Siri blinked out tears. They’ll find Lightsong and Blushweaver, and assume they ran to release the Lifeless. Everyone will assume that they sent the armies as retribution for the death of the God King.
And, with the king dead, the people will be angry. Even more willing to support the war.
“I wish you hadn’t gotten involved in all of this,” Bluefingers said, motioning for her Lifeless captors to pull her along. “It would have been easier for me if you’d been able to keep yourself from getting pregnant.”
“I’m not!” she said.
“The people think you are,” he said with a sigh as they walked toward the stairwell. “And that’s enough. We have to break this government. And, we have to make the Idrians mad enough to want to destroy the Hallandren. I think they’ll do better in this war than people think, especially if the Lifeless march as they do, without direction. They can be ambushed, perhaps reduced somewhat.
“But, the Idrians have to want to fight. Both sides have to hate each other. . . .”
And what better way to do that, she thought, than to kill me? Both sides will see the death of my supposed child as an act of war. The Hallandrens, because they’ll think they lost their heir--that their monarchy is broken--the Idrians because they’ll assume I was killed by Hallandren deceit.
This won’t simply be a war of domination. It will be a drawn out war of hatred. The Idrians will draw back into the hills and the caves. The fighting could last for decades.
And nobody will ever realize that our real enemy--the one who started it all--is a peaceful, quiet country to the south of Hallandren.
Vivenna hung outside the window, breathing deeply, sweating heavily. She’d peeked inside. Denth was in there, as was Tonk Fah. Vasher hung from a rope at the ceiling. He was bloodied, and he held no Breath, but he seemed to still be alive.
Denth wore his sword.
Can I stop them both? she thought. Her arms were tired. She had a length of rope in her pocket. What if she threw it and missed?
She had seen Denth fight. He was faster than she’d thought possible of a man. She would have to surprise him.
What am I doing? she thought. Hanging from a wall, about to challenge two professional soldiers?
Yet, for some reason, she wasn’t really that frightened. She was nervous, of course. Yet, how bad could it be? They might kill her. Well, she’d survived betrayals. She’d been pushed down, forced to admit that she’d unwittingly betrayed her people. There wasn’t really any more they could do to her.
And, for some reason, that gave her power. She smiled, surprised at her own determination as she quietly recovered the Breath from her cloak and her leggingss. Vasher had warned her to never go into a fight with everything tied up on things already awakened.
Then, she Awakened a pair of rope bits, telling them to grab when thrown. Finally, she took a deep breath and threw herself up through the window and into the room.
Vasher was moaning. Tonk Fah was dozing in the corner. Denth, holding a bloody knife, looked at her immediately as she hopped up through the window.
The look of utter shock on his face was, in itself, almost worth everything she’d been through. She tossed the rope at him, then threw the other at Tonk Fah, who was sitting up in shock.
Denth reacted immediately, cutting the rope out of the air with his dagger. The pieces of it twisted and wiggled, but weren’t long enough to grab anything. The one she threw at Tonk Fah however, hit. He cried out as it wrapped around his face and neck, his hands working to pry it free.
Vivenna pulled to a halt, standing beside Vasher’s swinging body. Denth had his sword out already; he’d pulled it free more quickly than she could track.
Vivenna gulped, then pulled out her own sword, holding it forward as Vasher had taught her. Denth paused just briefly in surprise.
That was enough. She swung--not for Denth, but for the rope holding Vasher to the ceiling. He fell with a grunt, and Denth struck, slamming the point of his dueling blade through her shoulder.
She fell, gasping in pain.
Denth stepped back. “Hello, princess,” he said, warily holding his blade. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Tonk Fah made a gagging sound as he continued to choke.
Once, the pain in her shoulder might have been dehabilitating. But, after the beatings she’d taken on the street, it seemed somewhat familiar to her. She looked up, and met his eyes.
“Was this supposed to be a rescue?” Denth asked. “Because honestly, I’m not very impressed.”
Tonk Fah knocked over his stool in his thrashing. Denth glanced at him, then back at Vivenna. Finally, he gritted his teeth in frustration and jumped over to cut at the rope on Tonk Fah’s neck.
“You all right?” Vasher asked from beside her. She was shocked by how solid his voice sounded, despite his bloodied body.
“They’re going to send Lifeless marching on your homeland,” he said. “We’ve been wrong about this all along. I don’t know who’s behind it, but I think they’re winning.”
Denth finally got the rope cut free.
“You need to run,” Vasher said, wiggling his hands free from their rope bonds. “Get back to your people, tell them not to fight the Lifeless. They need to flee the country, head through the northern passes.”
Vivenna glanced back at Denth, who was smacking Tonk Fah back awake. Then, she closed her eyes. “Your Breath to mine,” she said, drawing back in the Breath from her hand tassels. Then, she reached out, placing her hand on Vasher’s back.
Her life became dull. Beside her, Vasher gasped, then began to convulse slightly with the bestowal of Breath. Denth stood up, spinning.
“You do it,” Vivenna whispered. “You’ll be far better at it than I will be.”
“Stubborn woman,” he said, convulsions leaving him. He reached out, as if to restore her Breath to her, but he noticed Denth.
Denth smiled, raising his blade. Vivenna put a hand to her shoulder, stopping the blood flow. Vasher stood, taking her sword in his hand. He wore only the bloody undershorts, but his stance was firm. He slowly wrapped the rope that had been holding him up around his waist, forming his characteristic belt.
How does he do it? she thought. Where does his strength come from?
“I should have cut you more,” Denth said, smiling. “I took my time. Savoring it too much.”
Vasher snorted, tying off the belt. Denth seemed to be waiting, anticipating something.
“I’ve always found it funny that we bleed, just like regular men,” Denth said. “We might be stronger, but we die just the same.”
“Not the same,” Vasher said, raising his own blade. “Other men die with far more honor than we, Denth.”
Denth smiled. Vivenna could see excitement in his eyes. He always claimed that there was no way Vasher could have beat his friend, Arsteel, in a duel, she thought. He wants to duel. He wants to prove to himself that Vasher isn’t as good as he is.
Blades whipped into motion. And, after just a quick exchange, Vivenna could see that there was no contest. Denth was the better. His blade was more quick, his stance more controlled.
Perhaps it was Vasher’s wounds. Or, perhaps it was the growing anger she saw in his eyes as he fought. Maybe he really just wasn’t as good as Denth. However, as Vivenna watched, she realized that Vasher was going to lose this fight.
I didn’t do all of this so you could just die! she thought, rising to try to help.
A hand fell on her shoulder, pushing her back down. “I don’t think so,” Tonk Fah said, looming over her. “Nice trick with the rope, by the way. Very clever. I know a few tricks myself. Did you know a rope could burn a person?” He smiled. Then, he leaned down. “Mercenary humor, you see.”
His cloak slid slightly off his shoulder, falling on her cheek.
Wait a minute, she thought. That’s the same cloak he was wearing before. When I escaped from him. I tried to Awaken it, but used a bad Command.
She smiled, glancing backward. Vasher had backed against the far wall, back to the window, and he was sweating profusely, bloody drops falling to the ground. Denth forced him back again, and Vasher stepped up on the table by the far wall, seeing high ground.
She looked back at Tonk Fah, his cloak touching her cheek. “Your Breath to mine,” she said. And, she felt a sudden, welcoming burst of Breath.
“Huh?” Tonk Fah said, looking down from the dueling men.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just. . .Attack and grab Denth!” Command made, visualization made, the cloak began to quiver. Tonk Fah’s shirt drained of color, and he looked down with surprise.
The cloak suddenly whipped into the air, yanking Tonk Fah to the side causing him to stumble away from her.
That’s why I’m the princess, and you’re just a mercenary, she thought with satisfaction, rolling over.
Tonk Fah cried out. Denth spun at the sound, eyes opening wide as a very large, very uncoordinated Tonk Fah rammed into him, cloak whipping about. Denth slammed backward, catching Vasher by surprise as well.
Tonk Fah grunted. Denth cursed. Vasher was shoved back out the window.
Vivenna blinked in surprise. Denth cut away the cloak, pushing Tonk Fah back.
All was silent in the room for a moment.
“Go grab our squad of Lifeless!” Denth said. “Now!”
“You think he’ll live?” Tonk Fah asked.
“He just fell out a three story window, plummeting toward certain doom,” Denth said. “Of course he’ll live! Send the squad for the front doors to slow him!” Denth paused, glancing at Vivenna. “You, princess, are far too much trouble for what you’re worth.”
“So people are fond of telling me,” she said with a sigh.
Vasher fell toward the hard stone blocks below. He watched the window retreat above him.
Almost, he thought with frustration. I just about had him!
Wind whistled. He yelled in frustration, pulling free the rope at his waist, Vivenna’s Breath a lively strength within him.
“Grab things,” he Commanded, whipping it out, drawing color from his blood-stained shorts. They bled to grey, and the rope wrapped around an outcropping of stone on the side of the palace in front of him. It pulled taught, and he ran sideways along the ebony blocks.
“Your Breath to mine,” he yelled, momentum slowed. The rope dropped free and he landed on the first block. “Become as my Leg and give it strength!” he Commanded, drawing color from the blood on his chest. The rope twisted down, wrapping around his leg and foot as he leaped off the block. He landed on one foot, the coiled rope bearing the brunt of the shock, and he hopped off again.
Four hops, and he hit the ground. A group of soldiers stood amidst some bodies at the front gates, looking confused. Vasher barreled toward them, translucent, colorless blood dropping from his skin as he drew the Breath back from his rope.
He scooped a sword off of a fallen soldier. The men in front of him charged him.
He didn’t have the time, or the patience, for pleasantries. He struck, cutting men down with quick efficiency. He wasn’t as good as Denth, true, but he was very well practiced.
Still, there were a lot of men. Vasher cursed, spinning between them, dropping another one. He bent down, slapping his hand against the waist of a fallen soldier, touching both shirt and pants.
“Fight for me, as if you were me,” he Commanded, draining a patch of grass around him completely grey. He spun, blocking a sword strike. Another came from the side, and another. He couldn’t block them all.
Another sword rose, blocking the blow. The dead man’s shirt and trousers, having pulled themselves free, stood holding a blade. They struck, as if controlled by an invisible person inside, blocking and attacking with skill. Vasher put his back to the Awakened construct, fighting. When he had a chance, he made another one, draining away most of his remaining Breath.
They fought in a trio, Vasher and his two sets of Awakened clothing. The men cursed, much more wary now, keeping their distance. Vasher eyed them, planning an attack.
At that moment, a troop of some fifty Lifeless barreled around the corner, charging toward him.
Damn! Vasher thought, his frustration rising. He growled in rage, striking and taking down another soldier.
Damn, damn, damn!
You shouldn’t swear, a voice said in his head. Shashara told me that was evil.
Vasher spun toward the sound. A little line of smoke was trailing out from beneath the closed front doors of the palace.
Aren’t you going to thank me? Nightblood said. I came to save you.
One of his sets of clothing fell, the leg cut free by a clever strike from a soldier. Vasher paused, then reached back, drawing the Breath back out of the second set of clothing. The soldiers drew back again, wary, apparently wanting to let the Lifeless take him.
And in that moment of peace, Vasher charged for the gates to the palace. He threw his shoulder against the door, slamming it open, skidding into the entryway.
A large group of men lay dead on the ground. Nightblood sprouted from a chest, as usual, hilt pointing toward the sky. Vasher paused only briefly. Then, he ran forward and grabbed the hilt of the sword.
And pulled it free of the sheath, which remained behind in the body.
The blade sprayed a wave of black liquid as it flashed in the air. It dissolved into smoke before touching walls or floor, like water in an oven. Smoke twisted, some rising from the blade, some falling in a stream to the floor, dripping like black blood.
Destroy! Evil! Nightblood’s voice boomed in his head.
A pain shot up Vasher’s arm, and he felt his Breath being leached away, sucked into the blade, fueling its hunger. He spun toward the charging Lifeless and--enraged--attacked.
Each one he struck with the blade immediately flashed and became smoke. A single scratch, and the body dissolved like a piece of paper being consumed by an invisible fire, leaving behind only a puff of blackness in the air. Vasher spun among them, not worrying about proper form, killing creature after creature. Black smoke puffed around him, and his arm twisted with pain, black, vein like tendrils climbing up the hilt around his forearm. Like blood vessels that latched on, feeding off his Breath.
In a matter of minutes, that which Vivenna had given him had been reduced by a half. Yet, in those moments, he destroyed all fifty Lifeless. The soldiers outside pulled to a halt, watching the display.
Then they ran.
Vasher screamed, spinning toward the palace building. He charged forward, slamming Nightblood through a wall. It dissolved just as easily, puffing away before him as he charged in the direction he had left Denth. He didn’t bother with a stairwell. He simply jumped onto a table and rammed Nightblood into the ceiling.
A circle ten feet wide vanished, dark, mist-like smoke falling around him like rain. He Awakened his rope again, then tossed it up, using it to pull himself up onto the next floor. A moment later, did it again, climbing onto the third floor.
He spun, slashing through walls, yelling as he ran back toward Denth. The pain in his arm was incredible, and his Breath was draining away at an alarming rate. Once it was gone, Nightblood would kill him.
Everything was growing fuzzy. He slashed through a final wall, finding the room where he had been tortured. It was empty.
He cried out, arm shaking.
Destroy. . .evil. . . Nightblood said in his mind, all lightness gone from the tone, all familiarity. It boomed like a command. An awful, inhuman thing. The longer he held the sword, the faster it drained his Breath.
Gasping, Vasher threw the sword aside and fell to his knees. It skidded, tearing a rip in the ground that puffed away into smoke, but hit a wall with a pling and fell still. Smoke rose off of it, but not like it had before.
Vasher knelt, gasping, arm twitching. The black veins, however, slowly evaporated. He was left with just about fifty breaths, barely to the First Heightening.
Another few seconds, and it would have sucked away Vasher’s life. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision.
Something fell to the carpet in front of him. A dueling blade. Vasher looked up.
“I thought I got rid of that Colors-cursed thing,” Denth said, eyes hard. “Stand up. We’re going to finish that duel.”
Bluefingers led Siri--held by several Lifeless--up to the fourth floor of the palace. The top floor. They left the stairwell behind and entered a room decorated with lavish colors, even for Hallandren. Lifeless let them pass, bowing their heads to Bluefingers.
All the Lifeless in the city are controlled by Bluefingers and his scribes, she thought. They have access to everything in the court--can get their fingers into everything. Did the Hallandrens realize that they were dooming themselves by regulating the Pahn Kahl people to such lowly--yet important--positions.
“My people will not fall for this,” Siri found herself saying as she was pulled to the front of the room. “They won’t fight you. If it’s a losing battle, they’ll retreat through the passes. Take refuge in one of the outer kingdoms.”
The front of the room held a black block of stone, shaped like an altar. Siri frowned, looking at it. From behind, a group of Lifeless entered, carrying the corpse of several priests. She saw Tridees’s body among them.
What? Siri thought.
Bluefingers turned toward her. “We’ll make certain they’re angry,” he said. “Trust me. When this is through, princess, Iris’s people will fight until either they, or Hallandren, is destroyed.”
They tossed someone into the cell next to Lightsong. He looked up with tired eyes, almost uncaring. It was another Returned. Which of the Gods had they taken captive this time?
The God King, he thought. Interesting.
He looked down again. Who cared? What did it matter? He’d failed Blushweaver. He’d failed everyone. The Lifeless armies were probably already marching on Idris. It seemed such a simply plan to him.
They had all been played for fools. Hallandren and Idris would fight, and the Pahn Kahl people would have their revenge for three hundred years of being a subject kingdom.
Vasher stood with difficulty. He held the sword in a weak hand, looking at Denth, breathing with difficulty. The empty black hallway was now open around them. Vasher had destroyed several of the walls.
Corpses littered the floor, the result of whatever conflicts had happened when Denth’s men had taken over the palace.
` “I’ll let you die easily,” Denth said, raising his blade. “Just tell me the truth. You never beat Arsteel in a duel.”
Vasher raised his own blade. The cuts, the pain in his arm, the tiredness of being awake so long. . .it was all wearing on him. Adrenaline could only get him so far, and even his body could only take so much.
“Have it your way,” Denth said, attacking.
Vasher backed away, forced--as always--onto the defensive by Denth’s attack. Denth had always been better, at swordplay at least. Vasher had been better at research, but what had that earned him? Discoveries that had ended in the Manywar.
He fought. He fought well, he knew, for how tired he was. But, it did little good. Denth drove his blade through Vasher’s left shoulder--Denth’s favorite place for a first strike. It allowed his opponent to keep fighting, wounded.
“You never beat him,” Denth whispered.
“You’re going to kill me on an altar,” Siri said. Around her, Lifeless placed bodies on the floor. Priests. “It doesn’t make sense, Bluefingers. You don’t worship their religion. Why do this?”
Bluefingers stood to the side, holding a knife. She could see the shame in his eyes.
“You don’t have to do this,” Siri said, struggling against the grip of her Lifeless.
Bluefingers finally looked at her. “After all I’ve already done, do you think one more death will mean anything to me?”
“After all you’ve done,” she said, “do you really think one more death will matter for your cause?”
He glanced at the altar. “Yes,” he said. “You know what the Idrians whisper about the things that go on in the Court of Gods. They’ve never trusted the Hallandren priests and their religion. Well, we are going to let a group of those Idrian mercenaries in to see this, once you are dead. We’ll show them that we were too late to save you, that the priests had already killed you on one of their twisted altars. We’ll show them the dead priests that we slew, and apologize for not getting here in time to save their princess’s life.
“Once rumors of this get around, the Idrians will riot in the city. They’re strained to snapping anyway--we have you to thank for helping us do that. The city will be in chaos, and there will be a slaughter like hasn’t been seen since the Manywar. Those that live will return to Idris to tell the tale. They’ll let everyone know that the Hallandrens only wanted a princess of the royal blood so that they could sacrifice her to their God King.”
He glanced back at her. “I truly am sorry. But, the freedom of my people is more important than any of us.”
I am nothing, Lightsong thought. Why couldn’t I save her? Why couldn’t I protect her?
He was crying again. Oddly, someone else was too. The man in the cell next to his right. The God King. He moaned with frustration, pounding against the bars of his cage. He didn’t speak, though, or denounce his captors.
I wonder why that is, Lightsong thought.
Men were approaching the God King’s cell. Pahn Kahl men, with weapons. Their expressions were grim.
Lightsong found it hard to care.
You are a God. Llarimar’s voice still challenged him. The high priest lay in his own cell, to Lightsong’s left, staring up at the ceiling.
You are a God. To me at least.
Lightsong shook his head. No. I’m nothing. No God. Not even a good man.
You are. . .to me. . .
Water splashed against him. Lightsong shook his head, confused. Thunder sounded, oddly, in his head. It seemed distant. Nobody else seemed to notice.
It was growing dark.
He was on a ship. Tossing, churning, on a dark sea. Lightsong stood on the deck, trying to stay upright on the slick boards. Part of him knew it was simply a hallucination, that he was still back in the prison cell, but it felt so real.
The waves churned, and his face slammed up against the cabin section of the ship. Light from a pole-mounted lantern flickered uncertainly, and seemed weak as lightning flashed in the air, violent and angry. Lightsong blinked.
His face was pressed up against something painted on the wood. A red panther, glistening in the lanternlight and the rain.
The name of the ship, he remembered, the Red Panther.
He wasn’t Lightsong. Or, he was, but he was a much pudgier version of himself. A man accustomed to being a scribe. To working long hours counting up coins. Checking legers.
Seeking for lost money. That’s what he’d done. He had been the one that people hired to discover where they’d been cheated or if a contract hadn’t been paid right. He looked through the books, searching out hidden or confusing twists of math.