The black prism, p.6
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       The Black Prism, p.6

           Brent Weeks

  Swallowing so his heart didn’t jump out of his throat, Kip turned downstream, toward the cave. He thought he felt a cool prick on his skin. Rain? He looked up at the black clouds, but it must have been his imagination. He came to the spot overlooking the cave’s entrance.

  Two soldiers were standing almost directly below him. Two others were on the opposite bank. There was one war dog on each side. Either dog’s head would have come up to Kip’s shoulder, easily. They both wore studded leather coats like horse armor without the saddle. Kip dropped to the ground.

  “Sir, if I may?” one of the men said. Apparently getting permission, the soldier said, “The drafter came straight to the river, then veered sharply upstream before going into the water? He knows we’re following him. I think he doubled back and went downstream.”

  “With us so close behind?” the commander asked.

  “He must have heard the dogs.”

  Which made Kip think of something else: dogs can smell scents on the wind too. Not just on the ground. Kip’s throat tightened. He hadn’t even thought about the wind. It was blowing from the southwest. His path had taken him east and then north when the river turned—the perfect direction. If he’d gone downstream, toward town, the dogs would have smelled him immediately. If the commander thought about it, he’d surely realize that too.

  “Rain’s coming. We might only have one shot at this.” The commander paused. “Let’s make it fast.” He whistled and gestured for the men on the other side of the river to head downstream. They took off at a jog.

  Kip’s heart started beating again. He slipped down the bank beside two great boulders. There was a narrow space between the two. It looked like it went in for about four paces and then stopped, but Kip knew that it turned sharply. He never would have discovered it the first time if it hadn’t been for the pungent, sickly sweet odor of haze floating out. Orholam knew how his mother had ever found it.

  Now, even knowing it was there, Kip almost didn’t have the courage to push between those rocks. There was something wrong, though. It wasn’t as dark as it should be. It was fully night outside and Kip was blocking the entrance, so someone was already inside, and they had a lantern.

  Kip froze again until he heard the sound of the war dogs change pitch. They’d found the rocks he’d thrown across the river. That meant it was only a matter of time until they discovered his fraud. The darkness and tightness were suffocating. He had to move, one way or the other.

  He pushed around the corner and into the open space of the smuggler’s cave. There were two figures sitting in the wan light of a lantern: Sanson and Kip’s mother. Both were covered in blood.

  Chapter 11

  Kip couldn’t help but cry out. His mother was seated against the wall of the cave, her once-blue dress dyed black and red with blood dried and fresh. Lina’s dark hair was matted, darker than normal, stringy with blood. The right side of her face was pristine, perfect. All the blood was coming from the left side of her head, traveling down her hair like a wick, blooming on her dress. Sanson sat next to her, his eyes closed, head back, clothes almost as gory.

  At Kip’s cry, his mother’s eyes fluttered. There was a huge dent in the side of her head. Orholam be merciful, her skull was shattered. She stared in his direction for several moments before she found him. Her eyes were a horror to behold, the pupil of her left eye was dilated, the right a tight pinprick. And the whites of both were completely bloodshot. “Kip,” she said. “Never thought I’d be so happy to see you.”

  “Love you too, mother,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.

  “My fault,” she said. Her eyes fluttered and closed.

  Kip’s heart seized. Was she dead? Before today, he’d never seen anyone die. Orholam, this was his mother! He looked at Sanson, who looked healthy, despite all the blood on his clothes. “I tried, Kip. The alcaldesa wouldn’t listen. I told her—”

  “Even his own family didn’t believe him,” Kip’s mother said, her eyes still closed. “Even when the soldiers rode down his mother and split his brother open, Adan Marta stood there, arguing how our satrap wouldn’t possibly do such a thing to his own people. Only Sanson ran away. Who would’ve thought he was the smart one in that family?”

  “Mother! Enough!” Kip’s voice came out whiny, childish.

  “You came back, though, didn’t you, Sanson? Tried to save me, unlike my own son. Too bad he didn’t try to help me like you tried to help your family, or I might still have a chance.”

  Her words touched some deep well of rage. Potent, but uncontrollable. He pushed it down, pushed the tears back. “Mother. Stop. You’re dying.”

  “Sanson says you’re a drafter now. Funny,” she said bitterly. “All your life you’re a disappointment, and you learn to draft today. Too late for any of us.” With effort, she took a deep breath, then opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on Kip, taking a little while to focus. “Kill him, Kip. Kill the bastard.” She lifted a narrow, filigreed rosewood jewelry case as long as Kip’s forearm from the floor of the cave beside her. Kip had never seen it before.

  Kip took the case and opened it. There was a dagger inside, double-edged, of an odd material, starkly white like ivory, with a thread of black winding down the center to the point, and no other adornment save for seven diamonds embedded in the blade itself. It was the most beautiful thing Kip had ever seen, and he didn’t care. He had no idea what the blade was worth, but the case it had come in alone would have paid for a month of his mother’s binges. “Mother, what is this?”

  “And I thought Sanson was slow,” she said, hard, sneering, dying, afraid. “Put it in his rotten heart. Make that bastard suffer. Make him pay for this.”

  “Mother, what are you saying?” Kip asked, despairing. Me, kill King Garadul?

  She laughed, and the motion made a fresh wash of blood spill down her head. “You’re a stupid, stupid boy, Kip. But maybe a dull sword can go where a sharp one wouldn’t be allowed.” Her head bobbed. Her breathing was getting labored. Her head drooped to her chest, and Kip thought she was dead, but her eyes opened once more, only one focusing, locking Kip in her glare. Her fingernails dug into his forearm painfully. “You go, go train to be a drafter, go to the…” She seemed to be searching for the word “Chromeria,” but couldn’t find it. She noticed, looked furious, afraid. It was evidence she really was dying. “You learn what you need, but don’t you forget me. Don’t you forget this. Don’t listen to him, you hear me? He’s a liar. You will not fail me in this, Kip. You learn, and then you kill him, you understand?”

  “Yes, mother.” She was talking like she knew King Garadul. How could she have known him?

  “Kip, if you ever loved me, avenge me. Swear it by your worthless soul, Kip. Swear it, or I swear to Orholam I’ll haunt you. I won’t… let…” She lost her train of thought.

  Kip looked over at Sanson, who stared back silently, horrified. Kip’s mother’s fingernails dug in deeper, and her seeing eye seemed almost aflame, demanding his attention, his promise. He said, “I swear to avenge you, mother, by my very soul.”

  Something like peace stole over her features, softening the hard planes. Then she laughed quietly, satisfied, somehow cruel—until her laughter stopped. Her hand dropped from Kip’s forearm, leaving bloody tracks. “I won’t let you down, mother, I’ll go right—”

  She’s dead.

  Kip stared at her woodenly, inexplicably numb. He closed her awful, bloodshot eyes. “Are you hurt?” Kip asked.

  “Huh?” Sanson asked. “Me?”

  Kip stared at him, “No, genius, I’m talking to the dead person.” It was cruel, thoughtless.

  Sanson’s eyes welled up with tears. “I’m sorry, Kip. I tried to get her out. I was too late.” He was right on the verge of breaking down. Kip was an ass.

  “No, Sanson. No, I’m sorry. Don’t talk like that. It’s not your fault. Listen to me. We need to act right now, not think. We’re in danger. Are you hurt?”

  Sanson’s eyes cleared and h
is chin lifted. He met Kip’s gaze. “No, this blood is all—no, I’m fine.”

  “Then we need to go right now, while it’s dark and raining. They’ve got dogs. They can track us. It’s our only chance.”

  “But Kip, where are we going to go?” Odd. Just like that, Kip was the leader. Was it that he’d found some new well of strength, or was Sanson just that weak? No, don’t even think like that, Kip. He trusts you. Can’t that be enough?

  What if I’m not worthy of trust?

  “I’m going to be a drafter,” Kip said. “I guess. So we need to get to the sea. We should be able to find a ship in Garriston that’s going to the Chromeria.”

  Sanson’s eyes widened, obviously thinking about what Kip’s mother had sworn him to, but he said nothing but, “How do we get to Garriston?”

  “We float the river first.” Kip realized then that he’d lost the purse Master Danavis had given him. He didn’t even know when. So even if they made it down the river, they wouldn’t be able to pay for the trip to the Chromeria.

  “Kip, the soldiers were in a big circle around the whole town. If they’re still like that, we’ll have to cross through their line twice. And the town’s still on fire. The river could be blocked.”

  Sanson was right, and for some reason that made Kip suddenly furious. He stopped himself. This wasn’t Sanson’s fault. Kip’s eyes felt hot. It was so hopeless. He blinked rapidly. “I know it’s stupid, Sanson.” He couldn’t look his friend in the eyes. “But I don’t have any other ideas. Do you?”

  Sanson paused for a long moment. “I saw some dead wood on the bank that might work,” he said finally, and Kip knew it was his way of telling Kip he trusted him.

  “Then let’s go,” Kip said.

  “Kip, do you want to… I don’t know, say goodbye?” Sanson nodded in the direction of Kip’s mother.

  Kip swallowed, holding the knife-case in a white-knuckled grip. And say what? I’m sorry I was a failure, a disappointment? That I loved you, even if you never loved me? “No,” he said. “Let’s go.”

  Chapter 12

  The boys crept out of the cave. Kip went first. Apparently that was the price of becoming the leader. Kip had been under these same stars on the river dozens of times, but tonight there was hunger in the cool air. The wind had changed direction, and now the smells of the light, misting rain opening the earth mingled with woodsmoke and the faint, fresh fragrance of the oranges ripening on the trees. Always before, that scent had cheered Kip. Tonight it was faint, ephemeral, as fragile as Kip’s chances.

  They made it to the river’s edge without seeing any soldiers. They’d floated the river before, all four of them grabbing a few planks of wood for extra buoyancy, but mostly just lying back and letting the current carry them. But they’d always waited until late fall, when the river was lower. Even then, they’d all sported dozens of scrapes and bruises from the rocks they couldn’t avoid. It was the middle of summer now, and though the river was lower than in the spring, it was still high and swift. That meant they would be able to float over rocks that would scrape them in the fall, but the rocks they couldn’t avoid they would hit much faster.

  Sanson found the sticks he’d seen before while Kip waited anxiously, trying to peer downriver for any hint of the soldiers. The clouds over the village were glowing orange, lit by the fires below them. Sanson returned with a few branches, not enough for both of them. The boys looked at each other. “You take them,” Kip whispered. “I float better than you.”

  “What do we do if they see us?” Sanson asked.

  Kip’s nerve almost failed him as he thought about it. What could they do? Run away? Swim away? Even if they made it to the banks of the river, where could they go? The town was on fire and there were only fields around town. Men on horses with dogs helping them would find Kip and Sanson in no time.

  “Play dead,” Kip said. After all, we shouldn’t be the only bodies in the water. Actually that wasn’t true; this far upstream, they should be the only bodies in the water. If any of the soldiers realized that, the boys would quickly become real corpses.

  The water was cold even this far from the mountains, but it wasn’t freezing. Kip sat down in it, and the current began pulling him toward town. Sanson followed. They were pulled around the first bend and approaching the spot where Kip had first come to the river when he saw the flaw in his plan.

  To play dead meant that in the sections of river that were most dangerous, the places where he and Sanson would most want to see or listen to find out if they’d been discovered, they’d have to keep their ears submerged and their eyes fixed on the clouds above. If they were discovered, Kip’s plan guaranteed that they wouldn’t know it until too late.

  They should get out of the water. He couldn’t do this. Kip glanced back. Sanson was already lying back, floating on his back, ears covered, limbs loose. He’d been pulled over to the other side of the river, and the current had already brought his lighter body even with Kip. Kip’s heart hammered. If he got out now, Sanson wouldn’t know it. Kip wouldn’t be able to grab his friend without making so much noise that it would rouse anyone within hundreds of paces.

  A voice spoke out of the gloom on the riverbank. “Yes, Your Majesty. We think the drafter climbed up into that tree. The dogs tracked him that far and lost him.”

  Kip saw the torch first. Someone was approaching the bank of the river, not five paces downstream. His first thought—to run like hell—would get him killed. He swept his arms once, twice, paddling downstream, then he lay back. The cold water closed over his ears, muffling all sound except the desperate thumping of his pulse.

  The bank here was raised a pace and a half, high enough that even lying back, Kip could see the man. Kip wasn’t two paces away, and the torch the man held illuminated an imperious face in its flickering orange light. Even warmed in torchlight, there was something fundamentally cold about that face, an unpleasant smirk hiding in the corner of that mouth. The king—for Kip had no doubt, even in half a second of seeing him, that this man was King Garadul—was not yet out of his twenties but already half bald, with the rest of his hair combed to his shoulders. He had a prominent nose over a tight, immaculate beard and thick black brows. The king stared upstream, a vein on his forehead visible even in the torchlight, gazing at the opposite bank where Kip had crossed. His angry question was barely more than a murmur through the water closed around Kip’s ears.

  Then the king turned just as Kip was starting to get downstream of him. And he turned left, toward Kip. Kip didn’t move a muscle, but it wasn’t because he was being smart. He felt warmth blooming in the cold water between his legs.

  It was only the torch directly between the king and Kip that saved the boys. His eyes went right over them, but blinded by that light in the darkness, he saw nothing. He turned, swore something, and disappeared.

  Kip floated down the river, head back, almost disbelieving that he was alive. The water was cold around him, the stars were pinpricks in Orholam’s mantle above. They were more beautiful than he’d ever realized. Each star had its own color, its own hue; brilliant rubies, startling sapphires, and even here and there an elusive emerald. For perhaps twenty paces, Kip floated in utter peace, enrapt by the beauty.

  Then he hit a rock. It struck his foot first and spun him around so he was floating sideways. Then another rock, mostly submerged, caught his shirt and flipped him facedown in the water. He gasped and flailed, freezing with fear as his head came clear of the water and he realized how loud he’d been.

  A little way down the river, Sanson had pulled his head out of the water and was staring at Kip with horror. How could Kip make so much noise? Kip looked away, ashamed. They floated in silence for a long minute, staring into the darkness, waiting to see if any soldiers would appear. They did their best to avoid the rocks, legs pointed downstream, hands paddling in little circles to keep themselves afloat. But no one came.

  They floated as close together as they could, though Kip knew it was unwise. Tw
o bodies floating separately might not be remarkable, but two floating side by side? Still, he didn’t move away. Silence settled over the boys as they came closer and closer to the bridge where their friends had died that morning. It seemed so long ago now.

  And then Kip saw her, lying on the riverbank. The soldiers who’d murdered Isa had pulled their arrows out of her body. But aside from turning her over, they hadn’t moved her corpse. She lay on her back, eyes open, head turned left toward Kip, dark hair waving in the river. One arm was raised over her head, not drifting in the current but instead stiff as a felled tree. The underside of her arm and even her face was a horrific dark purple with pooled blood.

  Kip put his feet down on the slick rocks of the riverbed to go to her. He was about to stand when some sixth sense stopped him. He hesitated and, still lying in the water, looked around as much as he could.

  There! Standing on the bridge, with only his head visible, the soldier kept watch. So they weren’t stupid. They’d figured that whoever this drafter was that they’d run into earlier, he’d have the decency to come back and bury his friends.

  The current was carrying Kip downstream. No decision was a decision.

  But what could he do? Face soldiers? If there was one, there might be ten, and if ten, maybe a hundred. Kip was no fighter, he was a child. He was fat, weak. One man would be one man too many.

  Kip turned away from Isa’s corpse and lay back in the water once more. He didn’t want to remember her like this anyway. A knot formed in his throat, so hard and so tight it threatened to strangle him. Only his fear of the soldier above kept him from crying as he floated under Green Bridge.

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