The black prism, p.34
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       The Black Prism, p.34

           Brent Weeks
 

  Not just a slave. A galley slave. The worst of the worst. Liv wanted to vomit. She wanted to murder Aglaia. Orholam save her.

  “Or…” Aglaia said, “you give me the word.” She nodded toward a messenger standing across the street. “And he runs to the captain with a message, saying it’s all a mistake, Vena’s been reinstated, and so forth. Wonder of wonders. You are my own special project, Liv. You have my full attention.”

  Liv looked at the boat, despairing. It was true. She had no friends, no options, no choices. How could she fight Aglaia Crassos, with all her wealth and power? If she asked the Prism for help, he’d ask questions. He’d think she’d been spying all along. Every part of the Chromeria and the satrapies was corrupt; they were all turned against her.

  “Hurry, Liv, the tide’s turning,” Aglaia said.

  There was no way out, no time to try to come up with a third way. Maybe her father would have said no and spat in Aglaia’s ugly face and held on to his honor. Liv wasn’t that strong. The sharks and sea demons had her. “Fine,” she said, her heart failing within her. “You win. What do I have to do?”

  Chapter 49

  Gavin hadn’t even gotten fully out of his father’s apartments when he saw trouble coming. His mother’s apartments were right beside his father’s, and there was no way he could leave without passing in front of her doors—and her doors were open.

  Every time. Every burning time. If his father’s windows hadn’t all been bolted shut and covered with layers of fabric, Gavin would have jumped out of a window. In fact, it was just during one of these sorts of situations that he’d first drafted a bonnet. Every time he came back from even the shortest trip, it seemed he spent all day meeting with one important person after another. All he did was meet with people—and every one of them had demands of him.

  Nonetheless, Gavin turned in as he went past his mother’s open doors. The room slave was a young Tyrean girl, judging from her dark eyes and hair and kopi-colored skin. Gavin motioned to her as he passed that she could close the doors behind him. His mother had a talent for training slaves: even a girl barely in her teens like this one would wait attentively and respond to the smallest signal. Of course, Gavin wasn’t so much different, was he?

  “Mother,” Gavin said. She stood as he came close. He kissed her many-ringed fingers, and she laughed and embraced him, as she always did.

  “My son,” she said. Felia Guile was a handsome woman in her early fifties. She had been a cousin of the Atashian royal family, and in her youth the Atashian noble families rarely married foreigners. Andross Guile, of course, had been a special case. He always was. She had the classic, striking Atashian pairing of olive skin and cornflower blue eyes, though her blue eyes bore a wide halo of dull orange around the iris. She had been an orange drafter—though she wasn’t greatly talented, Andross would never have married a woman who couldn’t draft. Slim despite her age, Felia was regal, fashionable, comfortable in herself, commanding without being domineering, beautiful, and warm.

  He had no idea how she could stand being married to his father.

  She flicked two fingers of her left hand, dismissing the room slave without taking her eyes off Gavin. “So, I hear a rumor that you have a… nephew.”

  Gavin cleared his throat. How fast did word travel in this place, anyway? He looked around the room. The slave was gone. “That’s correct.”

  “A natural son,” Felia Guile said, her lips pulling taut momentarily. She would never say “bastard.” With her huge palette of facial expressions, she didn’t have to. Over the years, orange had made her both more empathetic and more suspicious. With her natural intuition and intelligence, it made her quite formidable.

  “That’s right. He’s a good young man. His name’s Kip.”

  “Fifteen years old?” She didn’t say, So you cheated on your fiancée, whom I’ve been urging you to marry for the last sixteen years. Felia loved Karris. Andross Guile had been dead set against Gavin marrying a woman whose family had nothing, like Karris’s, after the war. It was one of the few areas where Gavin’s mother had continued to defy his father. Usually when they disagreed, she would let her objections be known with force and eloquence, and then concede to whatever Andross decided. Not a few times, Gavin had seen Andross change his mind after his mother so artfully surrendered. The disagreement over Karris White Oak, however, had involved screaming, shattered porcelain, and tears. Gavin thought sometimes that if he hadn’t been present during that fight, Andross would have given in, but the man couldn’t lose face in front of anyone, much less his boundary-pushing son.

  “He is,” Gavin said.

  Felia folded her hands and studied his face. “So, is his existence as much of a surprise to you as it is to everyone else, or more?”

  A shiver shot down Gavin’s spine. His mother was no fool. She was as careful to guard against eavesdroppers as anyone, but she had ways of getting to exactly what she meant. After Sundered Rock, when Gavin had staggered alone out of the magical conflagration, wearing his brother’s clothing and his brother’s crown and his brother’s scars under layers of soot and blood, everyone else had taken him to be Gavin unquestioningly. Despite the age difference, the brothers had been mistaken for twins dozens of times, and their mannerisms were uncannily similar. And Gavin had been careful to emulate his brother’s idiosyncrasies of vocabulary and expression. Any differences that had emerged after the war ended had been written off as Gavin having been changed by having to kill his own brother.

  But Gavin woke the morning of his first night back at the Chromeria to find his mother sitting on the foot of his bed. Her eyes were red and puffy from weeping, though her cheeks were dry. She’d been careful to do her weeping before he woke.

  “Did you think I wouldn’t know my own boy?” she had asked. “You’re the blood of my blood. Did you think you could deceive even me?”

  “I didn’t think it would work this long, mother. I expected any of a hundred people to see through this farce, but what else can I do?”

  “I understand why you’ve done what you’ve done,” she said. “I just had braced myself against your death, not your brother’s, and now to see you… It’s like having to choose which of my remaining sons I’d prefer to die.”

  “No one’s asking that of you.”

  “Just tell me this,” she said. “Is Gavin dead?”

  “Yes,” he’d said. “I didn’t want… He gave me no… I’m sorry.”

  Her eyes had streamed tears, but she ignored them. “What do you need, Dazen? I’ve lost both of your brothers; I swear to Orholam I won’t lose you.”

  “Tell them I’m convalescing. Tell them the battle nearly killed me. When the time is right, tell them it changed me. But don’t make me look weak.”

  And so she’d become his only true ally in the Chromeria. And after she left, he’d barred the door and opened the chest where his drugged brother lay, not a foot from where their mother had stood. He studied the unconscious figure minutely, and then himself in a mirror. Taking note of every difference, he set to work. His brother’s hair had a cowlick that stuck out whenever he cut it short; the new Gavin would have to wear his hair long so no one noticed this disparity. Gavin was a little shorter than Dazen, and had liked to wear boots with more heel; the new Gavin would wear flatter shoes. He began writing lists of his brother’s mannerisms, the way Gavin liked to pop his neck to the left and right. Or was it right and left? Damn it, Dazen didn’t even know how to pop his neck. Gavin liked to shave every day, even twice a day, to keep his face smooth; Dazen had shaved a few times a week, finding it too much bother. Gavin always wore a particular scent; Dazen had never bothered. He’d have to send a servant to fetch it. Gavin cared about his clothing and made sure he was at the forefront of every trend; Dazen didn’t even know how he did that. He’d need to look into it. Had Gavin plucked his eyebrows? Dear Orholam.

  Other changes were harder to make. Dazen had a mole on the inside of one elbow. Grimacing, he sliced it off.
It would become a little scar. No one would notice.

  His mother helped, coming every day, handkerchief in hand for her silent tears, but back ramrod straight. She pointed out quirks Dazen never would have remembered, like the way his brother stood when he was thinking, and what foods Gavin loved and what he hated.

  But the biggest reason for his success had been the real Gavin himself. Gavin had painted Dazen as a False Prism. He’d sworn that Dazen deceived his retainers with parlor tricks that would never convince anyone who wasn’t criminal or insane or who stood to benefit by standing with a False Prism. Everyone knew there was only ever one Prism every generation, so they’d believed the old Gavin implicitly. So from their first glance at Dazen’s prismatic eyes, they knew he was Gavin. Those who knew better, who knew that Dazen had never needed parlor tricks, who knew he was as much a Prism as Gavin—in other words, Dazen’s closest retainers and friends—had been scattered to the four winds after the Battle of Sundered Rock. He’d betrayed them, and if it was a betrayal for the greater good, it still kept him up nights to know that Ilytian pirates were selling his people for slaves in a hundred ports. He drew up his first list of seven great purposes, and he did what he could.

  And through it all, his mother had saved him a dozen times. She deserved the truth.

  “More,” he told her now. It was more of a surprise to him than to anyone that he had a son. He and his men had been living in caves and on the run, and even if he’d had the energy for entertaining some of the camp followers, he’d been heartsick over Karris’s engagement to Gavin. Dazen hadn’t slept with anyone during the war.

  She stood and walked to the door, opened it to see that no one was eavesdropping, and returned. Quietly, she said, “So you’ve adopted your brother’s natural son. Why?”

  Because you’re always bothering me about giving you a grandson, he almost said, but he knew that would wound her. Because it’s the right thing to do? Because Gavin would have? No, he wasn’t sure that Gavin would have. Because the boy had nothing and he deserved a chance? Because Karris was there watching and there was something perversely pleasurable about wounding her by doing what was right? “Because I know what it’s like to be alone,” Gavin said. He was surprised that it was the truth.

  “You don’t give Karris enough credit,” his mother said.

  “What’s she got to do with anything?”

  His mother just shook her head. “She didn’t take it well?”

  “You might say that,” Gavin said.

  “What are you going to do if your father refuses to recognize the boy?”

  “He’s not moving me on this, mother. I don’t do very many things that are right. He’s not taking this one away.”

  She smiled suddenly. “Did it make your list of seven purposes this time? Defying him?”

  “My list only has things that are possible.”

  “So it’s harder than stopping the Blood War? Harder than destroying the pirate lords?”

  “Twice,” Gavin said. “And yes.”

  “You get that from him, you know.”

  “What?”

  “Your father always made lists, goals to check off. Marry a girl from the right family by twenty-five, join the Spectrum by forty—he made it by thirty-five—and so on. Of course, he never had to organize his life in seven-year blocks.”

  “Did he never want to be Prism himself?” Gavin asked.

  She didn’t answer right away. “Prisms usually only last seven years.”

  Not long enough for my father. I see. “He wanted more sons and daughters, didn’t he?” Even after Sevastian. More tools. More weapons, in case more went bad.

  She said nothing. “I want to go home, Gavin. I’ve wanted to join the Freeing for years. I’m so tired.”

  For a moment, Gavin couldn’t breathe. His mother was the very quintessence of life. Beauty, energy, cleverness, good nature. To hear her speak as if she were broken down, as if she wanted to quit, was like a blow to the stomach.

  “Of course, your father will never allow it,” she said, smiling sadly. “But whether he allows it or not, sometime in these next five years, I’m joining. I’ve buried two sons. I will not bury you.” So she was just giving him warning, giving him time to prepare. Dear Orholam, he didn’t even want to think about it. His mother had been his only companion, his best adviser, the one person who sniffed out threats from leagues away and loved him no matter what.

  “So, what were your seven purposes? Accomplished any of them yet?” she asked, bringing the conversation back to safe ground, even though she knew he would dodge.

  “I learned to fly. Took me most of the last year.”

  She looked at him like she couldn’t tell for once whether he was joking. “That could prove handy,” she said carefully.

  Gavin laughed.

  “You’re serious,” she said.

  “I’ll have to take you for a ride—a flight?—sometime,” Gavin said. “You’ll love it.”

  “And you think the idea of that is a good enough distraction to sidetrack me from getting the rest of your goals out of you?”

  “Absolutely,” Gavin said, in mock seriousness. “I learned from the best.”

  “Very well,” she said. “Now get out of here.” He was halfway out the door when she called. “Gavin!” She called him Gavin now, always, even when her eyes called him Dazen. “Be careful. You know how your father is when someone won’t do what he wills.”

  Chapter 50

  Kip woke with a dead arm from a dream about his mother holding his head in her lap. It wasn’t a dream; it was half memory. He’d been young. His mother was running her fingers through his hair, her eyes red, swollen. Red eyes usually meant she’d been smoking haze, but this morning she didn’t smell of smoke or alcohol. I’m sorry, she said, I’m so sorry. I’ve quit. It’s going to be different from now on. I promise.

  He cracked open one sleep-snot-encrusted eye and moaned. That’s nice, mother, can you just get off my arm? He rolled over. He’d slept on the ground? On a carpet? Oh! As the blood slowly flooded back into his arm, it started hurting. He rubbed it until feeling returned. Where was he? Oh, Liv’s room. It was barely dawn.

  Sitting up, Kip saw a woman coming in the room. Maybe the opening door had woken him. Liv must have slept elsewhere. The covers of the bed weren’t even disturbed.

  “Good morning, Kip,” the woman said. She was a dark woman, with heavy eyebrows, frizzy hair, and a flamboyant gold scarf around her neck. She was thick, hugely tall, with great heavy shoulders and a bold-patterned green dress draped over her like a sheet over a galleass. “It’s dawn, and time for your first lesson. I’m Mistress Helel.”

  “You’re my magister?” Kip said, still rubbing his hurting arm.

  “Oh yes.” She smiled, but the smile didn’t touch her eyes. “And you’ll remember today’s lesson for the rest of your life. Get up, Kip.”

  Kip stood. She walked past him and opened a door to a small balcony outside Liv’s room.

  “Come quickly,” she said. “You need to see this before the sun is fully over the horizon.”

  Hair squashed, mouth full of cotton, breath foul, arm throbbing, Kip licked his dry lips and stepped past Mistress Helel. Her eyes were dark and intense—so dark that he couldn’t even tell what color of a drafter she was.

  Weird. Here I’m supposed to see minute differentiations in colors undetectable to most people, and I couldn’t even see the color in her irises. He stepped onto the pure yellow luxin balcony. Aside from streaks of water or dirt, the entire thing was eerily clear.

  Despite his experience yesterday learning that the yellow was one of the strongest materials known, Kip tested his weight on the balcony gingerly. It was, of course, solid. Due to the way the towers all leaned out, as if blossoming, if Kip fell from here, he’d smash on the rocks several hundred feet below, just shy of the water. It was even worse for the floors above them, which leaned even farther out. He gulped and tried to pay attention to the rising sun.


  “We don’t have all day, Kip,” Mistress Helel said. There was something in her voice, a tension.

  Kip turned as she stepped out onto the balcony with him. At first he thought she was tripping, because she lunged forward so suddenly. He moved toward her to catch her. If there was one thing good about being fat, it was that he could stop big weights.

  But Mistress Helel extended both of her hands like battering rams. Kip’s move forward brought him between her arms. Her thumbs scratched across his chest and off both sides. She cursed as they crushed together in an awkward hug.

  “I’ve got you,” Kip said. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to—”

  The big woman stood to her full height, regaining her balance. She was much taller than Kip, and the move pressed big flat breasts onto either side of his face. Somehow his chin got caught in her dress’s gaping neckline as she stood and for a brief—but not nearly brief enough—moment, Kip’s face was fully engulfed in flabby cleavage.

  “Gah!” Kip blurted.

  Mistress Helel was already bending over, mercifully freeing her neckline of Kip’s chin, but then bending farther, her body pressing against his. After an experience that he was doubtless going to relive in dreams—and not the good kind—he sidled out of the way.

  The woman’s big meaty hands slapped on Kip’s right and left legs. His move to the side made her left hand slip off his right leg, though. Then she lifted.

  “What are you—” Kip stopped as soon as he saw her eyes.

  Dead concentration, complete lack of emotion. She pushed forward hard into Kip, lifting. He put it all together far too slowly.

 
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