The priests pushed Siri through the passageways of the palace. They occasionally passed bodies in the dark black hallways, and she could still hear fighting in places.
What is going on?
They left the hallways, entering one of the colorful rooms of the inner palace. Immediately, the white cuffs of Siri’s dress began to bend with color.
She looked up with a sudden hope. The God King stood in the room, surrounded by a group of priests and soldiers.
“Susebron!” she said, straining against her captives.
He took a step toward her, but a guard held his arm, pulling him back.
They’re touching him, Siri thought. All semblance of respect is gone, it appears. No need to pretend now.
The God King looked down at his arm, frowning. He tried to tug it free, but another soldier stepped up to help. He glanced at this man, then at Siri, confused.
“I don’t understand either,” she said.
Tridees entered the room. “Bless the colors,” he said. “You’ve arrived. Quickly, we must go. This place is not safe.”
“Tridees,” Siri said, turning to glare at him. “What is going on?”
He ignored her.
“I am your queen,” Siri said. “You will answer my question.”
He actually paused, surprising her. He turned with an annoyed look. “A group of Lifeless has attacked the palace, Vessel. They are trying to get to the God King.”
Lifeless, attacking? I thought the Hallandren Gods controlled them.
But, of course, that was silly. It wasn’t that difficult to make Lifeless. Every one of them couldn’t be under Hallandren control.
Tridees was speaking with one of the other priests. “We have to move,” he said. “The palace has too many doorways and passages. It would be too easy to surround us.”
“The tunnels?” the other priest said.
“If we can get to them,” Tridees responded. “Where are those reinforcements?”
A scream came from outside the room. Tridees turned, cursing, then began to motion for the guards to run. They hauled Susebron away, and Siri yelled after him. However, just a few moments later, fighting sounded from that direction. The soldiers reappeared, pulling Susebron back into the room, letting go of him.
Siri clung to her husband in the red-colored room, and they backed to the center of it, fighting sounding from all directions outside. There were soldiers in each of the room’s four doorways, and Siri could see grey faces beyond. Men died one at a time, and finally a group of Lifeless burst through one of the doorways, overpowering the guards. They ran toward Susebron.
Priests began to throw themselves in the way.
Siri watched with horror as priest after priest jumped in front of the Lifeless, holding up their arms, bearing no weapons. Dying, cut down easily, all just to slow the Lifeless. She saw Tridees grit his teeth, terror showing in his eyes as he ran forward, throwing himself at a Lifeless. He died like the others.
The Lifeless walked over the corpses. Susebron pushed Siri behind her, arms shaking as he backed toward a wall, facing down the bloodied monsters. But then, the Lifeless stopped, standing quietly. From behind their ranks, a small, balding head appeared.
“Bluefingers?” Siri asked with shock.
He glanced around, apparently checking to make certain the other soldiers had been subdued. Then, he smiled wanly at Siri. “I believe you made me promise to get you out of the palace, should things turn against you,” he said. “Are you ready to go, then?”
It was easy for Vivenna to find the location in question. The building--a slum tenement--was surrounded by people already, despite the morning hour. People whispered, talking about spirits, and death, and ghosts from the sea. Vivenna frowned, standing at the perimeter, trying to decide if she’d wasted her time or not.
The docks were to her left, the sea brine pungent. The dock slums, where many of the dockhands lived and drank, were a small section of buildings clustered between warehouses and shipyards.
Why would Vasher have come here? He had been planning to visit the Court of Gods. She glanced toward it, rising on the plateau-like hill, overlooking the bay.
Apparently there had been a murder in the building near her. People whispered of ghosts, but Vivenna simply shook her head. Not what she was looking for. She’d have to--
Vivenna? The voice was faint, but she could just barely make it out. And recognize it.
“Nightblood?” she whispered, glancing toward the building.
Vivenna. Come get me.
She paused. She wanted to turn away and go--even thinking about the sword made her feel nauseous. Yet, Vasher carried the sword.
Was he the death the people were talking about?
Suddenly concerned, she shoved her way through the crowd, ignoring yells that she should stay back, that the building was cursed. She climbed up the stairs, passing door after door. In her rush, she almost missed the one with black smock creeping underneath it into the stairwell.
She paused. Then, taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The room was poorly kept, the floor littered with trash, the furniture splintered and worn. Four bodies lay dead on the floor. Nightblood was sticking from the chest of the fourth, an old man with a leathery face,
Vivenna! Nightblood said happily. You found me. I’m so excited. I tried to get them to take me to the Court of Gods, but it didn’t turn out well. Though, he did draw me a little bit. That’s good, right?
She fell to her knees, feeling sick.
Vivenna? Nightblood asked. I did well, right? Varatridees threw me into the ocean, but I came back out. I’m quite satisfied. You should tell me that I’m satisfied.
She didn’t respond.
Oh, Nightblood said. And, Vasher is hurt, I think. We should go to him.
She looked up. “Where?” she asked, uncertain if the sword would even be able to hear her.
The God King’s palace, Nightblood said. He went to get your sister out. I think he likes you, even though he says he doesn’t. He thinks you’re annoying.
Vivenna blinked. “Siri? You went after Siri?”
Yes, but Varatridees stopped us.
“Who is that?” She asked, frowning.
You call him Denth. He’s Shashara's brother. I wonder if she’s here too. I’m not sure why he threw me in the water. Why would he do that? I thought he liked me.
“Vasher. . . .” she said, climbing back to her feet, feeling woozy from the sword’s influence. Vasher had been taken by Denth.
She remembered the anger in Denth’s voice when he’d spoken of Vasher during their time together. She shivered. Then, she gritted her teeth and grabbed a dirty blanket off the bedroll, then wrapped it around Nightblood so that she wouldn’t have to touch him.
Ah, Nightblood said. You don’t really need to do that. I had the old man clean me off after he got me out of the water.
She ignored the sword, managing to lift the bundle with only a small amount of nausea. Then, she left, heading for the Court of Gods.
Lightsong sat, staring at the stones in front of him. A little trickle of Blushweaver’s blood was making its way down a crack in the rock.
“Your grace?” Llarimar asked quietly, up against the bars between their cages.
Lightsong didn’t respond.
“Your grace, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
“What good is Godhood,” Lightsong whispered.
Silence. Lanterns flickered on either side of the small chamber. Nobody had cleaned up Blushweaver’s body, though they had left a couple of priests and Lifeless behind to watch Lightsong. They still needed him, should it turn out that he’d lied about the Command Phrases.
“What?” Llarimar finally asked.
“What good is it?” Lightsong said, still staring forward. “We aren’t Gods. Gods don’t die from a simple wound like that. A little cut. Not even as wide as my palm.”
“I’m sorry,” Llarimar said. “She was a good woman, even among Gods.”
“She wasn’t a God,” Lightsong said. “None of us are. I’ve always known it. Nobody pays attention to me, though. Shouldn’t they listen to the one they worship? Particularly if he’s telling you not to worship him?”
“I. . . .” Llarimar seemed at a loss for words.
“They should have seen,” Lightsong said, letting his voice grow bitter. “They should have seen the truth about me. An idiot. Not a God, but a scribe. A foolish little scribe who was allowed to play divine for a few years. A coward.”
“You’re no coward,” Llarimar said.
“I couldn’t save her,” Lightsong said. “I couldn’t do anything. I just sat there and screamed. Maybe if I’d been more brave, I’d have joined with her and taken control of the armies. But, I hesitated. And now she’s dead.”
“You were a scribe,” Llarimar said quietly to the damp air. “And you were one of the best men I’d ever known. You were my brother.”
Lightsong looked up.
Llarimar stared out through the bars, looking toward one of the flickering lanterns set in the stark stone wall. “I was a priest, even then. I worked in the palace of Kindwind the Honest. I saw how he lied, however, to play the games of politics. The longer I spent in that palace, the less I began to believe in the Iridescent Tones.”
He fell silent for a moment, then he looked up, meeting Lightsong’s eyes.
“And then, you died. Died rescuing my daughter from drowning. That’s the girl you see in your visions, Lightsong. The description is perfect. She was your favorite niece. Still would be, I assume. If it hadn’t been for you. . . .”
He shook his head. “When we found you on the shore, dead, I lost hope. I was going to resign my position. I knelt above your body, weeping. And then, the colors started to glow. You lifted your head, body changing, getting larger, muscles growing strong.
“I knew at that moment. I knew that if a man like you were the type chosen to return--a man who had died to save another--then the Tones were real. The visions were real. And the Gods were real. You gave me my faith back, Stennimar.”
He met Lightsong’s eyes. “You are a God. To me, at least. It doesn’t have to do with how easily you can be killed, how much Breath you have, or how you look. It has to do with who you are, and what you mean.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” the guard said, holding up a hand. “All access to the Court of Gods is forbidden at the moment.”
Vivenna ground her teeth. “This is unacceptable,” she said. “I’m to report to the Goddess Allmother at once! Can’t you see how many Breaths I hold? I’m not someone you can just stop and turn away!”
The guards remained firm. There were a good two dozen of them at the gates, turning away anyone who tried to enter. Breaths or no Breaths, it appeared that Vivenna was no exception.
She turned away. Whatever Vasher had done inside the night before, he’d apparently caused quite a stir. People clustered around the gateway to the Court, demanding answers, asking if something was wrong. Vivenna made her way through them.
Go to the side, Nightblood said. Vasher never asks if he can enter. He just goes in.
Vivenna glanced at the side of the plateau. There was a short ledge of ground running around the outside of the wall. With the guards so distracted by the people wanting in. . . .
She slipped to the side, walking around the Court. There were guards on the wall above--she could feel them with her BioChroma. However, they were moving about, and it was early yet, the sun not having crested the eastern mountains. Plus, there were those large tapestries hanging down from the sides of the wall.
She waited until one patrol had passed, then Awakened one of the tapestries. “Lift me,” she said, dropping a drained handkerchief.
The tapestry wrapped around her, drawing her into the air and setting her on the walltop. She glanced to the sides, recovering her breath. To the side, a ways away, a group of guards were pointing at her.
You’re not any better at this than Vasher is, Nightblood noted. You people can’t sneak at all.
She cursed, Awakening the tapestry again, having it lower her down into the Court. She recovered her breath, then took off running across the grassy lawn. Few people were about, but that only made her feel like she stood out even more as she ran.
The palace, Nightblood said. Go there.
That was where she was going. However, the longer she held the sword, the more she was coming to realize that it tended to say whatever it wanted, no matter whether or not its comments were founded. Like a child, speaking or asking questions as they occurred to it.
The front of the palace was very well guarded by a group of men who weren’t wearing soldiers uniforms. Vivenna slowed as she approached, not wanting to draw any more attention. Still, few people were near the palace, and so her approach was noticed.
He’s in there, Nightblood said. I can feel him. Third floor. Where we were before.
And, Vivenna got an image of the room shoved into her head. She frowned.
Remarkably useful, she thought, for an evil weapon of destruction.
I’m not evil, Nightblood said, voice not defensive, simply informative. As if reminding her of something she’d forgotten. I destroy evil. I think maybe we should destroy those men up ahead. They look kind of evil. Right? You should pull me out.
She paused. For some reason, she doubted that would be a good idea.
Come one, Nightblood said.
The soldiers were pointing at her. She glanced behind, and saw others rushing across the lawn.
Austre, forgive me, she thought. Then, gritting her teeth, she threw Nightblood--blanket and all--toward the guards in front of the building.
They stopped paying attention to her, looking down at the sword as it rolled free of the blanket, silver sheath glistening on the lawn.
Well, I guess this works too, Nightblood noted, voice feeling distant now.
One of the soldiers picked up the sword. Vivenna dashed forward, but none of them were paying attention to her anymore. They started to fight.
Can’t go that way, she thought, eying the front entrance. There were too many people--even if they ignored her, she’d have to push her way through fighting men. Plus, the ones behind would eventually catch up to her. So, instead, she ran to the side of the massive palace structure.
The lower levels were made of step-like black blocks. Above these, it grew into a more traditional fortress, with steep walls. But, there were windows, if she could get up.
She twitched her fingers, making the tassels on her sleeves clench and unclench. Then, she jumped, her Awakened leggings tossing her up a few extra feet. She reached up, then made the tassels grab the edge of the large, black block. They held, just barely, gripping the stone like foot-long fingers. With difficulty, Vivenna pulled herself up onto the top of the block.
Men yelled and screamed below, and she spared a glance. The one who had grabbed Nightblood was fighting off the others, a small trail of black smoke swirling around him. As she watched, he backed into the entryway of the palace itself, the other men following him.
So much evil, Nightblood said, like a woman tisking as she cleaned cobwebs from her ceiling.
Vivenna turned away, feeling guilty for giving the sword to the men. But what else was there to do? She jumped up and pulled herself onto the next block, continuing as the guards from the walls arrived. They wore the colors of the city guard, and while a couple of them got caught up in the Nightblood fight, most of them ignored it, moving to the sides of the building, apparently running for other entrances.
Vivenna continued her way up.
To the right, Nightblood said distantly. That window on the third floor. Two over. He’s in there. . . .
And his voice faded. Vivenna looked up, glancing at the window indicated. It was still up a number of blocks, then an entire story straight up the side of the wall. There did appear to be some stonework that could make for handholds, but she grew dizzy at even trying it.
An arrow snapped against the stone beside her, making her jump. Below, several guards had bows, and were firing.
Colors! She thought, running and pulling herself up on the next block. She heard a whoosh behind her, and cringed, feeling as if she should have been struck. However, nothing happened. She pulled herself up onto the block, then twisted around.
She barely caught sight of her cloak holding an arrow. She started, remembering that she had Awakened it. It dropped the arrow, then returned to normal.
Handy, that, she thought, climbing up the last block. By the time she got up on top of it, her arms were sore and tired, and her legs were doing little better. Fortunately, her Awakened fingers were still gripping as well as ever, and her cloak continued to catch arrows. She took a deep breath, then began to climb up the sheer outside of the black fortress.
And decided, for her own sanity, that she’d probably better avoid looking down.
Lightsong didn’t know what to make of his life. Too much information. To much was happening. Blushweaver’s death and Llarimar’s revelation, all in such quick succession.
He sat in his cell, arms wrapped around himself, gold and red robes dirtied from crawling through the tunnel, then sitting in his cage.
The priests talked quietly on the far side of the room. And, oddly, as he glanced at them, something took his mind away from everything else. A diversion, of sorts.
He finally realized what was bothering him about them. He should have seen it earlier. It had to do with color--not the color of their clothing, but the color of their faces. It was just slightly off. The deviation in one of them would have been easy to ignore. And yet, all of them together. . .it was a pattern.
No regular person could have noticed it. But, to a man with the Third Heightening--capable of noticing even tiny degrees of color change--it seemed obvious, once he knew what to look for.
These men were not from Hallandren.
Anyone can wear a priest’s robes, he realized.
“Bluefingers,” Siri said, frowning. “Where are we going?”
The labyrinth of the God King’s palace was complex, and it was difficult even still for her to find her way about. They’d traveled down a stairwell, but now seemed to be going up a different one.
Bluefingers didn’t answer. He walked with his customary nervousness, wringing his hands. The fighting in the hallways seemed to be decreasing. In fact, this latest hallway was dreadfully quiet.
Siri walked with Susebron’s nervous arm around her waist. She didn’t know what he was thinking--they hadn’t been able to pause long enough for him to write anything. He gave her a comforting smile, but she knew that this all must be just as confusing for him as it was for her. Probably more so.
The procession paused beside the stairwell.
“Bluefingers?” she asked, turning to the brown robed scribe again.
He looked at her, then glanced away. A Lifeless laid his hand on her shoulder.
Siri began to grow afraid. And, slowly--suddenly--things began to click into place.
“It always seemed so strange,” she said. “Why would Hallandren be so eager for war? What did they really have to gain? But, Pahn Kahl. . . .”
“We’ve been dominated for centuries,” Bluefingers said. “Everyone always just assumes that we’re Hallandren. Everyone talks like we should worship the Returned. We’ve been a conquered people for so long, everyone thinks we might as well just join with our captors.”
Colors. . . . Siri thought. “War between Idris and Hallandren,” she said. “It would leave both weakened. Even though we all know that Hallandren will probably win, it will cost lots of soldiers.”
“It is the only way we’d ever be able to break free,” Bluefingers said.
“But, you can’t!” Siri said. “The Idrians are innocent!”
Bluefingers shook his head. “How many of my people would you sacrifice, if it would mean the freedom of your own, Siri?”
“None!” she said.
“I should like to see you say that if our positions were reversed,” he said, still not meeting her eyes. “I’m. . .sorry for your pain. But, your people are not innocent. They’re the same as the Hallandren. In the Manywar, you rolled over us, made us your workers and slaves. Only at the end, when the royal family fled, did Idris and Hallandren split.”
“Please,” Siri said.
Susebron suddenly punched a Lifeless. He growled, struggling as he kicked at another. There were dozens of them. He looked at her, waving a hand, motioning for her to flee. However, the Lifeless beside her had her held firm.
A couple of men in the robes of Susebron’s priesthood left the stairwell ahead of them, carrying lanterns. Siri, looking closely, immediately recognized them as being from Pahn Kahl.
I’ve been a fool, she thought. The one man I shouldn’t trust was the one I did!
But, he had played the game so well. Driving a wedge between her and the priests from the start, hinting at their secret purpose. Most of her concern and worry, she’d gotten from him--and it had been reinforced by the priest’s arrogance and refusal to talk to her.
“We have Lightsong’s Command Phrase,” one of the new men said to Bluefingers. “We have checked it, and it works. We changed it to the new one.”
Siri glanced to the side. The Lifeless had pulled Susebron to the ground.
He yelled, but without a tongue, it came out as a strangely loud moan. Siri yanked suddenly, trying to escape her Lifeless and help him, but it didn’t work.
He was right all along, she thought. We should have trusted the priests.
To the side, Bluefingers nodded, looking fatigued. “Very well. Give the Command. Order the Lifeless to march on Idris immediately.”
“It will be done,” the man said, laying a hand on Bluefingers’ shoulder.
He nodded. He seemed oddly morose as the others withdrew.
“What do you have to be sad about,” she spat.
Bluefingers turned toward her. “My friends now hold the only Command Phrases for those Lifeless. Once they give the order to march on Idris and destroy everything they find there, my friends will kill themselves with poison. Nobody will be left alive who can stop the creatures.”
Austre. . . . Siri thought, feeling numb. Lord of Colors. . .
“Take him below,” Bluefingers said, waving to several Lifeless. “Hold him until it is time.” They were joined by a scribe in a brown robe as they towed Susebron toward the stairwell. Siri reached for him. He continued to struggle, reaching back. The Lifeless pulled him away. She listened to his yells echoing down the stairwell.
“What will you do with him?” Siri asked, tears cold on her cheeks.
Bluefingers glanced at her, but once again, would not meet her eyes. “There will be many in the Hallandren government who see the Lifeless charge as a political faux pas, and they may seek to stop the advance. Unless Hallandren actually commits itself to this war, then our sacrifice will be useless.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We will take the bodies of the two Returned--the ones with the Command Phrases--and leave them in the Lifeless barracks, surrounded by dead Idrians. Then, we will leave the corpse of the God King to be discovered in the palace dungeons. Those who investigate will assume that Idrian assassins attacked and killed him--we’ve hired enough mercenaries from the Idrian slums that it shouldn’t be too difficult to believe. Those scribes who survive the night will solidify the story.”