The black prism, p.17
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       The Black Prism, p.17

           Brent Weeks
 

  Amid the crashing waves of high tide, Gavin brought the dory around the back of the island. With his drafted multitude of oars, he had far greater control than he would have had over a mundane boat, but it was still tricky business to line up with the rollers erected long ago so boats could be pulled clear of even storm-height waves. They’d been seen, of course, and two Blackguards—Blackguards were always given the boat duty—greeted them.

  The men, imposing brothers with coal-black skin, recognized Gavin instantly. Each held up a hand—not in greeting, but to give Gavin a stable target. He aimed superviolet at each hand, stuck it there, and then flung a coil of green luxin along that stable thread. Like rope, the luxin stuck in each big man’s hand. Gavin fastened the other ends directly to the boat with two small globs of red luxin. The men pulled him in expertly. The dory rattled as it settled awkwardly from the waves onto the rollers and then slipped smoothly up the ramp.

  Commander Ironfist, the elder brother, spoke first, as always: “Sir.” His eyes flicked down to Gavin’s tattered clothes. The “sir” was his laconic equivalent of, Of course I recognize you, but if this is supposed to be a disguise, I’m smart enough not to ruin it. What do you want us to call you today?

  “I’ll need a Blackguard to take Kip to the Chromeria, Commander. I’ve told him about the escape tunnel, by the by, so keep an eye on him.”

  Both men absorbed that in displeased silence.

  “We’ll need to wait until low tide for—” Tremblefist began.

  “Immediately,” Gavin said, not raising his voice. “He’s to be put through the Thresher. No rush, tomorrow will be fine. Report the results to the White. Tell her Kip is my… nephew.”

  Ironfist’s eyebrow twitched, and Tremblefist’s eyes widened. Kip, on the other hand, looked stricken.

  Gavin looked at the boy, but Kip seemed suddenly shy.

  “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Gavin said. “You’ll do fine. After all, you’ve got my blood.” He smirked.

  Kip looked baffled. “You mean you’re not… saying I’m not your, um, bastard?” Kip himself looked confused with all the negatives.

  “No no no. I’m not disavowing you! When I say ‘nephew,’ everyone knows what it means. It’s just more polite. And it pays to be polite where the White is involved.”

  Ironfist coughed. He could cough quite pointedly.

  Gavin looked at him pointedly in return. Ironfist adjusted his ghotra, his checkered Parian headscarf, as if oblivious.

  “But how do people know I’m not really your nephew?” Kip asked. He was still clutching the luxin oar Gavin had drafted for him.

  “Because they’ll pause like it’s delicate, and not say your surname. ‘This is Kip, the Lord Prism’s… nephew.’ Not, ‘This is Kip Guile, the Lord Prism’s nephew.’ You see?”

  Kip swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

  Gavin looked across the waves to the Prism’s tower. He hated being gone overnight. His room slave Marissia would dye the bread and throw it in the chute for the prisoner, and he knew he could trust her. But that was different from doing it himself. He looked back to the frightened boy.

  “Do me proud, Kip.”

  Chapter 29

  Kip watched the Prism head out across the waves with something akin to panic. Gavin was so in control of everything, so fearless, and now he’d left him. With two unfriendly giants.

  As Gavin finally disappeared from sight, Kip turned to look at the men. The scarier one, Ironfist, was putting on blue spectacles with large oval lenses wrapped close to his eyes. As Kip watched, the blue luxin filled the man, but it was almost invisible against his coal-black skin. The whites of his eyes already looked blue when you saw them through the blue lenses, so it wasn’t until the skin under his fingernails turned icy blue that Kip was sure he hadn’t just imagined the Blackguard was drafting at all.

  “Grab a rope,” Ironfist told his brother. “With the float on it.” Tremblefist disappeared, leaving Kip with his brother.

  “I don’t know why you’ve been trusted with this island’s secret,” Ironfist said, “even if you are his… nephew. But now that you know, you’re a guardian of it like the rest of us, you understand?”

  “He did it so if I betray him men like you will come kill me for him,” Kip said. Was he never able to keep his mouth shut?

  A look of surprise flitted across Ironfist’s face, and was quickly replaced with amusement. “A deep thinker, our friend,” he said. “And a young man with ice water in his veins. How appropriate.”

  From the “our friend,” Kip understood that they weren’t even to say the Prism’s name here, not even now, with the wind whipping around them and the possibility of eavesdropping nil. It was that kind of secret.

  “The story is you and your master, a scribe, came out on a friend’s boat to… hmm.”

  “To study some local fish?” Kip asked.

  “Good enough,” Ironfist said. “He didn’t account for the waves and had no skill with boats. He tried to bring you here for shelter. Your dory capsized and he was lost. We pulled you out of the sea.”

  “Oh, to account for why he isn’t here if any of the others saw us coming in,” Kip said.

  “That’s right. Hold tight.”

  Kip was holding a luxin oar up between himself and Ironfist, but he almost didn’t get what the big man meant until too late. With a quick, snapping punch, Ironfist lashed a hand through the luxin and stopped it so close that Kip flinched. He barely even noticed the luxin crumbling to dust in his fingers. He had a sudden urge to urinate.

  “I don’t know if you’ve given your sire reason to suspect you,” Ironfist said. “But if you betray him, I’ll tear your arms off and beat you with them.”

  “Good thing I’m fat, then,” Kip shot back.

  “What?” Incredulous.

  “Soft arms.” Kip grinned, thinking Ironfist had been kidding. The stony, flat, willing-to-kill look on the big man’s face made Kip’s grin break and disintegrate like broken luxin.

  “That fat’ll make you float, too. Get in the water,” a cold voice behind him said.

  Kip flinched. He hadn’t even heard Tremblefist approach. The man was carrying a hollow log with numerous knotted ropes and loops attached. The wood was carved with several handles too, so it would be easy to throw into the sea. A swimmer could then grab for whatever length of rope he needed.

  Tremblefist handed the log to Kip and Ironfist rang a loud bell. “Man overboard!” Ironfist shouted. “We’ve got two in the water!”

  “Move it,” Tremblefist said. “And you’d better get completely wet. Fast. Help will be here in seconds.”

  Kip clutched the hollow log and jogged down the ramp between the rollers. The first big wave knocked him cleanly off his feet. His head smacked one of the great wooden rollers and he saw stars. Then the water was over him.

  The water was shockingly cold at first. It was a cold that you quickly got used to—the Cerulean Sea was fairly warm—but Kip didn’t have moments. He gasped and inhaled salt water as another wave passed over him. As he coughed his lungs clear, flapping his arms like an injured bird, he could feel the riptide grab him. Where was the log? He’d lost it. It was gone.

  Someone was shouting, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying over the crash of the waves. The swells were only a pace high, but it was enough to blot out Kip’s vision. He turned in a circle.

  There was a bell ringing, ringing. Kip turned toward it, and despite the swells, he could see the looming black of Cannon Island. It was still receding. He started swimming. A wave pummeled him, drove him under the water and spun him. He kicked, kicked, trying not to panic. Failing. He had no air. Orholam, he was going to die. He kicked, desperate.

  He bobbed to the surface like a cork, but he was lost once more.

  His panic receded. He’d floundered somehow to the side of the riptide, and now the waves were bringing him in toward Cannon Island, but not toward the boat ramp. He was headed for the rocks. He swam hard sideways to
ward the sound of the bell.

  He was rising with one of the swells when he saw something impossible. Ironfist, with a rope tied around his chest, was running—through the air. He was wearing blue spectacles, and both of his hands were pointed down. He was hurling blue luxin toward his feet, sprinting, making a platform to stand on even as he ran.

  As Kip watched, the blue luxin platform—anchored only somewhere back on Cannon Island—cracked with a report and began to crash toward the waves. Ironfist leapt as the platform fell, releasing the luxin and executing a perfect dive.

  He surfaced right next to Kip, his spectacles and ghotra ripped off by the waves, and grabbed Kip with one arm. Then the men on the beach began pulling in the rope as fast as they could. In less than a minute, Kip and the big man were staggering up the ramp. Well, Ironfist was striding, one hand holding a fistful of Kip’s shirt in case he fell, and Kip was staggering on jellied, naked legs.

  “We couldn’t save your master, son. I’m sorry,” Ironfist said. There were a dozen soldiers crowded on the narrow portico outside the back door of Cannon Island. One threw a blanket over Kip’s shoulders. “Take this young man inside and take care of him,” Ironfist commanded. “I’ve got business on Big Jasper, I’ll take him with me and notify the family. Ten minutes.”

  As the soldiers ushered Kip inside, he heard Ironfist swear quietly, “Damn, those were my best blue specs.”

  Chapter 30

  Liv Danavis walked briskly over the luxin bridge called the Lily’s Stem that connected the Chromeria on Little Jasper Island to the markets and homes on Big Jasper Island, trying to ignore the tension knotting her shoulders. She was wearing rough linen pants, a cloak against the chilly wind of the bright morning, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and the same sensible low leather shoes she’d worn when she’d first come to the Chromeria as a terrified fourteen-year-old. She always felt the temptation to dress up in her nicest things when she was summoned, but she always resisted. Her rich, imperious handler would make her feel shabby no matter what she wore, so she might as well be defiant. If Dazen Guile had won the Prisms’ War, Liv would be Lady Aliviana Danavis, the daughter of the celebrated general Corvan Danavis. Being Tyrean would have been a badge of honor. She wouldn’t have owed anyone anything. But Dazen had been killed, and those who sided with him disgraced, her own father narrowly avoiding execution despite being held in higher esteem than any general on either side. So now she was plain old Liv Danavis from Rekton, the dyer’s daughter. And Ruthgar owned her contract. So what? She wasn’t scared of being summoned.

  Much.

  Despite having been on the Jasper Islands for the last three years, Liv hadn’t come over to Big Jasper very often. The other girls came every week to listen to minstrels, get food not made in the Chromeria kitchens, meet boys who weren’t drafters, shop, and drink too much after examinations. Liv couldn’t afford any of those, and didn’t want to ask charity of anyone, so she begged off, always saying she needed to practice or to study.

  The benefit of that was that she wasn’t yet jaded to the wonders of Big Jasper. The entire island was stuffed with buildings, but nothing was haphazard, unlike back home or in Garriston. The buildings were white stucco, blindingly bright in the sun, rising in terraces with the shape of the land. Geometric shapes dominated: hexagonal buildings and octagonal buildings topped with domes. Every building large enough to justify one—and many that weren’t—sported a dome, and the domes were every color in the rainbow. Blue domes the color of the Cerulean Sea, beaten gold domes on the homes of the rich, copper domes turning gradually green and scrubbed every year to gleam again at Sun Day, domes painted the color of blood, mirrored domes. And with the domes, the doors, too, were beautiful. It was as if all the irrepressible personality of the Jasperites rebelled against the conformity of their white walls and similar-shaped homes, but only in the decorating and designing of their doors. Exotic woods, chiseled patterns from every corner of the Seven Satrapies and beyond, doors apparently carved of living wood with leaves still growing from the Tree People, Tyrean horseshoe arches, Parian chessboard patterns, huge doors to small buildings, keyhole doors in huge edifices.

  But at least as iconic as the colored domes and shining white walls of Big Jasper were the Thousand Stars. Every street was laid out perfectly straight, and at every intersection stood pairs of narrow arches, thin, looking impossibly spindly on their white legs, at least ten stories tall, connecting high above the intersection in a groin vault. Mounted on swivels at the pinnacle of the groin vault was a circular mirror, highly polished, flawless, as tall as a man. With the special layout of the streets, as soon as the sun conquered the horizon, light could be directed anywhere.

  Long ago the builders had said, In this city, there will be no shadow that Orholam’s eye cannot touch. Day was longer on Big Jasper than anywhere in the world.

  The original purpose, as near as Liv could guess, had been to extend the power of drafters on the island. In other densely populated cities, the buildings eventually crowded out the sun. Not only did that make a city feel dark, but it meant drafters walking down those streets were vulnerable. The buildings here were separated carefully according to height and width, leaving lightwells, but with the Thousand Stars, a drafter could have as much power available to her as she could handle for hours longer than she would otherwise.

  On Sun Day, every one of the Thousand Stars was slaved to the Prism. Everywhere he walked, every mirror turned, illuminating him. Obviously, some beams were blocked by buildings, but no matter where he walked—even in the poorest areas—at least a few had unobstructed views. Indeed, before anyone built a building, their plans had to pass inspection that they wouldn’t interfere with the Thousand Stars. Only a very few had been able to circumvent the rules, like the Guile palace.

  Of course, Liv thought, the same rules don’t apply to the obscenely rich. Never do. Not here.

  Every principality in the city was allowed to determine how it wished to use its stars when they weren’t needed for defense, law enforcement, or religious duties. Some moved their stars in rigid schedules, making a light clock that everyone in the district could easily see.

  Today, the first principality Liv walked through, the Embassies, was having a market day. They’d fitted diffuse yellow lenses over half of their stars, lighting an entire great square with cheery light. A half dozen yellow drafters, hired specially for the occasion, were—without spectacles—juggling brightwater, liquid yellow luxin. Dragons exploded in the air, great fountains of shimmering, evaporating yellow luxin shot skyward, drawing great crowds toward the market. The other half of the stars, fitted with lenses of every color, spun in great circles around the market in a dizzying display.

  Liv pitied the tower monkeys—the petite slaves, often children—who had to work the ropes here today. Among slaves, they were well treated, even paid, their work for the star-keepers considered important, technically difficult, and even holy, but they spent their days in two-man teams in the narrow spindles, one spotting and one working the ropes with deft hands, often working from the first shimmer of dawn until the dark of night without reprieve except for switching with their spotter. When the Prism or a superviolet traveled and needed use of the stars, they could do so directly, magically. But every mundane purpose required the services of the monkeys.

  Idly, Liv considered reaching into a superviolet control line embedded in the street and taking control of a star, just to wreak some havoc on the rich people’s party. That was the beauty of being a superviolet. No one could tell you were drafting who couldn’t also see superviolet.

  Still, it wasn’t like she would be the first student to do such a thing. Punishments for such pranks were swift and severe.

  Liv’s stomach was doing backflips, though. Despite the hubbub of the morning crowd and shouts of merchants and the singing of minstrels and the crackling of the brightwater fireworks, nothing could distract her from her upcoming meeting.

  The Crossroads wa
s a kopi house, restaurant, tavern, the highest-priced inn on the Jaspers, and downstairs, allegedly, a similarly priced brothel. It was centrally located in the Embassies District for all the ambassadors, spies, merchants trying to deal with various governments, and drafters having just crossed the Lily’s Stem, because the Crossroads was housed in a former embassy building. As a matter of fact, it was in the old Tyrean embassy. Liv wondered if her handler had done that on purpose, or if she’d just chosen it because she knew it was far too expensive for Liv to afford.

  Liv hiked up the grand staircase to the second floor where the kopi house was. A beautiful greeter met her with a dazzling bright smile. The Crossroads had the best staff in the city: every last man, woman, and table slave attractive, immaculately dressed, and unfailingly professional. Liv had always suspected that the slaves here earned more than she did. Not that that would be hard. Actually, it was Liv’s first time inside.

  “How may we serve you today?” the greeter asked. “We have some lovely tables by the south window.” She politely didn’t stare at Liv’s rough clothing.

  “A private table, if possible. I’ll be meeting a… friend from the Ruthgari embassy, Aglaia Crassos.”

  “Of course, I’ll be sure to send her over.” The staff here knew everyone who was anyone, by name. “Will you be needing muting for your table?”

  Muting? Oh. Liv tightened her eyes to see into the superviolet. Of course. She’d forgotten; she’d heard about this too. A third of the tables here were surrounded by superviolet bubbles. The bubbles had holes, of course, or the patrons inside would suffocate, so the sound couldn’t be completely cut off, but it would certainly help make sure it was a hundred times harder to eavesdrop. Some of the bubbles even had small spinning superviolet fans to blow fresh air into them. Which, Liv realized, was eminently practical. Those patrons who had opted to have the bubble but not the fan looked uncomfortably warm.

 
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