And, in addition, there was something else. The force of BioChroma within her. She’d put some of it into her shirt, as to not draw attention, but she’d left a great portion of it. After all, she needed to be of at least the First Heightening to pass the gates into the Court without being questioned.
That sense let her feel the life around her. Feel it like a regular person felt the air. It was always there, cool against her skin, and now the people were always there. She knew when they were looking at her. She knew when they were near.
And, having so many of them in close proximity left her feeling just a little bit intoxicated. So much life, so many hopes and desires. So much Breath, surrounding her, buoying her up. She closed her eyes, enjoying it, listening to the arguments of the priests down below rise over the crowd.
She felt Vasher approach before he even got there. Not only did he have a lot of Breath, but he was watching her. And, she felt a slight familiarity to those eyes. She turned, picking him out of the crowd. He actually stood out far more than she did, in his darker, ragged clothing.
“Congratulations,” he said as he approached, taking her arm.
“You’ll soon be an aunt.”
“What are you. . . .” she trailed off as she understood his implication. “You mean?”
“Your sister is pregnant,” he said. “That’s why she’s not here. The priests are going to make an announcement later this evening. The God King is apparently remaining back in his palace to celebrate.”
Vivenna stood still, stunned. Siri. Pregnant. She was still a little girl in Vivenna’s mind, though she had grown to be a young woman years ago.
The concept was very difficult for her handle. Siri. Bearing the child of that thing in the palace. And yet, wasn’t she now fighting to keep that thing on his throne?
No, she thought. I haven’t forgiven Hallandren. I just realize now that if Idris goes to war, it will be destroyed.
The Hallandrens still have a lot to answer for. This is just one more thing.
“We have to get her out,” Vivenna found herself saying. “Vasher, if this city does go to war--and we can’t stop it--I want you to help me get her out. Please.”
He remained quiet.
“Please, Vasher,” she whispered. “She’s my sister. If your hunch is right, then the God King himself is trying to start this war. She won’t be safe with him. You think it’s coincidence that he waited until right after a nice hostage arrived to begin the invasion?”
“All right,” Vasher said. “I will do what I can.”
She nodded, turning back to the center of the arena. The priests were withdrawing. “Where are they going?”
“To their Gods,” Lightsong said. “To seek the will of the Pantheon.”
Lightsong waited beneath his canopy, a couple of serving men fanning him against the heat, a cup of chilled juice in his hand, lavish snacks spread out and ignored on plates to his side.
Blushweaver did bring me into this, he thought. Because she was worried that Hallandren would be taken by surprise and fall.
He glanced to the sides. The priests were consulting with their Gods. He could see several of them kneeling before Returned, heads bowed, seeking direction. It was the way that government happened in Hallandren.
The priests argued their minds, then they went and sought the will of the Gods. That was what would become the will of the Pantheon. That would become the will of Hallandren itself. Only the God King could veto an action of the Pantheon.
And he had chosen not to attend this meeting.
So self-congratulatory on spawning a child that he couldn’t even bother to see to the future of his kingdom? Lightsong thought with annoyance as Llarimar approached the tent, after having been down below with the other priests.
Like usual, Llarimar had offered no arguments in the discussion. He tended to keep his thoughts to himself.
The God King should have been there to make his will known. But, Lightsong knew that he was just looking for someone to take the burden from him. The God King rarely interfered in events--it hadn’t happened in decades, as far as Lightsong knew. The governing of the kingdom was a duty for lesser Gods.
Llarimar knelt before him. “Please, give me your will, Lightsong my God.”
Lightsong didn’t respond. He looked up, across the open arena to where Blushweaver’s canopy stood, verdant in the dimming evening light.
“Oh, God,” Llarimar said. “Please. Give me the knowledge I seek. Should we go to war with our kinsmen, the Idris? Are they rebels who need to be quelled?”
Priests were already returning from their prayers. They held aloft flags, indicating the will of their God or Goddess. Green for a favorable response to the question. Red for dissatisfaction with the petition. In this case green meant war. It felt wrong to Lightsong.
So far, five of the returning seven flags flew green.
“Your excellency?” Llarimar asked, looking up.
They vote, but what good are their votes? He thought, walking away from his canopy. They hold no authority. Only four votes really matter.
More green. Flags flapped as priests ran down the walkways. The arena was abuzz with talking people. They knew what was happening. They could see the inevitable.
To the side, Lightsong could see Llarimar following. The man must be frustrated. Why didn’t he ever show it? He deserved a better God.
Lightsong approached Blushweaver’s canopy. Almost all of the priests had returned, and the vast majority carried flags of green. Blushweaver’s high priestess knelt before her still. Apparently, no answer had been given--though, in Lightsong’s estimation, this was just because Blushweaver wanted to wait upon the drama of the moment.
Lightsong stopped outside of the canopy. Blushweaver waited inside, reclining, watching him with calm eyes, though he could sense her anxiety. He knew her too well.
“Are you going to make your will known?” she asked.
He looked down at the center of the arena. “If I resist,” he said, “this declaration will be for naught. The Gods can yell war until they are blue, but I control the armies. If I don’t give leave for the Lifeless to be used in this conflict, then Hallandren will not win.”
Blushweaver stared at him. “You would defy the will of the Pantheon?”
“It is my right to do so,” he said. “Just as it any of them have the same right.”
“But you have the Lifeless.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to do what I’m told.”
Lightsong stood uncertainly. He glanced to the side, watching as Blushweaver waved to her priestess. The woman stood, then raised a flag of green and ran down to join the others. This caused a spark of conversation in the arena, a roar of voices talking. They must know that Blushweaver’s political wranglings had left her in a position of power over the armies. Not bad, for a person who had started without command of a single soldier.
She’s right to be worried, he thought. And, she’s been very clever. With her control of that many troops, she’ll be an integral part of the planning, diplomacy, and execution of the war. Blushweaver could come out of this as one of the most important Returned in the history of the kingdom.
And so could I.
“I need to think about this some more,” Lightsong said, turning to go.
“What?” Blushweaver demanded. “You’re not going to give a vote?”
Lightsong shook his head.
“Lightsong!” she said as he left. “Lightsong, you can’t leave us hanging like this!”
He shrugged, glancing back. “Actually, I can.” He smiled. “I’m frustrating like that.”
And, with that, he left the arena, heading back to his palace.
I’m glad you came back for me, Nightblood said. It was very lonely in that closet.
Vasher didn’t reply as he walked across the top of the wall surrounding the Court of Gods. It was late, dark, and quiet, though a few of the palaces still shone with light. One of those belonged to Lightsong the Bold.
I don’t like the darkness, Nightblood said.
“You mean darkness like it is now?” Vasher asked.
No. In the closet.
“You can’t even see.”
A person knows when they’re in darkness, Nightblood said. Even when they can’t see.
Vasher wasn’t certain how to respond to that. He paused atop the wall, overlooking Lightsong’s palace. Red and gold. Bold colors. That was probably the idea.
You shouldn’t ignore me, Nightblood said. I don’t like it.
Vasher knelt down, studying the palace. He’d never met the one called Lightsong, but he had heard rumors. The most flagrant of the Gods, the most condescending and mocking. And this was the person who held the fate of two kingdoms in his hands.
There was an easy way to influence that fate.
We’re going to kill him, aren’t we? Nightblood said, eagerness sounding in his voice.
Vasher didn’t reply. He just stared at the palace.
We should kill him, Nightblood continued. Come on. We should do it. We really should do it.
“Why do you care?” Vasher whispered. “You don’t know him.”
He’s evil, Nightblood said.
Vasher snorted. “You don’t even know what that is.”
For once, Nightblood was silent.
That was the great crux of the problem. The bigger problem, the one that had led Vasher for most of his life. A thousand Breaths, that was what it took to Awaken an object of steel and give it sentience. A process that even Shashara hadn’t understood, when she had devised it.
It shouldn’t have worked. Nightblood should not be alive. And yet, he was. Shashara had been so certain of herself. She’d always been the most talented of them, even if she hadn’t been the one to first fix the Lifeless problem.
She’d figured it out. Forge the Breath of a thousand people into a piece of steel, Awaken it, give it a Command, and you had an object of intense power. And what a simple, yet powerful, command.
Destroy evil. There was only one problem, one neither of them had foreseen.
How was an object of steel--an object that was so removed from life that it would find the experience strange and foreign--to understand what ‘evil’ was?
I’m figuring it out, Nightblood said. I’ve had a lot of practice.
Even still, its voice was foreign. The sword wasn’t really to blame. It was a terrible, destructive thing--but it had been created to destroy. It still didn’t understand life, and what that life meant. It only knew its command, and it tried so hard to fulfill it.
That man down there, Nightblood said. The one in the palace. He holds the power to start this war. You don’t want this war to start. That’s why he’s evil.
“Why does that make him evil?”
Because he will do what you don’t want him to.
“We don’t know that,” Vasher said. “Not for certain. Plus, who is to say that my will is best?”
You are, Nightblood said. Let’s go. Let’s kill him. You told me war is bad. He will start a war. He’s evil. Let’s kill him. Let’s kill him.
The sword was getting excited, and Vasher could feel it--feel the danger in its blade, the twisted power of Breaths that had been pulled from a living host and shoved into something unnatural. Something too alien. He could almost feel them breathing out, corrupted, twisting in the wind.
Drawing him forward. Pushing him onward.
“No,” Vasher said, standing.
Nightblood sighed. You locked me in a closet, he reminded. You should apologize.
“I’m not going to apologize by killing someone who may not deserve it.”
Just throw me in there, Nightblood said. If he’s evil, he’ll kill those around him, then kill himself. Then you can know.
This gave Vasher pause.
Colors, he thought. The sword seemed to be getting more subtle each year, though he knew he was just seeing things. Awakened objects didn’t change or grow, they simply were what they were.
Still, it was a good argument.
“Maybe later,” he said, turning away from the building.
You are afraid, Nightblood said.
“You don’t know what fear is,” Vasher replied.
I do. You don’t like killing Returned. You’re afraid of them.
The sword was wrong, of course. But, on the outside, Vasher supposed that his hesitance to be around Returned did look a little like fear. It had been a long time since he’d dealt with them. Too many memories. Too many pains.
He made his way to the God King’s palace. It had also been a long time since he’d been here. It was old, far older than the palaces of the Returned that surrounded it. Once, this hill and palace had been a seaside watchplace, overlooking the bay. No city. No colors. Just the stark, black tower. It amused him that it had become the home of a God of colors.
The palace rose up into the air, several stories taller even than the wall. Guards patrolled below, but protecting a building such as this--with the numerous windows it had--was a larger task than they could accomplish. They relied on reputation to keep their God King safe.
Vasher slid Nightblood into a strap on his back, then jumped.
Awakened straps around his legs carried him across the distance, throwing him some twenty feet. He slammed against the side of the building, smooth onyx blocks rubbing his skin. He twitched his fingers, and the straps on his sleeves snapped forward and grabbed hold of the ledge above him, twisting, holding him tight.
He breathed. The belt at his waist--touching his skin, like always--Awakened. Color drained from the kerchief tied beneath his trousers to his leg.
“Climb things, then grab things, then pull me up,” he Commanded. Three commands in one Breath, a difficult task for some. For him, most Awakenings were as simple as blinking.
The belt untied itself. Wrapped like it was, it looked far shorter than it really was. It actually gave him some twenty-five feet of rope, when it unwound completely, snaking up the side of the building, curling inside of a window. Seconds later, the rope hauled him up and into the air. He released his tassel grips, then pulled Nightblood free as the rope deposited him inside the building.
He knelt silently, eyes searching the darkness to see if he’d come into a room that was unfortunately occupied. He saw nothing. Carefully, he drew back the breath from the rope, then wrapped it around his arm and held it in a loose coil, should he need it again. Then, he stalked forward.
Who are we going to kill? Nightblood asked.
It’s not always about killing, Vasher said.
Vivenna. Is she in here?
The sword was trying to interpret his thoughts again. It had trouble with things that weren’t fully formed into words in his head. Most thoughts passed through his mind like they did those of other people. Flitting, momentary things. Flashes of image, sound, or scent. Connections made, then lost, then recovered again.
Vivenna. The source of a lot of his troubles. Things had been easier when he’d been able to assume she was working willingly with Denth. Then, at least, he’d been able to blame her.
Where is she? Is she here? She doesn’t like me, but I like her.
Vasher paused in a dark hallway. You do?
Yes. She’s nice. And she’s pretty.
Both words Nightblood didn’t really understand. But, he knew when to use them. He’d been alive that long. Still, the sword did have opinions, and it rarely lied. It did like Vivenna, even if it couldn’t explain why.
Ah, Vasher thought. Of course. That makes sense. He continued on.
What? Nightblood said.
She’s descended from one, he thought. You can tell by the hair. There’s a bit of Returned in her.
Nightblood didn’t respond to that, but a part of Vasher could feel it thinking.
He paused at an intersection. He was pretty sure he knew where the God King’s chambers would be. They’d be in the richest part of the palace. However, a lot of the interior seemed different now than it once had been. The fortress had been stark, built with odd twists and turns to confuse an invading foe. Those remained, all the stonework was the same, but many of the open dining halls or garrison rooms had been split into many, smaller rooms, colored with decorations after the way of the Hallandren rich.
Where would the princess be? He couldn’t search the entire thing. If she were pregnant, she’d be under the care of servants. One of the nicer quarters, he assumed, on a higher level. He made his way to a stairwell and went up. Fortunately, it seemed late enough that there were very few people up and awake.
The sister, Nightblood said. That’s who you’re after. You’re rescuing Vivenna’s sister!
Vasher nodded quietly in the darkness, feeling his way up the stairs, counting on his BioChroma to let him know if he approached anyone alive. Most of it was stored inside of his clothing, but he had just enough to awaken the rope, and to keep him aware.
You like her too! Nightblood said.
Nonsense, Vasher thought.
Her sister, he thought. She’s a key to all of this, somehow. I realized it today. Vivenna mentioned that as soon as her sister arrived, the real move to begin the war surged. She’s right. There’s something going on.
Nightblood fell silent. That kind of interaction was a bit too complex for him.
I see, he said, though Vasher smiled at the confusion he sensed in the voice.
At the very least, he said, she’s a very convenient hostage. The God King’s priests--or whoever’s behind this--know that they can go war with an excellent hostage in tow. If things turn sour for them, they can threaten the girl’s life. An excellent tool. One you intend to remove, Nightblood thought.
Vasher nodded, reaching the top of the stairwell and slinking through one of the corridors. He slipped around until he saw some activity--a maid servant walking along one of the corridors. He Awakened his rope, stood up in the shadows of an alcove, and waited for her to approach.
As she passed, the rope shot from the shadows, wrapped around her waist, and yanked her into the darkness. He had one of his tassel hands wrapped around her mouth before she could get her breath back and scream.
She squirmed, but the rope tied her tightly. He felt a little stab of guilt as he loomed over her, her terrified eyes looking up at him.
He reached for Nightblood, and pulled the sword slightly out of its sheath. The girl immediately looked sick. A good sign.
“I need to know where the queen is,” Vasher said, forcing Nightblood up so the hilt touched her cheek. “You’re going to tell me.”
He held her like that for a time, watching her squirm, feeling a bit sick himself. Finally, he relaxed the tassels on his hand, keeping the sword forced against her cheek. She began to vomit, and he turned her to the side.
“Tell me,” he whispered.
“Southern corner,” the girl whispered sickly. “This floor.”
Vasher nodded, then guiltily tied her up with the rope, gagged her, then took his Breath back. He pushed Nightblood back into the sheath, did up the clasp, then rushed down the hallway.
You won’t kill a God who plans to march his armies to war? Nightblood asked. But you’ll choke a young woman near to death?
It was a complicated statement, from the sword. However, it lacked the accusation that a human would have put into the statement. To Nightblood, it wasn’t an attack, but a real question. He was trying to understand.
I don’t understand my morality either, Vasher thought. I’d suggest you avoid confusing yourself.
He found the place easily. It was guarded by a large group of brutish looking men. They seemed rather out of place in the fine palace hallways, and Vasher paused, frowning to himself.
Something strange is going on here, he thought.
What do you mean? Nightblood asked.
He hadn’t meant to address the sword. That was the trouble with an object that could read minds. Any thoughts Vasher formed fully in his head, Nightblood thought were directed at it. After all, in the sword’s opinion, everything really should have been directed toward it.
Guards at the door. Soldiers, not servants. So, they had taken her captive. Was she really even pregnant? Or, were the priests just securing their power?
That many men would be impossible to kill without making noise. The best he could hope for was to kill them all, without letting any run for help. Maybe they were far enough from anyone else that a little bit of fighting wouldn’t be noticed.
He sat for a few minutes, grinding his teeth. Then, finally, he stepped up and tossed Nightblood into the middle of them. He’d let them fight each other, and be ready to stop any who weren’t taken into the Sword’s influence.
Nightblood clanged to the stones and slid over to the men. All of their eyes turned toward it. And, at that moment, something grabbed Vasher around the shoulder and yanked him backward into the hallway.
He cursed, spinning himself, throwing his fist up to push off whatever had him. An Awakened rope.
Men started to fight behind him. Vasher grunted, pulling free the knife at his leg, then reaching up to slice the Awakened rope free. A body tackled him at that moment, however, and he was thrown back against the wall.
He grabbed his attacker by the face with one of his arm tassels, then twisted him back and threw him into the wall. Another form charged him from behind, but Vasher’s Awakened cloak caught that one, tripping him.
“Grab things other than me,” Vasher said quickly, grabbing the cloak of one of the fallen men. That cloak whipped about, taking down another man, whom Vasher killed with a swipe of his dagger. He kicked another man, throwing him backward, opening a pathway back the way he had come.
Vasher spun, intending to dash back toward Nightblood, but three more figures burst out the rooms around him, cutting him off. They were the same kind of brutish men that were now fighting over the sword, by the queen’s room.
Figures were all around. Dozens of them. Vasher kicked out, breaking a leg, but one man pulled Vasher’s cloak off with a lucky twist of his hands. Others piled on top of him. And then, an Awakened rope snapped back out, tying his legs together.
He reached for his vest. “Your Breath to--” he began, trying to draw in some Breath to use for an attack, but three men grabbed his hand and pulled it away.
Within seconds, he was wrapped up in the awakened rope. His cloak still fought against three men, who were struggling to cut it up, but Vasher himself was pinned.
A figure left the room to his left. It was the place where the rope had come from.
“Denth,” Vasher spat.
“My good friend,” Denth said, nodding for one of his lackeys--the one known as Tonk Fah--to move down the hallway toward the queen’s room. Denth knelt beside Vasher. “Very good to see you.”
Vasher spat again.
“Ah, still as eloquent as ever, I see,” Denth said with a sigh. “You know the best thing about you, Vasher? You’re solid. Predictable. I guess I am too, in away. Hard to live as long as we have without falling into patterns, wouldn’t you say?”