Lightsong sat in one of the rooms of his palace, surrounded by finery, a cup of wine in his hand. Despite the very late hour, servants moved in and out, piling up furniture, paintings, vases, and small sculptures. Anything that could be moved.
The riches sat in heaps. Lightsong lounged back on his couch, ignoring empty plates of food and broken cups, which he refused to let his servants take away.
A pair of servants entered, carrying a red and gold couch. They propped it up by the far wall, nearly toppling a pile of rugs. Lightsong watched them leave, then downed the rest of his wine. He dropped the empty cup to the floor beside the others and held out his hand for another full one. A servant provided, as always.
He wasn’t drunk. He couldn’t get drunk.
“Do you ever feel,” Lightsong said, “like something is going on? Something far greater than you are? Like a painting you can only see the corner of, no matter how you squint and search?”
“Every day, Your Grace,” Llarimar said. He sat on a stool beside Lightsong’s couch. As always, he watched events calmly, though Lightsong could sense the man’s disapproval as another group of servants piled several marble figurines in the corner.
“How do you deal with it?” Lightsong asked.
“I have faith, Your Grace, that someone understands.”
“Not me, I hope,” Lightsong noted.
“You are part of it. But it is much larger than you.”
Lightsong frowned to himself, watching more servants enter. Soon the room would be so piled with his wealth that his servants wouldn’t be able to move in and out. “It’s odd, isn’t it,” Lightsong said, gesturing toward a pile of paintings. “Arranged like this, none of it looks beautiful anymore. When you put it together in piles, it just seems like junk.”
Llarimar raised an eyebrow. “The value in something relates to how it is treated, Your Grace. If you see these items as junk, then they are, regardless of what someone else would pay for them.”
“There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?”
Llarimar shrugged. “I am a priest, after all. We have a tendency to preach.”
Lightsong snorted, then waved toward the servants. “That’s enough,” he said. “You can go now.”
The servants, having grown resigned to being banished, left the room promptly. Soon Lightsong and Llarimar were alone with piles and piles of riches, all stolen from other parts of his palace and brought into this one room.
Llarimar surveyed the mounds. “So what is the point of all this, Your Grace?”
“This is what I mean to them,” Lightsong said, gulping down some more wine. “The people. They’ll give up their riches for me. They sacrifice the Breath of their souls to keep me alive. I suspect that many would even die for me.”
Llarimar nodded quietly.
“And,” Lightsong said, “all I’m expected to do at the moment is choose their fates for them. Do we go to war or do we remain at peace? What do you think?”
“I could argue for either side, Your Grace,” Llarimar said. “It would be easy to sit here and condemn the war on mere principle. War is a terrible, terrible thing. And yet, it seems that few great accomplishments in history ever occur without the unfortunate fact of military action. Even the Manywar, which caused so much destruction, can be regarded as the foundation of modern Hallandren power in the Inner Sea region.”
“But,” Llarimar continued. “To attack our brethren? Despite provocation, I cannot help but think that invading is too extreme. How much death, how much suffering, are we willing to cause simply to prove that we won’t be pushed around?”
“And what would you decide?”
“Fortunately, I don’t have to.”
“And if you were forced to?” Lightsong asked.
Llarimar sat for a moment. Then, carefully, he removed the large miter from his head, revealing his thinning black hair plastered to the skull with sweat. He set aside the ceremonial headgear.
“I speak to you as a friend, Lightsong, not your priest,” Llarimar said quietly. “The priest cannot influence his god for fear of disrupting the future.”
“And as a friend,” Llarimar said, “I honestly have trouble deciding what I would do. I didn’t argue on the floor of the court.”
“You rarely do,” Lightsong said.
“I’m worried,” Llarimar said, wiping his brow with a kerchief, shaking his head. “I don’t think we can ignore the threat to our kingdom. The fact of the matter is, Idris is a rebel faction living within our borders. We’ve ignored them for years, enduring their almost tyrannical control of the northern passes.”
“So you’re for attacking?”
Llarimar paused, then shook his head. “No. No, I don’t think that even Idris’s rebellion can justify the slaughter it would take to get those passes back.”
“Great,” Lightsong said flatly. “So, you think we should go to war, but not attack.”
“Actually, yes,” Llarimar said. “We declare war, we make a show of force, and we frighten them into realizing just how precarious their position is. If we then hold peace talks, I’ll bet we could forge more favorable treaties for use of the passes. They formally renounce their claim to our throne; we recognize their inde pendent sovereignty. Wouldn’t we both get what we want?”
Lightsong sat thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a very reasonable solution, but I don’t think those who are calling for war would accept it. It seems that we’re missing something, Scoot. Why now? Why are tensions so high after the wedding, which should have unified us?”
“I don’t know, Your Grace,” Llarimar said.
Lightsong smiled, standing. “Well then,” he said, eyeing his high priest. “Let’s find out.”
Siri would have been annoyed if she hadn’t been so terrified. She sat alone in the black bedchamber. It felt wrong for Susebron to not be there with her.
She’d hoped that maybe he would still be allowed come to her when night fell. But, of course, he didn’t arrive. Whatever the priests were planning, it didn’t require her to actually be pregnant. Not now that they’d played their hand and locked her up.
The door creaked, and she sat up on the bed, hope reviving. But it was only the guard checking on her again. One of the crass, soldierlike men who had been guarding her in recent hours. Why did they change to these men? she wondered as the guard closed the door. What happened to the Lifeless and the priests who were watching me before?
She lay back down on the bed, staring up at the canopy, still dressed in her fine gown. Her mind kept flashing to her first week in the palace, when she’d been locked inside for her “Wedding Jubilation.” It had been difficult enough then, and she’d known when it would be over. Now she didn’t even have an assurance that she’d live through the next few days.
No, she thought. They’ll keep me around long enough for my “baby” to be born. I’m insurance. If something goes wrong, they’ll still need me to show off.
That was little comfort. The thought of six months cooped up inside the palace—not allowed to see anyone lest they see that she wasn’t really pregnant—was frightening enough to make her want to scream.
But what could she do?
Hope in Susebron, she thought. I taught him to read, and I gave him the determination that he needed to break free from his priests.
That will have to be enough.
“Your Grace,” Llarimar said, his voice hesitant, “are you certain you want to do this?”
Lightsong crouched down, peeking through the bushes toward Mercystar’s palace. Most of the windows were dark. That was good. However, she still had a number of guards patrolling the palace. She was afraid of another break-in.
And rightly so.
In the distance, he saw the moon just barely rising into the night sky. It almost matched the position he had seen in his dream the night before, the same dream where he’d seen the tunnels. Were these things really symbols? Signs from the future?
He still resisted. The truth was, he didn’t want to believe he was a god. It implied too many things. But he couldn’t ignore the images, even if they were just spoken from his subconscious. He had to get into those passages beneath the Court of Gods. Had to see if, at last, there was something prophetic about what he had seen.
The timing seemed important. The rising moon . . . just another degree or so.
There, he thought, looking down from the sky. A guard patrol was approaching.
“Your Grace?” Llarimar asked, sounding more nervous. The portly high priest knelt on the grass beside Lightsong.
“I should have brought a sword,” Lightsong said thoughtfully.
“You don’t know how to use one, Your Grace.”
“We don’t know that,” Lightsong said.
“Your Grace, this is foolishness. Let’s go back to your palace. If we must see what is in those tunnels, we can hire someone from the city to sneak in.”
“That would take too long,” Lightsong said. A guard patrol passed their side of the palace. “You ready?” he asked once the patrol had passed.
“Then wait here,” Lightsong said, taking off in a dash toward the palace.
After a moment, he heard a hissed “Kalad’s Phantoms!” from Llarimar, followed by bushes rustling as the priest followed.
Why, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him curse before, Lightsong thought with amused energy. He didn’t look back; he just kept running toward the open window. As in most Returned palaces, the doorways and windows were open. The tropical climate encouraged such designs. Lightsong reached the side of the building, feeling exhilarated. He climbed up through the window, then reached a hand out to help Llarimar when he arrived. The hefty priest puffed and sweated, but Lightsong managed to pull him up and into the room.
They took a few moments, Llarimar resting with his back to the outer wall, gasping for breath.
“You really need to exercise more regularly, Scoot,” Lightsong said, creeping toward the doorway and peeking out into the hall beyond.
Llarimar didn’t answer. He just sat, puffing, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe what was happening.
“I wonder why the man who attacked the building didn’t come in through the window,” Lightsong said. Then he noticed that the guards standing at the inner doorway had an easy view of this particular room. Ah, he thought. Well, then. Time for the backup plan. Lightsong stood up, walking out into the hallway. Llarimar followed, then jumped when he saw the guards. They had similar expressions of amazement on their faces.
“Hello,” Lightsong said to the guards, then turned from them and walked down the hallway.
“Wait!” one said. “Stop!”
Lightsong turned toward them, frowning. “You dare command a god?”
They froze. Then they glanced at each other. One took off running in the opposite direction.
“They’re going to alert others!” Llarimar said, rushing up. “We’ll be caught.”
“Then we should move quickly!” Lightsong said, taking off in another run. He smiled, hearing Llarimar grudgingly break into a jog behind him. They quickly reached the trapdoor.
Lightsong knelt, feeling around for a few moments before finding the hidden clasp. He triumphantly pulled the trapdoor open, then pointed down. Llarimar shook his head in resignation, then climbed down the ladder into darkness. Lightsong grabbed a lamp off the wall and followed. The remaining guard—unable to interfere with a god—simply watched with concern.
The bottom wasn’t very far down. Lightsong found a tired Llarimar sitting on some boxes in what was obviously a small storage cellar.
“Congratulations, Your Grace,” Llarimar said. “We’ve found the secret hiding place of their flour.”
Lightsong snorted, moving through the chamber, poking at the walls. “Something living,” he said, pointing at one wall. “That direction. I can feel it with my life sense.”
Llarimar raised an eyebrow, standing. They pulled back a few boxes, and behind them was a small tunnel entrance cut into the wall. Lightsong smiled, then crawled down through it, pushing the lamp ahead of him.
“I’m not sure I’ll fit,” Llarimar said.
“If I fit, you will,” Lightsong said, voice muffled by the close confines. He heard another sigh from Llarimar, followed by shuffling as the portly man entered the hole. Eventually, Lightsong passed out of another hole into a much larger tunnel, lit by several lanterns hanging from one of the walls. He stood up, feeling self-satisfied as Llarimar squeezed through. “There,” Lightsong said, throwing a lever and letting a grate drop down over the opening. “They’ll have trouble following now!”
“And we’ll have trouble escaping,” Llarimar said.
“Escape?” Lightsong said, raising his lamp, inspecting the tunnel. “Why would we want to do that?”
“Pardon me, Your Grace,” Llarimar said. “But it seems to me that you are getting far too much enjoyment from this experience.”
“Well, I’m called Lightsong the Bold,” Lightsong said. “It feels good to finally be living up to the title. Now, hush. I can still feel life nearby.”
The tunnel was obviously man-made, and resembled Lightsong’s idea of a mine shaft. Just like the image from his dreams. The tunnels had several branches, and the life he sensed was straight ahead. Lightsong didn’t go that way, but instead turned left, toward a tunnel that sloped steeply downward. He followed it for a few minutes to judge its likely trajectory.
“Figured it out yet?” Lightsong asked, turning to Llarimar, who had taken one of the lanterns, as this tunnel didn’t have any light of its own.
“The Lifeless barracks,” Llarimar said. “If this tunnel continues this way, it will lead directly to them.”
Lightsong nodded. “Why would they need a secret tunnel to the barracks? Any god can go there whenever he wants.”
Llarimar shook his head, and they continued down the tunnel. Sure enough, after a short time, they arrived at a trapdoor in the ceiling that—when pushed up—led into one of the dark Lifeless warehouses. Lightsong shivered, looking out at the endless rows of legs, barely illuminated by his lamp. He pulled his head back down, closed the trapdoor, and they followed the tunnel further.
“It goes in a square,” he said quietly.
“With doors up into each of the Lifeless barracks I’ll bet,” Llarimar said. He reached out, taking a piece of dirt from the wall and crumbling it between his fingers. “This tunnel is newer than the one we were in up above.”
Lightsong nodded. “We should keep moving,” he said. “Those guards in Mercystar’s palace know we’re down here. I don’t know who they’ll tell, but I’d rather finish exploring before we get chased out.”
Llarimar shivered visibly at that. They walked back up the steep tunnel to the main one just below the palace. Lightsong still felt life down a side tunnel, but he chose the other branch to explore. It soon became apparent that this one split and turned numerous times.
“Tunnels to some of the other palaces,” he guessed, poking at a wooden beam used to support the shaft. “Old—much older than the tunnel to the barracks.”
“All right, then,” Lightsong said. “Time to find out where the main tunnel goes.”
Llarimar followed as Lightsong approached the main tunnel. Lightsong closed his eyes, trying to determine how close the life was. It was faint. Almost beyond his ability to sense. If everything else in this catacomb hadn’t been merely rocks and dirt, he wouldn’t even have noticed the life in the first place. He nodded to Llarimar, and they continued down the tunnel as quietly as possible.
Did it seem that he was able to move with surprising stealth? Did he have unremembered experience with sneaking about? He was certainly better at it than Llarimar. Of course, a tumbling boulder was probably better at moving quietly than Llarimar, considering his bulky clothing and his puffing exhalations.
The tunnel went on straight for a time without branches. Lightsong looked up, trying to estimate what was above them. The God King’s palace? he guessed. He couldn’t be certain; it was difficult to judge direction and distance under the ground.
He felt excited. Thrilled. This was something no god was supposed to do. Sneaking at night, moving through secret tunnels, looking for secrets and clues. Odd, he thought. They give us everything they think that we might want; they glut us with sensation and experience. And yet real feelings—fear, anxiety, excitement—are completely lost to us.
He smiled. In the distance, he could hear voices. He turned down the lamp and crept forward extra quietly, waving for Llarimar to stay behind.
“. . . have him up above,” a masculine voice was saying. “He came for the princess’s sister, as I said he would.”
“You have what you want, then,” said another voice. “Really, you pay far too much attention to that one.”
“Do not underestimate Vasher,” the first voice said. “He has accomplished more in his life than a hundred men, and has done more for the good of all people than you will ever be able to appreciate.”
“Aren’t you planning to kill him?” said the second voice.
“You’re a strange one, Denth,” the second voice said. “However, our goal is accomplished.”
“You people don’t have your war yet.”
Lightsong crouched beside a small pile of rubble. He could see light up ahead, but couldn’t distinguish much beyond some moving shadows. His luck seemed remarkably good in arriving to hear this conversation. Was that proof that his dreams were, indeed, fortellings? Or was it just coincidence? It was very late at night, and anyone still up was likely to be engaged in clandestine activities.
“I have a job for you,” the second voice said. “We’ve got someone I need you to interrogate.”
“Too bad,” the first voice said, growing distant. “I’ve got an old friend to torture. I just had to pause to dispose of his monstrosity of a sword.”
“Denth! Come back here!”
“You didn’t hire me, little man,” the first voice said, growing fainter. “If you want to make me do something, go get your boss. Until then, you know where to find me.”
Silence. And then, something moved behind Lightsong. He spun, and could just barely make out Llarimar creeping forward. Lightsong waved him back, then joined him.
“What?” Llarimar whispered.
“Voices, ahead,” Lightsong whispered back, the tunnel dark around them. “Talking about the war.”
“Who were they?” Llarimar asked.
“I don’t know,” Lightsong whispered. “But I’m going to find out. Wait here while I—”
He was interrupted by a loud scream. Lightsong jumped. The sound came from the same place he had heard the voices, and it sounded like . . .
“Let go of me!” Blushweaver yelled. “What do you think you’re doing! I’m a goddess!”
Lightsong stood up abruptly. A voice said something back to Blushweaver, but Lightsong was too far down the tunnel to make out the words.
“You will let me go!” Blushweaver yelled. “I—” she cut off sharply, crying out in pain.
Lightsong’s heart was pounding. He took a step.
“Your Grace!” Llarimar said, standing. “We should go for help!”
“We are help,” Lightsong said. He took a deep breath. Then—surprising himself—he charged down the tunnel. He quickly approached the light, rounding a corner and coming into a section of tunnel that had been worked with rock. In seconds, he was running on a smooth stone floor and burst into what appeared to be a dungeon.
Blushweaver was tied into a chair. A group of men wearing the robes of the God King’s priests stood around her with several uniformed soldiers. Blushweaver’s lip was bleeding, and she was crying through a gag that had been placed over her mouth. She wore a beautiful nightgown, but it was dirty and disheveled.
The men in the room looked up in surprise, obviously shocked to see someone come up behind them. Lightsong took advantage of this shock and threw his shoulder against the soldier nearest to him. He sent the man flying back into the wall, Lightsong’s superior size and weight knocking him aside with ease. Lightsong knelt down and quickly pulled the fallen soldier’s sword from its sheath.
“Aha!” Lightsong said, pointing the weapon at the men in front of him. “Who’s first?”
The soldiers regarded him dumbly.
“I say, you!” Lightsong said, lunging at the next-closest guard.
He missed the man by a good three inches, fumbling and off-balance from the lunge. The guard finally realized what was going on and pulled out his own sword. The priests backed against the wall. Blushweaver blinked at her tears, looking shocked.
The soldier nearest Lightsong attacked, and Lightsong raised his blade awkwardly, trying to block, doing a horrible job of it. The guard at his feet suddenly threw himself at Lightsong’s legs, toppling him to the ground. Then one of the standing guards thrust his sword into Lightsong’s thigh.
The leg bled blood as red as that of any mortal. Suddenly, Lightsong knew pain. Pain literally greater than any he’d known in his short life.
He saw, through tears, Llarimar heroically trying to tackle a guard from behind, but the attack was almost as poorly executed as Lightsong’s own. The soldiers stepped away, several guarding the tunnel, another holding his bloodied blade toward Lightsong’s throat.
Funny, Lightsong thought, gritting his teeth against the pain. That was not at all how I imagined this going.