Lightsong tried not to think about his dreams. He tried not to think about T’Telir in flames. Of people dying. Of the world, essentially, ending.
He stood on the second story of his palace, looking over the Court of Gods. The second story was essentially a covered roof, open on all sides. Wind blew through his hair. The sun was close to setting. Already, torches were arrayed on the lawn. It was so perfect. The palaces set in a circle, lit by torches and lanterns matching the colors of the nearest building.
Some of the palaces were dark; the buildings that currently held no gods.
What would happen if too many others Returned before we killed ourselves? he thought idly. Would they build more palaces? As far as he knew, there had always been enough space.
At the head of the court sat the God King’s palace, tall and black. It had obviously been built so that it would dominate even the extravagant mansions of the others, and it threw a wide, warped shadow across the back wall.
Perfect. So perfect. The torches were arranged in patterns he could only see by standing atop a building. The grass was kept manicured, and the massive wall tapestries were replaced often so that they showed no wear, stains, or fading.
The people put forth such effort for their gods. Why? Sometimes it baffled him. But what to think of other faiths, ones with no visible gods, only incorporeal imaginings or wishes? Surely those ‘gods’ did even less for their people than the Hallandren court, yet they still were worshipped.
Lightsong shook his head. Meeting with Allmother had reminded him of days he hadn’t thought of in a long time. Calmseer. She had been his mentor when he’d first Returned. Blushweaver was jealous of his memories of her, but she didn’t understand the truth. Nor could he, really, explain it. Calmseer had come closer to being a divinity than any Returned Lightsong had known. She’d cared for her followers much as Allmother now tried to do, but there had been genuine concern in Calmseer’s regard. She hadn’t helped the people because she feared that they would stop worshiping, and she had no arrogance of presumed superiority.
Real kindness. Real love. Real mercy.
Yet even Calmseer had felt inadequate. She had often said she felt guilty because she couldn’t live up to what people expected. How could she? How could anyone? In the end, he suspected this was what drove her to answer a petition. There had only been one way, in her estimation, to be the goddess everyone demanded she be. And that was to give up her life.
They push us into it, Lightsong thought. They craft all of this splendor and luxury, they give us whatever we desire, then they subtly poke at us. Be a god. Prophesy. Maintain our illusion for us.
Die. Die so that we can keep believing.
He usually stayed off his roof. He preferred to be down below, where the limited perspective made it so much easier to ignore the larger view. So much easier to focus on simple things, like his life in the moment.
“Your Grace?” Llarimar asked quietly, approaching.
Lightsong didn’t reply.
“Are you all right, Your Grace?”
“No man should be this important,” Lightsong said.
“Your Grace?” Llarimar asked, walking up beside him.
“It does strange things to you. We weren’t built for it.”
“You’re a god, Your Grace. You were built for it.”
“No,” he said. “I’m no god.”
“Excuse me, but you don’t really get to choose. We worship you, and that makes you our god.” Llarimar spoke the words in his usual calm fashion. Didn’t the man ever get upset?
“You’re not helping.”
“I apologize, Your Grace. But perhaps you should stop arguing about the same old things.”
Lightsong shook his head. “This is something different today. I’m not sure what to do.”
“You mean about Allmother’s Commands?”
Lightsong nodded. “I thought I had it figured out, Scoot. I can’t keep up with all of the things Blushweaver is plotting—I’ve never been good at details.”
Llarimar didn’t respond.
“I was going to give it up,” Lightsong said. “Allmother was doing a fantastic job of standing up for herself. I figured that if I gave her my Commands, then she’d know what to do. She’d understand if it’s better to support Blushweaver or oppose her.”
“You could still just let her,” Llarimar said. “You gave her your Commands too.”
“I know,” Lightsong said.
They fell silent.
So it comes down to this, he thought. The first of us who changes those Commands takes control of all twenty thousand. The other will be locked out.
What did he choose? Did he sit back and let history happen, or did he jump in and make a mess of it?
Whoever you are, he thought, whatever is out there that sent me back, why couldn’t you just let me be? I’d already lived one life. I’d already made my choices. Why did you have to send me back?
He’d tried everything, and yet people still looked to him. He knew for a fact that he was one of the most popular Returned, visited by more petitioners and given more art than almost anyone else. Honestly, he thought. What is wrong with these people? Were they so in need of something to worship that they chose him rather than worry that their religion might be false?
Allmother claimed that some did think that. She worried about the perceived lack of faith among the common people. Lightsong wasn’t certain he agreed with her. He knew of the theories—that the gods who lived the longest were the weak ones because the system encouraged the best to sacrifice themselves quickly. However, the same number of petitioners came to him now as when he first started. Plus, too few gods were chosen on a whole for that to be statistically valid.
Or was he just distracting himself with irrelevant details? He leaned on the railing, looking out over the green and its glowing pavilions.
This could be the crowning moment for him. He could finally prove himself to be an indolent wastrel. It was perfect. If he did nothing, then Allmother would be forced to take up the armies and resist Blushweaver.
Was that what he wanted? Allmother kept herself isolated from the other gods. She didn’t attend many Court Assemblies and didn’t listen to the debates. Blushweaver was intimately involved. She knew every god and goddess well. She understood the issues, and she was very clever. Of all of the gods, only she had begun taking steps to secure their armies.
Siri is no threat, he thought. But if someone else were manipulating her? Would Allmother have the political savvy to understand the danger? Without his concerned guidance, would Blushweaver see that Siri wasn’t crushed?
If he did walk away, there would be a cost. He would be to blame, for he’d given up.
“Who was she, Llarimar?” Lightsong asked quietly. “The young woman in my dreams. Was she my wife?”
The high priest didn’t answer.
“I need to know,” Lightsong said, turning. “This time, I really need to know.”
“I . . .” Llarimar frowned, then looked away. “No,” he said quietly. “She was not your wife.”
He shook his head.
“But she was important to me?”
“Very,” Llarimar said.
“And is she still alive?”
Llarimar wavered, then finally nodded his head.
Still alive, Lightsong thought.
If this city fell, then she would be in danger. Everyone who worshiped Lightsong—everyone who counted on him despite his best efforts—would be in danger.
T’Telir couldn’t fall. Even if there were war, the fighting wouldn’t come here. Hallandren was not in danger. It was the most powerful kingdom in the world.
And what of his dreams?
He had been given only one real duty in the government. That of taking command of ten thousand Lifeless. Of deciding when they should be used. And when they should not be.
Still alive . . .
He turned and walked toward the steps.
The Lifeless Enclave was technically part of the Court of Gods. The huge building was built at the base of the court plateau, and a long, covered walkway ran down to it.
Lightsong moved down the steps with his entourage. They passed several guard posts, though he wasn’t sure why they needed guards in a hallway leading from the court. He had only visited the enclave a couple of times—primarily during his first few weeks as a Returned, when he had been required to give the security phrase to his ten thousand soldiers.
Perhaps I should have come more often, he thought. What would have been the point? Servants cared for the Lifeless, making certain their ichor-alcohol was fresh, that they exercised, and . . . did whatever else it was that Lifeless did.
Llarimar and several of the other priests were puffing from the long, brisk walk by the time they reached the bottom of the steps. Lightsong, of course, had no trouble, as he was in perfect physical condition. There were some things about godhood that never made him complain. A couple of guards opened the doors into the compound. It was gigantic, of course—it contained space for forty thousand Lifeless. There were four large warehouse-like storage areas for the different groups of Lifeless, a track for them to run around, a room filled with various stones and blocks of metal for them to lift to keep their muscles strong, and a medical area where their ichor-alcohol was tested and refreshed.
They passed through several twisting passages, designed to confuse invaders who might try to strike at the Lifeless, then approached a guard post set beside a large open doorway. Lightsong passed the living human guards and looked in at the Lifeless.
He’d forgotten that they kept them in the dark.
Llarimar waved for a couple of priests to hold up lamps. The door opened onto a viewing platform. The floor of the warehouse extended below, filled with line upon line of silent, waiting soldiers. They wore their armor and carried their weapons in sheaths.
“There are holes in the ranks,” Lightsong said.
“Some of them will be exercising,” Llarimar replied. “I have sent a servant to fetch them.”
Lightsong nodded. The Lifeless stood with eyes open. They didn’t shuffle or cough. Staring out over them, Lightsong suddenly remembered why he never felt any desire to return and inspect his troops. They were simply too unnerving.
“Everyone out,” Lightsong said.
“Your Grace?” Llarimar asked. “Don’t you want a few priests to stay?”
Lightsong shook his head. “No. I will bear this phrase myself.”
Llarimar hesitated, but then nodded, doing as ordered.
In Lightsong’s opinion, there was no good way of keeping Command phrases. Leaving them in the hands of a single god was to risk losing the phrase through assassination. However, the more people who knew the Command phrases, the more likely it was that the secret would be bribed or tortured out of someone.
The only mitigating factor was the God King. Apparently, with his powerful BioChroma, he could break Lifeless more quickly. Still, taking control of ten thousand would require weeks, even for the God King.
The choice was left to the individual Returned. They could let some of their priests hear the Command phrase so that if something happened to the god, the priests could pass the phrase on to the next Returned. If the god chose not to give the phrase to his priests, then he placed an even larger burden on himself. Lightsong had found that option silly, years before, and had included Llarimar and several others in the secret.
This time he saw wisdom in keeping the phrase to himself. Should he get the chance, he would whisper it to the God King. But only him. “Bottom line blue,” he said. “I give you a new Command phrase.” He paused. “Red panther. Red panther. Step to the right side of the room.”
A group of the Lifeless near the front—those who could hear his voice—moved over to the side. Lightsong sighed, closing his eyes. A part of him had hoped that Allmother had come here first, that she had already changed the Command phrase.
But she hadn’t. He opened his eyes, then took the steps down to the warehouse floor. He spoke again, changing the phrase for another group. He could do about twenty or thirty at a time—he remembered the process taking hours the last time.
He continued. He would leave the Lifeless with their basic instructions to obey the servants when they asked the creatures to exercise or go to the infirmary. He’d give them a lesser Command that could be used to move them about and make them march to specific locations, as when they had been placed in ranks outside the city to greet Siri, and another to make them go with members of the city guard to provide extra muscle.
Yet there would only be one person with ultimate command of them. One person who could make them go to war. When he was done in this room, he would move on, taking utter command of Allmother’s ten thousand as well.
He would draw both armies to him. And in doing so, he would take his place at the very heart of the fate of two kingdoms.