The black prism, p.31
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       The Black Prism, p.31

           Brent Weeks
 

  Chapter 45

  Gavin moved quickly, hearing the old bichrome say, “Are you ready to see your colors?” to Kip.

  “I know I am!” Gavin said. “Mistress Varidos, may I?” Family members of supplicants weren’t allowed in the testing chamber for fear that it would lead to cheating. The rule, at least theoretically, even applied to the Prism. There’s a reason theory and practice are two different words.

  “I wasn’t even aware that you’d begun your testing. How long did they say you lasted?” Gavin asked.

  “Four minutes, I guess,” Kip said.

  “Four twelve,” the old mistress said.

  Gavin physically stopped. It had seemed like a long time up in his room, but he’d supposed it had only seemed long. Four minutes was astounding. Passing had only taken him five.

  Mistress Varidos drew close to Gavin and whispered, “There was some irregularity that I think you should know about.”

  Gavin smiled at Kip. “Well done, we’ll just be a moment.” He came aside, leaving Kip with the men and women who were asking him which part he thought was hardest, how he’d managed to hold out so long, and generally treating him like the center of the world. It was pretty intoxicating for a young drafter, and it was supposed to be.

  Grinning, Gavin walked toward the tester’s table with Mistress Varidos. They came to stand right over the stone table. A black samite cloth was spread over a hole in the middle of the table. The testing stone would be right in there. Gavin tried to remember exactly how it was positioned. He’d only get one shot at this. “What was the irregularity?” he asked. The samite blocked out any outside light that would interfere with the testing stone.

  The old woman exhaled slowly. “He threw the rope out of his hand at about three thirty. Before I could stop her, one of the women put it back in his hand.”

  “Are you joking?” Gavin said.

  “They send the beautiful ones for the testing. Half of them barely have the brains to remember their lines, much less remember some of the more obscure rules governing situations that have never arisen in living memory. Even Dazen didn’t throw the rope aside.”

  “Which one did it?”

  “The green.”

  Of course it was the green. Wild, unpredictable, chafing at the slightest restriction. “Get her over here!”

  The green tester saw the mistress’s summons and walked right over. All the testers were beautiful, and if being light-skinned was a detriment on the battlefield, it was favored for this and a few other ceremonies. The visual effect of a man or woman whose skin was green or blue or red was more muted the darker their natural skin tone. Even the Parians chose coastal, lowland, or mixed-blood countrymen to represent them in this ceremony. This woman was Ruthgari, and light-skinned even for them. She moved with the easy grace of a dancer. Her thin green robe, thrown on during the ceremony so that all the testers would be clad in their colors when the supplicant emerged—which might be only ten or fifteen seconds after their testing began—was, in her case, open deep between her large breasts. She walked up eagerly, throwing her hair back, back straight, standing just on the other side of the table.

  The nudity and near-nudity of some of the ceremonies were shrouded in religious and cultural symbolism that made them almost non-erotic. Almost, because no matter how high-minded you might be, you couldn’t completely ignore the fact that you were looking at someone who was naked and astoundingly attractive. But the parties afterward, especially at initiations, were always a gray area. Everyone beautiful, everyone half-clad, everyone with the fresh memory of everyone else stark naked, the atmosphere jubilant, the wine flowing freely, and the somber ceremonialism suddenly removed.

  This green knew exactly what she was doing. Gavin was taller than the woman, so he could barely help but stare down her barely closed robe. Instead, he looked at her heart-shaped face, hazel eyes, the pupils barely haloed in green. She looked familiar.

  “Over here,” he said, pointing next to him, between himself and Mistress Varidos. She stepped around the stone table to where he’d pointed, but closer in than necessary.

  “Who are you?” he asked, his voice cool.

  “My name’s Tisis,” she said, her smile showing off great dimples.

  “Tisis what?”

  “Oh,” she said, as if she didn’t have a thought in her head. “Tisis Malargos.”

  “What happened, Tisis?” he asked, pretending not to recognize the name. Her father and uncle had been his friends—that was, his Dazen’s. They’d disappeared after the war. Killed by bandits or enslaved by pirates, most likely. She had the family look. No doubt she hated him. She’d seen that Kip had a chance of passing the test, so she’d sabotaged him. Gutsy. Foolish and infuriating, but gutsy.

  “The supplicant cheated,” she said. “He threw out the rope. I put it back in his hand.”

  “You’re not to touch the supplicant in any way during the testing. Is there something about that rule that’s unclear?”

  “I didn’t touch him—Pardon me, High Luxlord Prism, I put the rope back in his hand without touching his skin. I was trying to preserve the integrity of the test.”

  “Malargos,” Gavin said. “You’re Ruthgari, right?”

  “Yes, Lord Prism.”

  Gavin looked at her flatly. “When your own Blessed Satrap Rados crossed the Great River to fight the Blood Foresters who outnumbered him two to one, do you remember what he did?”

  “He burned Rozanos Bridge behind his army,” she said.

  “Was that cheating?”

  “I—I don’t follow,” she said.

  “He burned the bridge so his men knew they couldn’t flee. He gave them no way out. Every last man knew he had to win or die. It’s where we get the expression ‘burning your bridges behind you.’ ”

  “But I saw him reaching for the rope,” she complained weakly. She swallowed, suddenly unnerved to have contradicted the Prism to his face.

  “And you gave it back to him.”

  “Of course.”

  “So you would have built a new bridge behind Blessed Satrap Rados?”

  “Of course not, that would be…”

  “And doomed him. How long did you last before you pulled the rope?” Gavin asked.

  She flushed and looked away. “Seventeen seconds.” She pulled her robe tighter around herself, finally covering up.

  “And you destroyed a young man’s chance at passing.”

  “We could retest—” she started.

  “You know we can’t. Once supplicants know it’s not real, the Thresher doesn’t work. Everyone would say it was because he got special favor for being my nephew—”

  “I didn’t mean—”

  “And you know it!” Gavin said, only keeping his voice down with effort.

  “It doesn’t matter what you meant,” Mistress Varidos hissed.

  While the mistress was speaking, Gavin split some superviolet from the light of the torches. Just a little. The beauty of superviolet was its invisibility. Even though there were at least half a dozen people in this room who could see superviolet luxin if they tightened their eyes, Gavin was betting that none of them was tightening her eyes at this very moment. And even if someone was, what Gavin was about to do was so small and so quick that even someone looking might miss it. Magical sleight of hand. The superviolet settled into his fingertips.

  “You broke the rules, Tisis,” the mistress said. “You botched your duties, and you may have destroyed a young man’s future.”

  “But nobody passes!” the young woman protested. It had become a mark of pride just to hold on for a long time. Conspiracies, the dark, tight spaces, heights, spiders, snakes, rats—the Thresher hit all of the most common fears. Usually, believing that failure would mean the loss of everything and with their eyes dilated from fear, the applicant drafted any and all colors before they pulled the rope. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was the best test they had.

  “Get out of my sight,” Gavin said.
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  She went, huffing, furious, crossing between Gavin and the mistress, just as Gavin had planned. He pulled a stone from his pocket, holding the short rod behind his wrist, slid the samite off the hole, flicked invisible superviolet out of his fingertips and used it to snatch the testing stone out of its grooves. He snapped the luxin back to his wrist, binding the testing stone to his forearm with bands of superviolet, and with the last of the superviolet in his finger dropped the false testing stone into place.

  It had all taken less than a second, and Gavin hadn’t so much as leaned over. “Well, let’s see what we have, shall we?” he said, still drawing the rich samite cloth away from the hole.

  In full view of Mistress Varidos, Gavin set the samite aside and reached into the receptacle, leaning over, grabbing the testing stone, and pulling it out. The testing stone was an ivory bar—either from sea demon washed ashore or from elephants deep within Ruthgar—tipped on each end with obsidian. The ivory was precious, but the obsidian was the real wonder. No one knew where the obsidian extant in the world had been harvested, or mined, or made. Obsidian was rarer than diamonds or rubies, so after every testing the obsidian ends of each testing stone were removed to be reused.

  The superstitious called it hellstone. Most drafters were just happy that it was rare, because it was the only stone that could draw luxin directly out of a drafter. Gavin had heard that in the ancient world kings and satraps—and in more mythic tales, the assassins of the Broken Eye—had created entire daggers or even swords of obsidian. But obsidian only evinced its magical properties when two very special conditions were met. First, it had to be in near-total darkness: that is, a total lack of light in the visible spectrum—for some reason superviolet and sub-red didn’t interfere with it. Second, it needed the drafter’s blood, an open cut at that. There had to be a direct physical connection between the obsidian and the luxin for the luxin to be drawn out of the drafter. When that connection was made, however, the pull was quite strong. Cut a drafter’s shoulder with obsidian while he was holding luxin in his hand and hold the stone against the cut, and within maybe ten seconds the luxin would be gone. Scholars speculated that was because drafters had luxin throughout their bodies at all times, so the connection was direct, even if it was distant within the body.

  Because the rates at which obsidian pulled colors out of a person were different for the different kinds of luxin, they made nice lines as they were pulled out of the body and into the ivory. If a color formed and stayed and was thick enough, the supplicant was deemed worthy of receiving training in that color. If there were two colors, of course, the supplicant was deemed a bichrome, and more than two made them a polychrome.

  Gavin took the testing stone. He caught a faint whiff of cloves that was the scent of superviolet luxin. He held it for just a moment, willing the scent to disperse, and handed the stone to Mistress Varidos. As the head tester, it was her place to declare the findings. As he did, everyone else gathered around. She carefully removed the obsidian tips and stowed them in a special box, and then held the testing stone over her head. There was a clear, thick green bar, peaking toward the blue side, and next to it a less full blue. Yellow was faint. There was a tiny bit in the superviolet. It was a classic bell, the most common pattern in drafters.

  The mistress said, “I hereby declare Kip of Rekton gifted of Orholam in the colors green and blue, with superviolet undecided and to be tested further at a later date. Kip, congratulations, you’re a bichrome.”

  A cheer went up.

  Only Kip still looked confused.

  Gavin walked around the table, put an arm around Kip’s shoulder, and squeezed. “Well done, Kip.”

  Kip was limp in Gavin’s embrace. “So I passed?” he asked quietly.

  “You passed. You made me proud.”

  Another cheer went up, and within no time, wine and brandy and special cakes and fruits and meats and sweetmeats were being produced by slaves who flooded the chamber.

  Gavin released the boy, who was looking at him like he was utterly befuddled, like he couldn’t believe the words Gavin had just said. Some of that, too, was the magic. The emotional effects of every part of the spectrum had just passed through Kip for the very first time. He didn’t know yet what to do with the residue. It took time. Gavin gestured toward the door, beckoning Aliviana.

  “Kip,” Gavin said. “I’ve brought you someone special. A surprise for you. She’ll be your mentor. She’ll explain how things work and teach you some of the basics until we leave. Kip, may I present—”

  “Liv?!” Kip said as the girl stepped out from behind Gavin.

  “Kip!”

  “Why don’t you go ahead and take him up to his room, Liv,” Gavin said. “And remember what I said.”

  Kip was still in a daze, so Liv took his hand and turned to lead him toward the main door. There would be a crowd there, no doubt. No need for Kip to think anything was out of the usual.

  “Why don’t you go the back way?” Gavin said. He turned and flung superviolet at the opposite wall. A section of the wall popped open on previously hidden hinges.

  Liv took Kip out the back door.

  Commander Ironfist and Luxlord Black came in the front door.

  “Luxlord, Mistress, Commander, Magisters,” Gavin said, waving a friendly hand to show he was simply too busy just now to speak with Ironfist or Luxlord Black. He walked toward the back door himself. He needed to get Kip now. He should have commanded the boy to wait outside the room instead of sending him upstairs.

  Gavin stepped through the back door, already composing the letter he would leave for the White, and almost ran over a dark, demure little man in a slave’s robe. He recognized the man and his heart dropped.

  “Greetings, Lord Prism,” the little man said, his headscarf so starched it barely moved as he bobbed his head. He’d been a Parian legalist before being captured by Ilytian pirates, enslaved, and eventually sold to Andross Guile. Brilliant and discreet, he’d been Andross Guile’s right hand for twenty years. “Your father tires of your delays. He demands you come to his chambers immediately.”

  With Andross Guile, “immediately” meant yesterday. Gavin cringed inside, popped his neck right and left, and said, “Take me to him.”

  Chapter 46

  Kip followed Liv Danavis through a narrow hall and then out to a lift. His head was still awhirl and his emotions were a riot that seemed not completely internal, as if somehow, additional emotions were being pressed onto him. It felt alien. Maybe it was just seeing Liv. He’d known she was at the Chromeria, and he’d hoped to see her ever since he’d known he was coming here, but actually seeing her was different.

  Master Danavis had shared many of Liv’s letters with Kip, so in some ways it didn’t feel like it had been two full years, but she’d been fifteen then. He’d been thirteen. Apparently, he’d grown since then, because he was finally taller than she was. Of course, he was still also about three times wider than she was. If anything, she was even more beautiful than she had been.

  As she led him through a hall and finally to a lift, she didn’t say anything. Kip was glad for the silence. He didn’t think he could have found his tongue. An odd, quiet joy and peace settled over him at seeing her. He remembered when she was fourteen years old and the rumor had run around town that she was going to be betrothed to Ged, the alcaldesa’s son. Shortly thereafter, she’d left for the Chromeria. Kip had been relieved. She’d seemed too good for little Rekton. But though he was sure she hadn’t thought of him since, he’d missed her. She had been like the sun passing overhead, and he’d turned his face as she passed, warmed by her presence, but never daring to hope for more. When Master Danavis had shared that Liv was having a hard time with some girl at the Chromeria, Kip had wanted to leave immediately and kill the offender, then come home.

  Seeing her wavy hair swish and bounce around her shoulders as she led him was like standing in the sunlight again after a long winter. Kip didn’t want words. Once he opened his big mou
th, he’d surely spoil everything. He just watched her walk, hiking up his own pants gracelessly as she strode ahead, purposefully, at home, at ease, in command of her environment.

  “I think I’m lost,” Liv said. She looked to each side, down halls that looked exactly the same. She bit her lip.

  Eyes locked on that full, slightly moist lip, Kip gulped.

  “Kip?” she said. “No, never mind, of course you wouldn’t.”

  She headed off again, and Kip followed. Liv had turned into a woman in the time she’d been away. She was as slender as he was fat. Her eyes large lucid brown, her skin smooth and clear where his was cursed with pimples around his neck and jaw as his beard was only just coming in. Thank Orholam, at least her chest was bigger than his.

  Kip barely glanced there, though, and now as he followed her, he barely looked at her body. Her skirt did swoosh back and forth in a most pleasing manner as she walked, revealing slim, well-turned calves. But aside from a glance or two, or maybe three—Kip glanced again. Ah! Four. Aside from that, he didn’t look at her the way he’d look at some other beautiful woman. It just didn’t seem respectful.

  Oops, five.

  She stopped when they got into the lift. “I just realized,” she said, laughing at herself, “that I have no idea where I’m supposed to take you. Uh, tell you what. You can come to my room until I get this figured out. If you’re like I was after the Threshing, you’ll probably need to go straight to bed. Right?”

  Kip wasn’t sure how he hadn’t noticed before, but he was tired. He felt as if someone had taken the bottle of his energy and shaken it all out. He nodded his head.

  “Don’t feel like talking?” she asked, giving him a little grin. It was the kind of grin you gave a little child who’d missed nap time and was fighting to stay up to get dessert. But Kip couldn’t even summon the passion to despair at seeing that indulgent grin on her.

 

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