Vivenna awoke sore, tired, and terrified. She tried struggling, but her hands and legs were tied. She succeeded only in rolling herself into an even less comfortable position.
She was in a dark room, gagged, her face pressing awkwardly against a splintering wood floor. She still wore her skirt, an expensive foreign one like those that Denth complained about. Her hands were tied behind her.
Someone was in the room with her. Someone with a lot of Breath. She could feel it without even trying. She twisted, rolling onto her back in an awk ward motion. She could see a figure silhouetted against a starlit sky, standing on a balcony a short distance away.
It was him.
He turned toward her, face shadowed in the unlit room, and she began to squirm with panic. What was this man planning to do with her? Horrible possibilities leaped to mind.
The man walked toward her, feet thumping roughly on the floor, the wood shaking. He knelt down, pulling her head up by the hair. “I’m still deciding whether or not to kill you, Princess,” he said. “If I were you, I’d avoid doing anything more to antagonize me.”
His voice was deep, thick, and had an accent she couldn’t place. She froze in his grip, trembling, hair bleached white. He appeared to be studying her, eyes reflecting starlight. He dropped her back to the wooden floor.
She groaned through the gag as he lit a lantern, then pushed the balcony doors closed. He reached to his belt and removed a large hunting dagger. Vivenna felt a stab of fear, but he simply walked over and cut the bonds on her hands.
He tossed the dagger aside, and it made a thock as it stuck into the wood of the far wall. He reached for something on the bed. His large, black-hilted sword.
Vivenna scrambled back, hands free, and pulled at her gag, intending to scream. He whipped the scabbarded sword toward her, making her freeze.
“You will remain quiet,” he said sharply.
She huddled back into the corner. How is this happening to me? she thought. Why hadn’t she fled back to Idris long ago? She’d been deeply unsettled when Denth had killed the ruffians in the restaurant. She’d known then that she was dealing with people and situations that were truly dangerous.
She’d been an arrogant fool to think that she could do anything in this city. This monstrous, overwhelming, terrible city. She was nothing. Barely a peasant from the countryside. Why had she been determined to get herself involved in this people’s politics and schemes?
The man, Vasher, stepped forward. He undid the clasp on that deep, black sword, and Vivenna felt a strange nausea strike her. A thin wisp of black smoke began to curl up from the blade.
Vasher approached, backlit by the lantern, the sheathed tip of the sword dragging along the floor behind him. Then he dropped the sword to the floor in front of Vivenna.
“Pick it up,” he said.
She untensed slightly, looking up, though she still huddled in the corner. She felt tears on her cheeks.
“Pick up the sword, Princess.”
She had no training with weapons, but maybe . . . She reached for the sword, but felt her nausea grow far stronger. She groaned, her hand twitching as it approached the strange black blade.
She shied away.
“Pick it up!” Vasher bellowed.
She complied with a gagged cry of desperation, grabbing the weapon, feeling a terrible sickness travel like a wave up her arm and into her stomach. She found herself ripping away her gag with desperate fingers.
Hello, a voice said in her head. Would you like to kill someone today?
She dropped the horrid weapon and fell to her knees, retching onto the floor. There wasn’t much in her stomach, but she couldn’t stop herself. When she was done, she crawled away and huddled down against the wall again, mouth dripping with bile, feeling too sick to yell for help or even wipe her face.
She was crying again. That seemed the least of her humiliations. Through teary eyes, she watched as Vasher stood quietly. Then he grunted—as if in surprise—and picked up the sword. He clicked the clasp on its sheath, locking the weapon back inside, then threw a towel onto what she’d retched up.
“We are in one of the slums,” he said. “You may scream if you wish, but nobody will think anything of it. Except me. I’ll be annoyed.” He glanced back at her. “I warn you. I’m not known for my ability to keep my temper.”
Vivenna shivered, still feeling hints of nausea. This man held even more Breath than she did. Yet, when he’d kidnapped her, she hadn’t felt anyone standing in her room. How had he hidden it?
And what was that voice?
They seemed silly things to distract her, considering her current situation. However, she used them to keep from thinking about what this man might do to her. What—
He was walking toward her again. He picked up the gag, his expression dark. She finally screamed, trying to scramble away, and he cursed, putting a foot on her back and forcing her down against the floor. He tied her hands again before forcing on the gag. She cried, her voice muffled as he jerked her backward. He stood, then slung her over his shoulder and carried her out of the room.
“Colors-cursed slums,” he muttered. “Everyone’s too poor to afford cellars.” He pushed her into a sitting position in the doorway of a second, much smaller room and retied her hands to the doorknob. He stepped back, looking her over, obviously unsatisfied. Then he knelt beside her, unshaven face close to hers, breath vile. “I have work to do,” he said. “Work that you have forced me to do. You will not run. If you do, I’ll find you and kill you. Understand?”
She nodded weakly.
She caught sight of him retrieving his sword from the other room, then he quickly rushed down the stairs. The door below slammed and locked, leaving her alone and helpless.
An hour or so later, Vivenna had finished crying herself dry. She sat slumped, hands tied awkwardly above her. Part of her kept waiting for the others to find her. Denth, Tonk Fah, Jewels. They were experts. They’d be able to save her.
No rescue came. Dazed, drowsy, and sick though she was, she realized something. This man—this Vasher—was someone that even Denth had feared. Vasher had killed one of their friends some months before. He was at least as skilled as they were.
How did they all end up here, then? she thought, her wrists rubbed raw. It seems an unlikely coincidence. Perhaps Vasher had followed Denth to the city and was acting out some kind of twisted rivalry by working against them.
They’ll find me and save me.
But she knew that they wouldn’t, not if Vasher was as dangerous as they said. He’d know how to hide from Denth. If she was going to escape, she’d have to do it herself. The concept terrified her. Strangely, however, memories from her tutors returned to her.
There are things to do if you are kidnapped, one had taught. Things that every princess should know. During her time in T’Telir, she’d begun to feel that her lessons were useless. Now she was surprised to find herself remembering sessions that related directly to her situation.
If a person kidnaps you, the tutor had taught, your best time to escape is near the beginning, when you are still strong. They will starve you and beat you so that soon you will be too weak to flee. Do not expect to be rescued, though friends will undoubtedly be working to help you. Never expect to be redeemed for a ransom. Most kidnappings end in death.
The best thing you can do for your country is try to escape. If you don’t succeed, then perhaps the captor will kill you. That is preferable to what you might have to endure as a captive. Plus, if you die, the kidnappers will no longer have a hostage.
It was a harsh, blunt lesson—but many of her lessons had been like that. Better to die than to be held captive and used against Idris. That was the same lesson that warned her that the Hallandren might try to use her against Idris once she was there as queen. In such a case, she was told that her father might be forced to order her assassination.
That was a problem she didn’t have to worry about anymore. The kidnapping advice, however, seemed useful. It frightened her, made her want to cower in place and simply wait, hoping that Vasher would find a reason to let her go. But the more she thought, the more she knew that she had to be strong.
He’d been extremely harsh with her—exaggeratedly so. He’d wanted to frighten her so that she wouldn’t try to escape. He’d cursed not having a cellar, for that would have been a good place to secret her. When he returned, he would probably move her to a more secure location. The tutors were right. The only chance she had to escape was now.
Her hands were bound tightly. She’d tried pulling them free several times already. Vasher knew his knots. She wiggled, rubbing more skin off, and she cringed in pain. Blood began to drip down her wrist, but even that slickness wasn’t enough to get her hands free. She began to cry again, not in fear, but in pain and frustration.
She couldn’t wiggle her way out. But . . . could she perhaps make the ropes untie themselves?
Why didn’t I let Denth train me with Breath sooner?
Her stubborn self-righteousness seemed even more flagrant to her now. Of course it was better to use the Breath than it was to be killed—or worse—by Vasher. She thought she understood Lemex and his desire to gather enough BioChroma to extend his life. She tried to speak some Commands through her gag.
That was useless. Even she knew that the Commands had to be spoken clearly. She began to wiggle her chin, pushing on the gag with her tongue. It didn’t appear to be as tight as her wrist bonds. Plus, it was wet from her tears and saliva. She worked at it, moving her lips and her teeth. She was actually surprised when it finally dropped loose below her chin.
She licked her lips, working her sore jaw. Now what? she thought. Her apprehension was rising. Now she really needed to get free. If Vasher returned and saw that she’d managed to work her gag off, he’d never leave her with such an opportunity again. He might punish her for disobeying him.
“Ropes,” she said. “Untie yourself.”
She gritted her teeth, trying to remember the Commands that Denth had told her. Hold things and Protect me. Neither seemed all that useful in her situation. She certainly didn’t want the ropes to hold her wrists more tightly. However, he had said something else. Something about imagining what you wanted in your mind. She tried that, picturing the ropes untying themselves.
“Untie yourselves,” she said clearly.
Again, nothing happened.
Vivenna leaned her head back in frustration. Awakening seemed such a vague art, which was odd, considering the number of rules and restrictions it appeared to have. Or maybe it just seemed vague to her because it was so complicated.
She closed her eyes. I have to get this, she thought. I must figure it out. If I don’t, I will be killed.
She opened her eyes, focusing on her bonds. She pictured them untying again, but somehow that felt wrong. She was like a child, sitting and staring at a leaf, trying to make it move just by concentrating on it.
That wasn’t the way her newfound senses worked. They were part of her. So, instead of concentrating, she relaxed, letting her unconscious mind do the work. A little like she did when she changed the color of her hair.
“Untie,” she Commanded.
The Breath flowed from her. It was like blowing bubbles beneath the water, exhaling a piece of herself but feeling it flow into something else. That something else became part of her—a limb she could only slightly control. It was more of a sense of the rope than an ability to move it. As the Breath left her, she could feel the world dull, colors becoming slightly less bold, the wind a little more difficult to hear, the life of the city a little more distant. The ropes around her hands jerked, causing her wrists to burn.
Then the ropes unraveled and dropped to the ground. Her arms came free, and she sat, staring at her wrists, shocked.
Austre, Lord of Colors, she thought. I did it. She wasn’t certain whether to be impressed or ashamed.
Either way, she knew she needed to run. She untied her ankles, then scrambled to her feet, noticing that a section of the wooden door had been completely drained of color in a circular pattern around her hands. She paused only briefly, then grabbed the rope and ran down the stairs. She unlocked the door and peeked out the doorway onto the street, but it was dark, and she could see little.
Taking a deep breath, she rushed out into the night.
She walked aimlessly for a time, trying to put space between herself and Vasher’s lair. She knew that she should probably find a place to hide, but she was afraid. She was distinctive in her fine dress and would be remembered by all who passed. Her only real hope was to get out of the slums and into the city proper, where she could find her way back to Denth and the others.
She carried the rope tucked into the dress’s pocket pouch, hidden behind a fold of cloth on the side. She’d grown so accustomed to having a certain amount of Breath that missing a fraction, even the small bit contained in the rope, felt wrong. Awakeners could recover Breath they invested into objects; she’d been tutored on that. She just didn’t know the Commands to do it. So she brought the rope, hoping that Denth would be able to help her recover its Breath.
She maintained a quick pace, head down, trying to watch for a discarded cloak or piece of cloth she could wrap around herself to hide the dress. Fortunately, it seemed as if the hour was too late, even, for most ruffians. She did occasionally see shadowed figures on the sides of the road, and she had trouble keeping her heart stilled as she passed them.
If only the sun were up! she thought. It was just beginning to grow light with morning’s arrival, but it was still dark enough that she had trouble telling which direction she was going. The slums were convoluted enough that she felt she was going in circles. The tall buildings loomed around her, blocking off the sky. This area had once been much more rich; the shadowed fronts of the buildings held worn engravings and faded colors. The square down the street to her left held an old, broken statue of a man atop a horse, perhaps part of a fountain or—
Vivenna stopped. A broken statue of a horse man. Why did that seem familiar?
Denth’s directions, she thought. When he explained to Parlin how to get from the safe house to the restaurant. That day, weeks back, seemed so vague to her now. But she did remember the exchange. She’d been worried that Parlin would get lost.
For the first time in hours, she felt a sense of hope. The directions had been simple. Could she remember them? She worked, walking hesitantly, partially just on instinct. After just a few minutes, she realized that the dark street around her looked familiar. There were no lamps in the slums, but the light of false dawn was enough.
She turned around, and sure enough, the safe house lay huddled between two larger buildings across from her. Blessed Austre! she thought with relief, quickly crossing the street and pushing her way into the building. The main room was empty, and she hurriedly opened the door down to the cellar, seeking a place to hide.
She searched around with her fingers, and sure enough, she found a lantern with flint and steel beside the stairway. She pulled the door closed and found it more sturdy than she would have assumed. That felt good, though she couldn’t lock it from this side. She left it unlatched and bent down to light the lantern.
A set of worn, broken stairs led down into the cellar. Vivenna paused, remembering that Denth had warned her about the steps. She walked down carefully, feeling them creak beneath her, and could see why he’d been worried. Still, she made it down all right. At the bottom, she wrinkled her nose at the musty scent. The carcasses of several small game hung on the wall; someone had been here recently, which was a good sign.
She rounded the stairs. The main space of the cellar was built beneath the floor of the upper room. She would rest there for a few hours, and if Denth didn’t arrive, she’d venture out. Then she—
She froze, jerking to a halt, lantern swinging in her hand. Its unsteady light shone on a figure sitting before her, head bowed, face shadowed. His arms were tied behind his back and his ankles were bound to the legs of the chair.
“Parlin?” Vivenna asked with shock, rushing to his side. She quickly set down the lantern, then froze. There was blood on the floor.
“Parlin!” she said louder, urgently lifting his head. His eyes stared forward, sightless, his face scratched and bloody. Her life sense couldn’t feel him. His eyes were dead.
Vivenna’s hand began to shake. She stumbled back, horrified. “Oh, Colors,” she found herself mumbling. “Colors, Colors, Colors . . .”
A hand fell on her shoulder. She screamed, spinning. A large figure stood in the darkness behind her, half-hidden beneath the stairs.
“Hello, Princess,” Tonk Fah said. He smiled.
Vivenna stumbled back, nearly colliding with Parlin’s body. She began to gasp, hand at her chest. Only then did she notice the bodies on the walls.
Not game animals. What she had mistaken for a pheasant in the dim light of her lantern now reflected back green. A dead parrot. A monkey hung beside, body sliced and cut. The freshest corpse was that of a large lizard. All had been tortured.
“Oh, Austre,” she mumbled.
Tonk Fah stepped forward, grabbing for her, and Vivenna finally shocked herself into motion. She ducked to the side, escaping his reach. She ran around the large man, scrambling toward the stairs. She came up short as she collided with someone’s chest.
She looked up, blinking.
“Do you know what I hate most about being a mercenary, Princess?” Denth asked quietly, grabbing her arm. “Fulfilling the ste reotypes. Everyone assumes that they can’t trust you. The thing is, they really can’t.”
“We do what we’re paid to,” Tonk Fah said, stepping up behind her.
“It’s not exactly the most desirable work,” Denth said, holding her tightly. “But the money is good. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this. Everything was going so nicely. Why did you run away? What tipped you off?”
He pushed her forward with a careful hand, still holding her arm, as Jewels and Clod moved down the steps behind him. The stairs groaned beneath the weight.
“You’ve been lying to me the entire time,” she whispered, tears almost unnoticed on her cheeks, heart thumping as she tried to make sense of the world. “Why?”
“Kidnapping is hard work,” Denth said.
“Terrible business,” Tonk Fah added.
“It’s better if your subject never even knows they’ve been kidnapped.”
They always kept an eye on me. Staying near. “Lemex . . .”
“Didn’t do what we needed him to,” Denth said. “Poison was too good a death for that one. You should have known, Princess. With as much Breath as he held . . .”
He couldn’t have died from sickness, she realized. Austre! Her mind was numb. She glanced at Parlin. He’s dead. Parlin is dead. They killed him.
“Don’t look at him,” Denth said, delicately turning her head away from the corpse. “That was an accident. Listen to me, Princess. You’ll be all right. We won’t hurt you. Just tell me why you ran away. Parlin insisted not to know where you had gone, though we knew he spoke to you on the stairs right before you vanished. Did you really leave without telling him? Why? What made you suspect us? Did one of your father’s agents contact you? I thought we found all of those when they entered the city.”
She shook her head dumbly.
“This is important, Princess,” Denth said calmly. “I need to know. Whom did you contact? What did you tell the slumlords about me?” He began to squeeze her arm tightly.
“We wouldn’t want to have to break anything,” Tonk Fah said. “You Idrians. You break too easily.”
What had once seemed lighthearted banter to her now seemed terrible and callous. Tonk Fah loomed in the shadowy lantern light to her right, Denth was a slimmer form in front of her. She remembered his speed, the way he’d slain those bodyguards at the restaurant.
Remembered the way they’d destroyed Lemex’s house. Remembered their flippancy toward death. They’d hidden it all behind a veil of humor. Now that Denth had brought another lantern, she could see a couple of large sacks stuffed underneath the stairs; a foot was hanging out of one of them. The boot bore the crest of the Idrian army on its side.
Her father had sent people to recover her. Denth had just found them before they found her. How many had he killed? Bodies wouldn’t keep for long in this basement. Those two corpses must be relatively new, awaiting disposal somewhere else.
“Why?” she asked again, nearly too stunned to speak. “You seemed like my friends.”
“We are,” Denth said. “I like you, Princess.” He smiled—a genuine smile, not a dangerous leer, like Tonk Fah. “If it means anything, I really am sorry. Parlin wasn’t supposed to die—thatwas an accident. But, well, a job is a job. We do what we’re paid to do. I explained this all to you several times, I’m sure you recall.”
“I never really believed . . .” she whispered.
“They never do,” Tonk Fah said.
Vivenna blinked. Get away quickly. While you still have strength.
She’d escaped once. Wasn’t that enough? Didn’t she deserve some peace?
She twisted her arm, slapping it against the back of Tonk Fah’s cloak. “Grab—”
Denth, however, was too fast. He yanked her back, covered her mouth, then snatched her other hand, holding it tightly. Tonk Fah stood surprised as Vivenna’s dress bled free of color, turning grey, and some of her Breath passed through Denth’s fingers and into Tonk Fah’s cloak. Yet without a Command, that Breath couldn’t do anything. It had been wasted, and Vivenna felt the world around her grow more dull.
Denth released her mouth and slapped Tonk Fah on the back of the head.
“Hey,” Tonk Fah said, rubbing his head.
“Pay attention,” Denth said. Then he glanced at Vivenna, holding her arm tightly.
Blood seeped between his fingers from her wounded wrist. Denth froze, obviously seeing her bloodied wrists for the first time; the dark cellar had obscured them. He looked up, meeting her eyes. “Aw, hell,” he cursed. “You didn’t run from us, did you?”
“Huh?” Tonk Fah asked.
Vivenna was numb.
“What happened?” Denth asked. “Was it him?”
She didn’t respond.
Denth grimaced, then twisted her arm, causing her to yelp. “All right. It looks like my hand has been forced. Let’s deal with that Breath of yours first, and then we can have a chat—nicely, like friends—about what has happened to you.”
Clod stepped up beside Denth, grey eyes staring forward, empty as always. Except . . . could she see something in them? Was she imagining it? Her emotions were so strained lately that she really couldn’t trust her perceptions. Clod seemed to meet her eyes.
“Now,” Denth said, face growing harder. “Repeat after me. My Life to yours. My Breath become yours.”
Vivenna looked up at him, meeting his eyes. “Howl of the sun,” she whispered.
Denth frowned. “What?”
“Attack Denth. Howl of the sun.”
“I—” Denth began. At that moment, Clod’s fist hit his face.
The blow threw Denth to the side and into Tonk Fah, who cursed and stumbled. Vivenna wrenched free, ducking past Clod—nearly tripping on her dress—and threw her shoulder into the surprised Jewels.
Jewels fell. Vivenna scrambled up the stairs.
“You let her hear the security phrase?” Denth bellowed, sounds of struggle coming from where he was wrestling with Clod.
Jewels gained her feet and followed Vivenna. The woman’s foot broke through a step, however. Vivenna stumbled into the room above, then threw the door shut. She reached over, turning the latch.
Won’t hold them for long, she thought, feeling helpless. They’ll keep coming. Chasing me. Just like Vasher. God of Colors. What am I going to do?
She rushed out onto the street, now lit by the dawn light filling the city, and ducked down an alleyway. Then she just kept running—this time trying to pick the smallest, dirtiest, darkest alleyways she could.