The black prism, p.3
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       The Black Prism, p.3
 

           Brent Weeks

  And then the green disappeared. In exactly the same two seconds it took every day. He screamed in frustration, but even his frustration was weak, his scream more to assure himself he could still hear than real fury.

  The next part still drove him crazy. He knelt by the depression. His brother had turned him into an animal. A dog, playing with his own shit. But that emotion was too old, mined too many times to give him any real warmth. Six thousand days on, he was too debased to resent his debasement. Putting both hands into his urine, he scrubbed it around the bowl as he had scrubbed his oils. Even leached of all color, urine was still urine. It should still be acidic. It should corrode the hellstone faster than the skin oils alone would.

  Or the urine might neutralize the oils. He might be pushing the day of his escape further and further away. He had no idea. That was what made him crazy, not immersing his fingers in warm urine. Not anymore.

  He scooped the urine out of the bowl and dried it with a wad of blue rags: his clothes, his pillow, now stinking of urine. Stinking of urine for so long that the stench didn’t offend him anymore. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the bowl had to be dry by tomorrow so he could try again.

  Another day, another failure. Tomorrow, he would try sub-red again. It had been a while. He’d recovered enough from his last attempt. He should be strong enough for it. If nothing else, his brother had taught him how strong he really was. And maybe that was what made him hate Gavin more than anything. But it was a hatred as cold as his cell.

  Chapter 4

  In the early morning chill, Kip jogged across the town square as fast as his ungainly fifteen-year-old frame would allow. He caught his shoe on a cobblestone and pitched headlong through Master Danavis’s back gate.

  “Are you okay, boy?” Master Danavis asked from his seat at his work bench, his dark eyebrows rising high above cornflower blue eyes, the irises half filled with the stark ruby red that marked him a drafter. Master Danavis was in his early forties, beardless and wiry, wearing thick wool work pants and a thin shirt that left lean, muscled arms uncovered despite the cold morning. A pair of red spectacles sat low on his nose.

  “Ow, ow.” Kip looked at his skinned palms. His knees were burning too. “No, no I’m not.” He hitched his pants up, wincing as his scraped palms rubbed on the heavy, once-black linen.

  “Good, good, because—ah, here. Tell me, are these the same?” Master Danavis put out both of his hands. Both were bright red, filled with luxin from the elbow to his fingers. He turned his arm over so that his light kopi-and-cream-colored skin wouldn’t interfere as much with Kip’s examination. Like Kip, Master Danavis was a half-breed—though Kip had never heard anyone give the drafter any trouble for that, unlike him. In the dyer’s case, he was half Blood Forester, his face marked with a few strange dots they called freckles, and a hint of red in his otherwise normal dark hair. But at least his lighter than normal skin made what he was asking Kip easy.

  Kip pointed to a region from the dyer’s forearm to his elbow. “This red changes color here, and this one’s a bit brighter. Can I, uh, talk to you, sir?”

  Master Danavis flicked both hands down with disgust and ruby luxin splashed onto ground already splattered a hundred shades of red. The gooey luxin crumpled and dissolved. Most afternoons, Kip came to sweep up the remnants—red luxin was flammable even when it was dust. “Superchromats! It’s one thing for my daughter to be one, but the alcaldesa’s husband? And you? Two men in one town? Wait, what’s wrong, Kip?”

  “Sir, there’s ah…” Kip hesitated. Not only was the battlefield forbidden, but Master Danavis had once said that he thought scavenging there was no different than grave robbing. “Have you heard from Liv, sir?” Coward. Three years ago, Liv Danavis had left to be trained at the Chromeria like her father before her. They’d only been able to afford for her to come home at the harvest break her first year.

  “Come here, boy. Show me those hands.” Master Danavis grabbed a clean rag and blotted up the blood, dislodging the dirt with firm strokes. Then he uncorked a jug and held the rag over its mouth. He rubbed the brandy-soaked rag over Kip’s palms.

  Kip gasped.

  “Don’t be a baby,” Master Danavis said. Even though Kip had done odd jobs for the dyer for as long as he could remember, he was still scared of him sometimes. “Knees.”

  Grimacing, Kip pulled up one pant leg and propped his foot on a work bench. Liv was two years older than Kip—almost seventeen now. Not even the lack of men in the village had made her look at Kip as anything more than a child, of course, but she had always been nice to him. A pretty girl being nice and only accidentally patronizing was pretty much the best Kip could hope for.

  “Let’s just say that not all sharks and sea demons are in the sea. Chromeria’s a tough place for a Tyrean since the war.”

  “So you think she might come home?”

  “Kip,” Master Danavis said, “is your mother in trouble again?”

  Master Danavis had refused to apprentice Kip as a dyer, saying there wasn’t enough work in little Rekton to give Kip a future, and insisting he only was a halfway decent dyer himself because he could draft. He’d been something else before the Prisms’ War, obviously, because he’d been Chromeria trained. That wasn’t cheap, and most drafters were sworn to service to pay the expense. So Master Danavis’s own master must have been killed during the war, leaving him adrift. But few adults talked about those days. Tyrea had lost and everything had gotten bad, that’s all Kip or the other children knew.

  Still, Master Danavis paid Kip to do odd jobs and, like half the mothers in town, would give him a meal anytime he wandered by. Even better, he always let Kip eat the cakes the women in town sent, trying to attract the handsome bachelor’s attention.

  “Sir, there’s an army on the other side of the river. They’re coming to wipe out the town to make an example of us for defying King Garadul.”

  Master Danavis started to say something, then saw that Kip was serious. He said nothing for a moment, then his whole demeanor changed.

  He started asking Kip questions rapid-fire: where were they exactly, when was he there, how did he know they were going to wipe out the town, what had the tents looked like, how many tents had he counted, were there any drafters? Kip’s answers were unbelievable even to his own ears, but Master Danavis accepted it all.

  “He said King Garadul is recruiting color wights? You’re certain?”

  “Yessir.”

  Master Danavis rubbed his upper lip with thumb and forefinger, like a man would smooth his mustache, though he was clean-shaven. He strode to a chest, opened it, and grabbed a purse out. “Kip, your friends are fishing this morning at Green Bridge. You need to get out there and warn them. The king’s men will seize that bridge. If you don’t warn them, your friends will be killed or taken for slaves. I’ll warn everyone here in town. Worse comes to worst, use that money to get to the Chromeria. Liv will help you.”

  “But—but, my mother! Where—”

  “Kip, I’ll do my best to save her and everyone here. No one else is going to save your friends. You want Isabel taken as a slave? You know what happens, right?”

  Kip blanched. Isa was still a tomboy, but it hadn’t escaped him that she was turning into a beautiful woman. She wasn’t always very nice to him, but the thought of someone hurting her filled him with rage. “Yes, sir.” Kip turned to go, hesitated. “Sir, what’s a superchromat?”

  “A pain in my ass. Now go!”

  Chapter 5

  This was not going to be pretty. The note, the you-have-a-son note, hadn’t been sealed. Gavin could pretty much guarantee that the White’s people read all of his correspondence. But Karris had laughed after giving him the note, which meant she hadn’t. So she didn’t know. Yet. But she’d gone to report to the White. Where Gavin was expected.

  He rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck to one side and then the other, each giving a satisfying little pop, then started walking. His Blackguards fell in step
behind him, each carrying a wheellock musket and wearing an ataghan or other weapon. He climbed the stairs to the open roof balcony of the Chromeria. As always, he noticed Karris first. She was short, with a naturally curvy figure now carved into too-hard planes and veins by years of strenuous training. Her hair was long and straight and platinum blonde today. Yesterday it had been pink. Gavin liked it blonde. Blonde usually meant she was in a good mood. Her hair color changes were nothing magical. She just liked to change frequently. Or maybe she figured she stood out so much that she might as well not even try to blend in.

  Like the other Blackguards protecting the White, Karris wore fine black trousers and blouse, cut for fighting and plain except for the embroidery of her rank on the shoulder and at the neck in gold thread. Like the others, she carried a slim black ataghan—a slightly forward-curving sword with a single cutting edge for most of its length—and rather than a shield, a metal parrying stick with a punch dagger in the middle. Like the others, she was extensively trained in the use of both, and a number of other weapons. Unlike the others, her skin wasn’t the deep black of a Parian or an Ilytian.

  Nor was her mood dark, apparently. There was a mischievous little twist to her lips. Gavin raised a brow at her, pretending to be mildly peeved about her earlier prank with the shades in his room, and came to stand before the White.

  Orea Pullawr was a shrunken old woman who was taking more and more to the wheeled chair she sat in now. Her Blackguards made sure that every guard rotation had at least one burly man in case she needed to be carried up or down stairs. But despite her physical infirmity, Orea Pullawr hadn’t needed to fend off a challenger for the white robe for more than a decade. Most people couldn’t even remember her real name; she simply was the White.

  “Are you ready?” she asked. Even after all these years, she still had trouble accepting that this wasn’t hard for him.

  “I’ll manage.”

  “You always do,” she said. Her eyes were clear and gray except for two broad arcs of color surrounding each iris, blue on top and green below. The White was a blue/green bichrome, but those arcs of color were washed out in her eyes, desaturated now because she hadn’t drafted in so long. But each arc was as thick as possible, extending from the pupil out to the very edge of each iris. If she ever drafted again, she’d break the halo: the color would break through into the whites of each eye, and that would be the end of her. That was why she didn’t wear colored spectacles. Unlike other retired drafters, she didn’t even continue the pretense of carrying around her unused spectacles to remind everyone of what she once was. Orea Pullawr was the White, and it was enough.

  Gavin headed to the dais. Above it, mounted on arcing tracks so it could be adjusted for any time of day or month of the year, a great polished crystal hung. He didn’t need it. Never had, but it seemed to make everyone more comfortable to think he required some crutch to handle so much light. He never got lightsick either. Life just wasn’t fair. “Any special requests?” he asked.

  How exactly the Prism felt the imbalances in the world’s magic was still a mystery. Shrouded in religious hokum about the Prism being connected straight to Orholam and therefore all the satrapies, the subject had not even been studied before Gavin became the Prism. Even the White had been quite nearly fearful when she asked about it, and she was as brassy a woman as Gavin had ever met.

  Not that they’d made much progress, but long ago he and the White had struck a bargain: she would study him intensely and he would cooperate, and in turn she would allow him to travel without Blackguards dogging his every step. It worked, mostly. Sometimes he couldn’t help but tease her, since it seemed they hadn’t learned anything in the sixteen years he’d been the Prism. Of course, when he pushed her too far, she’d bring him up here and say she really needed to examine how the light moved through his skin. So he’d balance. In the open air. In the winter. Naked.

  Not pleasant. Gavin being Gavin, he’d learned pretty much exactly where the line was. Emperor of the Seven Satrapies indeed.

  “I’d like you to start allowing the Blackguard to do their jobs, Lord Prism.”

  “I meant about the balancing.”

  “They train their whole lives to serve us. They risk their lives. And you disappear, every week. We agreed you could travel without them, but only during emergencies.”

  Serve us? It’s a little more complicated than that.

  “I live dangerous,” Gavin said. They fought about this all the time. Doubtless the White figured that if she didn’t make a show here, he would push for more freedom. Doubtless she was right. Gavin looked at the White flatly. The White looked at Gavin flatly. The Blackguards were very, very quiet.

  Is this how you would have handled them, brother? Or would you have simply charmed them into submission? Everything in my life is about power.

  “Nothing special today,” the White said. Gavin began.

  A Prism, at core, did two things no one else could do. First, Gavin could split light into its component colors without external aids. A normal red drafter could draft only an arc of red, some a wider arc, some a lesser arc. In order to draft, they had to be seeing red—red rocks, blood, a sunset, a desert, whatever. Or, as drafters had learned long ago, they could wear red spectacles, which filtered the sun’s white light to deliver only red. It gave less power, but it was better than being utterly dependent on one’s surroundings.

  The same limitations applied to every drafter: monochromes could draft only one color; bichromes could draft two colors. Generally, it was colors that bordered each other, like red and orange, or yellow and green. Polychromes—those who controlled three or more colors—were the rarest, but even they had to draft from the colors they could see. Only the Prism never needed spectacles. Only Gavin could split light within himself.

  That was convenient for Gavin, but it didn’t help anyone else. What did help was this: standing atop the Chromeria, light streaming through his eyes, filling his skin with every color in the spectrum, bleeding out of every pore, he could feel the imbalances in magic in all the world.

  “To the southeast, like before,” Gavin said. “Deep in Tyrea, likely Kelfing, someone’s using sub-red, and lots of it.” Heat and fire usually meant war magic. It was the first place most non-drafting warlords or satraps went when they wanted to kill people. No subtlety. The amount of sub-red being used in Tyrea meant either they’d been having a quiet war, or the new satrap Rask Garadul had set up his own school to train battle drafters. It wouldn’t be something his neighbors would be happy to learn. The Ruthgari governor who occupied Tyrea’s former capital Garriston definitely wouldn’t be happy to learn it.

  In addition to the surfeit of sub-red, more red magic than blue had been used since Gavin last balanced, and more green than orange. The system was self-regulating, initially. If red drafters around the world used too much red, it would begin to get harder for them to draft, and simultaneously easier for the blues. Sealed red luxin would unravel more easily, while sealed blue would seal better. At that level, it was an inconvenience, an annoyance.

  Legends spoke of an era before Lucidonius came and brought the true worship of Orholam when the magic centers had been spread throughout the world: green in what was now Ruthgar, red in Atash, and so forth, all worshipping pagan gods and mired in superstition and ignorance. Some warlord had massacred almost all the blues. Within months, they said, the Cerulean Sea had turned to blood, the waters choked of life. Fishermen on every side of the sea had starved. The few surviving blue drafters had heroically worked to bring the balance back by themselves—using so much blue magic that they’d killed themselves. The seas cleared, and the red drafters returned to drafting as before. But this time there were no blue drafters left. Anything using red luxin failed, the seas turned bloody again, famine and disease descended.

  And so it went. Nearly every generation huge natural disasters wiped out thousands who believed they’d done something to offend their capricious gods.

  Prisms pr
evented that. Gavin could feel what was out of balance long before there were any physical signs, and fix it by drafting the opposite color. When Prisms failed, as they inevitably did after seven, fourteen, or twenty-one years, the Chromeria had to prevent disasters the hard way—in addition to running around putting out fires (sometimes literally), they would send missives throughout the world, perhaps urging blues not to draft unless it was an emergency, and reds to draft more than usual. Because everyone could only draft a finite amount in their lives, that meant hastening the reds to their death, and keeping the blues from doing useful work in all of the Seven Satrapies. So at such times, the Chromeria sought a Prism’s replacement with great fervor. And Orholam was faithful to send a new Prism every generation, or so the teaching went.

  Except for Gavin’s generation, when in his ineffable wisdom, Orholam had somehow sent two—and torn the world apart.

  Gavin spun in a slow circle, spreading his arms wide and releasing gouts of superviolet light to balance the sub-red, then red to balance blue, then orange to balance green. When the world felt right once more, he stopped.

  He turned and smiled at the White. Her expression, as usual, was a cipher. Her Blackguards—every one of whom was a drafter and thus had an idea of how much power Gavin had just handled—looked similarly unimpressed. Or perhaps they were simply habituated. He was the Prism, after all. It was his job to do the impossible. If anything, they relaxed slightly. Their job was to protect the White, even from him, if it came to it.

  Gavin was the Prism, and thus ostensibly the emperor of the Seven Satrapies. In reality, his duties were mostly religious. Prisms who became too much more than just figureheads found themselves forcibly retired. Often permanently. The Blackguard would die to protect him from anyone else, but the White was the head of the Chromeria. If it came to it, they’d fight for her, not him. If it did, they knew they would likely all die, but then, that was what they trained for. Even Karris.

 
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