The closet door opened, letting in lanternlight. Vivenna looked up, gagged and bound, at Vasher’s silhouette. He dragged Nightblood behind him, covered—as usual—by his silver sheath.
Looking very tired, Vasher knelt and undid her gag. “About time,” she noted.
He smiled wanly. “I don’t have any Breath remaining,” he said quietly. “It was very hard to locate you.”
“Where did it all go?” she asked as he undid the ropes on her hands. “Nightblood devoured most of it.”
I don’t believe him, Nightblood said happily. I . . . can’t really remember what happened. But we did slay a lot of evil!
“You drew him?” Vivenna asked as Vasher untied her feet.
Vasher nodded. Vivenna rubbed her hands. “Denth?”
“Dead,” Vasher said. “No sign of Tonk Fah or the woman, Jewels. I think they took their money and fled.”
“So it’s over.”
Vasher nodded, sliding down to seat himself, resting his head against the wall. “And we lost.” She frowned, grimacing at the pain of her wounded shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“Denth was being employed by some of the Pahn Kahl scribes in the palace,” Vasher said. “They wanted to start a war between Idris and Hallandren in the hope that it would weaken both kingdoms and let Pahn Kahl gain independence.”
“So? Denth is dead now.”
“So are the scribes who had the Command phrases for the Lifeless armies,” Vasher said. “And they already dispatched the troops. The Lifeless left the city over an hour ago, charging for Idris.”
Vivenna fell silent.
“All of this fighting, everything with Denth, that was secondary,” Vasher said, knocking his head back against the wall. “It distracted us. I couldn’t get to the Lifeless in time. The war has begun. There’s no way to stop it.”
Susebron led Siri down into the depths of the palace. Siri walked beside him, carefully cradled in his arm, a hundred twisting lengths of cloth spinning around them.
Even with that many things Awakened, he still had enough Breath to make every color they passed glow brightly. Of course, that didn’t work for many of the stones they passed. Though large chunks of the building were still black, at least half of it had been turned white.
Not just the grey of normal Awakening. They had been made bone white. And, becoming that white, they now reacted to his incredible BioChroma, splitting back into colors. Like a circle, somehow, she thought. Colorful, then white, then back to color.
He led her into a particular chamber, and she saw what he’d told her to expect. Scribes crushed by the carpets that he’d awakened, bars ripped from their mountings, walls broken down. A ribbon shot from Susebron, turning over a body so that she wouldn’t have to see its wound. She wasn’t paying much attention. In the midst of the rubble were a pair of corpses. One was Blushweaver, bloody and red, facedown. The other was Lightsong, his entire body drained of color. As if he were a Lifeless.
His eyes were closed, and he seemed to sleep, as if at peace. A man sat next to him—Lightsong’s high priest, holding the god’s head in his lap.
The priest looked up. He smiled, though she could see tears in his eyes.
“I don’t understand,” she said, looking at Susebron.
“Lightsong gave his life to heal me,” the God King said. “He somehow knew that my tongue had been removed.”
“The Returned can heal one person,” the priest said, looking down at his god. “It’s their duty to decide who and when. They come back for this purpose, some say. To give life to one person who needs it.”
“I never knew him,” Susebron said.
“He was a very good person,” Siri said.
“I realize that. Though I never spoke to him, somehow he was noble enough to die so that I might live.”
The priest smiled down. “The amazing thing is,” he said, “Lightsong did that twice.”
He told me that I couldn’t depend on him in the end, Siri thought, smiling slightly, though sorrowful at the same time. I guess he lied about that. How very like him.
“Come,” Susebron said. “We must gather what is left of my priests. We have to find a way to stop our armies from destroying your people.”
“There has to be a way, Vasher,” Vivenna said. She knelt next to him.
He tried to push down his rage, his anger at himself. He’d come to the city to stop a war. Once again, he’d been too late.
“Forty thousand Lifeless,” he said, pounding his fist against the floor. “I can’t stop that many. Not even with Nightblood and the Breaths of every person in the city. Even if I could somehow keep up with their marching, one would eventually get in a lucky strike and kill me.”
“There has to be a way,” Vivenna said.
Has to be a way.
“I thought the same thing before,” he said, putting his head in his hands. “I wanted to stop it. But by the time I realized what was happening, it had gone too far. It had taken on a life of its own.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Manywar,” Vasher whispered.
“Who are you?”
He kept his eyes closed.
They used to call him Talaxin, Nightblood said.
“Talaxin,” Vivenna said, amused. “Nightblood, that’s one of the Five Scholars. He . . .”
She trailed off.
“. . . he lived over three hundred years ago,” she finally said.
“BioChroma can keep a man alive a long time,” Vasher said, sighing and opening his eyes. She didn’t argue.
They used to call him other things, too, Nightblood said.
“If you’re really one of them,” Vivenna said, “then you’ll know how to stop the Lifeless.”
“Sure,” Vasher said wryly. “With other Lifeless.”
“The easiest. Barring that, we can chase them down and grab them one at a time, then break them and replace their Command phrases. But even if you had the Eighth Heightening to let you break Commands instinctively, changing so many would take weeks.”
He shook his head. “We could have an army fight them, but they are our army. The Hallandren forces aren’t large enough to fight the Lifeless on their own, and they wouldn’t be able to get to Idris with any semblance of speed. The Lifeless will beat them by days. Lifeless don’t sleep, don’t eat, and can march tirelessly.”
“Ichor-alcohol,” Vivenna said. “They’ll run out.”
“It’s not like food, Vivenna. It’s like blood. They need a new supply if they get cut and drained or if it gets corrupted. A few will probably stop working without maintenance, but only a small number.”
She fell silent. “Well then, we Awaken an army of our own to fight them.”
He smiled wanly. He felt so light-headed. He’d bound his wounds—the bad ones, anyway—but he wouldn’t be doing more fighting anytime soon. Vivenna didn’t look much better, with that bloody stain on her shoulder.
“Awaken an army of our own?” he said. “First, where would we get the Breath? I used all of yours. Even if we find my clothing, which still has some in it, we’ll only have a couple hundred. It takes one per Lifeless. We’re severely overmatched.”
“The God King,” she said.
“Can’t use his Breath,” Vasher said. “The man’s tongue was removed when he was a child.”
“And you can’t get it out of him somehow?”
Vasher shrugged. “The Tenth Heightening allows a man to Command mentally, without speaking, but it can take months of training to learn how to do that—even if you have someone to teach you. I think his priests must know how, so they can transfer that wealth of Breath from one king to another, but I doubt they’ve trained him yet. One of their duties is to keep him from using his Breaths in the first place.”
“He’s still our best option,” Vivenna said.
“Oh? And you’ll use his power how? Make Lifeless? Are you forgetting that we’ll need to find forty thousand bodies?”
She sighed, resting back against the wall.
Vasher? Nightblood asked in his mind. Didn’t you leave an army behind here last time?
He didn’t reply. Vivenna opened her eyes, however. Apparently Nightblood had decided to include her in all of his thoughts now.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Vasher said.
No, no it’s not, Nightblood said. I remember. You talked to that priest, told him to take care of your Breath for you, should you need it again. And you gave him your army. It stopped moving. You called it a gift for the city. Don’t you remember? It was just yesterday.
“Yesterday?” Vivenna asked.
When the Manywar stopped, Nightblood said. When was that?
“He doesn’t understand time,” Vasher said. “Don’t listen to him.”
“No,” Vivenna said, studying him. “He knows something.” She thought for a moment, then her eyes opened wide. “Kalad’s army,” she said, pointing at him. “His phantoms. You know where they are!”
He hesitated, then nodded reluctantly.
“Here, in the city.”
“We have to use them!”
He eyed her. “You’re asking me to give Hallandren a tool, Vivenna. A terrible tool. Something worse than what they have now.”
“And if that army of theirs slaughters my people?” Vivenna asked. “Could what you’re talking about give them more power than that?”
She fell silent.
“Do it anyway,” she said.
He glanced at her.
He closed his eyes again, remembering the destruction he had caused. The wars that had started. All because of the things he’d learned to create. “You would give your enemies such power?”
“They’re not my enemies,” she said. “Even if I hate them.”
He regarded her for a moment, then finally stood. “Let’s find the God King. If he even still lives, then we shall see.”
“My lord and lady,” said the priest, bowing with his face down before them. “We heard rumors of a plot to attack the palace. That’s why we locked you away. We wanted to protect you!”
Siri looked at the man, then glanced at Susebron. The God King rubbed his chin in thought. They both recognized this man as one of his actual priests, rather than an impostor. They’d only been able to determine that with certainty for a handful of them.
They imprisoned the others, sending for the city guard to come in and start cleaning up the wreckage of the palace. The breeze blew Siri’s hair—red, to show her displeasure—as they stood atop the palace.
“There, my lord!” a guard said, pointing.
Susebron turned, walking over to the edge of the palace. Most of his entourage of twisting cloths were no longer streaming about him, but they waited on his will in a pile on the rooftop. Siri joined him at the side of the palace, and in the distance, she could make out a smudge and what looked like smoke.
“The Lifeless army,” the guard said. “Our scouts have confirmed that it’s marching toward Idris. Almost everyone in the city saw it pass out through the gates.”
“That smoke?” Siri asked.
“Dust of its passing, my lady,” the guard said. “That’s a lot of soldiers.”
She looked up at Susebron. He frowned. “I could stop them.” His voice was stronger than she had expected it to be. Deeper.
“My lord?” the guard asked.
“With this much Breath,” Susebron said. “I could charge them, use these cloths to tie them up.”
“My lord,” the guard said hesitantly. “There are forty thousand of them. They would cut at the cloth, overwhelm you.”
Susebron seemed resolute. “I have to try.”
“No,” Siri said, laying a hand on his chest.
“Your people . . .”
“We’ll send messengers,” she said, “explaining our regret. My people can withdraw, ambush the Lifeless. We can send troops to help.”
“We don’t have many,” he said. “And they won’t get there very quickly. Could your people really get away?”
No, she thought, heart wrenching. You don’t know that, though, and you’re innocent enough to believe they can escape.
Her people might survive as a whole, but many would die. Susebron getting himself killed fighting the creatures wouldn’t be of much use, however. He had amazing power, but fighting so many Lifeless was well beyond the scope of whatever he could do.
He saw the look in her face, and surprisingly, he read it well. “You don’t believe that they can get away,” he said. “You’re just trying to protect me.”
Surprising how well he understands me already.
“My lord!” a voice said from behind.
Susebron turned, looking across the top of the palace. They’d come to the top partially to get a look at the Lifeless, but also because both Siri and Susebron were tired of being closed in tight quarters. They wanted to be in the open, where it would be harder to sneak up on them.
A guard came out of the stairwell, then walked over, hand on sword. He bowed. “My lord. There’s someone here to see you.”
“I don’t want to see anyone,” Susebron said. “Who are they?”
Amazing how well he can speak, she thought. Never having had a tongue. What did Lightsong’s Breath do? It healed more than his body. It gave him the capacity to use the regrown tongue.
“My lord,” the guard said. “The visitor—she has the Royal Locks!”
“What?” Siri asked with surprise.
The guard turned, and—shockingly—Vivenna stepped up onto the roof of the palace. Or Siri thought it was Vivenna. She wore trousers and a tunic, with a sword tied at her waist, and she appeared to have a bloody wound on one shoulder. She saw Siri, and smiled, her hair turning yellow with joy.
Vivenna’s hair changing? Siri thought. It can’t be her.
But it was. The woman laughed, dashing across the top of the roof. Some guards stopped her, but Siri waved for them to let the woman pass. She ran over, embracing Siri.
The woman smiled ruefully. “Yes, mostly,” she said. She glanced at Susebron. “I’m sorry,” Vivenna said quietly. “I came to the city to try rescuing you.”
“That was very kind of you,” Siri said. “But I don’t need rescuing.”
Vivenna frowned more deeply.
“And who is this, Siri?” Susebron asked.
“My eldest sister.”
“Ah,” Susebron said, bowing his head cordially. “Siri has told me much about you, Princess Vivenna. I wish we could have met under better circumstances.”
Vivenna stared at the man with shock.
“He’s not really as bad as they say,” Siri said, smiling. “Most of the time.”
“That is sarcasm,” Susebron said. “She is quite fond of it.”
Vivenna turned from the God King. “Our homeland is under attack.”
“I know,” Siri said. “We’re working on that. I’m preparing messengers to send to Father.”
“I have a better way,” Vivenna said. “But you’ll have to trust me.”
“Of course,” Siri said.
“I have a friend who needs to speak with the God King,” Vivenna said. “Where he can’t be overheard by guards.”
Siri hesitated. Silly, she thought. This is Vivenna. I can trust her.
She’d thought she could trust Bluefingers too. Vivenna regarded her with a curious expression.
“If this can help save Idris,” Susebron said, “then I will do it. Who is this person?”
Moments later, Vivenna stood quietly on the roof of the palace with the God King of Hallandren. Siri stood a short walk away, watching the Lifeless churn dust in the distance. All of them waited while the soldiers searched Vasher for weapons; he stood with arms upraised on the other side of the rooftop, surrounded by suspicious guards. He had wisely left Nightblood below and didn’t have any other weapons on him. He didn’t even have any Breath.
“Your sister is an amazing woman,” the God King said.
Vivenna glanced at him. This was the man she was to have married. The terrible creature that she was supposed to have given herself to. She’d never expected to end up like this, pleasantly chatting with him.
She’d also never expected that she’d like him.
It was a quick judgment. She’d gotten over chastising herself for making those, though she had learned to leave them open for revision. She saw kindness in his fondness for Siri. How had a man like this ended up as God King of terrible Hallandren?
“Yes,” she said. “She is.”
“I love her,” Susebron said. “I would have you know this.”
Slowly, Vivenna nodded, glancing over at Siri. She’s changed so much, Vivenna thought. When did she become so regal, with that commanding bearing and ability to keep her hair black? Her little sister, no longer quite as little, seemed to wear the expensive dress well. It fit her. Odd.
On the other end of the rooftop, the guards took Vasher behind a screen to change. They obviously wanted to be certain none of his clothing was Awakened. He left a few moments later, wearing a wrap around his waist, but nothing else. His chest was cut and bruised, and Vivenna thought it shameful that he should be forced to undergo such humiliation.
He suffered it, walking across the rooftop with an escort. As he did, Siri walked back, eyes watching him keenly. Vivenna had spoken with her sister briefly, but could already tell that Siri no longer took pride in being unimportant. Changed indeed.
Vasher arrived, and Susebron dismissed the guards. Behind him, the jungles extended to the north, toward Idris. Vasher glanced at Vivenna, and she thought he might tell her to go. However, he finally just turned away from her, looking resigned.
“Who are you?” Susebron asked.
“The one responsible for you getting your tongue cut out,” Vasher said.
Susebron raised an eyebrow.
Vasher closed his eyes. He didn’t speak, didn’t use his Breath or make a Command. Yet suddenly, he started to glow. Not as a lantern would glow, not as the sun glowed, but with an aura that made colors brighter. Vivenna started as Vasher increased in size. He opened his eyes and adjusted the wrap at his waist, making room for his growth. His chest became more firm, the muscles bulging, and the scruffy beard on his face retreated, leaving him clean-shaven.
His hair turned golden. He still bore the cuts on his body, but they seemed inconsequential. He seemed . . . divine. The God King watched with interest. He was now faced by a fellow god, a man of his own stature.
“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” Vasher said, his voice sounding more noble. “But I will have you know that I left something here, long ago. A wealth of power that I promised to one day recover. I gave instructions for its care, and a charge that it should not be used. The priests, apparently, took this to heart.”
Susebron, surprisingly, dropped to one knee. “My lord. Where have you been?”
“Paying for what I’ve done,” Vasher said. “Or trying to. That is unimportant. Stand.”
What is going on? Vivenna thought. Siri looked equally confused, and the sisters shared a look.
Susebron stood, though he kept his posture reverent.
“You have a group of rogue Lifeless,” Vasher said. “You’ve lost control of them.”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” the God King said.
Vasher regarded him. Then he glanced at Vivenna. She nodded her head. “I trust him.”
“It’s not about trust,” Vasher said, turning back to Susebron. “Either way, I am going to give you something.”
“My army,” Vasher said.
Susebron frowned. “But, my lord. Our Lifeless just marched away, to attack Idris.”
“No,” Vasher said. “Not that army. I’m going to give you the one I left behind three hundred years ago. The people call them Kalad’s Phantoms. They are the force by which I made Hallandren stop its war.”
“Stop the Manywar, my lord?” Susebron said. “You did that by negotiation.”
Vasher snorted. “You don’t know much about war, do you?”
The God King paused, then shook his head. “No.”
“Well, learn,” Vasher said. “Because I charge you with command of my army. Use it to protect, not attack. Only use it in an emergency.”
The God King nodded dumbly.
Vasher glanced at him, then sighed. “My sin be hidden.”
“What?” Susebron asked.
“It’s a Command phrase,” Vasher said. “The one you can use to give new orders to the D’Denir statues I left in your city.”
“But my lord!” Susebron said. “Stone cannot be awakened.”
“The stone hasn’t been Awakened,” Vasher said. “There are human bones in those statues. They are Lifeless.”
Human bones. Vivenna felt a chill. He’d told her that bones were usually a bad choice to awaken because it was hard to keep them in the shape of a man during the Awakening process. But what if those bones were encased in stone? Stone that held its shape, stone that would protect them from harm, make them nearly impossible to hurt or break? Awakened objects could be so much stronger than human muscles. If a Lifeless could be created from bones, made strong enough to move a rock body around it . . . You’d have soldiers unlike any that had ever existed.
Colors! she thought.
“There are some thousand original D’Denir in the city,” Vasher said, “and most of them should still function, even still. I created them to last.”
“But they have no ichor-alcohol,” Vivenna said. “They don’t even have veins!”
Vasher looked at her. It was him. The same look to the face, the same expressions. He hadn’t changed shape to look like someone else. He just looked like a Returned version of himself. What was going on?
“We didn’t always have ichor-alcohol,” Vasher said. “It makes the Awak ening easier and cheaper, but it isn’t the only way. And, in the minds of many, I believe it has become a crutch.” He glanced at the God King again. “You should be able to imprint them quickly with a new security phrase, then order them out to stop the other army. I think you’ll find those phantoms of mine to be . . . very effective. Weapons are virtually useless against the stone.”
Susebron nodded again.
“They are your responsibility now,” Vasher said, turning away. “Do better with them than I did.”