The black prism, p.25
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       The Black Prism, p.25

           Brent Weeks
 

  Each of the Seven Satrapies was responsible for the tuition of its own students. It was an investment every satrapy gladly made because drafters were so vital to every part of their economies, their armies, their construction, their communications, their agriculture. But Tyrea had nothing. The corrupt foreign governors of Garriston sent a pittance every year. Those students who came from Tyrea mostly had to pay their own way. The Danavises’ wealth had been stolen during the war, so Liv had needed to pledge her services to a Ruthgari patron just to stay at the Chromeria.

  If Liv were from any other satrapy, her ambassador would have forced her patron to pay for bichrome training for her or surrender her contract. But there was no Tyrean ambassador anymore. There was an official bursar’s purse for “hardship” cases like hers, but it had long ago become a slush fund for bureaucrats to reward their favorites. Tyrea had no voice, no place.

  “Liv asked because she’s a yellow/superviolet bichrome,” Vena said.

  Gavin turned and looked at her. Vena was an artist and dressed like one. Boyishly short hair, artfully disheveled, lots of jewelry, and clothing she’d tailored for herself. Half the time you couldn’t even tell what country’s style she was borrowing from, if any. But despite not being pretty, she was always striking and—in Liv’s opinion anyway—looked great. Today, Vena wore a flowing dress of her own invention, with silver embroidery at the hem reminiscent of the Tree People’s zoomorphic designs. The designs in the visible spectrum were echoed cleverly in the superviolet.

  “What a marvelous young woman you are,” Gavin said to Vena. “And a good friend. I love your dress.” As Vena blushed crimson, Gavin turned to Liv. “Is this true?”

  “No, it’s not,” Magister Goldthorn said. “Liv’s Threshing was inconclusive, and since then she’s shown no further abilities.”

  Liv pulled out the broken yellow spectacles—really only a monocle—that she’d bought secretly two years before. She held it up, squinted through one eye, and stared at the white stone of the Prism’s Tower. In a moment, yellow luxin filled her cupped hands.

  It sloshed like water. Yellow luxin’s natural state was liquid. It was the most unstable of any luxin, not just sensitive to light but also to motion. At its best, it could be used mainly for two things: if held with will in liquid form, it made great torches. Or, in a thin, sealed sheet, it would slowly feed light to other luxins, keeping them fresh the same way that lanolin and beeswax rejuvenated leather.

  Liv threw the cupped liquid aside. It didn’t even make it to the ground, instead flashboiling in midair into pure yellow light.

  Magister Goldthorn spluttered, “This is outrageous! You are forbidden to draft—”

  “You are forbidden,” Gavin interrupted her, “to squander the gifts Orholam has given you. You’re Tyrean, Aliviana?”

  Magister Goldthorn stopped cold. One did not interrupt the Prism himself, not twice.

  “Yes,” Liv said. “Little town not far from Sundered Rock, actually. Rekton.”

  His eyes seemed to flash for a second, but it might have been Liv’s imagination, because he said, “How long before you pulled the threshing rope?”

  “Two minutes five seconds,” she said. It was considered a very long time.

  He looked hard at her. Then his expression softened. “As stubborn as your father, I see. I barely made it past one. Well done. So… superviolet and yellow. Watch this.” He held out both of his hands.

  Every girl’s pupils tightened to tiny apertures. Superviolet luxin was invisible to normal sight. Even a woman who could draft superviolet wouldn’t see it unless she was looking for it. “Your normal lessons have covered—doubtless to the point of your nausea—crafting missives with superviolet luxin.”

  Had they ever. Its invisibility was why superviolet drafters were used for communications. But on top of that, every satrapy was also looking into ciphers and methods of stacking, twisting, and obfuscating the superviolet-written messages, locking the messages into fragile loops that would be broken by any but someone who knew the exact method to open and read them. Fun, for a while. But they’d passed the fun place a long long time ago.

  “You know what superviolet is great for?” Gavin asked. “Tripping people.” Every girl in the class grinned guiltily. All had done that at one time or another. “No, seriously. The pranks are where you learn to apply your color in ways no one else has thought of. You have to be a little bad to make history. Sealed superviolet isn’t as strong as blue or green, but it weighs almost nothing, and for Orholam’s sake, it’s invisible!” Gavin drafted a hollow superviolet egg the size of his hand. He winced for an instant, as if something was paining him. “The trick with yellow, Liv, is to understand how it releases its power. So, into the middle of this egg, draft liquid yellow.” He did. “The important bit is to leave absolutely no air inside the container. It has to be solid.” He closed it while looking at the girls, not paying attention. He’d just left an air bubble in the egg. He hadn’t noticed.

  “If it’s solid, totally airtight, then even if you shake it—”

  Liv raised her hand, opened her mouth, but she was too slow.

  Gavin shook the egg. It exploded with a blinding flash.

  Everyone hit the ground.

  Before Liv even opened her eyes, she heard Gavin laughing. Was he insane? She looked up, but his hair wasn’t even ruffled. “Now,” Gavin said. “If that egg had been made of blue luxin, when it shattered we’d all have been cut to pieces. But as you all know in your heads—if not in your hearts or your bodies, apparently—sealed superviolet frays easily. Not that it can’t be useful.” With a speed and facility that stunned Liv, he drafted another egg and filled it with liquid yellow luxin.

  “Get up,” he told the class. Ana was crying quietly. She’d scraped her knee when she’d fallen, and it was bleeding. Served her right for wearing such a short skirt. The rest of the girls got up, righted their chairs, and sat. Ana stayed on the ground. “Get up,” Gavin ordered her. “You’re going to be a drafter in a few months. You want to act like a woman? You’re not even ready to act like an adult.”

  The lash of his words hit Ana hard, but every girl in the class felt the sting. His statement was as true for Liv as it was for Ana. She looked away from Ana, realizing how easy it would have been to be in her place right now. She felt a momentary twinge of compassion for the girl, then irritation that she was feeling that. Ana had made her life miserable.

  Gavin promptly ignored Ana. He flung a strand of superviolet skyward. It was so light, it was caught in the wind and drifted to the west off the tower, but as long as he held the luxin open and supported it and drafted more and more into it, he could send it higher, and he did, rapidly. Then he brought the yellow egg up to the thread of luxin, made loops to hold it on to the line, and then launched it into the air. His right hand snapped down with the recoil of the launch.

  The egg zipped along the invisible line, curving out over the tower. At its apex, two hundred feet out, it exploded with a sharp report. Far below, Liv heard people in the yard crying out in wonder and surprise.

  “Now, imagine I pointed that at a charging line of horses. It won’t kill anyone directly, but horses don’t like having things explode in their faces any more than prissy girls do.”

  Blanching and blushing filled the sudden, pained silence.

  “There’s a couple of other special ways you can use superviolet in dual-color drafting. Anyone?” Gavin asked.

  Ana lifted her hand uncertainly. He nodded. “For distance control?”

  “That’s right. You have to leave your superviolet open, and the longer you make the line, the harder it is to control. It’s like juggling when you can’t see the balls. But…” He held out his hands, a swirl of colors went through his eyes, and he was holding a red ball, a yellow ball, a green ball, a blue ball, and an orange ball. (Liv saw him wince again, as if he had a pulled muscle in his back.) Then he started juggling. The girls—all of them, even Magister Goldthorn—gasped.
First because the properties of the balls weren’t right. Orange was slick, oily. Red was sticky. Yellow was liquid. Then, of course, because it was a different kind of impressive to see someone juggle five of anything.

  Oh. Liv got it. Every ball had a very thin blue luxin shell, filled with luxin of a different color.

  Gavin closed his eyes and kept juggling. Impossible. Was he just showing off? No, he was showing off, but he was also still teaching.

  “Ah,” Liv said, pleased.

  “Someone got it,” Gavin said, opening his eyes. “With my eyes closed, how am I juggling?”

  “You’re the Prism. You can do anything,” someone mumbled.

  “Thank you, my butt hasn’t been kissed all day, but no.”

  Did he just say that?! “You’re not juggling,” Liv said, recovering first.

  Gavin took his hands away from the twirling balls. They kept going in the same intricate pattern. Everyone tightened their eyes and saw the superviolet luxin connected in a track through the balls. The balls were simply following the invisible track. “That’s right. If you give a visible reason, even if it’s astounding, you can hide an invisible phenomenon right under people’s noses. That is the power of superviolet luxin. Tell you what, Aliviana, will you do me a favor?”

  “Sure.”

  He smiled. “Good. I’ll hold you to that.” He turned. There was a dark stain on the back of his shirt. Was that blood? Should Liv say something? “Magister Goldthorn, I’m sorry, but I have to leave. I still owe you half a class, and I’ll make it up to you. In the meantime, if you’d notify the appropriate officials, Aliviana Danavis is hereby recognized as a superviolet/yellow bichrome. Her instruction will begin immediately. I would be… disappointed if she were outfitted in a style less decent than the average Ruthgari bichrome’s. Costs should be taken from Chromeria finances. If anyone has a problem with that, direct them to me.”

  Liv forgot about Gavin’s shirt instantly. She couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. With a few sentences, the Prism had changed everything. Freed her. A bichrome! In a word, she’d gone from a life writing letters for some backwater noble to a life of only Orholam knew what. She thought she was imagining it until she saw the exact same stunned expression on Magister Goldthorn’s face. It was real. The second part of what he’d said took only a moment more to sink in. Liv was to be kept in a style equivalent to a Ruthgari bichrome at the Chromeria’s expense. And the Ruthgari kept their drafters in more lavish apartments than anyone. It was all part of their strategy to attract the best talent.

  If Liv played it halfway right, she could escape that hellstone harpy Aglaia Crassos.

  Gavin smiled at her, a roguish, boyish joy mixing with something deeper Liv couldn’t read. Then he left.

  But watching him jog down the steps out of view, Liv was filled with a vague unease. She’d gotten everything she hoped today, and everything that she hadn’t quite dared to hope. But something more had happened.

  The Prism had just bought her. She didn’t know why she was worth it, but it didn’t strike her as a random gesture. She looked at Vena, who shrugged back, eyes wide. Gavin Guile had some purpose in mind for Liv, and she would perform it gladly. How could she not? But what was it?

  Chapter 39

  The cell’s blue was trying to sink into his brain, make him passionless, logical. No room for hatred, for envy, for fury. The dead man was muttering in his wall.

  Dazen stood and walked over to him. The dead man resided in a particularly shiny section of the blue luxin wall. He was, of course, Dazen’s twin.

  “The time has come,” the dead man said. “You need to kill yourself.”

  The dead man liked to drop a fire in Dazen’s lap and see what he did with it.

  Dazen popped his neck left and right. The dead man popped his neck right and left. “What do you mean?” Dazen asked.

  “You haven’t been willing to do what you need to do. Unless you can cut deeper than Dazen, you—”

  “I am Dazen now!” Dazen snapped.

  The man in the wall smiled indulgently. “Not yet, you’re not. You’re still me. You’re still Gavin Guile, the brother who lost. Dazen stole your life, but you haven’t taken his. Not yet. You’re not ready. Talk to me again in another year or two.”

  “You’re dead!” Dazen snapped. “You’re the dead man, not me. I am Dazen!”

  But his reflection said nothing.

  His son was out there. His son, not the real Dazen’s. The real Dazen was stealing his son. Just like he’d stolen his entire life.

  Gavin had decided long ago that if Dazen was going to steal his life, he would steal Dazen’s in return. His younger brother had always been the smarter of the two, so the only way to escape would be to become Dazen—to outthink his brother, to dig a pace below the real Dazen’s deepest trap and spring it back on him. So far, it hadn’t worked.

  “It hasn’t worked because you’re not willing to risk everything to win. That was Dazen’s genius,” the dead man said. “You remember the last time you two fought?”

  “When he imprisoned me and stole my life?”

  “No, the last time you fought with your fists.”

  Gavin couldn’t ever forget it. He’d been the older brother. He needed to win. He couldn’t even remember what they’d fought over. That hadn’t been important. He’d probably started it. Dazen had been getting too big for his boots for a while, not giving Gavin the respect he deserved. So Gavin had punched him in the shoulder and called him something foul.

  Though Gavin was older, Dazen had grown to be at least his size, if not bigger. Most days, Dazen would take the abuse with a complaint and a curse. Not that day. Dazen had attacked him, and suddenly Gavin had been struck with the fear that had been sneaking up on him for quite some time. What if he lost?

  They were struggling, trying to throw each other, raining punches to each other’s arms, stomach, shoulders. Many were blocked, but even those that got through were more painful than damaging. Fighting your brother had rules. You didn’t try to break bones, you didn’t hit in the face. It was about submission and dominance and punishment.

  But if Dazen won one fight, things would never be the same between them. That couldn’t happen. In his fear and desperation, Gavin punched Dazen in the face.

  It rocked Dazen back on his heels, but more from shock than from the power of the blow. Dazen was usually pretty even-keeled, but as soon as Gavin saw his face, he knew he’d made a mistake. A big one. The pain didn’t matter. The dominance didn’t matter. Not to Dazen. He’d gone absolutely crazy. He didn’t even need to draft red to utterly lose it. And lose it he did.

  Dazen bulled into Gavin and swept him off his feet. Gavin tried to pull away, dance aside, pull loose. But Dazen wasn’t jockeying for position; he was taking Gavin down. They fell. Gavin landed on top of Dazen, connecting a good shot with his knee.

  It didn’t matter. It was like Dazen didn’t even feel it. He just absorbed the shot and pulled Gavin with the force of his fall. Abruptly Gavin’s little brother was on top of him. Dazen grabbed his throat in both hands and squeezed.

  Gavin’s panic receded. They’d both been taught grappling. He slugged Dazen across the jaw. Nothing. Dazen took it. The next punch Dazen deflected with an elbow. He squeezed.

  The panic came back with a vengeance. Dazen was going to kill him! Gavin punched and punched and punched, but Dazen just took the punishment.

  Go ahead, hurt me, but I’m going to kill you.

  The world was going dark when Dazen abruptly released Gavin. He staggered to his feet as Gavin coughed himself back to life. By the time Gavin stood, his little brother was gone.

  After that, they hadn’t fought again. It was enough. They’d known without saying a word that if they ever fought again, someone would likely get killed.

  And if I’d won at Sundered Rock, someone would have been.

  But Dazen had let him live. It was like that moment when he’d had Gavin’s throat in his hands. He cou
ld have crushed me. He could have killed me, but he let me live instead. Because he was weak.

  “If Dazen’s weak,” the dead man said, “what does that make you? You lost to him.” He laughed.

  “Never again. It’s taken me this long, but I understand at last. I will take this lesson from my brother: win at any cost. Be ready to pay it all, and you won’t have to.” That was it. Simple. Now, now, Gavin was ready to become Dazen. He would take Dazen’s strengths and leave his weaknesses.

  He reached out a hand and touched his reflection. “You really are a dead man now,” he said.

  His previous attempts to draft sub-red had failed because he couldn’t get enough heat. The only thing that generated heat down here was his own body, and he’d nearly killed himself last time when he’d taken too much heat. He’d gone delusional, and still it hadn’t been enough. He hadn’t been willing to risk everything. He hadn’t been willing to die, if it took that. He was willing now.

  “Thank you, brother. Thank you, son,” he said aloud. He drafted a blade of blue luxin. It only held an edge if he concentrated hard, but over a course of days, he and the dead man shaved his long hair off. He would cut off a hank, separate the strands into narrow sheaves, and tie the ends of those so they wouldn’t fall apart. When he had a good pile, smearing as much oil from his body on his makeshift yarn as he could, he began weaving. This had to be done first. Later he wouldn’t be in any shape to try it.

  For once, the blue helped him. The old him—back when he was free, back when he was Gavin—could never have done this. Threading the hairs over, under, over, under, making mistakes, starting over, fumbling and dropping the whole unfinished thing, trying to catch it and losing a week’s work in one second when his fingers pulled the threads loose—it all would have driven him mad. But blue reveled in detail, in putting every hair in its place.

 
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