Gunner's Apprentice

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Two sentries. Kip was going to have to kill two sentries, silently, before they could raise any sort of alarm. The light was weak – the sun still hidden by the mountains – but Kip put on his green spectacles, and bent the temple tips tight around his ears. He was lying on his stomach, hidden in the bushes, and the sentries were a good sixty paces away, over open ground, up a gravel trail. Suicide.

She's going to die at dawn, Kip.

Kip balled his fists. It was a terrible plan. It was the only plan. 

He raised himself to a sprinter's stance, taking care not to get dirt into the barrel of the stolen rifle. The sentries were seated back to back, looking out to either side. He would be in the peripheral vision of both of them. There was no time, but he waited anyway, waited until the rising sun touched the far peaks of the snow-capped Karsos Mountains on the opposite side of the valley. Both sentries turned away from Kip to look at the glorious ripe-peach-colored alpenglow.

Kip burst from the cover of the bushes and bull-rushed the men. Perched above the valley floor where the Color Prince's army was camped, the two men were wrapped in blankets against the cold wind, seated, each carrying a musket and a mirror to signal the army below.

The last two years of relentless training had cut Kip's form to a fraction of its former fulminence of fat: nine-tenths being, after all, still a fraction, so the run up onto the promontory was faster than Kip had ever moved in his life.

But the men saw him almost immediately. They jumped to their feet, scrambling for weapons, throwing off the encumbrance of the blankets. Kip reached a full sprint, broad shoulders and bulk belied by surprising speed.

One of the sentries folded, leg cramping in the cold. The other was hoisting his matchlock musket, pulling the trigger even before the weapon reached his shoulder — counting on the tiny delay between the matchcord hitting the flashpan and its heat igniting the black powder.

Kip shot a springy ball of green luxin at the man, knocking the musket to one side an instant before lowering his shoulder and smashing into him with all of his own considerable mass.

It worked better than Kip had dared to hope. Perfect transference of momentum. One instant Kip was running full speed and the sentry was standing still. The next, Kip was standing still, and the sentry was sprawling backward, trying to keep his feet.

The sentry ran out of ground before he ran out of speed – and tumbled out of sight. The gravelly trail Kip had used was the only part of the promontory that wasn't bordered with sheer precipice, so the man would fall to his death, and his musket hadn't even gone off.

Lucky. This might just work.

The other sentry was at Kip's feet. The man's leg was still at a stiff angle, the cramp disabling him, but the sentry had rolled over and was crawling toward the edge, away from Kip. When the man had fallen, he'd stubbed out his matchcord, but he wasn't reaching for a flint to relight it or for a knife to fight Kip himself. He was reaching out with his mirror, trying to grab the first rays of dawn to flash a signal to his compatriots on the valley floor. He had to know that the move meant death.

Dutiful. Brave. Self-sacrificing.

It wasn't fair. The man didn't even have a chance to fight. Betrayed by his own body at an inopportune moment. Kip drew green luxin into his palm, sharpened it, and shot a thick spike through the man's back. The man expelled one great breath, ribs cracking, crushed like a bug, muscles clenching one last time. Before he relaxed at last in death, Kip was already moving toward the promontory's edge.

The sun's light was rolling down the eastern slopes across the valley. Around one huge leafy oak on the valley floor, several thousand men and women were gathered: soldiers in rows, drafters and color wights crowded to the front. The Color Prince himself, as dull in the indirect light as he would be spectacular once the sun touched him, was addressing his people, a murmur of his booming voice reaching even Kip, three hundred paces away. But Kip's eyes weren't drawn to that odd figure, half living luxin, half human.

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