The black prism, p.8
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       The Black Prism, p.8

           Brent Weeks
 

  “Gavin, I expect you to be pleasant but not encouraging with the girl. If your brother fails the family in this, you will have to marry her.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  But then the ball had begun. Gavin had taken the first dance with Karris and the worst possible thing had happened. Holding her petite form against him, her hand in his squeezing out the beat, and looking into her jade green eyes—at the time, she had had only the tiniest flecks of red in her irises—Gavin had been enchanted. By the time Dazen came to dance with her, Gavin was in love. Or lust anyway.

  I’ve been betraying Karris since before we even met.

  Karris squeezed his hand harder than she had been. He looked over. Her eyes held a question. He must have tensed, and Karris had caught it. She’d always been deeply physical. She hugged or brushed or touched those she loved all the time. Dancing was as natural to her as walking. She didn’t touch Gavin often anymore.

  He gave a dismissive smile and shook his head. It’s nothing.

  Karris opened her mouth to speak, paused. “Make the tubes bigger!” she shouted, and laughed, the barest edge on it. A forced laugh.

  So she remembered the dance, squeezing out the beat into his hand. Of course she did. But she was letting it go, and he was grateful for it. He widened the reeds as far as they could handle, and soon they were going faster than he’d ever gone by himself. He hadn’t meant to show her this next trick, but he couldn’t help himself. He knew it would bring her real joy. And what fun is it being a genius if no one appreciates you?

  He released Karris’s hand. This part was the most dangerous. At this speed, running into something deliberately was stupid. And yet…

  “Brace yourself!” he shouted. Throwing his right fist forward, Gavin threw green luxin out as far in front of them as he could. It landed on the waves with a splash. A moment later, the skimmer hit the green luxin ramp.

  In an instant, they were airborne. Flying, twenty paces above the waves.

  Gavin released the whole reed apparatus and drafted. The luxin of the platform shot up his and Karris’s backs and then shot out from his arms. They were falling now, fifteen paces from the waves, and even if hitting them at this speed meant they would skip rather than just splash, they were still falling twenty paces. The luxin spun out in every color, trying to form despite the gale-force wind.

  Ten paces to the waves. Five. At this speed, hitting the water would be like hitting granite.

  Then the luxin hardened in its shape, which was as much like a condor’s wings as Gavin had been able to manage. The wings caught the air, and Karris and Gavin shot into the sky.

  The first time Gavin had attempted it, he’d tried to hold one wing in each hand. He’d learned then why birds have hollow bones and weigh almost nothing. The lift had nearly torn his arms off. He’d gone home wet, bruised, and angry, with most of the muscles in his arms and chest torn. By making the condor all one piece instead, he’d taken away the need for muscle at all. The whole thing flew on the strength and flexibility of the luxin, speed, and wind.

  Of course, it didn’t really fly. It glided. He’d tried to use the reeds, but it hadn’t worked so far. For the time being, the condor had a limited range.

  Karris wasn’t complaining. She was wide-eyed. “Gavin! Orholam, Gavin, we’re flying!” She laughed, carefree. He’d always loved that about her. Her laughter was freedom for both of them. She’d forgotten about the dance. That made it worth it.

  “Get in the middle,” he said. He didn’t have to shout. They were completely inside the body of the condor. There was no wind. “I’m not very good at turning; mostly I lean one way or the other.” Indeed, because he was heavier, they were already turning toward his side. Together, they leaned toward her side until the condor straightened.

  “The White doesn’t know about this, does she?” Karris asked.

  “Only you,” he said. “Besides…”

  “No one else could do the drafting required,” Karris finished for him.

  “Galib and Tarkian are probably the only polychromes who could handle all the colors necessary, and neither of them is fast enough. If I can make it easy enough for other drafters, I might tell her.”

  “Might?”

  “I’ve been thinking about the ways this could be used. In war, mostly. The Seven Satrapies already fight and scheme over the few polychromes there are. This would make it a hundred times worse.”

  “Is that Garriston?” she said abruptly, looking north and west. “Already?”

  “The real question is whether you want to crash onto land or into the water,” Gavin said.

  “Crash?”

  “I’m not very good at landing yet, and with so much extra weight—”

  “Excuse me?” Karris said.

  “What? I haven’t tried flying with a manatee aboard either, I’m just—”

  “You did not just compare me to a sea cow.” Her expression made ice look warm.

  “No! It’s just that all the extra weight…” What is it you’re supposed to do when you’re in a hole? Oh. “Um.” He cleared his throat.

  She grinned suddenly, dimples flashing. “After all this time, Gavin, I still get you.” She laughed.

  He laughed ruefully, but the pain went deep. And I still don’t get you. Maybe she would have been happy with Dazen.

  Chapter 14

  It felt like years before Kip reached the bridge post. He paused, looking back toward the drafters as Sanson caught up with him. The master was still striking his apprentice, who’d curled into a ball, screaming. They definitely hadn’t seen Kip or Sanson, but they were also turned toward them, and if they looked up, the bridge post wasn’t big enough to hide both boys.

  The bridge groaned, and Kip looked up. The opposite post, on the island side, was aflame, and the animals were pushing away from it, but too scared to go back into town, which was also burning. That pushed them against the rail directly above the boys—and against the gap in the rail the horse had made—mere paces to their left.

  Half a dozen rats splashed into the water, kicked by the other animals. Each of them began swimming in a different direction, including several right at the boys.

  Kip’s stomach knotted in visceral fear. It was ridiculous that a rat should freeze him while two drafters didn’t—but he hated rats. Hated hated hated them. Sanson yanked on his sleeve, pulling him away. Kip launched off the post, splashing awkwardly. He turned back, making sure none of the rats latched onto his clothes. His eyes flicked up to the apprentice drafter Zymun, the boy’s head tucked between his arms as his master beat him. But then Zymun stiffened.

  Zymun shouted something and stood, and his master stopped hitting him. Kip got his first good look at the boy. He couldn’t have been more than a year older than Kip, with unruly black hair, dark eyes, and a wide, fleshy mouth curved into a triumphant grin. Even in the moment Kip saw him, Zymun’s and his master’s skin were filling with red, the swirls like smoke being inhaled, but then compacted until it filled their bodies.

  Kip turned and swam as hard as he could. There was one metal screen in front of the waterfall to keep boats or swimmers from going over, and a dock and stairs next to it. Sanson was already to the screen, more than ten paces ahead of Kip.

  After a few more hard strokes, Kip glanced back. The bridge and the jostling animals blocked much of his view of the two drafters, but as he looked, he saw the master run a few quick steps forward. He jumped, spread his arms wide, and slapped his hands together. A shimmering ball of red luxin formed between his hands, and as they slapped together it rocketed forward. The drafter was blasted back by the force of what he’d thrown, but still landed on his feet.

  The ball caught fire in midair, right before it plowed through the animals on the bridge. Sheep, horses, and pigs exploded in every direction, body parts flying. Wild shrieks filled the air, sounding almost human. The burning missile tore off the railing and blasted a chunk out of the middle of the bridge itself, and then it streaked over K
ip’s head with a fiery roar and smashed the wood stairs above the dock. Kip didn’t think the drafter had missed, and for a moment he thought the man was trying to trap them.

  The drawbridge cracked, and all the animals on it stumbled toward the sagging middle.

  Now Zymun ran forward. He slapped red hand to red hand, but this time Kip couldn’t even see the ball of luxin—because it wasn’t aimed at him. One moment, Zymun was falling back, completely bowled over from the force of what he had thrown, and the next, the entire wood bridge exploded.

  Flames and blood and spinning, detached body parts leapt into the sky. One great flaming section of the bridge streaked toward Kip, tumbling and filling his vision. It hit the water beside him with a great hissing splash.

  When Kip could see again, he was pressed against the metal screen in front of the waterfall, surrounded by scraps and shards of wood, some sections still burning, one great section of the bridge slowly sinking, and hundreds of rats, some burnt to charcoal, others wounded, others simply wet, but all the living desperate to get out of the water. The larger animals hadn’t been blown so far by the explosion, but they were coming, thrashing, kicking, splashing, biting each other in their fear and pain.

  “Kip! Climb over! We’ve almost made it!” Sanson shouted. He was already on the other side of the metal screen.

  “Don’t move!” the older drafter shouted. His skin was already filling with red swirls. “Don’t move or the next one’s coming for your head!”

  Kip grabbed the screen, but as soon as his hands touched it, he felt little claws scratching on his legs, then more on his back. He froze. Rats. First one or two, then half a dozen.

  His eyes clamped shut as he felt the claws scramble onto his neck, and then over his head. In holding on to the screen, his body had become a bridge—the only way out of the water—and the rats swarmed him.

  In moments, it wasn’t half a dozen rats. It was hundreds.

  Kip’s muscles locked. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe. He didn’t dare even open his eyes. Rats were in his hair. A rat had fallen down the front of his shirt and was clawing his chest. Rats were running up his arms.

  “Move, Kip! Move or die!” Sanson shouted.

  Suddenly, Kip felt detached from his own body. He was nearly drowning, the town was on fire, almost everyone he knew was dead, two drafters were trying to kill him, and he was worried about rats. Even as he clung here, the drafters were preparing the death blow, and he was too frightened to move. Ridiculous. Pathetic.

  He felt a hand grab him, and his eyes snapped open. It was Sanson. Sanson had climbed back up the grate and was braving the rats to try to help Kip over. Kip shook like a dog, dislodging perhaps a dozen rats, but leaving many more. Still terrified, he began climbing up the grate.

  He threw one leg up onto the top of the grate, but he couldn’t pull himself up. He was too heavy. A rat fell into his gaping pant leg and began scurrying up against his bare skin.

  Sanson grabbed Kip’s clothes with both hands and yelled with the effort. Kip pulled one last time, and felt his body rising, rising—and finally rolling over the top of the grate. He crashed into the water on the other side.

  The current pulled at him immediately. When he surfaced, Sanson was yelling something, but Kip couldn’t even make out the words. He reached down into his pants and grabbed the struggling rat and threw it away.

  Then he was at the waterfall. There were ledges running perpendicular to the falls, and the town daredevils would sprint along those and leap over the falls. It was too late for Kip to try that. There were sections where the water was shallower than others. Kip turned desperately and his feet caught an underwater rock. The force of the current pushed him forward, and he squatted on the rock, gathering his feet underneath him, flailing his hands to right himself. The pool at the base of the falls was plenty deep, but if he didn’t jump far enough, he’d hit rocks on his way down.

  He jumped as hard as he could. To his surprise, he actually went the direction he was trying. For a moment, there was perfect freedom. Peace. The roar of the water drowned out all other sound, all other thought. It was beautiful. Somehow, he and Sanson had been floating in the river all night, and now the sun was just peeking above the horizon, beating back the midnight black of one horizon to deep blue, to icy blue, to pinks and oranges that lit clouds like halos.

  Then Kip realized how fast he was falling. His body was at an angle to the fast-approaching water below. From watching the bolder youths, he knew he had to hit feet first or headfirst with arms extended or he would be hurt badly.

  There was no way he was going headfirst, so he arched his back and wheeled his arms.

  Whatever he’d done, it seemed to be the exact wrong thing, or maybe he’d already been twisting forward, because he found himself parallel to the water. He was going to land the most colossal bellyflop ever seen. From this height, it might well kill him.

  Not only that, but he realized that he was falling with the water—all the divers he’d ever seen had jumped out beyond it. The water always glanced off one rock on the way down.

  He didn’t even have time to think a curse before a rock smacked his foot, hard. He threw his arms out—

  —as he crashed into the water headfirst, feeling like someone had just hit him over the top of the head with a board. His arms felt like they’d been torn off. And he’d forgotten to take a breath before he hit. Kip opened his eyes underwater in time to see something big streak down into the water beside him in a gush of bubbles. Sanson!

  Sanson had hit feet first, but had been spun when he hit the water so he was upside down. He seemed stunned for a moment, unmoving, then his eyes opened, but he was looking away from Kip. Obviously disoriented from the fall, Sanson began swimming—down. Kip grabbed his foot to get his attention.

  But Sanson panicked. He thrashed and kicked Kip square in the nose. Kip yelled—and watched the last of his air go rushing toward the surface.

  Sanson turned, saw Kip, saw the direction the bubbles were going, and then saw the blood blossoming in the dark water. He grabbed Kip, and together the boys swam for the surface.

  Kip barely made it. He gasped, inhaling water and blood, and then coughed it out. He coughed again, then retched. Sanson tugged on his arm. “Kip, help me! We’ve got to get to shore before we get to the rapids.”

  That woke Kip up. Within fifty paces of the deep, still area where the waterfall landed, there was another set of rapids so steep they were almost a series of waterfalls themselves. And already the current was getting swifter. Foot aching, head splitting, nose streaming blood, he swam with Sanson.

  They made it to shore with ten paces to spare. The boys hauled themselves onto a grassy bank and inspected the damage, exhausted. Sanson was uninjured, and he looked sheepish. “Sorry, Kip. I mean, about your nose and all. I never liked swimming. Always thought there were things in the deep that’d grab me.”

  Pinching his bleeding nose, Kip looked at his friend. “Oo sabed my life ub dere,” he said. “Oo din’t eben break ma nose.” Kip was more concerned about the foot he’d struck on his way down. He unlaced his shoe with one hand and tugged the shoe and stocking off. His foot was sore, and there were some nice scrapes along the top, but when he rubbed it he didn’t think any bones were broken. He began tugging his wet stocking back on, which was hard to do while still pinching his nose with one hand.

  “I can’t believe we got—” Sanson started.

  “Away?” Kip asked. He had abandoned trying to tie his shoe with one hand and was sniffing hard, trying to keep blood from dripping all over him. Even as he finished the knot, though, he knew why Sanson had stopped speaking. They were bathed in a harsh red glare.

  Looking up, Kip saw a red flare hanging in the sky above them, marking their location for the rest of the king’s army—who had to be nearby. The flare’s smoke trail led back to the top of the falls, where the two drafters stood, looking at them.

  Kip and Sanson had esc
aped two drafters. Now they had to escape the rest of the army.

  Kip hopped to his feet, sniffing hard. He thought he was going to hyperventilate. Then he saw a horseman on the ridge that wound from above the waterfall down to the Sendinas’ farm. He abruptly forgot about his bleeding nose. The horseman would have to go farther to go around, but he had a horse. Kip and Sanson had to make it down the trail along the rapids and get to the farm before the horseman did.

  Then Kip saw three other horsemen join the first. And then another, and another.

  He and Sanson started running.

  The waterfall kicked up huge clouds of mist, day and night, and the valley stayed dark for hours longer than the surrounding country. When the flare winked out, Kip lost sight of both the horsemen and the trail.

  He stopped, terrified. Broad-leafed plants, slick with the mist, obscured both sides of the tiny trail. One foot set on those, and he would plunge down the rocky incline to the river. In the rapids, he’d be battered to death.

  He needed to see. He tried to look at things out of the corners of his eyes, the way Master Danavis had taught him. The part of your eye that focused on things was best at seeing colors, but outside the focus area was better at seeing light and dark.

  “Move!” Sanson said.

  Kip looked over his shoulder. Sanson’s face looked like it was on fire. Kip took a step back and tottered on the sharp edge of the trail. Everywhere Sanson’s skin was exposed, he looked hot. Kip could even see the steam evaporating off his arms in little orange whorls.

  “What’s wrong with your eyes?” Sanson asked. “Never mind. Move, Kip!”

  Sanson was right again. It didn’t matter what Kip was seeing, or how. He turned and started forward. Somehow, the wonder of it all crowded out his fear. The plants were like torches lighting his way, even gently illuminating the trail between.

 
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