The black prism, p.55
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       The Black Prism, p.55
 

           Brent Weeks

  There was a time when he had used it to pray. No more. If Orholam was real, he was busy, he was asleep, he didn’t care, he was taking a shit. Time was different to Orholam, they said. That would explain why he’d been doing it for Gavin’s entire life.

  Gavin’s chest felt tight. He was having trouble breathing. The chapel seemed too small, too dark. He was sweating, cold, clammy sweat. He closed his eyes.

  Get some balls, Gavin. You can do this. You’ve done it before. This is for them.

  It’s a lie. It’s all a lie.

  It’s better than the alternative. Breathe. This isn’t for you. You want to go out there and tell those drafters waiting for you that their entire lives are a fraud? That their service is a waste? That Orholam doesn’t see their sacrifice? That what they’ve done, what they’ve given, doesn’t matter? Everyone dies, Gavin, don’t rob it of meaning for these people. Don’t make them see themselves as worthless. Their sacrifice as empty. All life as meaningless.

  It was the same debate he had with himself every year. He’d even brought a bucket with him into the chapel, along with extra incense. He threw up, some years.

  There was a knock at the door of the chapel.

  “Lord Prism, it’s time.”

  Kip wasn’t blindfolded the next night. Instead, they gave him darkened glasses, bound them around the back of his head, pulling them tight against his eyes, and ripped the sleeves off his shirt. It would be hard to draft, and anyone around him would have ample warning.

  “Apparently there’s something they want us to see,” Karris said as the guards, Mirrormen and drafters, hustled them out of the wagon they’d been sharing.

  They were brought to a security perimeter out away from the tents. It was oddly separate from the rest of the camp, given far too much room. The perimeter itself was simply a rope strung between posts pounded quickly into the ground, but it was huge—and no one from the camp even came close to violating the circle. Inside, looking tiny compared to the size of the circle, was a crowd gathered before a platform. The sun had fully set, but it wasn’t yet dark.

  “They don’t want to be overheard,” Karris said. “Tells you how crazy they are. They’re going to rally the troops with some idiocy any norm would mock outright.”

  Norm? Oh, a person who couldn’t draft. Wait, that meant…

  As they were walked closer, Kip saw that his inference was correct: every single person here was a drafter. There had to be eight hundred or a thousand drafters here!

  “Orholam,” Karris breathed. “There must be five hundred drafters here.”

  So I can’t count, so what?

  But even Kip’s bravado melted away as they got closer. His and Karris’s tenders pushed them into the crowd, and the first person they pushed out of the way stared at them with wild green eyes. His halos were cracked, snakes of green wriggling through the whites of his eyes.

  Kip felt like he was passing through a menagerie. It seemed almost everyone light-skinned enough for it to show had skin stained by luxin. Green, blue, red, yellow, orange, even purple. When he looked into the superviolet, the superviolet drafters stood out like beacons. They’d worked designs into their cloaks, their armor, even their skin—all invisible to anyone but other superviolets. Adjusting his eyes, Kip saw that the sub-reds had done the same, etching dragons, phoenixes, whorls, and flames onto their clothes. Blues wore spikes curling like rams’ horns, or knife edges along their forearms. They passed an orange. The man looked normal except he’d slicked back his hair with orange luxin as if it were hair oil, and the whites of his eyes were solid orange, leaving no differentiation from white to iris, only the tiny black dots of his pupils marring that perfect color. A green clad only in leaves hissed at them; then she laughed. A menagerie indeed, except Kip was in the cage with the animals.

  They were brought all the way to the front. The crowd was arrayed in front of a stone rising out of the ground, its surfaces worn smooth by wind and rain, but tall enough to be a platform. As Kip and Karris arrived, a man climbed up on the rock wearing a hooded cloak. He reached the top of the stone, threw back his hood, and tore off the cloak, throwing it aside as if it disgusted him.

  The man’s entire body glowed in the gathering dark. He stood, defiant, silent, legs braced. He extended a hand toward the crowd, and at every five paces, in a wave, torches burst into flame, bathing them in light. Last, torches ringing his stone platform caught fire, and Kip saw that the man was made entirely of luxin. And he was glowing from within.

  All around, drafters were dropping to their knees before Lord Omnichrome. But not all of them. Those who stood looked awkward, conflicted. For those who bowed weren’t just bowing, they were pressing their faces to the ground. This was pure religious devotion.

  “Don’t bow,” Karris said. “That’s no god.”

  “What is he?” Kip whispered.

  “My brother.”

  Lord Omnichrome extended his hands. “Please, no. Brothers, sisters, stand. Stand with me. We have fallen prostrate before men for far too long.”

  The orange drafter, the artist Aheyyad, fell prostrate before Gavin. He was to be the first of the night. It was an honored place, and Aheyyad deserved honor. Real honor, not this travesty. But there was no way out. There never was.

  Gavin stepped forward. “Stand, my child,” he said. Usually, when he called the drafters “my child” he felt sardonic. But Aheyyad was a child, or at least barely a man.

  Aheyyad stood. He met Gavin’s eyes, then quickly looked away.

  “You have something to say,” Gavin said. “This is the time.” Some drafters felt the need to confess sins or secrets. Some made requests. Some just wanted to express a frustration, a fear, a doubt. Depending on the number of drafters to be Freed before dawn, each year Gavin took as much time with each drafter as he could.

  “I failed you, Lord Prism,” Aheyyad said. “I failed my family. They always said I was the son who could have been great. Instead, I’m a waste. An addict. I’m the gifted one who couldn’t handle Orholam’s gift.” Bitter tears rolled down his cheeks. He still couldn’t look Gavin in the eye.

  “Look at me,” Gavin said. He took the young man’s face in his hands. “You joined me in the greatest work I have ever done. You did what I, the Prism, couldn’t do. Any man who has seen a sunset knows that Orholam values beauty. You made that wall as beautiful and terrible as Orholam himself. What you did will stand for a thousand years.”

  “But we lost!”

  “We lost,” Gavin acknowledged. “My failure, not yours. Kingdoms come and go, but that wall will protect thousands yet unborn. And it will inspire hundreds of thousands more. I couldn’t have done that. Only you could. You, Aheyyad, have made beauty. Orholam gave you a gift, and you have given a gift to the world. That doesn’t sound like failure to me. Your family will be proud. I am proud of you, Aheyyad. I will never forget you. You have inspired me.”

  A quick grin flickered over the young man’s face. “It is a pretty great piece, huh?”

  “Not bad for your first try,” Gavin said.

  Aheyyad laughed, his whole demeanor changed. He was a light indeed. A gift to the world, beautiful and so burning with life.

  “Are you ready, son?” Gavin asked.

  “Gavin Guile,” the young man said. “My Lord Prism. You, sir, are a great man, and a great Prism. Thank you. I am ready.”

  “Aheyyad Brightwater, Orholam gave you a gift,” Gavin began. The last name was the invention of the moment. In Paria, the only people given two names were great men and women, and sometimes their children. From the sudden tears welling in Aheyyad’s eyes and the deep breath he took, his chest swelling with pride, Gavin knew he’d said the perfect thing. “And you have stewarded well the gift he gave you. It is time to lay your burden down, Aheyyad Brightwater. You gave the full measure. Your service will not be forgotten, but your failures are hereby blotted out, forgotten, erased. Well done, true and faithful servant. You have fulfilled the Pact.”
r />   “They say we take a Pact! We make an oath! And with that oath, they bind us, they bury us,” Lord Omnichrome said.

  Liv was pushing carefully through the throng, moving toward the front. She swore she’d seen Kip led there, black spectacles bound to his head. But everyone else was paying rapt attention to the freak up front, so she couldn’t move too quickly. Instead, she pretended to listen, too, and moved slowly.

  “Like this,” Lord Omnichrome said. He gestured to the rounded stone on which he stood. “This is all that’s left of what was once a great civilization. You have seen these relics scattered throughout this land. Statues of great men, broken by the pygmies who followed.” Liv’s ears perked up. Rekton had had a broken statue, out in an orange grove. No one had ever said anything about where it came from. She thought that was because no one knew.

  “You think these statues are a mystery?” Lord Omnichrome asked. “They’re no mystery. You think it was a coincidence the Prisms’ War ended here, in Tyrea? You think the Guiles simply wandered the Seven Satrapies until their armies found each other? And it happened to be here? Let me tell you something you already know, something that all of you have believed but no one dared to say: the wrong Guile won the Prisms’ War. Dazen Guile was trying to change things, and they killed him for it. The Chromeria killed Dazen Guile. They killed him because they were worried he would change everything. They feared him, because Dazen Guile wanted to Free us.” There was some consternation in the crowd at that phrase. They all knew what day it was, and that the Prism was in Garriston, not even a league away, performing the Freeing this very night.

  “You see?” Lord Omnichrome said. “You feel that uneasiness? Because the Chromeria has twisted our very language against us. Dazen wanted to Free us. Dazen knew that light cannot be chained.”

  “Light cannot be chained,” some of the drafters echoed. It was an almost religious refrain.

  “The Freeing, they call it. Lay your burdens down, the Prism says. I give you absolution and freedom, he says. Do you know what he gives us? Do you know?!”

  “I give you absolution,” Gavin said, his heart in his throat as Aheyyad knelt at his feet, eyes up, right hand on Gavin’s thigh. “I give you freedom. Orholam bless you and take you to his arms.” He drew his knife and buried it in Aheyyad’s chest. Right in the heart. He withdrew the blade. A perfect thrust. But then, he’d had a lot of practice.

  He didn’t look at the wound, didn’t watch the blood bloom on Aheyyad’s shirt. He held the boy’s eyes as the life went out of them. And when it did, Gavin said, “Please forgive me. Please forgive me.”

  Gavin had sheathed the dagger, and he was scrubbing his hands on the blood rag he carried—though they were clean. He stopped.

  “They murder you!” Lord Omnichrome shouted. “They stick a knife in you and watch you die. As you beg, they watch—and they say their god smiles on this! Tell me, is this any way to treat our elders? Under the Chromeria, we barely have elders. They’ve killed them all. Oh, except for the White. Except for Andross Guile and his wife. The rules don’t apply to them, but you and me, and our mothers and our fathers—we should be killed. They say this is Orholam’s will. They say it is the Pact. Like something we swore to as ignorant children makes their murder of our parents good and right. What insanity is this? A woman serves the Seven Satrapies for all her life, and then as a reward, she’s murdered? Is this freedom? This is what they call ‘Freeing’ her?”

  Liv caught sight of Kip, but she wasn’t pushing toward him anymore.

  “You know it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong. They know it’s wrong. That’s why they speak about it in hushed tones and euphemisms. It’s not just. It’s not a Freeing, it’s a murder, let’s be clear about that. And then they don’t even have the decency to give your body back to your family. They use it in some dark ritual instead. Is that what our fathers served so long to get? Is that just? The Chromeria soils everything it touches. And do you think that all who are ‘Freed’ have volunteered?”

  Lord Omnichrome laughed derisively.

  As the Blackguards took Aheyyad’s body out of the room, careful not to spill any blood, there was a single knock on the door. One strike, followed by nothing. It took Gavin a moment to remember: Bas the Simple had never really understood knocking.

  “Come in, Bas,” Gavin said. Children and idiots. This is who I kill? I bathe in the blood of innocents.

  The man came in. He was actually quite handsome dressed in his finery. Unlike other simpletons Gavin had known, there was no sign of Bas’s difference in his facial features.

  “I am sorry for coming out of turn, Lord Prism. I have a question, and I did not wish to interrupt my Freeing to ask it.”

  That he was interrupting someone else’s Freeing to ask the question didn’t occur to him, of course.

  “Please, ask,” Gavin said.

  “I heard Evi Grass talking about Brightwater Wall. Evi is a green/yellow bichrome. She’s from the Blood Forest, but I don’t think she’s scary at all. My mother used to tell me that anyone with red hair is just as like to set you on fire as look at you, but Evi isn’t like that.”

  Gavin knew Evi well. Not classically bright, she was incredibly intuitive but rarely trusted herself. At least she hadn’t years ago.

  “Evi once saved me from a charging—”

  “What did she say, Bas?” Gavin asked.

  “She didn’t say anything, she just saved me. I guess she might have yelled. I couldn’t tell you for sure—”

  “What did Evi say about Brightwater Wall?”

  “I don’t like it when you interrupt, Lord Prism. It makes me nervous.”

  Gavin stifled his impatience. Pushing harder would make Bas completely incapable of speech.

  Bas saw that Gavin wasn’t going to push and then thought for a moment. Gavin could see him find the mental path once more. “Evi said the brightwater was drafted perfectly. She said she didn’t remember you being a superchromat. I can’t see the color differentiations myself, of course, but I don’t think she’d lie, and Gavin Guile wasn’t a superchromat. His brother Dazen was. And you’re taller than Gavin. He wore boots to make himself look taller, but Dazen was taller by his thirteenth birthday. I remember that day. It was sunny. My grandmother said that Orholam had always smiled on the Guiles. I was wearing my blue coat…”

  Gavin wasn’t listening. He felt like the floor had dropped out from under his feet. He’d known this moment was coming. He’d expected it for sixteen years. He’d gone into his first meetings as Gavin expecting anyone, everyone, to point and scream, “Impostor! Counterfeit!” Others had figured it out, but never in a way he couldn’t contain. He couldn’t discredit Bas. The man was immune to political currents, and everyone knew it. And if asked, Bas would point out a hundred differences between Gavin and Dazen. By the time he was done speaking, the Gavin mask would be destroyed.

  And yet he’d come alone. On this night, of all nights.

  “So my question was… my question was, why are you lying, Dazen? Why are you pretending to be Gavin? Dazen is bad. He kills people. He killed the White Oaks. All of them. They say he went from room to room in their mansion, even killing the servants, and then he burned it all down to hide his crimes. The children were trapped in the basement. They found their little bodies in a pile. They were hugging each other. I went there. I saw them.” Bas stopped speaking, evidently consumed by that old image. With his perfect memory, it must have been vivid indeed. “I told those little charred bodies that I would kill Dazen Guile,” Bas said.

  Gavin felt an old dread, like the sting of an old master’s lash. Bas was a green/blue/superviolet polychrome. Every drafter was changed over time by his colors. Only the wildness of green would make the formerly order-obsessed Bas skip his place in line. But the orderliness of blue was making him crazy to know why, to see how things fit together. “Bas, I’m going to tell you something I’ve only told one other person in the world. I’m going to answer your question. You deserve it.”
He lowered his voice. “When I was sixteen years old, I had a… a vision. A waking dream. I was in front of a presence. I fell on my face. I knew he was holy, and I was afraid—”

  “Orholam himself?” Bas asked. He looked doubtful. “My mother told me that people who say they speak for Orholam are usually lying. And Dazen is a liar!” His voice pitched up at the end.

  The last thing Gavin needed was Bas shouting something about Dazen. “Do you want to hear my answer or not?” he asked sharply.

  Bas hesitated. “Yes, but don’t you—”

  Gavin stabbed him in the heart.

  Bas’s eyes went wide. He grabbed Gavin’s arms. Gavin withdrew the dagger.

  Coldly, so coldly, Gavin said, “You gave the full measure, Bas. Your service will not be forgotten. Your failures are forgotten, erased. I give you absolution. I give you freedom.”

  By the time he said “absolution,” Bas was dead.

  Gavin lowered the man to the floor carefully. He went and knocked at the side door. The Blackguards came in and took the body, and just like that, Gavin got away with murder.

  Chapter 79

  The man was a liar. Kip didn’t know exactly what was lie and what was truth, but Lord Omnichrome was King Garadul’s right hand. They’d massacred his village. For nothing. If murder was nothing to them, what was a lie?

  But there was truth here, like all the best lies. That really was what the Pact meant. No wonder they talked about it in sidelong conversations, hushed tones. You got old, you broke your halo, you became like a mad dog. They had to put you down. Kip remembered when Corvan’s dog had been bitten by a raccoon and later started foaming at the mouth. Corvan, the alcaldesa, and some of the other men loaded muskets and went after it. Corvan himself blew its brains out. He hid his face afterward, and everyone pretended not to see his tears. It had been a year before he talked about that dog, but when he did, it was never of its madness, never of killing his dog. This was the same. No one talked about the Freeing because no one wanted to dishonor the dead: “Kip was a great man, right until he went crazy and started trying to kill his friends. Right until we had to put him down.”

 
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