The black prism, p.7
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       The Black Prism, p.7

           Brent Weeks
 

  He didn’t even think of the dagger in its ornate case strapped to his back until they were far downstream. He could’ve tried; he could’ve at least gotten out of the water and taken a look. Isa deserved more.

  Soon they were drifting into town, where the river flowed in a narrower, deeper channel, lined on each side with great rocks and crossed at intervals by sturdy wood bridges.

  Parts of the town were still on fire, though Kip didn’t know whether that was because they were built of materials that were less flammable or because the fire had spread more slowly through some areas and was only reaching some buildings now. Soon they encountered their first corpse. A horse. Still harnessed to a wagon full of late-season oranges, it had been trapped in a section of the town that was now smoldering. Maddened by the fire, the mare had leapt into the river. The wagon had followed and either crushed or drowned it, spilling oranges everywhere.

  Kip thought it might be the Sendina family’s horse and wagon. Sanson, never overly sentimental, grabbed a few oranges from the wreckage of the wagon and stuffed them in his pockets.

  Sanson was probably right. Kip hadn’t eaten all day, not that he’d noticed until now, but he was starving. Despite feeling like he might throw up, he reached over the half-submerged horse and grabbed a few oranges too.

  They came closer to the water market, and it kept getting hotter. Kip heard strange screams. There were fires still burning ahead. The water market was a small, circular lake that was dredged regularly to keep a uniform depth. It was said that once both river and town had been much larger. The river, supposedly, had been navigable from below the falls all the way to the Cerulean Sea, and then from Rekton all the way to the mountains, bringing traders from all of the Seven Satrapies, hungry for Tyrea’s famous oranges and other citrus fruits. Now, only the smallest flat-bottomed boats could make the trip downstream and the number of robbers happy to relieve traders of anything valuable convinced most farmers to send their oranges on the slower, heavily armed, and much less profitable caravans. Even the smallest, hardest, and thickest-skinned oranges sent by caravans over land would rot long before they could reach the distant courts where nobles and satraps would pay a fortune for such a delicacy. So almost every year some young farmer tried the river, and a few times they got through, all the way to Garriston, and came home with a fortune—if they managed to avoid the robbers again on the way back.

  But for the most part, the trade for which the water market had been built was long dead. The townsfolk kept it for pride and for their own use. All the roads were already built around the water market, all their storehouses surrounded, so they maintained the barges and floated around the circle every market day according to rules and an etiquette that no outsider could hope to understand. In the middle of the water market was an island, connected by a drawbridge to the north shore.

  As they came fully in sight of the island, Kip saw where the screams had come from. The drawbridge was down, and the island was filled with hundreds of animals trapped by the fires closing in around them. Even the drawbridge, straining with the weight of dozens of horses, sheep, pigs, and a grotesque carpet of rats, was smoking at one end. Eyes rolling in fear, the brick-maker’s draft horse looked like it was on the verge of bolting, though where it would go was impossible to say. The animals filled the island to overflowing; they were packed shoulder to flank over the entire little circle and the bridge.

  Kip was so absorbed in the spectacle that he began floating right into the middle of the river between the docks and the island.

  “Master, it’s so hot,” a young voice said behind and above Kip.

  Kip thrashed and turned. On the raised bank of the market circle stood a young man a little older than Kip. The young man wore only a red loincloth. His curly black hair and bare chest glistened with sweat. He was looking over his shoulder, apparently to a man behind him. Kip could see nothing of that man, but he didn’t wait. Kip thought they must have heard him when he thrashed, but apparently the roar of the fires drowned out the sound.

  Motioning to Sanson, Kip swam toward the wall. Sanson followed. The young man’s master said something, but it was lost in the noise. Kip and Sanson clung to the wall with their bodies pressed as close to it as they could, looking up.

  “Watch this,” they heard the man say. A whirling lasso of fire spun into view over their heads and then flicked forward. It wrapped around one post of the drawbridge and stuck there. The rest of the rope flared out of existence, but that length stayed, smoldering, little wisps of flame escaping against the wood, splinters turning black and curling back, smoking.

  Kip was at once horrified and captivated. In all the years he’d spent helping Master Danavis, the drafter had never done anything like this.

  “Now you try,” the man said.

  For a moment, nothing happened. Kip looked over at Sanson. Both of them were stuck to the wall, arms spread wide to get good holds on the stone so they wouldn’t have to tread water. Kip had the sudden feeling that they’d been set up. The drafter knew they were here; he’d just told his apprentice that so Kip and Sanson would stay in place. They were going around. He should swim, right now, as fast as he could.

  He tried to breathe deeply, swallowing on his fear. Sanson returned his gaze, his own eyes worried, but not understanding what Kip was thinking.

  Then a wheel of flame spun out above them. The animals on the bridge and the island shrieked in a hundred different ways. The wheel drew back and unraveled, becoming a whip, somewhat like what the master drafter had sent out just a minute before—but much, much larger. This was the youth’s work?

  The whip snapped out, but not at the post of the drawbridge. Instead, it cracked audibly as it snapped on the flank of the brick-maker’s draft horse. Crazed with pain and fear, the old beast surged forward. Kip heard the boy laughing as the horse rammed directly into the rail of the drawbridge. The rail cracked and broke open. Several pigs and thin-coated sheep fell into the water.

  The draft horse tried to stop, suddenly aware of the drop, but its hooves scraped wood for only a moment before it plunged headfirst into the water. Water splashed all the way over to Kip and Sanson.

  “What was that?! Was that what I told you to do?” the master drafter demanded.

  Quickly, Kip looked from the animals in the water to the bridge. The bridge post was just starting to catch fire in earnest now. Once it climbed up to the drawbridge, the animals would go crazy, just as the horse had. Kip didn’t think the drawbridge itself would catch fire quickly, but he couldn’t be sure.

  If he and Sanson wanted to get out of the water market and out of the burning town, the fastest way was to go under the straining bridge in front of them and directly over the waterfall to head downriver. The other way would be to go the long way around the circular lake, exposed to the eyes of the drafter and his apprentice above them the whole time. Either way they went, at some point they would be visible.

  Of the animals that had fallen into the water, the big horse was the only good swimmer. It was kicking toward the other side of the water market, away from the boy and the fire. The sheep were screaming, little legs churning frantically. The pigs were squealing, lunging at each other, biting.

  There was a meaty slap and a cry of pain from above the boys.

  “You never go beyond my orders, Zymun! Do you understand?!”

  The drafter kept yelling, but Kip stopped listening. The drafters were distracted. It was now or never. Kip drew a few quick breaths, nodded at Sanson—who looked bewildered—and launched off the wall, swimming toward the drawbridge.

  Chapter 13

  Gavin drafted a blue platform, thin, barely visible against the water it floated on.

  “You did that just to make me nervous, didn’t you?” Karris asked.

  Gavin grinned and stepped onto the scull. He extended a hand to Karris, giving her a little bow. She ignored his hand and hopped aboard.

  He pulled up the keel as she landed, so the scull zipped out f
rom under her feet. She yelped—and he caught her with a cushion of softer green luxin that quickly morphed into a seat. He lifted the seat and placed it on the front of the scull, then bound both of their packs to the scull near his feet.

  “Gavin, I am not going to sit while you—” She tried to stand, and he threw the scull forward. With nothing to hold on to, she tumbled back into the chair with another yelp. Gavin laughed. Karris was one of the best warriors the Chromeria had—and she still squeaked when surprised.

  She shot a look back at him, peeved and amused at once.

  “I thought you’d like being swept off your feet,” he said.

  “You had your chance for that,” she shot back.

  His grin dropped into the waves like so many other treasures and disappeared.

  Karris looked dismayed. “Gavin, I…”

  “No, I deserved that. Please, go ahead and stand.”

  Sixteen years. You’d think we’d have both have moved on. Not that we haven’t both tried.

  “Thank you,” she said, but her voice was contrite. She stood up, feet wide, knees slightly bent.

  The scull was propelled by banks of little oars jutting out from each side. Through generations of study, green and blue drafters had figured out how to use gears and wheels and chains to drive the oars, each drafter customizing his craft to fit his own body so that he could propel it with whatever combination of arm and leg movements he preferred, and making whatever tweaks he thought made it more efficient. Because the craft had so little friction with the water, an athletic drafter could go the speed of a sprinting man for an hour.

  That was fast. Very fast. But it wasn’t nearly as fast as Gavin had promised. Still, he leaned fully forward, his body suspended in a web of luxin, arms and legs pumping. He elongated and narrowed the scull so it became a dagger knifing over the water’s face. They attained full speed as they left the harbor.

  Gavin was sweating, but it was a good, clean feeling. The wind blew in his face, carrying away any words either he or Karris might have said, and without words, there was simply her presence, the sight of her dark hair whipping in the sea wind, the strong lines of her face, skin glowing in the morning light, chin lifted, neck extended, enjoying the freedom as much as he was.

  Karris was facing forward, so she didn’t see him draft the luxin scoops into the water. Gavin had always thought there had to be a better way. After all, a drafter could throw a fireball at any speed, it was only dependent on will—if he threw something too big or too fast, of course, he might hurt himself from absorbing the kick—but sculls didn’t take advantage of will. They were instead perfect rowing watercraft that used muscle power more efficiently than any other machine. Gavin wanted to do better; he wanted to use magic the way a sail used wind.

  That had only led to ripping off a mast or two. But he refused to give up. It had been one of his seven goals when he’d still had seven years left to live: learn to travel faster than anyone thinks is possible.

  The solution had come to him from when he was a child, shooting seeds through a reed at his brothers. Air, trapped between a plug and the walls of the reed, could shoot a seed with much greater force than if you’d simply tried to throw it with your hand. After a lot of trial and error, he’d put the whole reed in the water, opening it at both ends so it traveled fully underwater. He attached another reed diagonally and shot plugs of magic down into the water and then out the back of the reeds.

  He let the oars drop and the whole mechanism fell away with barely a splash, luxin dissolving even as it hit the waves. He put his hands to the reeds.

  At the first thump, Karris jerked. She squatted deeper to lower her center of gravity and her hand went instinctively to her ataghan—except that it was in her pack. Then the scull leapt forward. The first great thumps shook everything as Gavin strained to get up to speed, his muscles knotting with effort. But within moments, the scull leveled off, and the tension on Gavin’s arms and shoulders eased somewhat. The plugs hit the water at a steady whup-whup-whup. The modified scull—what he called his skimmer—barely kissed the waves.

  There was still physical effort. Gavin was throwing a lot of force into the water, and his arms and shoulders were basically lifting all of his own weight plus Karris’s. But magic could be drafted from the whole body, so it was like carrying a heavy pack with the straps distributing the weight perfectly—strenuous, but not crushing. Still, in the last year of doing this every day, his shoulders and arms had gotten bigger than in his entire life.

  Karris turned. Her mouth literally hung open. She stared at the entire contraption, the scoops of blue luxin given flexibility throughout with green, with the super-flexible, sticky red where the plugs shot into the reeds so they wouldn’t be shattered. She straightened slowly, leaning into the wind, her back against Gavin so that she wasn’t creating another windbreak.

  He felt her shaking, and realized she was laughing with delight, though he could barely hear it. The wind blew away the smell of her hair too, but for a moment he imagined he could smell it again. It made him ache.

  “Watch this,” he shouted. In the distance, an island appeared. He leaned and the skimmer veered hard toward it. Indeed, he’d quickly learned that the skimmer was capable of maneuvering much faster than he could. The real limit was how quickly he could change direction without tearing himself in half. He leaned right and then left, carving beautiful turns on the calm seas. He angled the reeds down and the skimmer popped over one of the bigger waves and suddenly they were airborne.

  For more than a hundred paces, they flew, silent except for the sound of the wind, right over the little island. Then they landed like a skipping stone and were off once more.

  In the speed and wind and the closeness of Karris, Gavin finally felt free once more. Despite the warmth of the day, the wind was cold, and if Karris didn’t quite burrow into him, she did let her body fully relax against his, grateful for his warmth. If she got too cold, he knew, she would draft sub-red, but she was saving her strength. She didn’t know what waited for her in Tyrea.

  That he did—at least in part—lent sweetness to the moment. She would read the White’s letter and learn that he’d fathered a child while they were betrothed. Though she now professed no interest in his love life, it had been one of the questions she’d asked when he broke it off: Is there another woman? No. Have there ever been any other women while we’ve been betrothed? No, I swear it.

  Karris wouldn’t forgive him this time. It had taken years for her to forgive him for breaking their betrothal and refusing to answer why. But this, this was betrayal.

  Orholam, how he’d miss her.

  He avoided the shipping lanes and stayed far from shore. Around noon, he saw clouds ahead. It didn’t look like a storm, so he guessed that it was the island satrapy of Ilyta. It was a country of many ports and more pirates. The central government had collapsed decades ago, and now parts of it were ruled by whatever pirate lord was powerful at the moment. Most of the Seven Satrapies paid tribute to one or another of the pirate lords, enriching them and enabling them to do more piracy.

  Gavin had no fear of them, but he didn’t want to be seen either. While it might be good for the pirates to have another reason to fear the Chromeria, he’d prefer to keep his little invention secret for as long as possible. Besides, he was only using Ilyta as a landmark. It was a lot of trouble to use an astrolabe, and in the time it took him to calculate their position he could just skim around until he found it. Garriston was at the mouth of a large river. It was the busiest port in Tyrea, but that wasn’t saying much. He turned south.

  Karris said something to him, but he couldn’t hear her, so he slowed the skimmer.

  “Can I try too?” she asked.

  “I thought you were saving your strength.”

  “You can’t have all the fun.” Because he was behind her, he couldn’t see her whole smile, but he saw one dimple and one raised eyebrow.

  He widened the skimmer’s hull so they could sta
nd side by side, and handed over the starboard reed. Karris always preferred to draft from her right hand.

  At first they were out of synch, and the craft shuddered and strained as they threw the plugs at different speeds and times. He looked over at her, but before he could say anything she took his right hand in her left. She squeezed a tempo to keep him on the beat as she used to do when they danced.

  The memory hit him as if the skimmer had clipped a reef and smashed him into the sea: Karris, fifteen years old, before the war, at the yearly Luxlords’ Ball on top of the Chromeria. Her light blonde hair was long and straight and as fine and shiny as her green silk dress. Their fathers were in discussion on which of the Guile brothers she would marry. Gavin, the elder brother and likely to become the next Prism, was of course the richer prize. His father, Andross Guile, didn’t care about Karris’s beauty.

  “You want a beautiful woman? That’s what mistresses are for.” But though he didn’t care for the boys’ preferences—alliances were to be bought as cheaply as possible, and the marriage of his firstborn was the most valuable stone he had to play—Andross Guile was well aware that other families weren’t always so calculating. Some fathers were loath to marry their daughters to men they didn’t care for.

  Andross Guile had ordered the younger Dazen to seduce Karris. “There’s a servant’s room one floor down. Here’s the key. Twenty minutes after you leave with her, I’ll make some pretext for her father and I to speak privately, and we’ll come down. I expect to catch you in the act. I’ll be surprised, dismayed, furious. I’ll most likely strike you. But what is one to do? The passions of youth and so forth. You understand?”

  Both brothers did. Luxlord Rissum White Oak was reputed to be hot-tempered. Andross Guile would strike Dazen first and get himself between the two so White Oak didn’t try to kill Dazen. But the real point was that if Karris were caught making love with Dazen, her father would have no choice. So as not to shame the White Oaks, Karris would quickly be married to Dazen. The families would be allied, and Andross Guile would still have his more valuable elder son to play.

 
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