The black prism, p.15
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       The Black Prism, p.15
 

           Brent Weeks

  Karris staggered. She had to get out of here. She put the dead babe down on the nearest table, only to see it was the altar. She careened up the main aisle of the church, past smoldering pews on her left and right, images of another time, another sacrificed babe, joining the horrors before her eyes.

  She was almost out when the floor collapsed.

  Chapter 25

  “You need to make some choices, Kip,” Gavin said.

  From all he could tell, Kip had only been unconscious for seconds or minutes. It was still dark, the stars burning coldly overhead, the fire not yet scorching his clothes despite its nearness to where he’d fallen. The strangling red luxin mask was gone, though there remained a light coating of dust, gritty and sharp on his skin.

  “I’ll kill you!” Kip said. He couldn’t trust anyone. Everyone was a liar. Everyone was just out for himself. Fear rose, and that made the anger flare as it sometimes did, hot and fierce and uncontrollable. He sat up, eyes locked on the Prism’s face. The man looked at him coolly, unapologetic, merely curious about what Kip would do, ignoring his words. Kip wondered if he could conjure giant green spikes from the fire to impale the man.

  Smart, Kip. In the middle of Orholam only knows where, you’d kill your guide? For what? For not tolerating your peevishness?

  Not betrayal, Kip, a lesson. Kip shivered. He’d really thought Gavin was going to kill him. And that was the point. He had given Gavin no choice but to show that he couldn’t be handled, not by a child. He was not only older than Kip, he was smarter, and harder, and more experienced, and he demanded respect.

  And that was… appropriate.

  But that didn’t stop Kip’s shivering. If only for a few seconds, he’d really thought he was dying—and there had been nothing he could do about it. But this was the one man who could show him how to never be powerless again. This was the man who could teach him how to avenge his mother and Rekton. And Kip was going to sit in silence and stubbornness?

  With as much dignity as he could muster, Kip retook his seat on the log. His knees trembled, but he was able to sit without disgracing himself further. “Sorry,” he mumbled, looking away. He cleared his throat so he wouldn’t squeak. “What choices?” he asked.

  He could tell Gavin was a little surprised and pleased that Kip didn’t fight, but the man left it alone. “You’re my natural son, Kip. That has consequences. For you.” Kip was watching Gavin’s face closely. He said the words “my natural son” without a grimace, without even his eyes tightening. Kip wondered if he’d rehearsed to be able to say that so blithely. Kip had seen something of what claiming his own patrimony had cost Gavin, and still the man claimed him without so much as a grimace at Kip’s grimace-worthy existence. It had to be an act—who could be pleased about learning that he’d fathered a bastard?—but it was an act for Kip’s sake.

  Gavin was a better man than Kip would have expected. “Being known as my bastard has costs,” Gavin continued. “You haven’t been raised in privilege, but people who resent those raised in privilege will resent you. You haven’t been educated, but those who have been will look down on you if you know less than they do. If I acknowledge you, you’ll attract the wrong sort of friends. Those who hate and resent me can’t often take it out on me, Kip, I’m too powerful, too dangerous. But they will take it out on you. It isn’t fair, but that’s how it is. You’ll be under constant scrutiny, and both your successes and failures will have repercussions you can’t even guess at now. My father may choose not to recognize you. Others will seek to prove you’re a fraud. Others will attempt to use you against me. And still others will want to befriend you only in the hope that it will help them gain some favor with me. False friendship is a poison I’d like to protect you from.”

  Too late for that. Kip thought of Ram: Ram who was always in charge, who always liked smearing Kip’s face in his own inferiority and claiming it was friendly teasing. Ram, whom Isa had loved. Ram, dead, lying with an arrow in his back. “So what are my options?” Kip asked. “I am what I am.”

  Gavin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You could go as just another student for the time being. Then, whenever you like, I’ll publicly acknowledge you. You’ll have time to gain your bearings, to learn who your real friends are.”

  “By lying to them?”

  “Sometimes lies are most necessary with our friends,” Gavin snapped. He paused. “Look, I just wanted to give you the option—”

  “No, I’m sorry. I’m not—I’m not mad at you. My mother… Do you remember what she was like? I mean, before me?” Kip asked.

  Gavin’s mouth worked. He wet his lips. Then shook his head. “I don’t remember her, Kip. At all.”

  So, not exactly a love affair. Kip’s emptiness doubled. There was no family to belong to. “You’re the Prism; I guess a lot of women want to be with you,” Kip said.

  “It was war, Kip. When you expect to die, you don’t think about the effects your actions might have on others ten years on. When you’ve seen friends die all around you, there’s something about making love that makes you feel alive. There was far too much wine and spirits and no one who would rein in a young hothead who had the misfortune to be the Prism. But it’s not an excuse. I’m sorry, Kip. I’m sorry for what my thoughtlessness has cost you.”

  So my mother had one night with you, and she pinned her hopes on that. Kip had no doubt she’d elbowed and schemed her way past a dozen other women who would have gladly shared the Prism’s bed. And she’d filled years with bitterness for that?

  Kip forced a laugh, his heart breaking. For all the times he’d dreamed about who his father might be, he’d never dared to dream that he might be the Prism himself. But in his dreams, his father had been called away by some emergency. He’d left them because he had to. But he’d loved Kip’s mother and Kip. Missed them. Wanted to come back, and would any day. Gavin was a good man, but he didn’t care about Lina. Or Kip. He would take care of Kip because he was dutiful. A good person. But there was no love. No family to belong to. Kip was alone, outside, staring through barred windows at what he would never have.

  It was like being given a gift that was wildly exotic when you wanted something perfectly common. Still, what kind of an ingrate was he? Complaining? Feeling sorry for himself—because the Prism was his father?

  “I’m sorry,” Kip said. He stared at his fingernails, still torn from his luxin use. “This isn’t right. My mother had… some problems. I guess she wanted to trap you by showing up with me.” Kip couldn’t maintain eye contact. He was so ashamed. How could you be so stupid, mother? So mean? “You don’t deserve this. You saved my life, and I’ve been… awful.” Kip blinked, but he couldn’t fully stop the tears. “You can leave me wherever—well, preferably not on a deserted island.”

  Gavin smirked, then got serious. “Kip, your mother and I did what we did. I appreciate you trying to shield me from the consequences of my actions, but you are not trapping me into anything. People can talk. I don’t care. Understand?” He expelled a breath. “Regardless, the only damage I care about has already been done.”

  For a second, Kip didn’t understand. The damage was already done? No one even knew Kip was alive.

  Except Karris. That was what Gavin meant. Kip had caused a rift with the only person in the world Gavin cared about. What had been intended to make Kip feel better hit him instead where he was weakest. His mother had made him feel guilty for simply existing for as long as he could remember. He’d ruined her life by being born. He’d ruined her life by having too many demands. He’d made people look down on her. He’d held her back from all the things she could have done. Mentally, he could try to shrug off her words. She didn’t mean it. She loved Kip, even if she had never said the words. She didn’t know how she was hurting him.

  But Gavin was a good man. He didn’t deserve this.

  “Kip. Kip.” Gavin waited until Kip looked up at him. “I will not abandon you.”

  Visions of a locked cupboard, screaming—screaming—a
nd no one answering. “Is there anything to eat?” Kip asked, blinking. “I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week.” He poked his chest. He could feel ribs sticking out.

  Gavin pulled a rope of sausages out of his pack, cut one off—only one?—and tossed it to Kip. “Tomorrow, you start at the Chromeria.”

  “Oomowwow?” Kip asked, mouth full.

  “I’m going to share a secret with you,” Gavin said. “I can travel faster than anyone suspects.”

  “You can disappear and reappear somewhere else? I knew it!” Kip said.

  “Um, no. But I can make a boat that goes really fast.”

  “Oh, that’s… amazing. A boat.”

  Gavin looked nonplussed. “Point is, I don’t want anyone to know how fast I am. There’s war coming, and if I need to unveil it, I need it to be a surprise. You understand?”

  “Of course,” Kip said.

  “Then I need you to tell me what you want. I’m going to go take care of some things while you’re being initiated.”

  “Initiated?”

  “Just some tests to determine the rest of your life. You’re late, though, all the other students have already started, so we have to hustle you in. After initiation, you can stay and be trained.”

  Kip’s throat tightened. Dropped alone on a strange island, knowing no one, and having little time to prepare for a test that was supposed to determine the rest of his life? On the other hand, the Chromeria was where he’d learn the magic he needed to kill King Garadul. “What’s the other option?”

  “You come with me.”

  It was light at the end of a tunnel. Kip’s heart flipped. “And what are you going to do?”

  “What I’m good at, Kip.” Gavin stared up, his irises swirling rainbows. He smiled, but it didn’t touch his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was cold and distant as the moon. “I’m going to make war.”

  Kip swallowed. Sometimes looking at Gavin, he felt like he was staring through trees, getting glimpses of a giant striding through a forest, crushing everything in his path.

  Gavin turned his eyes back to Kip. His face softened. “Which mostly involves boring meetings to convince cowards to spend money on things other than parties and pretty clothes.” He grinned. “I’m afraid you’ve probably seen more magic out of me already than most of my soldiers ever did.” His eyes clouded. “Well, not quite. You look confused.”

  “It’s not really about what you just said, but—” Kip stopped. It seemed like a pretty offensive question, now that it was halfway out of his mouth. “What do you do?”

  “As Prism?”

  “Yes. Um, sir. I mean, I know you’re the emperor, but it doesn’t seem like…”

  “Like anyone listens to me?” Gavin laughed. “Seems like it to me too. The bald truth of it is that Prisms come and go. Usually every seven years. Prisms have all the foibles of lesser men, and huge shifts of power every seven years can be devastating. If one Prism sets up his family members to govern every satrapy, and the next Prism tries to set up his own in their places, things get bloody fast. The Colors, on the other hand, the seven members of the Spectrum, are often around for decades. And they’re usually pretty smart, so Prisms have been managed more and more over time, given religious duties to fill their days. The Spectrum and the satraps rule together. Each satrapy has one Color on the Spectrum, and each Color is supposed to obey the orders of his or her satrap. In practice, the Colors often become co-satraps in all but name. The jockeying between Color and satrap, and all the Colors and the White, and all the Colors and the White against the Prism, pretty much keeps order. Each satrapy can do what it wants at home as long as it doesn’t rile up any other satrapy and trade keeps flowing, so everyone has an interest in keeping everyone else in check. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but that’s the gist.”

  It sounded plenty complicated enough. “But during the war…?”

  “I was appointed promachos. Absolute rule during wartime. Makes everyone nervous, in case the promachos decides that the ‘war’ lasts forever.”

  “But you gave it up?” It was a dumb question, Kip realized.

  But Gavin smiled. “And wonder of wonders, I haven’t been assassinated. The Blackguard doesn’t only protect Prisms, Kip. They protect the world from us.”

  Orholam. Gavin’s world sounded more dangerous than what Kip had just left. “So you’ll teach me to draft?” he asked. It was the best of all worlds. He would learn what he needed to learn, without being set on a strange island alone. And who could teach drafting better than the Prism himself?

  “Of course. But first there’s some things we have to do.”

  Kip looked longingly at the sausage rope Gavin still held. “Like eat more?”

  Chapter 26

  By noon the next day, Kip had fully swallowed his teasing about a fast boat. They were flying across the waves at mind-boggling speed, and Gavin had enclosed the boat, muttering something about that woman and her ideas, so now, despite the speed, they could speak.

  “So you’ve used green,” Gavin said, as if it were normal for him to be leaning hard forward, skin entirely red, feet strapped in, hands gripping two translucent blue posts, throwing great plugs of red luxin down into the water, sweating profusely, muscles knotted. “That’s a good color. Everyone needs green drafters.”

  “I think I can see heat, too. And Master Danavis said I’m a superchromat.”

  “What?”

  “Master Danavis was the dyer in town. Sometimes I’d help him. He had trouble matching the reds as well as the alcaldesa’s husband liked.”

  “Corvan Danavis? Corvan Danavis lived in Rekton?”

  “Y-yes.”

  “Slender, about forty, beaded mustache, couple freckles, and some red in his hair?”

  “No mustache,” Kip said. “But, otherwise.”

  Gavin swore quietly.

  “You know our dyer?” Kip asked, incredulous.

  “You could say that. He fought against me in the war. I’m more curious about you seeing heat. Tell me what you do.”

  “Master Danavis taught me to look at the edges of my vision. Sometimes when I do, people glow, especially their bare skin, armpits, and… you know.”

  “Groin?”

  “Right.” Kip cleared his throat.

  “Blind me,” Gavin said. He chuckled.

  “What? What’s that mean?”

  “We’ll see later.”

  “Later? Like what, a year or two? Why do all adults talk to me like I’m stupid?”

  “Fair enough. Unless you’re truly freakish, you’re likely a discontiguous bichrome.”

  Kip blinked. A what what? “I said I’m not stupid; ignorant’s different.”

  “And I meant later today,” Gavin said.

  “Oh.”

  “There are two special cases in drafting—well, there are lots of special cases. Orholam’s great bloody—I’ve never tried to teach the early stuff. Have you ever wondered if you were the only real person in the world, and everything and everyone else was just your imagination?”

  Kip blushed. Back home, he’d even tried to stop imagining Ram, hoping the boy would simply cease to exist. “I guess so.”

  “Right, it’s one of a puerile mind’s first flirtations with egoism. No offense.”

  “None taken.” Since I have no idea what you just said.

  “It’s attractive because it validates your own importance, allows you to do whatever the hell you want, and it can’t be disproven. Teaching drafting runs into the same problem. I’m going to assume here that you do accept that other people exist.”

  “Sure. I’m not much for lecturing myself,” Kip said. He grinned.

  Gavin squinted at the horizon. He’d rigged up two lenses separated by an arm’s length and mounted on the luxin canopy so he could scan the seas. He must have seen something, because he banked the skimmer hard left—port! Hard to port.

  When he turned back, he’d apparently missed Kip’s quip.

  “Anyway, wher
e were we? Ah. The problem with teaching drafting is that color exists—it’s separate from us—but we only know it through our experience of it. We don’t know why, but some men—subchromats—can’t differentiate between red and green. Other subchromats can’t differentiate between blue and yellow. Obviously, when you tell a man that he can’t see a color he’s never seen, he might not believe you. Everyone else who tells him red and green are different colors could be just playing a cruel joke on him. Or he must accept the existence of something he’ll never see. There are theological implications, but I’ll spare you. To make it simple, if there are color-deficient men—incidentally, it is almost always men—why could there not also be those who are extremely color-sensitive, superchromats? And it turns out there are. But they’re almost always women. In fact, about half of women can differentiate between colors at an extreme level. For men, it’s one in tens of thousands.”

  “Wait, so men lose both ways? Blind to colors more often and really good at seeing them less often? That’s not fair.”

  “But we can lift heavy things.”

  Kip grumbled. “And pee standing up, right?”

  “Very useful around poison ivy. I was on a mission with Karris this one time…” Gavin whistled.

  “She didn’t,” Kip said, horrified.

  “You thought she was mad at me back on the river? Somehow, it was my fault that time, too.” Gavin grinned. “Anyway, to wend my way back to my point, most of us can see the normal range of colors. Hmm, tautology there.”

  “What?” Kip asked.

  “That’s a digression too far. Just because you can see a color doesn’t mean you can draft it. But if you can’t see a color, you’ll draft it poorly. So men aren’t as accurate when drafting certain colors as superchromat women, which is half of them. Will can cover a lot of mistakes, but it’s better if there aren’t mistakes to begin with. This becomes vital if you’re trying to build a luxin building that won’t fall down.”

 
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