The black prism, p.49
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       The Black Prism, p.49
 

           Brent Weeks

  Most of the camp was chaotic, people pitching lean-tos against wagons, those who had tents screaming at each other over who got which spot, children running around, clogging the spaces between tents and wagons and livestock. The sky was still light, though the sun had gone down, and campfires were being started all over the plain. Kip could hear people singing nearby. Men were swimming and bathing in the river, downstream of where some soldiers had hastily erected a corral. The animals dirtied the water, but no one seemed to care. Other men stood on the bank, urinating directly into the water. The color of the river upstream and downstream of the camp was distinctly different. People were carrying buckets of water everywhere, taken directly from the river.

  Maybe I’ll only drink wine.

  More importantly, the smell of meat cooking permeated the air.

  Kip’s stomach complained. They’d gone through his food faster than he’d thought—mostly, he had gone through it faster—and now he had nothing. Well, except for a stick of danars I stole with half a year’s wages on it.

  Oh. That.

  “We split up,” Liv said. “You head directly for the center of the camp. I imagine that’s where the king will have his tents. She’s important, so they might be keeping her close. I’ll go look for where the drafters are camping. A captured drafter will probably be watched by other drafters. She’s got to be in one place or the other. We’ll meet back here in, say, three hours?”

  Kip nodded his acquiescence, impressed. He would have been lost on his own.

  And almost instantly, she slipped off the horse and was gone. No hesitation, no second-guessing. Kip watched her go. He was hungry.

  Leading the big, docile horse, tugging and pulling the beast as it tried to munch grass to the right and left, Kip approached at one of the larger fires. Not one but two javelinas were roasting on spits over the fire, and as Kip stared, swallowing, one of the fattest women he had ever seen sawed off a fully cooked leg with a few deft strokes at the joint. The smell was rich, succulent, savory, mouthwatering, lovely, astounding, mesmerizing, debilitating. Kip couldn’t move—until he saw her raise the meat to her lips.

  “Pardon me!” he said, louder than he meant. Others around the fire looked up.

  “Didn’t smell it,” the fat lady said, then she sank her teeth into greasy ham. Kip died a little. Then more as the hard men and women around the fire laughed at him. The fat woman, leg in one hand, long knife in the other, grinned between bites. She had at least three chins, her facial features disappearing into the fat that encased her like an awkward child surrounded by a crowd of bullies. Her linen skirt could have served as a tent. Literally. She turned away from Kip, slipping the knife back into a sheath and putting her hand back to turning the spit. Her butt was more than a jiggly haunch; it was architecture.

  “Pardon me,” Kip said, recovering. “I was wondering if I could buy some dinner. I’ve got money.”

  Ears perked up all around the fire at that. Kip wondered suddenly if he’d picked a good fire to stop at. Were the men everywhere in the camp as scruffy as these ones?

  Kip looked around. Uh, yes, actually they were.

  Oh shit.

  He fumbled with the leather money belt holding the stick of tin danars. He’d grabbed the money belt because it already had money in it and would be easier to transport than loose coins. The stick was a great way to carry money. Cut square to fit the square hole in the middle of danars, and of uniform length so people could rapidly count their own money—scales were still used to count others’ money, of course—it was convenient and kept your money from jangling at every step as they did in a purse. Plus the sticks could be bound in leather for attaching to a belt or hiding inside of clothes, as Kip’s was. He’d seen the gleam of this stick and grabbed it.

  But as Kip pulled the open end of the money stick out to pull off one tin danar coin, he saw something was very wrong. He froze. The weight had been right, or at least close enough that he hadn’t thought about it, but the coin he pulled out wasn’t tin. A danar was about what a worker would make for a day’s labor. An unskilled labor like his mother would only make half a danar a day. He’d assumed the stick he grabbed was full of the tin coins, each worth eight danars.

  Instead, he’d grabbed a stick of silver quintars. Slightly wider in circumference, but only half as thick, and the metal slightly lighter than tin, the silver coins were worth twenty danars each. A stick of silver quintars held fifty of the coins, twice as many as the twenty-five tin coins that would fit on the same stick. So instead of stealing two hundred danars from the Travertine Palace—an already princely sum—Kip had stolen a thousand. And he’d just pulled out one right in front of everyone, making it clear he had more.

  Conversation ceased. In the dancing light of the fire, more than a few eyes gleamed like wolves’.

  Kip tucked the rest of the money belt away, praying no one had seen how full it was. What did it matter? His life might be worth less than even the one silver quintar. “I’ll take the other leg,” he said.

  The fat woman let go of the spit and reached her hand out.

  “I’ll need nineteen danars back,” Kip said. A full day’s wages should be more than three times what the javelina leg cost.

  She chortled. “We run a charity house here, we do. Look like luxiats, huh? Ten.”

  “Ten danars, for a meal?” Kip asked, not believing she was serious.

  “You can go hungry if you wanna. You ain’t gonna starve,” the woman said.

  The injustice of this whale calling him fat and the impossibility of doing much about it paralyzed Kip. He gritted his teeth, glaring around the fire, and handed over the quintar.

  The leviathan took the quintar and held it between her teeth, bending it slightly. If it were a counterfeit, tin coated with silver, it would give the curious crackling sound unique to bending tin. Satisfied between the weight and the texture that it was real, she tucked the coin away. She took a swig from a glass jug, set it down, and then sawed a leg off the javelina. While she was working, Kip noticed that some of the men around the fire had disappeared.

  No doubt he was going to find them in the spreading darkness, waiting for him. Orholam, they had seen the rest of the stick.

  Nor were the remaining men and women looking at him in a terribly friendly manner. They sat on their bags, on stumps, or on the ground, mostly watching him quietly. A few drank from wineskins or aleskins, murmuring to each other. A glassy-eyed woman was lying with her head in a long-haired, balding, unshaven man’s lap, stroking his thigh. Both were staring at him.

  The whale handed Kip the javelina leg.

  Kip looked at her, waiting.

  She stared blandly back at him from beneath her layers of blubber.

  A few weeks ago, Kip would have backed off. He was used to people treating him like dirt. Ignoring him or bullying him. But he couldn’t imagine Gavin Guile being bullied, not even when the odds were stacked against him. Kip might be a bastard, but if had one drop of the Prism’s blood, there was no way he could knuckle under. “I need my ten danars,” Kip said.

  The drunk woman across the fire laughed suddenly, uncontrollably, until she started snorting and laughing harder. Not just drunk, then.

  “Do I look rich enough to have ten danars?” the whale asked.

  “You can cut that danar in half.”

  She drew her knife and shrugged, stepping close to Kip. She reeked of grain alcohol. “Sorry, got no knife.”

  Kip understood instantly. Several of the men were sitting up, not only paying more attention, but getting ready to hop to their feet. They weren’t waiting only to laugh at him, knowing this whale would cheat him. They were waiting, knowing the whale would cheat him, to see if he was a victim. Would Kip meekly accept being cheated? If he was a victim, he was a mark. If he had one quintar, he might have more.

  But what could he do? Give back the food? No, she wouldn’t give him the quintar back regardless. If he left, he’d confirm his weakness. Someone would
be waiting for him in the darkness. What would they do if he attacked her? If, without warning, he punched her in her blubbery face as hard as he could?

  They’d attack him, of course. And after they beat him, then they’d rob him.

  If he ran away, even if he got away, he’d lose his horse, and he had too much trouble mounting the beast to leap into the saddle and ride away—even if it hadn’t been the most placid creature on earth, unlikely to gallop even with hell on its heels.

  “Fine,” Kip said. He turned as if to go, but instead grabbed her glass jug. “I’d like to have a drink with dinner. You keep the rest. For the great service.” He smelled the jug. As he thought, it was grain alcohol. He took a swig to look tough and had to school his face to stillness when it set his mouth on fire. Then his throat. Then his stomach.

  The men who’d been shifting to get up settled back down.

  “Mind if I sleep here tonight?” Kip asked.

  “It’ll cost you,” the man who was balding up front and had hair halfway down his back said.

  “Sure,” Kip said. He wasn’t nearly as hungry as he’d been a few minutes ago, but he forced himself to eat the greasy javelina leg. As the rest of the javelina cooked, the other men and women came and took slices.

  As Kip finished, he sucked his fingers and walked toward his horse. He got far enough that he began to hope that they would simply let him leave.

  “What are you doing?” the balding man demanded.

  “I need to rub down my horse,” Kip said. “It’s been a long day.”

  “You don’t need to go anywhere, and I don’t want you near my horse.”

  “Your horse,” Kip said.

  “That’s right.” The man bared blackened teeth at Kip—not quite a smile, not quite like he was going to bite him—and drew a knife.

  “We’ll be needing that coin belt, too,” another man said.

  The women around the fire simply watched, impassive. No one moved to help. Several other men joined the two already facing Kip. Kip looked into the darkness, his vision spoiled by the fire, but still he could see several dark shapes waiting for him.

  Give them what you have, and maybe you’ll escape with a beating, Kip. You know you’re not getting out of here with everything. Stall for time, maybe there’s some kind of camp guards here who might save you.

  “Evernight take you,” Kip said. He smashed the top off the jug of grain alcohol on the edge of a wagon wheel.

  “Fool boy,” the balding man said. “Most people keep the handle if they do that, not smash it off.”

  Kip lunged, splashing grain alcohol over the man. The balding man grimaced, rubbing stinging eyes, switching his knife to his left hand. “You know what? I’m going to kill you for that,” he said.

  With a yell, Kip charged.

  It was the last thing the man expected. He was still rubbing his eyes. He raised an arm to fend off a blow, but Kip dove at his stomach, past the knife, spearing the top of his head into the man’s gut. With a whoof! the man staggered backward and tripped right at the edge of the fire.

  For a moment, nothing happened. Then the grain alcohol on his hands ignited. He lifted his hand with a yell, and his hair ignited. His beard ignited. His face. His yells pitched to tortured screams.

  Kip bolted, straight past the flaming man.

  No one moved for a blessed moment. Then someone dove for him, missing his body but clipping his heel. Kip went down heavily.

  He hadn’t even gotten three paces from the fire.

  Some run, Porky.

  He rolled over in time to see the flaming man, still screaming, run straight into the fat woman. She shrieked, an oddly shrill sound to come from such a big woman, and started whacking at him with her big knife.

  Then three men were on Kip, the fire behind them making them huge grotesque shadows. A kick caught Kip in the shoulder, then one from the other side hit his kidney. Pain lanced through him, taking his breath away. He curled into a ball.

  Kicks rained on his back and legs. One of the men was leaning over him, punching his hip, his leg, trying to hit him in the crotch. Someone stomped on his head. It was a glancing blow, but it caught his nose. Hot blood exploded over his face and his head caromed off the dirt.

  Only a single thought won through the fog suddenly wreathing Kip’s brain. They’re going to kill me. This wasn’t going to be punishment. It was murder.

  So be it. They’ll have to kill me on my feet. He struggled to all fours.

  That opened his ribs to attack and a kick hammered his side. He absorbed it with a groan.

  Three grown men, attacking a boy who’d done nothing to them. Something about the injustice of it tapped an iron reserve of will. No, not only three now. More had joined. But the additional numbers only infuriated Kip further. He hunched into his own bulk, gathering his strength, tucking his head between his shoulders. Burn in hell, I can take it.

  With an inhuman roar, a sound like Kip had never heard, a sound he didn’t even know he was capable of, he shot to his feet, taking a wide stance. The suddenness of his movement seemed amplified by his previous slowness.

  Bellowing, bleeding, with his yell he sprayed blood into the face of a man who’d been running forward to kick him. Kip was like a cave bear, suddenly standing on its hind legs. The man’s eyes went wide.

  Kip grabbed the man’s shirt and pulled, spinning, screaming, and hurling him the only direction that wasn’t blocked by bodies.

  Into the fire.

  The man saw where he was headed. He grabbed for the spit arcing over the fire to catch himself, missed, caught it with his elbow instead. It spun him sideways into the fire, his head dropping right into the heart of the flames, the spit collapsing.

  Kip didn’t watch, didn’t listen to the new screams. Someone hit him in the stomach. Ordinarily the blow would have folded him in half. But now the pain didn’t matter. He found his attacker—a big, bearded man easily a foot taller than him, looking at him like he was stunned the boy hadn’t fallen. Kip grabbed the man’s beard and yanked it down toward him as hard as he could. At the same time, he lunged forward, head like a ram. The big man’s face crunched as they collided. He went down in a spray of blood and flying teeth.

  Something like hope glimmered through Kip’s rage. He turned again, looking for another victim just as something cracked across his head.

  Kip went down. He wasn’t even aware of falling. He was just on the ground, staring up at another grinning ghoul of a man carrying a piece of firewood in his hand. Behind that man were four others. Four? Still? Between the tears and the dizziness, Kip wasn’t even sure he was counting right.

  He clambered to all fours again, and promptly fell over, spots exploding in front of his eyes. He had no balance.

  “Throw him in the fire!” someone yelled.

  There were other words, but Kip couldn’t sort them out. The next thing he knew, he was being lifted, one man taking each limb. He was facedown. The heat of the fire beat at the top of his head, his face.

  The men stopped. “Don’t push us in, you assholes!” one of the men at the front said.

  “On three!”

  “Orholam, he’s big.”

  “Don’t have to throw him far.”

  “Gonna sizzle like bacon in the pan, ain’t he?”

  “One!”

  Kip swung a little over the fire, close enough that he swore his eyebrows curled from the heat. Fear strangled him. The dizziness disappeared.

  He swung back away from the fire.

  “Two!”

  Enough. The odds were just too bad. I tried. What do I have to fear when I have nothing to lose? I despise myself. So what if I die? A little pain, so what? Then the pain’s gone forever. Then oblivion.

  Kip swung farther over the fire, closing his eyes, welcoming the heat. His eyebrows and eyelashes melted. The fire licked his face like a cat.

  A Guile wouldn’t give up. They accepted you, Kip. Expected you to pull your weight. Gavin, Ironfist, Liv, they
let you belong for the first time in your life. And you’re going to disappoint them?

  And like that, the fear was gone. No.

  They swung him back away from the fire; one last time. Four men. Four Ramirs. Four of his mother, treating him like shit and expecting him to take it.

  Hell no. The sudden, implacable heat of Kip’s hatred matched the heat of the fire.

  “Three!”

  The men swung him forward.

  Kip kept his eyes open and felt them go wide—but not with fear, fear was gone. His eyes widened at the sight of the fire like a lover’s eyes widen at the sight of his beloved. Yes, beautiful. Yes, mine.

  A rushing sound like a mighty wind roared out of nowhere. The fire deformed, leapt toward Kip—into Kip. And disappeared. The entire fire went out in an instant, plunging the camp into darkness.

  The men dropped Kip with a shout.

  And Kip barely noticed.

  He’d fallen among the embers. He caught himself with his left hand, and heard a sizzle as his hand closed around a burning faggot. Though he’d sucked up the whole fire, the embers were still red-hot.

  And Kip barely noticed. Rage was a sea and he merely floating in it. He wasn’t himself, wasn’t aware of a self. There were only those he hated, who must be struck down.

  He screamed, throwing a hand heavenward. Heat gushed out, becoming fire a foot away from his hand, painting the sky blue, yellow, orange, and red. He stood, heat roaring through his veins. Unbearable heat. Despite the darkness, he could see the men who’d been holding him clearly. He saw their warmth. One had tripped and was staring at him, openmouthed.

  Kip flung a hand at him. Fire enveloped the man from head to foot.

  The others fled.

  Kip threw his left hand toward one. He felt skin crack as he opened that hand, but the pain was a distant echo. He aimed with his right hand, too. Pop, pop, pop. Three fireballs, each the size of his hand, flew into the night, almost pushing him back into the fire with the recoil. But each found its target, burying itself in a man’s back, gutting him with fire, cooking him from inside even as he fell.

  Falling to his knees, still hot, so hot, so overwhelmed, Kip raised his hands once more. Fire poured into the sky from both hands, even his crippled left hand. Then his vision returned to normal. He heaved deep breaths, like some demon had just released him, leaving him empty, hollow, part of his humanity burnt away.

 
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