The black prism, p.59
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       The Black Prism, p.59
 

           Brent Weeks

  Orholam, she thought he’d looked at her, but then she’d dismissed it as her imagination. There had been thousands listening last night. And how did he recognize her?

  “You love your father, don’t you, Liv?”

  “More than anything,” she said. How did he know her name, much less her nickname?

  “And how old is he?”

  “Maybe forty?” she said.

  “Old, then. For a drafter. If he weren’t a drafter, he could live another forty years. But as a drafter loyal to the Chromeria, he’s an old dog already, isn’t he? Most men don’t make it to forty. Your father must be very disciplined, very strong.”

  “Stronger than you know,” Liv said. She felt a surge of emotion. Who was this bastard, talking about her father? She wouldn’t let anyone speak badly of him. He was a great man. Even if he had made mistakes.

  The attendant handed the long musket back to Lord Omnichrome. He raised it, stabilized its significant weight on its leg, and said, “Blue drafter, just right of the gatehouse.”

  Liv watched, horrified, as Lord Omnichrome waited. The blue drafter was ducked behind a crenellation, popping up to throw death down on the men below and ducking down again. He popped up, Lord Omnichrome said, “Heart.” The musket roared.

  A burst of light and blood and the drafter disappeared from view.

  “Shoulder, your left,” the attendant said. “One hand left and three thumbs high.”

  Lord Omnichrome handed the musket back to the man with a polite thank-you. “When the time comes, will you tell them?” he asked Liv.

  “Tell them? Tell them about my father?” Liv hesitated. “I’ll do what I need to do.”

  “What you need to do. Interesting how they make it that, isn’t it? What if you couldn’t make it back to the Chromeria in time? Would you kill your father yourself, with your own hand? What if he asked you to stop? What if he begged you?”

  “My father isn’t such a coward.”

  “You’re dodging the question.” Lord Omnichrome’s eyes were swirling orange. Liv had never liked oranges much. Always unnerved her. When she didn’t speak for a long moment, he said, “I understand perfectly. When I started my own Chromeria, I followed them blindly at first, too. Despite what I am. One of my students broke the halo and I murdered her with my own hands. She wasn’t the first to die for the drafters’ ignorance nor the last, but she was the beginning of the end. When I killed her, I knew what I did was wrong. I couldn’t shake it.”

  “Drafters go mad. Like you. They turn on their friends. They kill those they love.”

  “Oh, absolutely. Sometimes. Some people can’t handle power. Some men seem decent until you give them a slave, and soon they’re a tyrant, beating and raping the slave in their charge. Power is a test, Liv. All power is a test. We don’t call it breaking the halo. We call it breaking the egg. You never know what kind of bird is going to be hatched. And some are born deformed and must be put down. That is tragedy, but not murder. Do you think your father could handle a little extra power? The great Corvan Danavis? An immensely talented drafter who’s nevertheless had the discipline to make it to forty?”

  “It’s not that simple,” Liv said.

  “What if it is? What if the Chromeria has perpetuated this monstrosity because this is how they keep themselves in power? By scaring the satrapies, saying that only they can train the drafters born among them—for a price, always for a price—and only they can restrain the drafters who go mad, which is all of them. By doing that, they make themselves forever useful, forever powerful, and by divvying out drafters to the satrapies, they make themselves the center of everything. Tell me, Liv, when you judge the Chromeria by its fruit, do you find it a place of love and peace and light—as one might expect from Orholam’s holy city?”

  “No,” Liv admitted. She didn’t even know why she was defending it, except out of stubbornness. The Chromeria was everything she hated, and it defiled all it touched. Including her. She owed debts there, and she couldn’t lie to herself so much that she would believe her flight to Tyrea and to follow Kip wasn’t partly a flight from her debt to Aglaia Crassos and Ruthgar.

  “The truth is, Liv, you know I’m right. You’re just afraid to admit you’ve been on the wrong side. I understand. We all do. There are good men and women who fight against us, good people! But they’re deluded, deceived. It hurts to leave a lie, but it hurts more to live one. Look at what I’m doing. I’m freeing a city that’s ours, by rights. Garriston has been passed around like a whore to be abused by every nation in turn. It’s not right. It has to end, and since no one else will end it, we will. Does not this land deserve freedom? Should these people pay because two brothers—neither of whom was born here or cared a whit for this land—fought here? For how long should they pay?”

  “They shouldn’t,” Liv said.

  “Because it isn’t just.”

  He took the long musket from the attendant again. “Red drafter, top of the gatehouse. Head.”

  Liv watched. The battle in front of the Mother’s Gate was hard to see clearly through all the smoke and flashes of magic. But she saw King Garadul’s cavalry reaching the gate, loading their muskets and firing at the men at the top of the wall, but seeming to wait for something, frustrated it hadn’t happened yet. Lord Omnichrome’s musket roared, and an instant later there was a small bright flash at the top of the gate tower. Liv was glad she hadn’t seen all of it.

  “Dead center, Lord Omnichrome,” the attendant announced. “Excellent shot!”

  “Begone! Leave us.” The top of the hill cleared quickly of everyone save the musket attendant, whom Lord Omnichrome gestured to stay. Lord Omnichrome turned toward Liv. He wasn’t smiling. “I don’t like killing drafters. I hate it,” he said. “What I do here is what must be done. I want you to join me, Aliviana.”

  “Why? Why me? I’m barely a bichrome, not that powerful, no influence.”

  He snorted. “Are you ready for the answer to that question? You want to be an adult, Aliviana? You want hard truths? Because that’s the only kind I’ve known for the past sixteen years.”

  “I’m ready,” she said.

  “I want you because you’re a drafter and every drafter is precious to me. And because you’re Tyrean, and this country will take a lot of reassuring after we win, and I’m not Tyrean. And because you’re Corvan Danavis’s daughter.”

  “I knew it!” she spat.

  “Listen, you half-wit! Listen or you’re unworthy of the role I have for you anyway.”

  That shut her up.

  “As Corvan’s daughter, I have some hope that you’re half as intelligent as he is. If so, you’ll be a formidable ally. I need bright leaders. But I won’t lie to you. I hope that your coming to our side might free your father from the Chromeria’s grip. I suspect that he only serves the Prism because they held you hostage. If that’s true, Corvan might come over to us, and having a general of his standing on our side might prevent any further war from even being necessary. That’s how much fear your father inspires. Men won’t even take the field against him. During the Prisms’ War, his enemies would use spyglasses to see which general was directing a battle. If it was your father, they would retreat and fight another day. That’s how good your father is, and I’d be a fool to ignore him when he might fight for me. If you think that’s me manipulating you, you’re right. I’ll use you. You’re important. The Chromeria will use you too. Already has. Grow up and realize it. I’ll be honest about it, that’s all. And my honesty gives you a choice. That’s better than they’ll give you.” His eyes were threaded with red and orange, like flames.

  He was right. It was true. And if that was true, what if all of it was true?

  “King Garadul slaughtered my whole town.”

  “Yes. He even took some of my drafters and made them help him.”

  Liv had expected him to deny it, excuse it.

  “And yet you’d have me serve him?”

  Lord Omnichrome lowered his voice.
“Kings don’t live forever. Especially reckless ones.”

  A huge explosion rocked the wall to the left of the gatehouse. It was powerful enough that it threw many of the combatants off their feet, and more than a few people off the wall itself, but as the smoke gradually cleared, to Liv it seemed that the charge must have been planted on the other side of the wall—the damage that she could see there was much more extensive, rows of houses simply obliterated. A cheer went up among the cavalry, though, as the clearing smoke showed a gap blasted in the wall itself.

  “You see, the people of Garriston are working with us. They want to be free.”

  But Liv barely heard him. She’d just seen something through the mists on the battlefield that took her breath away. Kip. And not just Kip. Kip and Karris both were riding into the fray. For a moment, Liv didn’t understand. Kip and Karris had switched sides? They were fighting to free Garriston? Then her eyes followed the path they were taking. The path led straight to King Garadul.

  King Garadul, who Kip hated for wiping out their town and killing his mother.

  And they were being pursued by half a dozen mounted Mirrormen.

  “How much am I worth to you?” Liv said.

  “I’ve already told you.”

  “Then I’m yours, on one condition.”

  The red swirled out of his eyes, replaced by orange and blue.

  “Save my friends. Him, and her. The ones those Mirrormen are after.” She pointed.

  Lord Omnichrome beckoned his attendant sharply, and the man came running with his long musket. “You wish me to kill several allies in order to gain one,” Lord Omnichrome said. “You barter lives like—”

  “Like an adult,” Liv said sharply.

  “And a formidable one indeed. But I’m not in the business of buying loyalty. I’ll do my best to save your friends. As a gift, regardless of what you decide.” He sighted down his musket and fired. A Mirrorman riding toward Karris died in a flash of light and blood. Lord Omnichrome handed the musket off to be reloaded.

  “So take that out of your calculations, Liv, but tell me now, whom will you serve? Me, or the Chromeria?”

  Fealty to One. And to one only.

  There was no good choice. There were no good guys. Trying to do the right thing had led Liv to spying on her greatest benefactor. The Chromeria corrupted even people’s love for each other. Everyone she knew said Lord Omnichrome was a monster, but everyone she knew had been corrupted by the Chromeria. So maybe Lord Omnichrome wasn’t perfect. Neither was Gavin. The only people innocent here were the people of Tyrea. They deserved to be free. If Liv had to fight, she wasn’t going to fight for their oppressors. Fealty to One? A Danavis had to choose whom she would serve? So be it.

  Taking a deep breath, Liv gave a full Tyrean formal curtsey. “Lord Omnichrome,” she said, her voice even, her eyes meeting his. “I’m yours. How may I serve?”

  Chapter 85

  “Traitors!” Kip heard a woman say. His head snapped toward Karris. She spat on the dead Mirrormen. Imperious, masterful.

  What is she doing?

  Karris grabbed a musket and powder horn and began reloading it, as if she were a simple soldier. When Kip saw the looks on the faces of the soldiers near them, he finally understood. They’d just seen her and Kip fight Mirrormen, but none of the surrounding men knew who was fighting on which side or if they should interfere. It looked like these soldiers had lost all of their officers—not surprising, since the defenders on the wall would try to kill officers first. That was probably the only reason Kip and Karris were still alive.

  “Well, drafter?” she said, finishing her reloading. She was as fast at that as she was at everything. Her skin was the color of blood. Her eyes were no longer capped with the violet eye caps that kept her from drafting. Wait, had he done that? He was feeling shaky, drained. Her bluff had worked, though. The soldiers were turning back to the fighting, determined not to get in the way of this virago.

  She was talking to him.

  That’s right, genius, seeing how you’re the one who just drafted two huge spikes and impaled a couple of Mirrormen.

  Which made Kip look toward the men he’d killed. Mistake. One had a frothy gore-hole in his chest the size of Kip’s fist. The other’s head was torn in pieces, chunks of white bone mixed amid red in a picture that refused to coalesce into a face.

  “Kip, ordinarily this is a bad idea when you’re as new as you are, but I want you to draft more green. I need you with me,” Karris hissed.

  He was staring at the smear of head on the ground. The soldiers pushing toward the gate were trampling right over the pieces of brain and bone, giving more room to the two drafters than they did to the men Kip had killed.

  “Kip!” She slapped him, hard. “Cry later. Be a man now.” The red diamonds in her emerald eyes blazed. She cursed, cast about for a moment, looking for something, then a few threads of green wove their way from her eyes to her fingertips through the ocean of red that colored her pale skin, and she drafted something small in her hands.

  Spectacles. Spectacles entirely of green luxin. She put them on his face, adjusted them, did something to seal them, and then stepped away. “Now draft!” she ordered.

  Kip was a sponge. It was like going outside on a hot day, closing his eyes, and basking in the heat. Everywhere he looked there were light-colored surfaces, homes and shops whitewashed against the sun, and every one of them gave him magic. He soaked it in, feeling potent. Free. The throbbing in his burned hand faded to nothing.

  He joined the stream of soldiers heading toward the gap in the wall. The musket fire from atop the wall had all but ceased. It was turning into a glorious morning, bright, crisp, slowly burning off the mist. It would be hot soon.

  Where before, when he was unmoving, the stream of men had parted around him like a boulder as they saw that he was a drafter, as soon as he joined the stream he was jostled about just like everyone else. The lines compressed the closer they got to the wall, and men trying to stay with their units pushed hard. As it got tighter and tighter, more and more constrained, Kip started to rebel against it. He wasn’t sure how much of the agitation was his, and how much was the green luxin’s influence on him, but he could tell that there was more to his reaction than his own psyche.

  With the confluence of horses and men in armor—though only a small fraction of King Garadul’s army was armored or uniformed, those soldiers were intent on going in first—Kip lost sight of King Garadul himself. Karris had slipped into the line in front of him, and she was using her slender form and muscles to slip in between rows and push forward. Kip soon lost sight of her too. It was all he could do to keep on his feet as the crowd packed tight together right at the wall.

  “You!” someone shouted.

  Kip looked. A horseman, ten paces away, was staring at him. Kip had no idea who the man was.

  “You!” the officer repeated. “You’re not one of us!”

  At first, Kip had no idea who the man was. He thought maybe it was one of the soldiers who’d escorted him with Zymun after Kip had blown up the fire. But even that was only a guess. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter. The man recognized him.

  The officer tugged at his musket, trying to pull it from the saddle sleeve, but there were other horses pressing in on either side of him, and it was stuck.

  “Spy! Traitor!” the officer shouted, pointing at Kip. “He doesn’t have the sleeves! He’s not one of us! Murderer! Spy! That green drafter is a spy!”

  Kip had been pushed up the rubble pile to the gap in the wall itself. It put him at a high point. Everyone was able to see him.

  The officer finally pulled his musket free and kicked his horse savagely to come after Kip. Turned backward looking at the man, not really believing he would fire into a crowd of his compatriots, Kip lifted his hands to draft something, anything. His foot slid on the rubble, and the surging crowd, some pulling away, some reaching toward him, threw him off balance. He went down in stages. The people were packed so
tight that he didn’t fall all at once, but neither could he stop himself once he started.

  The gap in the wall vomited them into Garriston. Kip fell and rolled.

  Someone stepped on his burned left hand. He screamed. Feet were hitting his sides, someone tripped over him, someone stepped on his belly, someone kicked the side of his head. He tumbled, rolling down the slight hill of rubble, tried to gain his feet, and got smacked with the stock of a musket. He ended up on his back, head ringing, left hand on fire with pain, eyes having trouble focusing. Without meaning to, he’d gone turtle again, as he had when Mistress Helel had tried to kill him—and again, he was about as effective as a turtle on its back.

  It was like the world knew Kip needed to take the coward’s way, and it conspired together to land him here.

  The next thing he knew, there were people on every side of him, kicking, kicking. Some were trying to slam musket butts down on him, but there were so many people packed in so tightly around him that he only felt a few glancing blows on his legs. Back in the old days, he would have rolled over on his stomach and buried his head in his hands, rolled into a ball and waited until Ram had asserted his superiority again and tired of the game and left him. Doing that here would be death.

  Do you expect me to take a whipping lying down?

  Yes, Kip. It’s your way.

  You expect me to die lying down?

  Face it, Kip, you’re not much of a fighter, not when it matters. Why don’t you curl up in a ball and quit?

  Part of him expected Karris to save him. She was a fighter. A warrior. A drafter. She was quick and decisive, nimble and deadly with magic or blade.

  The crowd was like a beast, a seething, teeming, roaring mass that had lost all individuality. And Kip hated it. He ducked his head as someone tried to stomp on him. He saw leering faces. Brief images of snarling mouths. Visages twisted with hatred.

  Part of him expected Ironfist to save him. The man had swept in out of nowhere twice before and done that. Ironfist was huge, strong, intimidating. He was as quiet and as unmoving as steel. A guardian.

 
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