The black prism, p.16
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       The Black Prism, p.16

           Brent Weeks
 

  “They make luxin buildings?”

  Gavin ignored him. “The special cases that I started all this to tell you about are sub-red and superviolet. If you can see heat, Kip, there’s a good chance you can draft it.”

  “You mean I can start a fire like whoosh?!” Kip made a grand sweeping gesture.

  “Only if you say ‘whoosh!’ when you do it.” Gavin laughed.

  Kip blushed again, but Gavin’s laughter wasn’t mocking. It didn’t make him feel stupid, just silly. There was plenty scary about the man, like Master Danavis was scary sometimes. But neither seemed mean. Neither seemed bad.

  “And that would be very strange,” Gavin said, “because you’ve drafted green.” He looked like he was trying to figure out how to teach something. “Have you ever seen a rainbow?”

  “A rain-what?” Kip asked, doe-eyed.

  “It was a rhetorical question, smarty. The order of colors is superviolet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, sub-red. Usually, a bichrome simply spans a broader arc. So they draft superviolet and blue, or blue and green, or green and yellow. A polychrome—much rarer—might draft green, yellow, and orange. A drafter who drafts colors that don’t border each other is rare. Karris is one. She drafts green, but not yellow, not orange, and then she drafts most of red and into sub-red.”

  “So she’s a polychrome.”

  “Close. Karris can’t quite draft sustainable sub-red—what they call a fire crystal. Fire crystals don’t last long regardless because they react to air, but—never mind that. Point is, she’s just short of being a polychrome, and that matters.”

  “I bet that made her happy,” Kip said.

  “On the bright side, they wouldn’t have let her become a Blackguard if she was a polychrome—polychromes are too valuable—and the pressure on her to bear children would have increased. Regardless, it’s rare, and it’s called being a discontiguous bichrome. Discontiguous because the arcs aren’t touching. Bichrome because there are two. See? Everything in drafting is logical. Except what isn’t. Like so: seeing sub-red is seeing heat, so seeing superviolet should be seeing cold, right?”

  “Right.”

  “But it isn’t.”

  “Oh,” Kip said. “Well, that makes sense, I guess.” Except that it doesn’t.

  “I have the strongest urge to ruffle your hair,” Gavin said.

  Kip grunted. “So how is this going to work?”

  “There’s a small island we use as an artillery station. There’s a tunnel between there and the Chromeria, which is a secret so important that if you tell anyone, the Chromeria will hunt you down and execute you.” He said it cheerfully, but Kip had no doubt that he was serious.

  “Then why did you just tell me?” Kip asked. “I could let it slip.”

  “Because I’ve already shared a secret that I think is more important—the existence of this skimmer. But if you betray that secret to our enemies, the Chromeria might do nothing. But if you do betray us deliberately, you’d also tell them about the escape tunnel. So now if you betray me, you’ll betray the whole Chromeria too. And they’ll come after you and they’ll kill you.”

  Kip felt a chill. This man was warm, personable. Kip had no doubt that Gavin liked him, but in Gavin’s circles, you could like someone and still have to kill him. The casual way that Gavin prepared for Kip’s possible betrayal told Kip he’d been betrayed before and been caught unaware by it. And Gavin wasn’t the kind of man who had to learn a hard lesson twice.

  “I’m going to dock on the island and put you on a boat to the main island. I’ll send a Blackguard with you to take you to the Thresher. In a few days, you’ll leave with me wherever I decide we have to go and I’ll start teaching you to draft.”

  Kip hardly heard the last part, though. “The Thresher?”

  Chapter 27

  Karris only fell a few feet through the floor before she hit something soft. Her left foot sank to the knee while the rest of her body continued falling into the basement. The sticky whatever-it-was held her leg as she fell, so she swung upside down and the rest of her slapped into the side of something like a great red egg—a thin crust over gooey innards. She smacked into it, broke the side, and splatted into red luxin. Then her fall pulled her free and she fell onto a stone floor.

  As she’d been trained, she flung her right hand down hard, the shock of slapping the floor hurt her hand—it always hurt—but that slap took the pressure off more vulnerable areas of her body and allowed her to guide the last part of her fall. She rolled instead of landing on her head.

  In a moment, she popped up to her feet, and pulled the thin-hilted ataghan from her pack. There was no light in the chamber except what spilled down through the hole she’d made in the ceiling. Chunks of wood were still falling into the hole. The great red egg shone in the sudden light. Settling smoke, stirred by Karris’s fall, climbed the shaft of light surrounding the egg. The entire room, perhaps twenty paces by thirty, stank of smoke and burnt red luxin, which was odd, because red luxin usually burned perfectly cleanly. For that matter, every surface illuminated in the weak light appeared to be blackened luxin as well.

  But the great egg took all of Karris’s attention. At least seven feet tall, it was seared perfectly black except where Karris had broken it. Red luxin now oozed out of that wound like tar. A half dozen tubes snaked away from the egg in every direction, disappearing into the ceiling, each also blackened. The seared corpses of a dozen of King Garadul’s soldiers lay about the room.

  “What in the hell?” Karris murmured. She lifted her sword to crack the egg open.

  The egg exploded before she could touch it. A great section of the front flew into her, the blackened shell shattering over her barely raised left arm, her chest, stomach, and legs. Caught in midstep, she was thrown off balance. She stumbled and felt more than saw a form shooting backward out of the egg even as the shell splattered over her.

  Instead of trying to catch herself, Karris flung herself into the fall. She rolled forward, tucking her ataghan in so she didn’t skewer herself, and attacked. There was no hesitation. Ironfist had pounded that lesson into Karris for years: when attacked, you counterattack instantly. The speed of that strike was often the only advantage you had. Especially if you were small. Especially if you were a woman. Especially if you weren’t wearing your spectacles and the other drafter was.

  Karris’s attacker had backed all the way up to the wall. He stood with living coils of red luxin like giant knots around his hands. Karris knew that construction. If you knew what you were doing, you could hold extra open luxin outside your body. Those knots of open luxin could be formed into anything you wanted and, held on your hands, you could actually fling them however you needed. The man stood like a trained fighter, too: left side toward Karris, left hand up to block but still with some springiness to throw out an attack, right hand higher and pulled back, right knee bent deeply, holding most of his weight. Even with Karris’s speed with drafting and the amount of red luxin here to reflect red light to her eyes, it still took some time to ready an attack, and he had the drop on her. Her only hope was to close the distance between them before he killed her.

  His left hand flicked out, right to left, low. Red luxin glommed on the floor to slow her. She was expecting it, and she stutter-stepped over the sticky patches. His right hand snapped forward in three sharp jerks. Three balls, each the size of a fist, whipped out right to left. Karris dodged the first and second, but the third caught her as she had to stutter-step again to miss another sticky patch on the floor. It thumped hard into the ribs on her left side, then splattered. She rolled with it, spun into range, and slashed with the ataghan.

  The red drafter met her descending sword with layer after layer of red luxin. Held luxin, even red luxin, could gain a certain degree of rigidity from the drafter’s will, and more from being woven, but red luxin could never stop steel. It was like pitting water against a sword.

  But this wasn’t just a bit of held red luxin. It wasn’t like sl
apping a sword into still water. It was like standing below a dam when they opened the floodgates. It was only water, but the speed and volume of it would blow a man off his feet. Likewise, the red luxin hitting Karris slowed her, slowed her more, and finally brought her to a complete halt.

  The red drafter’s face paled as the luxin drained out of him. Next, his neck and chest went back to their natural hue as the torrent continued. Then his muscular shoulders, the luxin being bleached out of his body from eyes to extremities. They both realized he was running out of luxin at the same time.

  Karris broke off her attack at the same time he did. She feinted to his right, expecting to meet more red luxin, and set up a killing blow. Instead, her sword clanged against something hard, but she didn’t see any sword. He couldn’t have drawn one without her seeing it, not even in this darkness.

  Not hesitating, she lifted the ataghan and brought it down toward his head. It clanged and stopped as he lifted his hands in a V.

  He shoved her hard backward and followed, keeping close. The shaft of light piercing the gloom of the room illuminated his hands and what he was holding as he shouted, “Enough! Damn you, stop for one second.”

  The drafter held a pistol in each hand, crossed, their barrels holding Karris’s ataghan prisoner between them. His right pistol stared at her right eye, his left at her left eye. Karris had her other knives and the bich’hwa, of course, but there was no way she could draw any of them before he could pull a trigger.

  The pistols staring at her were of Ilytian design. The Ilytian renunciation of magic usually meant their mundane tools were the best. With pistols, however, it was still dicey. This drafter had wheellock pistols. They negated the need to keep a fuse burning, but the flints failed to ignite the black powder at least one time in four.

  Unfortunately, both pistols were double-barreled, and all four hammers were raised. Karris tried to do the figures—was it one time in sixteen or one time in two hundred fifty-six that all four shots would fail? Her heart despaired. She wasn’t going to gamble on those odds, not even one in sixteen.

  So… talking.

  “What do you draft?” the man demanded, his voice strained.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking—”

  “What. Do. You. Draft?!” he screamed. He flung her ataghan aside and put one pistol directly against her forehead. It was too dark for him to see her irises, but he was going to figure out soon, anyway, so Karris said, “Green. Green and red.”

  “Then draft a ladder and get out. Now!”

  Another time, Karris might have been irked that she obeyed so promptly, but her spectacles were on her face in an instant and she turned toward the light. Everything in this chamber was covered with either open red luxin or blackened, seared, closed red luxin. Finally, she found an ironwood beam up in the temple that reflected a pure enough white light to allow her to draft a good solid green.

  Even as her body filled with green, she saw why the drafter was so urgent. This chamber was filled with red luxin. She shouldn’t have put it together so slowly. There were two entrances to the room, and the dead soldiers were seared but not roasted to death—and the red luxin had remained, coating everything rather than burning as it should have.

  And it still remained. This room was full of red luxin, old and new. They were inside a powder keg.

  A burning pew fell over, spilling smoldering and flaming brands toward the hole. One tottered on the edge, promising death.

  Karris ran forward, throwing down green luxin thick enough to stand on. She drafted what was effectively an impossibly narrow staircase, the steps only wide enough to hold her feet, only strong enough to hold her weight if she concentrated her will. But it only had to last for two seconds while she sprinted out—and it did. She stepped, stepped, stepped, fleet-footed as a hind, and vaulted, landing on the church floor. She felt a bit of the floor give way to drop into the chamber below, so she rolled again and kept running for the open front door. That much red luxin in the basement meant the whole thing could—

  Whoomp!

  The explosion made the floor jump beneath Karris’s feet. It hit just as she was pushing off of a step, and it flung her like a spring. The yawning open doors of the church yawned wider and she was lifted and thrown forward. For a moment she thought she would make it through them and be flung harmlessly outside, but she’d been lifted high by the explosion—too high. The ironwood frame above the door loomed. Then her upper body smashed into it, and through it. The burned, weakened ironwood gave way after only an instant, but the instant it held was long enough for her to be spun viciously, upside down, flipping so fast she didn’t even know how many times she tumbled.

  Then she was skidding on cobblestones and gravel, not sure if she’d blacked out for a second or exactly how she’d come to the ground.

  She turned over, ignoring the just-starting screams of protest from all too much of her body, and looked toward the mangled front door of the church.

  A gigantic crimson snake, all aflame, stabbed its head out the front door. No, not a snake, a tube of pure red luxin, afire, the width of a man’s shoulders. Then the serpent vomited, and just a little faster than fire could curl up the flammable red luxin, the drafter was shot clear of church and fire and luxin alike.

  He landed not far from Karris, and far more gracefully, rolling to bleed off speed, and finally standing. He scanned the streets on every side and, seeing no one, only then allowed himself to relax a little. But once he did, Karris could see the bone-deep weariness steal over him. Drafting as much magic as she’d just seen left him looking about as bad as she felt, deathly pale and tottering on his feet.

  “Come on,” the drafter said. “I think Garadul’s soldiers are all gone, but if not, they’ll be here soon after what you just did. We need to go.”

  Karris stood, wobbled, and would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed her. “Who are you?”

  “I’m Corvan Danavis,” the drafter said. “And if I don’t misremember, you’re Karris White Oak, aren’t you?”

  “Danavis?” she asked. Orholam how she hurt. “You were Dazen’s. A rebel. I can make it on my own, thank you.” She shrugged off his help, leaned crazily to one side, then the other, and finally collapsed. He watched, arms folded, and didn’t catch her. Her shoulder hit the ground and the world swam.

  Karris saw Corvan’s boots come close. He was probably going to leave her here for the soldiers. She deserved it, too. Stupid, stubborn girl.

  Chapter 28

  The dory Gavin drafted while they were still five leagues from Little Jasper Island was modeled on one he’d seen an Abornean wild drafter use, with high sides and a flat bottom, a pointed prow, and a flat bow plate. It was safer and far less efficient than the sculls Gavin preferred, but that was the point. Not many drafters dared to use a scull on the ocean, because if you were going to use a scull on the ocean, you had to be willing to fall in the water. That meant being confident of getting out of the water solely by drafting, and not many drafters had the skill or the will to swim in rough seas and draft at the same time.

  Gavin’s skill—or recklessness—meant his usual silhouette on the open sea was instantly recognizable. He didn’t want that. Thus the dory.

  Kip was sulking, nervous about the Thresher and Gavin’s refusal to tell him anything about it.

  Within a couple of leagues, they passed two merchant galleys and a galleass. Each time, a mate inspected them through a spyglass, saw Gavin’s muddled clothes and no distress flags, and rowed past without a word. There was little wind today, so the sailors got to rest while galley slaves manned their banks of oars. Each time he encountered another ship, Gavin waved gamely when the spyglass came out, and returned to his own oars.

  What people called the Chromeria was really two islands: Little Jasper, covered entirely by the Chromeria itself, and Big Jasper, home to embassies, merchants’ estates, shops, stalls, taverns, brothels, prisons, flophouses, tenements, warehouses, rope makers, sail makers, oar tur
ners, fishermen, convict slaves, and far more than its fair share of graspers, schemers, and dreamers.

  Big Jasper had two large natural harbors, one on the east that provided natural protection during the dark season, and one on the west for the light season, when the storms came from the east. As the island had grown in population and importance, breakwaters had been built on each side so both harbors could be used year-round. After several occupations, which had never touched the Chromeria but had purged Big Jasper in fire and blood, a wall had been built to encircle the entire island. Thirty paces thick and twenty high, it was now used mostly by the city’s runners to spot and stop crimes in the streets below.

  Gavin’s business was on Little Jasper, but he couldn’t dock in its single, smaller harbor without being seen by spies from every one of the Seven Satrapies. Even Tyrea would have a spy watching those who were important enough to dock there directly. So he rowed them between the two islands. Between the jaws of Little Jasper’s U-shaped harbor was Cannon Island. Only twenty men were garrisoned there at any time, and there were always two drafters on duty, ostensibly because of the hazards of docking on the island when there was anything more than the gentlest tide and lightest wind. It was a loathed posting, and one from which not even the Blackguards escaped. It was thought that the White kept the rolls restricted to higher-ranked Chromeria guards in order to be able to teach humility to a certain class of men and women who tended to be a little more brash than was good for themselves.

  And indeed, the White and the Black did use postings to Cannon Island as punishment, but only for trusted soldiers. The fiction worked better if it was half true. When other soldiers traded postings—I’ll take your Cannon Island post next week if you’ll just take my rounds this next weekend—the watch commander noted the names of anyone who switched. Those were then watched carefully while they were on duty, and more carefully afterward. Spies had certainly infiltrated the island, which was strategically important for purely mundane reasons, but none had yet—the White believed—penetrated Cannon Island’s real importance.

 
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