Prism — Chapter 1
For that one moment, I almost believed we had won.
It was that moment when the crowd had deafened the plaza of Emeya with their hail to Zhabyr as the High King, when the sikhir, the petty kings, had stooped to pay him homage. When I felt Yatol’s arm around me, holding me quietly in the background. For just that one moment, I almost let myself draw a sigh of relief. I almost let myself believe that life would return to normal.
And then, everything changed. Two black eyes had smiled up at me from the chaos, and I felt the world shatter around me.
The crowd milling below took a sudden unsettled, bewildered feel. A strange hostility swept over the seven sikhir standing in state to my right. And it felt as if all the energy in the plaza had been sucked away, leaving only a suffocating void in its wake. Even the sounds came muffled, like I stood somewhere at a far distance. Only the scent of smoke from a coal brazier and Yatol’s hand clasping my arm grounded me in reality. Then, always so attuned to my thoughts, he bent his head to mine.
“Merelin,” he murmured. “What’s wrong?”
I jolted, and snapped my gaze back to the spot where I’d seen the doppelgänger-like being that Lohka had called an entaka. There was no sign of it now, just people milling around aimlessly. I could feel their uncertainty, their confusion. Or maybe it was just mine. Maybe they weren’t uncertain at all.
Did they look happy? Was anyone smiling?
I tried to fix my gaze on the swirl of faces, but they all passed like turbid smoke, vague and unformed, a spectrum of paints swirling away under running water. But there — was that the entaka, there? Or there? Everything swam in the void. Even the figures of my friends here on the dais blurred…faded away…
I spun around, throwing a desperate glance up at Yatol’s face. When my eyes met his, radiant and concerned, I buried myself in his arms. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. He just held me while I shook like a child.
“I can’t see,” I whispered. “I can’t see anything.”
His arms tightened around me. He still wasn’t very strong, but at least he was conscious and upright. It was the first time in three weeks that we’d really been together, and of course I had to pick that moment to feel like I was losing my mind.
After a moment he shifted his hold on me and said gently, “Maybe because your eyes are closed?”
I managed a feeble laugh. “No! I just…” I shook my head. “Did it feel like something changed just now?”
He put his hands on my shoulders, pushing me a step back so he could look me in the eyes. “Like what?”
“I get the feeling we’re not finished here.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Still the crowd swirled in a wild whirl of color and light, dizzying.
“I can’t see!” I said again, desperate. “All I feel is confusion…all I see is the void…” I looked up at him, and wished I hadn’t when I saw the alarm in his eyes. “Am I going crazy?”
He cupped my face in his hands, his eyes searching mine. “Can you see me?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
His thumb brushed my cheek. I wondered why, until I realized I was crying. Either that or I was going blind, and my eyes were watering on their own. I blinked rapidly, trying to force back the terror.
I’m going crazy, I thought, calmly enough. That’s it. I’ve finally snapped. Then, a little more rationally, But don’t they say that if you’re crazy, you don’t wonder if you are? So maybe I’m all right. Maybe I’m just tired…
A movement on the dais caught Yatol’s attention, and he withdrew his hands from my face to turn toward Zhabyr and Toval, the sikh of Emeya. Technically the formality of the moment hadn’t ended. We were still supposed to be all in state while the crowds dispersed below us. I forced my gaze to follow Yatol’s, but winced at the sight of my friends’ wavering forms. Zhabyr looked half a ghost, the band of his scarab-winged crown glaring like one of those white glow sticks they give out on the Fourth of July. Aniira beside him was little more than a wisp of smoke. And behind them —
“Oh God, no!” I cried, stumbling back, raising my arms.
But nothing could hide me from those shallow black eyes, that mocking smile.
“Merelin!” Yatol cried. “What’s wrong?”
“Him,” I gasped, pointing. “It. It’s right there, look!”
The entaka just grinned sympathetically at me and shook its head, and all the blood rushed from my face. Why could I see it, but couldn’t see my friends? Every detail of its body flashed in bright clarity in my vision. The straight white-gold hair, the lean, catlike grace of its muscles. The flawless pallor of its skin, coral lips still smiling.
After a moment it turned to study the people close by. It walked up to Sikh Toval and stood just at his shoulder, surveying him up and down with disconcerting scrutiny. Then it passed to Zhabyr, peering into his eyes, its own face not inches from the King’s. It shot a meaningful glance back at me, then shrugged and shook its head again.
“Zhabyr!” I screamed.
My knees hit the wooden dais, hard. And with the shock of the impact everything came rushing back. I could see everyone. I could see their bewildered faces, their disapproving gazes. I could see some of the people down below stopping to stare up at the dais again, only to turn away disappointedly when they realized nothing had happened. But I couldn’t see the entaka anywhere. Zhabyr spun away from the edge of the platform and strode over to us. He was frowning, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell if it was from concern or anger.
“What is the matter?”
“Don’t be angry with her,” Yatol said, warning.
Indignation sparked in Zhabyr’s eyes, then it faded as he turned back to me. This time I could see his compassion, and wondered if I’d just missed it there before.
“Counselor?” he asked.
“The entaka,” I whispered, too low for Zhabyr to hear.
He reached down and helped me to my feet. “What did you say?”
“I saw it again.”
I didn’t need to specify what “it” was. Zhabyr released my arm, turning to scan the crowds carefully.
I wanted to tell him that it had been standing right next to him, closer than we were standing now, but the voice just died in my throat. He hadn’t seen it. What sort of creature was the entaka, that it could approach so close to a person without them even sensing its presence? Had it ever done that to me? And those eyes, those black eyes…
Sikh Toval stalked over to us, scowling at me like I was a kid misbehaving in a museum.
“This is insulting!” he seethed. “You permit your counselors to make such a scene, my liege? Here, on my dais, in my city? It’s hardly becoming for someone in your Court to behave like this in public.”
My temper flared. Before I could take a step toward him, though, Yatol caught my arm and held it.
“Your own behavior is a disgrace,” Zhabyr said, facing the older man with a furious pride that made me relieved to be his ally. “You have no right to judge her. She is worth more than all of you combined, and I will be the judge of what is acceptable in my own Court.”
Toval nodded scornfully at me. “The very fact that you’d appoint a child as your Counselor makes me question the seriousness of your rule, my liege. Is this all just a game to you?”
Yatol’s hand flashed to the knife strapped to his back.
“Wait,” Zhabyr said.
“Unless,” Toval added, trying to ignore Yatol, “you think you are being serious? But I can only think of one person…” His voice died, and his gaze snapped to my face, blood draining from his cheeks. “No,” he said. “You wouldn’t…”
“I don’t believe you’ve met my Counselor,” Zhabyr said, interrupting. “Her name is Prism.”
I barely avoided jumping in surprise. How did Zhabyr know about that name? I remembered when Shan had given it to me, in the cavern below the Academy when Toval’s troops were descending all around us. It was supposed to be a silly nickname, like Sniff, but apparently I was wrong about that. Zhabyr gave it to me now without hesitation, and I stood straight and still and accepted it.
Toval narrowed his eyes, skeptical. After a moment he took a step closer to Zhabyr.
“Do you think your pretty speech resolved all their doubts?” he asked, voice barely above a whisper. “A few sentimental words, and the people would be eating out of your hand? They’re still afraid, my liege. They still…hate. Hate what they don’t understand. Shenakha should know she will never be welcome in this world. It would be better for her to stay away, or to stay hidden and out of the public view. And if you know where she is, you’d better pass the warning on to her. Because she can’t stay unknown forever, and her life is still very much in danger.”
His eyes flickered briefly toward me, but I just met his gaze evenly. Then he shifted to study Yatol standing beside me, and a faint venomous smile touched his lips.
“And tell her to be careful whom she trusts.”
“Have you finished?” Zhabyr snapped. “Where’s your hospitality, sikh? How long do you intend to leave the High King and his Court standing on a dais?”
Toval bristled, then stooped in a low bow. “Please, my liege, accept my humblest apologies. We’d had a feast prepared for Khalith, but now that he’s not here…”
“You prepared a feast for the High King,” Zhabyr interrupted, and held out his hands. “I suppose we can make do with whatever you’ve got. So stop making a scene and do your duty.”
Toval paled, his flaccid face looking ghastlier than ever.
“Listen to me, boy,” he said, voice low. “Just because I hailed you High King doesn’t mean you’ll find me licking the boot you crushed me with. I’ve —”
Before he could finish Yatol interrupted him, taking one stride forward and flicking the knife free of its scabbard. Toval didn’t recognize the danger in time to step away before he found the blade pressed against his throat. After a second I noticed Aniira’s sword out too, aimed ominously at Toval’s chest.
“Call off your dog,” he hissed, craning his neck away from Yatol’s razor-sharp blade.
“Release him,” Zhabyr said. “Aniira, sword.”
Aniira complied immediately, and after a moment Yatol backed away from Toval, still holding the knife bared at his side. Toval eyed it warily.
“Keep your onekh in line, my liege.”
“I’m not his onekh,” Yatol said, quiet.
Toval and Zhabyr both glanced at him in surprise. I did too. I knew Yatol had been training all his life to be the Guardian known as the King’s Defender, and something about his protest made me strangely uneasy. His eyes met mine for a moment, then he bowed his head to Zhabyr.
“Not yet,” he added.
Toval smirked. “Good to know your snake still has divided loyalties, then.”
“The only person here with divided loyalties is you, so stop playing the hypocrite,” I flared.
“Ah, your Counselor is the paragon of elegance and diplomacy,” Toval said, voice like silk. Then he added under his breath, “This land has inherited a madman for a King.”
I blushed and dropped my gaze, mentally kicking myself for running my mouth off at a sikh. I would be no help to Zhabyr if I couldn’t get my brain-mouth circuit working.
“My apologies, sikh,” I said, quietly.
I thought about adding an explanation but realized it would only sound like an excuse. So I left it at that, hoping it had sounded dignified enough, and risked a glance at Toval’s face. He just measured me in silence. Then, when I didn’t do anything else to provoke him, he nodded once. Zhabyr folded his arms. I could tell from the set of his mouth that he hovered right on the edge of his patience. It amazed me that he hadn’t totally lost it yet the way the rest of us had.
“Toval,” he said. “We’ve had a very long journey. Do the honorable thing and show us into your stronghold.”
He stopped abruptly, raising his hand to his eyes as he surveyed the bizarre three-building fortress brooding on the hill behind us.
“Actually, my stronghold, I should say. I like it. Central location, close to the Academy…I think I’ll stay.”
And that, finally, silenced Toval. He stood staring at Zhabyr like he’d seen him slaughter a puppy. His lips twitched. I suppose he was trying to say something, but it just made his chin quiver like he was on the verge of tears.
Zhabyr snapped a finger and a young guard came running, all ungainly in a leather cuirass and helmet that seemed too big for him. He stopped short in front of the two rulers, eyes darting back and forth from one to the other. I could almost feel his confusion. Finally he met Zhabyr’s gaze, and he swallowed visibly as he came to attention and saluted. Zhabyr nodded.
“What’s your name?”
The guard’s mouth flapped and he shot a nervous glance at Toval. Zhabyr shifted his weight, just barely, and the man saluted again like a wet-eared Marine recruit and shouted,
“Pattik, my liege.”
“I’m a house-guard, my liege. I attend the sikh’s personal security.”
“Very well. You will now help oversee his departure.”
“Yes, you idiot,” Toval snapped. “He’s evicting me from my own city.”
“There’s nothing to discuss, damn you. Didn’t you see what just happened? He’s High King. He can take whatever city he wants as his Seat.”
Zhabyr caught Pattik’s gaze and the young guard stopped mid-syllable.
“Take word to the steward of our guests’ arrival,” Toval said, voice dripping with sudden ironic grace. “They will need to be lodged in the temporary quarters until my household and I have departed. You have a good memory, don’t you?”
“Excellent, sir,” Pattik said.
“Then take these names to the steward. The High King Zhabyr. General Yanik. Lady…Prism.”
As he turned to Aniira to hear her name, I glanced up at Yatol. A sick realization washed over me. Yatol seemed a little pale, a faint line of worry creasing his brow. He had to be worrying about the same thing as me. What name would he give Toval?
Many people would remember the name Yatol from the heroic sacrifice he had made at the Judgment of the Ungulion. And Toval, along with everyone else, knew that this man standing here had once been the deadly assassin employed by Khalith. But it suddenly occurred to me that nobody connected the two. Nobody had a reason to. And I was determined that it would stay that way.
I racked my brain for something to offer him, some name he could use. It had to sound like it belonged among the other Ylturian names I’d heard. Something…
I laid my hand on his arm. “Astor,” I murmured. He met my gaze, puzzled. “I always liked that name.”
He smiled, and as Toval turned to him, he repeated the name softly. Toval narrowed his eyes again, studying Yatol intently. Finally he turned back to Pattik.
“Can you remember?”
The young guard nodded.
“We’ll also need lodging for my escort,” Zhabyr said, before Pattik could make his escape. “I brought a company of thirty. Six of them will need quarters. The others can stay in a dormitory.”
Pattik saluted sharply, and dashed off toward the fortress.
Toval stooped in an obsequious little bow. “My steward will be prepared to receive you by the time you reach the fortress. My servants are at your disposal. If any of them can assist you with your belongings, simply ask. And now, I have business of my own to attend to. Good day, my liege. Lady.”
He bowed to Zhabyr and me, then nodded to the rest of our group. I blushed, uncomfortable at being singled out above the others. Maybe it was Toval’s way of insulting me. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.
The other sikhir filed off the dais after Toval, and I watched them go uneasily. My first thought was that they must be going somewhere to conspire against Zhabyr, to figure out a way to get him off the throne again. But even that didn’t worry me half as much as the image of the entaka peering intently into Zhabyr’s eyes. And the blindness. Oh God, that blindness. I shouldn’t have seen what I did. But I did, and itknew. Somehow the entaka knew that I could see it. And it did what it did because it knew I was watching.
I closed my eyes and tried to find calm.
Zhabyr touched my shoulder. I realized he was gesturing toward the wooden stairs of the dais. Yanik, the born-immortal leader of the Watchers, had already gone down with Aniira and Enhyla. They stood at the base of the fortress steps with Tyhlaur, Shan, and Lohka, along with the full escort of Watchers. I finally managed to uproot myself, and headed down to join them. Zhabyr followed, with Yatol bringing up the rear.
As we joined our friends, Shan clapped Zhabyr on the shoulder, giving him a dead-pan stare without the faintest trace of a smile.
“Finally,” he said. “Don’t lose it this time.”
I glanced over at Lohka as the others kept talking. The red-headed former rebel stood a little apart from our group, as if he felt like he still didn’t quite belong. I frowned, and wondered how he’d react if I told him that I’d seen the entaka. After all, he was the one with a death-sentence hanging over his head. I remembered seeing the entaka destroy the double of Lohka’s body that it had been using. The image still made me shiver, and brought to mind Enhyla’s ominous warning to Lohka: He will be coming to claim the rest of your blood.
I must have been staring at Lohka, because after a moment he shifted and made his way over to me. It took some effort for me to keep from backing a step away from him. Twice-turned traitor. I wondered now and then why Zhabyr let him stay near us. After all, he’d been the one to suggest that Lohka’s actions were still somehow being controlled by the doppelgänger. Maybe he liked having Lohka where he could see him.
“Something troubling you?” Lohka asked.
I shook my head. “Just thinking, sorry. I wasn’t actually looking at you.”
He gave me a strange glance, muttering, “How flattering.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Look, have you still not forgiven me —”
“This isn’t the time,” I said. “We’re all right. We’re not enemies. Just don’t come around thinking I’m your new best friend.”
Lohka’s eyes darted in Yatol’s direction briefly before he shrugged and turned away. I found Tyhlaur watching me with a little frown of disapproval, but I wasn’t in the mood to argue with him. I just jerked my hands in an impatient shrug. As we all started to head up the steps toward the fortress, I hurried to catch up with Zhabyr.
“Prism?” I asked.
“Shan told me,” he said. “I thought it fit. I’m sorry if it offended you. I should have asked beforehand if you had a preference.”
I cut myself off. It was idiotic to ask why I needed a new name when Toval’s words were still ringing in my ears. My life could still be in danger if the people found out my real identity. And much as I hated to admit it, I saw that the sikh was right. One little speech wouldn’t be enough to blot out a year’s worth of hatred and blame. I couldn’t have thought otherwise, not if I was being honest with myself.
We climbed the steps in silence for a few moments, Zhabyr and I, with Yatol and Aniira close behind us and the others following more at a distance. Finally Zhabyr glanced over his shoulder with a visible shudder.
“Did you really see it?” he asked.
I hesitated. “Yes. Zhabyr, it was…it was smiling at me. I think it wants something from me,” I added, dropping my voice to a whisper. I met his gaze briefly, trying to find the answers there, but all I found was confusion that matched my own. “What if I told you it was standing on the dais with us?”
He flinched, stride faltering. “It was what? Is that why you screamed?”
I nodded. “I’m afraid of that thing,” I said. “More than I was ever afraid of Khalith. More than I was afraid of the Ungulion. Afraid…because I can’t understand it.”