Bluefingers led Siri—held by several Lifeless—up to the fourth floor of the palace. The top floor. They entered a room lavishly decorated with rich colors, even for Hallandren. Lifeless guards there let them pass, bowing their heads to Bluefingers.
All the Lifeless in the city are controlled by Bluefingers and his scribes, she thought. But even before that, the scribes had great power over the bureaucracy and workings of the kingdom. Did the Hallandren realize that they were dooming themselves by relegating 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 Hallandren. They’ll retreat through the passes. Take refuge in the highland valleys or one of the outer kingdoms.”
The front of the room held a black block of stone, shaped like an altar. Siri frowned. From behind, a group of Lifeless entered the room, carrying the corpses of several priests. She saw Treledees’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, Idris will fight until either it or Hallandren is destroyed.”
They tossed someone into the cell next to Lightsong. He looked up with weary eyes, uncaring. It was another Returned. Which of the gods had they taken captive now?
The God King, he thought. Interesting.
He looked down again. What did it matter? He’d failed Blushweaver. He’d failed everyone. The Lifeless armies were probably already marching on Idris. Hallandren and Idris would fight and the Pahn Kahl would have their revenge. It had been three hundred years coming.
Vasher stood up with difficulty. He held the dueling sword in a weak hand, looking at Denth, still shaken by his use of Nightblood. The empty black hallway was now open around them. Vasher had destroyed several of the walls. It was amazing the roof hadn’t fallen in.
Corpses littered the floor, the result of the fights 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, did you?”
Vasher raised his own blade. The cuts, the pain in his arm, the exhaustion 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. He didn’t reply.
“Have it your way,” Denth said, attacking.
Vasher backed away, forced to the defensive. Denth had always been better at swordplay. Vasher had been better at research, but what had that earned him? Discoveries that had caused the Manywar, an army of monsters that had killed so many.
He fought. He fought well, he knew, considering 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, and drew out the fight for Denth’s enjoyment.
“You never beat Arsteel,” Denth whispered.
“You’re going to kill me on an altar,” Siri said, standing in the strange room, held by Lifeless. Around her, other Lifeless placed bodies on the floor. Priests. “It doesn’t make sense, Bluefingers. You don’t follow their religion. Why do this?”
Bluefingers stood to the side, holding a knife. She could see the shame in his eyes. “Bluefingers,” she said, forcing her voice to remain even, her hair to stay black. “Bluefingers, you don’t have to do this.”
Bluefingers finally looked at her. “After all I’ve already done, do you think one more death means 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 how the Idrians whisper of the things that go on in the Court of Gods. Your people hate and distrust the Hallandren priests; they speak of murders done on dark altars in the backs of the palaces. Well, we are going to let a group of those Idrian mercenaries see this, once you are dead. We’ll show them that we were too late to save you, that the twisted priests had already killed you on one of their profane altars. We’ll show them the dead priests we killed trying to save you.
“The Idrians will riot in the city. They’re strained to snapping anyway—we have you to thank for that. The city will be in chaos, and there will be a slaughter the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Manywar as the Hallandren kill Idrian peasants to maintain order. Those Idrians that live will return to their homeland to tell the tale. They’ll let everyone know that the Hallandren only wanted a princess of the royal blood so that they could sacrifice her to their God King. It is exaggerated and foolish to think that the Hallandren would really do such a thing, but sometimes the wildest tales are the ones best believed, and the Idrians will accept this one. You know they will.”
And she did. She’d heard similar stories since her childhood. Hallandren was remote to her people: frightening, bizarre. Siri struggled, feeling even more worried.
Bluefingers glanced back at her. “I truly am sorry.”
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 him. The God King. Susebron 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 approached 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 words still challenged him. The high priest lay in his own cell, to Lightsong’s left, eyes closed against the terrors around them.
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, shocked. Thunder sounded, distant, in his head. Nobody else seemed to notice.
It was growing dark.
He was on a ship. Tossing, pitching, 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 real. Very real.
The waves churned, black sky ripped by lightning ahead, and the ship’s motion slammed his face against the wall of the ship’s cabin. Light from a pole-mounted lantern flickered uncertainly. It seemed weak compared with the lightning, which was so 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 smaller, pudgier version of himself. A man accustomed to being a scribe. To working long hours counting coins. Checking ledgers.
Seeking for lost money. That’s what he’d done. People hired him to discover where they’d been cheated or if a contract hadn’t been paid properly. His job was to look through the books, searching out hidden or confusing twists of arithmetic. A detective. Just not the sort he had imagined.
Waves crashed against the boat. Llarimar, looking a few years younger, yelled for help from the prow. Deckhands rushed to his aid. It wasn’t Llarimar’s ship, or even Lightsong’s. They had borrowed it for a simple plea sure trip. Sailing was a hobby of Llarimar’s.
The storm had come on suddenly. Lightsong lurched back to his feet, barely managing to stay up as he made his way forward, clutching the railing. Waves surged across the deck, and sailors struggled to keep the boat from capsizing. The sails were gone, only tattered shreds remaining. Wood creaked and cracked around him. Dark, black water churned in the ocean just to his right.
Llarimar yelled to Lightsong, asking him to lash down the barrels. Lightsong nodded, grabbing a rope and tying one end to a davit. A wave hit, and he skidded, almost falling over the rail into the water.
He froze, gripping the rope, looking into the sea’s mad, terrifying depths. He shook himself free, then tied the rope in a wide slipknot. It came naturally to him. Llarimar had taken him on enough sailing trips now.
Llarimar called for help again. And, suddenly, a young woman left the cabin and ran across the deck, grabbing ropes as if to lend assistance. “Tatara!” a woman called from the cabin. There was terror in her voice.
Lightsong looked up. He recognized the girl. He reached out, rope looped in his hands. He shouted for her to go back below, but his voice was lost in the thunder.
She turned to look at him.
The next wave tossed her into the ocean.
Llarimar cried out in despair. Lightsong watched, shocked. The deep blackness claimed his niece. Engulfed her. Swallowed her.
Such great, horrible chaos. The sea in a storm at night. He felt useless, his heart thumping with fright as he watched the young woman get swept into the churning current. He saw flashes of her golden hair twisting in the water. A weak splash of color passing his side of the ship. It would soon be gone.
Men cursed. Llarimar screamed. A woman wept. Lightsong just stared into the bubbling deep, with its alternating froth and blackness. The terrible, terrible blackness.
He still held the rope in his hand.
Without thinking, he leaped up onto the railing and threw himself into the darkness. Icy water took him, but he reached out, thrashing and churning in the tempest. He barely knew how to swim. Something passed him.
He grabbed it. Her foot. He threw the loop around her ankle, somehow managing to get the knot tight despite the water and the waves. As soon as he did, a surge in the undulating water yanked him away. Sucking him down. He reached upward, toward where lightning lit the surface. That light grew distant as he sank.
Down. Into the black deep.
Claimed by the void.
He blinked, waves and thunder fading. He sat on the cool stones of his cell. The void had taken him, but something had sent him back. He’d Returned.
Because he’d seen war and destruction.
The God King was yelling in fear. Lightsong looked over as the fake priests grabbed Susebron, and Lightsong could see into the God King’s mouth. No tongue, Lightsong thought. Of course. To keep him from using all that BioChroma. It makes sense.
He turned to the side. Blushweaver’s body lay red and bloodied. He’d seen that in a vision. In the vague shadows of morning memory, he’d thought that the image had been of her blushing, but now he remembered. He looked to the side. Llarimar, eyes closed as if asleep—that image had been in his dream as well. Lightsong realized the man had them shut as he wept.
The God King in prison. Lightsong had seen that too. But above it all, he remembered standing on the other side of a brilliant, colorful wave of light, looking down at the world from the other side. And seeing everything he loved dissolve into the destruction of war. A war greater than any the world had known, a war more deadly—even—than the Manywar.
He remembered the other side. And he remembered a voice, calm and comforting, offering him an opportunity.
By the Colors . . . Lightsong thought, standing up as the priests forced the God King to his knees. I am a god.
Lightsong stepped forward, moving up to the bars of his cage. He saw pain and tears in the God King’s face and somehow understood them. The man did love Siri. Lightsong had seen the same thing in the queen’s eyes. She had somehow come to care for the man who was to oppress her.
“You are my king,” Lightsong whispered. “And lord of the gods.”
The Pahn Kahl men forced the God King facedown on the stones. One of the priests raised a sword. The God King’s arm jutted out, his hand toward Lightsong.
I have seen the void, he thought. And I came back.
And then Lightsong reached through the bars and grasped the God King’s hand. A fake priest looked up with alarm.
Lightsong met the man’s eyes, then smiled broadly, looking down at the God King. “My life to yours,” Lightsong said. “My Breath become yours.”
Denth slashed, wounding Vasher in the leg.
Vasher stumbled, going down on one knee. Denth struck again, and Vasher barely managed to keep the sword away.
Denth backed off, shaking his head. “You are pathetic, Vasher. There you kneel, about to die. And you still think you’re better than the rest of us. You judge me for becoming a mercenary? What else was I to do? Take over kingdoms? Rule them and start wars, as you did?”
Vasher bowed his head. Denth growled and ran forward, lashing out with his sword. Vasher tried to defend himself, but he was just too weak. Denth knocked Vasher’s weapon aside, then kicked him in the stomach, sending Vasher backward against the wall.
Vasher slumped down, sword lost. He reached for a knife on the belt of a fallen soldier, but Denth stepped up and put his booted foot on Vasher’s hand.
“You think I should just go back to the way I was before?” Denth spat. “The happy, friendly man everyone loved?”
“You were a good person,” Vasher whispered.
“That man saw and did terrible things,” Denth said. “I’ve tried, Vasher. I’ve tried going back. But the darkness . . . it’s inside. I can’t escape it. My laughter has an edge to it. I can’t forget.”
“I can make you,” Vasher said. “I know the Commands.”
“I promise,” Vasher said. “I will take it all from you, if you wish.”
Denth stood for a long moment, foot on Vasher’s arm, sword lowered. Then, finally, he shook his head. “No. I don’t deserve that. Neither of us do. Goodbye, Vasher.”
He raised his blade to strike. And Vasher moved his arm up, touching Denth’s leg.
“My life to yours, my Breath become yours.”
Denth froze, then stumbled. Fifty Breaths fled from Vasher’s chest and surged into Denth’s body. They would be unwelcome, but he couldn’t turn them away. Fifty Breaths. Not many.
But enough. Enough to make Denth shake with pleasure. Enough to make him lose control for just a second, falling to his knees. And, in that second, Vasher stood—ripping the dagger free from the corpse beside him—then slashed it through Denth’s throat.
The mercenary fell back, eyes wide, neck bleeding. He shook amidst the pleasure of gaining new Breaths even as his life flowed from him.
“Nobody ever expects it,” Vasher whispered, stepping forward. “Breath is worth a fortune. To put it into someone, then kill them, is to lose more wealth than most men will ever know. They never expect it.”
Denth shook, bleeding, and lost control. His hair suddenly bled to deep black, then blond, then an angry red.
Finally, the hair turned white with terror and stayed there. He stopped moving, life fading away, new Breaths and old both vanishing.
“You wanted to know how I killed Arsteel,” Vasher said, spitting blood to the side. “Well, now you do.”
Bluefingers picked up a knife. “The least I can do,” he decided, “is to kill you myself, rather than letting the Lifeless do it. I promise it will be quick. We will make it look like a pagan ritual afterward, sparing you the need to die in a painful way.” He turned to her Lifeless captors. “Tie her to the altar.”
Siri struggled against the Lifeless holding her by the shoulders, but it was useless. They were terribly strong, and her hands were tied together. “Bluefingers!” she snapped, holding his eyes. “I will not die tied to some rock like a useless maid from one of the stories. You want me dead, then have the decency to let me die standing up.”
Bluefingers hesitated, but the authority in her voice actually seemed to make him cringe. He raised a hand, stopping the Lifeless as they pulled her to the altar.
“Very well,” he said. “Hold her tightly.”
“You realize the wonderful opportunity you waste by killing me,” she said as he approached. “The wife of the God King would make a wonderful hostage. You are a fool to kill me, and . . .”
He ignored her this time, taking the knife, placing it against her chest, picking his spot. She started to feel numb. She was going to die. She was actually going to die.
And the war would start.
“Please,” she whispered.
He looked at her, hesitated, then grew grim and drew back the dagger.
The building began to shake.
Bluefingers looked to the side in alarm, glancing toward several of his scribes. They shook their heads in confusion.
“Earthquake?” one asked.
The floor began to turn white. The color moved like a wave of sunlight crossing the land as the sun rose above the mountains. The walls, the ceiling, the floor—all of the black stone faded. The priests stepped away from it, looking frightened, one hopping onto a rug to keep from touching the strange white stones.
Bluefingers looked at her, confused. The ground continued to tremble, but he raised his blade anyway, held in fingers that had been stained repeatedly by ink. And, strangely, Siri saw the whites of his eyes bend and release a rainbow of colors.
The entire room burst with color, the white stones fuzzing and splitting, like light through a prism. The doors to the room exploded. A twisting mass of colorful cloths shot through it, like the countless tentacles of an enraged sea leviathan. They churned and curled, and Siri recognized tapestries, carpets, and long lengths of silk from the palace decorations.
Awakened cloth slapped aside Lifeless, curling around them, tossing them into the air. Priests cried out as they were snatched up, and a long, thin length of violet cloth snapped forward and wrapped around Bluefingers’s arm.
The surging mass undulated, churning, and Siri could finally see a figure walking in the middle of it. A man of epic proportions. Black of hair, pale of face, youthful in appearance, but of great age. Bluefingers struggled to ram his knife into Siri’s chest, but the God King raised a hand.
“You will stop!” Susebron said in a clear voice.
Bluefingers froze, looking toward the God King in amazement. The dagger slipped from his stunned fingers as an Awakened carpet twisted around him, pulling him away from Siri.
Siri stood, dumbfounded. Susebron’s cloths lifted him up and over beside her, and a pair of small silken handkerchiefs reached forward, sliding around the ropes binding her hands, untying them with ease.
Freed, she grabbed him and let him lift her into his arms, weeping.