The black prism, p.47
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       The Black Prism, p.47

           Brent Weeks
 

  There were a large number of women diffused throughout the army, carrying fresh-cut wood for the fires, standing on the butcher’s wagon, shouting at men to make sure the skinned wild javelinas were dispersed fairly, tending the minor injuries inevitable in moving thousands, taking in weapons and armor that needed repair for the blacksmiths, rejecting those that they deemed reparable by the men trying to get someone else to do it. Most of the women seemed to be in service roles, however, which either meant that King Garadul didn’t think much of women or that most were new recruits. From the wide variety of their dress, Karris guessed they came from all over the social spectrum. That meant they were newer recruits, and willing ones. These people weren’t all servants he’d brought from Kelfing; they were locals. King Garadul had significant support from the Tyrean people.

  From the glimpses out into the growing darkness punctuated by fires scattered randomly as stars, it seemed the army sprawled wherever it willed, but Karris was brought quickly to an area where perhaps fifty wagons were circled, leaving only a few avenues between them at the points of the compass where horses would be able to pass, each guarded by ten Mirrormen with matchlocks. In the middle there was an open space for defense, small falconets pointed out everywhere like a porcupine ready to fire its quills, and then a number of large striped pavilions of every color.

  A cramp caught Karris as she was ushered to the central pavilion. She hunched, breath taken away. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, and the luxin caps cut into her brows and cheeks painfully. She smoothed her expression and waited until the fury of the cramp passed. She took a slow breath, mastering the pain. Then she gestured to one of her guards, as if she were a queen and ready to enter now, thank you.

  The man pulled back the pavilion’s flap, and Karris entered.

  It must have been some dress. Because as soon as Karris stepped inside, conversation ceased.

  There were perhaps seventy people in the pavilion: slaves, tumblers, jugglers, and musicians surrounding perhaps thirty noblemen and -women seated on cushions around a lower table piled high with delicacies and wine. Everyone was colorfully dressed, so much so that Karris could tell even through the muting of her dark eye caps. King Rask Garadul sat at the head of the table, of course, rings sparkling from fingers wrapped around a wine goblet. He had stopped, midsentence, and was staring at her, openmouthed.

  But Karris barely even saw the king, because at his right hand sat a man like none she’d ever seen. She forced herself to continue walking toward the king, hips rolling, skirt swishing, head up, shoulders loose, as if she weren’t unnerved.

  The man was a Tainted, a color wight. Karris had only ever seen one, and that one had been in the early stages of his madness. This man wasn’t in the early stages, but neither did he appear mad. He wore a simple luxiat’s robe, but it was dazzling white rather than the customary black of Orholam’s luxiants, that color an admission that they needed Orholam’s light most of all. Nor did his face bear any trace of a luxiant’s humility.

  But at least his face was mostly human—skin and bone and blood. Threads of green luxin lay submerged beneath burn-scarred skin like faded tattoos, rising close to the surface at his cheekbones and brow. At his neck, his body changed. The skin was pure luxin of every color of the rainbow. The inside of his elbow, visible as he raised his wine goblet in a mocking salute to Karris, was flexible green luxin, as were his other joints and his neck. Blue luxin plates sat on every surface that didn’t need to move. It made plate armor on his forearms, formed gauntlets from his very hands, his knuckles spiked, his shoulders unnaturally broad under that blasphemous luxiant’s robe, the V of his chest visible through the robe shimmering with reflected light like the sea at sunrise. Not plates of blue luxin, then, but actually woven blue luxin, which tripled its strength and made it much less likely to shatter, if one had the skill and patience to make it.

  Everywhere, yellow luxin flowed between or beneath the other colors, constantly renewing whatever was lost to sunlight or natural breakdown. Where plates came together, lubricative orange luxin made them slide smoothly past each other. Red luxin formed archaic designs of runes and etchings of eight-pointed stars in thin layers on top of the blue plates. Karris couldn’t see if he had incorporated superviolet into his skin, but was certain he had. After all, in the middle of each palm he’d embedded a flame crystal. Flame crystals, the physical, sealed manifestation of sub-red, usually only lasted a few seconds. Exposure to air made them burst and flame out.

  This monster had somehow sunk one into each hand and sealed it from the air with blue luxin so that you could literally see through each of his hands, albeit as though through a mirage, the image wavering from the heat, which was the signature of a flame crystal. And yet he still retained the use of his fingers, meaning he was either a miracle-working healer or it was some illusion. It had to be. The whole thing was impossible.

  Karris saw his eyes last, as she came to stand before King Garadul. The Tainted’s eyes were shattered. The halo was broken everywhere. Colors leaked everywhere from the iris, staining the white of his eyes with every color. The colors themselves swirled constantly, blue coming to the fore as the Tainted studied Karris, green wriggling like a snake through a maze of orange and red.

  “You,” King Garadul said, “are a vision, Karris. A sight for sore eyes.”

  “And you’re a sore sight for eyes,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

  He laughed. “Not only more beautiful than you were as a girl, but sharper, too. Karris, join us. I have a gift for you, but first, I’d like you to meet my right hand.” He gestured to the Tainted. “Karris White Oak, meet the Crystal Prophet, the Polychrome Master, Lord Omnichrome, the Color Prince, the Eldritch Enlightened.”

  “Long name,” Karris said. “Must take your mother forever to call you to dinner.”

  “You can pick your favorite,” the Color Prince said. His voice was disconcertingly… human. Strong, confident, amused if husky like a longtime haze smoker’s.

  “The Motley Fool then.”

  Red snapped to the surface of his eyes, quickly replaced by cool, amused blue. “Now, Karris, is that the way your father taught you to speak? You used to be so concerned with pleasing him. So ladylike, so sweet. So tame for a green drafter.”

  “That ended a long time ago,” she said. “Who the hell are you? You don’t know me.”

  “Oh, but I do,” the Color Prince said. He glanced over at the king.

  “Oh, sure, go ahead, let her open her present early,” Rask Garadul said, pretending exasperation.

  “Look at me, Karris,” the Crystal Prophet said. “Take a moment. See beyond your fear, your petty disgust, your ignorance.”

  Karris bit her tongue. There was something genuine in that raspy voice, some wish to be known. So she looked, silently. The body, of course, was no help, so she studied his face. The luxin-stained skin obscured the features, as did the burn scars. One eyebrow had grown back in white, whether reacting to fire or luxin, she didn’t know. But there was something familiar.

  Orholam. The fire. The burn scars. A fist clamped tight around her heart and squeezed. She couldn’t draw a breath. It couldn’t be him, he was dead these sixteen years. But as soon as she saw it, she knew it could be no other. “Koios,” Karris said. So this was why the White had sent her. Her enemy was her brother. Her knees gave out and she sat heavily on the cushions next to the king, lest she suffer a very ladylike fainting spell.

  Chapter 68

  Gavin stopped drafting as the sun sank below the horizon. He could use the ambient reflected light if he wished, but he was already exhausted. He looked over the scrub brush plain to the south. Karris was out there, somewhere. In all likelihood, he would never see her again, never get the chance to tell her the truth. It saddened him more than he would have imagined possible.

  He turned back and studied the day’s handiwork with disappointment. He’d hoped to erect half a league of wall today, at the least. Instead, he’d laid nothing m
ore than foundation, albeit a full league of it. Surprisingly enough, it had been Aliviana Danavis who’d solved the hardest problem so far. Or maybe not surprisingly, given how smart her father was. Gavin had been walking along the trench the workers were digging, spraying yellow into it. Where there was existing wall, he’d let the yellow flow over it like water, sinking into every crack, reinforcing stone and mortar with magic. Where even the old wall’s foundation was gone, he drafted the yellow into solid luxin directly, giving the wall a foundation seven paces wide. Everywhere, he anchored the yellow to bedrock with a half-evaporated, tarry thick red luxin.

  But not only was walking slow, but as soon as the luxin reached the level of the ground, Gavin had to throw it. Like every other color, yellow had mass. It weighed about as much as water, and with the amounts that Gavin was moving, he was getting crushed. His muscles would give out far before his drafting ability. Of course, it would only get worse as the wall got taller.

  He’d begun using scaffolding, but within half an hour it was clear that that wouldn’t get the wall finished in a month, much less the five days he had.

  That was when Liv had sketched out her idea, and like most great ideas, it seemed simple, obvious—after she said it.

  Gavin laid two tracks on either side of the wall, and drafted arms to connect them. With the addition of wheels and a harness to hold him, he was able to hang suspended in the air over the wall. The wheels glided along the tracks, so instead of having to move a scaffolding every twenty paces, his scaffolding moved with him. Instead of throwing luxin, he could drop it. It took almost all the physical effort out of the project.

  By the time he’d properly drafted the harness so that he wasn’t swinging crazily every time he threw more luxin, it was late afternoon. Gavin had rolled slowly along his tracks, sealing the yellow luxin at twenty-pace intervals and laying more yellow over the sealed points. With the amount of time left before sunset, he’d focused on the brute drafting, so rather than tackle the intellectual challenges of drafting the interior of the wall, he’d decided to draft as much foundation as he could.

  He made huge progress, but it was still hard to say whether he was going to finish the whole project in time. If he finished an entire tall, impregnable wall by the time Rask Garadul’s army arrived, except for two hundred paces in the middle, the entire endeavor would be vanity.

  Gavin lowered himself to the ground. He wobbled a little as he approached Corvan Danavis, who was holding their horses. Corvan looked concerned. “Just a long time off my feet,” Gavin said.

  Corvan accepted that silently. A few blocks later as the sun was fading out of the sky, he said, “So… Karris was captured.”

  “Mm-hm,” Gavin said, not making eye contact.

  “So you’ve put all that behind you?”

  Gavin said nothing.

  “Good. I always thought she was the biggest threat to your plan. Enough reasons to hate both of you, and rash enough to tear it all down without thinking. So you’ll antagonize Rask and hope he kills her to show he’s serious?”

  “Damn you,” Gavin said.

  “Oh, not past it, then?” Corvan asked.

  He wasn’t serious about getting Karris killed. Gavin knew that. Corvan might always understand the cutthroat thing to do, but that didn’t mean he always did it.

  “So she still doesn’t know?”

  “No. That’s why I broke our betrothal.”

  “Because she was the mostly likely to see through you, or some other reason?” Corvan asked.

  “We destroyed her. Dazen burned down her home and the war took the rest. I didn’t realize she had nothing—and I should have. By the time I offered to restore her family’s fortune, it seemed like an insult. She spat on me and disappeared for a year. When she came back, she was different.”

  “I noticed. A Blackguard. An astounding achievement. But you didn’t answer my question.”

  Though it was getting darker, the streets were comfortably warm, and if anything, the crowds were getting thicker, people lighting lamps outside their own homes or shops. Others were relaxing, drinking on the flat roofs of their houses. It was almost as if doom weren’t impending.

  Gavin looked around and made sure his voice was low enough not to carry. “I’ve lied to everyone. I’ve lied so much sometimes I forget who I was. With everything my brother and I did to Karris… I couldn’t—well, shit, she’s seen us both naked, hasn’t she? If anyone would know, she would. It would be the quickest way to destroy everything.”

  “True enough, but you were going to say something else,” Corvan said, looking down at his saddle, giving Gavin that shred of privacy.

  “I thought about it, you know? How to marry her and still deceive her. Or, failing that, how to show her that she had no choice but to keep my secret. In the end, she was the one thing I wasn’t willing to defile. After I ran away, she fell in love with my brother. If she figured out the truth and decided to destroy me…” Gavin shrugged.

  Now Corvan did look him in the eye. “I don’t know whether to admire you all the more, or to be horrified that you’d be so stupid.”

  “I usually opt to admire me all the more,” Gavin said, grinning.

  Corvan gave a grudging smile, but didn’t laugh.

  They rode through the streets as quickly as they could without crushing anyone, and arrived at the Travertine Palace as darkness set in. Ironfist was standing at the gate. Uncharacteristically, he had a huge grin on his face.

  “High Lord Prism,” he said. “Dinner awaits.”

  Gavin scowled. If Ironfist was grinning, it meant something awkward, unpleasant, or vexing was coming. But he wasn’t going to ask. With that grin, Ironfist would just grin bigger and enjoy being mysterious. Fine. Gavin started walking toward the private dining hall.

  “High Lord,” Ironfist interjected. “The great hall.”

  It was only a few steps away. Gavin barely had time to think why they might possibly need the great hall for dinner before he was inside the antechamber to the great domed hall.

  The great hall of the Travertine Palace, though perhaps only a third the size of the Chromeria’s great hall, was one of the wonders of the old world. The doorways were enormous bulbous horseshoe arches, striped green and white, speaking of the days when half of Tyrea had been a Parian province. Travertine and white marble alternated everywhere: in the chessboard pattern of the floor, in intricate geometric shapes on the walls, and in old Parian runes that decorated the bases of the eight great wooden pillars that supported the ceiling, their layout an eight-pointed star. Each pillar was a full five paces thick—atasifusta, the widest trees in the world—and none narrowed perceptibly before reaching the ceiling. The wood was said to have been the gift of an Atashian king, five hundred years before. Even then it had been precious. Now they were extinct, the last grove cut down during the Prisms’ War. Gavin had never found out who had done that. When he arrived in Ru, the grove was simply gone. His commanders—Dazen’s commanders—had sworn the last trees were standing when they left the city. Gavin’s commanders after the war had sworn the trees were gone when they arrived.

  What made the atasifusta unique was that its sap had properties like concentrated red luxin. The trees took a hundred years to reach full size—these giants had been several hundreds of years old when they’d been cut. But after they reached maturity, holes could be drilled in the trunk, and if the tree was large enough, the sap would drain slowly enough to feed flames. These eight giants each bore a hundred twenty-seven holes, the number apparently significant once, but that significance lost. On first look, it appeared that the trees were aflame, but the flame was constant and never consumed the wood, which was ghostly ivory white aside from the blackened soot smudges above each flame hole. Gavin knew that the flames couldn’t be truly eternal, but after allegedly burning day and night for five hundred years, these atasifustas’ flames gave little indication of going out anytime soon. Perhaps the flames nearer the top were a little duller than t
hose lower as the sap settled in the wood, but Gavin wouldn’t have bet on it.

  When the wood wasn’t mature, it made incredible firewood. A bundle that a man could carry in his arms would warm a small hut all winter. No wonder it was extinct.

  No torches were necessary in the great hall, of course, but outside the stained glass windows, each also a horseshoe arch, torches burned so that the colored glass would glow day or night, white or green or red.

  Again, the colors, the shape itself, all were meaningful to the people who’d built this wonder, and Gavin had no idea what any of it meant. It gave him a sense of insignificance. He didn’t think anything he made would survive five hundred years after he was gone. Indeed, it was mostly luck that his brother Gavin hadn’t razed this very wonder when he’d destroyed this city.

  As Gavin walked in, his eyes were pulled from the majesty of those atasifusta pillars to the men and women seated at the great table, every face turned toward him. He was distracted briefly as he stepped past twin shadows flanking the halls. His head snapped to the side, expecting an assassin. No, it was a Blackguard. One on either side of the doorway, and dozens more around the hall, all of them familiar to him. Blackguards? Here?

  Oh, the ships of those to be Freed have come. Ironfist must have commanded all these Blackguards to come along.

  His eyes returned to the table. There were at least two hundred drafters waiting for him. A small class, as the White had told him. What she hadn’t told him was who was in this class. Gavin knew all of them by face, and most of them by name. He recognized Izem Red and Izem Blue, Samila Sayeh, Maros Orlos, the discontiguous bichrome Usef Tep whom they called the Purple Bear, Deedee Falling Leaf, the Parian sisters Tala and Tayri, Javid Arash, Talon Gim, Eleleph Corzin, Bas the Simple, Dalos Temnos the Younger, Usem the Wild, Evi Grass, Flamehands, and Odess Carvingen. Everywhere he looked, heroes from the Prisms’ War, from both sides. These were some of the most talented drafters in the Seven Satrapies, and they represented every single one of the Seven Satrapies too, even the Ilytians were represented, albeit only by Flamehands, and Eleleph Corzin was Abornean.

 
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