“I’ll give it away,” Vivenna said firmly.
She sat with the mercenaries in Lemex’s home. It was the day after the Breaths had been forced upon her, and she had spent a restless night, letting the mercenaries and the nurse see to the disposal of Lemex’s body. She didn’t remember falling asleep from the exhaustion and stress of the day, but she did remember lying down to rest for a short time in the other upstairs bedroom. When she’d awoken, she’d been surprised to find that the mercenaries were still there. Apparently, they and Parlin had slept downstairs.
A night’s perspective hadn’t helped her much with her problems. She still had all of that filthy Breath, and she still had no idea what she was going to do in Hallandren without Lemex. At least with the Breath, she had an idea of what to do. It could be given away.
They were in Lemex’s sitting room. Like most places in Hallandren, the room was swollen with colors; the walls were made from thin strips of reedlike wood, stained in bright yellows and greens. Vivenna couldn’t help but notice that she saw each color more vibrantly now. She had a strangely precise sense of color—she could divide its shades and hues, understanding instinctively how close each color was to the ideal. It was like perfect pitch for the eyes.
It was very, very difficult not to see beauty in the colors.
Denth leaned against the far wall. Tonk Fah lounged on a couch, yawning periodically, his colorful bird perched on his foot. Parlin had gone to stand watch outside.
“Give it away, Princess?” Denth asked.
“The Breath,” Vivenna said. She sat on a kitchen stool instead of one of the overly plush chairs or couches. “We will go out and find unfortunate people who have been raped by your culture, their Breath stolen, and I will give each one a Breath.”
Denth shot a glace at Tonk Fah, who simply yawned.
“Princess,” Denth said, “you can’t give Breath away one at a time. You have to give it all away at once.”
“Including your own Breath,” Tonk Fah said.
Denth nodded. “That would leave you as a Drab.”
Vivenna’s stomach churned at that. The thought of not only losing the new beauty and color, but her own Breath, her soul . . . well, it was almost enough to turn her hair white. “No,” she said. “That’s not an option, then.”
The room fell silent.
“She could Awaken stuff,” Tonk Fah noted, wiggling his foot, making his bird squawk. “Stick the Breath inside of a pair of pants or something.”
“That’s a good point,” Denth said.
“What . . . does that entail?” Vivenna asked.
“You bring something to life, Princess,” Denth said. “An inanimate object. That’ll draw out some of your Breath and leave the object kind of alive. Most Awakeners do it temporarily, but I don’t see why you couldn’t just leave the Breath there.”
Awakening. Taking the souls of men and using them to create unliving monstrosities. Somehow, Vivenna felt that Austre would find that an even greater sin than simply bearing the Breath. She sighed, shaking her head. The problem with the Breath was, in a way, just a distraction—one she feared she was using to keep herself from dwelling on the lack of Lemex. What was she going to do?
Denth sat down in a chair beside her, resting his feet on the sitting table. He kept himself better groomed than Tonk Fah, his dark hair pulled back into a neat tail, his face clean-shaven. “I hate being a mercenary,” he said. “You know why?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“No job security,” Denth said, leaning back in his chair. “The kinds of things we do, they tend to be dangerous and unpredictable. Our employers have a habit of dying off on us.”
“Though usually not from the chills,” Tonk Fah noted. “Swords tend to be the method of choice.”
“Take our current predicament,” Denth said. “No more employer. That leaves us without any real direction.”
Vivenna froze. Does that mean their contract is over? They know I’m a princess of Idris. What will they do with that information? Is that why they stayed here last night, rather than leaving? Are they planning to blackmail me?
Denth eyed her. “You see that?” he asked, turning to Tonk Fah.
“Yeah,” Tonk Fah said. “She’s thinking it.”
Denth leaned back further in his chair. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. Why does everyone assume that when a mercenary’s contract is over, he’ll betray them? You think we go around stabbing people for the fun of it? Do you think a surgeon has this problem? Do people worry that the moment they’re done paying him, he’ll laugh maniacally and cut off their toes?”
“I like cutting off toes,” Tonk Fah noted.
“That’s different,” Denth said. “You wouldn’t do it simply because your contract ran out, would you?”
“Nah,” Tonk Fah said. “Toes is toes.”
Vivenna rolled her eyes. “Is there a point to this?”
“The point is, Princess,” Denth said, “you were just thinking that we were going to betray you. Maybe rob you blind or sell you to slavery or something.”
“Nonsense,” Vivenna said. “I was thinking nothing of the sort.”
“I’m sure,” Denth replied. “Mercenary work is very respectable—it’s legal in almost every kingdom I know. We’re just as much a part of the community as the baker or the fishmonger.”
“Not that we pay the tax collectors,” Tonk Fah added. “We tend to stab them for the fun of it.”
Vivenna just shook her head.
Denth leaned forward, speaking in a more serious tone. “What I’m trying to say, Princess, is that we’re not criminals. We’re employees. Your friend Lemex was our boss. Now he’s dead. I figure that our contract transfers to you now, if you want it.”
Vivenna felt a slight glimmer of hope. But could she trust them? Despite Denth’s speech, she found it hard to have faith in the motives and altruism of a pair of men who fought for money. However, they hadn’t taken advantage of Lemex’s sickness, and they had stayed around even after they could have robbed the place and left while she was asleep.
“All right,” she said. “How much is left on your contract?”
“No idea,” Denth said. “Jewels handles that kind of thing.”
“Jewels?” Vivenna asked.
“Third member of the group,” Tonk Fah said. “She’s off doing Jewels stuff.”
Vivenna frowned. “How many of you are there?”
“Just three,” Denth said.
“Unless you count pets,” Tonk Fah said, balancing his bird on his foot.
“She’ll be back in a while,” Denth said. “She stopped in last night, but you were asleep. Anyway, I know we’ve got at least a few months left on our contract, and we were paid half up front. Even if you decide not to pay the rest, we probably owe you a few more weeks.”
Tonk Fah nodded. “So if there’s anyone you want killed, now would be the time.”
Vivenna stared, and Tonk Fah chuckled.
“You’re really going to have to get used to our terrible senses of humor, Princess,” Denth said. “Assuming, of course, you’re going to keep us around.”
“I’ve already implied that I’ll keep you,” Vivenna said.
“All right,” Denth replied. “But what are you going to do with us? Why did you even come to the city?”
Vivenna didn’t answer immediately. No point in holding back, she thought. They know the most dangerous secret—my identity—already. “I’m here to rescue my sister,” she said. “To sneak her out of the God King’s palace and see her returned to Idris unharmed.”
The mercenaries fell silent. Finally, Tonk Fah whistled. “Ambitious,” he noted as his parrot mimicked the whistle.
“She is a princess,” Denth said. “They tend to be ambitious sorts.”
“Siri isn’t ready to deal with Hallandren,” Vivenna said, leaning forward. “My father sent her in my place, but I cannot stand the thought of her serving as the God King’s wife. Unfortunately, if we simply grab her and go, Hallandren will likely attack my homeland. We need to make her disappear in a way that isn’t traceable to my people. If necessary, we can substitute me for my sister.”
Denth scratched his head.
“Well?” Vivenna asked.
“Little bit out of our realm of expertise,” Denth said.
“We usually hit things,” Tonk Fah said.
Denth nodded. “Or, at least, keep things from getting hit. Lemex kept us on partially just as bodyguards.”
“Why wouldn’t he just send for a couple of Idrian soldiers to protect him?”
Denth and Tonk Fah exchanged a look.
“How can I put this delicately?” Denth said. “Princess, your Lemex was embezzling money from the king and spending it on Breath.”
“Lemex was a patriot!” Vivenna said immediately.
“That may have been the case,” Denth said. “But even a good priest isn’t above slipping himself a few coins out of the coffer, so to speak. I think your Lemex figured it would be better to have outside muscle, rather than inside loyalists, protecting him.”
Vivenna fell silent. It was still hard to imagine the thoughtful, clever, and passionate man represented in Lemex’s letters as a thief. Yet it was also hard to imagine Lemex holding as much Breath as he obviously had.
But embezzling? Stealing from Idris itself?
“You learn things as a mercenary,” Denth said, resting back with hands behind his head. “You fight enough people, and you figure you start to understand them. You stay alive by anticipating them. The thing is, people aren’t simple. Even Idrians.”
“Boring, yes,” Tonk Fah added. “But not simple.”
“Your Lemex, he was involved in some big plans,” Denth said. “I honestly think he was a patriot. There are many intrigues going on in this city, Princess—some of the projects Lemex had us working on had a grand scope, and were for the good of Idris, as near as I can tell. I guess he just thought he should be compensated a little for his patriotism.”
“Quite an amiable fellow, actually,” Tonk Fah said. “Didn’t want to bother your father. So he just did the figures on his own, gave himself a raise, and indicated in his reports that his costs were far greater than they really were.”
Vivenna fell silent, letting herself digest the words. How could anyone who stole money from Idris also be a patriot? How could a person faithful to Austre end up with several hundred BioChromatic Breaths?
She shook her head wryly. I saw men who placed themselves above others, and I saw them cast down, she quoted to herself. It was one of the Five Visions. She shouldn’t judge Lemex, particularly now that he was dead. “Wait,” she said, eyeing the mercenaries. “You said that you were just bodyguards. What, then, were you doing helping Lemex with ‘projects’?”
The two men shared a look.
“Told you she was smart,” Tonk Fah said. “Comes from not being a mercenary.”
“We are bodyguards, Princess,” Denth said. “However, we’re not without certain . . . skills. We can make things happen.”
“Things?” Vivenna asked.
Denth shrugged. “We know people. That’s part of what makes us useful. Let me think about this issue with your sister. Maybe I’ll be able to come up with some ideas. It’s a little like kidnapping. . . .”
“Which,” Tonk Fah said, “we’re not too fond of. Did we mention that?”
“Yes,” Vivenna said. “Bad business. No money. What were these ‘projects’ Lemex was working on?”
“I’m not exactly sure of the whole of them,” Denth admitted. “We only saw pieces—running errands, arranging meetings, intimidating people. It had something to do with work for your father. We can find out for you, if you want.”
Vivenna nodded. “I do.”
Denth stood. “All right,” he said. He walked past Tonk Fah’s couch, smacking the larger man’s leg, causing the bird to squawk. “Tonk. Come on. Time to ransack the house.”
Tonk Fah yawned and sat up.
“Wait!” Vivenna said. “Ransack the house?”
“Sure,” Denth said, heading up the stairs. “Break out any hidden safes. Search through papers and files. Figure out what old Lemex was up to.”
“He won’t care much,” Tonk Fah said, standing. “Being dead and all.”
Vivenna shivered. She still wished she’d been able to see that Lemex got a proper Idrian burial, rather than sending him off to the Hallandren charnel house. Having a pair of toughs search his belongings felt unseemly.
Denth must have noticed her discomfort. “We don’t have to, if you don’t want us to.”
“Sure,” Tonk Fah said. “We’ll never know what Lemex was up to, though.”
“Continue,” Vivenna said. “But I’m going to supervise.”
“Actually, I doubt that you will,” Denth said.
“And why is that?”
“Because,” Denth said. “Now, I know nobody ever asks mercenaries for their opinion. You see—”
“Oh, just get on with it,” Vivenna said with annoyance, though she immediately chastised herself for her snappishness. What was wrong with her? The last few days must be wearing on her.
Denth just smiled, as if he found her outburst incredibly amusing. “Today’s the day when the Returned hold their Court Assembly, Princess.”
“So?” Vivenna asked with forced calmness.
“So,” Denth replied, “it’s also the day when your sister will be presented to the gods. I suspect that you’ll want to go get a good look at her, see how she’s holding up. If you’re going to do that, you’ll want to get moving. Court Assembly will begin pretty soon.”
Vivenna folded her arms, not moving. “I’ve been tutored all about these things, Denth. Regular people can’t just walk into the Court of Gods. If you want to watch the judgments at the Court Assembly, you either have to be favored of one of the gods, be extremely influential, or you have to draw and win the lottery.”
“True,” Denth said, leaning against the banister. “If only we knew someone with enough BioChromatic Breaths to instantly be considered important, and therefore gain entrance to the court without being questioned.”
“Ah, Denth,” Tonk Fah said. “Someone has to have at least fifty Breaths to be considered worthy! That’s a terribly high number.”
Vivenna paused. “And . . . how many Breaths do I have?”
“Oh, around five hundred or so,” Denth said. “At least, that’s what Lemex claimed. I’m inclined to believe him. You are, after all, making the carpet shine.”
She glanced down, noticing for the first time that she was creating a pocket of enhanced color around her. It wasn’t very distinct, but it was noticeable.
“You’d better get going, Princess,” Denth said, continuing to clomp up the stairs. “You’ll be late.”
Siri sat nervously, blond with excitement, trying to contain herself as the serving women did her hair. Her Wedding Jubilation—something she found rather inappropriately named—was finally over, and it was time for her formal presenta tion before the Hallandren gods.
She was probably too excited. It hadn’t really been that long. Yet the prospect of finally leaving—if only to attend court—made her almost giddy. She would finally get to interact with someone other than priests, scribes, and servants. She’d finally get to meet some of those gods that she’d heard so much about.
Plus, he’d be there at the presenta tion. The only times she’d been able to see the God King had been during their nightly staring matches, when he was shrouded in shadow. Today, she would at last see him in the light.
She smiled, inspecting herself in a large mirror. The servants had done her hair in an amazingly intricate style, part of it braided, the rest allowed to flow free. They’d tied several ribbons into the braids and also woven them into her free-flowing hair. The ribbons shimmered as she turned her head. Her family would have been mortified at the ostentatious colors. Siri grinned mischievously, making her hair turn a brighter shade of golden blond to better contrast with the ribbons.
The serving women smiled approvingly, a couple letting out quiet “ooo”s at the transformation. Siri sat back, hands in her lap as she inspected her clothing choices for the court appearance. The garments were ornate—not as complex as the ones she wore to the bedchambers, but far more formal than her everyday choices.
Red was the theme for the serving women and priests today. That made Siri want to choose something else. Eventually, she decided on gold, and she pointed at the two golden gowns, having the women bring them forward so she could look at them more closely. Unfortunately, as she did so, the women fetched three more golden dresses from a rolling wardrobe out in the hallway.
Siri sighed. It was as if they were determined to keep her from having a reasonably simple choice. She just hated seeing so many options disappear each day. If only . . .
She paused. “Could I try them all on?”
The serving women glanced at each other, a little confused. They nodded toward her, their expressions conveying a simple message. Of course you can. Siri felt foolish, but in Idris she’d never had a choice before. She smiled, standing and letting them take off her robe and then dress her in the first of the gowns, careful not to mess up her hair. Siri inspected herself, noting that the neckline was rather low. She was willing to splurge on color, but the amount of flesh the Hallandren showed still felt scandalous.
She nodded, letting them take off the gown. Then they dressed her in the next one—a two-piece garment with a separate corset. Once they were finished, Siri eyed this new outfit in the mirror. She liked it, but she wanted to try the others as well. So, after spinning about and inspecting the back, she nodded and moved on.
It was frivolous. But why was she so worried about being frivolous? Her father wasn’t around to regard her with that stern, disapproving face of his. Vivenna was an entire kingdom away. Siri was queen of the Hallandren people. Shouldn’t she try to learn their ways? She smiled at the ridiculous justification, but went on to the next gown anyway.