The black prism, p.46
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       The Black Prism, p.46
 

           Brent Weeks

  Still, Kip hesitated, looking north, looking back at Garriston. Come on, Kip, you’ve done dumber things and lived to tell the tale.

  Not so sure about that. Still, Kip prodded the big horse and they began the long trip.

  Chapter 67

  It started as a dull throb. It always did. For a while, Karris hoped her stomach was reacting to the food King Garadul was practically forcing down her gullet. Karris hadn’t had her moon blood in six months. Like most of the women of the Blackguard, her flow was irregular at best. Their level of training simply precluded it. But when Karris had hers, it was like her body was making up for lost pain.

  Damn King Garadul. This was his fault. The enforced boredom was driving Karris mad—sitting in the wagon, unable to do much, and constantly checked on. When they’d found her doing strength exercises, they’d sent in three drafters and two Mirrormen. The six barely all fit in the little wagon. Karris had been seized by the Mirrormen and laid over the knee of one of the drafters. Literally laid over her knee.

  The woman had produced a man’s leather belt and beat Karris’s bottom raw. Like she was a recalcitrant child. She’d been caught three times, and the punishment never changed, but gradually her will to resist did. It had seemed like too small and inconsequential a rebellion to keep up.

  Now she wished she had. The throbbing was already spreading to her back. Not long now for the diarrhea to start.

  Love being a woman.

  The other women of the Blackguard took advantage of their relative freedom from moon blood as also granting relative freedom from worrying about pregnancy. Karris just enjoyed her relative freedom from pain. It had been years since she’d had sex with anything more than her pillow. Not that she wanted to think about that right now. In fact, she thought if she even saw a man she’d tear his eyes out.

  It was for men that women suffered this. As the old saw said, a woman has to bleed to fertilize man’s seed. Chronologically confused, but true enough.

  They brought her the dress in the morning.

  It wasn’t the kind of clothing one would expect to be asked to wear for one’s execution. It wasn’t an exact copy of the dress she’d worn when she’d finally given in to her father’s demands and joined Gavin at the head of his armies when they’d reclaimed Ru, but it was close. For one thing, it was black silk rather than green. King Garadul’s tailor had obviously been working either from memory or a painting of the day or they had simply decided to alter the dress for the changes of sixteen years of fashion.

  The fit would be perfect, of course.

  Karris stared at the dress with loathing all day, as cramps wracked her guts, as the inevitable diarrhea came, as she nearly passed out a couple of times. That dress symbolized more than giving in to Rask Garadul’s childish fantasy. That dress was Karris’s youth. It was the girl she’d been. It was femininity, softness, yielding. The desperate grubbing for people’s eyes, for the jealousy of the other girls, for the envy of older women, for the attention of men. Karris had been weak and petty and stupid, hopelessly dependent.

  They would force her to wear the dress, of course. She could wear it now, or be beaten until she gave in and wore it. Of course, she could tear it to shreds. While satisfying, that would only delay the inevitable. Besides, they weren’t going to let her out of here without the dress. She was certain of that much. What she didn’t know was if they would let her out even with the dress. Still, it was a better chance than nothing. And how was she going to kill Rask Garadul from in here?

  She put on the dress.

  She wanted to hate it. She wanted to hate it with a passion. But she hadn’t worn anything that fit her so well in years. Her Blackguard garb, of course, fit like a glove, but those were work clothes. This, the whisper of fine silk on skin, was altogether different. It fit like a sheath. If it hadn’t been so perfectly tailored, she wouldn’t have been able to breathe, much less move. The dress was curve-hugging around her hips and stomach, and the more generous scalloped neckline drew attention to both the liquid dazzle of folds of fine silk and to her cleavage. Surely her old dress hadn’t been so low-cut in the back, the few thin interlaced ties only emphasizing her back’s essential nakedness. Looking down at her chest—there was no mirror in the room—she hoped she didn’t get cold. If she did, everyone was going to know it.

  Had her dress been unlined when she was that stupid sixteen-year-old? Had she not even noticed? She honestly couldn’t remember. All she could remember was loving that dress. She’d felt like the goddess Atirat standing next to Gavin in it, long hair caught up in a diamond-and-emerald-encrusted tiara, people practically worshipping them. She’d convinced herself that she could love Gavin. At first, before the Luxlords’ Ball, she’d felt more attraction toward him than toward Dazen. Surely she could blow that coal back to flame.

  Dazen had been perpetually in his elder brother’s shadow, and he seemed content with it. Gavin had been so confident, so masterful. She’d been drawn to him irresistibly, as everyone was. But after that night at the Luxlords’ Ball, everything had changed. After she got to know Dazen, suddenly there hadn’t seemed to be much depth to Gavin. Dazen had never understood his own strength. He had worshipped Gavin, projected all his own virtues onto his older brother, been blind to his faults and exaggerated his qualities. Gavin had fed on all the adoration and grown fat on it.

  But Gavin was still gorgeous, stylish, commanding, and admired. To the sixteen-year-old Karris, other people’s regard had been very important. She’d always wanted to please her father, her mother, Koios and her other brothers, her magisters, everyone. Gavin was everything good. He was the Prism, his brother by that point a disgraced runaway and a murderer. Karris remembered convincing herself she could be content with the Prism. Content—with the most admired, feared, desired man in the Seven Satrapies. Besides, after what Dazen had done, she had to marry Gavin or what was left of her family would be ruined.

  On the platform announcing their betrothal, Karris had thought she really was going to be happy. She had admired her fiancé. Gavin always cut a fine figure. She had enjoyed every minute of the attention.

  At dinner that night, Gavin had made a jest to her father about taking Karris back to his rooms and not sleeping a wink. Karris’s father, ordinarily so traditional, the man who’d always sworn his daughter wouldn’t give milk until some young satrap bought the whole cow, the man who had beaten Karris for giving her virginity to Dazen, that man, that hypocrite, that coward, had chuckled nervously. Until that moment, Karris had been able to stave off her rising panic. At least I won’t have to sleep with him until we’re married, she’d thought. I’ll be able to fall in love with him in the coming months. I’ll forget Dazen. I’ll forget my shivers when he kissed the back of my neck. I’ll forget that swelling in my chest I felt every time he gave that reckless grin. Everyone else is right, Dazen isn’t half the man Gavin is. I can’t love Dazen after what he did.

  But there had been no escape. Karris had chosen her own kind of cowardice and gotten roaring drunk. Her father had noticed too late—or just in time, depending on how you looked at it—and forbade the servants from giving her more wine before she could pass out at the table. She couldn’t even remember what she’d said at the table, but she did remember Gavin half-carrying her back to his room. Her father had watched her go with empty eyes; he said nothing.

  She’d thought being drunk would help her be docile, quiet, malleable. It had worked, and she didn’t know why she was so bitterly disappointed about that. When she’d turned her face away from his kisses, he’d mistaken it for shyness and kissed elsewhere. When he’d pulled off her slip and she’d covered herself with her hands, he’d mistaken it for modesty. Modest? When she’d been with Dazen, she’d gloried in his eyes on her. She’d been bold, shameless. She’d felt like a woman—though now she knew she’d only been playing at being a woman in so many ways. With Dazen, she’d felt beautiful. With Gavin, she was filled with such unutterable despair it choked her cries i
n her own throat. She couldn’t remember if she even protested, if she’d asked him to stop. She’d wanted to, but her memory was fogged. She didn’t think she had. She’d kept thinking of her father saying, “Our family needs this. Without this marriage, we’re ruined.” And she hadn’t fought.

  She remembered crying, though, during. A gentleman would have stopped, but Gavin had been drunk and young and horny. There was no gentleness in him. When she wasn’t ready and he was hurting her, he’d ignored her protests and thrust with a young man’s need.

  Far from keeping her awake all night as he’d bragged, he’d soon finished. Then he’d told her to leave. The casual cruelty of it had taken her breath away. And she’d taken it. She should have clawed his eyes out.

  He hadn’t wanted Karris. He’d wanted to show that Dazen couldn’t have what rightfully belonged to him. Karris might as well have been a tree for him to piss on after the last dog, reclaiming his territory.

  She’d stumbled through the halls in that beautiful dress with half its buttons undone—the damned thing required the help of servants to button. She’d been seen, of course. Somehow she got home, not their home on Big Jasper that had burned to the ground, but to their apartments nearby. Her father had been waiting up, but he didn’t say a word, just stared at her. Her room slave had undressed her with trembling fingers, and when Karris had finally fallen in bed, the doorway of her room was darkened with her father’s silhouette. He wobbled, leaned against the doorframe.

  “I could challenge him to a duel,” he said. “But he’d kill me, Karris, and then you’d be ruined. Hopeless. We’d lose everything our fathers have fought for for fifty generations. Maybe tomorrow will look better.”

  She’d been winesick for two days, and when she’d emerged, Gavin had kissed her in public, seated her at his right hand, and treated her like a queen. It was like the night had never happened. Or like it had been beautiful.

  Later she’d decided it was because everyone had been talking about the two of them as such a perfect couple, of how beautiful she was, and Gavin had decided she suited his image. So instead of casting her aside, he’d decided to go through with the marriage. But then he’d left and soon after fought the final battle at Sundered Rock.

  When he came back, he seemed like a different man. He treated her with a genuine warmth, respect, so unlike the man who’d banished her from his bedchamber after he took his pleasure of her. It made Karris doubt that the night had happened at all. She could have convinced herself that it had all been a nightmare—until she found out she was pregnant. The very day she’d become aware of it, before she could tell him, Gavin had broken their betrothal.

  She’d been sixteen, pregnant, and without any prospect of marriage. In other words, her father’s perfect nightmare. As soon as she was certain she wasn’t going to miscarry, she’d told her father. He demanded she see the chirurgeons and get it taken care of.

  For the first time in her life, she’d refused her father. To hell with him. He moved to strike her. She pulled out a pistol. She told him she’d hollow out his skull if he dared to strike her. She told him he was a coward. She was going to bear Gavin’s bastard and let the world know it was his. To hell with him, and to hell with her father, and to hell with everyone. Bearing that child would be her first free act, and her revenge.

  Her father had gotten down on his knees and begged. Literally begged. Please save our family, we can’t be the ones who let down all the generations of White Oaks who sacrificed everything to get us here. We and us, he said. He meant, I and me. He was the one who had destroyed the family and he knew it. He looked so small and weak, cold sweat gleaming off his balding head. Abruptly, she despised him. He’d been the absolute lord over her, and he was disgusting. She refused his pleas, and she felt pleasure at the sick, slack despair in his eyes.

  Two days later, her father kissed the double barrels of a pistol and blew out his own brains. His ledger books were all in order. That was how he’d spent those two days. All the family properties had been sold to pay off their debts, leaving Karris enough to live on quietly for the rest of her life, enough to support her illegitimate child. Her father had taken care of everything. His suicide note had simply explained where the remaining monies were and told Karris where to go if she wanted to bear her child in secret. It didn’t beg her to do so. Indeed, there was no emotion in the note whatsoever. No curses, no forgiveness, no regrets. It was as empty as his skull after the musket balls passed through them. Just gore and black powder residue. Ordure and death. Hollow, messy.

  She couldn’t stand to stay on the Jaspers, couldn’t endure the pity and the awkward glances. So she’d left, going to a distant cousin’s house deep in the Blood Forest. She’d borne the child and given it up immediately, not even hugging it, asking not even to know its gender, and learning only through her hosts’ indiscretion that it was a boy. The family adopting Gavin’s get lived nearby, and Karris couldn’t bear to stay, so she’d gone back to the Chromeria. She’d lost the baby weight in short order, and her young skin barely even showed any stretch marks. It was like nothing had happened, except for the memories clinging to her like hellstone eating her soul.

  Fitting that my new dress is black then, huh? A little piece of midnight, like what’s inside me.

  Thought you left the melodrama behind, Karris.

  Go bend over a fence.

  I think that’s what the king is hoping for.

  That’ll be a treat for both of us. Hope he enjoys blood.

  So, what? I’m supposed to be thankful that I’m flowing now? Not much chance—

  A cramp wracked her in midthought. Karris hunched. Not much thankfulness here.

  While she was hunched over, a slip of paper was pushed under the door. Karris picked it up. It was no bigger than her finger.

  “Orders: assas. KG. Dark. Can’t help.” There was an old Dayric rune at the bottom. It was the agreed symbol to show it was from the agent Karris had been sent to meet. Not well drawn, but correct.

  It wasn’t much of a code, but they’d never figured Karris would need a code. She was supposed to have met the agent in person. He was to identify himself by idly tracing part of the rune on any surface: a table, dirt, whatever. Karris’s orders were to assassinate King Garadul. Secretly. And her contact wouldn’t be able to help her.

  Perfect. Karris couldn’t even burn the note, and though small, it was grimy. She popped it into her mouth with a grimace and swallowed it.

  Her contact wouldn’t be able to help her. Damn it, Karris, you’ve been thinking so much about the past, you haven’t thought about the present. In one moment, Corvan had understood that someone must want Karris dead. Of all the White’s agents, Karris had to be the worst person to send here. Either the White wanted Karris dead, or…

  There was no other possibility. Or she hoped I’d be kidnapped and maybe raped? Ludicrous.

  She knew she frustrated the White at times, but she’d thought the stubborn old woman liked her. Then again, the White always played a deep game. Maybe she thought she could use Karris’s death to accomplish something else.

  Karris felt sick to her stomach. It was possible. She wouldn’t have thought it before, but she’d sworn to give her life for the White if necessary. Maybe the White had decided it was necessary.

  There was a knock at her door. It was the same routine as before, lots of drafters, lots of guards. This time, however, several women bearing tins of powders and glosses came in. With the efficiency of professionals, they made up Karris, fixed her hair, and applied perfume. But they didn’t apply any powder to her eyes or lashes.

  And soon enough, Karris found out why as one of the slaves took out violet eye caps. Blind them, they’d thought of everything.

  “If you tear these off, you’ll certainly rip your skin,” one of the slave women said. “And possibly tear off your entire eyelid. If you leave them alone, the king may give you greater freedom, and it won’t hurt your eyes. In a few days, they will loosen and com
e off by themselves.”

  “At which point you’ll reglue them,” Karris said.

  “Yes.”

  “What if I get something in my eye?” It would be impossible to get it out.

  “Try not to.”

  They tried the fit over her eye sockets. The caps weren’t a perfect fit. The slave woman, eastern Atashian from her features, scowled. “To make the caps fit, we’re going to have to use extra glue. Extra glue means if you blink, your eyelashes will get stuck. King Garadul wants you for your beauty, so I don’t want to cut off your eyelashes if I can help it. But once we set the caps on your face, they’ll be there for days. You really don’t want your eyelashes globbed with glue—or stuck in it. So, do you want to be blind, irritated, or lashless?”

  “Lashless, and to hell with Rask,” Karris said.

  The slave pursed her lips. “You’re right. The king might be annoyed. We’ll have to take our chances. Blink right now as much as you can, because you’re going to have to not blink for as long as possible.” With great care and globs of glue, they put the eye caps on. The glue globs took care of the gaps left in the fit.

  Karris barely dared breathe, holding as still as possible, forcing herself not to blink. When she finally broke down and had to blink, her lashes caught for a moment in the drying glue, but pulled free.

  “Oh, and try not to cry,” the slave said. “Or you’ll be up to your eyeballs in tears. Literally.” She smiled unpleasantly.

  Hilarious.

  They put more makeup around her eyes after the glue was fully dried.

  Then, bracketed by drafters and Mirrormen, Karris was whisked through camp. The sun had set perhaps an hour before, and Karris welcomed the fresh, dry air. Over the smell of her own perfume, she was finally able to smell horses, men, campfires, butchered raw meat, cooking meat, sagebrush, oil. Oil? She looked around and saw a supply wagon nearby. Oh, oiled swords and gunmetal.

  With the number of wagons surrounding her own, Karris couldn’t see enough of the army to get a good idea of how many men were marching on Garriston. Even the number of wagons didn’t help her. She didn’t know how heavily or lightly packed they were, and even if she did, the last time she’d traveled with an army, she hadn’t paid any attention to such things. Young, pampered, terrified, and stupid, it hadn’t occurred to her that such simple things might be useful to her someday.

 
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