The black prism, p.53
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       The Black Prism, p.53
 

           Brent Weeks

  The thought made Liv feel better. If her father had chosen to make his stand elsewhere, then he surely wouldn’t have been in danger today. The idea that he might have fought and died less than a league away and that she hadn’t had so much as a sick intuition was too terrible to entertain. She’d been so caught up in looking for Kip that she hadn’t even realized they were this close to the city.

  But all thoughts and worries and distractions faded as she pushed through the crowds lined up looking at the wall. No one went within fifty paces of it. As Liv finally pushed to the front, she saw why. An enormous spider, larger than a man, had strung up a dozen corpses—no, not corpses, at least one of the web-wrapped bundles was struggling. As Liv watched, the man tore his head free, his hands bound tight up against his chest. Upside down, the man wriggled, trying to free his arm, setting himself swinging gently. The spider didn’t notice as it tended to another bundle ten paces away.

  Liv saw a sword stuck in the ground not far from the man. He tore his right arm free and began clawing at the rest of the webs holding him, but couldn’t rip them open. Then he saw the sword. He swung, reaching for it. Didn’t quite reach it.

  “Orholam save him!” someone breathed in the crowd.

  “Look at the spider!”

  The spider had frozen as if it heard something. Then it turned, just as the man swung farther. It turned, eyes glowing a sickly green.

  The man’s hands closed on the sword hilt just as the spider pounced. He swung, missed, and the spider’s jaws closed on his neck. For one terrible instant the man’s entire body tensed, face contorting in pain. Then those awful jaws scissored together, and his head fell to the ground and rolled. His free arm—still holding the sword—spasmed for several long moments as blood gushed out of his neck onto the ground. Then he dropped the sword. It speared into the ground, right where he’d left it.

  The spider latched onto his bleeding neck and began feeding.

  Liv heard someone retch. Others muttered prayers and curses.

  She was transfixed, as was everyone else. Eventually, the spider pushed the man’s arm back against his chest and wrapped him in webs once more. Then it picked up his head and put it back with his body.

  While the spider was fixing the webs, wrapping the man’s head back in place, one of the other bundles began moving.

  “I been watching for two hours,” a man next to Liv said. “They don’t none of them get away. This fella gets about thirty paces before she rips out his guts. Them two try to fight her together. It’s the same every time. I know it, but I can’t stop watching.”

  The same every time? Liv looked back to the first man and position of the sword below him. It was the same as before—exactly the same. The blood that that pooled beneath his severed head had slowly receded to nothingness. This wasn’t a murder; it was a mummer’s show. Which actually didn’t make it any less impressive.

  “What are you doing?” someone called out behind Liv.

  She hadn’t even realized she was walking forward, but she didn’t stop. As she got closer, it became more and more apparent that she’d been right. She walked closer as—sure enough—the second man tore free and ran away. But then the spider stopped in its pursuit, froze, and turned. The crowd behind Liv gasped. The spider bounded back with great speed, going straight for Liv.

  Liv froze, her heart leaping into her throat. The spider stopped, right in front of her, great pincer jaws snapping together, forelegs lifted to grab her. Too frightened to move, Liv watched those jaws clack-clack together, not ten paces away. Clack-clack…

  Soundlessly?

  Liv let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She tightened her eyes and saw that the ground around her was laced with superviolet triggers. Brilliant. She stepped to her left, and the spider didn’t move until she stepped into the next zone, and then it was there, fast. And now that she was this close, she could see that the cavern behind the spider looked all wrong. It wasn’t nearly as deep as it appeared from fifty paces out. It was like a painting, with light and shadow used to make it appear that there was an entire cave where there was none. And the spider itself was crafted entirely of primary, stable luxin colors, layered so that it wouldn’t be obvious that it was a luxin creation.

  As Liv moved past the triggers, the spider went bounding after the man who had “escaped,” but somehow hadn’t taken advantage of the last thirty seconds to actually run away. The spider ripped out his guts, just as the man had said.

  Liv touched the luxin of the wall and immediately forgot about the genius of the spider mummery. The yellow luxin was flawless. It was perfection.

  Forgetting where she was, she drafted directly from the yellow glow of the wall. Drafting from yellow luxin had once been pursued as the perfect source of light—at least for yellows—but it had never panned out. Something was always lost, it was always inefficient. But with an entire wall, leagues long, inefficiency didn’t matter. Liv drew a little torch of solid luxin into her hand to better see the wall when illuminated by a second source of light. Sometimes drafters hid things in their construction that—

  “Hey! Mistress! What are you doing out here? All drafters are supposed to be inside the walls already.”

  Startled, Liv saw a grizzled old soldier coming toward her, wearing the uniform of a Tyrean sergeant, a brace of nice wheellock pistols at his belt and an empty scabbard. His face was smudged with gunpowder or smoke and there were light bandages wrapped around his hands. He glanced at Liv’s forearms as he approached.

  “I, uh—” She tried desperately to remember the lie she’d prepared in case someone asked her about her lack of the colored vambraces.

  “You’re dazzled by Brightwater Wall. I know, all the drafters is. Where’re your arms?”

  Arms? Liv guessed he meant the color vambraces all the other drafters wore. “I, ahem, was invited to the color lords’ party last night and I had a bit much to drink, I’m afraid. I fell asleep behind a bush and my unit either didn’t find me or thought it would be funny to leave me there mostly, ahem…”

  “Naked?”

  Liv blushed as much from the brazenness of her lie as anything. “I’m lucky I still have my specs,” she said, showing him her yellow spectacles tucked in a pocket.

  “I’d probably drink a lot if I were asked to that party myself. Put on your specs and go to the gate. They’ll let you through. Then go to Quartermaster Zid. He’s a real bastard and he’ll give you all sorts of trouble, but… Ah, hell. Come with me, I’ll take you. That’s me, Master Sergeant Galan Delelo, sucker for a pouty lip and a clueless gaze.”

  “Hey!” Liv said.

  “Joking, joking,” Galan said. “You actually remind me of my daughter. And if she’s clueless, she got it all from her father. Come on.” He turned. “And you, all you damned fools, it ain’t real. It’s just a show. Stop piddling yourselves.” He slapped the wall to emphasize his point and half the crowd ducked at the sharp sound.

  Mumbling to himself, he took her to the gate. Even the soldiers continued to march through. They’d left a narrow two lanes on one side for messengers and nobles and drafters to pass, and the guards there knew the master sergeant and let him right through.

  Inside the wall, he weaved quickly between tents, walking fast, and cut to the front of a line of lower-ranking soldiers to speak with the quartermaster. “Need yellow rags for this girl here,” Galan announced to the quartermaster’s back as the big, hunchbacked man was collecting half a dozen swords to give to some young soldier.

  Quartermaster Zid turned. “I don’t recognize her. She’s not with the units I supply. Forget it.”

  “You’re going to give me hell? Tonight? You crazy old ninny, do I need to put my foot up your arse?”

  “Ninny? You come harping on me like a harridan and you expect roses and wine? I ought to pound that ugly nose of yours flat,” the hunchbacked man said.

  Galan laughed, rubbing a nose that had obviously been broken many times. “I seem to reca
ll you trying that a time or two.”

  The quartermaster grinned, and Liv’s terror faded as she realized the two were good friends.

  “I know you’re happy to see I’m alive,” Galan said. “So just do me a favor and give the girl the rags.”

  “Yellow?” Zid asked. He poured the swords onto the counter, ignoring the young soldier who tried and failed to grab all of them and almost skewered himself trying—unsuccessfully—to keep them on the counter.

  “Yes,” Liv said.

  He grabbed a list. “Name?”

  “Liv.”

  He scanned quickly. “No Livs, sorry. There’s not a yellow drafter named Liv in the entire army.”

  Liv’s mouth went dry.

  “You and you,” Zid said, pointing to some soldiers waiting, irritated, in line. “Arrest this woman. We’ll need to report an impostor—”

  “Oh for Orholam’s sake, Zid, whaddaya think she is, a spy? She’s probably barely sixteen! What kind of a swiving fool would send a baby to spy on us?”

  At the word “spy” Liv’s knees turned to water.

  “Maybe a very cunning fool, who thought we would discount her for that very reason,” Zid said, suspicion leaking out of his very pores. “They say Gavin Guile did. They say some boy over in the chirurgeons’ tents is his own bastard. Who’d send a child? Those wily bastards, that’s who.” He nodded vaguely toward Garriston.

  “I’m seventeen,” she said instead. What? Kip was in the chirurgeons’ tents? Was he sick? Wounded? She was too flustered and scared to rejoice that she’d just heard her first lead to Kip’s whereabouts.

  “Come on, Zid, those lists are barely good enough to wipe your arse on once the fighting starts, you know that. It’s like you’ve never done this bef—”

  “Gotcha,” Zid said. He threw back his head and laughed. He threw some yellow sleeves across the table. “That was for the ‘ninny’ crack. Now we’re even.”

  “Even, oh, we’re not even close to even,” Galan said, but he was smiling. “Meh, duty calls, nice to meetcha, Liv, and if you ever can, knock this fella down a notch or three, wouldja?”

  “Gladly,” Liv said, smiling over the sick feeling in her stomach, as if she were glad to be in on the joke.

  In minutes, she was alone and, donning her sleeves for the first time, she was in. Now all she had to do was save Kip and Karris. And really, how hard could that be?

  Not for the first time in the last few days, Liv wanted to swear and throw things and whine and complain, and—maybe just a little—she wanted to cry. Instead, she took a deep breath and headed deeper into camp.

  Chapter 75

  When Gavin opened his eyes, it was bright out. There was a figure sitting beside his bed. He looked at her. His mother.

  “Oh, thank Orholam. I thought I was awake,” Gavin said.

  Felia Guile laughed, and he knew he wasn’t dreaming. His mother’s laughter sounded somehow freer than it had in years. “It’s almost noon, son. I know I hardly have to lecture you on duty, but you really should get up.”

  “Noon?” Gavin sat bolt upright. It was a mistake. His whole body hurt. His head hurt. His eyes hurt. He held himself still while the hammer blows to the back of his head receded from ten-weight sledges to five-weight sledges and his eyes found focus once more. He usually didn’t get lightsick—but then, he’d never used so much magic as he had yesterday, either. Not since Sundered Rock, and he’d been young then. “It’s almost noon on Sun Day?” he asked.

  “We thought it best to spare you greeting the sun and the dawn processional. It was going be a more informal Sun Day this year, regardless. Orholam will forgive us.”

  “Mother, what are you doing here?”

  “It’s time… Gavin.”

  “Time?”

  “For my Freeing.”

  Gavin felt a wave of cold dread course down his body from head to toe. No. Not his mother. She’d said sometime in the next five years. She’d given him time to prepare, but it couldn’t be this early. “Father?” he asked instead.

  She folded her hands in her lap, her voice holding quiet dignity. “Your father has made far too many decisions for me. The Freeing is between a drafter and Orholam.”

  “So he doesn’t know,” Gavin said.

  “I’m sure he knows by now,” she said, a little sparkle in her eyes.

  “You ran away?” And that would have been what it was, too. She would have slipped out at night, bribed a ship captain some obscene amount, and gone before Andross Guile’s spies could even report back. She would have chosen the fastest ship in port so that even if Andross sent a ship with the next tide, his men would still arrive too late. It was, Gavin had to admit, brilliant.

  And it would not go over well with Andross Guile. Not at all.

  She was quiet for a long moment. “Son, I’ve told your father I wished to join the Freeing every year for the last five years. He forbade it. I can feel myself slipping away. I haven’t drafted for three years, and my life feels gray. I love your father dearly, but he’s always been a very selfish man. Andross wants to hold on to his life and his power forever, and he doesn’t want to be alone. I… pity him, son, and I’ve given him these years for the love we once shared. You know I’m loyal, but we both know he’ll see this as a betrayal. And I know that he’ll blame you rather than himself, but if I have to choose between my duty to your father and my duty to Orholam…”

  “Orholam wins.”

  She patted his knee. “I’ve sent a courier to Corvan Danavis—”

  “Corvan’s alive? At the wall, I was afraid…”

  She smiled sadly. “He’s well. But your defenders lost the wall, despite your heroics.”

  My heroics. Only his mother could talk about his heroics without a hint of irony in her voice. What would you think about that, down in your prison, brother?

  “Anyway, I’ve sent a courier to let him know you’re awake. I’m glad to see him again. He’s a good man.” She knew, of course, that Corvan had taken a life in exile in order for Gavin’s masquerade to work, but as always, she was circumspect, just in case there were spies eavesdropping. Gavin’s mother had always had a gift for figuring out how to live her life and let her opinions be known despite the pressures of court life and the demands of protocol, secrecy, and discretion. “I’ll see you tonight, son.”

  Gavin got dressed slowly after she left, testing his body to see if he’d done any permanent damage with yesterday’s exertions. He was sore, but he surely deserved worse. His muscles would loosen up as the day progressed, and he thought he’d be ready to draft the necessities this evening. Past noon on a Sun Day.

  There was a quick little flurry of light knocks on the door, the tempo of an old song he and Corvan used to enjoy. The door opened.

  Corvan came in. “You’re up.” He sounded surprised.

  “Not much the worse for wear. Thanks for letting me sleep in, but you know you need my help today. What’s the situation?” Gavin was lacing up his shirt.

  Corvan grabbed Gavin’s face in both of his hands and stared in his eyes. Gavin slapped his hands to knock them away, but Corvan held him firmly.

  “What the hell are you doing?” Gavin demanded.

  “You should be dead,” Corvan said. “Do you remember how much you drafted yesterday?”

  “I remember it vividly, thank you, including quite a headache that you’re not making any better.”

  After staring for a few more moments, Corvan released him. “I’m sorry, Lord Prism. They say there are signs when a Prism starts dying. I have no idea what they are, but I figured if anything would break you, it would be what you did yesterday. Even a Prism shouldn’t be able to draft that much. But your eyes look fine.”

  Gavin shrugged it off. “How did we lose the wall?”

  Corvan blew out a breath. “Rask Garadul is either brilliant and crazy, or just crazy, that’s how.”

  “So no one shot that moron as he charged the gate?”

  “They got lucky.
I think you scared both sides half to death with… with what you did. The snipers were shaking so hard they couldn’t hit an easy target. Then, when the men saw that Rask was charging and you had fallen, they thought you were dead—that he’d somehow defeated you. The Blackguards pulled out to take you to safety and most of the best Tyreans we had had already been killed in the fighting.” He pinched his nose between his eyes. Tension headaches. Gavin had forgotten how Corvan always got those when there was fighting to be done. Gavin could imagine it now—the Prism down, the elite Blackguards suddenly pulling out, and the enemy charging as if unfazed by all Gavin had done. No wonder the Tyreans had lost courage.

  “So King Garadul’s men joined his charge and what… our men melted? Got massacred? What?”

  “They actually held the gate for a few minutes. They bungled the troop refresher maneuvers I tried to teach them, though.” That was when fresh musketeers with loaded weapons would switch with the frontline troops. “But they were passing loaded muskets up the ranks, handing back fired muskets to be reloaded. They were losing ground, but not fast, and the wall defenses were holding. It was getting dark—I thought we were going to hold it.”

  “And then?”

  “They ran out of powder.” He sighed. Gavin could tell that the general took it as a personal failure. “There was plenty elsewhere, of course. I’d sent men to take care of it, but… war happens.” Confusion, or spies, or the couriers being killed, or the wagon men who were supposed to bring the black powder forward deserting, on top of officers not checking back in and double-checking that the orders had been followed, either through their own inexperience or cowardice or death. Any link in the entire chain could break with an army in which few men had trained at all, and few units had trained together. It was simply that the supply of black powder was the link that had broken.

  Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered if Gavin had built the damned gate first. Or if he’d been stronger. Or if that cannonball hadn’t crashed through his forms. But second-guessing was futile.

 
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