Vasher didn’t reply, though he did struggle as some men gagged him. A piece of him noticed with satisfaction that he’d taken down a good dozen of them with his knife and his kicks before they’d managed to pile on top of him and force him down.
Denth eyed the fallen soldiers. “Mercenaries,” he said, shaking his head. “No risk is too great, assuming the pay is right.” He said it with a twinkle in his eye. Then, he leaned down, his jovialness gone as he met Vasher’s eyes.
“And you were always to be my payment, Vasher. I owe you. For Shashara, even still.” Then, he sighed, standing.
“We’ve been waiting,” Denth said. “Hiding in the palace here, knowing that eventually the good princes Vivenna would send you to save her sister. Didn’t really need to do much more than wait.”
Tonk Fah returned with a wrapped up bundle, held in a blanket. Nightblood. Denth eyed it. “Throw that out somewhere in the city,” he said, grimacing.
“I don’t know, Denth,” Tonk Fah said. “I kind of think we should keep it. It could be very useful. . . .” The beginnings of the lust began to show in his eyes, the desire to draw Nightblood, to use him. To destroy evil. Or, really, just to destroy.
Denth snatched the bundle away, then smacked Tonk Fah on the back of the head.
“Ow!” Tonk Fah said petulantly.
Denth rolled his eyes. “Stop whining; I just saved your life. Go check on the queen, then clean up that mess. I’ll take care of the sword myself.”
“You always get so nasty when Vasher’s around,” Tonk Fah grumbled, waddling away to do as ordered. Denth wrapped up Nightblood securely, and Vasher watched, hoping to see the lust appear in Denth’s eyes.
He, however, was far too strong-willed to be taken by the sword. He had nearly as much history with it as Vasher did.
“Take away all his Awakened clothing,” Denth said to his men, walking away. “Then hang him up in that room over there. He and I are going to have a long talk about what he did to my sister.”
Lightsong sat in one of the rooms of his palace, surrounded by finery, cup of wine in his hand. Despite the very late hour, servants moved in and out, piling up furniture, paintings, vases, and small sculptures. Anything that could be moved.
The riches sat in heaps. Lightsong lounged back on his couch, ignoring empty plates of food and broken cups, which he refused to let his servants take away.
A pair of servants entered, carrying a red and gold couch. They propped it up by the far wall, nearly toppling a pile of rugs. Lightsong watched them leave, then downed the rest of the wine in his cup. After that, he dropped it to the floor beside the others, and held out his hand for another full cup. A servant provided one, as always.
He wasn’t drunk. He couldn’t get drunk.
“Do you ever feel,” Lightsong said, “like something is going on? Something far greater than you are? Something that you can’t possibly understand? Like. . .a painting you can only see the corner of, no matter how you squint and search?”
“Every day, your grace,” Llarimar said. He sat on a stool beside Lightsong’s couch. As always, he watched events calmly, though Lightsong could sense his disapproval as another group of servants piled several marble figurines in the corner.
“How do you deal with it?” Lightsong asked.
“I have faith, your grace, that someone understands.”
“Not me, I hope,” Lightsong noted.
“You are part of it,” Llarimar said. “But it is much larger than you.”
Lightsong said, frowning to himself, watching more servants enter. Soon, the room would be so piled with his riches that people wouldn’t be able to move in and out.
“It’s odd, isn’t it,” Lightsong said, gesturing toward a pile of paintings. “Arranged like this, none of it looks beautiful anymore. No matter how valuable something is, throw it together like this, and it just seems like junk.”
Llarimar raised an eyebrow. “The value in something relates to how it is treated, your grace. If you see these items as junk, then they are, regardless of what someone else would pay for them.”
“There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, isn’t there?”
Llarimar shrugged. “I ama priest, after all, your grace.”
Lightsong snorted, then waved toward the servants. “That’s enough,” he said. “You can go now.”
The servants, growing more resigned to this particular idiosyncrasy, left the room. Soon, Lightsong and Llarimar were alone with piles and piles of riches, all stolen from other parts of the palace and brought into this one room.
Llarimar surveyed the piles. “So, what is the point of all this, your grace?”
“This is what I mean to them,” Lightsong said, gulping down some more wine. “The people. They’ll give up any wealth for me. They’ll spend hours making works of art for me, will give up their very most precious creations. They sacrifice the Breath of their souls to keep me alive. I suspect that, even, they would die for me.”
Llarimar nodded quietly.
“And,” Lightsong continued, “all I’m expected to do is choose their fates for them. Do we go to war, or do we remain at peace? What do you think?”
“I could argue for either side, your grace,” Llarimar said. “It would be easy to sit here and condemn attacking Idris on principle. War is a terrible, terrible thing. And yet, what great accomplishments in history ever occurred without the unfortunate truth of military action? Even the Manywar, which caused so much destruction, can be pointed to as the foundation of Hallandren power in the inner sea area.”
“But,” Llarimar continued, shaking his head. “To invade our brethren? Despite provocation, I cannot help but think that attacking would be too extreme a move. How much death, how much suffering, are we willing to cause simply to prove that we won’t be pushed around?”
“And what would you decide?” Lightsong said.
“Fortunately, I don’t have to,” Llarimar replied.
“And if you were forced to?” Lightsong asked.
Llarimar sat for a moment. Then, carefully, he removed the large miter from his head, revealing a head of thinning black hair plastered to the skull with sweat. He ran his hand through the hair, setting aside the ceremonial headgear.
“I speak to you as a friend, Lightsong, not your priest,” Llarimar said quietly. “For the priest cannot influence his God, for fear of disrupting the future.”
“And as a friend,” Llarimar said, “I honestly have trouble deciding what I would do. I didn’t argue on the floor of the court.”
“You rarely do,” Lightsong said.
“I have trouble making these kinds of decisions,” Llarimar said, wiping his brow with a kerchief, shaking his head. “I don’t think we can ignore the threat to our kingdom. The fact of the matter is, Idris is a rebel faction living within our borders. We’ve ignored that for years, suffering under their almost tyrannical control of the northern passes.”
“So, you’re for attacking?”
Llarimar paused, then shook his head. “No. No, I don’t think that even Iris’s rebellion would justify the slaughter it would take to get those passes back.”
“Great,” Lightsong said flatly. “So, you think we should go to war, but not attack.”
“Actually, yes,” Llarimar said. “We declare war, we make a show of force, and we frighten them into realizing just how precarious their position is. We shouldn’t have to manage them for much longer--the God King just married one of their daughters! One would think that things would be getting better between the two kingdoms, not worse.”
Lightsong sat thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” he said. “It seems that we’re missing something, Scoot. Like I said before. A piece of all of this. You make a good point. Why now? Why are tensions so high after the thing that should have unified us?”
“I don’t know, your grace,” Llarimar said.
Lightsong smiled, standing and setting aside his cup. “Well then,” he said, eying his high priest. “Let’s find out.”
Siri would have been annoyed if she hadn’t been so terrified. She sat alone in the black bedchamber that she had visited so often. It felt wrong for Susebron to not be there.
At first, she’d hoped that maybe he would still come to her when night fell. It had been a silly thing to think, she knew, but still she had hoped that the routine would be firm enough to keep going.
But, of course, he hadn’t come. What reason was there now? The priests had likely been hoping for a child from Siri, but that apparently wasn’t a priority now. She wasn’t sure if she believed her theories about them having a Returned child to be the next God King--everything seemed uncertain, now.
Regardless, Susebron did not come to her. She had no doubt that the choice to stay away was not his, and so she could only assume that he was being held as well.
The door cracked, and she sat up on the bed, hope sparking. But, of course, it was only the guard checking on her again. One of the crass, soldier-like men who had been watching over her in recent hours.
Why did they change to these men? she wondered as the guard closed the door. What happened to the Lifeless and the priests who were watching me before?
It didn’t really matter. She lay back down on the bed, staring up at the canopy, still dressed in her fine gown. They wouldn’t even let her have any servants, though she would have kept them out too, had she been keeping a captive.
Her mind kept flashing to her first week in the palace, when she’d been locked inside, unable to even visit the courtyard out front. It had been difficult enough then, and she’d known when it would be over. Now she had nothing. Not even an assurance that she’d live through the next few days. She probably wasn’t important to their plans any more.
No, she thought. Even if they intend to make a switch, they’ll keep me around for a few more months. Long enough for my ‘baby’ to be born. I’m insurance. If something goes wrong, they’ll still need me to provide an heir.
That was little comfort. The thought of six months cooped up inside the palace--not allowed to see anyone lest she expose the truth--was frightening enough to make her want to scream.
But what could she do?
Hope in Susebron, she thought. I taught him to read, and I gave him the determination that he needed to break free from his priests.
That will have to be enough.
“Your grace,” Llarimar said, his voice hesitant, “are you certain you want to do this?”
Lightsong crouched down, peeking through the bushes toward Mercystar’s palace. Most of the windows were dark. That was a good. However, she still had a number of guards patrolling the palace. She was afraid of another break in.
And rightly so.
“Your grace?” Llarimar asked, sounding more nervous. The portly high priest knelt on the grass beside Lightsong, the darkness having masked their approach.
“I should have brought a sword,” Lightsong said thoughtfully.
“Your grace, this is foolishness,” Llarimar said. “Let’s go back to your palace. If we must see what is in those tunnels, we can hire someone from the city to sneak in.”
“That would take too long,” Lightsong said. “Not to mention looking too suspicious.” A guard patrol passed their side of the palace. “You ready?” Lightsong asked, turning to Llarimar.
“Then wait here,” Lightsong said, taking off in a dash toward the palace.
Llarimar let out an uncharacteristic curse from behind, and Lightsong heard the bushes rustle. He didn’t look back; he just kept running toward the open window on the ground floor. Like most Returned palaces, there weren’t doors in the doorways or closed windows in Mercystar’s palace. The tropical climate invited lots of open spaces.
Lightsong reached the side of the building, feeling exhilarated. He climbed up through the window, then reached a hand out to help Llarimar when he arrived. The priest puffed and sweated, his physical condition nowhere near that of a God. But, he did arrive, and Lightsong managed to pull him up and into the room.
They took a few moments, Llarimar resting with his back to the outer wall, gasping for breath.
“You really need to exercise some more, Scoot,” Lightsong said, creeping toward the doorway and peeking out into the hall beyond.
Llarimar didn’t answer. He just sat, puffing, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe what was happening.
“I wonder why the man who attacked the building didn’t come in through the window,” Lightsong said. Then he paused, noticing that the guards standing at the inner doorway had an easy view of this particular room. And, it was one of the few on the outside of the building, since the inner rooms were surrounded by that hallway.
Ah, he thought. Well, then. Time for the backup plan.
He stood up, walking out into the hallway. Llarimar followed, then started when he saw the guards. They had similar expressions on their faces.
“Hello,” Lightsong said, and walked on down the hallway.
“Wait!” one said. “Stop!”
Lightsong turned toward them, frowning. “You dare command a God?”
They froze. Then, they glanced at each other. One took off running down the hallway in the opposite direction. Lightsong continued to walk, moving toward the place with the trap door.
“They’re going to alert others!” Llarimar said, rushing up. “We’ll be caught.”
“Then we should move quickly!” Lightsong said, taking off in another run. He smiled, hearing Llarimar grudgingly break into a jog behind him. At that pace, they quickly reached the trap door.
Lightsong knelt, feeling around for a few moments before finding the hidden clasp. He triumphantly pulled it open, then pointed down. Llarimar shook his head in resignation, then climbed down the ladder into darkness. Lightsong grabbed a lantern off the wall and followed.
The bottom wasn’t very far down. Lightsong found a tired Llarimar sitting on some boxes in what was obviously a small storage cellar.
“Congratulations, your grace,” Llarimar said. “We’ve found the secret hiding place of their flour.”
Lightsong snorted, moving through the chamber, poking at the walls. “Life,” he said, pointing at one wall. “That direction. I can feel it with my BioChroma.”
Llarimar raised an eyebrow, standing. They pulled back a few boxes, and behind them was a tunnel into the wall. Lightsong smiled, then crawled down through it, pushing the lantern ahead of him.
“I’m not sure I’ll fit,” Llarimar said.
“If I fit, you will,” Lightsong said quietly, voice muffled by the close confines. He heard another sigh from Llarimar, followed by shuffling as the portly man entered the hole.
Eventually, Lightsong passed through another hole into a much larger tunnel. He stood, feeling self satisfied as Llarimar squeezed out through the opening. “There,” Lightsong said, throwing a lever and letting a grate drop down over the opening. “They’ll have trouble following now!”
“And we’ll have trouble escaping,” Llarimar said.
“Escape?” Lightsong said, raising his lantern, inspecting the tunnel. “Why would we want to do that?”
“Pardon me, your grace,” Llarimar said. “But it seems to me that you are getting far too much enjoyment from this experience.”
“Well, I am called Lightsong the Bold,” Lightsong said. “It feels good to finally be living up to the title. Now, hush. I can still feel life nearby.”
The tunnel was obviously man-made, fashioned like what Lightsong expected a mine shaft might look. There were several branches. The life was straight ahead. Lightsong didn’t turn that direction first. Instead, he went left, toward a tunnel that sloped downward. He followed it for a few minutes, judging the trajectory.
“Figured it out yet?” Lightsong asked, turning to Llarimar and pointing down the tunnel.
“The Lifeless barracks,” Llarimar said. “If this tunnel continues like this, it will lead directly to them.”
Lightsong nodded. “Why would anyone need a secret tunnel to the barracks? Any God can go there whenever he wants.”
Llarimar shook his head, and they continued down the tunnel. Sure enough, after a short time walking, they arrived at a trap door which--when pushed up--led into one of the dark, Lifeless warehouses. Lightsong shivered, looking out at the endless rows of legs, barely illuminated by the lantern down below. He pulled his head back in, closed the trap door, then followed the tunnel around a bit more.
“It goes in a square,” he said quietly.
“With doors up into each of the Lifeless barracks,” Llarimar said. He reached out, taking a piece of dirt and crumbling it between his fingers. “This tunnel seems newer than the one we were in up above.”
Lightsong nodded. “We should keep moving,” he said. “Those guards in Mercystar’s palace know we’re down here. I don’t know who they’ll tell, but I’d rather finish exploring before we get chased out.”
Llarimar shivered at that thought. However, they walked back up the steep tunnel to the main one they’d left behind. Lightsong still felt life down the tunnel, but he chose the other branch at the side, exploring it a bit. However, it soon became apparent that this one branched and twisted numerous times.
“Tunnels to the other palaces,” he guessed, poking at a wooden structure used to hold the shaft open. “Old.”
“All right, then,” Lightsong said, turning back down the dusty shaft. “Time to find out where the main tunnel goes.”
Llarimar nodded, then followed as Lightsong approached the main tunnel. He closed his eyes, trying to determine how close the BioChroma was.
It was. . .distant. Almost beyond his ability to sense. If everything else down in the tunnels hadn’t been rock and dirt, he probably wouldn’t have even noticed. He nodded to Llarimar, then continued down the tunnel, stepping quietly. Did it seem like he was capable of moving more silently than he should? Did he have skill in sneaking about? He certainly seemed to be better at it than Llarimar. Of course, a tumbling boulder was probably better at moving quietly than Llarimar, considering his bulky clothing and his puffing breath.
The tunnel went on for a time without branches. Lightsong looked up, trying to judge what was above them.
The God King’s palace, he guessed. That’s where this tunnel is going. He couldn’t be certain; it was difficult to judge direction beneath the ground.
He felt. . .excited. Thrilled. This was something no God was supposed to do. Sneaking about at night, moving through secret tunnels, searching for secrets and clues.
Odd, he thought. They give us everything they think that we might want, and glut us with sensation and experience. And yet, the real feelings--fear, anxiety, excitement--are completely lost to us.
He smiled. In the distance, he could hear voices. He turned down the lantern and crept forward extra quietly, waving for Llarimar to stay behind.
“. . .have him up above,” a masculine voice was saying. “He came for the princess’s sister, as I said he would.”
“You have what you want, then,” said another voice. “Honestly, I think you pay far too much attention to that one.”
“Do not underestimate Vasher,” first voice said. “He has accomplished more in his life than a hundred men, and has done more for mankind than you will ever be able to understand.”
“Aren’t you planning to kill him?” said second voice.
“You’re a strange one,” second voice said. “However, our goal is accomplished.”
“You people don’t have your war yet,” first voice said.
Lightsong crouched beside a small pile of rubble, frowning to himself in the darkness. He could see light up ahead, but couldn’t distinguish much beyond some moving shadows.
They were talking about the war, obviously. Lightsong, however, felt suspicious. It seemed remarkably good luck that he’d find two men discussing these things. And yet, it was very late at night--anyone up was likely to be about clandestine activities. Beyond that, today had been the day that the vote had happened.
“I have a job for you,” second voice said. “We’ve got someone I need you to interrogate.”
“Too bad,” first voice said. “I’ve got an old friend to torture. I just had to pause to dispose of his monstrosity of a sword.”
“Denth! Come back here!”
“You didn’t hire me, little man,” first voice said, growing fainter. “If you want to make me do something, go get your boss. Until then, you know where to find me.”
Silence. And then, something moved behind him. Lightsong spun, and could just barely make out Llarimar creeping forward. Lightsong waved him back, then moved over to join him.
“What?” Llarimar whispered.
“Voices, ahead,” Lightsong whispered back, the tunnel dark around them. “Talking about the war.”
“Who were they?” Llarimar asked.
“I don’t know,” Lightsong whispered. “But I’m going to find out. Wait here while I--”
A voice screamed. Lightsong jumped immediately, turning toward the sound. It came from the place where he had heard the voices, and it sounded like. . . .
“Let go of me!” Blushweaver yelled. “What do you think you’re doing! I’m a Goddess!”
Lightsong stood up sharply. The voice said something back to Blushweaver, but Lightsong was now too far down the tunnel to hear.
“You will let me go!” Blushweaver yelled. “I--” she cut off sharply, crying out in pain.
Lightsong stood, heart pounding. He took a step forward.
“Your grace!” Llarimar said, standing. “We should go for help!”
“We are help,” Lightsong said. He took a deep breath. Then, surprising himself, he charged down the tunnel. He approached the light quickly, turning around a corner and coming into a section of tunnel that had been worked more delicately. In seconds, he was running on a smooth stone floor, and he burst into what appeared to be a dungeon or a cellar, robes rustling.
Blushweaver sat, tied to a chair and a group of men wearing the God King’s priestly robes stood around her. There were several soldiers in the room, though they didn’t wear city guard uniforms.
Blushweaver’s lip was bleeding, and she was crying through a gag that had been placed on her mouth. She wore a beautiful sleeping robe, but it was dirty and disheveled.
The men in the room looked up in surprise, obviously shocked to see someone come up behind them. Lightsong took advantage of this shock, and threw his weight against the soldier nearest to him. He sent the man flying back into the wall, Lightsong’s superior size and weight knocking him aside with ease. After that, Lightsong knelt down and quickly pulled the fallen soldier’s sword from its sheath.
“Aha!” Lightsong said, lowering the weapon at the men in front of him. “Who’s first?”
The men regarded him dumbly.
“I say, you!” Lightsong said, thrusting at the next-closest guard. The sword, however, wasn’t held properly in his grip, and he missed the man by a good three inches.
The guard finally realized what was going on, and he pulled out his own sword. The priests backed against the wall. Blushweaver blinked her tears, looking shocked.
The soldier nearest Lightsong attacked, and Lightsong raised his blade awkwardly, trying to block, and doing a horrible job of it. The guard at his feet suddenly threw himself at Lightsong’s legs, toppling him to the ground. Then, one of the standing guards thrust his sword into Lightsong’s shoulder.