The shoulder bled blood as red as that of any mortal. Suddenly, Lightsong knew pain. Pain greater than, literally, he’d ever known in his short life.
He screamed. He saw, through tears, Llarimar heroically throwing himself at a guard from behind, but the attack was almost as poorly-executed as Lightsong’s own. The soldiers stepped back, several guarding the tunnel to see if any others arrived, another holding his bloodied blade toward Lightsong’s throat.
Funny, Lightsong thought, gritting his teeth against the pain. He dropped his sword and held up pair of warding hands toward the sword, that was not at all how I imagined this going.
Vivenna waited up for Vasher. And he did not return.
She paced in the small, one-room hideout that Vasher had found for them--the sixth in a series of quick moves, never more than a few days in each location. It was unadorned, as usual. It held only their bedrolls, Vasher’s pack, and a single flickering candle.
Vasher would have chastised her for wasting the candle. For a man who held a fortune in Breaths, he was surprisingly frugal.
She paced some more. She knew that she should probably just go to sleep. Vasher could take care of himself. It seemed that the only one in the city who couldn’t do that was Vivenna.
And yet, he’d told her he was only going to go on a quick scouting mission. He often told her what he was doing. Though he seemed like such a solitary person, he apparently understood her desire to be a part of things. She felt so betrayed by Denth--so foolish for not watching more closely what he was doing--that she wanted to be certain to be aware of what was going on around her.
Denth. She’d never waited up for him to come back from a night mission. She’d been working with Vasher for a fraction of the time she’d spent with Denth. Why did she care so much now?
And yet, though she had felt like she was Denth’s friend, she hadn’t really cared. He’d been amusing and charming, but distant. Vasher was. . .well, who he was. There was no guile with him. He wore no false mask or face. She’d only met one other person like that. Her sister, the one who would bear the God King’s child.
Lord of Colors! Vivenna thought, still pacing. How did things turn out to be such a mess here?
Siri awoke with a start. There was shouting coming from outside her room. She roused herself quickly, moving over to the door and putting her ear to it. She could hear fighting. If she were going to run, perhaps now would be the time. She steeled herself, then pulled on the door.
It was, of course, locked.
She cursed, leaning her head forward and knocking it lightly against the door. Something was obviously happening in the palace. She’d heard fighting before--screaming, and men dying. And now again.
Someone trying to rescue me, perhaps? She thought hopefully. But who?
The door shook suddenly, and she jumped back as it opened. Tridees, high priest of the God King, stood in the doorway.
“Quickly, child,” he said, waving to her. “You must come with me.”
Siri looked desperately for a way to run. She backed away from the priest, and he cursed quietly, waving for a couple of soldiers in city guard uniforms to rush in and grab her. She ran and resisted as best she could, screaming for help.
“Quiet, child!” Tridees said. “You fool! We’re trying to help you.”
His lies rang flat in her ears, however, and she struggled as the soldiers pulled her from the room. Outside, bodies were lying on the ground, some in guard uniforms, others in nondescript armor, still others having grey skin. Lifeless.
She heard fighting down the hallway, and she screamed toward it as the soldiers roughly pulled her away down the hall.
Old Chaps, they called him. Those who called him anything, that was.
He sat in his little boat, almost more of a canoe, moving across the dark water of the bay. Night fishing. During the day, one had to pay a tariff to fish in T’Telir waters. Well, technically, during the night you were supposed to pay too.
But, the thing about night was, nobody could see you. Old Chaps chuckled to himself, lowering his net over the side of the boat. The waters made their characteristic lap, lap, lap against the side of the boat. Dark. He liked it dark. Lap, lap, lap.
Occasionally, he had better work. Taking bodies for one of the city’s slum lords, weighting them down with bits of rock tied in a sack to the foot, then tossing them into the bay. There were probably hundreds of them down there, floating in the current. Like a party of skeletons, having a dance. Dance, dance, dance.
No bodies tonight, though. Too bad. That meant fish. Free fish, he didn’t have to pay tariffs on. And free fish were good fish.
No. . . . a voice said to him. A little bit more to your right.
The sea talked to him sometimes. Coaxed him this way or that. He happily made his way in the direction indicated. He was out on the waters every night, after all. They should know him pretty well by now.
Good. Drop the net.
He did so. It wasn’t too deep in this part of the bay. He could drag it behind his boat, pull part of the weighted bits along the bottom, catching the smaller fish that came up into the shallows to feed. Not the best fish to sell, but the night was looking too dangerous to be out far from the shore.
His net struck something. He grumbled, yanking it. Sometimes, it got caught on debris or coral. Cursing to himself, he pulled it up. It was heavy. Too heavy. He pulled it over the side, then undid the shield on his lantern, risking a bit of light.
A sword lay in the bottom of his boat. Silvery, with a black handle.
Lap, lap, lap.
Ah, very nice, the voice said, much louder now. I hate the water. So wet and icky down there.
Transfixed, he reached out, picking up the weapon. It felt heavy in his hand.
I don’t suppose you’d want to go destroy some evil, would you? The voice said. I’m not really sure what that means, to be honest. I’ll just trust you to decide.
Old Chaps smiled.
Oh, all right, the sword said. You can admire me a little bit longer, if you must. After that, though, we really need to get back to shore.
Vasher awoke groggily.
He was tied, by his wrists, to a hook in the ceiling of a stone room. The rope used to tie him, he noticed, was the same one he’d used to tie up the maid. It had been drained completely of color.
In fact, everything around him was a uniform grey. He had been stripped save for a grey pair of undershorts. He groaned, his arms feeling numb from the awkward angle of being hung by his wrists.
He wasn’t gagged. But, he had no Breath remaining--he’d used the last of it in the fight, to Awaken the cloak of a fallen man. So, he simply groaned, feeling drained as he spun slightly in his bonds.
A lantern burned in corner. A figure stood next to it. “And so we both return,” Denth said quietly.
Vasher didn’t reply. He simply hung his head.
“I still owe you for Arsteel’s death,” Denth said quietly. “I want to know how you killed him.”
“In a duel,” Vasher said with a croaking voice.
“You didn’t beat him in a duel, Vasher,” Denth said, stepping forward. “I know it.”
“Then maybe I snuck up and stabbed him from behind,” Vasher said. “It’s what he deserved.”
Denth backhanded him across the face, causing him to swing slightly from his bonds. “He was a good man.”
“Once,” Vasher said, tasting blood. “Once, we were all good men. Once.”
Denth was quiet. “You think your little quest here will undo what you’ve done?”
“Better than becoming a mercenary,” Vasher said, eying Denth. “Working for whomever will pay.”
“I am what you made of me,” Denth said quietly.
“That girl trusted you. Vivenna.”
Denth turned, eyes darkened, the lanternlight not quite reaching. “She was supposed to.”
“She liked you,” Vasher said. “Then you killed her friend.”
“Things got a little out of hand.”
“They always do, with you,” Vasher said.
Denth raised an eyebrow, face growing amused in the wan light. “I get out of hand, Vasher? Me? When’s the last time I started a war? Slaughtered tens of thousands? Killed my best friend’s sister?”
Vasher didn’t reply. What argument could he make? That Shashara had needed to die? Revealing the cheaper Commands to make Lifeless had been bad enough. What if the way of making Awakened steel, like Nightblood, had entered the war? Undead monsters slaughtering people with Awakened swords crying for blood.
None of that mattered to a brother who had seen his sister murdered.
“I was going to let Tonk Fah have you,” Denth said, turning away again. “He likes hurting things. It’s a weakness he has. We all have weaknesses. With my direction, he’s been able to keep it only to animals. Even that transfixes him. Excites him.”
Denth turned to him, holding up a knife. “And I’ve decided to figure out first hand what he finds so enjoyable about causing pain.”
Dawn was approaching. Vivenna cursed quietly, throwing off her blanket, unable to sleep. She dressed, frustrated, but not sure why. Vasher was probably just fine. He was likely out carousing somewhere.
Of course, she thought wryly, carousing. That sounds just like him.
She knew better. He’d never stayed out an entire night before. Something had happened. And, the only person in the city who knew enough of his movements to realize the danger was Vivenna.
She slowed as she pulled her belt tight, glancing over at Vasher’s pack and the change of clothing he had inside of it.
Every single thing I’ve tried since I left Idris has failed miserably, she thought, continuing to dress. I failed as a revolutionary, I failed as a beggar, and I failed as a sister.
She still wasn’t even certain who she was. She wanted to be competent. To be capable. And yet, it seemed she’d fallen back to her old ways--that of studying and learning. And waiting.
And what am I supposed to do? she thought. Go find him? I don’t even know where to start.
She looked away from the pack. Failure. It wasn’t something she’d been accustomed to, back in Idris. Everything she’d tried had turned out well. She’d studied, and had learned. She’d been favored.
Maybe that is what this is all about, she thought, sitting. My hatred of Hallandren. My insistence on saving Siri, on taking her place.
When her father had chosen Siri over Vivenna, it had been the first time in her life that Vivenna could remember feeling that she wasn’t good enough. So, she’d come to T’Telir, determined to prove that the problem hadn’t been with her. It’d had been with someone else. Anyone else. As long as Vivenna wasn’t flawed.
But, Hallandren repeatedly proved that she was. And, now that she’d tried so many things and failed, she found it hard to act. To do anything. There was a chance that by acting she might fail--and that was so daunting that doing nothing seemed preferable.
It seemed the crowning arrogance in Vivenna’s life. She bowed her head. One last bit of feathered hypocrisy to adorn her hair.
You want to be competent, like you decided to be? She thought. You want to learn to be in control of what goes on around you, rather than just be pushed around?
Then learn to deal with failure.
It was frightening, but she knew it was true. It was like her father had said. The quickest way to teach someone to swim was to throw them in the lake.
She stood up, walking to Vasher’s duffle-like pack. She pulled out a wrinkled overshirt and a pair of leggings she could tie over her trousers. Both had ties hanging down from the cuffs.
Vivenna put them on. Vasher’s spare cloak followed. It smelled like him, and was cut--like his other one--into the vague shape of a man. She understood, now, one of the reasons his clothing looked so tattered.
She pulled out a couple of colorful handkerchiefs. “Protect me,” she Commanded the cloak, imagining it grabbing people who tried to attack her. Then, she placed a hand on the sleeve of the shirt.
“Upon call of necessity,” she Commanded, “become my fingers, and grip that which I must.” She’d only heard Vasher give the Command a couple of times, and she still wasn’t quite sure how to visualize what she wanted the shirt to do. She imagined the tassels closing around her hands like she had seen them do for Vasher. Finally, she Awakened the leggings, commanding them to strengthen her legs.
The leg tassels began to twist, and she raised each foot in turn, letting them wrap around the bottoms. When she lowered her leg, she felt a taut energy to her legs. They felt more firm, the leggings pulled tight against her skin. More sturdy. She smiled, nodding.
Finally, she tied on the sword Vasher had given her. She still didn’t know how to use it, though she could hold it properly. It felt right to bring it.
Then, she left.
Time to go jump in the lake, she thought.
Lightsong had rarely seen a Goddess cry.
“It wasn’t supposed to go this way,” Blushweaver said, apparently heedless of the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I had things under control. I knew what I was doing.”
The dungeons beneath the God King’s palace were in a small, cramped room. Cages lined both walls. They were large enough to hold a God. Lightsong couldn’t decide if that were coincidence or not.
Blushweaver sniffled. “I thought I had the God King’s priesthood on my side. We were working together.”
Something’s wrong about this, Lightsong thought, glancing at the group of priests chatting anxiously at the side of the room. Llarimar sat in his own cage--the one directly next to Lightsong--head bowed.
Lightsong glanced back at Blushweaver. “How long?” he asked. “How long were you working with them?”
“From the beginning,” Blushweaver said. “I was supposed to get the Command Phrases. We came up with the plan together!”
“Why did they turn on you?” Lightsong asked, frowning.
She shook her head, glancing down. “They claimed I didn’t do my part. That I was withholding things from them.”
She looked away, eyes tear-stained. She looked very odd, sitting in her cell. A woman of deific proportions, wearing a fine silken robe, sitting on the ground, surrounded by bars.
We have to get out of here, Lightsong thought. He crawled over to the bars separating his cage from Llarimar’s. “Scoot,” he hissed, glancing at the priests. “Scoot!”
Llarimar glanced up. He looked haggard.
“What does one use to pick a lock?” Lightsong asked.
Llarimar blinked. “What?”
“Pick a lock,” Lightsong said, pointing. “Maybe I’ll discover that I know how to do it, if I get my hands into the right position. I still haven’t figured out why my swordsmanship skills were so poor. But, surely I can do this. If I can only remember what to use.”
Llarimar started at him.
“Maybe I--” Lightsong began.
“What is wrong with you?” Llarimar whispered.
“What is wrong with you!” Llarimar bellowed, standing. “You were a scribe, Lightsong. A Colors-cursed scribe. Not a solider. Not a member of the watch. Not a detective. You were an accountant for a local moneylender!”
What? Lightsong thought.
“You were as much an idiot then as you are now!” Llarimar yelled. “Don’t you ever think about what you’re going to do before you just saunter off and do it! Why can’t you just stop, occasionally, and ask yourself if you’re being a complete fool or not? I’ll give you a hint! The answer us usually yes!”
Lightsong stumbled back from the bars, startled. Llarimar. Llarimar was screaming. He’d always wondered if the priest had a snapping point. He’d pushed on numerous occasions to try and find it. And now, he suddenly felt very guilty.
“And every time,” Llarimar said, turning away, “I end up in trouble with you. Nothing has changed. You become a God, and I still end up in prison!”
The heavy priest slumped down, breathing in deep gasps, shaking his head in obvious frustration.
Lightsong sat down, stunned. Blushweaver was staring at them. And so were the priests.
What is it I find odd about them? Lightsong thought with frustration, trying to sort out his thoughts and emotions as the group approached.
“Lightsong,” one of them said, stooping down beside his cage. “We need your Command Phrases.”
He snorted. “I’m sure you do. Well, I’m sorry to say that I’ve forgotten them. You probably know my reputation for being a little bit weak of mind. I mean, what kind of fool would come charging in here and get himself captured so easily, right?”
He smiled at them.
The priest by his change sighed, then waved a hand toward the others. They unlocked Blushweaver’s cage and pulled her out. She yelled and fought as she had before, and Lightsong smiled at the trouble she gave them. Yet, there were six priests, and they finally managed to get her out.
Then, one got out a knife and slit her throat.
The shock of the moment hit Lightsong like a physical force. He froze, eyes wide, watching in horror as the red blood spilled out the front of Blushweaver’s throat, staining her fine, beautiful nightgown. That was terrible enough.
However, far more disturbing was the look of panicked terror in her eyes. Such beautiful eyes.
“No!” Lightsong screamed, reaching helplessly through the bars, straining his godly muscles, pressing himself against the steel as he felt his body begin to shake.
It was useless, of course. He had a perfect body, but even a perfect body couldn’t push its way through steel.
“You bastards!” he yelled. “You colors-cursed bastards!” He struggled, pounding the bars with one hand, as Blushweaver’s eyes began to dim.
And then, her BioChroma faded. Like a blazing bonfire dimming down to a single candle. Then puffing out.
“No. . . .” Lightsong said, sliding down to his knees, feeling numb.
The priest looked a little confused. “So you did care for her,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He knelt down, solemn. “However, Lightsong, I need you to know that we’re serious. I do know your reputation, of course. I know that you usually take things light-heartedly. That is a fine attribute to have in many situations. However, right now, you must realize how dangerous things are.”
“Bastard. . . .” Lightsong whispered.
“I need your Command Phrases,” the priest said. “This is very important. More important than you can probably understand.”
“You can beat them out of me,” Lightsong said, glancing at the man, feeling rage slowly overwhelm his shock.
“No,” the priest said, shaking his head. “We’re actually rather new to all of this. We don’t know how to torture, Lightsong, and those who do know how aren’t being very cooperative right now. Never pay a mercenary before the job is done.”
The priest waved, and the others left Blushweaver’s corpse on the ground, then moved over to Llarimar’s cage.
“No!” Lightsong screamed.
“We are serious, Lightsong,” the man said. “Very, very, serious. We know how much you care for your high priest. You now know that we will kill if we need to.”
“Why?” Lightsong said. “What is this even about? The God King could command the armies if he wanted to! We’d listen to him. Why do you care so much about those Command Phrases?”
The priests forced Llarimar to his knees. One took out a knife.
“Red panther!” Lightsong yelled, weeping. “That’s the Command Phrase. Please. Leave him be.”
The priest nodded to the others, and they put Llarimar back in his cell and locked it again. They left Blushweaver’s corpse on the ground, face down in the blood, and left the room.
“I hope that you haven’t lied to us, Lightsong,” the main priest said as he withdrew. “We are not playing games. It would be unfortunate if we discovered that you still are.”
He shook his head. “We are not harsh men,” he said, “but we are working for something very important. Do not test us.”
With that, he left. Lightsong barely noticed. He was still staring at Blushweaver, trying to convince himself that he was dreaming, or that she was faking, or that something would change to make him realize that it was all just an elaborate scam.
“Please,” he whispered. “Please, no. . . .”
“What’s the word on the street, Tuft?” Vivenna asked, siding up to a beggar.
He snorted, holding out his cup to those who passed. However, the street was still rather empty. It was too early in the morning. Tuft, however, was always one of the first to arrive in the mornings.
“Why do I care?” he said.
“Come on,” Vivenna said. “You kicked me out of this spot on three different occasions. I figure you owe me something.”
“I don’t owe nobody nothing,” he said, squinting at the street passers with his eye. The other one was simply an empty hole. He didn’t wear a patch. “Particularly don’t owe you nothing,” he said, squinting at Vivenna. “You were a plant all the time. Not a real beggar.”
“I. . . .” Vivenna paused. “I wasn’t a plant, Tuft. I just thought I should know what it was like.”
“Living among you,” she said. “I figured your life couldn’t be easy. But, I couldn’t know--not really know--until I tried it for myself. So, I came to the streets. Determined to live here for a week.”
“Foolish thing to do,” he said with a snort.
“No,” she said. “The fools are those who pass, without even thinking about what it must be like to live as a beggar. Maybe if they knew, they’d actually give you something.”
She reached into her pocket, pulling out one of the bright handkerchiefs she had stuffed in it. She placed one in the cup. “I don’t have any coins. But maybe you can sell that.”
He grunted, eying it, but when he looked back at her it wasn’t greed he seemed to display. But a hint of grudging respect.
“What do you mean by word on the street?” he asked.
“Disturbances,” Vivenna said. “Ones that are out of the ordinary. Perhaps involving Awakeners.”
“Go to the Third Dock Slums,” Tuft said. “I think you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”
Light peeked through the window.
Morning already? Vasher thought, head down, still hanging by his wrists.
He knew what to expect from torture. He was not new to it. He knew how to scream, how to give the torturer what he wanted. He knew how to not expend his strength in resisting or tensing too much.
He also knew that none of that was likely to do any good. It had only been a short time. How would he be after days of this? Blood dripped down his chest, staining his undershorts. A dozen small pains itched at his skin, slices that had been smothered in lemon juice.
Denth stood with his back facing Vasher, bloodied knives on the ground around him.
Vasher looked up, forcing a smile. “Not as fun as you thought it would be, was it, Denth?”
Denth didn’t turn.
There’s still a good man in there, Vasher thought with a sigh. Even after all these years. He’s just been beaten down. Bloodied. Cut up worse than I have been.
“Torturing me won’t bring her back,” Vasher said.
Denth turned, eyes dark. “No. It won’t.” He picked up the knife again.