Breath catching in her chest, Siri turned. She found him standing behind her, though she had no idea how he had arrived. There was no entrance back there, just the stone wall.
He wore white. She hadn’t expected that. Something about his BioChroma made the pure white split as she’d seen before, breaking up like light passed through a prism. Now, in daylight, she could finally see this properly. His clothing seemed to stretch, forming a robe-shaped rainbow in a colorful aura around him.
And he was young. Far younger than her shadowed meetings had suggested. He had supposedly reigned in Hallandren for decades, yet the man standing behind her appeared to be no more than twenty. She stared at him, awed, mouth opening slightly, and any words she had planned to say escaped her. This man was a god. The very air distorted around him. How could she have not seen it? How could she possibly have treated him as she had? She felt like a fool.
He regarded her, expression blank and unreadable, face so controlled that he reminded Siri of Vivenna. Vivenna. She wouldn’t have been so belligerent. She would have deserved marriage to such a majestic creature.
The serving woman hissed quietly, tugging again at Siri’s dress. Belatedly, Siri dropped to her knees on the stone, the long train of her dress flapping slightly in the wind behind her.
Blushweaver knelt obediently on her cushion. Lightsong, however, remained standing, looking across the stadium toward a man he could barely see. The God King wore white, as he often did, for dramatic effect. As the only being to have achieved the Tenth Heightening, the God King had such a strong aura that he could draw color even from something colorless.
Blushweaver glanced up at Lightsong.
“Why do we kneel?” Lightsong asked.
“That’s our king!” Blushweaver hissed. “Drop down, fool.”
“What will happen if I don’t?” Lightsong said. “They can’t execute me. I’m a god.”
“You could hurt our cause!”
“Our cause”? Lightsong thought. One meeting and I’m already part of her plans?
However, he wasn’t so foolish that he would needlessly earn the God King’s ire. Why risk his perfect life, full of people who would carry his chair through the rain and shell his nuts for him? He knelt down on his cushion. The God King’s superiority was arbitrary, much like Lightsong’s divinity—both part of a grand game of make-believe.
But he’d found that imaginary things were often the only items of real substance in people’s lives.
Siri breathed quickly, kneeling on the stone before her husband. The entire arena was hushed and still. Eyes downcast, she could still see Susebron’s white-clothed feet in front of her. Even they gave off an aura of color, the white straps of his sandals bending out colorful ribbons.
Two coils of colorful rope hit the ground on either side of the God King. Siri watched as the ropes twisted with a life of their own, carefully wrapping around Susebron and pulling him into the air. His white robes fluttered as he was towed up through the space between the canopy and the back wall. Siri leaned forward, watching the ropes deliver her husband to a stone outcropping above. He sat back into a golden throne. Beside him, a pair of Awakener priests commanded their living ropes to roll up around their arms and shoulders.
The God King stretched out his hand. The people stood up—their chatter beginning again—and reseated themselves. So . . . he’s not going to sit with me, she thought as she rose. A part of her was relieved, though another was just as frustrated. She’d been getting over her awe of being in Hallandren and being married to a god. Now he’d gone and impressed her all over again. Troubled, she sat and stared out over the crowds, barely watching as a group of priests entered the arena below.
What was she to make of Susebron? He couldn’t be a god. Not really. Could he?
Austre was the true God of men, the one who sent the Returned. The Hallandren had worshipped him too, before the Manywar and the exile of the royal family. Only after that had they fallen, becoming pagans, worshipping the Iridescent Tones: BioChromatic Breath, the Returned, and art in general.
And yet, Siri had never seen Austre. She’d been taught about him, but what was one to make of a creature like the God King? That divine halo of color wasn’t something that she could ignore. She began to understand just how the people of Hallandren—after nearly being destroyed by their enemies, then being saved by the diplomatic skills of Peacegiver the Blessed—could look to the Returned for divine guidance.
She sighed, glancing to the side as a figure walked up the steps toward her box. It was Bluefingers—hands stained with ink, characteristically scribbling away on a ledger even as he entered her pavilion. He glanced up at the God King, nodded to himself, then made another annotation on his ledger. “I see that His Immortal Majesty is positioned and that you are properly displayed, Vessel.”
“Of course,” Bluefingers said. “That is the main purpose of your visit here. The Returned didn’t get much of a chance to see you when you first came to us.”
Siri shivered, trying to maintain a better posture. “Shouldn’t they be paying attention to the priests down there? Instead of studying me, I mean.”
“Probably,” Bluefingers said, not looking up from his ledger. “In my experience, they rarely do what they’re supposed to.” He didn’t seem particularly reverent toward them.
Siri let the conversation lapse, thinking. Bluefingers had never explained his odd warning the other night. Things are not what they seem. “Bluefingers,” she said. “About the thing you told me the other night. The—”
He immediately shot her a look—eyes wide and insistent—cutting her off. He turned back to his ledger. The message was obvious. Not right now.
Siri sighed, resisting the urge to slump down. Below, priests of various colors stood on short platforms, debating despite the drizzling rain. She could hear them quite well, yet little of what they said made sense to her—the current debate appeared to have something to do with the way refuse and sewage was handled in the city.
“Bluefingers,” she asked. “Are they really gods?”
The scribe hesitated, then finally looked up from his ledger. “Vessel?”
“The Returned. Do you really think that they’re divine? That they can see the future?”
“I . . . don’t think I’m the right one to ask, Vessel. Let me fetch one of the priests. He can answer your questions. Just give me a—”
“No,” Siri said, causing him to stop. “I don’t want a priest’s opinion—I want the opinion of a regular person, like you. A typical follower.”
Bluefingers frowned. “All apologies, Vessel, but I’m not a follower of the Returned.”
“But you work in the palace.”
“And you live there, Vessel. Yet neither of us worship the Iridescent Tones. You are from Idris. I am from Pahn Kahl.”
“Pahn Kahl is the same as Hallandren.”
Bluefingers raised an eyebrow, pursing his lips. “Actually, Vessel, it’s quite different.”
“But you’re ruled by the God King.”
“We can accept him as king without worshipping him as our god,” Bluefingers said. “That is one of the reasons why I’m a steward in the palace instead of a priest.”
His robes, Siri thought. Maybe that’s why he always wears brown. She turned, glancing down at the priests upon their pedestals in the sand. Each wore a different set of colors, each representing—she assumed—a different one of the Returned. “So what do you think of them?”
“Good people,” Bluefingers said, “but misguided. A little like I think of you, Vessel.”
She glanced at him. He, however, had already turned back to his ledgers. He wasn’t the easiest man with whom to have a conversation. “But how do you explain the God King’s radiance?”
“BioChroma,” Bluefingers said, still scribbling, not sounding at all annoyed by her questions. He was obviously a man accustomed to dealing with interruption.
“The rest of the Returned don’t bend white into colors like he does, do they?”
“No,” Bluefingers said, “indeed they do not. They, however, don’t hold the wealth of Breaths that he does.”
“So he is different,” Siri said. “Why was he born with more?”
“He wasn’t, Vessel. The God King’s power does not derive from the inherent BioChroma of being a Returned—in that, he is identical to the others. However, he holds something else. The Light of Peace, they call it. A fancy word for a treasure trove of Breath that numbers somewhere in the tens of thousands.”
Tens of thousands? Siri thought. “That much?”
Bluefingers nodded distractedly. “The God Kings are said to be the only ones to ever achieve the Tenth Heightening. That is what makes light fracture around him, as well as gives him other abilities. The ability to break Lifeless Commands, for instance, or the ability to Awaken objects without touching them, using only the sound of his voice. These powers are less a function of divinity, and more a simple matter of holding so much Breath.”
“But where did he get it?”
“The majority of it was originally gathered by Peacegiver the Blessed,” Bluefingers said. “He collected thousands of Breaths during the days of the Manywar. He passed those on to the first Hallandren God King. That inheritance has been transferred from father to son for centuries—and has been enlarged, since each God King is given two Breaths a week, instead of the one that the other Returned receive.”
“Oh,” Siri said, sitting back, finding herself oddly disappointed by the news. Susebron was not a god, he was simply a man with far more BioChroma than normal.
But . . . what of the Returned themselves? Siri folded her arms again, still troubled. She’d never been forced to look objectively at what she believed. Austre was simply . . . well, God. You didn’t question people when they talked about God. The Returned were usurpers, who had cast the followers of Austre out of Hallandren, not true deities themselves.
Yet they were so majestic. Why had the royal family been cast out of Hallandren? She knew the official story taught in Idris—that the royals hadn’t supported the conflicts that led up to the Manywar. For that, the people had revolted against them. That revolt had been led by Kalad the Usurper.
Kalad. Though Siri had avoided most of her tutorial sessions, even she knew the stories of that man. He was the one who had led the people of Hallandren in the heresy of building Lifeless. He had created a powerful army of the creatures, one the likes of which had never been seen in the land. The stories said Kalad’s Lifeless had been more dangerous, new and distinctive. Terrible and destructive. He’d eventually been defeated by Peacegiver, who had then ended the Manywar through diplomacy.
The stories said that Kalad’s armies were still out there, somewhere. Waiting to sweep down and destroy again. She knew that story was just a legend told by hearthlight, but it still gave her shivers to consider.
Regardless, Peacegiver had seized control and stopped the Manywar. However, he had not restored Hallandren to its rightful rulers. Idris’s histories claimed betrayal and treachery. The monks spoke of heresies that were too deeply ingrained in Hallandren.
Surely the Hallandren people had their own version of the story. Watching the Returned in their boxes made Siri wonder. One fact was obvious: Things in Hallandren were a whole lot less terrible than she had been taught.
Vivenna shivered, cringing as the people in their colorful outfits crowded around her.
Things here are worse, even, than my tutors said, she decided, wriggling in her seat. Parlin seemed to have lost much of his nervousness about being in such a crowd. He was focused on the debating priests on the floor of the arena.
She still couldn’t decide if she thought the Breath she held was horrible or wonderful. Gradually, she was coming to appreciate that it was horrible because of how wonderful it felt. The more people that surged around her, the more overwhelmed she felt by her Breath-heightened perception of them. Surely if Parlin only could sense the sheer scope of all those colors, he wouldn’t gawk so dumbly at the costumes. Surely if he could feel the people, he would feel boxed in as she did, unable to breathe.
That’s it, she thought. I’ve seen Siri, and I know what they’ve done with her. It’s time to go. Turning, she stood. And froze.
A man was standing two rows back, and he was staring directly at Vivenna. She normally wouldn’t have paid him any attention. He was wearing ragged brown clothing, ripped in places, his loose trousers tied at the waist by a simple rope. His facial hair was halfway between being a beard and just scruff. His hair was unkempt and came down to his shoulders.
And he created a bubble of color around him so bright that he had to be of the Fifth Heightening. He stared at her, meeting her eyes, and she had a sudden and awful panicked sense that he knew exactly who she was.
She stumbled back. The strange man didn’t take his eyes off of her. He shifted, pushing back his cloak and exposing a large, black-hilted sword at his belt. Few people in Hallandren wore weapons. This man didn’t seem to care. How had he gotten that thing into the court? The people to the sides gave him a wide berth, and Vivenna swore she could sense something about that sword. It seemed to darken colors. Deepen them. Make tans into browns, reds into maroons, blues into navies. As if it had its own BioChroma . . .
“Parlin,” she said, more sharply than she’d intended. “We’re leaving.”
“Now,” Vivenna said, turning and rushing away. Her newfound BioChromatic senses informed her that the man’s eyes were still on her. Now that she realized it, she understood that his eyes on her were probably what had made her so uncomfortable in the first place.
The tutors spoke of this, she thought as she and Parlin made their way to one of the stone exit passages. Life sense, the ability to tell when there are people nearby, and to tell when they’re watching you. Everyone has it to a small degree. BioChroma enhances that.
As soon as they entered the passage, the sense of being watched vanished, and Vivenna let out a relieved breath.
“I don’t see why you wanted to leave,” Parlin said.
“We’ve seen what we needed to,” Vivenna said.
“I guess,” Parlin said. “I thought you might want to listen to what the priests were saying about Idris.”
Vivenna froze. “What?”
Parlin frowned, looking distraught. “I think they might be declaring war. Don’t we have a treaty?”
Lord God of Colors! Vivenna thought, turning and scrambling back up into the open arena.