The black prism, p.24
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       The Black Prism, p.24

           Brent Weeks
 

  The luxlord smiled. “No,” he said, “I’m not a drafter. The Black usually isn’t. My name is Carver Black. Luxlord Black, for most purposes.” The name didn’t sound Atashian, so maybe he was Ilytian, but Kip guessed the man could just as easily have grown up here or anywhere. Obviously, there was a lot of trade and movement among certain nations. Just not Tyrea.

  Kip moved to speak, stopped, pointed to his lips.

  “Yes,” the luxlord said. “You can speak. We’ll begin momentarily, as soon as Arien is ready.”

  “Um, nice to meet you, Luxlord Black. I’m Kip.”

  “And you, Magister?” Luxlord Black asked. “Are you ready?”

  “Yes, Luxlord,” she said. She sat at the chair, and the Black stood beside the table. Kip came to stand in front of the table himself.

  Magister Arien was short and skinny, nervous around the Black, but happy and cute. She looked up at Kip like she wanted him to succeed. He tried not to let her orange eyes disturb him. “Supplicant,” she said, “I’m going to lay out a series of colored tiles, from one tone to another. You will arrange the tiles in order.” She smiled suddenly. “We’ll start easy.”

  With that, she opened a bag in her lap, rummaged through the tiles for a bit, and extracted a black tile and a white tile. These she laid at the edges of the table. Then she laid a dozen tiles in various shades of gray in between. Kip quickly moved them into place from lightest to darkest.

  Arien said nothing, simply checked the backs of the tiles, made marks on a parchment, and swept the tiles off the table and back into the bag. Then she laid out brown tiles, from a tumbleweed to sepia. This was harder, but Kip swapped tiles quickly once more.

  The test was repeated with blues, greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. When Kip got the reds perfect, Arien pulled out a black bag, checked the backs of the tiles carefully—shielding them from Kip’s eyes with a hand as she did so—and lined up another series of reds, except this group had twice as many tiles, so the gradations of color were much much finer. Scarlets, vermilions, strawberry, raspberry, cerise. Kip lined them up and only had trouble with one. The color at the edge of that tile was slightly darker than the color on its face. Finally he put it in its spot by the color on its face.

  She flipped the tiles over, and Kip saw that he’d put tile fourteen between tiles nine and ten. Arien winked at him apologetically, as if he’d done better than she expected, despite failing.

  “That’s not right,” Kip said.

  “Silence!” Luxlord Black said. “I know you don’t know our ways, supplicant, but you will not speak during the testing.”

  “But it’s wrong,” Kip said.

  “I’m warning you.”

  Kip raised his hands in silent protest.

  Luxlord Black sighed. “Magister?” he asked. “Usually protests have to be lodged after the test results are finalized, but apparently nothing is going to go according to custom today. A judgment, please?”

  Arien flipped the tiles back over as Kip had had them lined up. She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Luxlord, I’m sorry, I’m not a superchromat. I tried to tell you. I can’t tell the difference myself. The key says that the—”

  “The key is being challenged.” Luxlord Black scratched an eye with one finger. “Half of women superchromats, and I choose… Never you mind. Go get a superchromat, Magister.”

  “Yes, Luxlord,” she said meekly.

  She left and the luxlord turned his green eyes to Kip. “Who are you, really? Why are you testing today? Why the special treatment? Where are you from?”

  “I’m from Tyrea, sir. King Garadul wiped out my—”

  “King? What’s this about?”

  The door opened and Magister Arien came in, followed by a woman who looked like a scarecrow. She was almost as tall as Luxlord Black, lean as a rail, with faded brown skin, bones sticking out at sharp angles, wrinkled, her kinky hair white and short with only a few wisps of something darker clinging to the tips, the natural mahogany of her eyes eclipsed by orange and red in jagged starbursts through her irises, reaching almost to the outer edge.

  “Mistress Kerawon Varidos, I’m sorry to disturb you,” Luxlord Black said. He shot a look at Arien.

  “She was just in the hall; she asked what I was doing,” Arien said defensively.

  “Nearly bowled me over. What’s this challenge?” the old woman asked. The tiles were lying face up the way Kip had left them. “How did the supplicant order them?”

  Silence. The mistress looked from Luxlord Black to Magister Arien. “That is the way he ordered them,” Arien said.

  “So he’s a freak to his gender. Are we done?”

  “The key says it should be like this,” Magister Arien said. She turned the tiles over and pointed to the numbers on the back.

  “You come to me to differentiate the finest red chroma and you think I can’t read?” Mistress Varidos asked sharply.

  Magister Arien looked horrified. Her mouth opened and shut.

  The old scarecrow picked up tile fourteen in her bony claws. She turned it and looked at the edges. “Strip your tester of her position,” she said. “This tile has been left in the sunlight. It’s been bleached. It’s the wrong color. The boy’s a superchromat.” She turned to Kip. “Congratulations, freak.”

  “Freak?” Kip said.

  “Simple, is he? Too bad.”

  “What?” Kip asked. He still hadn’t figured out what everyone’s titles meant, much less what he was supposed to do with all of this.

  “Kip, you’re forbidden to speak!” Magister Arien said.

  “That’s an injunction against cheating,” Luxlord Black said. “For when hundreds of supplicants are testing in the same room.”

  “He just came today,” Magister Arien told Mistress Varidos. “The Prism himself ordered that he be tested immediately. He doesn’t know all the rules.”

  “Continue the testing,” the mistress ordered.

  Kip and Magister Arien glanced at Luxlord Black. Kip guessed that, technically, the luxlord was the highest-ranking person in the room, but the man gave the tiniest shrug, as if it wasn’t worth fighting over. Go on, he waved.

  Magister Arien sat once more, pulled out a set of tongs, and used them to lay out another dozen tiles—except these were all the same deep red. Kip blinked. Magister Arien handed him the tongs. Um, thanks?

  Kip reached a hand out for a tile, and then he understood. He could feel the heat radiating off them. He was supposed to see the differences in heat? He stared as if by sheer willpower he could tear the truth out of the tiles.

  Time crawled past. Kip started to daydream. He wondered if Liv Danavis was here. Oh, no, he’d have to tell her.

  Hi, Liv, great to see you. Your father’s dead.

  Fantastic. Kip thought about the flames roaring through his town, about that drafter and his apprentice, throwing fireballs. Jumping over the waterfall, running down the waterfall path in the utter darkness, relaxing his eyes so he could actually see better than focusing directly. Oh, Orholam, I am simple.

  “Okay, that’s long enough,” Luxlord Black said.

  “No wait! Wait! I just—I just…” Kip stared at the tiles again. Relax, eyes, come on! He let his focus go soft, and abruptly it was clear. Using the tongs, he shuffled each tile into its correct place in moments from the hottest to the merely warm. This was what Master Danavis had been teaching him? The old dyer had never let on that what he was showing Kip wasn’t normal. Unbelievable.

  The thought of the dyer left a hollow in Kip’s stomach. Master Danavis had been good to him. Inventing chores he probably could have done faster himself, just to give Kip a little money. And like everyone in Rekton, he’d been slaughtered.

  Kip hoped Master Danavis had taken some of the bastards with him.

  “Are we almost done?” he asked roughly. He wanted to be alone. He was too tired, his emotions erratic, the reality of what had happened in Rekton trying to rush in and overwhelm him now that he had a second where he wa
sn’t running from soldiers or bandits or having magic thrown at him.

  “No,” the old scarecrow said. “Don’t bother, girl,” she told Arien, who’d only flipped over half of the tiles. “He got them all correct. Show him the superviolets.”

  Magister Arien put away the hot tiles with a glance at Luxlord Black, who seemed unfazed. Then she pulled out the last tiles, which were all the same deep violet.

  Relax my eyes to see one side of the spectrum, so… Kip tightened his eyes as hard as he could, and the colors leapt apart. Someone had written a letter on each tile. It read: “Nicely done!”

  Kip laughed. He slapped them into place.

  Magister Arien looked at Mistress Varidos. “Why are you looking at me, you fool girl?” the old woman asked. “I can’t see superviolets. I’m at the other end of the spectrum.”

  The younger woman blushed and flipped over the tiles. They were in the correct order.

  “Congratulations, boy,” Mistress Varidos said. “You can be some satrap’s gardener.”

  “What?” Kip asked.

  “It’s one use for excellent color matchers, and a step up for you, Tyrean.”

  The door opened and Commander Ironfist stepped in. “What’s this?” he asked.

  “We’ve just finished testing the supplicant,” Magister Arien said. “He’s a full-spectrum superchromat!”

  “You’re wasting his time with tiles? I don’t care what colors he can see, I want to know what he can draft. Where’s that idiot tester I started with? I told him to put Kip through the Thresher.”

  “You’re putting a raw supplicant through the Thresher?” Mistress Varidos asked.

  “Wait, this wasn’t the Thresher?” Kip asked.

  “Do you feel threshed?” Ironfist asked.

  “You’re putting a raw supplicant through the Thresher?” the mistress asked again.

  “He’s leaving in the morning. The Prism demands to know his capabilities before they go.”

  “This is highly irregular,” the mistress said. “Who is this boy?”

  “I’m right here,” Kip said, irritated.

  “Regular or irregular is irrelevant,” Ironfist said. “Can you and this magister assist in the testing or not?”

  “Me?” Magister Arien asked, alarmed. “I don’t think I—”

  “We can do it—” the mistress began.

  “Good, then—” Ironfist said.

  “—but I demand to know who he is first.”

  “I’m right here!” Kip said.

  “Don’t you raise your voice to me, boy,” the mistress said, stabbing the air in front of his nose with one bony claw.

  “Who are you, boy?” Luxlord Black asked quietly, even as the voices continued to rise.

  “I think I’d really prefer not to help with the Thresh—” Arien was saying.

  “You have no standing to make demands, Mistress—” Ironfist was saying to the old woman.

  “I’m Kip Guile!” Kip shouted. “I’m Gavin Guile’s bastard, Kip.”

  Silence.

  Kip looked from one face to another. Luxlord Black merely looked shocked. Magister Arien looked stunned to the point of tears. Commander Ironfist looked peeved. Mistress Varidos looked oddly satisfied. “Ah,” she said. “Then we’ll start the Thresher immediately. Girl,” she ordered Arien, “go get the room ready. Summon the testers.” She looked at Kip. “So, maybe not a gardener after all.”

  Go bend yourself over a fence, Kip said—but only to himself.

  Chapter 38

  Liv Danavis climbed the last steps to the top of the Chromeria, glancing around nervously. She was at the head of the short line of her classmates, carrying her chair awkwardly high so she didn’t catch it on the steep stairs. At first she thought the deck was empty, then she saw him. Her target. Her last chance.

  The Prism was standing right at the edge of the building, leaning out, looking east, past the red tower, studying the ships in Sapphire Bay. Though Gavin Guile was literally twice Liv’s seventeen years, he cut a fine figure in the afternoon sun. A sharp V from broad shoulders to narrow waist, arm thick with muscle where the wind was blowing one sleeve up. His copper-colored hair streamed in the wind. He had that odd combination uncommon even among the high houses of the Seven Satrapies of red hair and—instead of the freckled skin that would mark him a Blood Forester—deeply tanned skin. Could it be true? Could this man be Kip’s father?

  “Liv! Move!” Vena hissed.

  Liv started. She’d stopped right at the top of the steps, blocking the rest of the class. She hurried forward, blushing. She knew it was bad when oblivious Vena noticed something. Perfect. Liv was going to hear about this. If not from Magister Goldthorn, certainly from a few of the less friendly girls in the class.

  As the six girls took their places—there were no boys in the class—the Prism saw them. He pulled himself away from the edge of the tower and walked to the head of the class. As when they sat in their normal class—though mercifully the days of solid book learning were mostly past—Liv took the second row, her Poor joining her friend Vena’s Oblivious Artist and Arana’s Plain Merchant’s Daughter. The girls who somehow embodied beautiful, rich, connected, noble, preening, and gifted into only three bodies took the front row, as they always demanded. Magister Goldthorn, barely three years older than her disciples, did everything those girls wanted.

  Gavin Guile came to stand in front of the class. “Hail, disciples,” he said. It was the traditional teachers’ greeting.

  “Hail, Magister,” they said in unison, answering without thinking about whether they actually should address him by some other title. He was the Prism, after all.

  “Good,” he said, giving a lopsided grin. Orholam, he was cute. “Today, I am only a magister. And you are only glims.”

  “Gleams,” Liv corrected without thinking.

  She shrank into her chair as Magister Goldthorn hissed and all the girls turned disbelieving stares at her. Correcting the Prism! He could say up was down and everyone should nod and smile. But he didn’t look upset. He just stared at Liv for a long moment with those unsettling prismatic eyes.

  “Ah, yes,” he said. “Well, since you are advanced students, I suppose you have questions for me? What’s your name?”

  “Me?” Liv asked. Of course he meant me, he’s looking right at me. “Um, Liv.”

  “Umliv?”

  She blushed harder. “Aliviana. Liv. Liv Danavis.” Had she added that last part hoping he would notice? Wouldn’t she have just said Liv otherwise? Was she trying ingratiate herself, just as her Ruthgari masters wanted?

  “Well done,” Beautiful whispered from the front row. “Only took you three tries.”

  “Related to General Danavis?”

  Liv swallowed. “Yes, sir. He’s my father.” Committed now. Well done, Liv.

  “He was a good man.” He said it as if he genuinely respected the man who’d been responsible for so many of his own men’s deaths.

  “He was a rebel.” She couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. Bitterness that her father had lost everything in the war, including her mother. Bitterness that she was always going to be different. Bitterness that her father never spoke of the False Prism’s War, never even tried to justify fighting for the wrong side.

  “And not many of the rebels were good men, making your father even more remarkable. Do you have a question, Aliviana?”

  All the students were supposed to have prepared questions, but Beautiful, Rich, and Connected in the front row usually dominated any time the class had with important drafters, so Liv hadn’t expected to get the chance to ask hers. She hesitated.

  “I have a question,” Beautiful said. Her real name was Ana, and she leaned forward eagerly, crossing her arms under her breasts. It was reasonably warm on top of the Chromeria, but Ana had to be cold, considering how little of her body that dress covered. The combination of Ana’s frustratingly effortless natural beauty, short skirts, and deep cleavage was rarely lost on mal
e magisters.

  “Wait, I do have a question,” Liv said. She’d already brought up that she was Corvan Danavis’s daughter. The only way she could be more interesting to him—and make him suspect more that she was a spy—was by volunteering that she was from Rekton and knew Kip.

  And the only way out was to go much, much further. Dear Orholam, please…

  “Yes, Liv,” Gavin said. But he didn’t look at her. Face expressionless, he was staring hard at Ana. He glanced down at her propped-up cleavage then back to her eyes and shook his head just a fraction. Yes, I see. No, I’m not amused.

  Ana blanched. Her eyes dropped, she sat up and shifted in her chair to pull her skirt down. Thank Orholam Liv was in the back row, because she couldn’t suppress her grin, despite everything.

  “Liv?” Gavin asked, turning those prismatic eyes on her. Entrancing.

  She cleared her throat. “I was wondering if you could talk to us about uses of yellow/superviolet bichromacy.”

  “Why?” Gavin asked.

  Liv froze. Her prayer was answered. A chance.

  Magister Goldthorn interjected. “How about we talk about superviolet/blue bichromacy instead? It’s far more common. Three of my disciples are bichromes. Ana here is nearly a polychrome.”

  Gavin ignored her.

  Liv hadn’t thought this moment would ever come. She’d been trapped so long in this class, with these girls. In one more year, she’d be finished. In fact, she’d mastered enough drafting that she could take the final examination right now and pass easily. She hadn’t because there was nothing good waiting for her when she finished. A terrible position decoding official, non-secret communications for the Ruthgari noble who held her contract. She wouldn’t even be trusted with secret communications. No matter that she’d been a babe in arms during the war and felt no loyalty to the rebels, she was Tyrean. It was enough to curse her in the Chromeria’s eyes.

 
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