The black prism, p.41
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       The Black Prism, p.41

           Brent Weeks
 
Now Dazen was taking it seriously. “I’ve gone a while without a haircut. The scar’s right along the hairline. I could hide the cut while it was healing.”

  “If I can remember which side I cut him on,” Corvan said. “Pass me that skin, I’m getting parched.”

  A few days had passed, and Dazen had asked Corvan to stay after another council of war. After dismissing everyone from the tent, he’d handed Corvan a piece of paper. On it was written a precise description of Gavin’s scar.

  “I was joking,” Corvan said, looking into Dazen’s serious eyes.

  “I’m not. I’ve got a chirurgeon waiting outside the tent to stitch me up. If anyone notices, we were sparring and had an accident. I’m embarrassed about my clumsiness, so I asked you not to say anything about it.”

  Corvan had said nothing for a long time. “Dazen. Have you thought about what this would mean? You’d have to maintain a charade for years, maybe the rest of your life. Everyone who loves you now would think you dead. Karris—”

  “I lost Karris when I killed her backstabbing brothers.”

  “Are you prepared to be Gavin in her eyes?” Corvan had asked.

  “Corvan, look at our allies,” Dazen had said, tense, lowering his voice. “I’ve practically sworn a port in every satrapy to the Ilytians. I’ve promised the Atashian throne to Farid Farjad. The cultists joined us in hopes that their strength would help us shatter the Chromeria. Once we win, they’ll turn on us. And the Blue-Eyed Demons have been too valuable to us to be content with mercenaries’ wages. I expect Horas Farseer to come to me on the eve of the battle with some outrageous demand: lands, titles, permanent bases. I’ll have to agree. After we win, I might renege with one group, but not with all of them. I don’t know how it got to this, but however things started, we’re the bad guys now.”

  “We’re the bad guys. After what they did to Garriston,” Corvan said bitterly.

  “In terms of what will happen to the Seven Satrapies if we win? Yes.”

  A long silence. “You’ll be discovered eventually,” Corvan said. “You must know that. It can’t last forever.”

  “I don’t need to fool them for long. A few months. Enough to consolidate the victory. Even if the Spectrum found out, they wouldn’t expose me until our enemies are crushed. Some morning, I won’t rise from my bed. I can accept that.”

  “We’re not without options,” Corvan said. “I mean, if we win. These problems can be handled. We don’t know what will happen after we win. If we can take Gavin’s army relatively intact and get the Chromeria to capitulate quickly, we could counter—”

  “Do you see the White capitulating quickly?”

  Corvan opened his mouth. Closed it. “No.”

  “It’s not a good plan,” Dazen said. “I know that. But it may be the least bad.”

  “We may still lose, I suppose,” Corvan said.

  “You always do look on the bright side,” Dazen had said.

  Now Corvan pushed Gavin back, wiping his own tears away with the backs of his hands. “I’ve missed you, friend.”

  “And I you. Now, what the hell are you doing here?” Gavin asked.

  The joy at their reunion leached from Corvan’s face. “I came to warn the governor that King Garadul’s marching here. His army will arrive within five days, a week at most. And they captured Karris White Oak.”

  Gavin sucked in a breath. Karris captured?

  There was nothing to be done about it now, even if it did tear a hole in his stomach and hollow him out. “I knew about King Garadul,” he said. “Not… the other.”

  “I figured. Why else would you be here?” Corvan said.

  “You think he’ll attack just after Midsummer’s?” Gavin asked.

  “The day after,” Corvan said. “Ruthgari will have withdrawn, but the Parian regiments won’t have landed.”

  It was what Gavin had guessed. It gave him almost no time. “I can’t believe that Governor Crassos never got word of Garadul’s army.”

  “Don’t believe it. He did know,” Corvan said. “The Ruthgari have been withdrawing early. It’s a skeleton crew now, so they make sure they all get out of the city before Garadul attacks. Why should they fight to save the city for the Parians?”

  “Bastards,” Gavin grunted.

  “And cowards and opportunists.” Corvan shrugged. “What do you intend to do about it?”

  “I intend to hold this city.”

  “And how do you hope to do that?” Corvan asked.

  “Put someone in charge who’s an experienced hand at lost causes,” Gavin said.

  A pause, then Corvan raised his hands. “Oh, no. You can’t. It’s impossible. Lord Prism, I’m the enemy general!”

  “And since when don’t the conquered sometimes join the victor’s army?” Gavin asked.

  “Not as generals. Not right away.”

  “It’s been sixteen years. You’re a special case,” Gavin said. “Corvan Danavis, held in high esteem by both sides of the False Prism’s War. The man who ended the war honorably. A man of unimpeachable integrity and intelligence. It has been a long time, why could people not believe that we had put it all behind us?”

  “Because I’m the one who put that scar on your temple, and you were none too happy about it. And Gavin’s men killed my wife.”

  Gavin’s brow wrinkled. “There is that.”

  “You don’t need me,” Corvan said. “You’re no slouch at command, Lord Prism.”

  It was true. Gavin had seen good leadership and practiced it enough to know his own abilities. He also knew his weaknesses. “With equal armies and terrain and me without magic, who would win between us, Corvan?”

  Corvan shrugged. “If you had a good cadre of support staff, and your field commanders would tell you the truth, I think—”

  “Corvan, I’m the Prism. Men don’t tell me the truth. I ask them, can you do this? And they say yes, no matter what. They want to think the righteousness of obeying the Prism himself will magically help them overcome any obstacle. When I ask for objections to my most flawed plans, I get silence. It took months and several disasters to get our armies even halfway past that back in the war. We don’t have that time now.” It took a certain kind of mind to understand exactly how each branch of his forces would react, what kind of combat situations they could handle and what ones they would buckle under. Gavin was good at that. He was good at judging enemy commanders, especially those he’d met, and figuring out what they might do.

  But making snap judgments about the disposition of enemy forces from fragmentary scouts’ reports and getting thousands of men in various branches into position was something else entirely. Splitting your forces and getting them to take different paths to an objective, each under its own commander, and having them arrive simultaneously—that was a skill very few men had. Instilling discipline in men to continue maneuvering during the battle itself, for men to disengage right now when they could kill their opponent with just one more thrust, and to get men to communicate so lines could open just a second before a cavalry charge came through the ranks themselves—that was almost impossible. Gavin was good at men and magic. Corvan understood numbers and time and tactics. And sixteen years ago, he’d certainly been Gavin’s master in the art of deception. Together, they’d been unstoppable.

  “Of course, Rask did massacre my village.” Corvan said it dispassionately. He wasn’t working through his fury at losing everyone he knew; he was working through the story people would tell: I thought the Prism and General Danavis hated each other! They do, but the Prism needed a general, and Danavis’s village was just butchered by King Garadul, he wants revenge.

  It worked. It would seem odd, but not incredible. It had been sixteen years.

  “So we’re both using each other,” Gavin said. “I need your tactical genius, you need my army to effect your revenge. I could check in on you openly, making it clear I didn’t quite trust you.”

  “I could grumble about slights in front of the men. Nothing to undermin
e their confidence, but enough to make it clear I wasn’t comfortable with you.”

  “It could work.”

  “It could,” Corvan said. He turned from looking at the bay. “Deception comes quickly to you these days.”

  “Too much practice,” Gavin said, sobered from his initial joy at the chance to work with his friend once more. “You know, if this works, we can be friends again in a year or two. Even in public.”

  “Unless I can serve you better as your enemy, Lord Prism.”

  “I’ve got enough of those. But fair enough. Now I’ve got a surprise for you.”

  “A surprise?” Corvan asked, dubious.

  “I can’t be seen giving you something you enjoy, so you’ll have to go downstairs without me. The room directly below this one.” They stepped back toward the counsel room, but Gavin stopped. “How is she?”

  Corvan knew who he was talking about and what he really meant. “Karris once seemed like a wilting flower, bowing to her father’s every command. And she became a Blackguard, the White’s left hand. If anyone can make it, she will.”

  Gavin took a deep breath and, masks of seriousness and distrust replaced, they stepped into the counsel room. Commander Ironfist had already returned. He stood by the main doors in the loose, casual readiness of a man who spent much of his life guarding, waiting, watching. He was accustomed to inactivity and prepared for violence.

  “Commander,” Gavin said. “Corvan Danavis and I find ourselves with a common enemy. He has agreed to help us coordinate Garriston’s defenses. Please notify the men that they will be overseen by General Danavis, effective immediately. The general will answer only to me. General, you can take it from there?”

  Corvan looked like a man who’d swallowed vinegary wine and he wasn’t doing a good job of hiding the fact. “Yes, my Lord Prism.”

  Gavin waved his hand in dismissal. Abrupt, slightly imperious. Let Commander Ironfist take it as Gavin asserting his dominance. Corvan’s jaw tightened, but he bowed and left.

  Go, my friend, and may finding your daughter repay a tiny measure of the misery you’ve endured because of me.

  Chapter 61

  “Will is what makes the Chromeria scary, even for us,” Liv said. The sun was just touching the horizon outside, and room slaves entered as if on cue and began lighting lamps and a fire.

  “Who is this Will, and how do we stop him?” Kip asked.

  “Kip.” Liv tilted her head down. “Focus.”

  “Sorry, go ahead.” She was ignoring the room slaves, so Kip tried to do so as well.

  “Will is just what you think it is. You impose your will on the world. You will magic to happen. Will can cover over the gaps in flawed drafting. That’s especially important for flailers.”

  “Flailers?”

  “All men drafters and the half of the women drafters who aren’t superchromats,” Liv said. She paused. “Well, most men, huh?”

  The term was a bit nasty, really. A little bit, We’re better than you are, you helpless hacks. You try, we succeed. But that was how the Chromeria worked, wasn’t it? Everything was about power and dominance. “Right,” Kip said, “flailers. Those sad sacks. Pitiful.” Even if Kip found himself in the elite group, it didn’t mean he had to like how the others were demeaned.

  Liv flushed and shot back, “Look, Kip, you don’t have to like it, but you have to deal with it. And you’ll probably do better if you don’t have a chip on your shoulder about everything. It’s not like back home. Because guess what? We don’t have a home now. The Chromeria is all we get, and we’ve got it good. So grow up.”

  It was like he’d been slapped. She was right, but he hadn’t expected so much vehemence out of nowhere. He averted his eyes. “Right. Sorry.”

  She expelled a breath. “No, I’m sorry. That… I don’t know… I guess I’m still adjusting to this whole life myself. There’s a hierarchy to everything at the Chromeria, Kip, and it’s not easy to adjust to. I don’t even know if it’s good to adjust to it. But once you know your place, you can figure out how you’re supposed to deal with everyone else, even people you don’t know. It does simplify things. I just—after the last three years as a monochrome in an obscure color, and a Tyrean on top of that, I never liked the whole hierarchy. But I’d finally come to terms with my place in it, and I was almost finished with my training and ready to head out into my shitty life. Now I’m a bichrome and everything’s different, overnight. I’m going to have to stay at the Chromeria for another couple of years, and my life will be totally different. People see me now.” She smiled ruefully, sadly. “I guess you know all about having everything change in a blink. The thing is, I like my new life. I have new clothes, jewelry, an allowance. A room slave. I guess what I’m seeing is that maybe I didn’t hate the hierarchy, maybe I just hated being at the bottom of it. So every time I enjoy something, it feels like confirmation that I’m a hypocrite.”

  “I’ll promise to make your life as difficult as possible, if it’ll make you happy,” Kip said.

  She hit his shoulder playfully, but it nailed a sensitive spot. “You’re a real lifesaver, Kip.” She grinned, though, as he rubbed his shoulder. Then her smile faded again. “I guess I should take my own advice and start dealing with how things are. You’re the Prism’s son, I’m your tutor. I shouldn’t hit you. Orholam, you’re the Prism’s son, how dare I?”

  Kip’s chest tightened. “No!” he almost shouted. The room slaves shot looks at him. He lowered his voice, embarrassed. “Liv, swear to me you won’t. I—”

  What were you going to say, Kip? I’ve been in love with you since I can remember? Right.

  “I couldn’t bear losing my last anchor to Rekton,” he said instead, all the words tripping over each other. “You’re the only one who knew me before all this.”

  Great, good job making it seem like it’s totally impersonal. I don’t care about you, I just care about Rekton.

  “I mean… Liv, you know me, you’re—” You’re my friend? That sounds a little presumptuous, doesn’t it? What if she’s never thought of you as a friend?

  “You’re from Rekton, too,” he said instead, lamely. Impersonal again. Damn! “I need someone to talk to, and I’ve always… admired you.”

  Admired? Like she’s a painting?

  “I mean, I appreciate—”

  Appreciate. Kind of the same as admire, isn’t it? Like she’s a good cook?

  Orholam’s balls, this is agony! Ah, a way out! Not appreciate her, but appreciate how she does something.

  “I appreciate how you—” How she whats?

  How she looks in that one too-small green shirt she used to—shit!

  “—have always been so nice to me.”

  Now you’re the pleading, awkward child again. Well done. Kip Silver Tongue, they ought to call you.

  I’m never going to speak to another woman again.

  Kip could barely stand to look at Liv after that performance, but she waited until he met her eyes, leery.

  “Why, Kip, are you flirting with me?!” she asked.

  It was like Kip had stepped into that nightmare where he walked to the Midsummer’s Dance on the green, barely registering the curious glances until he stepped up on the stage and the music stopped, every dancer missed their steps, and everyone turned to look at him. And then he noticed he was naked. And then everyone started laughing. Pointing. Making jokes.

  No, this was worse. He wasn’t going to wake from this. All the blood had drained from his face. Evernight, it had drained from everywhere. He had no idea where it had all gone, but it had taken his ability to speak with it.

  “Kip, I’m kidding,” Liv said.

  His mouth moved. Blood coming back. Thoughts slower.

  “Not often that you’re left with nothing to say,” Liv said, poking him. His thoughts on that must have shown, because she smirked. “If you don’t watch it, I’ll ruffle your hair.”

  “That’s it, I’m shaving my head!” Kip declared.

  Liv lau
ghed. “Enough, enough! No more digressions! I’ll never teach you anything if we keep on like this.”

  “So,” Kip said, “will. Not the bad man. See? At least I remember where we got off track.”

  Liv shook her head, amused. “Not so fast. First, Kip, you’ve got a deal. I’d love to be your friend. Maybe we can remind each other every now and again where we came from.”

  Kip felt his ears getting hot. As if they’d ever cooled. “I’d like that a lot,” he said.

  “Now, finally, will. Will covers a multitude of flaws, just as—”

  “Love covers a multitude of sins,” a familiar voice declared from the door.

  Both Kip’s and Liv’s heads snapped around. It was Master Danavis, Liv’s father, alive.

  “Father? Father!” Liv literally shrieked. She jumped up and ran to her father and threw herself into his arms. Corvan laughed and squeezed her hard.

  “I heard you were dead!” Liv said.

  Um, yes, that was me. Kip, bringer of false bad tidings. “I didn’t believe it, but I was so—” Liv started crying.

  Corvan closed his eyes, just holding his daughter. Kip wondered if there were some way he could escape.

  And go where? This is my room.

  But after a few moments, Corvan gently pushed his daughter back. “I am surprisingly durable. You look more lovely than ever, Aliviana.”

  “I’m all cryey,” Liv protested, wiping her eyes.

  “Perhaps even a smidge more beautiful than your mother. A claim I’d not have tolerated until this day, seeing the truth with my own eyes. She’d be so proud of you.”

  “Father,” Liv said, her cheeks coloring, but pleased.

  “Don’t you think she’s beautiful, Kip?”

  Kip spluttered, making some kind of sound like he was drowning. Seriously, if embarrassment were a muscle, I’d be huge.

  “Faather!” Liv said, horrified.

  Corvan laughed. “My day wouldn’t have been complete without my daughter thinking I was embarrassing. Your pardon, Kip.”

  “Erm,” Kip said eloquently. So he hadn’t been the target after all. Liv had. Kip was seeing where she got her wicked sense of humor.

 
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