Gavin Guile is dying.
He'd thought he had five years leftnow he has less than one. With fifty thousand refugees, a bastard son, and an ex-fiancée who may have learned his darkest secret, Gavin has problems on every side. All magic in the world is running wild and threatens to destroy the Seven Satrapies. Worst of all, the old gods are being reborn, and their army of color wights is unstoppable. The only salvation may be the brother whose freedom and life Gavin stole sixteen years ago.
If you loved the action and adventure of the Night Angel trilogy, you will devour this incredible epic fantasy series by Brent Weeks.
The Black Prism
The Blinding Knife
The Broken Eye
The Blood Mirror
For more from Brent Weeks, check out:
The Way of Shadows
Beyond the Shadows
Night Angel: The Complete Trilogy (omnibus)
Perfect Shadow: A Night Angel Novella (e-only)
The Way of Shadows: The Graphic Novel
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Blinding Knife
By Brent Weeks
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Brent Weeks
All right reserved.
Gavin Guile lay on his back on a narrow skimmer floating in the middle of the sea. It was a tiny craft with low sides. Lying on his back like this, he’d once almost believed he was one with the sea. Now the dome of the heavens above him was a lid, and he a crab in the cauldron, heat rising.
Two hours before noon, here on the southern rim of the Cerulean Sea, the waters should be a stunning deep blue-green. The sky above, cloudless, mist burned off, should be a peaceful, vibrant sapphire.
But he couldn’t see it. Since he’d lost the Battle of Garriston four days ago, wherever there was blue, he saw gray. He couldn’t even see that much unless he concentrated. Robbed of its blue, the sea looked like thin, gray-green broth.
His fleet was waiting. Hard to relax when thousands of people were waiting for you and only you, but he needed this measure of peace.
He looked to the heavens, arms spread, touching the waves with his fingertips.
Lucidonius, were you here? Were you even real? Did this happen to you, too?
Something hissed in the water, a sound like a boat cutting through the waves.
Gavin sat up on his skimmer. Then stood.
Fifty paces behind him, something disappeared under the waves, something big enough to cause its own swell. It could have been a whale.
Except whales usually surface to breathe. There was no spray hanging in the air, no whoosh of expelled breath. And from fifty paces, for Gavin to have heard the hiss of a sea creature cutting through the water, it would have to be massive. His heart leapt to his throat.
He began sucking in light to draft his oar apparatus—and froze. Right beneath his tiny craft, something was moving through the water. It was like watching the landscape speed by when you’re riding in a carriage, but Gavin wasn’t moving. The rushing body was huge, many times the width of his craft, and it was undulating closer and closer to the surface, closer to his own little boat. A sea demon.
And it glowed. A peaceful, warm radiance like the sun itself on this cool morning.
Gavin had never heard of such a thing. Sea demons were monsters, the purest, craziest form of fury known to mankind. They burned red, boiled the seas, left fires floating in their wake. Not carnivores, so far as the old books guessed, but fiercely territorial—and any interloper that disrupted their seas was to be crushed. Interlopers like ships.
This light was different than that rage. A peaceful luminescence, the sea demon no vicious destroyer but a leviathan traversing the seas, leaving barely a ripple to note his passing. The colors shimmered through the waves, grew brighter as the undulation brought the body close.
Unthinking, Gavin knelt as the creature’s back broke the surface of the water right underneath his boat. Before the boat slid away from the swell, he reached out and touched the sea demon’s skin. He expected a creature that slid through the waves to be slimy, but the skin was surprisingly rough, muscular, warm.
For one precious moment, Gavin was not. There was no Gavin Guile, no Dazen Guile, no High Luxlord Prism, no scraping sniveling dignitaries devoid of dignity, no lies, no satraps to be bullied, no Spectrum councilors to manipulate, no lovers, no bastards, no power except the power before his eyes. He felt small, staring into incomprehensible vastness.
Cooled by the gentle morning breeze, warmed by the twin suns, one in the sky, one beneath the waves, Gavin was serene. It was the closest thing to a holy moment he had ever experienced.
And then he realized the sea demon was swimming toward his fleet.
The green hell was calling him to madness. The dead man was back in the reflective wall, luminous, grinning at Dazen, features squeezed skeleton-thin by the curving walls of the spherical green cell.
The key was to not draft. After sixteen years of drafting only blue, of altering mind and damaging body with that loathsome cerulean serenity, now having escaped the blue cell, Dazen wanted nothing more than to gorge on some other color. It was like he’d eaten breakfast gruel morning, noon, and night for six thousand days, and now someone was offering him a rasher of bacon.
He hadn’t even liked bacon, back when he’d been free. Now it sounded lovely. He wondered if that was the fever, turning his thoughts to sludge and emotion.
Funny how he thought that: ‘Back when he’d been free.’ Not ‘Back when he’d been Prism.’
He wasn’t sure if it was because he was still telling himself that he was the Prism whether he was in royal robes or rancid rags, or if it simply didn’t matter anymore.
Dazen tried to look away, but everything was green. To have his eyes open was to be dipping his feet in green. No, he was up to his neck in water and trying to get dry. There was no hope of dryness. He had to know that and accept it. The only question wasn’t if he was going to get his hair wet, it was if he was going to drown.
Green was all wildness, freedom. That logical part of Dazen that had basked in blue’s orderliness knew that sucking up pure wildness while locked up in this luxin cage would lead to madness. Within days he’d claw out his own throat. Pure wildness, here, would be death. He would finally accomplish his brother’s objective for him.
He needed to be patient. He needed to think, and thinking was hard right now. He examined his body slowly, carefully. His hands and knees were lacerated from his crawl through the hellstone tunnel. The bumps and bruises from his fall through the trapdoor and into this cell he could ignore. They were painful, but inconsequential. Most worrisome was the inflamed, infected slash across his chest. It nauseated him just looking at it, oozing pus and promises of death.
Worst was the fever, corrupting his very blood, making him stupid, irrational, sapping his will.
But Dazen had escaped the blue prison, and that prison had changed him. His brother had crafted these prisons quickly, and probably put most of his efforts into that first, blue one. Every prison had a flaw.
The blue prison had made him the perfect man to find it. Death or freedom.
In his reflective green wall, the dead man said, “You taking bets?”
Gavin sucked in light to start making his rowing apparatus. Unthinking, he tried to draft blue. While brittle, blue’s stiff, slick, smooth structure made it ideal for parts that didn’t undergo sideways stresses. For a futile moment, Gavin tried to force it, again. He was a Prism made flesh; alone out of all drafters, he could split light within himself. The blue was there—he knew it was there, and maybe knowing it was there, even though he couldn’t see, might be enough.
For Orholam’s sake, if you could find your chamber pot in the middle of the night and, despite that you couldn’t see it, the damned thing was still there, why couldn’t this be the same?
Nothing. No rush of harmonious logic, no cool rationality, no stained blue skin, no drafting whatsoever. For the first time since he was a boy, he felt helpless. Like a natural man. Like a peasant.
Gavin screamed at his helplessness. It was too late for the oars anyway. That son of a bitch was swimming too fast.
He drafted the scoops and the reeds. Blue worked better to make the jets for a skimmer, but naturally flexible green could serve if he made it thick enough. The rough green luxin was heavier and created more drag against the water, so he was slower, but he didn’t have the time or attention to make it from yellow. Precious seconds passed while he prepared his skimmer.
Then the scoops were in hand and he began throwing luxin down into the jets, blasting air and water out the back of his little craft and propelling himself forward. He leaned far forward, shoulders knotting with the effort; then, as he picked up speed, the effort eased. Soon his craft was hissing across the waves.
The fleet arose in the distance, the sails of the tallest ships first. But at Gavin’s speed, it wasn’t long before he could see all of them. There were hundreds of ships now: from sailing dinghies to galleasses to the square-rigged three-masted ship of the line with forty-eight guns that Gavin had taken from the Ruthgari governor to be his flagship. They’d left Garriston with over a hundred ships, but hundreds more that had gotten out earlier had joined them within days for protection from the pirates who lay thick in these waters. Last, he saw the great luxin barges, barely seaworthy. He himself had created those four great open boats to hold as many refugees as possible. If he hadn’t, thousands of people would have died.
And now they would die regardless, if Gavin didn’t turn the sea demon.
As he sped closer, he caught sight of the sea demon again, a hump cresting six feet out of the water. Its skin was still placidly luminous, and by some good fortune it wasn’t actually cutting straight toward the fleet. Its path would take it perhaps a thousand paces in front of the lead ship.
Of course, the ships themselves were plowing slow furrows forward, closing that gap, but the sea demon was moving so quickly, Gavin dared to hope that it wouldn’t matter. He had no idea how keen the sea demon’s senses were, but if it kept going in the same direction, they might well make it.
Gavin couldn’t take his hands away from the skimmer’s jets without losing precious speed, and he didn’t know how he would deliver a signal that said, “Don’t Do Anything Stupid!” to the whole fleet at once even if he did. He followed directly behind the sea demon, closer now.
He’d been wrong; the sea demon was going to cut perhaps five hundred paces from the lead ship. A bad estimate, or was the creature turning toward the fleet?
Gavin could see lookouts in the crow’s nests waving their hands violently to those on the decks below them. Doubtless shouting, though Gavin was too far away to hear them. He sped closer, saw men running on the decks.
The emergency was on the fleet far faster than any of them could have expected. In the normal order of things, enemies might appear on the horizon and give chase. Storms could blow out of nowhere in half an hour—but this had happened in minutes, and some ships were only seeing the twin wonders now—a boat traveling faster across the waves than anyone had ever seen in their lives, and the huge dark shadow in front of it that could only be a sea demon.
Be smart, Orholam damn you all, be smart or be too terrified to do anything at all. Please!
Cannons took time to load and couldn’t be left armed because the powder could go bad. Some idiot might shoot a musket at the passing form, but that should be too small a disturbance for the monster to notice.
The sea demon bulled through the waters four hundred paces in front of the fleet and kept going straight.
Gavin could hear the shouts from the ships now. The man in the crow’s nest of Gavin’s flagship was holding his hands to his head in disbelief, but no one did anything stupid.
Orholam, just one more minute. Just—
A signal mortar cracked the morning, and Gavin’s hopes bellyflopped in the sea. He swore that all the shouting on every ship in the fleet stopped at once. And then began again a moment later, as the experienced sailors screamed in disbelief at the terrified idiot captain who’d probably just killed them all.
Gavin had eyes only for the sea demon. Its wake went straight, hissing bubbles and great undulations, another hundred paces. Another hundred. Maybe it hadn’t heard.
Then his skimmer jetted right past the entire beast as the sea demon doubled back on itself faster than Gavin would have believed possible.
As it completed its turn, its tail broke the surface of the water. It moved too fast for Gavin to make out details. Only that it was burning red-hot, the color of iron angry from the forge, and when that span—surely thirty paces long—hit the water, the concussion made the signal mortar’s report sound tinny and small.
Giant swells rolled out from the spot its tail had hit. From his dead stop, Gavin was barely able to turn his skimmer before the waves reached him. He dipped deep into the first wave and hurriedly threw green luxin forward, making the front of his craft wider and longer. He was shot upward by the next swell and flung into the air.
The skimmer’s prow hit the next giant swell at too great of an angle and went straight into it. Gavin was ripped off the skimmer and plunged into the waves.
The Cerulean Sea was a warm wet mouth. It took Gavin in whole, chomped his breath out of him, rolled him over with its tongue, disorienting him, made a play at swallowing him, and when he fought, finally let him go.
Gavin surfaced and quickly found the fleet. He didn’t have time to draft an entire new skimmer, so he drafted smaller scoops around his arms, sucked in as much light as he could hold, threw his arms down to his sides, and pointed his head toward the sea demon. He threw luxin down and it threw him forward.
The pressure of the waves was incredible. It obliterated sight, blotted out sound, but Gavin didn’t slow. With a body made so hard by years of working a skimmer that he could cross the sea in a day, and a will made implacable by years of being Prism and forcing the world to conform to his wishes, he pushed.
He felt himself slide into the sea demon’s slipstream: the pressure suddenly eased and his speed doubled. Using his legs to aim, Gavin turned himself deeper into the water, then jetted toward the surface.
He shot into the air. Not a moment too soon.
He shouldn’t have been able to see much of anything, gasping in air and light, water streaming off his entire body. But the tableau froze, and he saw everything. The sea demon’s head was halfway out of the water, its cruciform mouth drawn shut so its knobby, spiky hammerhead could smash the flagship to kindling. Its body was at least twenty paces across, and only fifty paces now from the ship.
Men were standing on the port rail, matchlocks in hand. Black smoke billowed thick from a few. Others flared as the matches ignited powder in the pans in the instant before they fired. Commander Ironfist and Karris both stood, braced, fearless, glowing luxin forming missiles in their hands. In the gun decks, Gavin saw men tamping powder into the cannons for shots they would never get off in time.
The other ships in the fleet were crowding around like kids around a fistfight, men perched on gunwales, mouths agape, all too few even loading their muskets.
Dozens of men were turning from looking at the monster approaching to see what fresh horror this could be shooting into the air—and gaping, bewildered. A man in the crow’s nest was pointing at him, shouting.
And Gavin hung in midair, disaster and mutilation only seconds away from his compatriots—and threw all he had at the sea demon.
A coruscating, twisting wall of multicolored light blew out of Gavin, streaking toward the creature.
Gavin didn’t see what it did when it struck the sea demon, or even if he hit it at all.
There was an old Parian saying that Gavin had heard but never paid attention to: “When you hurl a mountain, the mountain hurls you back.”
Time resumed, unpleasantly quickly. Gavin felt like he’d been walloped with a club bigger than his own body. He was launched backward, stars exploding in front of his eyes, clawing catlike, twisting, trying to turn—and splashing in the water with another jarring slap, twenty paces back.
Light is life. Years of war had taught Gavin never to leave yourself unarmed; vulnerability is a prelude to death. He found the surface and began drafting instantly. In the years he’d spent failing thousands of times while perfecting his skimmer, he’d also perfected methods of getting out of the water and creating a boat—not an easy task. Drafters were always terrified of falling in the water and not being able to get out again.
So within seconds Gavin was standing on the deck of a new skimmer, already drafting the scoops as he tried to assess what had happened.
The flagship was still floating, one railing knocked off, huge scrapes across the wood of the port side. So the sea demon must have turned, must have barely glanced off the boat. It had slapped its tail down again as it turned, though, because a few of the small sailing dinghies nearby had been swamped, and men were jumping into the water, other ships already heading toward them to pluck them from the sea’s jaws.
And where the hell was the sea demon?
Men were screaming on the decks—not shouts of adulation, but alarm. They were pointing—
Gavin began throwing luxin down the reeds as fast as possible. But the skimmer always started slow.
The giant steaming red-hot hammerhead surfaced not twenty paces away, coming fast. Gavin was accelerating and he caught the shockwave caused by such a massive, blunt shape pushing through the seas. The front of the head was a wall, a knobby, spiky wall.
But with the swell of the shockwave helping him, Gavin began to pull away.
And then the cruciform mouth opened, splitting that entire front hammerhead wide in four directions. As the sea demon began sucking water in rather than pushing it in front of it, the shockwave disappeared abruptly. And Gavin’s skimmer lurched back into the mouth.
Fully into the mouth. The open mouth was easily two or three times as wide as Gavin was tall. Sea demons swallowed the seas entire. The body convulsed in rhythm, a circle that squeezed tighter and then opened wider, jetting water past gills and out the back almost the same way Gavin’s skimmer did.
Gavin’s arms were shaking, shoulders burning from the muscular effort of pushing his entire body, his entire boat across the seas. Harder. Dammit, harder!
The sea demon arched upward just as Gavin’s skimmer shot out of its mouth. Its tetraform jaws snapped shut, and it launched itself into the air. He shut his eyes and screamed, pushing as hard as he could.
He shot a look over his shoulder and saw the impossible: the sea demon had breached. Completely. Its massive body crashed back down into the water like all seven towers of the Chromeria falling into the sea at once.
But Gavin was faster, up to full speed. Filling with the fierce freedom of flight and the luminous lightness of life, he laughed. Laughed.
The sea demon pursued him, furious, still burning red, moving even faster than before. But with the skimmer at full speed, Gavin was out of danger. He circled out to sea as the distant shapes of men cheered on the decks of every ship of the fleet, and the creature followed him.
Gavin led it for hours out to sea; then, circling wide in case it headed blindly in the last direction it had seen him go, he left it far behind.
As the sun set, exhausted and wrung out, he returned to his fleet. They’d lost two sailing dinghies, but not a single life. His people—for if they hadn’t been his before, he owned them heart and soul now—greeted him like a god.
Gavin accepted their adulation with a wan smile, but the freedom had faded. He wished he, too, could rejoice. He wished he could get drunk and dance and bed the finest-looking girl he could find. He wished he could find Karris somewhere in the fleet and fight or fuck or one and then the other. He wished he could tell the tale and hear it retold from a hundred lips and laugh at the death that had come so close to them all. Instead, as his people celebrated, he went belowdecks. Alone. Waved Corvan away. Shook his head at his wide-eyed son.
And finally, in his darkened cabin, alone, he wept. Not for what had been, but for what he knew he must become.
Karris hadn’t joined the revelers celebrating surviving their brush with the sea demon. She woke before dawn and made her ablutions, and brushed out her hair to give herself time to think. It didn’t help.
The secret was rubbing Karris like a burr under the cinch strap. She bound hair black as her mood back in a ponytail as usual. She’d spent the last five days putting pieces together: Gavin “falling ill” after the last battle of the war against his brother Dazen; Gavin breaking their betrothal; Gavin being astonished at learning about his bastard son Kip; Gavin being different.
Then she’d wasted time wondering how she’d been so dense. She—and everyone else—had attributed the changes to the trauma of war, the trauma of killing his own brother. His prismatic eyes had been proof, proof that Gavin was Gavin. Gavin was brilliant and quite the liar, but he shouldn’t have been able to fool her. She knew him too well. More to the point, she knew Dazen too well.
That was finished. She made her way to the forecastle as she had every morning and began stretching. She went crazy if she didn’t do some calisthenics every day. Her superior, Commander Ironfist, had thoughtfully brought her two sets of blacks to wear, and both tunic and pants were cotton infused with luxin—snug in spots, flexible everywhere, made for movement foremost and secondly to show off the Blackguards’ hardened physiques. But though grunting and sweating were part and parcel of her life, that didn’t mean she wanted to share it with every cretin on deck.
“May I?” Ironfist asked, coming onto the deck. The commander of the Blackguard was a huge man. A good leader. Smart, tough, and intimidating as hell. When Karris nodded, he removed his headscarf and folded it neatly. It was a Parian religious custom, the men covering their heads in respect to Orholam. But there were exceptions, and like many Parians, Ironfist believed the injunction only applied once the sun had risen fully above the horizon.
Ironfist had once plaited his wiry black hair, but after the Battle of Garriston and the death of so many of his Blackguards, he’d shaved his head completely bald in mourning. Another Parian custom. The headscarf that had once covered his glory would now cover his grief.
Orholam. All the dead Blackguards, many of them killed at the same time by one exploding shell, a lucky shot that cared nothing for their elite skills in drafting and fighting. Her colleagues. Her friends. It was a yawning pit, devouring everything but her tears.
Coming to stand parallel to Karris, Ironfist brought his hands together, then separated them to a low-high guard. It was the beginning of the Marsh ka. A suitable beginning, when muscles weren’t warm, and the ka didn’t range far, so their moves could fit within the small confines of the forecastle. Sweep low, turn, back kick, roundhouse, land on the other foot, balance—not as easy a task as usual on the bobbing deck.
Ironfist led, and Karris was glad to let him do so. The sailors assigned to the third watch stole glances at them, but Karris and Ironfist weren’t much visible in the predawn gray, and the gazes were unobtrusive. The motions were second nature. Karris focused on her body, the aches of sleeping on a wooden deck quickly worked out, the older aches more stubborn—the training injury that always made her hip ache, the stiffness in her left ankle from when she’d sprained it fighting a green wight with Gavin.
Not Gavin. Dazen. Orholam curse him.
Ironfist moved to Korick’s ka, ramping up the intensity quickly, again, a good choice for this tight of a space. And soon Karris was focusing on getting just a little more length on her spinning roundhouse kick, getting full extension and height on the back kick. She wasn’t nearly as tall as Ironfist, but he could flick his long limbs out into kicks and spear hands with unbelievable speed. She had to work hard to keep up with the pace he set.
The sun rose and they stopped only when it had almost cleared the horizon. Apparently Ironfist had wanted some hard work, too. As she breathed and gasped, leaning over with her hands propped on her thighs, he mopped his brow, made the sign of the seven to the new-risen sun, breathed a short prayer, and put his ghotra on his shaven head.
“You want something,” he said.
He picked up another cloth and threw it to her. Of course he’d brought two. He was conscientious like that. It also told her that he’d not joined her morning calisthenics by accident. He’d come to talk.
Classic Ironfist. Comes to talk, and says five words in the course of an hour.
Still, he was right. So Karris said, “The Lord Prism is going to leave the fleet. He’ll either try to do so without your knowledge or he’ll at least try to get you to agree not to send any Blackguards with him. I want you to send me.”
“He told you this?”
“He didn’t have to tell me. He’s a coward; he always runs away.” Karris thought she’d worked out the rage in her calisthenics, but there it was, hot and crisp, ready to fling her skyward in an instant.
“Coward?” Ironfist leaned against the railing. He looked at it. “Hmm.” Not a pace from where they stood, the railing was broken. Had been broken by a rampaging sea demon.
A rampaging sea demon that Gavin had faced down.
She grunted. “That last part wasn’t supposed to come out.”
Ironfist wasn’t amused. “Come here. Eyes.”
He took her face in his big hands and stared at her eyes in the rising sunlight, measuring, intense. He said, “Karris, you’re the quickest drafter I have, but you’re also the quickest to draft. Uncontrollable rage? Saying things aloud you didn’t intend? Those are the hallmarks of a red or green who is dying. Half my Blackguard is dead, and if you keep on drafting like you have, you’ll break the halo in—”
“Hope I’m not interrupting,” a voice intruded. Gavin.
Ironfist was still holding Karris’s face in both hands, staring into her eyes. Standing on the deck in the soft warm light of dawn, they both realized at the same time what it probably looked like.
Commander Ironfist dropped his hands, cleared his throat. Karris thought it was the first time she’d ever seen him embarrassed. “Lord Prism,” Ironfist said. “Orholam’s eye grace you.”
“And a good morning to you, Commander. Karris. Commander, I’d like to meet with you in an hour. Please summon Kip as well; I’ll require him after our conversation. I believe he’s on the first barge.” Gavin’s white tunic, accented with gold embroidery, was actually clean—on a ship, in the middle of fleeing from a battle, someone had laundered his clothes. He mattered that much to people. Things just magically worked out for Gavin without his even trying. It was infuriating. At least his face looked drawn. Gavin never slept well.
Ironfist looked like he wanted to say more, but he simply nodded and walked away.
Which left Karris alone with Gavin for the first time since she’d thrown a fit after learning he’d sired a bastard during their betrothal. She had jumped out of their boat then. It was the first time they’d even been face-to-face since she’d slapped his smiling face—in the middle of the Battle of Garriston, in full view of his entire army.
Maybe she had been drafting too much red and green. Anger and impulsivity shouldn’t be a Blackguard’s most prominent traits. Or a lady’s. “Lord Prism,” she said, determined to be civil.
He looked at her silently, that restless intelligence in his eyes weighing, always weighing. He looked at her almost mournfully, eyes touching her hair, her eyes, pausing at her lips, traveling quickly down her curves and back up to her eyes again, maybe flicking just for a moment to the sides of her eyes, where the wrinkles were starting.
He spoke softly: “Karris, you look better when you’re a sweaty mess than most women look in their Sun Day best.” Gavin was handsome, charming, and willful in all senses of the word, but something people often forgot was that he was smart, too.
He didn’t want to talk. He was stalling. Getting her confused and defensive about something that had nothing to do with anything. Bastard! She was sweaty, sticky, stinky, how could he compliment her now?
How dare he be nice after she’d slapped him in the face?
How dare his stupid little gambit work despite that she knew what he was doing?
“Go to hell,” she said, and walked away.
Nicely done, Karris. Professional, ladylike, civil. Bastard!
How could a woman make you want to throw her ass into the sea and kiss her breathless at the same time? Karris walked away and Gavin couldn’t help but admire her figure.
He saw that some of the sailors on deck were appreciating her figure, too. He cleared his throat to get their attention and lifted an eyebrow at them; they quickly found work to do.
“Is this perfectly necessary, Lord Prism?” a voice asked, coming up behind Gavin. It was his new general, the man who’d worked with him sixteen years ago when he’d been Dazen’s most effective general, Corvan Danavis. They’d had to do some clever work to make everyone believe Gavin’s “enemy” would now take orders from him.
“By this, you mean this?” Gavin pointed at the rope ladder up to the crow’s nest.
“Yes.” General Danavis was the kind of man who prayed before a battle, just in case, and then went about his business as if he had absolutely no fear of death. Gavin didn’t think he experienced fear in the way other men did—but he absolutely hated heights.
“Yes,” Gavin said. He climbed up the rope ladder first. As he pulled himself into the observation box, he was struck once again by a thought he had regularly: his whole life was based on magic. He climbed this height fearlessly because he knew that if he fell, he could draft quickly enough to catch himself. Though he might appear fearless, he wasn’t. There was simply hardly ever any danger for him—totally unlike most people. People would see him do incredible things, and think him incredible. And they would be totally misunderstanding.
The sudden stab of fear was so sharp that he thought for a moment someone actually had hit him in the gut. He took a deep breath.
Corvan came up, eyes locked on the crow’s nest, hands in a death grip on each rung. Gavin hated to do this to his friend, but there were some conversations that one simply couldn’t risk having overheard.
Gavin helped him into the box. He let the general catch his breath. At least the safety rails up here were nice and high and stout. Below, the sailors were going about their work. The morning wind was rising, and the first watch was out, checking lines and knots, the captain on the poop with a sextant, making sure of their position.
“I’ve lost blue,” Gavin said. Get it out. Clean it up afterward.
He could tell from the expression on his face that Corvan Danavis had no idea what he was talking about. He stroked the red mustache he was growing back. He’d been known for dangling beads from that mustache, back during the Prisms’ War. “Blue what?”
“I can’t see blue anymore, Corvan. It’s a sunny morning, I’m staring at the sky and the Cerulean Sea—and I can’t see blue. I’m dying, and I need your help deciding what I should do.”
Corvan was one of the smartest men Gavin knew, but he looked lost. “Lord Prism, such a thing isn’t—wait, tell me one piece at a time. Did this happen during your fight with the sea demon?”
“No.” Gavin looked over the waves. The rocking of the ship was soothing, perfectly complemented by the harmonious blues of sky and sea. He could remember the color so clearly he could swear he almost saw it. He was a superchromat, one who could differentiate colors much more finely than other men. He knew blue from its lightest to its darkest tones, from its violet hues to its greenest ones, blue of every saturation, blue of every mixture.
“After the battle,” Gavin said. “When we sailed away with all the refugees. I woke the next day and I didn’t even notice for a while. It’s like looking at a friend’s face and realizing you don’t know her name, Corvan. Blue’s there; it’s close. It’s like the color is on the tip of my eyes. If I don’t concentrate, I don’t even notice it, except that the world seems washed out, flat. But if I concentrate as hard as I can, I can see gray where the blue should be. Exactly the right tone and saturation and brightness, but… gray.”
Corvan was silent for a long minute, red-haloed eyes squinting. “The timing isn’t right,” he said. “Prisms are supposed to last some multiple of seven years. You should have five years left.”
“I don’t think what’s happening to me is normal. I was never ordained the Prism. Maybe this is what happens when a natural polychrome doesn’t go through the Spectrum’s ceremony.”
“I don’t know that that’s quite—”
“Have you ever heard of any Prism going blind, Corvan? Ever?” The last Prism before Gavin—the real Gavin—had been Alexander Spreading Oak. He’d been a weak Prism, hid in his apartments mostly, had likely been a poppy addict. The matriarch Eirene Malargos had been before him. She’d lasted fourteen years. Gavin had only the barest recollection of her from the Sun Day rituals when he was a young boy.
“Gavin, most Prisms don’t last sixteen years. Maybe the Spectrum’s ceremony would have made you die earlier. If you’d died after seven years or fourteen, you’d never have experienced this. We can’t know.”
That was one problem with being a fraud. You can’t elicit information about something that’s terribly secret that you should already know. The real Gavin had been initiated as Prism-elect when he was thirteen years old. He had sworn never to speak of it, not even to once-best-friend and brother Dazen.
It was one oath that, so far as Gavin could tell, each member of the Spectrum had honored. Because in the sixteen years he’d been impersonating his brother, no one had said a word about it. Unless, of course, they had made sidelong references to it—which he never picked up, and thus didn’t respond to, and thus let them know that he valued the secrecy of the ceremony highly and they should, too.
In other words, he was caught in a trap of his own devising. Again.
“Corvan, I don’t know what’s happening. I may wake up tomorrow and not be able to draft green, and the next day and not be able to draft yellow. Or maybe I’ve just lost blue and that’s all, but I have lost blue. Best-case scenario, if I manage to stay away from the Chromeria and am absent during every blue ritual, I’ve got one year left—until next Sun Day. There’s no way I could maintain a fraud through the ceremonies, or skip them. If I can’t draft blue by then, I’m dead.”
Gavin could see Corvan realizing all the consequences. His friend expelled a breath. “Huh. Just when everything was going so well.” He chuckled. “We’ve got fifty thousand refugees that no one is going to want; we’re running low on food; the Color Prince has just had a major victory and will now doubtless gather thousands more heretics to his banners; and now we’re losing our greatest asset.”
“I’m not dead yet,” Gavin said. He grinned.
Corvan grinned ruefully back, but he looked sick. “Don’t worry, Lord Prism, I’m the last man who would count you out.” Gavin knew it was true, too. Corvan had accepted disgrace and exile to make Dazen’s defeat look credible. He’d spent the last sixteen years in a backwater village, poor, unknown, quietly keeping an eye on the real Gavin’s bastard, Kip.
Corvan looked down, blanched at the height, and gripped the rail tightly again. “What are you going to do?”
“The more time I spend with drafters, the more likely it is that someone will notice something’s wrong. And if I’m at the Chromeria too long, the White will ask me to balance. If blue goes under red, I might not even be able to tell, much less balance it out. They’ll remove me.”
“So I’m going to go to Azûlay to see the Nuqaba,” Gavin said.
“Well, that’s one way of keeping Ironfist from accompanying you, but why do you want to see her?”
“Because in addition to their capital having the largest library in the world—where I can study without the entire Spectrum knowing what I’ve looked at within an hour—the Parians also keep oral histories, including many that are secret and some that are doubtless heretical.”
“What are you looking for?”
“If I’ve lost control of blue, Corvan, that means blue is out of control.”
Corvan looked momentarily confused, then aghast. “You can’t be serious. I’ve never read a serious scholar who thought the bane were anything other than bogeymen the Chromeria invented to justify the actions of some of the early zealots and the luxors.”
The bane. Corvan used the old Ptarsu term correctly. The word could be singular or plural. It had probably meant temple or holy place, but Lucidonius’s Parians had believed they were abominations. They’d acquired the word itself as they’d acquired the world.
“And if they’re wrong?”
Corvan was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “So you’re going to show up on the Nuqaba’s doorstep and say, ‘As the head of your faith, please show me your heretical texts and tell me the stories which I of all people am most likely to find deserving of death,’ and expect them to do it? I guess it qualifies as a plan. Not a good one, mind you.”
“I can be awfully charming,” Gavin said.
Corvan smiled, but turned away. “You know,” he said, “what you did yesterday with the sea demon was… astounding. What you did in Garriston was astounding, and not just the building of Brightwater Wall. Gavin, these people will follow you to the ends of the earth. They will spread word of what you’ve done to anyone they meet. If it came down to a fight between you and the Spectrum…”
“The Spectrum already has more malleable candidates lined up to be the next Prism, Corvan. If I defy them now, I’ll be in as bad of a spot as Dazen was seventeen years ago. I won’t put the world through that again. The people can love me, but if all their leaders unite against me, I’ll win nothing except for death for my friends and allies. I’ve done that once.”
“So, what? You’re just going to leave us? What are you going to do about Kip? He’s a tough kid, but he’s damaged and I think you’re the only thing he’s holding on to. If he finds out you’re not who you say you are, he could shatter. There’s no telling what he’d turn into. Don’t do that to your soul, Gavin. Don’t do that to the world. The last thing the Seven Satrapies need is another young polychrome Guile, mad with rage and grief. And what are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to put all these people?”
“Corvan, Corvan, Corvan. I’ve got a plan.” Sort of.
“Somehow, my friend, I was afraid of that.” The crow’s nest swayed hard as the ship caught a rogue wave, and Corvan looked down at the deck far below, swallowing. “I don’t suppose it includes an easy way for me to get down?”
Ironfist grimaced at the missive in his hand. Usually, that expression, from him, toward Gavin, would be a quick twitch, quickly smoothed away. This time, his face twisted as if he were eating steak smoked in poisonwood. “You’re having me deliver orders. To the White,” Ironfist said.
Gavin had summoned the big bodyguard to his stateroom after trying several rooms to see which suited his purposes best. “Regarding my son. Yes.” As Prism, Gavin didn’t have any authority over the White, but she had to be careful not to offend him. Both of them had to choose their battles with each other. He thought this was one she wouldn’t choose.
“You want Kip made a Blackguard.” Ironfist kept his voice flat. He was the Blackguard’s commander. Technically, he alone was supposed to decide who was invited to try to join. “Lord Prism, I’m struggling to find where to start explaining how wrong and destructive that would be.”
It was a sunny day out, but the gleaming dark woods of the stateroom soaked up light, made Gavin have to concentrate to see the commander’s expressions. “I hope you know, Commander, that I have supreme respect for you.”
Slight eyebrow twitch. Disbelief. It actually was true, but Gavin supposed he hadn’t given Ironfist many reasons to believe that.
Gavin continued, “But we find ourselves in a situation that requires quick action. Refugees. Aggrieved satraps. A city lost. Rebellion. Ring a bell?”
Ironfist’s face turned to stone.
Gavin needed to handle this better. Tell the man you respect him, and then treat him like he’s an idiot? “Commander,” he said, “how many Blackguards did you lose at Garriston?”
“Fifty-two dead. Twelve wounded. Fourteen so close to breaking the halo that they’ll have to be replaced.”
Gavin paused long enough to be respectful of the loss. He’d already known the number, of course. Knew the faces and the names of the dead. The Blackguard was the Prism’s personal guard, and yet not under his control. He was treading on that line. “And pardon me for speaking so bluntly, but that number must be replenished.”
“Three years at least, and the quality of the Blackguard as a whole won’t recover for ten or more. I’ll have to promote people who are inadequately trained. They’ll not be able to train those beneath them as well. You understand what your actions have done to us? Killed a generation and retarded two. I’ll leave the Blackguard a shadow of what it was when I got it.” Ironfist kept his voice level, but the fury beneath it was unmistakable. Uncharacteristic for him.
Gavin said nothing, jaw clenched, eyes dead. This was the hell of leading: to see a man as an individual with hopes, families, loves, favorite foods, more alert in the morning or at night, fond of hot peppers and dancing girls and singing off key. Then the next hour to see him as a number and be willing to sacrifice him. Those thirty-eight dead men and fourteen women had saved tens of thousands of people, had almost saved the city. Gavin had put them in a place where he knew they might die, and they had. He’d do it again. He held Ironfist’s gaze.
Ironfist looked away. “Lord Prism,” he added. There was no remorse in his voice, but Gavin didn’t require unquestioning obedience. Just obedience.
Gavin glanced up at the open space above the rafters between his stateroom and the next. “The Blackguard requires recruits. The autumn class probably hasn’t even started yet, and Kip is ideal. You’ve seen him draft.”
“It’s too physically demanding. Twenty weeks of hellish training and fights every month that purge the deadwood. From forty-nine to the seven best. He’d never make it even if he hadn’t burned his hand. If he slims down, maybe in a year or—”
“He’ll make it,” Gavin said. It wasn’t an expression of confidence.
Silence as Ironfist grappled with the implication. Then disbelief. “You want me to induct him undeservedly?”
“Do I need to answer that?”
“You’ll publicly make him a favorite? You’ll destroy that boy.”
“Everyone will think he’s favored regardless.” Gavin shrugged and made sure he was speaking forcefully. “He’ll serve the purpose for which he was made, or he’ll break in pursuit of it, just like the rest of us.”
Commander Ironfist didn’t reply. He was a man who understood the power of silence.
“Come with me, Commander.” They walked together out to a balcony. The door between the rooms was thin, and there were open spaces beside the rafters, perhaps so the captain could yell orders to his secretaries who in normal times had their offices in the cuddy. The exchange hadn’t gone exactly how he wanted, but it would serve. Kip should have overheard everything.
Now Gavin had some words for Ironfist, out of Kip’s hearing. “Kip is my son, Commander. I acknowledged him as such when I could have instead let him die without anyone knowing better. I’m not going to destroy Kip. He’s fat, and he’s awkward, and he’s a powerful polychrome. He’s going to grow up fast when he gets to the Chromeria. He can become a laughingstock or he can become a great man. He’s getting a late start. The satraps’ sons and daughters will devour him. I want you to soak up every hour of his time, remake him physically, make him tough mentally, make him learn the measure of himself. When he’s earned the respect of the Blackguards, when he doesn’t care what the vipers think of him, I’ll ask him to quit the Blackguard and jump in the vipers’ den.”
“You’re grooming him to be the next Prism,” Ironfist said.
“Why, Commander, Orholam alone chooses his Prisms,” Gavin said.
It was a joke, but Ironfist didn’t laugh. “Indeed, Lord Prism.”
Gavin kept forgetting that Ironfist was a religious man.
“I’m not going to go easy on him,” Ironfist said. “If he’s to join my Blackguard, he has to earn it.”
“Sounds perfect,” Gavin said.
“He’s a polychrome.” Polychromes were strongly discouraged from such dangerous service.
“He wouldn’t be the first exception,” Gavin said. He would be the first in a long, long time.
Unhappy silence. “And somehow I have to convince the White to allow this.”
“I trust you.” Gavin grinned.
Ironfist’s glare could have soured honey. Gavin laughed, but he noted it again. Ironfist respected him, but Gavin’s charm did nothing to this man.
“You’re leaving us,” Ironfist said slowly. “After you got half my people killed, you’re planning to leave, and leave us behind, aren’t you?”
Ironfist took his silence for assent. “Know this, Prism: I won’t allow it. I won’t do anything at all for you if you don’t let me do my job. If you make my work meaningless, why should I help yours? Is this what you call supreme respect?”
Ah. Note to self: charm is less effective on people who have good reason to kick your ass. Gavin raised his hands. “What do you want?”
“Not want. Demand. You take a Blackguard with you. My choice. I don’t know what your mission is, but where one can go, two can. Note that I would much rather you travel with an entire squad, but I’m a reasonable man.”
It actually was far more reasonable than Gavin would have expected. Maybe Ironfist wasn’t as good at politics as Gavin had thought. Of course, he was probably too busy figuring out how to kill things efficiently to get as much practice in politics as Gavin got. Ironfist probably meant to come with Gavin himself—which would definitely not work, but after Ironfist thought about all the work he had to do rebuilding and training the Blackguard, he would realize that. Too late.
“Done,” Gavin said quickly, before the man could reconsider.
“Then it’s a deal,” Ironfist said. He extended a hand, and Gavin took it. It was an old Parian way of sealing deals, not much used anymore. But Ironfist looked Gavin in the eye as he clasped his hand. “I’ve already had someone request the assignment,” he said.
Impossible. I didn’t even tell him I was leaving until—
“Karris,” Ironfist said. And then he smiled, toothily.
Kip sat in the secretaries’ office, fiddling nervously with the bandage on his left hand as Ironfist and Gavin talked on the balcony off the ship’s stern. He had been seated with his back to the wall between the office and the Prism’s stateroom, but having overheard too much, he quietly moved to one of the secretaries’ chairs, farther back from the wall, so it wouldn’t look like he’d been eavesdropping.
A Blackguard. Him. It was like winning a contest he hadn’t even known he was competing in. He hadn’t really thought about his future yet; he figured the Chromeria would take the next few years of his life and he’d go from there. But the toughest people he knew in the world were Blackguards: Karris and Ironfist.
The stateroom door opened and Ironfist stepped out. He gave Kip a sharp look. A disapproving look. And all at once Kip realized he was being imposed on Ironfist—the man didn’t want Kip the fatty debasing his Blackguards. His heart dropped so fast it left a smoking crater in the deck.
“The Prism will see you now,” Ironfist said. And he left.
Kip stood on weak knees. He walked into the stateroom.
The Prism Gavin Guile, the man who’d made Brightwater Wall and faced a sea demon and sunk pirates and crushed armies and cowed satraps—his father—smiled at him. “Kip, how are you feeling? You did some pretty amazing things the other day. Come. I need to see your eyes.”
Feeling suddenly awkward, Kip followed Gavin out onto the stern balcony. In the bright morning light, Gavin looked at Kip’s irises.
“A definite green ring. Congratulations. No one will ever mistake you for a non-drafter again.”
Gavin smiled indulgently. “I know it’s a lot to get used to, and I suppose someone’s already told you this, but you used a lot of magic in the battle, Kip. A lot. Going green golem isn’t something we teach anymore because a person can generally only do it two or three times in their life. It burns through your power—and your life—at an incredible rate. The power’s intoxicating, but beware of it. You’ve seen some of the greatest drafters in the world work, and you can’t assume that you can do everything they can do. But look at me, lecturing. Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s…” It’s the kind of thing a father does. Kip didn’t say it out loud. He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat.
Gavin looked over the waves at his fleet following them. He was somber, pensive. Finally, he spoke. “Kip, I don’t get to be fair to you. I can’t spend the time with you that you deserve, that I owe you. I can’t tell you all the secrets that I wish I could. I can’t introduce you to your new life the way I wish. You’ve chosen to be known as my son, and I respect that. That’s how you’ll be known. As my son, I have work for you to do, and I need to tell you what that work is now, because I’m leaving today. I’ll come to the Chromeria every once in a while, but not often. Not for the next year.”
There were too many thoughts at once. Everything Kip knew had been turned on its head too many times. In the last few months he’d gone from being a child with a haze-addled single mother to losing his village, his mother, his life. He’d been flung into the Chromeria, and into the company of the best drafters and fighters in the world.
And on the very day his father had accepted him, recognized him as a son instead of a bastard, he’d found a note from his mother claiming Gavin Guile had raped her. She’d begged Kip to kill Gavin. She’d probably been high when she wrote it, of course. So it had been the last thing she’d written. It didn’t magically make it different from all the other lies she’d told Kip over the years.
She said she loved me. Kip quickly rejected the thought and the well of emotions it tapped.
Some of it must have shown in his face, though, because Gavin said quietly, “Kip, you have every right to be angry, but I have something impossible to ask of you. I’m going to send you on to the Chromeria. I expect you to do well in all your classes, of course. But honestly, I don’t care, so long as you learn as much and as quickly as you can. What I really want is…” He trailed off. “This has to be our secret, Kip. I’m putting my very life in your hands by even asking you this. And you may, of course, fail or choose not to do this, but—”
Kip swallowed. Why was his father dancing so carefully about asking him to join the Blackguard? “You’re scaring me more by hedging than you would if you just told me,” Kip said.
“First, you have to impress your grandfather without me there. He will summon you. He will not be pleasant. We’ll count it a victory if you avoid wetting yourself.” He grinned that Guile grin, then sobered. “Do your best. If you can impress him, you’ll have done more than I ever could. But whatever you do, don’t make an enemy of him.”
“And that’s going to be impossible?”
“No—well, maybe—but I was starting with the easy assignment. I want you to destroy Luxlord Klytos Blue.”
Kip blinked. That wasn’t “Join the Blackguard” either. “That thing about being more scared by your hedging than the assignment? I take it back.”
“By destroy, I mean do whatever you have to do to make him resign his seat on the Spectrum. I need that seat, Kip.”
“I can’t tell you. What you should ask is, what do I mean when I say, ‘Do whatever you have to’?”
“Right, then, that,” Kip said. He was hoping this was all some kind of joke, but the feeling in his stomach told him that it wasn’t.
“If you can’t get Klytos to resign of his own will, or through blackmail, kill him.”
A chill radiated from Kip’s spine to his shoulders. He swallowed.
“Your choice. I’m trusting you with that. This is war, Kip. You saw what happens when the wrong man is in power. The governor of Garriston could have prepared his city. He knew what was coming. Preparing the city would have made him deeply unpopular and it would have cost him a fortune. So instead, he chose to let them all die. One man caused all that carnage, simply by his inaction. If we hadn’t been there, it would have been much, much worse. This is like that. That’s all I can tell you.”
It was impossible, but Kip felt a calm. The impossibility didn’t matter right now. He could grapple with that when his father was gone. “Does he deserve it?” he asked.
Gavin took a deep breath. “I want to say yes to make it easier on you, but ‘deserving’ is a slippery concept. Does a coward who deserts his comrades deserve to be shot? No, but it has to be done because the stakes are so high. Klytos Blue is a coward who believes lies. If a man believes lies and repeats them, is he a liar? Maybe not, but he has to be stopped. I don’t believe Klytos is an evil man, Kip. I don’t believe he deserves to die out of hand or I’d kill him myself. But the stakes are high, and they’re rising. Do what you must. Get in the Blackguard first. I’ve secured a tryout for you. Get in, and the position will help you accomplish the rest.”
Sure. Simple as that. Of course, for Gavin Guile, it probably was as simple as that. Things were so easy for a man of his powers, he probably thought they were easy for other people. “What are we trying to do?” Kip asked. “Ultimately, I mean.”
“War is a spreading fire. And every old grudge is dry wood, begging for flame. When I fought my brother, men joined me who hated me, but they hated their neighbors more, and those neighbors then sided with him. We killed two hundred thousand people in less than four months, Kip. I had a chance to stop this new war at one city, a few thousand dead. I failed. There are satrapies that wouldn’t mind seeing Atash burn, that wouldn’t mind that fire spreading to Blood Forest, that don’t want their sons to die defending Ruthgar, that don’t want their daughters to have to be Freed after defending Paria, that don’t want to raise their taxes for Ilytian heathens, that don’t want to send their crops to those filthy Aborneans.”
Kip understood. “Which leaves no one.”
“We’re trying to stop the war before it engulfs everyone.”
“How do you stop a war?” Kip asked.
“You win. So you do your part, and I’ll do mine.”
“How long do I have?” Kip asked. A small part of him rebelled. It wasn’t fair to ask a boy to do this. It wasn’t what you’d ask of a son. But Kip was only a son by his father’s grace. He was an unwanted bastard, and if Gavin held the boy he’d never known at arm’s length, how could Kip blame him?
“Depends on how long the Color Prince licks his wounds in Garriston. It’s probably too much to hope he’ll stay the winter, so he’ll most likely head west. I imagine Idoss will hold him off for a few months. Losing Idoss should be enough to move the Spectrum. If not… six months, Kip. Eight if we’re lucky. If we don’t save the city of Ru, he’ll get their saltpeter caves and iron mines and we’ll be plunged into a war worse than the False Prism’s War, and unlikely to be as brief.”
Kip was in so far over his head he couldn’t even see the surface. “Why me?” he asked.
“Because audacity is a young man’s sword. Daring is a gun. And, to be blunt, if you fail in non-spectacular fashion, you’ll merely look like a petty child. That would damage your reputation but not mine. And it won’t get either of us killed. You’re a good weapon because to look at you, you look like a child, an affable boy who wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Affable. Code for “fat and nice.” Next I’ll be “jolly.” “I’m so unlikely that I’m perfect?” Kip said.
“I thought that once, right before I ran away from Garriston.” Kip had thought no one would think a child would come to spy on the Color Prince and rescue Liv. That had turned out well.
“But you’re stronger now.”
“That was two weeks ago!”
“Doesn’t that tell you something?” Kip insisted.
Gavin smiled. “It should tell you something, too.”
“What?” Kip asked.
Gavin got serious. “That I believe in you.”
Kip wasn’t sure what to do with that, not when Gavin delivered it straight. He couldn’t laugh it off, couldn’t make a joke out of it. It was too obviously true, and it warmed him. Kip grimaced. “You’re really good at this, aren’t you?”
Gavin rubbed Kip’s head. “Almost as good as I think I am.” He grinned. “You know, Kip, when this is all over…” He let the words fall away, and his good humor went with them.
“It’s never going to be over, is it?” Kip asked.
The Prism took a deep breath. “Not the way I’d like.”
“Are we going to lose?” Kip asked.
Gavin was quiet for a while. He shrugged and smirked. “Odds are.” He wrapped an arm around Kip’s wide shoulders, squeezed, released him. “But odds are for defying.”
Karris had all the gear packed and ready. Gavin, she assumed, would draft another skimmer rather than take one of the ships. He always was an impatient man. She checked her gear again to calm her nerves. She hated thinking she’d forgotten something. Hated not knowing what to prepare for but trying to pack light.
Of course, Gavin would come out and say, “Let’s go!” and try to leave immediately. As if, having invented a way to cross the entire Cerulean Sea in a day and save a month of sailing, he didn’t have an extra hour or two for packing.
Why had she volunteered for this again?
Because you don’t have anything better to do than saving the world and revealing the cancer at its heart.
There was that.
Gavin came onto the deck, and Karris was struck once again by how every eye turned to him. She supposed that most of the people on this ship were common folk, and they would have turned to see even Garriston’s Governor Crassos, hated as he had been. And perhaps they would have stared as worshipfully at any Prism, but she doubted it. Gavin’s title was special, but something in her believed that he would have attracted every eye on deck even if he’d been a cabin boy. Now that he’d saved all their lives again, she was surprised that they didn’t spontaneously burst out into applause.
The sailors burst out into applause.
Son of a bitch.
Two Blackguards fell in beside him as he came out the door. Someone must have shouted the word that the Prism was making an appearance, because in moments, people were piling out onto the deck. The captain, a stalwart rotund Ruthgari, made no attempt to stop them or get his sailors back to work. They nearly trampled each other on their way out of the cabins below, and sailors, soldiers, traders, nobles, and refugee peasants alike came out to get a look at their Prism.
He’d been on board with them for the last week, and he’d been in Garriston with them before that. It wasn’t like he’d changed. But somehow where he’d been an important man before, now he was theirs. Their savior. Pitting himself against a sea demon and winning had made Gavin larger than life.
If Karris hadn’t seen with her own eyes how close Gavin had come to getting eaten, she might have had the cynicism to think he had arranged the whole thing.
The people were packed on the deck—every ship had been filled to bursting in order to get the refugees out of Garriston before the Color Prince took over—and all of them were talking to each other, sharing inanities like, “Do you see him? Is he saying anything?”
Gavin made his way over to Karris, Blackguards in tow. They, like she, scanned the crowd for threats. Gavin said, “Milady, would you do me the honor of accompanying me on a small expedition?”
What do you do when someone asks you kindly to do what you’ve already wheedled and schemed for? “I would be… delighted,” Karris said.
“Excellent.” Gavin smiled without any hint of irony. He did have a nice smile. The worm.
He raised his hands. “My people!” he said. He had a commander’s voice, an orator’s voice with the trick of somehow speaking so loudly and clearly that everyone could understand him without his seeming to shout. “My people! I leave you today, but only for a time. I go to make a place for you. I go ahead of you. And now I ask you to be fearless and grow strong. There are days ahead that will test us all. There is work that only you can do, though I will help as I can. I’m leaving General Danavis in charge. He has my full trust. He will lead well.”
The words walked a narrow line, and he surely knew it. What he was describing without precisely saying was that he was their promachos—the title a Prism could be given during war. But the promachia could only be instituted by the order of the entire Spectrum. Gavin had been promachos during the war with his brother, and had been relieved of the title in less than six months. To be a promachos was to be emperor in truth.
It was one of the very things the Blackguard had been created to protect against.
At the same time, what else was Gavin going to tell all these people? That he was leaving and they were going to have to fend for themselves? They had nothing. They’d left everything in Garriston.
He kept talking, and Karris kept scanning the crowd. Ironfist had taught them the telltales for spotting an assassin, of course. Someone who was sweating profusely, shifting awkwardly, anyone who was keeping their hands concealed in such a way that they might be hiding something. For Karris, it was more of a feeling. An assassin would feel out of place. Someone who wasn’t listening, because they didn’t care what was said. Someone who only cared about his own mission.
Karris realized two things at the same time. First, that was exactly what she was doing. Second, there were at least fifty Blackguards on deck. Not to mention a couple of hundred fanatical common folk who would tear apart anyone who even dared offend their Prism. If there were a perfect moment to not attempt an assassination, this would be it.
Gavin drafted a set of steps from the deck down to the water and drafted a yellow-hulled scull onto the water, complete with rowing apparatus for two.
The Blackguards on duty were Ahhanen and Djur. Neither man looked pleased, but they saluted Karris, transferring protection to her. Life, light, purpose.
Gavin descended the steps and took his place. He didn’t offer Karris a hand onto the scull, which she appreciated. Now, in this, they weren’t some lord and a lady. She was his protector, thank you very much.
As she took her place on the oars, she said, “No blue this time, huh?” The last time they’d sculled together, she’d accused him of using blue luxin for the hull because blue was practically invisible against the waves and it had unnerved her.
She shouldn’t have said it. He’d doubtless drafted the scull from yellow to be kind to her. She’d complained about what he’d done last time, so this time he was doing it differently. And she’d thrown it in his face. Nice, Karris.
They pushed off and sculled together in silence, heading west. When they were half a league out, Gavin signaled that they should stop.
“I showed them all the skimmer yesterday, but there was a lot going on,” he said. A lot going on. She supposed that was one way to describe the panic fifty thousand helpless people felt when they realize they’re under attack by a sea demon and then watching their Prism lure it away from them single-handedly, using magic the likes of which no one had ever seen. “I didn’t want to give all the drafters a tutorial today in how to make one for themselves. Just because a secret’s going to get out eventually doesn’t mean you need to shout it from the rooftops.” He stopped, seeming to realize that she might not be the person to say that to.
“So where are we going?” Karris asked. She didn’t want to talk about that now either.
“I told my people I’d go prepare a place for them.”
“You tell people things all the time.”
Gavin opened his mouth, hesitated. Licked his lips. Didn’t say whatever he was going to say. “I deserved that. Point is, I’ve got fifty thousand refugees. If we put them in one of the little Tyrean coastal towns, they’ll overwhelm the locals, and still be just a short march down the road for the Color Prince. They’ll be defenseless, and they’ll starve to death even if he doesn’t come after them. Point is, mostly for unfair reasons, no one will want to help a bunch of Tyreans.”
“So you’ve come up with an elaborate solution.”
“Not elaborate. Elegant. Fine, I suppose you could call it elaborate, too.” He began drafting the scoops and straws for the skimmer. “I’m going to put them on Seers Island.”
He was officially mad. Karris said, “That entire island is ringed with reefs. No one can get ships in there.”
“And how do the Seers feel about this?” she demanded.
“Surprised, I’d guess. I haven’t told them yet.”
“Who knows?” Gavin said. “They are Seers. Maybe they’ve foretold my coming.” His grin withered in the heat of her disapproval. He handed over one of the reeds and they began skimming.
Last time they’d skimmed together, they had held hands, Karris squeezing out the rhythm so that they would be in time with each other. This time he didn’t even extend his hand toward her. Good, it saved her the trouble of rejecting it.
Regardless, they found their rhythm and began cruising across the surface of the sea. Within half an hour, the mountains of Seers Island came into view. But they were farther away than they appeared, and it took hours before Gavin and Karris approached the island. Even then, Gavin didn’t head straight in. He turned south of the island, keeping between it and Tyrea, whose Karsos Mountains were just visible, purple in the distance.
Finally, Gavin turned them north, toward a huge bay. It was a shallow crescent, big enough for Gavin’s entire fleet to fit into, but too wide in Karris’s half-educated opinion to offer protection from the winter storms that would rip between the island and the mainland in a few months.
There were no known settlements. This island was taboo, forbidden, holy. Lucidonius had given it to the Seers hundreds of years ago. And, of course, it was surrounded by reefs that would destroy any ship with a greater displacement than a canoe or a skimmer, and even those could only make it in at high tide.
As they came in closer, skimming a mere hand’s breadth over the coral, Karris saw an enormous pier jutting from the undeveloped shore. A pier that gleamed like gold—a pier of solid yellow luxin. She was about to comment to Gavin about it—Had he created this? Was this where he’d been going in the last few days?—when she saw something else.
There were a couple of hundred armed men and women standing on the beach in an unruly mob.
“Gavin, those people look angry.”
Amused, Gavin lifted his eyebrows momentarily. “Not as angry as they’re going to be.” And then, heedless, he beached the skimmer directly in front of the mob.
“Commander, could I talk with you for a moment?” Kip asked.
After Gavin and Karris left, Commander Ironfist and the Blackguards had taken over the fastest galleass in the fleet and, taking Kip, had headed for the Chromeria.
Everyone had been busy all the time for the first few days, with the Blackguards following the sailors’ lead and trying to learn their craft. Commander Ironfist didn’t want his Guards to sit idle, and given the chance to master some new skill, they dove right in. The sailors grumbled at first, but were eventually won over by how quickly the Blackguards learned.
For those who weren’t on duty, Ironfist supervised shifts of sparring and calisthenics on the galleass’s small castle. Kip was allowed to watch, but mostly he tried to keep out of the way. It had taken him days to figure out when the commander would have a few empty minutes for Kip to bother him.
The commander looked at Kip. Nodded. Walked back into the cabin the captain was sharing with him for his work.
Kip had mustered his courage, but now he found it leaking away as they came into the small room and sat at a little table. “Sir, I… During the battle at Garriston, I—Well, some of it doesn’t seem real, like I’m remembering things that couldn’t really have happened, do you know what I—But that’s not what I…” Kip was being stupid, inarticulate. He flexed with his bandaged hand. It hurt. “I killed the king—satrap—whatever. When I did it, Master Danavis—I mean, General Danavis—shouted at me, saying I’d fouled everything. I didn’t mean to disobey, it just didn’t—I don’t know, maybe I did mean to disobey.” The words wouldn’t come out right. He felt like he was veering all over the place. He’d killed people, and part of him had liked it. Like he was smashing in the faces of those who wouldn’t take him seriously. Except that he had literally smashed faces in, and when he thought about it, he felt wretched. But that was too hard to say. “I still don’t know what I messed up, and what it cost. Can you tell me?”
Commander Ironfist drew a deep breath. Seemed to reconsider. “Hand,” he said.
Kip presented his right hand, not sure what the imposing commander wanted.
Commander Ironfist looked at him flatly.
“Oh!” Kip presented his left hand. The commander unwrapped the bandage. He said, “I was fourteen years old when I killed my first man. My mother was the deya of Aghbalu—a regional governor—and she was angling to depose Paria’s satrapah and become satrapah herself, though I didn’t know that then. I was walking past her chambers one day, and I heard her cry out. I had first drafted perhaps two weeks before. I went in, and I saw the assassin. Small man, features of the despised Gatu tribe, teeth stained from chewing khat, and poison on the wavy blade of his kris. I remember thinking that only if I drafted could I stop him in time. But the drafting didn’t just happen as it had two weeks before. He stabbed my mother, and while I stood there, not believing what I’d seen, he jumped out the window he’d climbed in and tried to escape over the roofs. I chased him, and I beat him with my fists, and I threw him off the roof.”
Kip swallowed. Ironfist had chased an assassin, unarmed, across rooftops, and killed a man armed with a poisoned blade—when he was fourteen?
Ironfist paused, examining Kip’s burned hand. He gestured for the ointment the chirurgeons had given Kip and rubbed it on the raw skin. Kip hissed and clenched every muscle in his body to keep from crying out.
“You need to stretch your fingers,” Ironfist said. “All day, every day. If you don’t, your fingers will tighten up into claws in no time. The scars will freeze your palm and fingers, and you’ll have to split your skin open just to move. Take a little pain now or a lot later.”
This was a little pain?
Commander Ironfist went back to his story as he wrapped Kip’s hand in fresh bandages. “The point isn’t that I’m a hard man, Kip. The point is I made mistakes. My mother was trained in dawat, our tribe’s martial art. Not highly proficient, but trained well for a civilian. If I hadn’t come in the room and she hadn’t been worried for me, she could have fended him off until her guards came. And once I chased him down, I shouldn’t have killed him. We could have found out who sent him.”
“But you were just a boy,” Kip said. Having his hand wrapped back up and immobile was like crawling back into a warm bed on a cold morning.
“And so are you,” Commander Ironfist said. Kip started to protest, but Commander Ironfist wasn’t finished. “Even if you weren’t, I’ve seen grown men and women make worse mistakes in battle. If we naturally made good decisions in battle, there’d be no need to train for it.”
“Did I get people killed? I killed a king, and I still can’t figure out if it was a good thing or not.” The anguish leaked through and Kip’s eyes welled up. He looked away and gritted his teeth, blinking. Stupid. Get control of yourself.
“I don’t know,” Commander Ironfist said. “But the Color Prince exposed King Garadul on purpose. He wanted him killed. Maybe he’d planned it well in advance. Certainly us capturing Garadul rather than killing him would have tripped him up. General Danavis is very, very good at what he does. He understood in a moment. Most people wouldn’t have. Especially not fifteen-year-old boys who’ve never been in a battle before.”
“But I ignored him. I wanted to kill the king so much I wouldn’t listen to anyone. Anything.” Kip had crushed the king’s head. He could remember the feeling of the man’s skull cracking, brains squishing, blood splurting.
“You were deep in the grip of your color, Kip. So you blundered. Maybe you precipitated a wider war. Maybe. Maybe the general was wrong. Maybe King Garadul would have been far worse than this prince. We don’t know. Can’t know. It happened. Do better next time. That’s what I do.”
That’s why you train.
“Did you ever find out who sent him?” Kip asked.
“The assassin? My sister thought she did. Let’s head to the galley. It’s time for supper, though not as much as either of us would like.”
“But did she get her vengeance on the killer?” Kip asked.
“You might say that.”
“What’d she do to him?”
“She married him.”
Tap. Superviolet and blue. As his thumb touched, it was like someone had blown out a candle. The world went dark. Eyes useless. But then, a moment later, there was sun, waves washing over him, blinking, bobbing. Seeing his perspective shift while he felt his body utterly motionless made him queasy.
Tap. Green solved that in a rush of embodiment, touch restored. He was swimming. A strong body, wiry, naked to the waist. The water is warm, strewn with flotsam.
Tap. Yellow. Hearing restored, the shouts of men calling to each other, others screaming in pain or terror. But yellow is more than that; it is the logic of man and place. But the yellow in this one isn’t quite right. Disbelieving. The Prism came out of nowhere. Dodged all his cannon shots. Even when Gunner finally started shooting both at once. That little boat the Prism made moved at speeds he wouldn’t have believed if he’d heard another telling the tale. Ceres is going to take this out on him. Damn Gavin Guile.
But this mind skips around. There’s something—
Tap. Orange. The smell of the sea and smoke and discharged powder, and he can sense the other men floating in the water, and below them, around them—Oh, by the hells. Sharks. Lots of sharks.
His finger is already descending. Tap. Red-and-sub-red-and-the-taste-of-blood-in-his-mouth-and-it’s-too—
The trick with sharks is the nose. Not so different from a man. You bloody a bully’s nose, and he goes looking elsewhere right quick. Easy, right? Easy.
Gunner ain’t no easy meat. The sea’s my mirror. Fickle as me. Crazy as me. Deep currents, and monsters rise from her depths, too. What others call sea spray, I call her spitting in my face, friendly like. Unlike most of this lot, I can swim. I just don’t like it. Ceres and me do our admiring best at a bit of a distance.
She must be ragging something fierce.
The shark she’s sent after me is a tiger shark. Good hunters. Fast. Curious as a crotch-sniffing hound. Mad as a starving lotus eater. Usually twice as long as a man is tall. But the sea’s shown me respect, as she ought. My shark’s bigger. Three times as long as I am tall, looks like. Hard to tell through the water, of course. Don’t want to exaggerate. Hate exaggerators. Fucking hate ’em.
I’m Gunner, and I give it straight.
The scraps and shrapnel lines and barrels of the shipwreck litter the sapphire waters everywhere, but that tiger’s coming back. Depending how tenacious she is, it’ll take me a few minutes to swim to an appropriately sized—
“Oy, Ceres!” I shout as a thought occurs to me. “I know why you’re mad!” Not many people know it, but the Cerulean Sea is named for Ceres. Not for the color. Those tits and twits at the Chromeria think everything revolves around them and their colors.
The tiger shark is circling me, dorsal fin cutting beautiful arcs on the open water. I’m on the edge of the wreckage. I got out first, saw that the fires were headed for the powder magazine. But being on the edge means that shark don’t have to go through the distraction of all the other meat to get to me.
“Ceres! Easy, Ceres. Come on now!”
I turn constantly, keeping my face to the beastie. Sharks are cowards—like to pull you down from behind. These big bastards float along with these tiny little moves, like soaring buzzards, making you think they’re ponderous, but when they strike, their speed is pants-drenching. The wedge-shaped head circles a bit closer, veers. And… now!
Gunner is the master of timing. None finer. Got to be when the seas are bucking under your feet and the linstock is in hand, slow match smoking, breathing burning saltpeter and lye in your face like a lover’s breath, and a corvette is pulling to broadside and if your chain shot doesn’t take her mast this time, she’s going to sink you and geld you and sell you as a galley slave after you’ve been made a bung boy for every man on deck with a grudge and a hunger.
I kick, stabbing one foot hardened to leather and bone by a life barefoot right at the tiger shark’s nose. I see a flash of the milky membrane over its eyes as I’m thrown, almost lifted out of the water by the force of its strike.
The shark shivers, stunned. Sensitive nose, my father told me. Looks like he told me right.
Gunner ain’t no easy meat.
“Ceres! You think I did this? I didn’t! It was the Prism! Gavin Guile! That damn boy blew up the ship, not me. Go get him, you dumb broad!” Ceres hates it when you dirty her face with exploded ship, and I’ve done that more than a time or three.
The shark recovers, darts away. For one second, I think I’m safe, that Ceres is going to be reasonable. There’s other meat out there. Then the shark turns, starts swimming back.
This is grudge. This is Ceres herself. And she’s used to crushing those who defy her by sheer brute force.
“Ceres! Don’t do this!”
I got a pistol still. Lost my musket when it blew up in my hands during the fight with the Prism and his Blackguards—which is infuriating, impossible, I’ve never double-charged a musket in my life. But that’s something to worry about later. The pistol might even still work, despite my plunge into the water. I’ve been trying to make a pistol that’s proof against Ceres’s spit for years. Nothing’s worked against a full plunge, though, and shooting into the water is a fool’s game anyway. Ceres’s sea skin shields her kin. So I pull my knife instead, its blade three hands long.
“Damn you, Ceres. I said I was sorry!” Sea demons are Ceres’s sons. I killed one, years back. She hain’t forgiven me yet. Won’t, until I sacrifice something surreptitiously special.
The tiger shark comes straight at me. No subtlety, and I got her timing now.
She strikes, and my heels collide with her soft nose one more time. This time, I absorb some of the blow in my knees, still giving the beast a good shock, but not letting myself be thrown so far. I stab for the eye, miss, and bury the knife in its gills. Pull it out with a crimson gush following the blade like fire from a cannon’s throat.
A mortal blow, but not a fast death. Damn. Meant it to be quick.
The wound stains the water in the high sun, and the tiger shark veers away. I swim like a furious goddess is on my heels. I get to the dinghy just as some younger tiger sharks arrive. They’re shorter than Ceres’s hellhound, their stripes more pronounced.
It’s a miracle the dinghy survived—a miracle only slightly tainted by the fact that there’s no goddam oars. I stand up, wide-legged, see that there are other men swimming for the dinghy. The first is a Parian with something shy of six teeth. His name is Conner, and for good reason.
That damned shovel head has got his grubby paws on two oars. He don’t look pleased to see that I’m in the dinghy already.
“You look wet,” I says. I got no oars, but I’m not swimming with sharks. And sharks don’t eat oars.
“First mate,” Conner says. “You’re captain. And we need us a crew. Take it or leave it. The winds and waves aren’t like to blow you to shore from here.”
He’s quick. Always hated that about Conner. Dangerous one, he is. Still, how good of a con man can he be? He let hisself get daubbed Conner.
“Hand me the oars then, First Mate, so I can help you up,” I says.
“Go to hell.”
“That was an order,” Gunner says.
“Go to hell,” Conner says, louder, heedless of the tigers.
I give in. I never give in.
Conner insists on holding the oars as I pull him in the dinghy—which is good. It keeps his hands busy while I stick my knife through his back, pinning him to the gunwale.
Even as the men watching from the water curse, surprised at the sudden betrayal, I pry the oars from Conner’s fingers. He’s dead already, hands convulsed, locked tight. I have to use the butt of my pistol to smash his grip open and drop the oars into the dinghy.
I stand easily despite the dinghy bobbing like a cork in the waves. I hold my pistol, waving it carelessly as I address the swimming, desperate men who’ve just seen me murder Conner.
“I am Gunner!” I shout, more to Ceres than to the men in the water. “I have done what satraps and Prisms only dream. I am cannoneer of the legendary Aved Barayah! I am sea demon slayer! Shark killer! Pirate! Rogue! And now, I am captain. Captain Gunner is on the look for a crew,” I say, finally turning to the men swimming, scared, surrounded by sharks. I rip my knife free of the gunwale and Conner’s body drops into the hungry sea. “Must be willing to take orders!”
“I hope you got your rest, little Guile,” a short, thick Blackguard woman named Samite said. She was stationed with him near the back of their column of Blackguards. The galleass had just arrived at Big Jasper this morning, and the Blackguards were the first off. “It’s going to be a long day for you.”
Rest? Kip had been trying to figure out how to conceal his big secret, his inheritance, the last and only gift his mother had ever given him. He had a large, ornate jeweled white dagger that no one knew about, and he had a large, ornate polished dagger box. He could put the dagger in the dagger box, of course, but some paranoid corner of his brain was certain that the first thing a person would ask when they saw the box was if he would open it.
How could he say no?
So late into the night, he’d sat in his little bunk in the darkness, trying not to wake the Blackguards sleeping in the other bunks. He’d found twine and he tied the dagger to his back, a process that took a good ten minutes with his bandaged hand. Its point hung down to his butt, under his clothes, held in place by his belt.
It wasn’t a great solution, but it was the best he could come up with. After his night, a long day was just what he needed now. Still, he mustered a rueful smile for Samite. She was nice, despite her crooked, oft-broken nose and prominently missing front tooth. She was short and solid as a seawall.
They were some of the last to join the column, and once formed up, the Blackguards set off at a slow jog.
Kip thought that he wouldn’t be quite as awestruck the second time he saw the Chromeria. He was wrong. He was still awed even by Big Jasper Island, which was entirely covered by a city. The city was all multicolored domes on top of whitewashed square buildings. Every intersection was adorned with a tower at the top of which hung a mirror, polished and geared so that the mirror could direct sunlight or even moonlight into any part of the city. The Thousand Stars, they called them. The streets were laid out in straight lines with mathematical precision so as to cut off as few beams of light as possible.
Seeing him studying the structures, Samite said, “There is no darkness on Big Jasper, they like to say.” She grinned her gap-toothed grin. “Not literally true, but more true here than anywhere else in the world.”
Kip nodded, saving his air for the jogging. In simply looking over at her for an instant, he almost collided with a black-robed luxiat.
The streets were packed with thousands of people—not for market day or any particular holy day, Kip realized. This was normal for Big Jasper. And the people themselves came from every arc of the Seven Satrapies. Red-haired pale savages from deep within the Blood Forest to woolen-doublet-wearing midnight Ilytians, light-skinned Ruthgari in their wide straw hats to shield them from the sun, Abornean men and women virtually indistinguishable from each other in their layers of silks and earrings.
But regardless of their lineage, the people on the streets had one thing in common: their awe for the Blackguards with whom Kip was jogging. People got out of the way for them, and the Blackguards took it as their due.
At first, Kip tried not to look too conspicuously out of place among all the hard-muscled physiques around him, but soon he was just trying to keep up.
“Don’t worry,” Samite said. Infuriatingly, despite her own body being nearly as wide as it was tall, she wasn’t even breathing hard. “If you can’t keep up, we have orders to carry you.”
Carry me? The mortification of the mental image was enough to keep Kip going. Plus, if they carried him, they’d discover the dagger.
Finally they crossed the Lily’s Stem, the transparent blue-and-yellow-luxin-covered bridge between Little Jasper Island and Big Jasper Island.
Ironfist gave some sort of signal that Kip didn’t see as the Blackguards came into the great yard between the six outer towers of the Chromeria, and the troop disappeared in half a dozen different directions. Kip leaned over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his wind. He flinched, bit back a curse, and took his weight off his left hand.
“Concealed weapons are most useful if you can draw them on short notice,” Samite said.
Kip stood up abruptly. Of course. Leaning forward had pressed the outline of the dagger against his clothes, and because of their work, of all people, Blackguards would be the best at noticing concealed weapons.
Excellent, Kip. Outstanding. You couldn’t even hide the dagger for one hour.
Still, she said nothing further.
Kip looked after the departing Blackguards. Ironfist was gone, too. “Uh, what am I supposed to do?” he asked Samite.
“I’ll take you to your new quarters, and then to your lectures.”
Kip’s stomach dropped. A class full of people who all knew each other and would stare at him when he came in. He’d be dropped into the middle of some subject he knew nothing about, and he’d look stupid. He swallowed.
I’ve seen a sea demon, faced color wights, been in battle, and killed… and I’m nervous about being the new boy. Kip grimaced, but it still didn’t make him feel any better.
He followed Samite up into the central tower, up one of the counterweighted lifts. “You get the layout before?” she asked.
“The commander took me straight to the Threshing. Not really.”
“We don’t have time today, sadly. I like watching the fresh meat gawk.” She grinned, but it was friendly. “In short, each tower houses its own color of drafters and most of the training facilities for them, though everyone shares some barracks, some offices, some storerooms, some libraries. At the base of each tower there are more specialized functions: under the blue tower are the smelters and glass furnaces, under the green are gardens and menageries, under the red is the mirth hall and conservatories, under the yellow is the infirmary and discipline areas, under sub-red are the kitchens and the stockyards, under the Prism’s Tower is the great hall. Got it?”
He hoped she was joking. He smiled uncertainly as they stepped out into an empty level, not far up. She walked him down the hall and opened an oak door to a barracks. “Find an empty bed,” she said.
There was no one inside, empty pallets stretching from wall to wall. At the foot of each one was a chest for personal items.
“Please tell me there isn’t some kind of pecking order for who gets what bed,” Kip said.
“There isn’t some kind of pecking order for who gets what bed,” she said in a monotone.
“You’re lying?” he asked.
“What’s the worst bed in the room?”
“In the back. Farthest from the door.”
Kip began walking to the last bed when he realized something. He stopped. “I don’t really have any stuff.” He only had a cloak, the ornate knife box, and the knife.
Samite cleared her throat.
“You’re not going to class armed.”
“We’ll also be taking you to the tailors to get you Chromeria garb.”
What was he supposed to do? Leave a priceless dagger in a barracks? Samite only knew that he had a knife. They’d just left a war zone, so that was no surprise. But if he showed it to her, she’d surely report it. He had to make it uninteresting even to her.
“I’m going to, um, have to take off my shirt to get my knife off. Can, uh, you turn your back?” Kip asked.
She turned her back, without even making any cracks or grinning.
Kip moved quickly to his pallet and stripped off his shirt and untied the dagger. He pulled the shirt back on and folded his cloak clumsily. He opened the chest. Inside was a thin, folded blanket. Kip set the cloak and the dagger box into his chest, and put the chest at the foot of the bed.
“Done yet?” Samite asked.
“Um, no! Just a minute.”
Kip looked over the beds. There were maybe sixty pallets in the room. The unoccupied beds—those nearest Kip—were unmade and had the chest underneath them. The occupied beds were made and had the chest at the foot.
There were no hiding places, just as there was no privacy.
Kip tucked the dagger under the mattress. He made the bed quickly, trying to smooth out the wrinkles so the lump wasn’t obvious. Then he started walking back toward Samite.
“So you know,” Samite said, “best way to get something stolen is to hide it under your mattress. It’s where the bullies and thieves always look first.”
I’m terrible at this! I should have told my father about the dagger. Even if he took it away from me, that would have been better than having some sixteen-year-old butt fungus steal it. Damn it, mother, couldn’t you have given me a locket?
Kip went back to his pallet, grabbed the dagger, and looked around. He walked down five rows to one of the unoccupied pallets, opened the chest under that bed, and tucked the knife under the blanket. Better than nothing. He slid the chest back under the bed, grimacing.
“Fantastic,” he said. “What’s next?”
Next was the tailors’, where Kip had to strip down for the fitting. The tailors were women. One of them was attractive, and as she knelt in front of him standing in his underwear, he could see straight down her cleavage. He spent the next half hour staring at the ceiling and praying. And just when Kip was finally leaving, thanking Orholam that his body hadn’t done anything to mortify him, the other woman cleared her throat and handed him an extra pair of clean underwear. “You can wash them once in a while,” she said conspiratorially. “And your armpits, too.”
He almost died.
They made him go sponge bathe—he angrily waved off the slave who tried to help him—and change into his new white tunic and new white pants, and new underwear, and a tower slave took his clothes to the barracks. Then they went and registered with some official who made Kip sign his name on a bunch of forms, and then Samite took him to the dining hall where he was allowed a very small and very fast lunch, and then she showed him where the toilets were on each level of the towers.
And then she took him to his first class. “I can come inside or I can wait outside. Your choice,” she said.
“Outside. Please, outside.” He was already embarrassed enough that he had a bodyguard. He looked into the lecture hall, trying to hide his nerves, while other students streamed past him. He was hungry. What wouldn’t he give for a pie right now. He asked, “Anything I should, uh, know?”
“You’re expected not to know anything.”
Ah, then I might even exceed expectations.
“Every time you draft, you’re hastening your death,” Magister Kadah said. She wasn’t yet middle-aged, but she already seemed wizened, mousy, with hunched shoulders, hair that hadn’t seen a brush or a pick in weeks, green spectacles on a gold chain around her neck, and a thin switch of green luxin in her hand. “Your death doesn’t matter, but depriving your satrap of an expensive tool does. Your death doesn’t matter, but depriving your community of what it needs to survive does. We who draft are slaves. Slaves to Orholam, to light, to the Prism, the satraps, and our cities.”
Cheery sort. Kip tried to keep his expression neutral as he sat in on his first class at the Chromeria.
“Lies first, lessons later,” a boy said behind Kip.
“What?” Kip asked. He looked over his shoulder. The boy was, oddly, wearing clear spectacles with thick black mahogany frames in front of thicker black brows. The lenses made one eye look bigger than the other. But more intriguing than his Ruthgari looks—curly light brown hair, small nose, tan skin, brown eyes—were the mechanical spectacles themselves. Two colored lenses, one yellow, one blue, rested on hinges, ready to be clicked down over the clear lenses at a moment’s notice.
The boy grinned, seeing Kip’s stare. “My own design,” he said.
“It’s genius. I’ve never—”
Something struck Kip’s desk with a sound like a musket shot. Kip almost jumped out of his skin. He looked at the green luxin switch in the magister’s hand. She’d slammed it across his desk, missing his fingertips by a thumb’s width.
“Master Guile,” she said.
She let the words sit in the air, announcing to anyone in the class who hadn’t known who he was that he was indeed a Guile, and she knew it.
Next she proves she doesn’t care.
“Do you think you’re better than the rest of the class, Master Guile?”
The temptation was strong, but Kip had his orders. He was to do well in his classes. Getting kicked out of them would not help him achieve that. “No, Magister,” he said. He thought he even made it sound sincere.
She wasn’t an imposing figure, neither tall nor wide, but she loomed over Kip’s seat. He leaned as far away as his seat allowed. “Do we understand each other, young man?” she asked.
It was an odd way to put it, since she hadn’t made any explicit threat, but she didn’t have to. “Yes, Magister,” Kip said.
“Discipulae, I’m sure you’ve noticed your new classmate.” The way she said it made it unclear whether or not she was referring to Kip being fat. There were a few nervous titters. “His name is Kit Guile and—”
“Kip,” Kip interjected. “Not a woody tub for toys, a tubby wooden boy.” He knew it was a mistake as soon as the words were halfway out of his mouth.
“Ah. Thank you. I’d forgotten that gutter Tyrean has its own definitions for words. Put out your hand, Kip.”
He extended his hand, not quite guessing why he needed to do so until she cracked the green switch across his knuckles.
It yanked his breath away.
“Don’t ever interrupt a magister, Kip. Even if you are a Guile.”
He looked down at his knuckles, fully expecting them to be bloody. They weren’t. She knew exactly how hard she could hit with that thing. At least she’d hit the knuckles of his right hand. His raw left hand would have been far worse.
Magister Kadah turned and walked back toward the front of the room, muttering, “Kip. Ridiculous name. But then what can one expect an illiterate slattern to name her bastard?”
It was a trap. Kip knew it was a trap. It yawned open right in front of his feet. She hates you and she has a plan, Kip. Just keep your mouth shut, Kip.
He raised his hand. It was the best compromise his brain could negotiate with his mouth.
She didn’t call on him. He kept his left hand up. Wrapped in white bandages, it was impossible to miss. It might have looked like a flag of surrender, if it weren’t so patently a rebellion.
“As you all should remember from yesterday’s lecture, drafting is the process of turning light into a physical substance, luxin.” She saw that Kip’s hand was still up, and her mouth tightened momentarily, but she ignored him. “Each color of light can be transformed into a different color of luxin, each of which has its own smell, weight, solidity, strength.”
Orholam’s beard, this? They were this far back? What a waste of—
“Kip, are we wasting your time?” she asked sharply. “Are we boring you?”
Trap, Kip. Don’t do it, Kip.
“No, my eyes glaze over like this all the time. Comes from having a mother who was always smoking haze.”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“I have this condition,” Kip said. Stop it, Kip. Stop. “See, I’m not just fat, I’m also slow—you know, mentally—so when I get fixated on one thing, I’m not able to go on to the next subject until all my questions are answered. Maybe I’m not advanced enough for this class. Maybe I should be moved elsewhere.”
“I do see,” she said. He knew she wasn’t going to let him go to another class. He didn’t even know if there was another class. “Well, Master Guile, this is a novice class, and we pride ourselves on not leaving behind even the slowest cattle in the herd, and obviously, you really want to say something, don’t you?”
“Yes, Magister.” He hated her. He barely knew her, and he wanted to beat her ugly face in.
She smiled. It was a deeply unpleasant smile. Small woman, so pleased to be the mistress of her domain, so proud to bully a class full of children. “Then I’ll make you a deal, Kip: you say whatever you want, but if I find it impertinent, I’ll smack your knuckles again. You see, class, this will be a nice object lesson. An analogue for drafting—there’s always a price, and you have to decide if you are willing to pay it. So, Kip?”
“You called my mother illiterate, and that’s about as true as me calling you a decent human being.” Kip’s heart was welling up, blocking his throat. “My mother sold her soul to haze. She lied and cheated and stole, I think she even whored herself a few times, but she wasn’t illiterate. So if you’re going to slander my mother to make me look pathetic, there’s plenty of true things you can say. But that is not one of them.” You bitch.
The class goggled at Kip. He didn’t know if he’d just defanged a hundred rumors, or spawned them. Maybe both, but he’d kept a level tone, and he hadn’t called his magister a liar or worse. It was sort of a victory. Sort of.
“Are you quite finished?” the magister asked.
And now the price of the victory. “Yes,” Kip said.
He put his hand on the desk for her to smack—his left hand, wrapped in bandages.
Stupid, Kip. You’re just daring her. Asking for it.
Crack! Kip jumped as the switch slammed into the table so hard it made the surface jump—just two thumbs away from his hand.
“Class, sometimes with drafting as with life, you don’t have to pay the price for misbehaving,” Magister Kadah said. “Especially if you’re a Guile. Kip, I don’t like your attitude,” she said. “Go wait in the hall.”
Kip stood and walked out into the hall, followed by twenty pairs of eyes. His fellow students were from all over the Seven Satrapies: dark-skinned Parians, the girls with hair free, the boys wearing ghotras; olive-skinned Atashians with sapphire-bright eyes; and lots of Ruthgari, small-nosed, thin-lipped, and lighter-skinned, one even a blonde. Kip was the only Tyrean, though he looked more mutt than anything: hair kinky like a Parian, but without the lean, fluid build; eyes blue like an Atashian, but skin darker than their olive complexions, nose not prominent. He even had a few freckles visible through his skin like he was part Blood Forester.
“They’ll hate you for me,” his father had told him. Then that lopsided, winsome Guile grin had struck. “But don’t worry, eventually they’ll hate you for you, too.”
It was his first day, so Kip was guessing he was being hated for Gavin Guile this time.
Samite was gone when he got out into the hall. Kip supposed the Blackguards worked on shifts. She’d probably thought he could get through one lecture without getting in trouble.
Go ahead, he thought as he sat on the floor in the Chromeria’s hall, feel sorry for yourself. You’ve been acknowledged as a bastard of the most powerful man in the world. He saved your life many times, and he gave you the choice. You could have entered the Chromeria anonymously. You chose this.
Kip had thought he’d have at least one friend here, though. Liv had been here—until Garriston. She’d been nice to him, though she saw him as a little brother. But now she was gone, fighting for the Color Prince, choosing to believe comforting lies. Kip hated her for that, despised her for seeking the easy way out—but most of all he missed her.
He sat close to the door, trying to overhear Magister Kadah’s lecture, trying to think about magic so he didn’t think about anything else. The magister was saying something about the properties of green luxin? He thought about trying to draft some right here in the hall. It would be a bad idea, though. Green made you wild, made you disregard authority. Now would be a bad time for that. He smiled, though, thinking about it.
“Are you Kip?” a voice intruded, breaking Kip out of his fantasy. The speaker was a tiny, clean-shaven, very dark Parian man in a starched headscarf and a slave’s robe of fine cotton.
“Uh, yes.” Kip stood and the ball of dread that dropped into his stomach told him who’d sent the slave.
The man eyed him for long moments, clearly judging him, but not letting the verdict show in his face. Andross Guile’s head slave and right hand was named Grinwoody, Gavin had told Kip. Grinwoody said, “Luxlord Guile requires your presence.”
Luxlord Guile, as in Andross Guile, one of the richest men in the world, with estates throughout Ruthgar, Blood Forest, and Paria. On the ruling council known as the Spectrum, he was the Red. Father of two Prisms, Gavin and the rebel who’d almost destroyed the world, Dazen. Andross Guile was, Kip thought, the only man in the world Gavin Guile feared.
And Kip was a bastard, a blot on the family honor. Felia Guile, Kip’s grandmother and the only person who could massage Andross Guile’s tyranny, was now dead.
But before Kip ran face first into that wall, he had another problem. He couldn’t leave the hall without giving Magister Kadah fresh reasons to hate him, and he couldn’t show Andross Guile disrespect by making him wait.
“Uh, will you tell my magister that I’ve been summoned?” Kip asked.
Grinwoody looked at him, expressionless.
Kip felt foolish. Like he couldn’t take one step, poke his head in the door himself, and say, “I’ve been summoned.” He opened his mouth to explain himself, remembered Gavin’s orders: Remember who you are.
He was going to apologize, or say please, but he stopped himself.
After another moment of weighing Kip, Grinwoody acquiesced. He rapped on the door and stepped into the classroom. “Luxlord Guile requires Kip’s presence.”
He didn’t give Magister Kadah a chance to respond, though Kip would have given his left eye to see the expression on her face. Grinwoody was a slave, but a slave authorized to do his duty by one of the most powerful men in the world. Nothing the magister said mattered. Grinwoody was a man who remembered who he was.
The real question was, who was Kip? Grinwoody had referred to him only by his first name. It hadn’t been, ‘Luxlord Guile requires his grandson.’
What had Gavin said? ‘We’ll count it a victory if you avoid wetting yourself’?
Kip cleared his throat. “Uh, you mind if we stop by the privies on the way?”
Gavin smiled as he stepped off the skimmer onto Seers Island. Karris had her ataghan drawn, and was pointing her pistol at the nearest man.
The people stood in an unruly mob, but they were armed with swords and muskets, makeshift spears. There were few commonalities between them: they had come from all seven satrapies, light-skinned and dark, dirty and clean, dressed in silk and wool. Several had an extra eye drawn on their forehead with coal. Though even among those, some had exquisitely drawn, others rough, lopsided.
What these men and women had in common was only this: each one had the religious devotion to cross reefs in a small outrigger canoe to get here, and every one of them was a drafter.
A woman stepped through the crowd. She was little, barely taller than Gavin’s waist, arms and legs short, her trunk the size a woman of average height would have. She had a flaring eye tattooed exquisitely on her forehead.
“You will not draft here,” she said.
“I’ll decide that,” Gavin said.
Instead of looking irritated, she smiled. “It is as foretold.”
Seers. Excellent. “Someone foretold that I’d say that?” Gavin asked.
“No, that you’d be an asshole.”
Gavin laughed. “I think I’m going to like this place.”
“You’ll come with us,” she said.
“Sure,” Gavin said.
“It wasn’t a request.”
“Yes it was,” Gavin said. “When you don’t have power to compel obedience, by definition you’re making a request. What’s your name?”
“Caelia. When I tire, you’ll carry me,” she said, unimpressed.
The sound of a cocking hammer interrupted them. Karris pointed her pistol straight at Caelia’s third-eye tattoo. There was a rattle as the other men pointed their muskets at Karris, cocked them.
“Try anything,” Karris said, “and I’ll hollow out your skull.”
“The White Blackguard. We were told you’d be forceful.”
Karris uncocked her pistol and tucked it away, sheathed her sword.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Gavin said. “Who are you taking me to see, and how far away is she?” The “she” was a guess. He knew little about the Seers’ religious belief, indeed, he thought there was no unified belief here, but when faced with biological facts, cultures had to make their own interpretations. Female drafters tended to draft more successfully because more of them could see colors more accurately, and they tended to live longer than male drafters. Those cultures that had decided this meant Orholam favored women didn’t like it being assumed that they would be led by a man.
“The Third Eye resides at the base of Mount Inura.”
Gavin pointed to the tallest mountain. It was green, not so tall that it had a tree line, but still quite a walk. “What is that, a five-hour walk from here?”
“Don’t suppose you have horses?” Gavin asked.
“We have some few horses, but one walks when one goes to see the Third Eye. It is a pilgrimage. It gives one time to reflect and prepare the soul for the meeting.”
“Uh-huh. Well, when the Third Eye comes to see me, she can ride. I want her to be in the right frame of mind.”
Caelia appeared to be chewing on the insides of her cheeks. “So it was foretold.”
“She foretold I wouldn’t come?” Gavin asked.
“No, still the asshole part.” Her men chuckled.
“If it helps, I’m not being capricious. I’ve work to do. I’ll be here, doing it.”
Caelia looked around at the two hundred armed men who surrounded Gavin and Karris. “I could insist, you know. These men are not just armed, they are drafters, too.”
“I’m the Prism,” Gavin said, like she just wasn’t getting it. “Do you think two hundred men can keep me from doing what I Will?”
Caelia hesitated. “I think you seek out conflict needlessly.”
“Hear, hear,” Karris said under her breath.
Sometimes Gavin thought the world was full of morons. Power could be a knife, but often it had to be a bludgeon. A man like Commander Ironfist could speak gently, because simply by standing he overawed other men with his physical presence. Gavin had to draw lines and enforce them, because he didn’t trust others to do it for him. He had to do it because if others were allowed to start basing their decisions on the assumption that he was weak, it would take blunt force to get them to change their minds. Deterrence is cheaper than correction.
But what he’d said about Will wasn’t thrown in heedlessly. Drafters always imposed their will on the world. The most powerful drafters always included more than their share of madmen, bastards, divas, and assholes. And because everything depended on them, they were tolerated. Gavin most of all.
But the more power you have, the harder it is to recognize what’s beyond your power.
And there was a pleasure in seeing others do what you want. Gavin felt it now as Caelia gave orders, rounding up her men and leaving. He could tell himself that it was important to establish the power dynamic because of what he had to do, and to prepare the Seers for the bitter pill that they were going to have to swallow. That was true, but he had to watch himself, too.
Before they were even gone, Gavin headed back down the beach. He’d left the skimmer sealed.
“We have one week,” he told Karris. “This bay is too wide, so we’ll need to build seawalls off that point and from there to there. I’m going to have to clear out the reefs. I’m thinking of clearing them in a zigzag pattern so that if an invading navy comes here, they’ll be destroyed, but we’ll have marked the safe way so that the locals can direct traffic. Buoys that can be moved? I also haven’t decided how wide the safe path should be. If it’s too narrow, you keep supplies from getting into the city and it simply becomes too expensive for many people to live here, but too open and the reefs no longer serve as a deterrent. So your thoughts are more than welcome. Other than that, I’ll need your help prioritizing what things I need to build to give my people a running start. Do we clear the jungle—and if so, how? Do we need to build a wall against the native animals, against the native people? Should we try to build any houses, or would that be too much work?”
Karris was just looking at him. “You know, every time I think I know you… You’re really doing this, aren’t you? You’re founding a city. Not just a village. You’re planning for it to be a major center.”
“Not during my life.” Gavin smiled.
“You know, if you keep changing everything you touch, nothing’s going to be the same five years from now.”
Five years. It was supposed to be the remainder of his term as Prism. But he was already dying, and pretty soon Karris would notice. “No,” he said, “I hope it’s not.”
Five years, and five great purposes left. Except now he only had one year.
The only thing this place needs to make it creepier is cobwebs blowing in the wind. Kip stared into the pitch black of Lord Andross Guile’s room with something less than glee.
“You’re letting in light,” Grinwoody said. “Are you trying to kill my lord?”
“No, no, I’m—” I’m always apologizing. “I’m coming in.” He stepped forward, through several layers of heavy tapestries that blocked light from the room.
The air inside the room was stale, still, hot. It reeked of old man. And it was impossibly dark. Kip began sweating instantly.
“Come here,” a raspy voice said. It was low, gravelly, like Lord Guile hadn’t spoken all day.
Kip moved forward with little steps, sure he’d trip and disgrace himself. It was like a dragon’s den.
Something touched his face. He flinched. Not a cobweb, a feathery light touch. Kip stopped. He had somehow expected Andross Guile to be an invalid, seated in a wheeled chair perhaps, like a dark mirror of the White. But this man was standing.
The hand was firm, though with few calluses. It traced Kip’s chubby face, felt the texture of his hair, the curve of his nose, pressed his lips, went against the grain of Kip’s incipient beard. Kip winced, terribly aware of the pimples he had where his beard was coming in.
“So you’re the bastard,” Andross Guile said.
“Yes, my lord.”
Out of nowhere, something nearly tore Kip’s head off. He crashed into the wall so hard he would have broken something if it hadn’t been covered in layers of tapestries, too. He fell to the carpeted floor, his cheek burning, ears ringing.
“That was for existing. Never shame this family again.”
Kip stood unsteadily, too surprised to even be angry. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, but a blow out of the darkness hadn’t been it. “My apologies for being born, my lord.”
“You have no idea.”
There was silence. The darkness was oppressive. Whatever you do, Gavin had said, don’t make him an enemy. Could it get any hotter in here?
“Get out,” Andross Guile said finally. “Get out now.”
Kip left, having the distinct feeling that he’d failed.
The Color Prince was rubbing his temples. Liv Danavis couldn’t take her eyes off of him. No one could. The man was practically carved of pure luxin. Blue plates covered his forearms, made spiky gauntlets for his fists. Woven blue luxin made up much of his skin, with yellow flowing in rivers beneath the surface, constantly replenishing the rest. Flexible green luxin made up his joints. Only his face was human, and barely at that. His skin was knotted with burn scars, and his eyes—halos so broken as to be absent—were a swirl of every color, not just his irises, but the whites as well. Right now, those sclera swirled blue, then yellow as he sat on the great chair in the audience chamber of the Travertine Palace, deciding how to split up the city he’d just conquered—and found nearly empty.
“I want the twelve lords of the air to oversee redistribution of the city. Lord Shayam will preside. First, the plunder. Those who fled Garriston took almost nothing with them—it’s all here. Some of it will travel with the army, but the rest shouldn’t be left to rot. Sell what can be sold, and distribute the rest in the most equitable way possible among the remaining Garristonians. The twelve lords are to decide who among the new settlers will be given leases to which properties. The richer areas and homes will require a fee up front; the poorer will be allowed six months before they begin paying.
“Lady Selene,” he said, turning to a blue/green bichrome who hadn’t yet broken the halo. She was Tyrean, with wavy dark hair and a dusky complexion, striking but odd, eyes too far apart, small mouth. She curtsied. “You’re in charge of all the greens until we leave the city. Six weeks. In that time, I expect you to dredge the key irrigation canals and repair the locks on the river. I want this city to flower next spring. The first rains of autumn may come any day. Consult with Lord Shayam. New plants will need to be brought in, perhaps soil as well. Do what you can with the labor provided in the time we have.”
Lady Selene curtsied deeply and left immediately.
And on it went, all morning. Liv sat among five advisers to the Color Prince’s left. Other than those advisers, no one else was allowed into the great hall. The prince wanted few people to see the entirety of his plans. Why Liv was one of the privileged few, she had no idea. She was the daughter of General Corvan Danavis, and the Color Prince had made no secret of the fact that he hoped he could recruit Gavin’s old enemy to his side, but Liv thought it was more than that. She’d switched sides before the Battle of Garriston, even fighting for the army trying to reclaim the city—but she’d done it in return for the Color Prince saving her friends. She didn’t deserve this kind of trust.
But she did find the whole thing fascinating. Often, the prince would call forth a courtier to give him more information on some point. He cared nothing for previous laws, and little for how things had been done traditionally, but he showed a keen interest in commerce and trade and taxation and agriculture: all the things needed to provide for his people and his army.
Summoning his military commanders, he elevated one of his most talented young commanders to general, and then tasked him with securing Tyrea’s roads and rivers. He wanted trade to be able to flow unfettered up and down the whole of the Umber River, and bandits to be stamped out mercilessly.
In some ways, Liv knew, it was merely trading many bandits for one. The prince’s men would doubtless collect taxes just as the bandits charged passage fees. But if they did it fairly, and didn’t murder the farmers and traders for their goods, the country would still be better off, whatever you called it.
He set more greens and yellows to clear the river itself, under their own command. If the prince was a bad man, he was a bad man taking a long view, because even though Liv didn’t understand everything that he was ordering, it was clear to her that he was sacrificing a huge number of his drafters and fighting men for the benefit of Tyrea. In the long run, her cynical superviolet nature told her, that would benefit him. An army on the march doesn’t make its own food, and can’t always count on plunder to pay its men, so having a strong economic base would magnify his power later.
“Lord Arias,” the Color Prince said, “I want you to select a hundred of your priests, young enough to be zealous, old enough to have absorbed the basics, and send them out to every satrapy to spread the good news of the coming freedom. Concentrate on the cities. Send natives where possible. Let them know what kind of opposition they’ll face. Expect martyrs in Dazen’s cause, and begin preparing another wave of zealots. I want regular reports, and send handlers with them. We’ll contract the Order of the Broken Eye where persecution is too great, yes?”
Lord Arias bowed. He was Atashian, with his people’s typical bright blue eyes, olive skin, and a plaited, beaded beard. “My prince, how would you like us to proceed on Big Jasper and in the Chromeria itself?”
“The Chromeria you leave alone. Others will handle that. Big Jasper should be handled with utmost care. I want our people there to be more eyes and ears than mouths, you understand? Your best people only on Big Jasper. I want them to grumble in the taverns and the markets, or join those who are already grumbling, barely whispering that our cause might have some merit. Identify those with grievances whom we might recruit, but take greatest care. They’re not fools there. Expect the Chromeria to try to plant spies.”
“Will you authorize the Order there?” Lord Arias asked.
“The Order’s best people are already there or on their way there,” the prince said. “But I expect you to use them like a needle, not a cudgel, understood? If our operations are exposed too early, the whole enterprise is doomed. The fate of the revolution lies in your hands.”
Lord Arias stroked his beard, making the yellow beads click. “I believe I should base my own operations from Big Jasper, then.”
“And I’ll need financing.”
“Which, quite predictably, is where we run into problems. I can give you ten thousand danars. I know it’s a fraction of what you’ll need, but I have people who need to be fed. Be creative.”
“Fifteen thousand?” Lord Arias countered. “Simply buying a house on Big Jasper…”
“Make do. I’ll send more in three months if I can.”
Most of the rest of the day was more mundane: orders for how the army was to camp and where, money requests for food and new clothing and new shoes and new horses and new oxen, and money owed to smiths and miners and foreign lords and bankers who wanted their loans repaid. Others came asking to be authorized to press the locals and the camp followers into service clearing roads, putting out fires, and rebuilding bridges.
Alone out of the advisers, Liv was never asked to consult on anything. The bursar was consulted most often. She wore gigantic corrective lenses and carried a small abacus that she was constantly worrying. Or at least Liv thought she was merely nervously fidgeting with the abacus. After a while, as the woman gave a report about a dozen different ways the prince could structure his debts so as to maximize his own take, Liv realized the little woman was doing figures ceaselessly.
Finally, the prince asked one of the advisers to tell him what other business was waiting, and deemed that it could all keep until tomorrow. He dismissed the rest of his advisers and beckoned Liv to join him.
Together they walked upstairs and out onto the great balcony from his room.
“So, Aliviana Danavis, what did you see today?”
“My lord?” She shrugged. “I saw that governing is a lot more complicated than I ever would have imagined.”
“I did more for Garriston today—and more for Tyrea—than the Chromeria has done in sixteen years. Not that everyone will thank me for it. Forced labor to clean up the city won’t be popular, but it’s better than letting the goods rot or be taken away by looters and gangs.”
“Yes, my lord.”
He took out a thin zigarro of tobacco rolled inside a ratweed skin from a pocket in his cloak. He touched it to a finger full of sub-red to light it and inhaled deeply.
She looked at him curiously.
“My transition from flesh to luxin wasn’t perfect,” he said. “I’ve done better than anyone in centuries, but I still made mistakes. Painful mistakes. Of course, starting from a charred husk didn’t make things any easier.”
“What happened to you?” Liv asked.
“Some other time perhaps. I want you to think about the future, Aliviana. I want you to dream.” He looked out over the bay. It was clotted with garbage, the docks littered. He sighed. “This is the city we’ve taken. The jewel of the desert that the Chromeria did its best to destroy.”
“My father was trying to protect it,” Liv said.
“Your father’s a great man, and I have no doubt that’s exactly what he thought he was doing. But your father believed the Chromeria’s lies.”
“I think he was blackmailed,” Liv said, feeling hollow. The Prism she’d so admired had used Liv to blackmail her father into helping him. She didn’t even know how, but it was the only thing she could imagine had brought her father to fight for his sworn enemy.
“I hope that’s true.”
“What?” Liv asked.
“Because if so, it isn’t too late for him, and I’d love to have your father stand at our side. He’s a dangerous man. A good man. Brilliant. We’ll find out. But I’m afraid, Liv, that he’s been listening to their lies for so long that his whole system of understanding has been corrupted. He might see a few weeds on the surface and reject those, but if the soil itself is fouled, how can he see the truth? This is why the young are our hope.”
The sun was going down, and a fresh breeze had kicked up off the Cerulean Sea. The Color Prince took a deep drag on his zigarro and seemed to relish the redder light.
“Liv, I want you to think of a world without the Chromeria. A world where a woman can worship whichever god she sees fit. Where being a drafter isn’t a death sentence with a ten-year wait. A world in which an accident of birth doesn’t put fools on thrones, but where a man’s abilities and drive are all that determines his success. No lords but those whose nature establishes them. No slaves—at all. Slavery is the curse of the Chromeria. In our new world, a woman won’t be despised because she came from Tyrea—no, nor will it be a badge of honor. I’m not fighting to make Tyrea supreme. In our new world, it simply won’t matter. Your hair, your eyes, whatever it is that sets you apart will merely make you interesting. We will be a light to the world. We will open the Everdark Gates that Lucidonius closed and cut passes through the Sharazan Mountains. We will welcome all.
“In every village and every town, magic will be taught, and we’ll find that many, many more people have talents that can be used to better their lives and the lives of those around them. It won’t be in the corrupt hands of governors and satraps. As we learn, I think we’ll find that everyone, everyone, has been kissed by light. Someday everyone will draft. Think what geniuses of magic are out there even today—geniuses who could change the world! But right now, maybe they’re Tyrean, and they can’t afford to go to the Chromeria. They’re Parian, and the deya doesn’t like their family. They’re Ilytian, and they’re mired in superstition about magic being evil. Think of the fields that lie fallow. Think of children starving for the bread that they don’t have because they don’t have green drafters to fertilize the crops. The Chromeria has their blood on its hands—and none of them even realize it! It’s a quiet death, a slow poison. The Chromeria has drained the life from the satrapies one drop of blood at a time. That’s our fight, Aliviana. For a different future. And it won’t be easy. Too many people gain too much from the current corruption for them to give it up easily. And they’ll send the people to die for them. And it breaks my heart. They’ll sacrifice the very people we want to set free. But we’ll stop them. We’ll make sure they can’t do it again, that generations yet unborn receive a better world than the one we have.”
She hesitated. “Everything you’re saying sounds good, but the proof’s in the eating, isn’t it?” Liv said.
He smiled broadly. “Yes! This is what I want from you, Liv. Draft. Right now. Superviolet. And think. And tell me what you’re thinking. You won’t be punished. Regardless.”
She did, soaking up that alien, invisible light and letting it course through her, feeling it peel her away from her emotions to a hyperrationality, an almost disembodied intelligence. “You’re a practical man,” she said, her voice flat. Intonation seemed an unnecessary frill when you were in the grip of superviolet. “Perhaps a romantic, too. An odd combination. But you’ve been accomplishing tasks all day, and I wonder if I’m not merely the last on the list. I can’t tell if this is the prelude to a seduction or if you simply like the admiration of women.” Part of her was appalled at what she’d said—the presumption! But instead of yielding to her blushes, she huddled deeper in the superviolet’s dispassion.
Archly, the prince said, “Rare is the man who won’t swoon over women swooning over him.”
“So I’m trivially correct on the latter.” He enjoyed her attention, her growing awe, but he had barely touched her, even when he had excuses to do so. He didn’t lean toward her as they spoke. He was engaged intellectually but not bodily. “But this is no seduction.”
He didn’t look entirely pleased. “Alas, the fire that took so much else has denied me the simpler pleasures of the flesh. Not that I despise such. But no cavorting like a green for me.” Between the immobilization caused by the burn scars on his face and the immobilization of the luxins he was weaving into his skin, it was difficult to read any but the most overt expressions on his face, but she reminded herself that this didn’t mean he didn’t feel readily or deeply. His eyes swirled freely with colors, but Liv thought they, too, were only good indicators of his emotions when he felt something strongly. It made him something of a cipher.
Superviolet loved ciphers. Cracking ciphers.
“Do you know who I was?” the Color Prince asked.
“And I’m not going to tell you. Do you know why?”
“Because you don’t want me to know?” she hazarded.
“No. Because superviolets love digging up secrets. And if I don’t set you to work digging up something that doesn’t matter to me, you might be smart enough to dig up something I don’t want known.”
“Diabolical,” she said appreciatively.
Luxin shot out of him, slamming into her chest. She staggered, lost her grip on superviolet, and found something tight around her neck.
Kicking, Liv realized she’d been lifted off her feet. No, not just off her feet. She was suspended, off the edge of the balcony, held by a fist of luxin around her entire head. She grabbed at the fist, trying to pull herself up, trying to breathe, trying to loosen its grip—panicking, not even realizing that loosening its grip was the last thing she ought to want. If she fell from this height, she’d die. Her head felt hot, all the veins bulging, her eyes feeling like they’d explode.
The Color Prince’s eyes were stark red, glowing like coals. He blinked. Yellow flooded to the fore, and she felt herself swung back onto the balcony, released.
She fell, coughing.
“I… The Chromeria has demonized what we do,” the prince rasped. “Literally. They have made us into actual devils, and I won’t tolerate those who call good evil and evil good. I… reacted badly.”
Liv was shaking, and embarrassed of it. She thought she was going to cry, and was furious with herself for it. She was a Danavis. She was brave and strong and she would not break down like a little girl. She was a woman, seventeen years old. Old enough to have children of her own. She would not break down.
She stood and curtsied, wobbling only a little. “My apologies, my lord. I didn’t mean to offend.”
He looked out over the bay, putting his hands on the rail. He’d lost his zigarro. He lit another. “You needn’t be embarrassed of the trembling. It’s the body’s reaction. I’ve seen the most fearless veterans do the same. Your embarrassment of it makes it look like weakness. Ignore it. It passes.”
Painting a placid expression on her face as if it were the stark lines of kohl, Liv drafted superviolet. It helped. She folded her arms, as if against the evening chill but really to bury their shaking. “So, my lord?”
He cocked his head. “So?”
“So you have a plan for me.”
“Of course I do.”
“And you’re not going to tell me what it is.”
“Such a smart girl. I’m going to assign you a tutor to answer almost every one of your questions.”
“Except for that one?”
He grinned. “There will be other omissions as well.”
“Who is this tutor?”
“You’ll know when you see him. Now go. I have grimmer tasks to accomplish before the light dies.”
Ironfist was standing outside Andross Guile’s chambers when Kip came out. As ever, he was huge and intimidating, but Kip was getting to know the commander of the Blackguard, and the look on Ironfist’s face was more curious than anything else.
“I’ve seen satraps come out of that room looking worse,” Ironfist said.
“Really?” Kip asked. He felt destroyed.
“No. I was trying to cheer you up.” Ironfist started down the hall, and Kip fell in step beside him. “Kip, I’m inviting you to train for the Blackguard.”
Oh, right. Because my father demanded it. Not on my own merits.
Kip thought he’d only thought those words, but by the time he said “merits,” he realized he’d stepped in a big pile of his tongue once again.
Ironfist stopped cold. Turned to Kip, glowering, threatening. “You were eavesdropping?” Ironfist asked.
Kip swallowed. Nodded. I didn’t mean to!
But this time the words didn’t weasel their way past his lips. Excuses dried up in the blast furnace of Ironfist’s disapproval.
“Then you know I have to induct you at the end. It’s up to you how much of an embarrassment you want to make that for both of us.”
It was like someone had put a great chain around Kip’s chest, dropped him in the sea, and told him to swim home. Ironfist headed off once again, and didn’t pause or slow as they left the Prism’s Tower and crossed the great yard between the seven great towers of the Chromeria to a broad staircase that disappeared into the ground.
As they descended, Kip got a notion of just how massive the Chromeria was. It wasn’t merely the huge towers, the spindles that connected them in midair, and the great yard covered with thousands of people going about all the business of the Seven Satrapies. All of it extended below the ground as well, into a huge chamber. The ceiling was fully twenty paces above the floor. Each of the seven towers had its roots down here, and yet more entrances. Buildings and storehouses, barracks, inns, and even a few homes crowded the chamber, reaching in many places from floor to ceiling. Some were constructed of stone, others of luxin. Vibrant colors rioted everywhere, and though the whole area was underground, it was neither dark nor musty. Crystals scintillated in every color like torches, taking sunlight from above and splashing it liberally through the chamber. Great fans set in the ceiling at either side sucked in and blew out air, sending a constant slight breeze over the whole area. There was a great hall in the center, and exercise yards off to one side.
“Beginning of each new class, there’s a lottery. Some numbers are random, but legacies and those who finished just below the cut of the previous training class get to challenge in last. Big advantage. You fight for your spot, but you only have to fight three times. So if you choose spot ten, you might have to fight ten, eleven, and twelve. It’s only a starting point, though; it’s easy to move up in the coming weeks, and easier to move down. I can do this much for your father: you get to choose last. Don’t choose too high or you’ll pay for it in blood, but don’t go too low. We cut the bottom seven each month.”
Ironfist moved purposefully, unfazed by the subterranean splendor. Kip followed, tense. He was squeezing his burned hand. He consciously straightened it, grimaced against the pain. Soon he found himself standing with Ironfist in front of forty-nine young men and women. They were all dressed in loose tan shirts and pants. Everyone wore at least one armband with the color he drafted on his right or left arm. Though Kip knew that women outnumbered men in the Chromeria substantially, this class of potential Blackguards had only ten women.
Everyone was older than Kip, but still young. Kip would guess most were sixteen to eighteen years old. They each had a symbol affixed to their left breast in an old Parian script that Kip could mostly guess at. Numbers, he thought. It looked like they were lined up according to that number, seven lines of seven.
Among all the new things to look at, the thing that stuck out to Kip was the look in his new classmates’ eyes. They barely even noticed him; they were too busy watching Ironfist like he was a god. The class’s teacher hardly looked less impressed than the rest of them. He was a muscle-bound, short man, shaved bald and wearing a sleeveless black uniform that showed off massive biceps.
Ironfist gestured and the class melted, re-forming into a large circle in moments. It wasn’t flawless, as a few jostled to move from one place to another, but it was pretty impressive for what Kip knew had to be a fairly new class.
“Kip.” Ironfist gestured that Kip was to step into the circle.
Kip stepped in.
“This is Kip Guile. He’s joining the class. As you know, that means one of you scrubs will be leaving. The Blackguard is elite. We’ve no room for deadwood. So, Kip, choose. Fights are five minutes or until one combatant cries mercy or is knocked out. As at all testings, inflicting permanent damage on your opponent will result in your expulsion from this class.”
Kip knew he was going to lose. He barely understood the rules. The only fighting he’d done in his life had mostly been confined to flailing against Ramir, back in their village. And losing, always losing. His greatest skill was taking punishment.
“Do you have any questions, or are you ready to choose your place?” Ironfist asked.
“So if you lose, do you swap places with the person who beat you, or do you just move down one spot?”
“It’s not an arithmetic problem, Kip.”
But that was precisely what it was.
Ironfist grimaced. “You move down one,” he said.
Kip put on a misty look and gazed into the distance. “I see pain in my future.” He jauntily pointed his forefingers like pistols at the tall, slim young Parian who bore a number one on his chest. No one laughed. Maybe they’d laugh when Kip got his ass beat.
The young man stepped into the circle looking concerned—for Kip. “Match rules, Commander?” he asked.
“No spectacles,” Ironfist said.
Kip and Number One handed over their spectacles. The young man was a green/blue bichrome.
Ironfist cleared his throat. “I mean that both ways, Cruxer.”
Cruxer? His name was Cruxer?
“Of course, sir,” Cruxer said. “Sir, his bandaged hand? Can I block it?”
“Don’t target it. But if it gets hurt, it gets hurt.”
The taller youth nodded quickly and moved opposite of Kip. Kip saw flashes of incredulity on the other students’ faces as they looked at him. He supposed he didn’t cut much of a figure. No one believed he could win. Hell, he didn’t believe he could win. Lose with dignity, Kip. Lose in a way that will make them respect you for being plucky.
Plucky? I’m a moron.
Cruxer looked up and made the triangle: thumb to right eye, middle finger to left eye, forefinger to forehead. Then he touched the three to his mouth, heart, and hands. The three and the four, perfect seven. A religious young man. Hopefully he’d remember the virtue of mercy.
Cruxer turned and saluted Kip, fists touching over his heart and bowing slightly. Kip returned the salute.
“Begin,” Ironfist said.
The tall youth moved—fast. He was on top of Kip before Kip could react. He shot into Kip and locked a leg behind Kip’s, blocking Kip’s punch and throwing his hips into Kip’s. Kip went down hard, grabbing to try to pull Cruxer with him.
The slender boy let himself fall. His long limbs wrapped around Kip. Kip threw an elbow, but Cruxer was so close, he barely got any force into it.
Then, somehow, the young man had control of Kip’s arm and rolled him over. Cruxer’s legs scissored around Kip’s head. Tightened and—darkness.
Kip had no idea how long he was out. He blinked rapidly. Not long, he thought. Everyone was still standing around.
“That’s one loss,” Ironfist said. “You’ve got ten seconds until your next bout.”
Kip struggled to his feet. A number of classmates were slapping Cruxer on the back, congratulating him on his effortless victory. Kip couldn’t summon any ill feeling for the boy. He’d destroyed Kip without malice and without causing any unnecessary pain.
The second boy was stocky, blue-eyed like Kip, maybe only half Parian, because his skin wasn’t much darker than Kip’s. He bowed to Kip. Kip returned the bow, wondering what fresh pain was coming his way.
Kip and Number Two circled each other warily, but the boy kept looking up and away from Kip. At first, Kip didn’t know why. Then he saw the boy’s eyes. There were little wisps of blue appearing and disappearing in the whites of his eyes. Down, into his body. Gathering in his fists. If the boy hadn’t been lighter-skinned, Kip wouldn’t have been able to see it. It was one of the disadvantages the lighter-skinned had. It was why, nominally, the Blackguard were black.
But because they weren’t wearing spectacles, the boy could only draft tiny sips of blue light at a time. He had to take his eyes off of Kip, look at one of the blue crystals overhead, take what he could, and look back to Kip. Without blue spectacles, it made for a slow process.
And Kip circling slowly was giving the boy all the time he needed.
“Ah hell,” Kip said. He charged.
Kip threw a punch. It was blocked. The second punch hit the boy’s shoulder—but Kip had thrown the punch with his left hand. He felt cuts rip open. It was like he’d dipped his palm in fire.
A fist caught him in the stomach, and another grazed his arm as he hunched forward. Kip staggered back, his motion taking most of the force out of a punch that caught his nose.
It still made his eyes water, though. He blinked and lurched, surprised the boy had let him go rather than press his advantage.
Then Kip realized the reason why the boy would do such a thing.
A blue staff was forming in the boy’s hands, slowly stretching out like molten glass.
Kip darted in and grabbed at the unfinished staff. He caught it, and as his fingertips sank into the crystallizing structure, he felt suddenly as connected to it as if he’d drafted it himself.
He could feel the other boy through the open luxin, his will, so focused a moment before, now scattered and confused by Kip’s invasion. Kip tore the staff away from the boy and sealed it.
The blue luxin staff was bent from where the boys had grappled for it, but it was still as tall as either of them and as big around as Kip could comfortably hold in his hand. Ignoring the pain as he grabbed it with his bandaged left hand, Kip swung the bottom of the staff for the boy’s knees.
It connected with a crack, and the still-stunned boy dropped. He hadn’t even tried to move. Just stood there like a dumb ox. He crumpled, and Kip stepped over him, putting one end of the staff on the boy’s throat.
“Match!” Ironfist called out.
Kip stepped away. Drafting blue made it much easier to obey orders than drafting green did.
The boy on the ground moaned, dazed, only slowly coming back to himself.
“Commander, sir,” Cruxer asked, “what was that?”
Ironfist was scowling. “Something we don’t teach until a year from now. Kip, who showed you that?”
Kip turned his hands up, helpless.
“Willjacking or will-breaking. Trainer Fisk?”
The muscle-bound teacher stepped forward. “Technically, it’s called forced translucification. Luxin has no memory. There is no your luxin or my luxin. Once a drafter makes physical contact with open luxin of a color that she can draft, she can use it. What just happened here was two drafters fought will to will, and Kip broke Grazner’s will.”
The boy Kip had just defeated said, “But, but, I didn’t know what he was doing!”
The trainer said, “He didn’t know what he was doing either. Did you, Kip?”
“Uh, no, sir.”
“You’re just lucky you weren’t left a blithering idiot, Graz,” Trainer Fisk said.
A boy in the crowd whispered, “Blithering, no. Idiot? Weeelll…”
Several people snickered. A few had the decency to try to cover it with coughs.
“So Adrasteia, you want to challenge Kip?” Ironfist asked.
“Ah hells,” the boy murmured. He was the one who’d made the crack about Grazner.
“Sir, I thought if I won I was done,” Kip said.
“Whatever would make you believe such a thing? The winning is just the beginning.”
Adrasteia didn’t look terribly pleased to be fighting Kip either. Alone of all the fighters, he wasn’t wearing an armband showing what color he drafted.
He had straight, shoulder-length dark hair, bound back with a gold scarf. Skin just dark enough for the Blackguard, with Atashian features and striking blue eyes. Short and slender, but wearing a baggy shirt and baggy pants, he looked maybe thirteen years old. Odd haircut, but then Kip wasn’t exactly a man of the world. Maybe long hair was in fashion now. Strange name, too, and rather full lips.
“Oh! You’re a girl!” Kip said. It just slipped out.
The class hooted. Ironfist rubbed his forehead.
Not trying for an insult, but succeeding. Oops.
“No mercy, chubs,” Adrasteia said. Now he could tell she was his age. Fifteen, maybe sixteen, petite, no curves. Fairly pretty, but no knockout.
He hoped she wasn’t a knockout, anyway.
“Form up,” Trainer Fisk said. “Same rules as before—and no willjacking, but then, that shouldn’t be a problem with you, Teia, should it?”
Adrasteia grimaced toward the trainer, face intense. She turned toward Kip, gave a very perfunctory bow.
Kip bowed back. “Sorry, I didn’t—”
“Save it, Lard Guile,” she said.
Several students laughed aloud.
“Oh, I get it, you’re jealous ’cause I have bigger boobs than you,” Kip said. He covered the stab of self-loathing with a condescending grin.
“I can see you naked,” she said. “And I’m not jealous of that.” She sniffed with distaste at his body.
Excerpted from The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks Copyright © 2012 by Brent Weeks. Excerpted by permission.
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