the room. Ironfist stopped at the door, while Marissia brought in a tray with a silver service on it and three cups. She poured a dark, creamy, steaming brew into one cup and handed it to Gavin, whose pants and sleeves were still unlaced. “Commander? Kip?” Gavin asked, motioning to the other cups. “I think Liv is quite alert enough already.”

  Liv looked like she wanted to fall through the floor. Kip grinned.

  Ironfist helped himself to the kopi while Marissia took over dressing Gavin. Kip picked up a cup too. But as he picked up the carafe, his hands started shaking so badly he couldn’t even try to fill his cup.

  “Someone tried to throw me off the balcony,” Kip said.

  It was like the words made it real. One moment ago, he’d been joking with Liv, thinking about how unlike his father he was, and grinning when Liv got embarrassed. Now the reality o
f how close he’d come to getting thrown to his death came crashing in on him. He could see himself falling, twisting, helpless, like in an awful dream, and then his body bursting like a juicy grape.

  And who would have suspected anything? The woman could have slipped into his room, thrown him off the balcony, and then simply left. Even if they’d figured out who was on the floor at the time, who would expect a big woman as an assassin? People would have thought Kip had broken after his testing and jumped. No one would have known.

  And who would have cared?

  Kip felt a great gnawing emptiness in his chest.

  He’d never been part of anything. Even back in Rekton, he hadn’t belonged. Too fat and awkward for Isa, too smart to feel a connection to Sanson, who seemed a whisker away from simple, relentlessly mocked by Ram, too young for Liv. He’d thought that being part of the Chromeria would make him be part of something for the first time in his life. He was going to be different here, too. He would be different and alone, no matter where he went.

  Orholam, why had he even stopped that woman from throwing him over? Two moments of terror, sure, and a mess of exploded Kip on the rocks. But the terror would end, everything would end, and the sea would wash away the mess.

  Someone slapped him. Kip staggered. Rubbed his jaw.

  “Make the words, Kip,” Gavin said.

  So Kip told them everything. Liv stared woodenly at the floor when he told of her leaving after he’d told her that he thought her father was dead.

  Commander Ironfist said, “General Danavis has been living in some backwater village all this time?” He glanced at Liv. “Sorry, I knew we had a Danavis at the Chromeria, but I didn’t think you were related.” He cleared his throat and shut up.

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he did get away,” Gavin said. “The general was always a wily bastard, and I mean that in the best possible way.”

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