The black prism, p.50
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       The Black Prism, p.50

           Brent Weeks
 

  The fire was burning once more, much smaller, the heat of the coals slowly returning the wood to flame, illuminating the wagons and the faces of the fearful crowd gathering to see what had happened.

  In the light of the lanterns and torches and the reawakening fire, Kip saw the scene with sane eyes. Scores of people were staring at him from a wide circle around the fire, all looking ready to bolt. There were bodies strewn about: the four men who’d tried to throw him in the fire were dead, one a charred meaty skeleton, the others with holes the size of Kip’s hand in their backs.

  Somehow, the others were worse. The man Kip had doused with grain alcohol had skin sloughing off his face and chest and knife wounds all over his arms and body. He lay moaning softly, a few tufts of hair still protruding from his burnt scalp. The fat woman lay next to him, openly weeping. The flaming man must have run headfirst into her, because her face was scorched, blistered on the right side, her eyebrow gone, her hair melted back halfway up her head, and somehow her own knife had been plunged to the hilt low into her right side. Blood dribbled down her cheek. The man Kip had flung into the fire was the worst, though. He’d caught the spit to stop himself, and only his head had dropped into the fire, falling directly onto the hottest coals.

  He’d dragged himself out of the fire, and by some dark miracle he was still alive and still conscious. He was crying softly, as if even weeping hurt, but he couldn’t stop. He’d rolled over, exposing the burnt side of his head. His skin hadn’t just sloughed off—it had stuck to the coals like burnt chicken sticking to a pan. His cheekbone was exposed, his cheek burned through, exposing teeth now washed red with coursing blood as he wept, his eye burnt a chalky white.

  The only one who might survive was the bearded man whose teeth Kip had smashed. He was unconscious, but so far as Kip could see, still alive.

  Kip tottered toward his horse, unfeeling. He didn’t have a plan. He just had to get away. He was so ashamed. He got all the way to the beast before he saw the soldiers. They had surrounded the camp, but were staying back in the crowd. Kip looked at one of the soldiers who was mounted, an officer, he guessed.

  “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t let you leave,” the officer said. “One of the Free will be along for you shortly.”

  “They attacked me,” Kip said, exhausted. “Tried to rob me. I… I didn’t mean…” He leaned against the horse. Stupid beast hadn’t run away. Oh, it didn’t have a line of sight, and it had been tied up so it couldn’t leave if it wanted to. Still, he would have expected it to be going crazy. Instead, it stood, placid as ever. Kip leaned against it.

  With his left hand. Orholam. The skin cracked and tore open and started bleeding at every joint. Kip gave a little cry. But even the thought of his own agony dragged his eyes back to the fire, to the people he’d killed, and those who weren’t dead yet but would be. His heart felt wooden, like he should feel more, but he just couldn’t.

  Looking back, though, he saw a young man moving among the bodies, checking them. The young man—no, boy, for he couldn’t have been more than sixteen despite his splendid clothing—was pulling white fawnskin gloves off his hands. Large hooked nose, light brown skin, dark eyes, dark unruly hair. Over his white shirt, his forearms were covered with multicolored vambraces with five thick bands of color against a white background. His cloak echoed the pattern, from a band outlined in black that looked fuzzy—sub-red?—to red to orange to yellow to green. There was no blue or superviolet. It didn’t take a genius to guess he was a polychrome.

  But that wasn’t what arrested Kip’s attention. Out of all the thousands of people in this camp, and out of the hundreds of drafters they must have, Kip recognized this one. He’d been part of the force that massacred Rekton. He’d personally tried to kill Kip at the water market. Zymun, the boy’s master had called him. Kip’s heart plummeted like a child jumping off a waterfall.

  Zymun put on a pair of green spectacles. “Hello, firefriend,” he said. “Welcome to our war. I assume you’ve come to join the Free?”

  “Right,” Kip said, finding his voice. The Free?

  Emerald smoke swirled down into Zymun’s hands. “Just so you know,” he said, “you can kill who you must—though Lord Omnichrome prefers it not be so indiscriminate—but when you do, please clean up your messes.” He swept his arms in a martial circle, slowly, bending his knees, giving the impression of gathering energy. Then his hands snapped across each other, flashed out. Pa-pop, pa-pop. Four spikes of green luxin, each as long as a finger, shot out in two volleys. Around the fire, almost simultaneously, four heads burst open with wet splatters. The wounded. Their moans stopped instantly.

  Kip goggled.

  Zymun looked pleased with himself. He folded his green spectacles and tucked them in a pocket.

  He’s showing off. He’s showing off by killing people.

  Zymun frowned suddenly as Kip stepped close. “What’s your name?”

  “Kip,” Kip said, before thinking that it might be a poor choice to use his real name.

  “Kip, you have a tooth in your head.”

  Huh? Kip showed his teeth and pointed. “Actually, I have all my teeth in my head.” Play it like you don’t want to throw up, Kip. Push through this.

  “No, not your tooth,” Zymun said. He gestured to his own scalp like he was being a mirror.

  Kip reached up and, sure enough, there was a tooth sticking in his scalp. What the hell? He pulled it out, wincing, and fresh blood dribbled down his face.

  “Hmm,” Zymun said. “Maybe we’ll take you by the chirurgeons first and get you looked at.”

  “First?” Kip asked.

  “Yes, of course. Lord Omnichrome insists on meeting all of our drafters. Even the sloppy ones.”

  Chapter 71

  As darkness fell over the vast host, Liv wandered through campsites, becoming more and more aware that she was alone and female, surrounded by rough men. Lots of rough men. Men who were laughing too loud, drinking too much, afraid of the coming battle. And if being Tyrean had made her an outcast and studiously ignored back at the Chromeria, here she had no such protection. Most of the men looked at her subtly enough that if she hadn’t been so intensely aware of being alone and not wanting to be looked at, she would never have noticed it. Others stared at her so blatantly that she checked her neckline. Nope, it was quite modest.

  Just a few jackasses who’ve been away from their wives for too long.

  She was practically starving, and though she didn’t want to stop at any campfire, it was the only way to get not only food, but information.

  Liv picked a campfire with some kind-looking farmers huddled around a pot of stew. She couldn’t see everyone before she entered the circle, of course, but a few of them looked kind, and it was the best she could do.

  “Good evening,” she said, a little more cheerily than she felt. “I’d give half a danar for some stew. You have any extra?”

  Eight heads swiveled toward her. An older man spoke. “It’s a mite thin to call it a stew. One rabbit, a couple tubers, and the leavings of a javelina leg between nine mouths.” He smiled, self-effacing. “But Mori did find a grapefruit tree the soldiers missed somehow.”

  Feeling reassured, Liv came closer. The man looked at her eyes, blinked, and said, “If you’re getting hassled, you should put on your spectacles, young lady.”

  “Hassled? Why would you think that?” Liv asked. “And it’s Liv, thank you.”

  “You look as skittish as a deer at a watering hole, that’s why.” He handed her a tin cup of broth with a few chunks. He waved off her attempt to pay him. She ate the thin stew and the small, underripe grapefruit they gave her, and mostly sat and watched.

  After a time, the men returned to their talk of war and weather and crops they hadn’t bothered to plant this year, citrus trees they hadn’t bothered to prune because if they bore more fruit, it only meant the bandits would spend longer close to their village. They weren’t bad men. In fact, they seemed quite decent. They had their c
omplaints about King Garadul, and one muttered darkly about a “Lord Omnichrome” before remembering that a drafter was present, but they reserved their hatred for their occupiers.

  The nuances of the rotating rule of Garriston were lost on them. They didn’t differentiate between the better and worse occupiers. They hated them all. One had lost his daughter a number of years before when a patrol had passed through their village and an officer had simply taken her. He’d gone to Garriston afterward to try to find her, but never did. The others had come partly for their friend, partly because they had nothing else to do and taking a city might drop a few coins into their hands, and partly because they hated the outlanders.

  And so men will die and kill for an offense ten years old, committed by some other country.

  There was no point reasoning with them, even if Liv had cared to. Fools who could be our friends at some other time, her father had said. After she finished eating, she put on her yellow spectacles, drafted a few luxin torches that would last for a few days to thank them for the soup and the fruit, asked directions to where the drafters were camped, and then headed out.

  No one bothered her on her way. Once a man called out to her as she passed, but the comment dried up on his lips as he saw her colored spectacles—even now, in the darkness, they respected drafters.

  The drafters’ tents were separate from everyone else’s—not because they were guarded or staked off, but evidently no one wanted to camp too close to them. Liv slipped her spectacles off, but kept them in hand, in case someone challenged her.

  She moved past a wagon surrounded by Mirrormen and painted all violet—odd, but she didn’t slow, she moved with purpose, as if she had orders. It was a trick she’d learned in the Chromeria. If you stood around, some full drafter would find something for you to do. If you looked busy, you could get away with almost anything.

  She passed a number of fires with drafters being served a lavish dinner by cooks and wine or ales by a large number of slaves. The drafters all wore their colors on their wrists in either cloth or metal vambraces or in large bracelets for some of the women. The hem of their cloaks or dresses also echoed the color. Other than that, everyone wore his own style. In general, though, these drafters were much more interested in loudly proclaiming their colors in broad swathes across their clothes than was common at the Chromeria, where a woman might have a single green hairpin to let others know she was a green.

  They were a raucous, privileged group, but as Liv watched from the shadows, she saw that the men and women here often glanced to the south—not to the huge pavilion guarded by drafters and Mirrormen alike that Liv assumed was King Garadul’s residence, but to another set of bonfires. She grabbed a pitcher of wine from one of the slaves’ tables and headed over. In the dark, her own apparel didn’t look too different from the slaves’.

  What she saw, beyond the forms of the slaves, took her breath away. People—or monsters shaped like people—were talking, drinking, cavorting, drafting.

  Nearest to Liv, a circle of blue drafters, half of them wearing blue spectacles, and all filled with blue luxin, tinting their skin in the firelight, were talking with a woman who seemed made of crystal.

  For long moments, Liv had no idea what she was seeing. They were drafters, though, obviously, and there was luxin everywhere. Oathbreakers. The mad. The broken. Color wights. Liv could barely take it in.

  These were people who’d violated everything Liv had been taught. She caught only fractured details. A broken-haloed eye. The crystalline woman drafting a matrix in the air as the other blues listened. Greens laughing, dancing around one fire, bouncing on unnaturally springy legs, jumping higher than any man Liv had ever seen, doing flips and backflips over each other. A man and a woman, skin permanently green but not yet transformed, were standing, holding each other, grinding their hips together, dancing in a manner so lascivious that—wait, no, the woman’s skirt was bunched around her waist. In full view of everyone, including some cheering drafters, they were actually—

  Liv tore her eyes away, her cheeks suddenly hot. A yellow was tossing little luxin balls into the air while a blue shot blue bullets at them, each little target exploding in a flash of light when he connected.

  But Liv’s eyes were drawn to the full color wights. Even here, there weren’t many. She’d only heard rumors about such things at the Chromeria. They said almost everyone who broke their halo simply went mad and died—or went mad and killed others, more often. That danger was what made the Pact necessary. Orholam made magic to serve men, and a drafter swore to serve her community. Oathbreakers served only themselves, and they endangered everyone.

  But there were always the legends of those who remade themselves. Now, here, Liv was seeing that they weren’t wild tales. Now, here, these drafters were teaching each other how to do it. Liv looked at the crystal blue woman. She was oddly beautiful. Crystal hair, and diamond-shaped eye caps close over her eyes, flawed crystal skin, broken into a thousand facets, covering every natural curve of her body. She’d conquered the problem of how to deal with drafting hard, unbending blue luxin onto a body that had to be able to move and to bend by making thousands—tens of thousands—of small crystals. Her body glimmered, shimmered, coruscated in the firelight as she shifted her upper body like a dancer to show her disciples what she’d done. She laughed, showing strangely white teeth against those gleaming blue lips. Then she shifted suddenly into a fighting stance, spiky guards springing up along the edges of her forearms, and plates of blue luxin congealing over her skin to make armor.

  Shit!

  “Hey, caleen! I said wine!” a voice said.

  Liv turned and found herself face-to-face with a man with hideous burn scars all over his body. A sub-red, with the odd shimmering of fire crystal broken through his halos. He held out a glass to Liv, and she filled it with wine, trembling, averting her own eyes until he looked away. The man held a haze pipe in one hand, and there were fresh burns all along his skin. As Liv looked, she realized the burns were deliberate. He was trying to scar all of his skin deeply enough to lose feeling in it. Until then, he was deadening himself to the pain any way he could.

  It had to be incredibly dangerous to even be in close proximity to a mad fire drafter. He couldn’t control himself normally, and now he was drunk and high on haze.

  The man had barely left when Liv saw a gout of flame blast into the night sky a few hundred yards away. She stopped, and so did a few of the color wights, nudging those around them and pointing.

  Whatever it had been, the drafter who’d done it had been powerful. That was a lot of fire to throw into the night. Where had he gotten the light to do that? From one of the bonfires?

  Then it happened again, fire painting the sky for several seconds. Liv felt her throat tighten with fear. Kip! No, that was ridiculous. Kip was green/blue. Fire, sub-red, was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It couldn’t be Kip. The color wights just laughed, as if it were one of their own out there, having fun.

  Orholam, Kip could be getting killed out there in the night. Liv needed to go.

  She turned and headed out of camp. She almost ran into a dozen Mirrormen who were escorting a woman clad in a gorgeous black dress and wearing violet eye caps out of the king’s pavilion. Liv stopped. Karris.

  They hustled past, but Liv had no doubt where they were going. Karris was being held in that odd violet wagon she’d seen, held captive. Liv should have figured it out earlier.

  Still, any elation Liv had felt about finding Karris—actually finding her, on the first day, in a camp of maybe a hundred thousand souls if not more—was quashed by her fear for Kip.

  When she got out of the drafters’ area, she put on her yellow spectacles. No one bothered her. She arrived at the place she and Kip had agreed to meet just in time, but he wasn’t there. He never came.

  The next day, she learned a heavy boy with Tyrean skin and blue eyes had been attacked and had killed five men—or ten or twenty, or five women too, depending on the ru
mor—and then thrown fire into the air. He’d been taken away by drafters and Mirrormen. Despite the impossibilities—Kip couldn’t draft sub-red—her intuition confirmed it. It had been Kip. She was sure. Someone had drafted fire, someone else had killed those people, and Kip had been taken.

  She searched for him for two days. She found nothing.

  Chapter 72

  As the sun dragged its feet toward the horizon, Gavin gave the signal, and the teamsters’ whips cracked. The draft horses surged forward. Their leads drew taut, and the ropes connected to the great yellow luxin supports strained for a moment. Then the supports fell, the great straining mass of the horses snatching them away from the dropping wall.

  The final layer of yellow luxin hit the ground with a boom, shaking the earth. Gavin quickly moved to inspect that everything had gone according to plan.

  “One league out!” Corvan called. He was standing on top of the wall, looking out toward King Garadul’s vast army.

  “Shit!”

  “Here, Lord Prism!” one of the engineers called.

  Gavin hurried over. The last of many big problems he’d run into in crafting a wall almost entirely of yellow luxin was that all the luxin had to be sealed. The seal was always the weakest point. If you could melt through that one area—no mean feat, but still—the whole structure would unravel. That his wall was made in sections just meant that each section had multiple seals. If any section failed, it would be catastrophic—an entire section of wall, fifty paces across, would splash into liquid light in moments.

  It was probably the reason no one before Gavin had been idiot enough to make an entire wall of yellow luxin.

  The solution had been simplicity itself: two layers of luxin, each protecting the other, the seals to the inside. That part was common enough among drafters, but the seal was always the last thing you touched. So you couldn’t really tuck it inside, not on something as big as a wall. You could protect one seal by covering it with more luxin and sealing that, but one seal would always be external. Most drafters would have covered the seal and covered that seal and covered that one and left it at that.

 

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