The black prism, p.38
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       The Black Prism, p.38
 

           Brent Weeks

  “While repeated sacking of Garriston and the surrounding country is tragic, it doesn’t have much to do with these pirates,” Gavin said. “The handover happens after Midsummer’s, two weeks from now. The Ruthgari merchants and craftsmen and wives and whores are busily loading their ships to take whatever plunder they’ve managed to steal this time home. Or just whatever they brought with them. I suppose just because every governor so far has been corrupt doesn’t mean the smiths who shoe their horses are, too.”

  “This is fascinating,” Ironfist said, “but can’t some long guns shoot eighteen or nineteen hundred paces?”

  “It’s farther away than that,” Gavin said. “Point is—”

  “Finally, thank Orholam,” Ironfist muttered.

  “Ahem. Point is, there’ll be an armada heading back to Ruthgar in two weeks. The pirates descend like wolves, and they take any ships that get separated from the main fleet.”

  “Serves them right,” Liv said.

  Gavin stared at her, and she scowled defiantly, but couldn’t handle the eye contact, so she scowled at the waves.

  “Some merchants try to beat the rush and get out before the rest of the fleet, hoping they’ll avoid the pirates.”

  “But here they are,” Liv said.

  “Exactly,” Gavin said. “And if there’s war this summer, especially—Orholam forbid—if we lose, there’ll be chaos. Dozens of ships, maybe hundreds, all going their own direction, fleeing. A lot of the people in those ships will be Tyrean, Aliviana.”

  She looked chastened.

  “Smoke,” Kip said.

  All conversation on the little scull stopped cold. Everyone turned to look.

  “It would take an extremely skilled gunner to come within a hundred paces of us at this distance,” Gavin said, but Kip noticed he didn’t take his eyes off the corvette either.

  “Maybe it was an empty charge, just to let us know—”

  The water erupted twenty paces in front of the scull. The sound of the shot reached them only afterward.

  “That was quite a shot,” Gavin said. “The good news is that very few corvettes have more than one gun mounted on the front, so we should have at least thirty seconds while they’re—”

  “Smoke!” Kip said.

  “I hate this part,” Gavin said. He and Ironfist scrambled onto their oar apparatus.

  This time, the splash was fifty paces in front of them.

  “Good to know the first one was lucky,” Liv said.

  “Unless the second was unlucky,” Kip said.

  Gavin looked at Ironfist, a momentary worry line pressed between his eyes. “Let’s go.”

  “Right!”

  They began rowing and quickly picked up speed. “What can I do?” Kip asked. He hated feeling useless.

  “Think!” Gavin said.

  Think? Kip looked at Liv to see if she had any idea what Gavin meant. She shrugged.

  “Smoke!” she said.

  Excruciating seconds passed, then Kip heard an odd whistling hum. The water exploded fifty paces behind them.

  “Didn’t expect us to come straight at ’em!” Gavin shouted. “Next one’ll be closer!” He cackled.

  The man had gone quite mad.

  Smoke. This time, Kip counted. One. Two. Three. He strained his eyes. Surely he should be able to see something as big as a cannonball. Five. Si—Boom! The water exploded not fifteen paces to the left—port?—of the scull. Kip actually felt spray.

  “See?” Gavin said. “Talented gunner!”

  Mad. Totally mad. “It’s a six count between the smoke and the splash,” Kip announced.

  “Good!” Gavin shouted. “Ironfist, hard starboard as soon as they—”

  “Smoke!” Liv said.

  The men cut hard to starboard and the next shot splashed harmlessly a good distance away, albeit probably perilously close to where they would have been.

  Another shot, and they turned even more to starboard. Again, the shot was at least thirty paces off target. Kip looked at the wind and the sails of the Ilytian ship. They were cutting at a hard angle, sails full, wind steady. It looked like a good platform to shoot from, but as for how Kip could use what he was seeing to help them survive, he had no idea. He just didn’t know anything about sailing. They were getting closer, though. Now the lag between the smoke and the shot was less than five seconds.

  The scull cut back and forth, sometimes even stopping, and though Kip’s fear never really shrank, he saw that Gavin was right. Their scull was simply too fast, too small, too maneuverable to get hit—unless the gunner made both a skillful and lucky shot. And though as they got closer to the Ilytian ship they had less time to move between the cannon being fired and the shot landing, the gunners were also having to change their angle more and more.

  There was a long pause between shots.

  “What’s going on?” Kip asked.

  “Maybe they’re tired of wasting powder?” Liv asked hopefully.

  Ten seconds later, they had their answer as twin columns of smoke erupted from the cannons.

  “Port!” Gavin shouted.

  He’d guessed right. Water erupted both where they would have been if they’d gone straight and where they would have been if they’d turned to starboard. Though it was longer between volleys, now the pirates could make two guesses of where the scull was headed instead of one.

  “Clever bastard!” Gavin said. “Time to cheat! Kip, switch me.” He clambered off the oars, and Kip jumped in.

  “Straight,” Gavin said. Blue flooded his skin and he drafted a propulsion tube into the water. As before, they leapt forward. Kip and Ironfist almost fell as Gavin cut their oars smooth. But if he hadn’t, Kip realized, they’d have been ripped apart by the inexorable turning of the gears.

  Gavin’s teeth gritted under the strain of pushing the entire boat by himself, muscles knotting, veins standing out on his neck, but after a moment as they gained speed and it became easier, he said, “Ironfist, put fire grenadoes in all the cannon holes and the sails. Liv, cut the rigging. Kip, you…” He paused like he couldn’t think of anything for Kip the Inept to do. “You call out anything you think I don’t see. Take my pistols.” Gavin pulled his hand from one of the tubes and drafted a basin and filled it with red luxin in moments. Ironfist instantly began drafting blue projectiles and filling them with the flammable goo.

  They traversed the last five hundred paces before the men scrambling on deck could reload the front cannons. Only one man seemed unfazed by their impossible speed.

  “Musketeer!” Kip shouted. One of the gunners, whether or not it was their cannoneer with the preternatural aim Kip didn’t know, stood at the bow, calmly tamping powder down his musket with a ramrod. With smooth, fast motions, he drew a square of cloth, reached into another pocket for a bullet, and then tamped those. He held a smoking slow match in his teeth.

  As they got closer, Kip saw that the gunner was Ilytian, with skin as black as gunpowder, aboriginal features, a scattered dark beard, short loose trousers cut off below the knees, and an incongruously fine royal blue jacket over his lean frame with no shirt. His wiry black hair was bound in a thick ponytail. His knees were bent, compensating for the rolling motion of the deck as naturally as breathing. He fixed the burning fuse into place.

  “I said, musketeer!” Kip shouted. They cut the water right beside the corvette as the cannon portholes opened and the ship turned hard away from them.

  Gavin just turned with the bigger vessel. No one was going to do anything. Kip cocked the hammers of Gavin’s dagger-pistols, trying not to skewer himself on the long blades.

  The musketeer pivoted smoothly, aiming at Gavin. Kip raised both pistols.

  The musketeer shot first. His gun exploded in his hands, knocking him off his feet. Kip pulled both triggers. The pistol in his right hand scraped the flint against the frizzen, but didn’t throw a spark. Nothing happened. The pistol in his left hand roared. It kicked back at Kip with far more force than he’d expected.
r />   Kip spun, tripped, and slid toward the back of the skimmer, rolling, scrambling. He saw Liv flinging both of her hands forward, then turning, her pupils tiny pinpricks as she drafted superviolet. Then she dove for him.

  Tumbling facedown, Kip lost sight of Liv, the ship, the drafters, and the battle. All he saw was the slick blue of the skimmer’s deck, sliding away below him. His face slid over the edge. His forehead skipped off the water blurring past them, making his whole head bounce up, just about tearing his head off his neck. On the second bounce, he wasn’t so lucky. His nose went under, and positioned off the back of the skimmer as he was, his nostrils acted as twin scoops, jetting water up into his sinuses at great speed.

  Liv must have grabbed him, because there was no third bounce, but Kip could see nothing, think of nothing. He was coughing, retching, crying, blind, spitting up salt water.

  By the time he propped himself up, the Ilytian corvette was two hundred paces behind them. Its sails sagged, cut and burning. Smoke billowed out of all the cannon portholes on the starboard side, and fire was visible on the decks. And the whole ship was sitting low in the water. Men were leaping off the decks on every side.

  Commander Ironfist, who’d barely said two words the entire time, said, “Men jumping off that fast means the fire must be headed for the—” The middle of the corvette exploded, sending wood and ropes and barrels and men flying every direction. “—powder magazine,” Ironfist finished. “Sorry bastards.”

  “Men like those kill and rape and steal and enslave. They don’t deserve our pity,” Gavin said, slowing the skimmer. He was talking to Liv and Kip, who both sat almost equally wide-eyed. “But Ironfist’s right. It’s no easy thing to be the hand of justice.” He dropped the tube into the water. “We’ll row the rest of the way. By the by, nice shot, Kip.”

  “I hit him?”

  “Blew the captain right off his wheel.”

  “The wheel’s at the… uh, back, right?” The musketeer had been at the front.

  “Stern?” Liv suggested.

  A dubious look. “You weren’t aiming at the captain, were you?” Gavin asked.

  “Aiming?” Kip asked, grinning.

  “Orholam have mercy, the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Ironfist said. “However, luck is a—”

  “ ‘Luck’ is not dropping your father’s priceless, one-of-a-kind pistols in the sea,” Gavin said.

  “I dropped your pistols?” Kip asked, heart dropping.

  “Whereas ‘slick’ is catching said pistols at the last moment,” Gavin said, producing the weapons from behind his back. He grinned.

  “Oh, thank Orholam,” Kip breathed.

  “You still almost lost my pistols,” Gavin said. “And for that, you get to row. Liv, you too.”

  “What?!”

  “You’re his tutor. He’s your responsibility. Everything he does wrong is on you.”

  “Oh, perfect,” she said.

  Chapter 57

  “It looks so… dirty,” Kip said. After seeing the wealth of Big Jasper and the magical edifices of the Chromeria, Garriston looked decidedly unimpressive.

  “Dirt is the least of it,” Gavin said.

  Kip wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was sorry that he’d been unconscious when he’d floated through the city the first time with Gavin. If he had seen Garriston then, it would have doubtless been impressive. It would have been the largest gathering of humanity he’d seen in his life, at least, if not the cleanest. Rekton’s alcaldesa would never have tolerated the heaps of trash Kip could see pushed into the alleys just off the docks, sitting right next to crates often holding food. Disgusting.

  The docks had perhaps forty ships, half-protected by a seawall with great gaps in it. Liv saw Kip looking at the holes, wondering if there was some purpose for them. “The occupiers never really want to break their backs helping out us backward Tyreans,” she said. “The moorages opposite the gaps in the seawall are given to locals. You should see the captains scurry when a winter storm comes. The soldiers gather up in the towers and take bets on whether individual ships will break up.”

  The scull, powered by Liv and a hard-breathing Kip, cruised past galleys, galleasses, corvettes, and fishing dories full of locals mending their nets. The men and women stopped their work at the sight of a scull, much less a scull with such an exotic crew. It warmed Kip just to see Tyrean faces again. It made him feel at home. Only as they went past did he see the hostility on those faces.

  Ah, not much for foreign drafters. Guess that makes sense.

  “Where are we going?” Kip asked.

  Commander Ironfist pointed to the most magnificent, tallest building in the city. From here, all Kip could see was the perfect egg-shaped tower with a spike pointing to heaven. A wide stripe around the widest part of the tower was inlaid with tiny round mirrors, none bigger than Kip’s thumb. In the afternoon sun, the tower seemed to be on fire. Above and below that stripe of mirrors, similar stripes of other colors of glass were inlaid as well.

  “I sorta figured,” Kip said. “What I meant was, where should we dock the scull?”

  “Right there,” Gavin said, pointing to a blank wall at the point nearest a gate. It wasn’t a docking spot, and the level of the streets was a good four paces above the level of the water.

  Nonetheless, Kip and Liv steered—fairly expertly, Kip thought—toward the wall. The scull’s nose dipped lower in the water as blue luxin bloomed on the front of the boat and snaked out. It solidified as soon as it touched the wall and became steps, locking the scull in place and giving them easy egress.

  “I’m still not used to this whole magic thing,” Kip said.

  “I’m thirty-eight years old,” Commander Ironfist said, “and I’m not used to it. Just a little quicker to react. Grab your packs.”

  They did, and climbed the stairs to street level while locals looked at them curiously. After they were all off, Gavin touched a corner of the stairs. All the luxin in the scull lost coherence and dissolved, falling into the water as dust, grit, and goo depending on its color. The yellow even flashed a little, much of its mass translated back into light, and the water popped up a little, suddenly freed of the weight of the scull. Gavin, of course, paid it all no heed.

  This is normal for him. What kind of world have I stepped into? If Gavin were at dinner and misplaced his knife, he’d draft one rather than get up and look. If his cup were dirty, he’d draft a new one rather than clean the old. That gave Kip a thought.

  “Gavin—er, Lord Prism, why don’t drafters wear luxin?” Kip asked.

  Gavin grinned. “They do, sometimes. Obviously, yellow breastplates and such are highly valued in battle, but I’m guessing you mean as clothes.”

  “You use magic for everything,” Kip said.

  “That’s me,” Gavin said. “A normal drafter isn’t going to shorten her life just so she doesn’t have to dock her scull another fifty paces out. Well, some would, of course. The truth is, there was a fashion of wearing luxin clothing once, when I was a boy. With the application of enough will, even some kinds of sealed luxin can become fairly flexible. Soon, there were drafter-tailors who specialized in the clothing. But most people couldn’t afford them, and if you make your own, there are any number of mistakes you can make. Some are fairly harmless, like making your pant legs too stiff. But if you made a mistake in the drafting, your shirt might dissolve into dust in the middle of a day. Or”—Gavin cleared his throat—“certain mischievous boys might learn how to unseal the luxin that the tailor-drafters had woven. These boys might have caused some chaos at a memorable party, where the ladies who’d gone to the expense of even having luxin undergarments found themselves in particular distress.” His mouth tightened, hiding a grin at a memory. “Sadly, the fashion ended rather abruptly after that.”

  “That was you? I heard about that party,” Liv said.

  “I’m sure whatever you heard was much exaggerated,” Gavin said.

  “No,” Ironfist said. “It wasn
t.”

  Gavin shrugged. “I was a bad child. Fortunately, I’ve come a long way since then. Now I’m a bad man.” He smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “Here we go,” he said as three Ruthgari men approached.

  The three all wore what looked to Kip like wool sheets with a hole cut for the head, carefully folded so there were pleats at their wide leather belts. The garment—a tunic?—then fell to the men’s knees. Though their legs were bare, the wool seemed entirely inappropriate for Tyrea’s climate, and all three were sweating freely. All wore leather sandals, though the guards’ laced up into shin armor. The guards each carried a pilum, and a gladius and a crude pistol at their belts. The man in the lead, apparently in charge, had his tunic embroidered at the hem and on each breast. He carried a scroll, a large bag slung over one shoulder, and a heavy purse at his belt. He wore a pair of clear spectacles low on his nose.

  Clear spectacles? What kind of drafter would want clear spectacles?

  But as the men came close, Kip realized the man wasn’t a drafter at all. His eyes were clear brown. The men were also all pale, a common Ruthgari trait, Kip guessed. With their skin barely bronzed, they weren’t pale or freckled like Blood Foresters, but they still seemed pretty ghostly. Their hair was a normal dark hue from brown to black, but straight, and fine. They walked with either authority or hauteur. Kip glanced at Liv. She was definitely taking their attitude as the latter. She practically sneered at them. Kip thought she might spit at their feet.

  “I am the assistant portmaster,” the man said. “Where’s your vessel? The tax is levied according to size and term of stay.”

  “I’m afraid the size of our vessel is negligible at the moment,” Gavin said.

  “I’ll be the judge of that, thank you. Where’d you dock?”

  “Right about there,” Gavin said, pointing.

  The assistant portmaster looked, then glanced up and down the wall, squinting. There were no ships within fifty paces. He folded his arms, his jaw setting as if Gavin were making fun of him. “The tax isn’t heavy, but let me assure you, the penalty for attempting to evade taxation is.”

 
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