The black prism, p.57
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       The Black Prism, p.57

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Stop!” a Mirrorman yelled, his musket pointed at Karris’s head.

  There was still screaming everywhere. Chaos. Shouting and gunfire and the screams of the dying.

  Kip lashed out, kicking for the Mirrorman’s knee as Karris had done seconds before.

  The Mirrorman saw it coming and swung the butt of his musket for Kip’s leg—

  —and was flung away like Orholam’s own hand had slapped him.

  A concussion, a roar, a pressure so vast Kip’s vision went black for an instant. Everyone standing was torn off their feet. Things—Kip couldn’t even tell what they were—blasted overhead.

  He must have lost a few seconds. He rolled over, tried to stand, fell. His wrists were bloody, but no longer bound. The acrid aroma of gunpowder filled the air. Bits of wood rained down on the ground.

  When Kip tried to stand again, someone helped him. Not even a hundred paces away where the powder wagon had been, he saw a crater in the ground a good ten paces across and at least two paces deep. Everyone in a huge circle around it was dead.

  Karris turned him around, her mouth moving, skin smudged with powder. He couldn’t hear her.

  He saw her mouth a curse as she realized the same thing. He was pretty sure she was mouthing “Ironfist” and a series of curses. She put a musket in his hands and said, slowly enough that Kip could read her lips, “Can you walk?”

  Kip nodded, not sure how much he was hearing her and how much he was reading her lips. She pulled at him and they started jogging. He was still disoriented, but he saw that he wasn’t the only one. Dozens of men and women with powder-darkened skin and clothes were staggering around, some of them bleeding from their ears. A man was carrying his left hand in his right hand, looking for the rest of his arm as blood pumped out of his mangled shoulder.

  Teams of soldiers were forming up now and running toward the wall. Others stood back and were firing their muskets at the gun emplacement, but Kip didn’t see anyone on top of the wall returning fire.

  Someone was shouting at Kip. Good, so he could hear. He turned.

  He didn’t recognize the soldier standing in front of him. “Form up, soldier!” the man shouted. “Move it!”

  They thought he was a soldier because he had a musket. But then, with his powder-blackened clothes, it was no wonder.

  “Come on, soldier, we’ve got a city to take!”

  There were at least twenty soldiers with the man, and only the officer had a real uniform. Kip shot a glance at Karris. She was wobbling back and forth, holding her hands over her eyes like she was blind, just another wounded person. Kip realized that if they saw the violet caps over her eyes, they’d capture her immediately. Or kill her outright. With that dress, it was best not to let their attention alight on her any longer than necessary.

  If Kip refused, the man could summarily execute him. And he looked grim, ready to do it. “Yes, sir!” Kip said. He joined the lines, glanced at Karris, looked once more for Liv and didn’t see her, and then ran with the soldiers toward the city and the sound of guns and the flash of magic.

  Chapter 81

  Gavin squared his shoulders and confronted his accusers. A hallway in the Travertine Palace. It wasn’t exactly where he would have picked to die, but he supposed it was better than some dungeon somewhere. Better than I gave you, Gavin. At least he could face this with dignity.

  “What do you want?” he demanded.

  “We know what you’re doing,” Usef Tep said. “Sir.” The “sir” was belated. It always was with the Purple Bear.

  Samila Sayeh came forward, put a hand on Usef’s meaty arm. “We’ve come together to stop you, Gavin Guile.”

  “And how do you propose to do that?” Gavin asked.

  “By volunteering.”

  Huh? Gavin tottered on the edge of drafting everything he could. Stopped. Tried to keep his idiot perplexity off his face.

  “It’s noble, Lord Prism, but it’s not wise.”

  What? Well sometimes when you don’t know what the hell someone’s talking about, the best thing to do is play along.

  “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Gavin said. Oops.

  “The Freeing is the holiest moment in a drafter’s life,” Samila said. “You’re trying to protect that for us. And we thank you for that. But we’re warriors. All of us fought in the war. We’re willing to fight again.”

  “I die this day,” Usef said. “It’s my duty to make an end, and I accept that. But I’ve got no patience for all this Orholam this and Orholam that. I’d rather go down fighting.”

  “Lord Prism,” Samila Sayeh said, “we have to hold the city long enough for everyone to escape. Holding the walls is a death sentence. Why not give it to us? We’re dead anyway.”

  Their talking had given Gavin a few moments to think, to recover his balance. “If I send you out there, you’ll all break the halo. That’s why you’re here. Next year I’ll have to face you fighting for him. They don’t put down color wights. It’s not just your souls we’re talking about here. It’s your sanity. And you’re right, you’re all warriors. That makes you ten times as dangerous when you break.”

  “We’ll fight in teams. Each with a pistol and a knife. When we break, we’ll do as the Blackguards do.”

  When a comrade broke the halo on the battlefield, the Blackguards considered them dead—and indeed, it did usually render a person unconscious temporarily. The Blackguards would check the eyes of a fallen comrade, and if the halo was broken, they’d slit their throat.

  “Except when a team’s down to one, we end ourselves too,” Samila said. It was, for some, a thorny theological point, though not without precedent. Was suicide a sin when you knew you were going mad and would likely hurt or kill innocents? “You are the Prism, you could make a special dispensation.”

  “Future generations would believe that implied special dispensation is needed,” Talon Gim said, scowling. He had always had very definite theological views.

  Maros Orlos stepped forward. “Lord Prism, we’ve already sent to be Freed all the drafters we knew were too far gone to be any use on the battlefield. What is the greater good here? That we do things as they’ve always been done, or that we save an entire city?”

  There was no contest, of course. Gavin was trembling. “I think such a sacrifice would honor Orholam. I will give each of you a… special blessing as you take up this burden. I am… deeply humbled by this act of devotion. Deeply grateful.”

  That much was no lie.

  After making the decision to let the Freeing class fight to the death instead of be Freed on his knife, Gavin still met with each of them. He shrived them, listened to their concerns about dying, and blessed them. It was exactly the same as he would have done otherwise—minus the killing. But to Gavin, it was entirely different. Usually, he was so sickened by what he had to do that he couldn’t give their words his full attention. He tried. He pretended. He knew they deserved his best.

  But today, he did it. They weren’t really talking to him as they spoke; they were talking to Orholam. Gavin was simply an instrument to make their confessions easier than addressing an empty room. What they were doing was an act of devotion. It was an act of sacrifice.

  To others, it wouldn’t seem that different than what some did every year at the Freeing. It would end with a dead drafter who’d gone to death bravely. But without the burden of shedding their blood, Gavin was able to see it clearly for the first time. These people were heroes.

  If Gavin hadn’t pulled one over on the whole world and on Orholam himself by masquerading as his own brother, perhaps the Freeing would have seemed this holy every year. It was supposed to be something to celebrate, but Gavin had dreaded it. Always.

  Now, as he prayed with each drafter, he could almost believe Orholam listened.

  Samila Sayeh was the last. She was, Gavin was reminded, a woman whose beauty withstood scrutiny. Her skin, even in her forties, was nearly flawless. A few smile lines, but clear and glowing.
Slim. Stunning blue eyes against Atashian olive skin. Impeccably dressed.

  “I had an affair with your brother, you know,” she said.

  Gavin froze. He knew that he, Dazen, had not had an affair with Samila Sayeh—which could only mean one thing: she knew. “Sometimes a man likes to pretend that nothing has happened between him and an old lover,” Gavin said quickly. “Especially when it was a great mistake.”

  She laughed. “I’ve wondered often over the years, are you just so good that you’ve never been discovered, or does everyone who could expose you have an ulterior motive for not doing so?” She stared at him, but he said nothing. “You know, Evi was looking at your wall. She said, ‘I don’t remember Gavin being a superchromat. He shouldn’t be able to craft a yellow this perfect.’ And do you know what she said after that? She said that Orholam must have blessed your effort. That it was proof you were doing his will. And everyone nodded their heads. Can you believe it?”

  Gavin felt a chill.

  “Gavin would have made a wall that would last a month and bragged it would last forever. You made a wall that will last forever, and said it might last a few years. You just couldn’t stand to make an inferior product, could you, Dazen?” Someone who’d been drafting blue for twenty-five years would be pleased to see the order in this: Dazen was a perfectionist, so even though he could make his mask better with imperfection, it didn’t match his personality to do so.

  “No,” he said quietly.

  “I fought for your brother. I killed for him,” Samila said.

  “We all did an awful lot of that,” Gavin said.

  “I felt so betrayed by you, that you wouldn’t even acknowledge me after what we’d had. I felt a glimmer of hope when you broke your betrothal with Karris. When I finally figured it all out, I still wasn’t sure of myself. Gavin told us things about you, about what you would do if you won. And you weren’t doing them. Was your brother a liar all along, or did you change? You were supposed to be a monster, Dazen.”

  “I am a monster.”

  “Glib, still. The snot-nosed younger brother with a quick tongue. I mean it.” She looked at him long and hard. Looked at the Freeing knife that he hadn’t drawn. “How well do you know yourself?”

  He thought about the years, the goals he’d achieved, and the ultimate goal it was serving. “The Philosopher said that a man alone is either a god or a monster,” Gavin said. “I’m no god.”

  She stared at him for one moment more, those intense blue eyes unreadable. She smiled. “Well then. Maybe the times call for a monster.” She knelt at his feet, and he blessed her.

  Chapter 82

  Kip had always pictured a charge as being somehow glorious. Whatever he’d pictured, it wasn’t this. He held his pants up with his wounded left hand and the musket in his right. And the musket was heavy! His heart was heaving and everyone else was running faster than he was.

  He had little sense of what was happening anywhere else. A man who roared that the soldiers could call him either god or Master Sergeant Galan Delelo ran at the front, urging his men on. The backs of the other soldiers filled the rest of Kip’s vision, and the pain of running distracted him from all else except for the intermittent whistling, which he couldn’t place at first—until he realized it was the sound of musket balls flying past, and then he could hardly think of anything else.

  For a moment he saw the city walls as the men in front of him disappeared in a ditch before scrambling up the other side. He remembered dismissing these walls not even a week ago. Now they looked pretty impressive. The side of the wall was encrusted with slums like barnacles, and King Garadul’s men were already swarming there, trying to use the low buildings and rough shelters as a ladder. But even in the brief glimpse Kip had, one of the slum buildings on which the men were climbing teetered and then collapsed, crushing men and sending up a cloud of dust.

  Something wet and chunky splattered across Kip’s face as he ran. He turned, vaguely saw a man dropping beside him—and then the ground suddenly wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

  He went down hard in the dry irrigation ditch. He skidded on his face, flipped over, rolled, the wind knocked cleanly out of him. As he moaned, struggling to regain his breath, he realized he wasn’t alone. The irrigation ditch was full of men cowering inside its marginal cover.

  Master Sergeant Galan Delelo appeared back on the lip of the ditch. “Get up, you pathetic rats! They’ve got an angle right into this ditch from the wall, you damn fools. Get up! If you’re anything less than dead, get up or I’ll shoot you myself!”

  For a second, no one moved.

  “You wouldn’t,” a man said.

  The master sergeant drew a pistol and shot him in the belly. “Who’s next?” he yelled. He pointed his other pistol at a man carrying a large robin’s egg blue sack.

  “I’m a messenger!” the man screamed.

  “You’re a soldier now,” Master Sergeant Delelo shouted. He was either unaware or just didn’t care about the musket fire raining around him, sending up little puffs of earth. “Now, move!”

  The man dropped his messenger sack, grabbed Kip’s musket, and ran forward, along with everyone else.

  Lying on the ground, Kip was left with the other corpses. When he had his breath back, he touched the side of his face. Gore, gray-red chunks of… He didn’t want to think about it. What mattered was that he was free. At least until the next officer commandeered the cowards who filled up this ditch again.

  There wasn’t much time. If Kip thought too much or waited too long, he wouldn’t move, and he needed to move now. The master sergeant was right, this ditch wasn’t out of the line of fire. If Kip waited, he was going to get killed.

  He wanted to see more of the battle, make a good plan. He didn’t know what kind of a judge he would be of whatever he saw, and he didn’t even know which way to run.

  He grabbed the messenger’s sack and slung it over his shoulder. He saw the wreck of a wagon farther back away from the wall.

  Did we run right past that? Kip hadn’t even noticed. Regardless, the oxen who’d been pulling the wagon were dead or mewling, screaming in pain, bloodied. Kip ran for it.

  He ducked into the shadow of the wagon and found two other men already there. They looked at him with wide, fearful eyes. “Move!” he shouted.

  Kip climbed up on the wreck and looked out on the plain. At first all he saw were the dead bodies. Several hundred perhaps. Mostly he couldn’t see any blood, so it looked like people sprawled about sleeping. It wasn’t so great a toll, considering how big the army was, Kip thought, but seeing so many dead wasn’t really something he could merely think about. Those people were dead. He could have been one of them. He could still be.

  He tore his eyes away, tried to look for something useful. In a few spots at the wall, King Garadul’s men had actually reached the top of the wall. There was fighting in three or four places, defenders and attackers alike being thrown off, grappling, puffs of black smoke erupting everywhere from musket and pistol fire.

  To Kip’s left, there was a slight hill, out of range of musket fire from the wall. There were several hundred horsemen and drafters around the hill. In front of the hill, drafters were crafting a bridge over the irrigation ditch. Kip saw then that the original bridge had been destroyed by the retreating people of Garriston. It had slowed King Garadul’s advance, probably more because they’d stopped to talk about it than if they had simply charged the horses through.

  At the top of the hill, Kip saw standard bearers and a figure who might have been King Garadul himself. He was shouting, making huge animated movements toward Lord Omnichrome, who was unmistakable because he literally glowed in the early morning light.

  Kip didn’t realize he’d made a decision until he found himself running. He snatched a musket from the ground next to a woman curled in the fetal position, moaning, and kept running. His vengeance was this close.

  As Kip approached the hill, movement began on the hill and rapidly spread,
horns sounding orders. It was a few seconds before Kip saw the horses moving. King Garadul was advancing on the wall—personally, right toward the Mother’s Gate. Was he trusting that his men would open the gate by the time he got there, or was he just an idiot?

  Kip was halfway up the hill when he saw a woman whose form seemed familiar. He stopped.

  Karris White Oak had flagged down one of the horsemen heading after King Garadul. The man slowed down for her, and she swung up into the saddle behind him with surprising grace. The man turned in the saddle to ask her a question, and then tumbled out. Kip saw the quick gleam of a dagger, then it was sheathed, and Karris kicked the horse’s sides and went speeding after King Garadul. She was going by herself, and with her eye caps still on. She wouldn’t be able to draft, but she was still going to try to kill him. Even if she were successful, it would be suicide.

  I swore to save her. And I swore to kill him.

  Kip was a terrible rider, but there was no way he could catch up without a horse. Seeing horses tied up near the crown of the hill, he headed straight for them.

  “… through the Lover’s Gate. You’ll have to swim. Join the refugees. He’ll—”

  Kip rounded a tent in time to see the young drafter Zymun swing up into a saddle. He was taking orders from Lord Omnichrome himself. Kip’s heart leaped. They weren’t twenty paces away.

  “You need a horse?” someone said, right at Kip’s elbow.

  Kip almost jumped out of his skin. He blinked stupidly at the groom.

  “Rough work out there, huh?” the groom said.

  “Message!” Kip said, remembering he was carrying a messenger bag. “Message for the king! Yes, a horse! I need a horse.”

  “I figured,” the man said. He went off to find a beast large enough.

  Kip looked back toward Lord Omnichrome and Zymun. He missed whatever else they said, but he saw Lord Omnichrome hand a box to the mounted drafter.

  That box. Kip couldn’t believe it.

  That was his box. Right size. Right shape. That was his inheritance. The only thing his mother had ever given him. And Zymun had it.

 
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